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Ad Astra (2019)
The final frontier... again.
'Ad Astra (2019)' is a quiet and contemplative art-house film at heart - well, it would be if it wasn't for that darn narration. For a film that's mainly about one solitary person, there's a heck of a lot of talking. This dampens the effect of what could've been some striking imagery, subtle theming and a great central performance from Pitt. Instead of allowing us to see the initially enigmatic and emotionless protagonist undergo his rather small arc, we're constantly told about it. In the same vein, the final message isn't left to interpretation, it's practically screamed at us. It's a shame because this could've been a quiet, contemplative art-house piece through and through, with only its big-budget visage betraying this aesthetic. As it is, though, it's a half-and-half affair, one that sticks exposition into every available space and features snippets of traditional action in an effort to capture a wider audience who won't be on-board anyway. I mean, space battles and raging baboons don't really fit here. It's not like the movie is bad, however. I mentioned before that it features striking imagery and that's certainly true. It renders extraterrestrial vistas, long-haul space-flights and head-spinning disasters both convincingly and compellingly. The artistic direction works well enough, evoking a combination of '2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)' and 'Apocalypse Now (1979)'. It's a shame that we're usually deprived of the chance to draw our own conclusions about these images. The story itself is rather interesting in places - though, it's baggy and takes some unnecessary detours. When things start wrapping up, it becomes rather engaging. It's also quite enjoyable throughout, despite being generally slow. In the end, the picture just doesn't seem to amount to much. It has a distinct style and it isn't afraid to take a few risks, but it's ultimately rather 'safe'. It sort of feels like every other 'man in space' movie of recent years. Frankly, it's occasionally dull, too. It's entertaining just as often, though, and is certainly a visual treat. If its daddy-issue-based story connects with you and you don't mind being told instead of shown, you may get quite a bit more out of the affair than I did. 6/10
The pieces all fit, but the picture isn't as fun as it could've been.
'Puzzle (2018)' is a character study rather than an alternate sports movie, one that really isn't about puzzles at all - at least, not the jigsaw kind. After a brilliantly subversive opening scene, the stakes are set for a domestic story about the search for self-actualisation. It focuses on a mother without making her motherhood the only focus, which is actually frustratingly rare. The plot itself starts to meander a little after our outspoken protagonist meets her puzzling partner, with many a scene dedicated to the back-and-forth balance she strikes between her home-life and her free-time. It's never dull, just not always as engaging as it perhaps ought to be. Still, it's nice to see the character evolve, tangibly becoming more independent and confident as the piece rolls on. This is conveyed via a great performance from Macdonald, who turns a quiet, somewhat unassuming role into a nuanced and compelling one. The supporting players are all great, too, and the flick does a good job of keeping things grounded, never going over-the-top simply for the sake of 'drama'. It doesn't quite know how to wrap itself up, however, and it represents one of the only times I've ever actually been surprised by the end-credits. Thematically, its conclusion works; it just needs a little more time in the oven. Overall, the picture is a good character study that palpably charts change without overdoing it. It's not the most entertaining experience, but it's always interesting enough to keep you watching until the end. 6/10
The Farewell (2019)
Go and see your grandma.
'The Farewell (2019)' is proudly based on an actual lie, one told (and apparently maintained to this day) by director Wang's own family. It's perhaps no wonder, then, that the film feels so thoroughly realistic, despite its somewhat outlandish central conceit. It's, essentially, a slice-of-life drama concerning a worldly Chinese family's attempts to grieve in secret, focusing specifically on Chinese-American Billi as she tries her best to conflate her 'westernised' ideas with her family's 'eastern' wishes. This theme is delicately explored and its conclusions are wonderfully accepting, but it sits firmly as the backdrop for the sometimes strained, yet always loving, family dynamics on display. Everything just seems so grounded, with relationships that feel so lifelike you could almost swear they were real. This makes the experience subtle yet stirring. Often, it mirrors everyday life all too closely. The piece isn't always riveting, or ever conventionally exciting, but it's always enjoyable and often emotionally resonant. By its end, it's hard not to have been moved. In fact, you may not realise just how much it has touched you until just before its credits roll. 7/10
Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
Don't push it.
