Tag Archives: 2014

Film Review: Interstellar

Interstellar

With the Earth’s food supplies running out, farmer and former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) travels across the universe in search of an alternative home for Earth’s inhabitants.

There are few directors whose films generate as much excitement as Christopher Nolan’s. And for good reason. With a back catalogue to date including Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, Nolan might not be prolific but he certainly knows how to make a film.

Which brings us on to Interstellar, his most ambitious project yet, which given the head fuck that was Inception, is no mean feat.

What starts off on Earth as a relatively low key drama soon expands to the far reaches of our universe and beyond. Space exploration in films is of course nothing new but here it feels special for the most part, and some of that is down to the film being routed in realism. Sure, some of the science may not totally add up, but much of the film (the first two thirds in particular) feels plausible and not beyond the realms of possibility. It’s both exciting and scary to think this may one day become science fact rather than fiction.

Space exploration is only one aspect of the film, however, and as with the majority of Nolan’s films, Interstellar has family at its heart. It owes a debt to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact in this respect, knowing all the while that Cooper’s daughter Murph (but weirdly not his son) is at the forefront of his mind. It adds some emotional weight to the story that hasn’t worked for some but I thought gave the film a more human feel.

Black Hole in Insterstellar

Unfortunately, this good work is partly undone by some pretty hefty plot contrivances and whole strands of story that simply don’t work. Matt Damon’s brief storyline, for example, just feels forced and unnecessary, whilst trying to work out how Cooper ended up finding the NASA headquarters and being involved in the mission makes less sense than anything else that happens in the film.

But what Interstellar lacks on plot and script, it more than makes up for in ambition and grandeur. It looks absolutely stunning for a start, particularly some of the shots in the depths of space, whilst its final act is a brave one for a mainstream blockbuster. It does things other films would be afraid to do and should be applauded for that. It takes its cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey and whilst it does fall some way short of Kubrick’s masterpiece, it’s still quite the spectacle.

All the actors give decent performances with Matthew McConnaughey, Anna Hathaway and Jessica Chastain all handling their roles pretty well. None are particularly spectacular but do what they need to do when they need to do it.  However, it’s Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph who truly sparkles and adds some real emotional clout to the film. Foy’s character is central to everything happening to the film and fortunately she carries such pressure with ease.

Interstellar is not Christopher Nolan’s best film but is still a film to be appreciated, if just for its technical achievements. Like Gravity, it may not have the strongest script but is a visual marvel and will make you realise why you fell in love with cinema, particularly if you’re a sci-fi can. See it on the biggest screen possible and just drink it in.

Pros

  • Amazing cinematography
  • Pure cinema at times
  • Great performance by Mackenzie Foy

Cons

  • Some horrible plot contrivances
  • Some sections *cough* Matt Damon *cough* just don’t work

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Pride

Pride Film PosterWhen a group of gay men and lesbians turn up in a small Welsh village in support of the miners’ strikes, not everyone is happy to have their support.

The UK miners’ strike of the mid 1980s ripped apart not just families but whole communities, and so it’s a little surprising that it’s the subject of a comedy. What’s even more surprising is that for the large part it works brilliantly.

Most (in the UK at least) will roughly know how the miners’ strike concluded, so there’s no huge conflict in that regard. Instead, it comes from the tensions between the LGBT community, their handful of non-gay supporters and, well, just about everyone else.

The script, written by Stephen Beresford, is a perfect combination of heartfelt and (often very dry) humour that will have you giggling to yourself just as much as you catch a lump in your throat. This script is impeccably delivered by all involved, partly due to the fact that they all look like they’re having a wonderful time with it. Imelda Staunton in particular is wonderful, although there are few, if any, weak links in terms of casting.

A few cliches and stereotype issues aside, Pride will only fail to connect with the most cold hearted of viewers, and whilst it may be stretching it somewhat to call it a ‘feel good film’, there are few films this year that are quite so adept at making you grin from ear to ear one minute and reaching for the tissues the next. Unless, of course, you’re massively right wing.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Quickie: The Raid 2

The Raid 2Following the events of the first raid, Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover to infiltrate a Jakarta crime syndicate.

Who’d have thought that an Indonesian martial arts film directed by a Welshman would be one of the biggest cult hits of the past few years? Gareth Evan’s The Raid has since been heralded as one of the greatest martial arts film of all time and a sequel was therefore inevitable.

The Raid 2 takes everything the original film did and turns it up to the extreme, which would usually be cause for concern, but Evans has such control over the material that it never gets out of hand and still retains pretty much everything that made the original so brilliant. The fight scenes are the film’s bread and butter and they are undeniably breathtaking. The choreography of each and very fight is almost balletic. Brutal, bloody ballet. With hammers.

