Arrival Review

After Prisoners back in 2013, and last year’s hit Sicario, Denis Villeneuve became a director to follow closely. And just in time for Oscar season, he’s managed to conjure up another film. Does his new film sit with Sicario on a Best-Of list, or does only one year leave enough room for it?

Arrival stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whittaker and Tzi Ma and is directed by Denis Villeneuve. Based on the short story by Ted Chaing, the film follows linguist Louise (Adams) and scientist Ian (Renner) as they are called in by the US military to study a UFO landing in Montana, with the duo leading the charge to create formal contact between the species.

After her lacklustre acting in BvS, Amy Adams is back on form. The film starts with an almost silent five minute backstory, flashing at different moments in her life, filling us in on the important details. It reminded me a little of the opening from Up, an entirely visual way of learning who the character is without any need for exposition or dialogue. Jeremy Renner is also good as the other side of the research team. While it is a little funny to see a nerdy scientist have the body of Hawkeye, his interactions with Adams, as they decipher the alien’s language is interesting and intriguing to watch.

The cinematography is a great part of the film, easily standing up with the rest of Villeneuve’s work. The first time we see the alien spaceship, it’s a wide landscape shot. The film is set in Montana, so it’s open fields, mountains and immense clouds of fog rolling in. The helicopter comes out of the mist surrounding the UFO, the music swells and we have an excellent long take, with the helicopter moving in slow and steady. It’s easily one of the best shots of the year and will certainly nab a nomination.

The aliens are hardly seen in the film, and in my opinion that is a good thing. Most films would want to throw the aliens at the screen (Independence Day 2), but here it’s much more restrained. Again, just like the first time we see the spaceship, the first time we see the aliens is a long, tense shot. When they hove out of the mist, long spidery legs tapping on the floor, it’s breathtaking and unnerving. It’s a brilliant attempt at show-don’t-tell, with only vague silhouettes moving about in the distance.

Lastly, the music is a fantastic addition to the film. Johann Johannsson, who worked with Villeneuve before on Sicario, again brings a stellar accompaniment to the film. Using a mix of traditional instruments such as piano and strings, then mixing them with drones, loops and electronic beeps, the film has a weird mash-up of a grand, sweeping scale with undercurrents of technology and the future.

The one thing I had a problem with is the story. It’s not a problem in the usual sense, more of a caution if you are thinking of going to see the film. Arrival is a narrative-heavy story and I think it’s one of the best this year. It’s a film that has many revelations, some of them making you look at the first half of the film in a completely different light. It takes a while to get there though, the film is nearly two hours long but didn’t become the epic odyssey until the final twenty minutes. To get the most enjoyment out of it, you have to pay attention, I just wanted to make sure you knew that before you decide to go on a whim.

In the end, Arrival was a near-mind blowing experience. From the superb visuals and the hidden story elements throughout, it’s one that will be remembered in years to come.

Score: 9/10 Will have you wracking your brain for days after you watch it.

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Hell Or High Water Review

Sicario was one of the highlights of last year. A dark, twisting film about an extra-legal team from the FBI trying to shut down the drug cartels in Mexico. So when writer of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, name came up in the pre-release buzz around Hell Or High Water, my interested picked up. Are we in for another grim treat?

Hell Or High Water stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham and is directed by David Mackenzie. The film follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Pine and Foster) who after several daring heists are chased by a determined aging Texas Ranger (Bridges).

The three leads are tremendous, a sure reason to go see Hell or Water. Just like other great suspense heist films such as Heat, we see both sides of the law, seeing their wins and losses, with us rooting for both cop and criminal. Jeff Bridges does his usual “too old for this” schtick. He even says that this is his last case (an all too common trope), but he is still an interesting character. Chris Pine and Ben Foster work well together as brothers Toby and Tanner, they have a good back-and-forth, whether it be during the getaway or back home on the ranch. Pine sheds his usual douchy persona and brings a layered character, trying to provide for his family doing something that might get him killed. Ben Foster starts off as the wackier older brother, but thankfully adds more nuance to his performance rather than the played out lunatic bank-robber formula. All three sport Texan accents, which sometimes are hard to understand.

While the film is supposed to be in West Texas, it was actually filmed in New Mexico. Even so, the scenery is beautiful. Much like Sicario before it, Hell Or High Water has may long. wide shots of the never-ending landscapes and stunning setting suns. The film also makes use of the urban environments, little one-street towns and retro diners, leaving a sense of places that simply got lost in time. It gives both a feeling of modern day but also timelessness. If you swapped out the 4x4s for horses and the automatic rifles for revolvers, you would have yourself an old-fashioned Western.

