Double Helix (2021): Short/Drama/Sci-fi

Two siblings escape their home and hide in an abandoned school, but the “Song of Life” will unexpectedly change their lives.

Concise, current, and thought-provoking. Writer/director Sheng Qiu brings to life the intentionally unemotional, Double Helix that shows without telling that “life” has yet to be defined.

Protracted shots, montage sequences, minimalistic soundtrack, underplayed performances and “Lynchian” narrative examine the ancient human attempt to become God and its inevitable consequences. Based on Jinkang Wang’s famous science fiction novel “Song of Life”, Double Helix combines Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with the superfluous human need to explore boundaries we could overcome, but not necessarily should. Great watch! I hope one day we get to see the feature, preferably, with both Xi’an Cao and Zhenzhen Xiaoli. Extra credits go to cinematographer Ranjun Xu, and editor Jianfan Yu.

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The Hole in the Ground (2019): Drama/Horror/Mystery

A young mother and her son move out to the Irish countryside, but not long after she begins to suspect that it might not be him anymore.

Dark, atmospheric, and suspenseful! Strong inciting incident, followed by solid suspense build-up. And after that… it only gets better! Photography, Art Direction, and Visual Effects create a dark and eerie atmosphere that accompanies the equally dark and eerie narrative. The first stroll in that forest will most certainly convince you…

Mysterious and suspicious events will follow and, sooner or later, with the boy acting the he does, you won’t help but get a feeling of The Omen (1976). But if you think the boy is scary, wait until you meet Noreen, the woman who has sunk into the deepest psychological abyss. So, in regard to what can scare you the most, between the forest, the kid, and the old lady you have quite the choice to make. Eventually though, I don’t think that any of them is more scary than the feeling that your only child… is not actually yours…

The Hole in the Ground joins my pantheon of Irish horror films* that manages, in a tiny budget, to evoke all the intended feelings. Writer Stephen Shields and writer/director Lee Cronin write and direct respectively a solid horror which draws elements from ancient folklore legends to modern psychology. Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Kati Outinen, and James Cosmo do a wonderful job in front of the camera, believing in Cronin’s vision and projecting the intended fears onto the audience. Arguably though, the ending could have been shorter and a lot scarier if it had maintained the, until then levels of plausibility. But, that is subjective so, it’s up to you to decide. Regardless of what you think of the third act, this is a highly recommended indie horror. A24 is always on top of the game!

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* A couple of Irish horrors that stood out for me in recent years are:

A Good Woman is Hard to Find (2019): https://kaygazpro.com/2020/09/24/a-good-woman-is-hard-to-find-2019-crime-drama-thriller/

and

Sea Fever (2019): https://kaygazpro.com/2020/04/19/sea-fever-2019-horror-sci-fi/

River of Salvation (2020): Crime/Drama

A single, pedicure therapist who lives with her younger brother is trying to make ends meet while dealing with personal tribulations.

Dreams, sacrifices, and the unbearable hardships of life… Gripping opening act that distinctively introduces the characters, sets up the scenery, and presents the ordeals they have to face. Director Qisheng Gao amazes with the number of protracted shots that provide the opportunity for the actors to unfold their thespian skills and for the audience to absorb, on one hand, the tiny, yet significant details of the mise-en-scène (all the visual information within the frame), and, on the other hand, what one of the greatest film theorists, André Bazin, kept emphasizing on; the drama’s realism. Furthermore, Gao’s slow-paced editing does not rush the story, controls the film’s pace and rhythm, and reveals the key information the audience needs to know, when they need to know it. Inevitably, that increases their anticipation in regard to what and when they want to know.

As for the narrative itself, it hits the nail the harshest possible way as it addresses the ancient battle inside us of who we are, who we want to be, and who society wants us to be, in times where the bills can hardly be paid and the food on the table can barely suffice. While Gao deserves every praise under the sun, actress Yanxi Li crawls under the skin of the role, becomes Rong, and masterfully conveys the silent pain a woman in her position endures to keep her head above water while trying to save whoever around her is in need of salvation.

And all that while a dark secret lies underneath the surface…

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Lan Yu (2001): Drama/Romance

A young, gay student from the countryside arrives in Beijing and falls in love with an older businessman who is undecided as to what life he wants to lead.

A sweet and sour, beautiful, yet thought-provoking drama! The story’s beauty lies in its simplicity; the complexity of romance. Contradictory, isn’t it? It’s because we are. And so are human relationships. The ancient source of artistic inspiration, the expression of feelings – or lack thereof, will always be contemporary and the more we turn the blind eye to it, the more we will have to face it.

Lan Yu (Ye Liu) and Chen Handong (Jun Hu) fall in love despite their efforts not to, but the heart hardly ever abides by our mind’s decisions. Ironically, the cause of drama is Chen, the more mature and more experienced of the two, who doesn’t even know what he doesn’t want. Therefore, when life presents to him the choice, he only blows past it, and moves on. But, does he? Life works in mysterious ways and, when he least expects it, time reveals to him opportunities he was too blind to see in the past.

From a filmmaking point of view, the narrative is constantly restricted so, from beginning till end, what you know, or think you know as audience is what the heroes do and vice versa, something that increases the suspense as much as it increases the tension. Writer Jimmy Ngai and director Stanley Kwan, based on an anonymous novel published online, bring to life a provoking drama that will make you question your life’s choices, and ask the one simple question that, as much as we would all loved to, we’ll never find an answer. What if…

An all round applause for Kwan, Liu, Hu, and all cast and crew who challenge through art their political system and cultural norms, and keep the fire of unconditional and unrestricted forward-thinking burning.

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Raw (2016): Drama/Horror

A young and innocent student starts rediscovering herself when she develops a desire for human flesh.

Provocative, unsettling, and in need of purpose. Not your average first act… The initiation, portrayed in a colourful cinematic way, includes protracted shots of mild chaos and disturbance, such as taking drugs, dancing, kissing, shagging, etc, as part of a normal routine. No political statements there, just young men, women, and non-binary people having fun.

In the second act, the same natural course is maintained while operating on animals. As someone who not only doesn’t eat meat, but is an animal rights advocate I was uncomfortable watching certain scenes, but I don’t know how much will that affect you. For yet another half an hour, the initiation keeps coning and going while Justine starts developing the irresistible desire for raw meat and then human flesh. Certain scenes could be described as either disturbing or uncomfortable, depending on who you are talking to, or plainly unnecessary. What will define it is the way you will perceive them within the narrative. Do you think the film wouldn’t be the same without them? If they weren’t there, would it make a difference? Again, the answers will define the way you perceive them. Characteristically, the endless hair coming out of Justine’s mouth in the toilet, and the sex scene (you’ll know) are quite effective if you ask me. Are they enough though?

Writer/director Julia Ducournau knows how to shock the audiences. But as I’ve said numerous times, the sum should always be always bigger than its parts. And I don’t think this is the case here. In the end, I don’t know why I watched it (again). I struggled to find purpose. Admittedly, the second time I watched it to write a more accurate review and because, not so long ago, I watched Ducournau’s Titane (2021): https://kaygazpro.com/2021/11/12/titane-2021-drama-horror-sci-fi/ and wanted to compare and contrast. I hope you give it a go though because actresses Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf go really over the top.

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Midnight Mass (2021): Drama/Fantasy/Horror

A small island community is taken aback by the arrival of a new young priest and miracle occurrences that turn out to be sinister omens.

What a miniseries to watch around Easter! No matter how much I praise it, little to no justice will be given to any of the episodes or the sum of all of them. Therefore, I’ll keep it deliberately short so you can enjoy every moment of it. In a nutshell, from an audiovisual point of view, this is what you should expect: Mike Flanagan’s protracted shots and meticulous mise-en-scène (framing and information within the frame), well-paced and structured editing, The Newton Brothers’ enchanting soundtrack, and gripping performances by: Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Kristin Lehman, Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Alex Essoe, Ed Flynn, Hamish Linklater, Joe Collie, and everyone else in between. From a narrative point of view, expect non-linear storytelling that constantly withholds information, intentionally misleads, carefully and thoroughly releases clues that you are called to put together, and… a grand finale!

Midnight Mass is a nearly perfect miniseries with Flanagan’s unique signature and Netflix back-up once more. The man behind miniseries, such as The Haunting of Hill House (2018), The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), and films like Hush (2016), and Doctor Sleep (2019), strikes back with another ‘haunting’ series that will keep you on the edge of your seats. Other than continuously and masterfully building up the suspense, Midnight Mass unleashes the immense drama a person experiences… when they have to live with the consequences of their actions while not being able to live with themselves… when they have to face the curse of time that only flows forward and cannot be reversed… when they endure everything for the long-pursue of redemption. Watch out, especially, the episode with Erin and Riley on the boat. One of my favourite finales that topped my mounting expectations.

There are numerous production details to talk about but most of them would ruin your experience. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and I wish you Happy Easter! Be well!

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P.S. My beloved Ioanna, you know that one’s for you 🙂

Black Crab (2022): Action/Adventure/Drama

In a dystopian future, six soldiers are tasked with the transport of a mysterious package to a safe place that has the ability to end the civil war that has ravaged the country.

The vicious and dramatic opening sequence provides just enough information to pick your interest, get your attention, and throw you straight into the abyss of the plot. Caroline Edh’s (Noomi Rapace) skills and abilities are naturally shown without being told and the introduction of the mission creates more mystery, enough to maintain the suspense and make one wonder what it is that they are carrying across the sea that can end the war.

From the moment the mission commences, sequence after sequence, the six elite soldiers are presented with the atrocities of war and this is where one can argue that it gets quite scripted, but I found it well-written, acted, shot, and edited so it kept me at the edge of my seat. Overall, in terms of structure, the narrative follows the rules by the book. There’s nothing surprising really, but there’s nothing wrong with it either. Co-writer/director Adam Berg brings to life a dystopian sci-fi that, even though due to the heavy CGI, it lacks the natural darkness the Scandinavian cinema has always offered, it still manages to generate the intended emotions. Rapace is made for such roles (for any role, actually) and she rightfully steals the show.

I deliberately went for another Swedish film back to back only to emphasise on the diversity of the Swedish cinema. A Man Called Ove: https://kaygazpro.com/2022/04/13/a-man-called-ove-2015-comedy-drama-romance/ was my previous review and as much as Black Crab cannot top it up, it hits the spot and entertains the way it is supposed to do.

While the ending might trigger mixed feelings, you won’t regret watching it. It’ll make you forget the atrocities of the real war out there as well as the pandemic that, even though it has taken the back seat, it still hovers over our heads.

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A Man Called Ove (2015): Comedy/Drama/Romance

After his wife dies, a bad-tempered old man loses the will to live, especially when his new neighbours arrive.

Loneliness, old age, cynicism… and not necessarily in that order. Right off the bat, from the opening sequence, Ove (Rolf Lassgård) steals the show as the non-bending tree that will take on the whole world. A man who once was fortunate enough to find happiness… but sadly and abruptly that happiness left him.

The initial emotional flashback provides the right amount of information about who Ove was before he became the dishevelled version of his current self. The sweet and sour present, the dark humour of the twisted fate that doesn’t allow him to leave life on his own terms will make you smile while, strangely, making your heart skip a beat. As the flashbacks unfold, his younger self’s social awkwardness, the determination to overcome it, and the introduction of the wonderful Sonja add plenty of colour to the life of a man who paints it all black. From then on, fate’s mysteries and intricacies will lead you to something that you will have to see for yourselves.