One criticism levelled at the 2011 original was the lack of story. It was essentially just a series of increasingly impressive fight scenes with little connecting them. This was fine enough because the fight scenes were so good, but there’s do denying it was slightly short on narrative. Evans attempts to address that issue by shoving in some story but this is rather too convoluted in the first half of the film and almost completely abandoned in the second half, again favouring the fights over the story. It’s admirable that Evans attempts to focus more on story but it doesn’t quite work.

However, that should in no way take away from the fact that The Raid 2 is quite simply one of the best action films of recent years and one that fans of the genre will no doubt be talking about for years. Or at least until the next one comes out.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Calvary

Calvary Film PosterFather James is an innocent, good-natured Irish priest, but his life is thrown into disarray when someone threatens to kill him during a confession.

John Michael McDonagh’s 2011 dark comedy The Guard has become a bit of a cult hit and Calvary looks set to do exactly the same. It only received a limited release at cinemas so is likely to gain most fans from home viewings, which is a bit of a shame as it’s well worthy of far more attention.

Whilst McDonagh and his brother Martin (In BrugesSeven Psychopaths) might be best known for their dark comedies, Calvary is practically pitch black in its humour, verging on straight-up drama territory. There is still some comedy in there but it largely arises from the small, individual moments and interactions between the characters rather than any major incidents.

Because it’s the script that really shines in Calvary, as is the case with practically all of the McDonaghs’ work. The plot is relatively irrelevant for large chunks, but the script is always razor sharp with plenty of satire and social commentary. It also helps that it’s masterfully delivered by Brendan Gleeson (and everyone else) who perfectly blends his compassion with anger and hurt. This is proof that Gleeson is, without a doubt, one of the most underrated actors working at the moment.

The Irish landscape also plays a big part in making the film successful, as it did with The Guard, making the area feel remote and totally isolated, as if what happens will never be uncovered by the rest of the world. Despite the wide open spaces, it makes the film feel very claustrophobic, almost Straw Dogs-like, and adds to the feeling that Father James’ fate is inevitable.

The only thing that I felt didn’t really work was that it felt a little easy to do the whole priest and child abuse angle (not a spoiler – it’s mentioned in the first scene). It’s a massive issue, but just felt a little cheap. Other than that there’s very little to criticise. Calvary will no doubt go largely unnoticed by many but it’s well worth your time if you want a film that looks superb, is on the whole magnificently written and superbly acted.

Pros

  • Wonderful script
  • Great cinematography
  • Brilliant acting, particularly from Gleeson

Cons

  • Slightly predictable in its portrayal of the clergy

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Frank

Michael Fassbender as Frank

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring but frustrated musician who takes the opportunity to join up-and-coming underground band ‘Soronprfbs’ fronted by their bizarre lead man Frank who permanently wears a large fake head. Will the band make it big and will Jon find out what’s really going on inside Frank’s massive head?

For the unitiated (which is probably most people outside of the UK), Frank Sidebottom was a cult music figure from Timperley, near Manchester, who wore a big paper mache head. Now, despite the name of the film and the massive fake head donned here by Michael Fassbender, Frank isn’t actually about Frank Sidebottom.

What Frank does is use the character of Frank Sidebottom (created and played by Chris Sievey in real life) and use it has a jumping off point, also taking inspiration from a book of the same name by Jon Ronson who played keyboards for Frank Sidebottom and also co-wrote the film’s screenplay.

Right, now all the background is out of the way, what’s the film actually like?

Well it’s bizarre, funny and utterly bonkers. But it’s also oddly poignant and moving, which is something that I really didn’t expect.

Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon is actually the film’s protagonist in the traditional sense of the word, as it’s through his eyes that we see the film and its characters, although he’s by far one of the least interesting characters on show (and turning into a new Hugh Grant more and more each film). That’s no real bad thing as he just provides the stage on which the supporting cast can shine, although it would have been nice to have a lead character with slightly more about him.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s hipster-bitch Clara is as intriguing as she is frosty, whilst the other characters have smaller but no less entertaining roles. But it’s Frank we’ve come to see and he really is the star of the show.

Frank (2014)

Frank is a real enigma and really is as magnetic and intriguing to us as he is to those around him in the film. He’s funny, caring, volatile, disturbing; you never really know what he’s going to do next, whether it’s topless boxing or dancing in a field with a middle-aged woman he’s only just met. All whilst wearing that massive head.