The film is over 100 minutes, but none of it felt like it was dragging or padding out the run-time. The extended bank sequences, using long sweeping takes rather than conventional editing keep the excitement up as the brothers go from bank-to-bank. The film also masters the art of the “ticking-time-bomb”, having something dangerous (in this case a bank robbery) in the background, while the other characters are talking with each other, oblivious to what is happening behind them. These dual approaches to the story keep it moving rather than the slower methods or predictability of previous heist films. The plot might become apparent to more savvy watchers, but the story behind why the brothers are bank-robbing will keep you invested until the finale, with raging gun battles and car chases suiting the more action-oriented fans.

The action is rather sporadic, but it is explosive and brutal. Guns are used more for intimidation, but when bullets start flying they leave blood and brains splattered. It isn’t glorified, again, similar to Sicario, it’s more sickening than fun.

The film is completed by country music, blaring both out of the radio and as part of the soundtrack, created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While country may not be to my taste, it fits the film’s setting perfectly, once again creating that atmosphere of young and old merging together.

I was holding Hell Or High Water to a high standard with the list of names attached, but it easily delivered. With tense and dramatic heist sequences, beautiful scenery and supreme acting from the three leads, this is one to go and see.

Score: 9/10 They don’t make many like this anymore.

Top 10 Best Films of 2015

Well, we’re already at the end of 2015. And so, like every other film reviewer, it is customary for a Top 10 list of the best and worst films this year. This list is the best of 2015.

A few rules before I start, only films I’ve reviewed will be appearing on this list, so if you’re looking for a certain film and it isn’t on here, that’s why. Also, this list doesn’t take into account my scores. So a film that scored an 8 or 9 maybe in a higher position on the list than one that has a 10. It happens, I might have just liked a film more after I had written the review. But anyway, let’s get on with it. Some honorable mentions that didn’t make the list;

Amy
Blackhat
Paper Towns
Wild

And now for the rest…

10.

It was a toss up between this and Amy, but after thinking about it I found more enjoyment in Steve Jobs. Standout performances from Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet and Seth Rogen, a fun and witty script by Aaron Sorkin that manages to be easy and entertaining for the most tech-phobic person to understand.

9.

2015 was a great year for animation, and there are at least two films on this list that show the diversity that was the animation choices this year. Number nine, Song Of The Sea is beautifully crafted and tells a sweet and simple story filled with giants, owls and fairies set in Ireland. It’s going to be one that will be remembered as a standout in future years.

8.

This film threw me when I first saw it. My thoughts when coming out of the cinema were around a 5/10, but after pondering on it, it became one of my favorites of the year, it’s Sicario. Dark, disturbing and sometimes sickening, it’s also a great action thriller, with a standout role for Benicio Del Toro. Director Denis Villenueve seems to be on a roll for creating suspenseful films and Sicario cements his already great resumé.

7.

A recent one, it’s nevertheless a great film. Spielberg comes back to us with Bridge of Spies, and shows he’s still one of the greatest directors living today. In a year filled with spies (Man From U.N.C.L.E., Kingsman and SPECTRE) Bridge Of Spies takes away the bombastic set pieces and brings it down to tense tradeoffs of enemy spies in snowy Berlin. It’s still in the cinema at the time of writing, so if you haven’t had the chance, it’s a great choice to go see.

6.

This was a little closer to the top four when I first made this list and I still think it being on this list will produce a few arguments in my house over whether it was actually that good. But damn it, I love James Bond, and SPECTRE was just what I was asking for. Every other Craig era Bond film has been a character redefining piece, so it’s nice for SPECTRE to get back to the series traditions. Add the gunbarrel, the impressive four-minute shot of the Day of the Dead and Lea Seydoux in one of the best Bond Girl roles since Diana Rigg, for me it’s one of the years best.

5.

John Wick was one of the earliest films I reviewed in 2015, but I had been waiting for it for so long and it still delivered under the intense amount of hype. It was full of everything I love, martial arts, practical stunts and Keanu Reeves. It has a simple set-up for a story, which is just fine since we are here for the gunfights and punch-ups, with the nightclub scene being on a par with the excellent nightclub shootout from Collateral. Like I said in my review, if you’re a fan of The Raid or it’s sequel, John Wick is more of the same.

4.

Four is Brooklyn, the second film to come from the Irish Film Board this year that appears on this list. A trans-Atlantic love story written by Nick Hornby and starring up and comers Saorise Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen, it’s heartfelt and sweet, without descending into mawkish Nicolas Sparks style storytelling. Brooklyn stands up there with Calvary, widely considered to be the greatest Irish film ever made.

3.