Based on the novel by Fredrik Backman, writer/director Hannes Holm creates an incredibly nostalgic comedy/drama for all ages and sexes, and 27 wins, and 18 nominations – 2 Oscars amongst them – are not enough to praise this Swedish quality of a film. Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Ida Engvoll, and Filip Berg’s performances are priceless – including Orlando and Magic, the two cats involved. For the life of me, in the end, I “saw” the black hole of despair Ove was in, but before I got sucked in, I got pulled out by… Sonja. You’ll see…

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The Greatest Showman (2017): Biography/Drama/Musical

The son of a poor tailor grows up to be a visionary who risks everything to become the greatest showman on Earth.

The dream to make it in life… The ambition to embrace who you really are and to be finally accepted and rewarded for it. That’s what The Greatest Showman is about. Based on actual events and on real people, the film’s narrative is accompanied by, arguably, the most moving songs you’ve ever listened to in a musical. They lack neither the political statement nor the social message while they make you want to sing and dance to their rhythm. Eleven out of these songs were written by lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who won the Oscar for La La Land (2016). No matter how much I praise them and the songs, I will not do them justice.

The visuals are as amazing, they are gripping, and they mesmerising. Everyone gives a stellar performance and works amazing with one another as if they were all meant to work together. Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Yahea Abdul-Mateen II, and the rest of the cast purely shine and dominate the screen, and months of preparation, finally, pays off.

Michael Gracey’s directorial feature debut makes The Greatest Showman the Rocky (1976) of musicals. Call it however you wanna call it, praise it to the best of your abilities, listen to everyone else telling you how great it is… the audiovisual outcome of the thousands of people working on it can be only fully appreciated only by watching it. It spent years in preproduction with all studios fearing that an original musical of that budget [$84,000,000 (estimated)] might not perform well, but against all odds, and against ferocious competition, it made $436,949,634 worldwide.

Watch it while thinking where you are and where you want to be or where you were and where you are now and you’ll find your heart skipping a beat. More than once.

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The Innocents (2021): Drama/Horror/Mystery

During the summer holidays, four children befriend one another as they develop psychic abilities that prove to be anything but innocent.

Slow-burn, atmospheric, and psychologically brutal. I’m not sure how much the children knew about what they were doing in the individual scenes or if they are now allowed to watch the final cut, but would be interesting to find out. As in previous cases though, chances are that they don’t and they find out when they are old enough to watch it themselves and make sense of it. Remember, to them, what they do is just instructions that, without having the big picture, it may as well be just fun. For us though, the adult audience… is soul-wrenching.

The premise is rather simple: Kids are associated with innocence, yeah? And even though that is something you might expect to see here, you will not! These kids do not represent innocence. Not all of them anyway. If you are a horror fan it cannot not remind you of films, such as The Village of the Damned (1960) or Children of the Corn (1984). But it’s neither. The connection between the children starts as mysterious, fun and sweet, but gradually escalates to a dark, sinister, and contradicting connection of unidentified origins.

Very well written, shot, edited, and acted! Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents is definitely worth your attention. Pay attention to the little details: Pessi Levanto’s soundtrack; how his music is used, when it is used. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography; from the long shots (the ominous, invisible force…) to the kids’ close-ups (… affecting them). Extra attention also to Jens Christian Fodstad’s editing and how beautifully the narrative visually flows. All kids do a tremendous job in front of the camera and get a lengthy round of applause, it is Alva Brynsmo Ramstad (Anna) who is tasked with the hardest role and her performance is stellar! I could not tell at first if she was acting. Hats off to all the kids!

Finally, if you are interested, I have extensively delved into the portrayal of kids in horror films on my podcast Kids in Horror: Source of Evil vs Source of Resolution: https://kaygazpro.com/2020/09/09/kids-source-of-evil-vs-source-of-resolution/ Michelle Satchwell, the Head of the Social Sciences Department at a large school in Derbyshire, UK, analyses the use of kids in horror films and examines the genre through the prism of Evolutionary, Cognitive, Psychodynamic, and Social Psychology.

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Like No One Before You (2022): Horror/Drama/Short

A medium’s life changes when she decides to go after the man behind a series of brutal murders.

Like No One Before You is a story narrated from Tina’s standpoint. The horror she goes through answers the questions and fills the gaps that Josephine’s story left behind: https://kaygazpro.com/2022/03/09/like-the-palm-of-your-hand-2022-horror-drama-short/ Thank you ever so much for your support! Stay safe!

DISCLAIMER: This story contains strong language, and is intended for an older youth audience. Listener discretion is advised.

Based on my homonymous short script, Like No One Before You.

© 2022 Konstantinos Papathanasiou. All rights reserved.

After Yang (2021): Drama/Sci-fi

In the not-so distant-future, a family’s A.I. breaks down, and, when certain secrets are revealed, everyone starts reevaluating life’s values.

Going from kinda melancholic, to kinda funny, to clearly confusing, Kogonada’s After Yang determines from the very beginning what kind of a film it is. Based on the short story by Alexander Weinstein “Saying Goodbye to Yang”, After Yang walks a tightrope, loses its balance and falls, depending on your school of thought, either onto monotony or somnolence. If you are a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’ emotionless films, Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), you might find it interesting – and it actually is. It’s no surprise Colin Farrell is in it as he has been in two of Lanthimos’ films and, I’m glad he is for it shows that he is beyond Hollywood cliché roles that boost his personality and not his acting skills. Next to him, Jodie Turner-Smith (Kyra), Justin H. Min (Yang), and Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja (Mika) complete the main, and wonderfully diverse cast.

On the other hand, personally, I prefer films that evoke emotions as their expression fills me with emotions, and, consequently, I express myself. After Yang left me emotionally flat; I grasp the philosophical approach, but I believe it falls short cinematically. Having said that, pay attention to the editing when characters philosophise; the expression of their thoughts right before the expression of their sentences. What does that mean to you? How do you interpret it? What’s the reason behind it? Photography, admittedly, adds to the quality of the film as do certain visual effects, still though, I struggled to get emotionally attached to the narrative. In the end, I liked how the story concluded and how it got there as it left me speculating and/or imagining the real meaning of the plot. Some more questions for you: What does family mean to you? What do memories mean to you? What are we without them?

As mentioned above, there is philosophy aplenty involved. Its cinematic approach though might leave you unengaged with the narrative – but, it may not. This might be due to the kind of action, the kind of utterances, the flat performances, or, simply, the way the story unfolds. I would recommend it to a particular audience as some people I know would watch it and debate or accept my arguments and others would fall asleep the first half hour, blaming me then and asking for their time back.

Now that you know, it’s up to you.

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Like the Palm of your Hand (2022): Horror/Drama/Short

A young palm reader’s life changes when she accidentally encounters the man behind a series of brutal murders.

Like the Palm of your Hand is a story narrated from Josephine’s standpoint. The raised questions and the created gaps will be answered and filled next week when Tina’s standpoint will be revealed. Thank you ever so much for your support! Stay tuned and… Stay safe!

DISCLAIMER: This story contains strong language, and is intended for an older youth audience. Listener discretion is advised.

Based on my homonymous short script, Like the Palm of your Hand.

© 2022 Konstantinos Papathanasiou. All rights reserved.

The Assistant (2019): Drama

A personal assistant’s long day, working for an executive producer who, he and everyone in between, keep abusing their authority.

Welcome to the business side of the film industry. Where, like any other business, $h!t always rolls downhill. And like any other business, one needs to start from the bottom of that hill… from the abyss of nothingness! Where even the cockroaches give one orders. This is exactly what Jane’s (Julia Garner) story is about. Another day at the office…

From the very beginning, Jane’s paid slavery, other than written on her forehead, is dictated by Kitty Green’s lengthy shots and slow editing (Blair McClendon co-edited it). Green produced, wrote, directed, and edited a drama of an aspiring young woman who sacrifices her personal life to do her best at work, only to get bullied by her superiors who abuse their position and treat their inferiors like children of a lesser God. What Green successfully manages to achieve is to constantly indicate that no matter how high or low one is, they’ll manage to give the same amount of abuse, if not more, to the people below them. And as mentioned in the beginning, the one in the bottom gets it all. Watch when Jane herself speaks to the driver, these are the first signs indicating that she herself has already… (you’ll get it).

Regardless of who gets the biggest portion of that $h!t though, what remains a fact is that no one is really happy in the end. Not at all. Not by a long shot. Ambition is characterised by desire and determination and most of us have it in life. It’s something that grows inside us and something that becomes obvious to the people around us. And for that reason, it goes hand by hand with expectation – both ours and the people around us. Trying to constantly match ambition and expectation, it takes a significant toll on our lives, and the time will inevitably come where we will have to ask ourselves: Where do I draw a line? When does ambition stops being ambition and becomes vanity? When I sell my soul, will I know I have done it?

Kitty Green’s creation and Julia Garner’s performance will give you a sneak peek, on a random “Tuesday” of the people working “behind the cameras” in a film’s pre-production process. I’ve seen it, been through it, and I know how it feels like. You become that “Tuesday’s” worth of dogshit. Or less…

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Kimi (2022): Crime/Drama/Thriller

An agoraphobic voice stream interpreter detects a heinous crime and gradually realises that she is next.

Mild suspense and good acting get you through it. Behold… the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock and Rear Window (1954), adapted for the young adults of today, and the exhausting times of our pandemic. Writer David Koepp and director Steven Soderbergh create a world similar to ours with COVID, masks, lockdown references, texting as a means of communication, and, of course, Siri and Alexa that have entered our lives, and, if I’m allowed, infiltrated our homes. In Kimi, this might be the subplot, but it is what still scares me the most – so glad I don’t have either.

Back to the plot, the crime itself is an audio recording, visualised by Angela in her mind. Is it how she pictured it? Is it something else? Maybe worse? The suspense builds up through relatively slow editing that allows the viewer to take in the frames’ information (mise en scène) and “enter” Angela’s world. Soderbergh’s close-ups, tracking shots, low angles, and Dutch shots, effectively manipulate the space Angela is in with a voyeuristic and omnipotent lens that provides information on both the prey and the predator, but carefully and discloses it. Too carefully I will add and that information could have easily manipulated the plot as well, creating a twist – but, no. On the other hand, Zoë Kravitz is the real deal. She’s incredibly convincing as the agoraphobic tech-girl who loses her marbles upon realising what the stakes are. She carries the film on her shoulders.

In the end, for me, the believability was lost for reasons you’ll probably discover should you decide to watch it. I found it quite disjointed. But, don’t let that discourage you. It’s enjoyable even though you won’t be thinking much about it past the end credits. Minor details that I found interesting include, but are not limited to: 1. The way Angela visualises the murder in her mind. Watch it and think about the way you compose images in your head. What shape are they in? Are they continuous? How clear are they? 2. In a drugged state, in the mini van, the way that through her eyes, the audience and Angela alike, perceive both her and her surroundings, while listening to the thugs chatting. These are details a meticulous director pays attention to and proves once more that Soderbergh takes control of both his on-screen but also off-screen narrative – everything happening inside and outside the frame.

Stay safe!

Mother/Android (2021): Drama/Sci-fi/Thriller

A pregnant woman and her boyfriend seek a safe place to survive the uprising of the androids that have eliminated most of the human world.

Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic attempt to thrill, doesn’t hit the spot. I’m gonna keep this deliberately short. The good news is Chloë Grace Moretz. Moretz was born to become an actress thus, she is amazing no matter what kind of film she’s in. Even in films such as the Shadow in the Cloud (2020): https://kaygazpro.com/2021/01/20/shadow-in-the-cloud-2020-action-horror-war/ that had a great premise and incredibly poor development (mother against monsters vs mother against androids).

Everything else is a three-act free-fall to solid concrete. Producer/writer/director Mattson Tomlin’s film lacks the understanding of both the apocalyptic and the post-apocalyptic stage. Simple as! There is nothing more to it. It is an underwhelming idea of what would have happened if androids rebelled against the species that created them. James Cameron succeeded in providing that version of our future about thirty-eight years ago and has yet to be surpassed.

Admittedly, some handheld shots work really well, but it is the narrative that doesn’t. Other than androids’ predicament, certain human decisions and actions are far beyond understanding, such as nine-month pregnant Georgia’s decision to save Sam. That defies all wrongs of decision-making ever made in the human history of wrongs. Yeah, that much sense it makes! And I will not even get started on the countless plotholes. Shame, really. But I insist on Moretz’s amazing performance (at everything she’s in).

Stay safe!

P.S. To every aspiring screenwriter out there – including me: Producers who constantly claim they seek perfection, innovation, and uniqueness in your scripts in order to consider it… they are lying!

Dark Crimes (2016): Crime/Drama/Thriller

A businessman’s murder case will trigger an investigation on a writer who wrote about it, down to the detail.

Great story, with even greater flaws. The daring opening sequence will neither disgust you nor leave you flabbergasted. Arguably, certain close-ups would have achieved one or the other, but that would have probably led to an R-rated final cut so, director Alexandros Avranas uses them instead on the characters. How important is that sequence to the narrative’s development, then? Would it still be effective without it?

Based on David Grann’s article “True Crimes – A Postmodern Murder Mystery” (The New Yorker, February 11, 2008), Jeremy Brock’s script cuts right to the chase and doesn’t invest in the characters’ involved. The problem with this is that, as audience, we relate to no one. Literally, no one. Unfortunately, that leads to not caring about about anyone, or anything. Eventually, that leads to the suspense’s murder, and the film’s downfall.

While non of the action is shot closely, the faces’ close-ups in conjuction with the positioning of the camera right in front of the actors during dialogue – like talking to it – and their placement right in the middle of the frame, feels like awkwardly breaking the fourth wall for an unknown to everyone reason.

While the story is strong, brutal and real, these directorial decisions not only distract but also confuse. Another issue I spotted was the short sentences and the very scripted arguments, i.e., only after one would finish a sentence the other person would start talking. That is, probably, due to the effort the native English speaking actors put to speak in a Polish accent and the Polish/non-native English speaking actors to speak in English – with the exception of Martin Csokas (Kozlov) who is of Hungarian descent, speaks the language, and is quite convincing.*

I’ve watched Avranas’ previous work and I would recommend you to watch Miss Violence (2013), and the controversial (for some) Love Me Not (2017). As for the cast, Jim Carrey, Marton Csokas, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, and Agata Kulesza, as bright as they may be in front of the camera, they don’t get the chance to shine. Jim Carrey was great in The Number 23 (2007), regardless of its critical and box office performance, but the the accents issue and Avranas’ choices made one wonder how he used to be the highest paid comedian out there.

Stay safe!

*He is New Zealander and can pull also off British and American accents.

These Final Hours (2013): Drama/Sci-fi/Thriller

With only a few hours left before the end of the world, a man needs to decide where his consciousness lies.

Impactful and soul-wrenching apocalyptic indie drama! Right off the bat, the end is nigh! The comet has hit the Earth, half of the world is already gone, and Perth is the last place the firestorm is going to hit! James’ last journey to redemption is also our tour to the end of humanity. The comet may be the one that kills the planet, but it seems that humanity has died way before that. The journey consists of violence, amorality, guns, drugs, partying, death aplenty, and… maybe hope, right before it dries up. Twelve hours to a destination that, in this case, it actually matters as much as the journey itself.

The film’s quality shows in all three stages of production. The script is solid, the mise-en-scene is thoroughly meticulous from beginning till end, and the editing moves the story forward by pacing it, keeping the interest always at peak level – excellent use of flashbacks. Writer/director Zak Hilditch incredibly utilises his small budget, investing it in an apocalyptic drama that reveals the hair-raising nature of ours, but also the one that makes us proud of the tiny little things we have or we can achieve in life… even right before death.

Nathan Phillips, Angourie Rice, Jessica De Gouw and Kathryn Beck deserve a massive round of applause for their incredible performances that bring to life characters that go through an unfathomable situation. The end of the world is something that we may not be thinking about seriously but These Final Hours is a nightmare but also food for thought for all of us. The Australian cinema has proved time and time again that it can deliver gripping and gruesome dramas and horrors, and this one is no exception.

Stay safe!

Every Secret Thing (2014): Crime/Drama/Mystery

A little girl’s disappearance makes a detective focus her investigation on two young women who just came out of prison for killing a baby seven years prior to that.

Thrilling, yet something missing. I believe a story is as good as one tells it. The inciting incident, the death of an infant at the hands of two young girls is powerful and the foundation of a nightmare that terrifies the parents the same way the boogeyman terrifies the kids. The second missing girl, right after the girls’ release from prison, now eighteen years old, makes your heart skip a bit, turning it into a dark “whodunit” that makes the audience constantly wonder which of the two may have done it – if it’s one of them.

Everyone immediately involved with the case carries a cross that leaves an awful stigma in their soul that cannot be removed. The girls, Alice Manning (Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie Fuller (Dakota Fanning) for doing back then what they did. Mrs. Manning (Diane Lane) for even walking around town when everyone knows what her daughter had done. Detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) who found the first baby, got mentally traumatised, and now relives the horror once more, not knowing if she’ll get redemption or deeper scars.

The plot gives the chance to everyone to unfold their point of view that sticks to “facts” that are merely their personal interpretation of a twisted reality looping in their head – with the exception of Detective Porter. She is the one who has to read between the lines of the rest call “truth” and find out what has happened to the little girl before it’s too late.

Based on Laura Lippman’s novel, Every Secret Thing is a gripping “race against time” drama/thriller from writer Nicole Holofcener, director Amy Berg, and producer Frances McDormand that, even though it’s not without faults, it manages to get your attention and sustain it till the very end. Having said that, Berg decided not to invest too much in the drama surrounding this horrifying situation and that works against the suspense’s build-up. I believe that taking the time to shift the focus, every now and then, to the characters’ personal moments it would give the audience an inner view of why everyone acts the way they do. In addition, that would work well with the flashbacks.

Regardless, it deserves a watch as all actresses are very charismatic and each and every one of them contribute to the aforementioned thrill.

Stay safe!

A Classic Horror Story (2021): Drama/Horror/Mystery

A group of carpoolers will inexplicably wake up one morning in the middle of a forest, the home of a bloodthirsty cult.

Bloody and mysterious, but nothing you haven’t seen before. The dark and hostile opening sequence reeks of pending vulgar, cult-y death! The technique of cutting away to the humorous introduction of characters (future victims), but also the characters themselves constitute a… classic (American) horror story. Of course, the film is Italian so, let’s see how that translates.

Admittedly, the first bloody sequence, half an hour into the film, is going to cut your breath and make you want to avert your eyes, but chances are that you won’t. From then on, expect some more of that, but not much more in general. It is a film that you won’t be talking about past the end credits. It has been done before numerous times the last twenty years, and better:  Wrong Turn (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), I Spit on Your Grave (2010), The Killing List (2011), The Ritual (2017), Midsommar (2019), etc. By adding all of the above into the mix, it doesn’t necessarily make the mix more flavoured. On the other hand, this merely means that it cannot be gruesomely and morbidly entertaining. And it is, just don’t expect much. Writers/directors Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli and Netflix create an amalgamation of horrors with a touch of social pedantry and a hint of urban pseudo-philosophy.

The show is mostly stolen by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz who is a very convincing actress and, inarguably, one of the hottest women in the film industry. Coincidentally(?), she’s the leading actress of Revenge (2017), portraying a woman who suffers a vicious physical and sexual attack (and takes a bloody revenge after that). Exploitation film finds its roots to the early “talkies”, right after the silent era, and it seems that almost a hundred years later still sells. I guess, for as long as there is a demand there’ll always be a supply. Even though I watch, analyse, and academically research films from every walk of life, I am a horror fan and watch all kinds of horrors. But, if one day that sub-genre eclipsed, I wouldn’t miss it. The is a hideous sadomasochistic psychology behind it, making it the harbinger of snuff films. But that is a different discussion for a different place.

Stay safe!

People Like Us (2012): Comedy/Drama

After his dad dies, a man is obliged to give a large amount of money to a sister he never knew he had.

Based on a real drama, it evokes the right emotions despite its Hollywood style. Sales… Right off the bat, you get the pressure of selling and then selling some more in a fast-paced montage that increases the tension. And, in the end, for what? When Sam (Chris Pine) and Richards (Jon Favreau) meet, you get instantly the answer. Sales…

Anyway, when the pace slows down, the drama kicks in and starts speaking volumes of who Sam is, and what kind of a relationship him and his family have, revealing the complications with the people considered to be the closest to him. But the pace picks up again with Frankie’s introduction (Elizabeth Banks), offering an upbeat rhythm that relaxes the drama, adds the right comedic elements with her charm, and gets you comfortable in your couch wanting to see where this is heading and how it is going to end up. The hero’s journey begins with the question, how is he going to tell her?

There are plenty of montage sequences that can be characterised as too “American”, making it somewhat a “popcorn” flick, but, personally, I wasn’t distracted by it. The film’s narrative has two major qualities: As audience you know as much as Sam knows and that is enough to elevate the suspense because we already know that one thing that Frankie doesn’t. Additionally, the delay of resolution only perpetuates the inevitable and adds to the already intensified suspense, giving you enough time to contemplate the depth of the situation everyone is in.

When I first watched it, I found it difficult to believe that the people who wrote it and directed it, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman respectively, are the same people behind blockbuster franchises, such as Transformers and Star Trek. I didn’t think they could pull off a drama like this, but I was pleasantly surprised I might say.

Based on true events, People Like Us finds a place in out hearts, and, despite its flaws, Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Olivia Wilde compensate plenty enough and what they are going through, in the end, becomes the relatable sweet and sour story that was promised in the first act. Have a go at it, you won’t regret it. It’ll put a smile on your face as much as it’ll bring you tears.

Lastly, Elizabeth Banks has no reason to get political because she is losing her charm and charisma as an actress. She is very talented and appreciated despite the couple of hits and misses that she has faced. She is a diverse actress and I believe she can take on a variety of roles, actually, on whatever studios land on her plate.

Stay safe!

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (2020): Drama/Horror

Two older siblings take care of the younger one in a way that consumes them both physically and mentally.

Slow-burn, indie horror that invests in both character and story development. The gritty opening sequence captures the audience’s attention and promises a certain level of brutality. It’s not what it looks like though. From the beginning till (almost) the end, the film does not appeal to our emotions. Acts I and II feel emotionless, as the only one who exhibits some kind of emotions is the younger one, Thomas. But, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas aims exactly for that. What the siblings have been going through for who knows how long for, has exhausted them; it has drained their lives.