And what’s even stranger is that we know it’s Michael Fassbender under the head. Despite not showing his face, Fassbender manages to inject huge amounts of personality into Frank, and it’s fantastic to see Fassbender clearly having such fun in the role.

There’s a surprisingly large amount going on in Frank, making it significantly deeper than it perhaps could have been. There’s a healthy dose of humour as you’d expect, but what hit me was how poignant and touching it was. It has a rather dark thread running throughout that occasionally erupts and adds a completely new layer to the film. It manages to strike pretty much the perfect balance between light hearted comedy and a more substantial piece of drama, regularly switching between the two.

Frank is a film that may put off many due to its quirky exterior, but it actually has a tremendous amount of heart and could just catch you by surprise. It’s much, much more than just a guy with a big fake head.

Pros

  • Genuinely funny
  • Surprisingly poignant and deep
  • Michael Fassbender is brilliant as Frank

Cons

  • Domhnall Gleeson feels a little lightweight

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson and new recruit Falcon (Anthony Mackie) face a new foe in the form of the Winter Soldier as terrorist organisation Hydra rears its ugly head in the most unlikely of places.

Another week, another Marvel superhero flick. The genre is walking a very well worn path by this point and many are starting to feel a little bit numb to its formula. Captain America: The Winter Soldier could well have been the straw that broke this series’ back, but fortunately there’s enough new and interesting in there to ensure Marvel’s stock remains as high as ever.

Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s origin story, took place in World War II, but naturally (considering what happened at the end of that film and in Avengers Assemble) we’re now in a modern day setting. And we have modern day themes as well. The Winter Soldier examines themes of privacy, intrusion, drones, and other similar ideas that feel incredibly relevant when you take a glance at the news of today.

The problem with having a modern day setting is that it removes one of the key elements that made the first film work: the period World War II setting. That’s not to say this film doesn’t work, but it feels a little less unique.

However, despite its current themes and setting, the film actually feels more akin to a 1970s spy or espionage thriller, or even a Connery/Moore era James Bond film at times. Stick the Cap in a tuxedo and you’ve got yourself a Bond film. Apart from the guy who has massive metal wings and can fly everywhere, obviously.

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That would be Sam Wilson, or Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie), who’s one of the new characters introduced in The Winter Soldier. Falcon is a decent addition and along with the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as a main character completes an interesting and dynamic central trio.

Then there’s the Winter Soldier himself as the film’s central villain (or is he?). One aspect of the past few Marvel films where they’ve dropped the ball is with their villains, in that they just aren’t that villainous. Both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World featured very weak villains, but they’ve upped the game somewhat here. The Winter Soldier is both menacing and also has an air of mystery surrounding him which adds up to a much more threatening villain than we’ve seen previously.

Much of The Winter Soldier is actually much slower paced and plot heavy than you’d expect from a Marvel film and this plays very much in its favour, although younger viewers may not appreciate this as much. However, true to form everything goes ballistic in the final third and we get the obligatory 20 minute action scene with everything being blown to smithereens. Obviously, with superhero films, this formula is the natural one to follow, but it would have been nice to stray from this for a change.

Whilst The Winter Soldier could, and perhaps should, have been the point where we tire of Marvel superhero films, it’s actually one of the stronger entries in the whole franchise that should see him have more equal footing alongside his super-peers when it comes to next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Pros

  • The Winter Soldier is an excellent villain
  • Interesting and more involved plot
  • Dynamic central trio of heroes

Cons

  • Final third a little too formulaic
  • Loses some of its identity with shift in time period from the first film

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: The Book Thief

During World War II, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is forced to leave her mother and go and live with a foster family in Nazi Germany. She finds solace in stealing books, but she and her new family could be in danger when her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) agrees to hide Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew, from the Nazis.

Conviction. It’s something that all films need to have in order to make the audience believe in the story and care in the characters. Half-arsed or abandoned ideas do nothing but make the viewer apathetic towards the whole thing and ultimately have little interest in the story or its characters. Unfortunately, The Book Thief lacks conviction in almost every area.

The Book Thief is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, but it’s perhaps the book’s biggest USP that is the film’s most obvious lack of conviction – the fact that it’s narrated by Death.

This was a really unique and clever idea that worked brilliantly on paper, but has not translated to the screen well at all. We hear the voice of Death at the beginning of the film but doesn’t show up again until about two-thirds through and then again at the end. It feels like the filmmakers didn’t want to include it but felt they couldn’t leave it out.

There’s also an issue of not really addressing the subject matter. It’s true that the film is more of a character piece than anything else but do these characters ever really develop? Only Emily Watson’s Rosa really evolves as a character, whilst the World War II setting seems strangely sanitised. Rosa’s claim that Liesel is filthy when she arrives would be more believable if she wasn’t so utterly pristine. For a more effective take on the horrors of war from a child’s perspective, then The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas might be a better bet.