'Rambo: Last Blood (2019)' is, essentially, every old-man action movie rolled into one. I mean, it's basically just 'Taken (2008)' for a long portion of its run-time. It's simple, revenge-based stuff and it's about as far from 'First Blood (1982)' as... well, just about any of the other 'Rambo' films, I suppose. It tries its hardest to impart some emotion to its otherwise rough-and-tumble ramble. In places, it actually succeeds, genuinely subverting expectation and ticking all the right boxes for audience investment. It's clear that Stallone isn't so ego-obsessed as to never be seen in pain on-screen. The flick never really tugs at the heart, though, and seems more focused on its grisly violence than its interpersonal relationships. Due to a strange pacing, the action-packed finale arrives before you know it. As the trailers have shown, this final third takes a turn for the 'Home Alone (1990)' - although, I feel like it's actually supposed to be homaging the first flick's forest traps. Here, a seemingly endless stream of Mexican baddies (because, yes, the piece plays into the tired and unhelpful stereotype of "Mexico bad") funnel into Rambo's tunnels only to be dispatched in as many gruesome ways as director Grunberg can think of. This segment ought to be the most exciting, but it's just rather repetitive. I suppose it's supposed to be cathartic, too, but it just comes across as rather sadistic. Besides, the main villains just aren't compelling enough to be worth the effort, despite being more than despicable enough for the plot's purposes. It's also worth noting that some of the gore is just straight-up silly, which accidentally betrays the otherwise serious tone. Generally, the picture is entertaining enough to never be boring. It's not much more than that, though. It plays into pretty much every old, sometimes even retired, stereotype associated with the genre (see the aforementioned 'Mexico' thing as well as the fact that pretty much all the women are victims, save a baddie and a barely-there grandmother). It's also just really grim, bleakly descending into near nihilism before it ends with a bizarrely upbeat, jingoistic tune. It's not bad, but it's not great. 5/10
How I spent my summer vacation.
This 'before-it-was-cool' belated sequel attempts to return back to its series' roots but stumbles primarily because its message amounts to little more than 'Burmese soldiers bad' and because it has a body-count that much more closely resembles the almost comical levels of carnage found in 'Rambo III (1988)' than the single, infinitely more impactful death found in 'First Blood (1982)'. 'Rambo (2008)' is absolutely desperate to come across as gritty and, as such, it often ends up as an unenjoyable affair that looks pretty much as bad as it feels. However, there are moments where the chaos comes across as chunkier, somewhat more considered and slightly more entertaining (or, at least, engaging). 6/10
Rambo III (1988)
'Rambo III (1988)' goes, pretty much, straight into 'action' territory, with perhaps some half-baked and haphazardly-placed political ideals underlying its messily-structured narrative. It's a huge step - down, I might add - away from the first film in the series, since it slips almost into satire, with a totally straight face, thanks to the sheer amount of carnage on display. It's also responsible, almost solely, for the 'one-man army' image that pop-culture associates with the 'Rambo' character. If you take it for what it is, you can find some enjoyment in the ridiculous grand scale of it all. I mean, it's probably about as entertaining as the series' second entry. Even then, though, a lot of the action is quite flat and the experience itself is sometimes dull. Plus, it has essentially lost all semblance of what it - or, rather, the series - once was without even realising it. 6/10
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Rambo back in action again.
'Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)' does lose the essence of the first film, becoming much more of a brazen 'action flick' that indulges in the very violence its predecessor seemed to decry. However, it also makes a point of showing that perhaps its hero is more at home in war than, well, at home, which combines with some elements of military mistrust (or, at least, a mistrust of military officials, who here try to cheat the soldier for their own gain) to create a thematic tapestry not too dissimilar to what was achieved in its predecessor. It's undeniably less effective, though. The picture is also by far the most forgettable of the series, despite introducing some of its most iconic imagery - including a shirtless Rambo firing explosive arrows from a bow - and having a couple of character elements that carry on through the rest of the franchise. 6/10
Don't Look Now (1973)
Can't look away.
'Don't Look Now (1973)' is always interesting even if it isn't exactly entertaining or, even, particularly engaging. This is mostly thanks to its assured, ahead-of-its-time direction and equally-as-innovative editing. The movie makes frequent use of match-cuts and time-compression to create a foreboding sense of fate and a palpable sense of pace within the very fabric of the film. You're also never quite sure what is really going on. Are certain characters acting out of malice or virtue? Is the narrative is based around the natural or the supernatural (or a combination of both)? Is this now, or is this then? The fact that you're constantly on your toes makes for a rather compelling experience, even when it takes a turn for the dull. The picture is really quite slow, crawling through its first one-and-a-half acts after an incredible opening. Its horror is also very slight, to the point that one could easily miss the most terrifying moment if they aren't paying full attention. Plus, the ultimate pay-off just isn't all that scary, feeling like it plays to fears that, as a society, simply don't exist anymore. Still, the concept and its execution are undeniably intriguing; they're somehow both subtle and over-the-top. The end-result is a piece that keeps you watching even though isn't always entertaining. It's not the best in its genre, but it's just about beguiling enough to recommend. 6/10
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Call me disappointed.
Despite being well-made in, essentially, every conceivable way, 'Call Me By Your Name (2017)' is undeniably slow and, frankly, dull. It's disappointing, for sure, especially since there's such a lack of mainstream LGBTQ+ representation in cinema. The flick just isn't all that compelling, regardless of its solid performances and interesting direction. Of course, these elements do deserve praise. Occasionally, they combine to make for some relatively entertaining scenes. Plus, the picture is pretty important. I can't claim to really enjoy it, though. It feels longer than it needs to be and, in a way, actually feels quite 'cold'. Honestly, it was teetering on boring, basically, the entire time. As you can maybe tell, I'm a little conflicted about this one. I know it's a well-made movie, I just don't like it that much. 5/10
We're the lucky ones.
'Lucky (2017)' tells the tale of an easy-going, totally healthy, nonagenarian atheist whose seemingly mundane world is turned upside-down when he's faced with the frankly terrifying prospect of his own inevitable mortality. Rather than go on some worldwide odyssey or start seeking spiritual enlightenment, he simply seems to continue with his daily routine. His interactions are markedly different, though; they're tainted with the ever-pressing knowledge of upcoming death. His search for peace consists of a series of conversations, most of which include subtle philosophising disguised as natural trains of thought. It's all wonderfully nuanced and, ultimately, rather moving. Harry Dean Stanton's lead performance is just sublime, as detailed and realistic as - if not more than - any an Oscar-winning effort. The character arc is precise, portrayed in meticulously incremental stages, and it just feels ridiculously 'real'. The development isn't typically 'Hollywood' and, thus, usually unobtainable; it's distinct yet relatively small, a change in perspective rather than a change in principle. Because of this, it's perhaps bigger than any 'zero to hero' or 'redeemed villain' arc could ever be. Just because it isn't charted as a three-hour epic doesn't mean it isn't massive. The film itself is just so wholesome that it's difficult not to like. It's consistently entertaining and, even, engaging despite appearing to be a part of a genre in which 'nothing really happens'. It's hard to believe that John Carroll Lynch is a first-time director. Though much of the piece could have been shot fairly 'flatly', the actor instead opts to use unique camera-angles, repeating motifs and hints of surrealism. The whole thing has an ever-so-slightly heightened vibe, which probably originates in the screenplay, that ought to make it seem less grounded but, in fact, does the opposite. Its occasional moments of satire and more frequent moments of character-based comedy do this, too. Not only do they help to craft a familiarly tangible world, they also make what could have been a downbeat picture an absolute joy to watch. There's just so much to like here and so little not to. Even famous director David Lynch manages to be a compelling screen-presence in a rare acting role. When all is said and done, it's almost impossible not to smile along with Stanton. 8/10
Everyday we hustlin'.