Inside Out has been appearing on many other peoples Best-Of 2015 lists, and it deserves all of the praise it gets. An inventive premise, that manages to tackle some incredibly dark topics for what is meant to be a kids film. Inside Out shows why Pixar is Pixar, and everyone else is everyone else.

2.

After starting The Student Film Review, I’ve been going to as many films as I can. Films that I wouldn’t have even looked twice at I’ve gone to and in doing so I’ve found some absolute crackers. Precinct Seven Five is one of those films. 2015 has had some good documentaries but for me Precinct Seven Five takes it. Essentially a real-life Scorsese film, the film follows two cops in the 75th Precinct in New York as they decide to become both criminals as well as cops. It’s amazing and shows that documentaries can be more pulse pounding than some action films.

1.

I ummed and ahhed over whether to give number one to this or Precinct Seven Five. But I ultimately gave it to this since it gave me a much more visceral thrill after watching it than Precinct Seven Five, or really any other film did this year. My number one for 2015 is Macbeth. Michael Fassbender (for the second time on this list) and Marion Cotillard give amazing performances, while director Justin Kurzel creates some beautiful shots and brother Jed Kurzel brings a stellar soundtrack. The quartet take one of the most adapted plays of William Shakespeare and turn it into a brooding and violent war epic. It just goes to show that sometimes the best stories are the old ones.

 

I guess that’s it for 2015. I’m Tom, The Student Film Critic and welcome to 2016!

Read the contrasting post on the Top 10 Worst Films of 2015!

Sicario Review

I did some research before writing this review and was surprised at how little films focussed on the Mexican Drug War. It’s a conflict rarely heard about through the news, with only sporadic accounts of what is happening through documentaries such as 2015’s Cartel Land. So when reading into Sicario‘s premise, I was excited to see it due to the tough subject matter it was taking on. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sicario (Spanish for ‘hitman’) stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro and is directed by Denis Villeneuve. The film follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) as she is drafted into a covert anti-drug squad, led by the mysterious duo of Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro).

The famed cinematographer Roger Deakins returns to a Denis Villeneuve film after his work on 2013’s Prisoners, and works his magic yet again in Sicario. His cinematography in some of the more on edge scenes almost comes down to a maths equation, with a rhythmic montage of shots just to build up tension. The gunfights that unfold on highways, in a drug mule tunnel and then finally in a drug kingpins manor (three of my favourite scenes in the film) are marvellous and shows that he is one of the best cinematographers today.

The cast are spectacular. Emily Blunt play FBI agent Kate Macer as an empowered woman during the first half of the film, but soon she gets worn down by the constant threats and violence that is erupting around her and nearly breaks down in a couple of scenes. Josh Brolin, hot off his role in Everest plays the leader of the anti-drug squad that Macer is drafted to, his character somehow charming but cunning and dastardly at the same time. He always looks like he has something to hide but his constant interaction with Blunt is brilliant to watch. The standout of the film however has to be Benicio Del Toro as the mysterious Alejandro. Del Toro is an actor that can say so much through one small facial expression, and here it works perfectly as we can gauge Alejandro’s mood from the smallest twitch of Del Toro’s mouth.

Famed composer Johann Johannsson provides the score for the film and it is atmospheric to say the least. Johannsson uses constant reverberation and increasing volume in the score, which when twinned with Deakins’ cinematography is a moody, dark and exceptional combination.

When I came out of the cinema after watching Sicario I didn’t think it deserved all the praise that other reviewers were giving it. But after sitting on it, I think I’ve figured out why I wasn’t ecstatic when I came out of the theatre. The story is incredibly dark and violent, and even as someone who enjoys ultra violent films like The Raid 2, I had some trouble with Sicario. While most of the violence on screen is bloody, it’s the violence that happens off-screen or that is mentioned that is the most stomach churning. The very first scene in the film is Macer and her team finding over forty dead bodies stacked neatly next to each other hidden in the walls of a drug house. Macer and her team run outside to throw up and you almost want to do the same.

Sicario twist and turns, bringing up more and more depraved imagery on screen, and Villeneuve just let’s it stay there for a while, almost to a point where you have to look away. Once act three rolls around and you start to learn the meaning behind certain phrases and words that keep cropping up, or why Macer is so important to the anti-drug squad and what Del Toro’s Alejandro is really doing with them, the film evokes it’s tagline, “The deeper you go, the darker it gets.”

Sicario is a film that pulls you by your stomach through a vicious and sickening world, but once you’re on the other side it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences you’ll ever have in a movie theatre. If you can stay with it, definitely check this one out.

Score: 8/10 Almost sickening, but in the end incredible.