The Book Thief does have some admirable qualities, however. Both Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush are excellent as Liesel and Hans respectively, and the relationship between the two is genuinely heartwarming. Nélisse balances Liesel’s headstrong, almost stubborn, attitude with vulnerability, whilst superbly bringing a naivety to the character which makes it chilling to see her acting so blithely towards the Nazis for most of the film. Rush is also excellent, giving Hans a real affection for Liesel whilst also displaying an eccentricity that makes him a very likeable character.

There are also a couple of really interesting scenes that really stand out. At one point we see Liesel and her friends dressed in Nazi Youth uniforms singing a propaganda song in a choir. This juxtaposition of ideas is really effective and horrifying to see what is essentially brainwashing of children who don’t really know better.

The Book Thief really had the potential to be better than it was, but it was ultimately let down by its inability to follow through with its ideas. From the seemingly random voiceovers from Death to the bizarre language switching from German to English throughout, it never truly finds a real identity. It has interesting moments scattered here and there but is never consistent enough to make your truly invested in it.

Pros

  • Good performances from Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush
  • Nice period detail
  • Effective in places

Cons

  • Narration by Death hugely underused
  • Little character development
  • Random language switching

2 and a half pigeons

2.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

the-grand-budapest-hotel

An author recounts the tale of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), devoted concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel and his lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Toni Revolori). When Gustave is left a priceless painting by the deceased Madame D (Tilda Swinton), he and Zero must go to extraordinary lengths to keep it out of the clutches of her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody).

Many directors can be considered auteurs, but few boast such a distinctive style as Wes Anderson. Even the most casual cinephile can pick out one of his films from 100 paces, and we’ve even got to the stage where films are described as ‘Wes Anderson-esque’. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson-esque film to date.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a matryoshka of a film, a story wrapped within a story, wrapped within another story, and this is just the start of its curiosities. We begin with a girl looking at a statue of an author and holding a copy of a book entitled ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. We then briefly see the author (played by Tom Wilkinson) before cutting to a younger version of him (played this time by Jude Law) who is speaking to a man about how he came to own our titular hotel. Clear? Good.

And it’s at that juncture that Wes Anderson is unleashed, as if the author of the book has employed the director to tell his tale. From that point on it’s a full frontal assault on the senses that rarely lets up for a moment. Anderson’s signature style has never been more pronounced; the colour palette is deliciously vintage and every shot is meticulously framed within an inch of its life.

The abundance of static camera shots gives the impression we’re at times watching a play, whilst some of the stylised scenery harks right back to the birth of cinema with Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. There’s also a nice bit of fun had with the screen ratios representing the different eras in which the film is set.

But it’s not all style; there’s plenty of substance to back it up. The script is razor sharp, dripping with dry humour and delivered brilliantly by the unbelievable cast (which includes among others Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe). Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, the frantically camp hotel concierge, is wonderful as he rattles off his lines in quick-fire fashion and displays a genuine affection for lobby boy Zero.

As you’ve probably gathered, The Grand Budapest Hotel is somewhat on the bonkers side, perhaps too much so at times. With so much going on so quickly and with so many characters popping up here, there and everywhere, it can be a little tricky to follow what’s going on, although it’s so much fun that this shouldn’t present too much of a problem.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a madcap caper of the highest order, a picturebook playground examining what’s so wonderful about cinema and presenting it in a truly wonderful explosion of action and colour.

No-one does Wes Anderson quite like Wes Anderson.

Pros

  • Wes Anderson’s distinctive style as pronounced as ever
  • Genuinely funny script
  • Ralph Fiennes is fantastic
  • Wonderful supporting cast

Cons

  • So crazy it can sometimes be tricky to follow

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

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Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are two vampires who cope very differently with modern life. Eve embraces it whilst Adam rejects it and shuts himself off from the world. However, when Eve’s wild-child little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up, both their worlds are thrown into disarray.

Fans of director Jim Jarmusch will have an inkling of what to expect from Only Lovers Left Alive. It’ll be highly stylised, told at walking pace and you’ll have to dig deep to find much semblance of plot. Sounds pretty perfect for the world of vampires, doesn’t it?

Both Adam and Eve have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years and we get two very different perspectives on what is essentially eternal life and how they cope with it. Both have learnt to resist the urge to quench their thirst for blood direct from humans, instead sourcing it from specialist dealers; just part of the ubiquitous drug analogy that runs throughout the film.