Based on a recent article, 'Hustlers (2019)' tells the tale of a group of exotic dancers who decide to 'speed up their process' by drugging customers and, essentially, conning them out of their cash. While the piece is consistently competent - or more - in pretty much every aspect, it simply isn't all that compelling. It's not exactly boring but it's not exactly engaging, either. It's the kind of story that should be more interesting than it is, I suppose. It's often oddly-paced and, even, sort of cold. The narrative is rather conventional, beyond its most surface of elements, and it isn't clear exactly how much of the 'true story' is actually true (though, I suppose that doesn't really matter). There are moments that are much more successful, though. The two leads are pretty great, crafting believable and somewhat unconventional focal characters with apparent ease. The camaraderie between all the girls is quite palpable, too. You're usually on their side and, even if you're not, you always empathise with them. It's also worth mentioning that the pole-dancing is actually really impressive; the strength it must take is honestly astounding and the pain-staking practice that Lopez apparently put in certainly pays off. As I mentioned before, however, the flick just isn't all that entertaining. Its not particularly memorable or thematically-rich, either. It's by no means bad, but it's by no means great. It's alright. 5/10
Monsters and Men (2018)
Monsters are men.
'Monsters And Men (2018)' is a relevant and really quite multifaceted movie about a unlawful police shooting, one that tackles themes of race and racism head-on in surprisingly nuanced ways. Occasionally, however, it is a lot more heavy-handed. Whenever it is, it stumbles slightly, coming close to shaking off its otherwise near rock-solid realism. Thankfully, this doesn't happen often enough to be a major issue. The picture's distinct three-half, multi-character approach dampens its impact somewhat, as each shift in segment usually removes the previous protagonist entirely and, basically, begins things anew. Of course, all three portions focus around the aforementioned shooting. As such, the first two parts transition relatively seamlessly and provide immediately obvious alternate perspectives. The third, however, feels quite clunky and takes the steam out of the story. This final segment isn't bad once it gets going, it just prevents the overall narrative from having any real sense of escalation. Still, the unique approach allows for a more wholistic view of the central situation; we see how one event can transform the lives of apparently everyone around it in unexpected ways. For the most part, it's incredibly compelling. It teeters ever so closely on blaming 'bad apples', but ultimately refuses to draw such conclusions - or any conclusions at all, really - and is all the more successful for it. Plus, it doesn't shy away from showing some of the systematic aspects of racism, which a lot of similar ilk unfortunately miss out on. Ultimately, this is an engaging and well-conceived experience. It doesn't claim to have any answers, let alone easy ones. 7/10
You can't kill it...
'Possum (2018)' is a psychological thriller laden with symbolism and metaphor, both of which aren't fully fathomable until the credits have rolled. Once they have, however, the piece's previously enigmatic images and implications become much more impactful. In fact, they become downright disturbing. This is the true strength of the bizarre little tale: its retrospective horror. Of course, it has in-the-moment merit, too. This includes, but isn't limited to, a fantastic lead performance from Harris, a creepily ethereal score and some successful surrealist imagery. The spidery puppet that stalks the protagonist is rather alarming, especially when it decides to move. It's not so much a 'creature' as a reflection of both the lead's long-buried trauma and film's true meaning, which collate in a truly harrowing final scene. Obviously, the flick isn't perfect. It's pretty slow and, even, repetitive, especially as it moves into its second act. It also asks quite a lot of its audience, in the sense that it requires total engagement in order for its payoff to really stick. I can see why some haven't connected with it. However, its atmosphere and general intrigue are more than enough for me. When all is said and done, it forms a cohesive and actually quite (unconventionally) scary experience. It's not a nice film, but it's undeniably an affecting one. 7/10
Three men and a lighthouse.