Surely, using the word “drain” is somewhat ironic given what it has been revealed they are doing, and even though we think we know why they are doing it, the fact that it is not been disclosed to us, it effectively builds up the suspense and makes us wonder when and how it will be revealed, as well as how this dark journey is going to end.

The film doesn’t try to fool anyone. It is a nano-budget project that tells a very specific story. Despite the budgetary constrains, Cuartas and the leading cast, Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, and Owen Campbell give heart and soul to the project and lead you to a melancholic third act that matches the (inarguably depressing) previous two. Definitely not an uplifting film and most definitely not for everyone.

Credits should also be given to the director of photography, Michael Cuartas for the meticulous mise-en-scène throughout the film and composer Andrew Rease Shaw for the haunting music on these selected sequences. Last but not least, to the film editor T.J. Nelson for not only controlling incredibly the pace and rhythm but for something else as well. Even though ‘montage’ is often characterised as ‘editing’, it is, arguably, an oversimplification. There are numerous kinds of montage that serve different purposes, the narrative’s purposes. One kind is the ‘sequential analytical montage’ where what is revealed is the beginning of an action and the end of it. When you get to see the end, your mind fills the gaps with what happened in between. For example, if you see in one shot two cars speeding up against one another and in the next shot the two cars crashed onto each other, you can picture in your head how it happened. Orrrrrrr, when you see in one shot someone who his throat is about to be slit and in the next shot an amount of blood been stored and served…

Stay safe!

Hippopotamus (2018): Drama/Thriller

An abducted woman wakes up in a room with no memory of how she got there, while her kidnapper keeps giving her some kind of painkillers.

Interesting, yet poorly executed. The positive one-word or one-line reviews are placed on the films’ posters as part of the marketing and are meant to draw viewers in; excite them before they even go to the cinema or hit “play” at home. Hippopotamus‘ poster serves that very same goal. Does it live up to the expectations though?

From an audiovisual point of you, the ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) and sound mixing is poor. That stands out immediately, it doesn’t get any better throughout so I move on. From a visual point of view, it is also poor. On the 20th minute, there are a few well-edited dolly shots (a shot pattern that repeats about 20′ later, and then 30′ after that), but then the poor directing activity continues. Ingvild Deila’s and Stuart Mortimer’s acting is decent, but the characters seem and interact in a flat manner and the bad ADR only distracts the audience’s attention anyway. The real saviour of the film – at least, visually – is the editing.

From the script’s point of view, the slow-burn build-up technique only works if it amounts to something. That applies, especially, to scripts that their plot unfolds in single location. Hippopotamus ticks both boxes, but producer/writer/editor/director Edward A. Palmer leaves it to the point that audience’s attention has long wondered off. By the time the film makes it to the resolution, it is already late. Palmer seems to have had a vision that he pieced together well, but the pieces themselves proved to be problematic.

If you manage to make it up to the last part of the second act, you’ll be the judge of whether it was worth it or not. Personally, I didn’t face the twist as a revelatory experience. Far from it. After all the previous “buts” mentioned above though, I’ll throw in a positive one. Making any type of film, is not an easy task. From nano-budgets to tentpoles, every film faces its difficulties and I’m sure Hippopotamus was not short of those. No one can accuse a film where its cast and crew were paid next to nothing or nothing that they haven’t done a decent job. The fact that they managed to complete it and make it to Amazon Prime, is a humongous achievement if you ask me. And Hippopotamus easily stands out in the platform as one of the best achievements in that genre.

Stay safe!

Una (2016): Drama

A young woman visits the workplace of an older man, and the encounter reveals dark secrets that neither of them can put behind.

Unsettling theme, uneasy pace, and an uncomfortable watch. It becomes obvious from the very beginning what the premise is but David Harrower’s script (and original play), Benedict Andrews’ camera, and Nick Fenton’s editing use “predatory” techniques instead of just tackling what you already know is going to happen. Psychologically, it is like when anticipating someone to die but not being ready at all when they actually do. If the comparison seems unfair, this is what happened to Una; she died on the inside.

Fenton’s editing keeps this steady pace from beginning to end, offering neither excitement nor boredom, but maintaining a realistic sense of time for the story to unfold and disclose information that the audience is not sure if they want to know (until they know for sure they don’t). Benedict Andrews and director of photography Thimios Bakatakis mount the cameras over the shoulders and follow Una and Ray down a rabbit hole that depresses and divides our feelings. Cinema, by its nature is, intentionally or not, a form of voyeurism, but Andrews’ directing wants to make it obvious that this is the intended purpose. He wants you to be this omniscient voyeur of Una and Ray’s story and make sure you are uncertain about casting the stone you are holding. It is one of them films where you can’t wait to end, it doesn’t, you want to turn it off, but, simultaneously, you cannot not know the end. And as if the plot is not utterly stomach twirling enough, the subplot makes it even worse for Ray who, in the meantime, has been forced to announce to some of his employees that they are fired… while Una is there.

The moment I really wanted to put an end to both of their suffering (and mine) and turn it off, was about an hour and ten minutes into the film, where after Una’s particular line you know that this abhorrent situation is gonna go to hell. I could hear my heart pounding and felt like sweating. And I put a full stop here just in case you decide (after all that) to watch it. What’s important to do at this point is to praise Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn for their performances on an individual level and their tough chemistry on a collective one.

Harrower and Andrews put their audience into a very tough spot by not distinguishing who is the prey and who is the victim when in a case like this it should have been pretty obvious. I do not condemn that, if anything it is remarkable, but it is not a film I can recommend to anyone.

Stay safe!

Dead Man Walking (1995): Crime/Drama

When a nun receives a letter of support from a convicted murderer on Death Row, she needs to find a way to comfort him as well as the victims’ families.

Heavy real drama, supported by incredible acting. Dead Man Walking starts off with the beginning of a tough relationship between Sister Helen Sejean and the convicted murderer on Death Row Matthew Poncelet. Coming from totally different backgrounds and currently being on opposite sides of the fence, this short-term relationship is meant to be tough; like no other relationship before it. And as if the plot is not morbidly unbearable, the subplot, how Sister Sejean deals with the heavy hits she receives, supports the plot and further burdens on her and the audience’s soul.

There are some extremely short straws handed in this story: The two kids who got brutally murdered, their parents who suffer their unspeakable loss, Matthew’s family who suffers the consequences of his unspeakable action, Matthew himself who suffers for reasons you’ll get to know in the end, and, last but not least, Sister Sejean who stands right in the middle of it. It is through her, that we get to experience everyone’s pain, and, ironically, the only person (except for the audience) who gets to experience hers is the person responsible for the inhumane acts and who is about to die. Sister Sejean burdens everyone’s suffering in her soul, in an attempt to help everyone involved find peace in their hearts.

Based on Sister Helen Sejean’s homonymous book “Dead Man Walking”, writer/director Tim Robbins brings to life the shattering and soul-crashing real drama/horror that cost the life of two young people and ruined the lives of so many around them. Watching it in the cinema back then, on a VHS a few years later, or on Blu-ray now, I must admit that it has been equally hard. Dead Man Walking is a heavy drama, paying respect to the audience’s intelligence without trying to proselytise, judge, or point you in any particular political or religious direction. Tim Robbins and Sean Penn were nominated for the Oscar, and Susan Sarandon got it.

Not that I have run out of newer films to watch, but every now and then I enjoy going back to films that made me love cinema as a kid and get a first cinematic view of the world that I got to know – more like, still get to know. I might not be well known for my religious beliefs, but no matter what the reason is, anyone helping or trying to help a fellow human being is a person I want to help achieve it.

Stay safe!

Last Night in Soho (2021): Drama/Horror/Mystery

New to the city of London, a young female student mysteriously connects, through dark and haunting visions, with a young female aspiring singer from the 1960s.

Impressive visuals and sounds in an unnecessarily convoluted story. Didn’t really feel like an Edgar Wright film, to be honest. No particular lengthy tracking shots, no editing with invisible cuts that extend an unnatural continuity… but then… after the first plot point… upon Eloise’s/Sandie’s entrance to the club… there are some daring shots and filmmaking techniques to be talked about, namely the dancing sequence between them two ladies and Jack.

From then on, it starts becoming transparent what’s going on, in a visually interesting and intricate way. Yeah, but is it transparent? Is it her mother’s condition and now her? There is a difference between “misleading” and “manipulating” and I’m a bigger fan of the latter because it requires preparation and, in the end, if done successfully, it can leave the audience mouth agape. If not, the result might be just… meh! Regarding misleading the audience though, if the reason for doing it is not solid, and if not done successfully, it can cause aggravation and it can be perceived as cheap and insulting. So, in my humble opinion, unless the filmmakers have that solid reason, it should be avoided.

Without spoiling it for you, Last Night in Soho is misleading when it could have been avoided. Eloise and Sandie could have been something more feasible, something more real that even when you know what it is, it is still terrifying. I wish I could elaborate on that more, but for more, please, have a look at (the not without flaws) Sucker Punch (2011): https://kaygazpro.com/2019/06/30/sucker-punch-2011-action-adventure-fantasy/.

Don’t be discouraged to watch it though. The visuals and sounds may not compensate completely for what I just mentioned above, but are rich and challenging. Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and writer/director Edgar Wright manage to recreate an amazing 60s London atmosphere that is not easy at all. The photography, the costume designs, the make-up and hair styles, the editing, and the soundtrack are beyond impressive and offer the intended cinematic experience. Furthermore, Thomasin McKenzie (who I couldn’t stop comparing her looks and acting to Abigail Breslin’s), Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Ajao, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp, the late Diana Rigg (this was her last film), and the rest of the cast shine in front of the camera.

Losing oneself in the pursuit of happiness will always be more than one has bargained for. And insightful writers and directors have limitless ways of expressing that haunting journey. Of course, the same can be said for the broader sense of paranormal. See and decide for yourselves which one could have been more dominant scenario here.

Stay safe!

P.S. My worst experience working in Soho was, upon finishing at 03:00, walking to Trafalgar Square, waiting for the night bus for half an hour, and then being on it for another hour (amongst a variety of characters) until I make it to Northwest London.

Real Steel (2011): Action/Drama/Sci-fi

In the year 2020, where robot boxing is the main sports event, an ex-boxer and his estranged son discover a robot that has the potential to win fights, but also bring them closer.

Redemption, salvation, and hope in an adventure for the whole family! This is Hollywood adventure at its best! Behind the cameras, wearing the director’s hat, Shawn Levy, and wearing the producers’ hat, Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg create a wonderful and inspiring story, for kids and adults alike. Based on the short story by Richard Matheson, John Gantis’ screenplay focuses on the estranged father/son relationship, and through robot boxing, the journey of reconciliation. Atom becomes the Deus ex machina of hope for them two and, consequently, for all of us who have stopped or forgot looking for it. The “David vs Goliath” fight is as old as the Bible, and, to his day, it still inspires, again, kids and adults alike, to face our fears and keep walking regardless of what life throws at us. The “delay of resolution” narrative technique fits perfectly here as both the story and character development unfold in an old-fashioned way, avoiding gimmicks, easy ways out, and yawnsome obstacles that stagnate the story.

Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo make an incredible father-son duo, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, the late James Rebhorn, and Kevin Durand complete the fantastic cast but… Evangeline Lilly is the one who lights up the room every time she’s in the shot. Her acting simply evokes all the intended emotions and her appearance is just mesmerising. Another special reference deserves the film’s editor Dean Zimmerman who spots the solid acting, isolates those responses, and places them exactly where they need to be placed to amplify the suspense, but also the drama. When you get a chance to watch it – or re-watch it – pay attention to the final battle between Atom and Zeus and see how these reactions within the action enhance the passion. When and how often he cuts to each character, but also how long he cuts to them makes the whole difference in the world. I’m not gonna bore you with it, and don’t really pay too much attention as you’ll miss the most important part; the story itself.

Probably my favourite Shawn Levy film, as much as I’m fond of all of his films in general. Definitely worth a watch and re-watch. With a plague hovering over our heads for over two years now, any inspiration is welcome.

Stay safe!

P.S. From the simplest boxing moves to the “rope-a-dope” technique, was all supervised by Sugar Ray Leonard himself.

Don’t Look Up (2021): Comedy/Drama/Sci-fi

In a good news/bad news situation, two relatively unknown astronomers discover a comet, but they also go the extra mile to let everyone know that is going to hit the Earth.

Hilarious, depressing, and ultimately illuminating! Don’t Look Up cuts straight to the chase. A comet is about to hit the earth and the government and people are in la-la land. For the first half an hour, I was wondering when the comedy will stop overshadowing the drama. But when all characters and events were presented, I realised that this comedy will be camouflaging the drama throughout. Aristophanes “gave birth” to comedy in Athens, in times where his city was suffering under the Spartan siege. “Satire”, “farce” and “parody” are elements of comedy that ridicule and criticise people, society, and governments with the intention to raise awareness, but also educate. And this is the kind of comedy Don’t Look Up is.

The government is a joke and the majority of the people they represent even more so. Writer/director Adam McKay condenses quite a few messages into his film, but shows without telling that politics, social media, and tabloid are more important than life itself. Stupid shows and hosts, indifferent pop role models, and scandalous and moronic politicians all develop as part of the subplot that supports the comedy behind the horrific and dramatic plot, namely the extinction-level event that only surfaces the human buffoonery.

I particularly liked the parts that served as mockery to, additionally, certain Hollywood apocalyptic films, capitalism, and the influence of lobbies on our society and government. The part that I particularly didn’t like was Ariana Grande’s concert sequence that, in my opinion, cherished one of the things it successfully managed to trivialise minutes earlier; the indifferent pop role models. I can understand the antithesis it tried to create with the “rednecks”, but, for me, it ended up contradicting itself. Of course, the best part is actually the end. For obvious reasons, I cannot disclose it but it is surely the appropriate denouement of the two-hour laughter and thrill that preceded it.

McKay always manages somehow to assemble incredible cast – here, five Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, and Timothée Chalamet. With them, Rob Morgan and Ron Perlman complete the diverse cast.

There is so much one could say about films like this. Surely, it’s a great Netflix investment that some people will like and some people won’t. Ironically, a film that mocks capitalism/lobbyists, “influencers”, and uses a comet as a metaphor for the global warning is distributed by a colossal company and adored by social media addicts and people who could’t care less about the environment. Go figure! Maybe, “satire”, “farce” and “parody” actually describe the world we live in. I still believe there is hope though.

I very much hope you enjoy it, as well as this festive period. This is my last film review for 2021.

Stay safe!

P.S. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”

P.P.S. If I had to vote for the most hateable character, that would be Peter Isherwell. The things I could say about this guy… Marginally, in second place, comes Jason Orlean.

A Million Little Pieces (2018): Drama

On the brink of death, a young alcoholic and drug dependent is sent to rehab to confront his addictions, but also the demons inside him.

Realistic enough approach with no easy ways out. The opening sequence tells it all. It is the alpha and the omega of life as an addict. The beginning of life’s end as we know it. But as the addict doesn’t. Not yet. Not until they actually die.

Wrtier/director Sam Taylor-Johnson introduces James’ personal calamity in a quite graphic way, but she clearly makes her point. Upon making it though, she focuses on the calamity’s solution, the rehab, and sinks her teeth in it. The film’s strong suit is that it doesn’t make it easy; neither for the addicts involved nor for the audience. The visuals are visceral and don’t hold back because the narrative doesn’t hold back. It is restricted as it starts from the end. It is the solution’s unbearable, soul-destroying strain that starts unfolding the problem, in glimpses, backwards. Taylor-Johnson uses the days of addiction as a means to delaying the resolution. Every time the audience thinks that James is making a step forward, she brings the past to the foreground as a moment of realisation that it is not going to be as easy as we would expect it to be. Alas, we get to witness James making two steps backwards, instead.

As for writer/actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, admittedly, he has come a long way. From Kick Ass (2010) to today, he’s proved to be a diverse actor who puts heart and soul into everything he’s been in and A Million Little Pieces is no exception. My only distraction with portraying James Frey is that his physique doesn’t match a drug addicts’ physique so chances are that he didn’t want to give it up for the role – maybe, lose a couple of pounds. His acting is strong and he does go the extra mile on camera. Beside him, you can find David Dastmalchian, Billy Bob Thornton – shocking to see him being the sober one – as his mentor, and Odessa Young as James’ fellow messed up passenger in this horrendous journey. Giovani Ribisi deserves a special mention for he keeps surprising everyone with his diverse performances. Particularly here, the things he says and does are shocking and add to the situation’s decadence. Combining the two sequences, the one in the shower and the other handing over his daughter’s number to James, his journey, with the end remaining unknown, it is still complete.

Overall, I felt for James’ journey despite the controversy that surrounded the book after the real James Frey told the truth about it (I’m not going to go into it). It is one hell of a journey or, more accurately, one journey through hell that definitely raises awareness.

I very much hope you enjoy it, as well as this festive period.

Stay safe!

P.S. Juliette Lewis and Charlie Hunnam are in it as well, but I found their presence indifferent so, I’ll refer to them when I have something nice to say.

Winter’s Tale (2014): Drama/Fantasy/Mystery

An ostensibly ordinary thief who finds out he is gifted with a miracle falls in love with a woman who dies in his arms, and devotes his life to bringing her back.

A good, old-fashioned love story told in a modern, allegorical way. I remember watching it for the first time years ago and didn’t really get some parts, but I do remember being moved by the storytelling. Watching it now, admittedly, I got more out of it and the trick was to not pay attention to the details of how good, evil, destiny, and miracles work. It is what it is, and that is it. Once that is out of the way, the focus remains on the love story itself. Everything else mythologises our purpose on this Earth and, in a mystical way, sets the cogs of love in motion.

Jessica Brown Findlay stole the show for me as I found her utterly breathtaking. In an effort to be objective though, all performances are exceptional; Colin Farrell as a destiny seeker, Russell Crowe as a psychopathic demon, and Jennifer Connelly as an actress, a woman, and a human being. With them, Eva Marie Saint, Graham Greene, Kevin Durand, William Hurt and Will Smith complete the wonderful cast. Smith is not even on the credits and the only actor who knew about him being in the film was Crowe who shared scenes with him. Awesome stuff! I need to say how amazing I find the casting process. Crowe and Connelly have worked previously in A Beautiful Mind (2001), Crowe and Durand have worked together in Robin Hood (2010) and Noah (2014), and writer/director Akiva Goldsman with all of them in previous projects as a writer.

Goldman’s directorial debut could not be more sentimental. Steven Spielberg acquired the rights in 1983, shortly after Mark Helprin’s novel was released, Martin Scorsese was considered to direct it, and then numerous others, but, in the end, it just stayed on the shelf for years.

Even though I’ve been “accused” for being a cynic in real life (multiple times), that kind of sentimentality seems appropriate and befitting these days. Chances are that neither angels nor demons set the rules on why, how, or how long we should live on this planet, and the same applies for destiny and miracles, but when I remember the phrase “what we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean” I drown my cynicism into that ocean and enjoy possibilities however unreasonable they might seem.

It’s Christmas time, in the middle of the pandemic, so we need as many miracles and help as we can get. From wherever or whoever that may be.

I very much hope you enjoy it, as well as this festive period. Happy Christmas!!!

Stay safe!

Krampus (2015): Comedy/Drama/Fantasy

While the whole extended family has gathered, a boy condemns Christmas and unwillingly summons the demon of the festive period.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) goes dark in 20′! Funny opening sequence with everyone desecrating the Christmas spirit leads to the troubled family at hand and the visit of their extended family that immediately amplifies the troubles. The comedy element so far prevails and the kid’s wish becomes the necessary plot point that switches it to horror. Interestingly, IMDb does not classify Krampus as horror, but I’m sure if any of our families were involved in a remotely similar situation, it would be.

The moment the demon is introduced, Krampus turns really dark, eerie, and atmospheric, offering immediately the vibe of hopeless and desolating Christmas. Writer/director Michael Dougherty, the man behind Trick ‘r Treat (2007) https://kaygazpro.com/2019/10/31/trick-r-treat-2007-comedy-horror/ manages once more to get into the spirit of the respective festive period and entertains us with balanced laughter, family gore and the incarnation of the brutal Austrian/German pagan demon and his minions. Evil teddy bear-type toys, angel ornaments, a Jack-in-a box (that swallows kids), a robot, and numerous gingerbread cookie monsters offer pleasurable cinematic deaths and keep you company for over an hour and a half.

Personally, my favourite sequence is Omi’s animated flashback. This is the kind of storytelling Tim Burton would be proud of. It is heartbreaking and annihilates human nature. Its message that the adults pass on the torch of darkness to the kids, and they carry it on only to do the same with theirs, cuts my breath.

What the narrative’s evilness achieves, is both likeable and dislikeable characters to become relatable to the audience. You cannot help but empathise even for the suffering of those who, at first, you wouldn’t mind if they got rid of from the beginning. No one, especially around Christmas, deserves to experience such family-level brutality. And this is where the “success” of films like Krampus are based on: Christmas spirit massacre with a paradoxical message of hope. Pay close attention to the ending as there are two ways to interpret it. Which one do you choose?

So… Does Christmas romance depress you? Do Christmas comedies bore you? Does Christmas drama leave you indifferent? Well, try Christmas horror/comedy. Try Krampus! The answer to what if Santa went rogue (we’ve seen with Superman already).

I very much hope you enjoy it, as well as this festive period.

Stay safe!

P.S. While watching the opening slo-mo sequence with everyone busting in and fighting over Christmas stuff like it’s the end of the world, I couldn’t help but imagine people in 2020 and toilet paper. You know what I mean…

Sputnik (2020): Drama / Horror / Sci-Fi

When a Soviet spaceship crash lands and its astronaut is taken to a secret facility, an unconventional scientist is called in to examine its sole survivor who didn’t return entirely alone.

Well-crafted sci-fi horror made in Russia. Ego Abramenko’s Sputnik has a horror/sci-fi vibe that levels with Hollywood blockbusters. As much as this is promising, it poses the following issue: If it was dubbed in English, it would be like watching a Hollywood film. And more specifically, the Alien franchise. The name relates to space exploration and the first artificial satellites Russia sent orbiting around the Earth. It also means ‘companion’ or ‘fellow traveler’ which refers to the alien organism the astronaut is carrying inside him (information provided by IMDb).

By being shot, mostly, in the Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry in Moscow, the audience can get a good sense of Soviet architecture, but also its harshness that is connected to the regime at the time. I very much enjoyed the first act and its slow-burn build-up, the plot point that connects to the main incident, and the narrative’s development until the first part of the second act. From then on, the action takes over, and even though the slaughter is appealing, it turns into a standard Hollywood-like film that is well-shot and well-edited, and that is it. What could I expect more? Drama and/or horror within the action. See Alien (1979), you cannot take your eyes off the chase because action, thriller, and horror blend in smoothly, and, simultaneously, unexpectedly.