Eve seems much more comfortable evolving over time; she has an iPhone, is happy to travel and is more outgoing compared to Adam, who has a much more negative view of modern society. He’s reclusive, refers to regular humans as zombies and is so disillusioned with modern life that he even considers suicide.

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The two don’t live together and seem worlds apart, yet there’s something that feels really genuine about their relationship. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston have excellent chemistry together, and they really make you believe they’re a couple who have spent hundreds of years in each other’s company.

And yet we never really know much about them. Their past is only ever hinted at, and whilst you could argue this adds to their mystique, it’s also quite frustrating that these intriguing characters ultimately appear rather underdeveloped.

Then there’s the issue of the film’s pacing, and it’s this which is likely to be the sticking point with many. Jim Jarmusch’s films are known for deliberately slow paced and this is very much the case here, focusing much more on the mood of the film rather than its narrative. Only when Eve’s younger sister Ava arrives does it break into a jog, and even though this does up the pace, it still feels a little too lethargic for its own good.

What Jarmusch does do, however, is create an absorbing atmosphere and world in which his characters inhabit. The oneiric cinematography of both Detroit and Tangier, the two locations in which the film is set, has a hypnotic quality mesmerising and really draws you into the film.

Only Lovers Left Alive is not going to appeal to everyone, particularly in its almost comatose pacing. However, it’s sultry, seductive and sexy, and thanks to some mesmerising cinematography and two magnetic central performances there’s plenty to admire if you just sit back and let the whole thing wash over you.

Pros

  • Hypnotic cinematography
  • Interesting take on the vampire story
  • Seductive performances from Hiddleston and Swinton

Cons

  • Pacing just too slow at times
  • Would have been nice to know more about the characters

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Her

Letter writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) hasn’t been particularly lucky in love since his wife left him. However, after meeting and hitting it off with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), it seems things are looking up. The only thing is Samantha is a computer operating system.

The genius of Spike Jonze’s Her is that it takes a concept that should feel completely alien and beyond any realm of possibility and makes it feel totally normal. We don’t know when it’s set or even where it’s set, and yet we buy into it immediately as if their world is our own.

Jonze has superbly melded a science fiction future with the ubiquitous social and political trappings of the present, which succeeds in giving us a doorway into Theodore’s world, his hopes & dreams and, significantly, his failings.

As Theodore gets the train to work, he and his fellow commuters are absorbed in their technology, be it a mobile phone or their very own OS. This might be a vision of the future, but is that really any different from where we’re at today? There’s little to no communication between human beings; Theodore’s job involves writing letters on behalf of people who can’t express themselves and there are very few genuine and happy human relationships in the film.

This laces the film with a sense of melancholia and loneliness, mirroring Theodore’s own feelings. That is until Samantha turns up. Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied Samantha may not be a real person, but to Theodore she’s perfect. The two share intimate conversations and you get a genuine sense of their relationship growing, regardless of Samantha not having a physical presence. Even when the two are ‘intimate’ with each other, it feels more like a triumph than anything seedy or sordid.

Some are accepting of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, whilst some are less so. This immediately brings to mind the idea of forbidden love, mixed-race relationships and other similar themes. Is their relationship wrong or weird? Does it really matter?

Her

What’s clear is that they seemingly make each other happy, and that comes across wonderfully in the performances of the two leads. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is perfectly awkward and understated, and he manages to encapsulate the excitement and nervousness of a new relationship, the insecurities that come with it and the feelings when it’s perhaps not going so well. His performance is further enhanced by Jonze’s direction. The abundance of long takes and close-ups allow the minutiae of his personality to seep out and build a more believable character.

Scarlett Johansson has the peculiar task of playing a disembodied voice, yet brings so much life to the character that you never doubt she’s any less real than the other characters in the film. Johansson and Phoenix are totally believable as a couple, and considering only one of them has physical form, that’s quite an achievement.

The only real misstep the film takes, for me, is in its ending. It feels slightly curtailed and abrupt, which one could argue is a metaphor in itself, but it also stretches the realms of possibility and believability that little too far. It did little to hamper enjoyment of the film, but it did feel like the filmmakers were unsure of how to bring it to an end.

Her is the kind of film that doesn’t come around all that often. It’s genuinely heartfelt, looks stunning, and is an intriguing examination into human interaction and our evolving relationship with technology. Above all, it feels fresh and original, and that’s always something that should be celebrated.

Pros

  • Genuinely heartfelt and believable
  • Great performance from Joaquin Phoenix
  • Amazing voice work from Scarlett Johansson
  • Stunning cinematography

Cons

  • Ending stretches the realms of possibility slightly too far

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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