The first act of 'The Vanishing (2018)' is honestly pretty slow, lacking in the build-up or tension required to really make stuff like this successful. In fact, the entire thing suffers from a slight shortage of atmosphere. Therefore, while it's generally engaging and enjoyable, the experience is never exactly suspenseful or, even, all that compelling. Still, it's occasionally rather successful and isn't a bad effort overall. Despite some strange editing and pacing, the piece is relatively entertaining once it gets going. Its second act sees things really kick off and its third is marked by a surprisingly good turn from Butler. The finale is unexpectedly gentle, in a way. This is a testament to the movie's more psychological ambitions, which are appreciated even if they're not always lived up to. Look, it's not a bad film, by any means. It has an interesting setting and decent performances. It's just not all that affecting or memorable, though. You kind of get a sense that this same story could have been told a bit better. 6/10
Down and Outing (1961)
You're gonna need a bigger boat...
'Down And Outing (1961)' is probably one of the better Deitch-directed 'Tom and Jerry' toons I've seen. That's probably mostly because it's short, simple and to-the-point. It also has a couple - and I do only mean a couple - of chuckle-some sight-gags. However, the short isn't exactly good. Unsurprisingly, it's a far cry from the Hanna-Barbera stuff we all know and love. The animation is sloppy and stiff, the concept is bare-bones at best and the characters are basically caricatures of themselves. So yes, it may be one of the better Deitch-directed 'Tom and Jerry' toons, but that's not saying much. 5/10
An often overlooked yet enjoyable first effort.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that Paul Thomas Anderson's often overlooked first film is a meandering, coincidence-conscious neo-noir. 'Hard Eight (1996)' clearly shares the same DNA as much of the now well-renowned director's work, particularly 'Magnolia (1999)' and 'Boogie Nights (1997)'. In some ways, the piece doesn't really seem to be about anything. However, it's primarily a character-study of Philip Baker Hall's somewhat enigmatic Sydney and, as such, has more than enough substance to keep you engaged throughout. The plot does come in distinct chunks but it's delivered at a decent pace and it's never predictable. The chemistry between the two leads makes for some endearingly entertaining sequences, with the 'fun' of the duo's gambling cheats being aptly conveyed. Things do begin to feel a little stale, but a twist shakes things up right when they're at their least interesting. After this, the flick piles subtle revelation on subtle revelation to make for an unconventionally exciting final act. It all gets a bit mysterious, in a way. You can't quite put your finger on what the climax is supposed to be saying; then again, it may not be saying anything at all. Overall, this is a solid first effort. It's not conventional or exactly enthralling, but it's well-conceived and enjoyable nevertheless. 7/10
It Chapter Two (2019)
An imperfect part two.