In Sputnik, the action is expected, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch it. The visuals are impressive, the photography is dark, and the editing manipulates the information provided to large extent. Oksana Akinshina does a great job as the unconventional scientist who struggles between science and politics and proudly holds the films on her shoulders. Go for it and, if anything, get a fresh take of the ‘blockbuster’ meaning.

Stay safe!

Dark River (2017): Drama/Mystery/Thriller

Following her father’s death, a woman returns to the farm she grew up on after 15 years, but the reunion with her brother will have nothing but dire consequences.

The hand-held camera and close-ups on Alice after the opening sequence speak volumes from the very beginning about her esoteric world. Upon her return to the farm, and the siblings’ reunion, Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley do a great job as estranged brother and sister, but the moment’s awkwardness, as well as the rest of the film’s pace and rhythm are well controlled by the editors Luke Dunkley and Nick Fenton. Writer/director Clio Barnard, Yorkshire lass born and raised, works with the excellent cinematographer Adriano Goldman, and delves into the personal drama Alice and Joe have to endure while developing simultaneously the tribulations of owing a farm nowadays. On one hand, their personal suffering seems impossible to be dealt with. While we get glimpses of the past, we can only imagine how hard it is for Alice to be back there. What we don’t know, until much later on, is how much Joe knows and how he positions himself in this predicament. Thus, we cannot fully comprehend the animosity between them.

On the other hand, owing that farm along with its innumerable troubles, only escalates that tension. What ideally could have happened, what did happen, as well as with how it could have been dealt with and how it was actually dealt with creates a family disaster of galactic proportions. That intensity is what describes the film. If I were forced to pick on something, that would be the fact that the tone is, from beginning to end, gloom and doom. As Dark River is mainly a drama, I would expect from it to give some hope before it takes it back. Instead, it just keeps on slowly and steadily taking it, leaving you bereft. Hence, the narrative’s element of surprise is lost there as, from a certain point on, you know that every new sequence you are about to watch is going to be a yet another calamitous encounter between the siblings.

Don’t be discouraged by that though. Dark River is the poster child of British indie cinema that only evokes emotions from relatable stories and characters and surfaces real dramas that take place in the world that you and I live in. Watch it and get to know an England so much different to the films that open with an aerial shot of London, shot wherever else after that, and dive into banalities that allegedly describe England. Dark River combines the cinematic realism and the English countryside, free of stereotypes and clichés.

Stay safe!

Antlers (2021): Drama/Horror/Mystery

In a quiet town in rural Oregon, a troubled middle-school teacher and her sheriff brother investigate a series of brutally murdered people only to be led to the awakening of an ancient creature.

Drama, horror, and mystery in a perfect balance! I’ve been waiting for this film for a long time! Three years to be precise! With Scott Cooper behind the camera – Crazy Heart (2009), Out of the Furnace (2013), Black Mass (2015), Hostiles (2017) – Keri Russell, and Jesse Plemons in front of the camera, and, among others, David S. Goyer and Guillermo Del Toro wearing the producers’ hat, how could I not. And the waiting was well worth it! It’s a case where Hollywood defies its own (uptight) rules, throws the textbook away, and finally gets it right. No fast-paced editing that confuses, no cardboard cut-out characters, and above all, no unnecessary jump-scares to compensate for the lack of narrative.

Antlers is the horror you need to watch to appreciate the slow-burn character and story development that only aims to stimulate your emotions and not to undermine your intelligence. Goyer is a master of thrill (most of his DC work excluded), Del Toro is a master of storytelling, and Russell and Plemons are amazing actors. The result is exactly what you would hope for. Admittedly, I found the ending, even though not anticlimactic… a bit flat! It easily resolved a terrifying build-up. I had high hopes it amounted to something as visceral as the first and second act up to that point – pun intended. But don’t let that stand in your way.

Based upon the short story “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca, Antlers, is the kind of film where the plot relies on the subplot to support it. The personal unspeakable drama supports the horror unleashed onto these people, and, even though one can exist without other as separate entities, together they combine forces, pin you down, and cut your breath with the element of unpredictability and the uncertainty of who is worse: mythical, monstrous forces… or us…

Stay safe!

Minamata (2020): Drama

Life magazine sends photographer Eugene Smith to Japan to document the atrocious effect of mercury poisoning on the people of Minamata.

A must-see! Johnny Depp’s performance is the real deal, but this is not why you need to watch this. Let me get it out of the way because many may focus on that, but that shouldn’t be the focus point. Depp’s performance is intriguing as much it is compelling and I will add that Hiroyuki Sanada’s presence is purely explosive! Now…

The opening shot takes your breath away and keeps the hard and cruel promise it makes. Writer/Producer/Director Andrew Levitas fought tooth and nail to get Minamata released after premiering at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. Depp’s court case forced pushing the released date back, but the long wait was definitely worth it.

The first half an hour is about the inevitable; Eugene Smith to accept the job and live up to the name he once had. Once that is out of the picture, the struggle of Minamata’s people immediately becomes the relatable focus point, starting with the poisoned boy taking the camera off Smith’s hands. Every person affected and depicted after him becomes the audience’s struggle to breath properly as cinematographer’s Benoit Delhomme’s lens captures their unspeakable drama with respect and understanding. Every shot becomes, indeed, a thousand words of unbearable burden.

There is so much I could say about the film’s pace and rhythm, and every actor’s / actress’ devotion to the project, but I’ll deliberately generalise and claim that films like Minamata is the reason cinema exists. Cinema is entertainment but it is also, like any other form of art, the means to express the way artists perceive the world. ‘Science fiction’ holds truths about mankind with direct or subliminal messages hidden in the narrative. ‘Horror’, in its own respect, and among others, reveals sides of ourselves that we could never admit about our nature. Minamata exists to disclose both sides of mankind that disgust us, but also make us want to cry with what we can accomplish but we have yet the chance (or will) to do so.

I know these on-screen kids didn’t suffer from a disease caused by mercury, but my breath was cut short and felt like bursting into tears, nonetheless. Allowing myself to believe it though, is the kind of immense influence cinema has. Cinematic magic is the one I always allowed myself as a kid to believe in and it is the one that has made me get through life itself.

Stay safe!

Voice from the Stone (2017): Drama/Mystery/Thriller

A nurse is called to an old mansion in Italy to aid a boy that stopped talking after his mother died.

As they say, you can make a bad film from a good script, but you can never make a good film from a bad script. Even though I’m not going to claim that the script is bad, I’m going to claim that its flow is substantially problematic. From what I read, the script’s development was stuck for years and Verena’s role passed from Maggie Gyllenhaal, to Olga Kurylenko, to, eventually, Emilia Clarke. As you can see, if the script solely relies on beauty to evoke the desired feelings, it is doomed to fail. Emilia Clarke, besides her striking beauty is a fine actress. But her character is flat and despite Clarke’s decent efforts, she cannot save it. Unfortunately, the same applies for everyone else involved.

Speaking of flat, that’s what the story is too. Nothing’s happening for the most part of it no matter how hard you want to. Michael Wandmacher’s beautifully composed suspenseful music accompanies a narrative that is anything but. While rendered mostly in monotone, Peter Simonite’s haunting photography offers a cold, foggy and mysterious atmosphere throughout most of the film, and, cautiously, ‘warms’ it when the narrative dictates. Be it as it may, unfortunately, chances are that you’ll be let down by Eric D. Howell’s film. Shame really, as the potential is there, in Italy more specifically, adopting European filmmaking standards and neglecting the influences from overseas.

As much as I enjoy watching Clarke naked – every time – I believe that she needs to have a word with her manager about how many films she is going to appear naked in. I repeat, I am not complaining, but for her career’s sake, she may need to reconsider. Films like Voice from the Stone are, as aforementioned, doomed to fail as their target audience is unspecified and so are their appealing criteria. To clarify, other than Emilia Clarke as a beautiful woman and Marton Csokas as a constantly intriguing villain, the film appeals to no one. Hence, projects like this keep changing hands over the years and they end up like a creative purée where everyone has stuck their fingers in.

Stay safe!

Awake (2021): Action/Adventure/Drama

When inexplicably the power goes down globally and no one can sleep, a mother is tasked to lead her daughter, the only person who can sleep, to a hub in search of a potential cure.

Suspenseful story, anticlimactic execution. I’ll cut to the chase. Gina Rodriguez does a great job as a struggling mother who does what needs to be done. Undeniable! She’s a brilliant actress and deserves a lot of praise. Actually, Rodriguez and story writer Gregory Poirier deserve all the praise in the film.

Unfortunately, the story’s development to a script and Mark Raso’s directing prove to be quite problematic. All the obstacles the mom and the kids have to face, in reality, would have been next to impossible. But in Raso’s Awake, solutions are easily found to the point of gimmick. And horror fans don’t like easy ways out.

Problems though start way before that as the global catastrophe just happens and its symptoms just spread with nothing building up in the process, keeping the suspense (just) at the lowest possible level. Once again, Rodriguez’s performance saves parts of the film, but, despite her efforts, its anticlimactic narrative damages, an otherwise, good story. Mainly, I blame Netflix! They have all the money in the world and they could have overseen the script and its plot holes before they green-lit it.

If I go on, I’ll probably start talking about the clichéd American reactions and emotional responses to certain stimuli as well as how the numbers don’t add up with the mom’s age and the kids’ and the subplot. So, I’ll stop here and hope that Raso’s next film will avoid all of the aforementioned and Rodriguez will star in an existential drama that will fully unfold her thespian skills.

Stay safe!

P.S. For a proper parent’s struggle throughout a global catastrophe (and obviously main influence of Awake), see The War of the Worlds (2005).

Titane (2021): Drama/Horror/Sci-fi

In a time where a series of unresolved crimes is on the rise, a go-go dancer with a metal plate fitted into her head runs away, only to be found by a tortured fire chief who accepts her as his son.

France’s official submission for the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category of the 94th Academy Awards in 2022 aims to shock with raw violence and perversion and not to please with aesthetics. The one filmmaker who could truly shock blending sci-fi, body horror, sexuality, and profoundly perplexed personalities is David Cronenberg and he never made it to the Oscars. Consequently, that kind of violence and perversion doesn’t seem new to me and as much as I enjoyed the film, I can’t see how all these nominations and wins occurred. As for the Oscars, it’s been years that I don’t understand how the nominations and the awards are given even though I’ve done thorough research on it. You see, theory and practice don’t always match and I’ve given up with Hollywood’s moronic policies, moral and social indecisiveness, and corruption.

Anyway, back to Titane, Julia Docurnau’s provocative lens starts right off the bat with no warning whatsoever. And, no, I’m not referring to the dance or the homosexuality;  I couldn’t care less. It’s not even the sex with the car. It is Alexia’s inclination for murder. Docurnau’s lens focuses on Alexia’s effortlessness to take multiple human lives and showcases it as easy as the murders themselves. And as much as I don’t see where most of the nominations came or are coming from, the fact that Agathe Rouselle only got that one nomination is shocking! Roles like these make or brake actors/actresses, but most definitely attract attention. Regardless, I truly believe she deserves a lot of ‘trophies’.