'It Chapter Two (2019)' is larger than its predecessor in almost every way, most notably in its record-setting run-time (it is, after all, the longest horror film to date). As we all know, bigger doesn't always mean better. Thankfully, its inflated length doesn't necessarily feel like a misstep. Its pacing is pretty consistent and, despite a slightly baggy second act, it manages to remain engaging throughout. Even though it never quite captures the rag-tag spirit of the first flick, the piece seems like a genuine continuation of the overall story. Its cast are basically dead ringers for their young counterparts, recapturing their personalities within minutes of being on screen. The group dynamic isn't as strong as before but it still feels tangible, affected by a shared history that no member can quite remember alone. Plus, some scenes capture a real sense of child-like joy or heart-wrenching camaraderie, further highlighting the characters' indelible chemistry. When all the actors are together, the movie works rather well. This is especially true of its climax, which is exciting and entertaining in equal measure. It makes you care about every member of the losers club and, this time, the stakes are real. It helps that most of the key players have somewhat of a character arc as they each reveal their repressed, more real-world fears and struggle to overcome them. Of course, the flick has its issues. Firstly, it's really over the top. Most of the time, the on-screen horror just comes across as a little silly (people were laughing in my screening). Some of its horrific imagery works well, don't get me wrong. Pennywise is meaner and almost more menacing this time, leading to a villain that's not so much frightening as straight-up despicable. The picture is at its most successful when it pulls back on the CG and focuses on what you can't quite see, slowly tugging at what the characters fear most. Occasionally, it's rather suspenseful. However, it's never scary. Its second major issue is its tendency to aim for, and usually miss, comedy. Obviously, the odd bit of levity is in its DNA but, here, the humour doesn't always feel character-based and is often quite clunky - especially since the piece has an overall darker tone than the prior title. It takes you out of some key moments, as opposed to grounding you within them, and is only successful when it's the kind of uncomfortable laugh used to alleviate tension, one that comes strictly from a place of character. The film also has a slightly repetitive structure, primarily in the aforementioned baggy second act. For all its issues, though, it's still an enjoyable experience. By its end, it satisfyingly wraps up the saga. In a way, it's more than the sum of its parts. It's fun, but it's an imperfect part two. 7/10
The Dog House (1952)
It's always a treat when Spike turns up in a 'Tom and Jerry' toon. 'The Dog House (1952)' is, essentially, all about the bulldog and his attempts to build himself a home. That home constantly ends up as collateral damage in Tom and Jerry's various cat-and-mouse calamities, which forces our poor and increasingly frustrated canine to start construction over and over again. With its efficient narrative, glorious sight-gags and fast pace, the piece easily sits among Hanna-Barbera's best efforts - even if it isn't necessarily a stand-out entry. It's helped immensely by the three-handed dynamic at its core, which sets it apart from others of the kind. It's an entertaining experience throughout. 7/10
Dicky Moe (1962)
Now I've got you, Dicky Moe!
'Dicky Moe (1962)' feels like two totally different cartoons slapped together: an odd 'Moby Dick' pastiche and a typical 'Tom and Jerry' caper. This bizarre combination doesn't make for a particularly good short. It does, however, make for an oddly compelling one; it's just so strange and, therefore, almost endearing. Like I said, though, it's not good. The animation is basic and the sound design is downright eerie, which are issues consistent across pretty much all of Gene Deitch's entries in the franchise. It might sound weird, but the whole thing just looks distinctly 'Czech', especially when it comes to the human characters. Several of these shorts were produced in the country, but this one is the most distinct in its similarity to other regional fare. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing, just something I thought I'd note. The issue is that it doesn't feel like 'Tom and Jerry' - like, at all - even when the cat and mouse are on screen and doing what, ostensibly, they always have been. In the end, this is an odd yet oddly interesting short. It may objectively be one of the worst to ever star the long-running duo, but it's more enjoyable - even if only ironically - than most others of the 'Deitch era'. 5/10
The Killing (1956)
What's the difference?
The non-linear structure of 'The Killing (1956)' is said to have inspired many, specifically - you guessed it - Quentin Tarantino, and its hard-boiled, multi-layered heist is sure to have done the same. What's so clever about the former is the way in which it feels totally necessary, especially as the piece moves into its final third; it's mainly used to succinctly convey the simultaneity of many of its late-game events. Of course, the pseudo news-reel narration - which is very reminiscent of that found in 'The Naked City (1948)' - does dampen its effect slightly, as we're often forcibly told of time-changes as opposed to being allowed to organically discover them ourselves. Still, this narration isn't bad; it lends some unique insights and drips with a style all of its own. The actual plot is pretty simple. After a lengthy set-up, it's straight into the heist. Because it sets everything up so cleanly and meticulously, though, we're able to see exactly where the actual robbery differs from the initial plan. Through coincidences, slip-ups and unexpected interruptions, the flick portrays how even a perfect plan can, and often will, go wrong. It's ultimately rather nihilistic, in a way, but it's very compelling. It manages to develop each core character just enough that you know exactly why they're doing what they're doing. This is an important step that a lot of similar ilk misses out on and it makes for an ensemble that's almost equally empathetic. Generally, this is a very enjoyable heist-thriller. Prior to the final act, it can feel slightly slow and, even, baggy but it all comes together incredibly well towards the end. 7/10
Batoru rowaiaru (2000)
They're not hungry and this definitely isn't a game.
Perhaps remembered mostly for its controversial worldwide release (or lack thereof), this turn-of-the-century dystopian thriller can't be wholly classified by its shocking violence. Though the bloodshed in 'Battle Royale (2000)' is indeed startling (not least because it's given and received by high-school students), it's always in service of the picture's story. This story is often overlooked - though, clearly not by 'Hunger Games' writer Suzanne Collins - and, even, dismissed in an attempt to label the piece 'dangerous' or 'violent for the sake of it'. In actual fact, the film simply allows its dark premise to play-out properly, never shying away from its palpable and saddening consequences. It's not supposed to be nice; in fact, it often feels like a horror. Besides, it never feels as though it's relishing in the violence it portrays, usually coming across as rather empathetic for its focal teens. The diegetic central conceit and those enforcing it are constantly considered antagonistic. The movie is a surprisingly nuanced affair, though. Even the despicable 'bad guy' gets some decent, and quite enigmatic, development. Much of its value comes from the in-the-moment suspense inherent with good survival fare. Placing two, sometimes three, cooperating teens together in a single 'winners' spot is an interesting way of maintaining tension. The pacing sometimes lags a little but there's not much wasted time, with the almost ensemble-like structure doing a great job of conveying the entire situation. It helps that, essentially, all the actors are fantastic in their various, well-rounded roles. Usually, the flick is rather entertaining. It can be a quite tough watch, in a way, but it still provides several more 'fun', albeit somewhat melancholic, action sequences. 7/10
Scary stories to tell teenagers.
'Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)' feels very familiar. In fact, it's almost like we've seen this exact film before. This is probably because it sticks incredibly closely to the conventions of its genre and, even more likely, because it's pretty much 'Goosebumps (2015)' aimed at teens instead of tweens. This is true right down to its 'books as canon' conceit, yet it never seems as though it's simply trying to ape that much tamer title. Perhaps the similarities were entirely accidental, perhaps not; I suppose, it doesn't really matter. To be fair, this is probably the most successful of the two. Its absolute 'ace in the hole' is its creature design, which elevate the otherwise humdrum horror. This calibre of creature is honestly hard to come by, usually reserved for the genre's (R-rated) 'cream of the crop'. The actual scares are sort of split into two categories: interestingly reserved suspense and overtly annoying 'jumps'. These two elements, thankfully, kind of cancel each other out, with the former reducing the often irritating effect of the latter and, even, sometimes making them feel worthwhile. The music is the only thing that makes the jump-scares work, though, which makes them formulaic, predictable and, actually, kind of cheap. The interesting visuals and restrained build-ups, as well as the overall assured direction, give off the impression that these could have been done much better. Luckily, there's only one 'false scare' and, as I mentioned, the general suspense tends to make up for them - well, that and the fantastic creature design. The story has real stakes and is paced fairly well, with little time wasted. The experience does feel a bit long, though, and it drags a little in the middle, despite being relatively tight. It's often fairly exciting but it's never edge-of-your-seat engaging. The characters are all well-rounded and believable enough, filling their roles as well as can be expected. Essentially, you care about the core players just enough to hope they make it through their individualised set-piece. On the whole, the movie is a little generic and it's not particularly scary. However, it has a good bit of grit and a dash of charm, to boot. I can see it acting as a decent 'gateway horror' for teenage genre-newbies - although, most will probably have seen tougher fair by now. Either way, it's pretty enjoyable throughout. 6/10
Just keep swimming.