From then on, the narrative’s perversion takes a different form in that of a man who accepts her as his son and their sick relationship. I wish I could tell you more, but you’ll get no spoilers from me. See for yourselves and make up your own minds. I will conclude by expressing my admiration of Docurnau’s natural ability to capture the unnatural. Should you’ve watched her previous work, Raw (2016), you wouldn’t be surprised. Should you haven’t, you should. By the way, I couldn’t detect the ‘sci-fi’ genre, and judging by the characters, I would with certainty replace it ‘fantasy’.

I admire her as a filmmaker and that is not due to her close-ups or the DePalma split shots, or even her films that much. But because she’s an amazing storyteller. She knows what kind of story she wants to tell and she knows how to tell it with no hesitation. Love it or loathe it, Palme d’Or worthy or not, just accept it for what it is.

Stay safe!

Old (2021): Drama/Horror/Mystery

A luxurious resort sends a cohort of families to a secluded beach where, inexplicably, they rapidly get older.

Mixed feelings over a simple premise. Starting with the narrative, During Act I, nothing’s happening, and the lack of the inciting incident negatively impacts the film’s pace and rhythm. By definition, that creates a tremendous contrast with the second act where everything’s happening. Act II is… death! People are dropping like flies and all you know is that that beach is making everyone… old. But there is more to it as certain wounds heal, others get worse, and so on. So, stick around to the very end to see what Act III has in store for you.

From a directing point of view, M. Night Shyamalan is in full control of his camera and its movement. He takes charge of what to disclose, or not to and why, and most importantly, how to deal with either case. Very interesting crane shots, tracking shots, and Hitchcock’s zooms in moments where age abnormality incidents are about to occur. The second act is where he patiently builds up the suspense and horror in order to lead to the climactic night.

Shyamalan, based on Pierre Oscar Lévy’s graphic novel ‘Sandcastle’ and heavily influenced by Luis Buñuel’s satire The Exterminating Angel (1962) wrote the script before the pandemic hit but shot the film right in the middle of it. Making sure that all precautions are taken, himself, the crew, and the cast were stunned by the similarities of what they were shooting and the effects the pandemic had in the world (especially, last year). After all, Old deals with isolation (lock-down), the roots of death (virus), the fear of infection, and the way out of this tragedy. Surprisingly immaculate timing, indeed. Speaking of the cast: Gael García Bernal,Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee, Ken Leung, Amuka-Bird, Aaron Pierre and the rest of the cast do a great job portraying their characters, adding with their performances to Shyamalan’s vision. Embeth Davidtz gets a separate mention as I’m biased (I admit it) and find her amazing in everything she’s been in.

Other than the aforementioned influences, Shyamalan said, originally, he wanted to get involved with this project due to his parents getting old and personal phobias of his. Be it as it may, I bought and read Lévy’s ‘Sandcastle’ as, admittedly, I was not aware of – and I was really interested in observing the differences. The adaptation is remarkable and I take my hat off to both Lévy for grasping this concept and Shyamalan for bringing it to life. There is something I noticed though that I believe in Old became a fainted subplot when, I believe, it should have been, arguably, the main plot: Life is too short! I know it sounds cliché, but it is! And the pandemic made (most of) us rethink and rearrange our priorities in life. And not only is it too short, but whatever problems we think we may have now, these problems will be amplified as the years pass by. And all we are going to be left with is remorse for all the things we never tried, reminiscence, and one last chance for redemption. Maybe, think about that while watching it.

Of course, this is Hollywood and this is Shyamalan so the result has to be somewhat fancy and there has to be a twist. Personally, I didn’t find the twist so impactful as it raised some questions that led me to plot holes. Overall, I found it intriguing though and I highly recommend it despite its flaws. I hope you enjoy it and makes you think about life after the end credits start scrolling down.

Stay safe!

Dune (2021): Action/Adventure/Drama

The House of Atreides moves to planet Arrakis to protect the most precious resource of existence, but yet another interstellar feud amongst the Houses is just about to begin.

Yet another feud, yet another cinematic achievement from Denis Villeneuve! A phantasmagorical Part 1 that will impress even the hardest ones to please! Dune has it all; the solid script and acting, the state-of-the-art visuals and sounds, Hans Zimmer’s epic soundtrack, the extraordinary photography, the controlled pace and rhythm… everything!

Villeneuve did not become slave to the original source – Frank Herbert’s already amazing novel – but respected it, visualised it in a way no one has done before, and materialised it like no one has done before. While watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder: did I ever imagine in the early 90s, while playing the game, that I will watch Dune, a film of that magnitude, on the big screen? Yet, here I am having watched it… ready already for Part Two.

One may notice the numerous liberties taken adapting the film, but we need to remember that film is a visual medium and that an adaptation is a product of its era (think from societal needs and restrictions to VFX). And Villeneuve’s liberties work like a Swiss watch. See for example the fighting styles: As per IMDb, Fight Coordinator Roger Yuan gave the House of Harkonnen ancient Mongolian fighting skills and the House of Atreides Filipino fighting skills, a visual result that matches the nature of the two Houses. The same applies for the costume design that doesn’t resemble the book’s descriptions, and yet every costume encapsulates the status of each House.

The all-star cast comprises of: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgård, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, and more. An excellent cast that shines in front of the camera. My only issue with Hollywood, and not the film in particular, is that everyone has to be attractive. Everyone could as well be a model on an underwear or a fragrance poster. But whatever… I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve brought that one up.

Every department, every cinematic technique applied, everything you see and hear… can be thoroughly analysed individually, but also collectively. And either for research or purely informative purposes, researchers and columnists, respectively, will write extensively about Dune. For now, what you need to do, is turn off the lights, turn down your phones, turn up your sound system, and enjoy a unique cinematic experience.

Stay safe!

Lamb (2021): Drama/Mystery/Horror

On a remote farm in Iceland, a childless couple starts treating an abnormal newborn sheep as their baby.

Rightfully, the highest-grossing Icelandic film, to date, and most definitely, not for everyone! Starting off as an impressive horror, with the sheep’s synchronised and guided movements stealing the show, the sequence cuts off abruptly raising a lot of question marks (even though so does the rest of the film). From then on, the mystery takes over when the appearance of the bipedal baby girl-sheep becomes a naturally accepted family member. This is the biggest part of the film so keep that in mind. Let me rephrase: over a good, solid hour occupies a normality that is anything but normal. In this act, the narrative’s simplicity and the slow editing render Lamb not for everyone. Yet, this is the part where you need to be patient because this normally presented abnormality serves a purpose that will not be directly revealed to you at all. So, as I said, be patient and enjoy, arguably, the best cinematography of the year – Eli Arenson.

Here are a few production details that you might find interesting. As per IMDb, Noomi Rapace had to brush up the Icelandic language since, as a child, she spent some years there. What’s more, prior to principal photography, she spent some time on an Icelandic farm, actually learning how to help sheep give birth. Finally, Lamb is the ‘Official submission of Iceland for the “Best International Feature Film” category of the 94th Academy Awards in 2022’.

Excellent feature debut from director Valdimar Jóhannsson who makes it really hard for me to provide my interpretation on Lamb without spoiling it for you. I’ll just say that issues, such as overcoming sorrow, pursuing happiness, and beating loneliness/solitude in the vastness of an unforgiving nature are Herculean labours individually, much less collectively. Some times, we say: ‘If I were in his/her shoes, I would…’ but the undeniable truth is that we never really know what we would have done if we had to face someone else’s suffering. So maybe, just maybe, sit in silence for a while and try to understand how other people cope and why they cope the way they do because if, God forbid, something similar were to happen to us, the tables will turn. And then people would judge the only way it seems natural for us to cope…

Stay safe!

Tsotsi (2005): Crime/Drama

When a young gangster commits a crime he never expected, he finds himself experiencing emotions he never had before.

Mise-en-scene and editing that enhance the narrative, move the story forward and emphasise on the pain but also hope. Tsotsi which, from what I read, means “thug” in Johannesburg slang, was the rightful Oscar winner 2006 for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year!

When I first watched it back then, I may have had no idea about who Gavin Hood was, or may have not known about films what I know now, or even could not understand what I understand now about South Africa’s torment… but still I was filled with tears in the end while watching it mouth agape. Tsotsi is the torn (anti)hero’s journey that will make you hate him, feel for him, and then be left with so many mixed feelings, rethinking of Boston’s “decency” – and “redemption” (my addition). Megan Hill’s editing plays a tremendous role in narratives such as this as it paces the audience’s emotions and defines the film’s rhythm. It is a masterclass! There are so many more technical details that I could urge you to pay attention to, but no need. Let the film speak to you.

I was fresh out of the special forces back then and, to a certain extent, beside myself, and Tsotsi helped me reevaluate certain aspects of life. That is the power of cinema and, like every other form of art, it is part of our lives, affecting it in ways we could never predict or plan. As much as liked Hood’s Official Secrets (2019) https://kaygazpro.com/2019/12/16/official-secrets-2019-biography-drama-romance/ Tsotsi still remains my all time favourite of his. Last but not least, Presley Chweneyagae’s realistic incarnation of Tsotsi will make you forget he is actually acting. Enjoy the thrill!

Stay safe!

My Son (2021): Crime/Drama/Mystery

After suspecting that his son has been kidnapped, a father does everything in his power to find him.

A parent’s worst fear depicted in a sorrowful, yet mysterious way. For starters, James McAvoy could not be a mediocre actor even if he tried his best. The guy is phenomenal! His acting is out of this world. Writer/director Christian Carion, who adapted his own homonymous film My Son (2017), applied the same technique he did back then: Everyone but McAvoy had received the script so his reactions to every stimulus of the story is genuine. On to that story, then…

The first act is about the missing boy, the parents’ tribulations, the mother’s new boyfriend, and their triangle. Somewhere there you get the odd questions from Inspector Roy that start complicating the issue further but the focus, rightfully, stays on the parents and the missing boy. Until then, the drama and the mystery are well-balanced and one can only feel for the both of them and hope for a happy ending. Imagine I hate happy endings and I most certainly wished for one.

The second act is taken over by mystery where McAvoy, like Liam Neeson without a plan, but hell-bent on finding his son, applies some basic investigating skills. The outcome of his actions is natural and believable as he has not previously displayed any similar skills whatsoever; just a dad willing to do anything to find his son. Eventually, it turns into a nail-biting thriller that in the end… confuses with the turn of events. There might not be a narrative twist, but there is an emotional one. Personally, I found myself wondering how the ending is befitting and even though I understood it to some degree, it evoked mixed feelings inside me. It seemed somewhat rushed and even though throughout act I and II bothered to explain what was going on – which you might find unnecessary – it abruptly ended giving away nothing. Again, I understand open endings, but I struggled, and still do, to find meaning in that one. But that is just me.

I hope you enjoy the thrill it has to offer and yet another stupendous performance from McAvoy. Quick note: I’ve praised Claire Foy in everything she has been in before, and her acting here is nothing but remarkable too. I just think that she deserved more screen time.

Stay safe!

Other People (2016): Comedy/Drama

An underachieving gay writer returns home after many years to support his terminally I’ll mom… and face the rest of the family.

The type of American cinema that knows what to cut out, when, and how to balance feelings. Succeeding in making a comedy/drama is as hard as making a comedy/horror. And Other People will make you laugh as much as it will make you cry. Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon make an excellent on-screen duet and writer/director Chris Kelly gives them the opportunity to shine and evoke all the intended emotions.

Tragicomedy describes all three acts with little things such as the milkshake order, which in its simplicity I found genuinely hilarious, or mum farting. The dialogues are authentic and the performances are immense. There is so much I could say to connect film theories on cinematic realism to the independent American cinema but I see no reason to do so. Therefore, I’ll keep this one shorter than usual and hope that you get the chance to watch it and laugh and cry and, respectively, recommend it to as many people as possible to share your experience. Because, as we tend to think, real-life events such as the ones unfolding in the film are situations experienced only by… other people.

Stay safe!

Joe Bell (2021): Biography/Drama

A father from Oregon makes it a mission to walk to New York and preach along the way against bullying after his teenage son gets tortured for being gay.

Mixed feelings throughout all three acts. Right off the bat, from the first flashbacks, the first impression is that a working-class dad who surprisingly supports his son for being gay does not support him enough to have him parade it in his front yard. Therefore, my question was: his problem was showing it off? Then, I thought to myself that it is biographical so if this is how it was, this is how it was. Then, I got a different problem. As the story develops, I thought that it doesn’t let you think for yourself at all; it spoon-feeds you the message all the way through. It forces you to side with Jadin by telling you – not showing you – who the “bad” guy is and who the “good” guy is in a black or white manner. Then, there is another “then”: Jadin accusing Joe for not being supportive enough, and Joe accusing Jadin for not handling it (in present era) creates a vague gray area in the film’s otherwise “black or white” scheme for the supportive people but questions their level of support. Here’s my two cents in general…

People, and more specifically bullies, need to feel what it is like to be bullied without being bullied, hated or criticised for thinking and acting the way they do. They need to understand that to other people they are as different as the people they pick on. I did some research and this is what the real Joe Bell tried to do. He was non-violently preaching against it because his son faced the consequences and he wanted, to his best abilities, to make the world a better place. A friendly for all of us place so no one has to suffer what his son did, and, consequently, any other boy, girl, man, woman, or non-binary person out there.

Somehow though, Mark Wahlberg as Joe Bell, the late Larry McMurty (RIP) and Diana Ossana’s script, and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s directing does not reflect that. Joe Bell does not know where to focus on and massively holds back on the emotions it means to evoke. Take for example when his mother, Lola (Connie Britton), finds out. This should have been the moment where the toughest one breaks. And one wonders, how can this be with so many A-list names wearing the producer’s hat: Mark Wahlberg, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis, and 17 more…

To cut the long story short, Joe Bell makes it more about Joe Bell rather than his incredibly noble and courageous mission. Ironically, he says it himself to the sheriff while opening up. And he keeps doing it. Shame really as if it wasn’t for this film I, and potentially hundreds of thousands of others, wouldn’t have known about this mission. But the real shame is that his mission’s message doesn’t really permeate. It does not sink in and therefore there is nothing much to take away from it. And the Bell family’s story is absolutely f@£$!^% tragic!

I really do hope each of us finds an honourable way to make this world feel like… home. For everyone!

Stay safe!

All these names in production

The Woman in the Window (2021): Crime/Drama/Mystery

An agoraphobic woman witnesses a crime that, in order to take action, she will have to face her deepest fear.

Interesting premise, great acting, yet fails to deliver on many fronts. Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Wyatt Russell are great. That’s the elephant in the room. Tracy Letts’ script and Joe Wright’s directing create a significant issue though: they increase, by the minute, the distance between the audience and Anna – admittedly, not intentionally. The close-ups are plenty, and so are the Dutch angles, the tracking shots, and the low and high angles throughout. It would be very interesting to ask the editor, Valerio Bonelli, about his experience editing it. It feels like its pace is all over the place and its rhythm like a song you want to like but you are too confused to dance to it. Bonelli seems like the person who puts together scattered pieces of visuals that the filmmakers had no idea what to do with. That causes the twists to not being able to find their place in the plot and, consequently, they lose their gravitas. The fact that A.J. Finn’s book has been receiving raving reviews and the film nothing but scathing, makes Wright’s film a mediocre adaptation for the big screen. I haven’t read the book though therefore, I cannot really comment on that, just putting it out.

This is a character-driven story that shouldn’t have been Brian DePalma meets Alfred Hitchcock, but Body Double (1984) meets Rear Window (1954). It’s a real shame to have so many talented people involved in front and behind the cameras and get that head-scratching result. Too many techniques and influences that, ultimately, cancel each other out and leave the audience indifferent, at best. In the end, I didn’t know if it was the plot’s drama or the final cut’s that made me want to cry. I’ll go with the latter.

Stay safe!

Upstate Story (2018): Drama

A peek at the week of a man who struggles to go through it.

Well-written story that deserves some budget to take off. Upstate Story is the case where the script is better than the film. Not because writer/director Shaun Rose doesn’t have the skills to pull it off, but strictly due to budgetary restraints that don’t allow him to develop it the way he envisioned it.

Upstate Story surfaces an enormous problem that many people fail to address and, consequently, deal with; the unfulfillment. The notion that we could have done so much more with our lives if were just given the chance. What makes it worse, is asking, to the point of begging, for this chance from people who have been given that chance and didn’t deserve it to begin with. And then time goes by and that chance seems further and further away, sucking, at first, our energy and then our lives like a black hole of despair. And while these nihilistic thoughts consume us like woodworms, during these darkest hours, Upstate Story‘s hidden positivity urges us to always hang onto whatever we consider a lighthouse in our lives, and be guided by it so we don’t crash on the rocks.

Ellis Martin is a real-life, relatable character that can be developed into a person that one day will find the purpose he so eagerly seeks and write a book called “Against All Odds” or “Finding the Strength”, but he can also become the person who grabs a gun and enters a mall. He represents a surprisingly huge portion of people out there who have unexplored skills that could make all the difference in the world. A person’s thoughts represent them and Ellis’ choice of words renders him the poster-child of the endless Freudian battle between id, ego, and superego.

Yes, few minutes from here and there could be shaved off in the cutting room and, yes, a lot more could have been done to make it visually more impressive, but that leads us back to the no-budget-indie-filmmaking issue. Just try to be in the hero’s shoes for an hour and, maybe, imagine that this minimalism expresses and represents countless people who struggle with a dead-end nine to survive job. If it were a small-budget film, it would have swept through the festivals and be an Oscar bait if Billy Bob Thornton was in it. Even so, it was selected as a semi-finalist at the Los Angeles Cinefest, and it’s a proud winner of the Feature Film Silver Award at CINEMAFEST 2018.

Stay safe!

Let Him Go (2020): Crime/Drama/Thriller

After losing their only son and their remarried daughter-in-law moves away against her will with their grandson, a retired sheriff and his wife set out to bring them back.

An amazing on-screen couple in a suspenseful, yet emotionally superficial story. My suspicions about the depth started with the inciting incident which was the death of their son. It would have really made me cry if writer/director Thomas Bezucha let Kevin Costner be the actor he really is and then cut to Diane Lane’s response. A father losing his only son is a scene that would break anyone in half. Let alone followed by the mother’s reaction. And Let Him Go… lets it go quite easily – no pun intended. I get the hard-macho-old-sheriff-ranch man who doesn’t show many feelings but even they develop strong bonds with their sons (but also daughters).

Having said that, what Bezucha does well is build up the suspense. The moment they start asking about Donnie Weboy it gets quite intense. It gets, actually, surprisingly intense. And then they make it to dinner with the Weboys where I could hear heartbeat. I say no more about that because you need to watch it for yourselves. But the emotions keep fluctuating throughout and neither build up nor reach climax. Shame really because the story has all the right ingredients that are lost in the plot’s development.

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner were a great couple as Clark Kent’s parents and are a great couple here as well. They play it really well from the beginning, to the motel’s room, to the revenge. Let Him Go is definitely worth-watching and even though it could dwell on the drama a lot more it most definitely transcends the difference between the way men and women think and how that affects them both. Plus, the final scene in the house pays off.

But forget what I or anyone else thinks about it and, as I said, have a go at it. It is Lane and Costner in the same film. In the meantime…

Stay safe!

Lorelei (2021): Drama

A man who just came out of prison is trying to rehabilitate, but life seems to have more downs than expected.

Working-class problems and unfulfilled dreams portrayed in a disjointed way. Watching it I was trying to figure it out… I was wondering… why is it that I find it disjointed? Halfway there, it somewhat hit me. It felt like writer/director Sabrina Doyle hasn’t experienced what she has written and directed. And, if I’m mistaken and she has, she hasn’t been able to translate it to the screen. The same applies to Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone’s capacity as executive producers because as actors they are doing a fine job, but as producers they should have contributed, I believe, a lot more. They are really great actors, but Doyle’s script and directing ties their hands behind their backs. I honestly feel like the film misses the depth it deserves and both Schreiber and Malone shine – Schreiber especially put a lot of effort both physically and emotionally. Malone, on the other hand, is amazing as she always have been in every film she’s been in.

Regardless of what I say though, Lorelei did critically well and I couldn’t be happier about it. Sounds contradictory? I couldn’t be happier about a film doing well that deals with working class issues, second chances, and chasing dreams. And that’s what it deals with at the end of the day. The chances we have been looking for in life and we were never afforded. The dreadful questions every morning when we struggle to get out of bed; what have I done wrong or why I cannot fix it? Lorelei‘s intentions are honest and even though it could have been made differently, it still urges the viewer to go after their dreams. I hope one day we all manage to stay up all night and watch the sun rise from the ocean.

Stay safe!

The Vanishing (2018): Crime/Drama/Mystery

A wooden chest full of gold and greed initiate a chain of events that leads to the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers.

Intense, dark, suspenseful, unpredictable, and superb performances! Knowing that it’s based on the mystery of the Flannan Isles’ actual lighthouse keepers and their controversial logbooks, The Vanishing becomes the absolute thrilling treat. The film’s beauty is that even though you know what will happen in the end (the title and tagline imply it) it makes you want to know the speculation of what will become of them. The “when” and “how” alone intensify the suspense and overshadow what we think is obvious. Furthermore, the shockingly realistic performances make you want the resolution to be delayed so you can see more of Peter Mullan, Gerald Butler, and Connor Swindells on screen. Special mention deserves the editor Morten Højbjerg who knows when to cut and, more importantly, where not to. His editing focuses on the performances and let’s the shot “breathe” enough so you can get the full experience of the thespians. My only objection is the ending which, I believe I speak for all us when I say that, we were really looking forward to it. I found it anticlimactic when so much could have been done with it. Even though the script is the most obvious candidate to take the fall here, director Kristoffer Nyholm should have been the one to expand further and give the open ending the film deserves. Unfortunately, this is not the case but that’s what I think anyway. Maybe, you’ll feel otherwise.

Maybe, we’ll never find out what became of them 120+ years ago, but upon watching it we can tell with certainty that films like this showcase Butler’s true talent without having to water down his amazing Scottish accent. Hollywood should have been utilising his skills a lot more in films such as this rather than in typical cash cows. Having said that, Greenland (2020): https://kaygazpro.com/2020/11/30/greenland-2020-action-drama-thriller/ was realistically terrifying and him and Morena Baccarin were excellent leads. The same applies to Mullan who’s versatility is undeniable – see Ozark (2017) – and he’s breathtaking in everything he’s in.

Definitely worth the shot for an intriguing night full of mystery and a show-don’t-tell lesson that everything comes with a price.

Stay safe!