Despite taking itself, essentially, entirely seriously, 'Crawl (2019)' requires a fair bit of suspension of disbelief. I mean, its computer-generated gators often straight-up leap out of the water. Still, its grounded tone, convincing visuals and compelling central performances keep it from feeling silly. In fact, it's a tense and enjoyable affair throughout. There's not all that much in the way of theming, but the core players are developed a decent amount and their relationship is believable. The flick is far more focused on in-the-moment survival than anything else. The constantly rising water, caused by an especially well-realised storm, acts as an apt 'ticking clock', adding to the pressure felt by the more obviously dangerous creatures swimming within it. In general, the horror leans more towards suspense than jump-scares. It's never scary, but it's usually taut. The tight plot only takes a noticeable detour once, otherwise keeping things pacy and palpable. It's devoid of any meaningful denouement, though; this makes for a pretty unsatisfying ending and doesn't mesh well with the heavily-loaded opening and intermittent flashbacks. Of course, what would be included in these final moments is sort of implied; if you've been following the characters' inner journeys at all, you'll easily be able to come up with the off-screen conclusion. Overall, the movie is surprisingly entertaining. Sure, it has a schlocky premise, but it earnestly crafts a rather fun experience around it. 7/10
Manbiki kazoku (2018)
Stole my heart.
'Shoplifters (2018)' is a slice-of-life drama focusing around an unconventional family and their unconventional methods of adoption - which the government technically define as kidnapping. The piece posits that you can actually choose your family, and that the bond between these chosen family members may be even stronger than between biological ones. It explores how victims of abuse can band together to make sure the same thing never happens to someone else, how giving birth doesn't automatically make you a mother and how being forced into conventional dynamics can actually be more harmful than helpful. The majority of the run-time is dedicated to the everyday lives of the focal characters. It's not particularly remarkable but it's always oddly engaging. This is primarily because the piece does a tremendous job in dealing out its exposition, slowly but satisfyingly unveiling the true nature of each individual, their group dynamic and the events that lead to the overall current state of affairs. Indeed, every core player seems markedly 'real', which is probably how you're able to empathise with them so easily. This is the case even when they make questionable decisions, for you always understand their situation and - if you pay attention - actually have a rather keen insight into their motivations, too. It's remarkably nuanced right up until its gut-punching finale, which realistically unravels the idealistic status-quo to bittersweet effect. In some ways, this final act feels like the real 'story' of the feature - if this is the case, things don't really get moving until over ninety-minutes in. However, the movie operates as a kind of ensemble-based character-study. The large amount of screen-time dedicated to each character, and to the overall group, never feels wasted. In fact, this meandering development actually is the narrative. It's unconventional, sure, but it works. Of course, the thing isn't the most exciting, gripping or, even, emotional affair to be released. It isn't really trying to be, though. Its focus is on realism and an, essentially, unbiased portrayal of a family operating on the fringes of society. It's often funny, usually charming and always enjoyable. Plus, it's easy to get invested in its disparate set of cast-aways. 7/10
Cruise Cat (1952)
'Cruise Cat (1952)' is another somewhat high-concept 'Tom and Jerry' toon, one that casts the cat as a sailor tasked with keeping a cruise ship mouse-free. The short is stuffed with fun sight-gags and amusing set-pieces, all of which are incredibly visually appealing for a 1950s effort. The story is well-structured and well-paced, effortlessly escalating until it reaches a more-than-satisfying final beat. The only odd moment comes when the piece takes a turn for the meta and our two stars stop their squabble to revel in one of their previous outings, 'Texas Tom (1950)', that's being projected in an on-ship cinema. The clip shown is charming enough but you get the sense that it was only included to save the animators some time. Plus, it creates this weird scenario in which Tom and Jerry are - or at least were - actually actors. Still, even this moment is relatively amusing and it doesn't dampen the affair's overall effect. It's an entertaining experience throughout. 7/10