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Film Review: Allied

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 25 Nov 2016

Robert Zemeckis’ new film, Allied, is a World War 2 romantic drama starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence operative, and Marianne Beausejour, a French resistance fighter, who meet in Casablanca on a joint intelligence mission to assassinate a German officer. Show the rest of this post…

After their mission is complete, the pair move to London, get married and have a daughter. All seems to be going well, until a former colleague informs Max that his wife may have been spying for the Nazis all along.

The film builds tension around the central relationship through unhurried conversations and suggestive words and actions, and does a pretty good job of establishing an atmosphere of suspicion. Writer Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke) clearly enjoys writing dialogue, and Allied is at its best when it’s in a suggestive, inquisitive mode. Where the film is less certain, unfortunately, is the romance, which despite the presence of two excellent actors in Pitt and Cotillard, never quite fizzes into life in the way it would’ve needed to in order for this to be something truly memorable.

Zemeckis and his cinematographer Don Burgess handle the time period well and there are strong set pieces in here (including the build-up to and staging of the assassination), as well as some convincing effects work that allows the sets and the CGI to blend pretty imperceptibly. There’s also welcome support from Jared Harris as Max’s boss, and an amusingly dour, if brief, turn from Simon McBurney as an implacable intelligence officer.

The final act is a tad rushed (perhaps as a result of the extended opening) and not entirely believable, but I was moved by it, and felt the tension in the middle section, so for me the film worked. It occasionally feels a little stilted in its storytelling, as though it’s holdi ng something back (much like its protagonists), but this tale of spies in love, which is old-fashioned in its storytelling, mostly in a good way, has enough charm to be worth a look.

3/5

Film Review: PatersonFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 21 Nov 2016

Paterson is one of those films that, when describing it to somebody, you have to work a little to avoid making it sound dull. Man gets up, goes to work, comes home, has a beer, goes to bed – rinse and repeat. Show the rest of this post…

But while it may not be to everybody’s tastes – it’s a considered, slow-moving film – Paterson, for me, succeeds in creating a tone that is very much its own, and by practising exceptional levels of dramatic restraint, delivers a ponderous, thoughtful experience, much like the ones in its protagonist’s head.

Jim Jarmusch’s new film stars Adam Driver as Paterson, a mild-mannered, likeable everyman living in the city that shares his name in New Jersey. We follow a week of his life, as each morning he wakes up with his artistic wife, Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani), and heads off to do his work driving a bus around the local streets. After finishing work, Paterson has dinner with his wife and then goes out to take their dog for a walk and have a solitary beer at a local bar. From time to time, as he goes through his day, we hear Paterson reciting lines of his poetry to us, often delivered in the form of unfinished thoughts or revisited lines.

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That’s the setup, but also pretty much the plot. This is not a film with a superfluity of narrative to get through – just a simple idea portrayed in a convincing way. What makes it work is Jarmusch’s handling of tone, both in his direction and in his writing, and Adam Driver’s very subtle but subtly effective performance. There is no great emoting in here, no moments of hysterical drama – what we see is an excerpt from the life of an ordinary, and quietly interesting, man.

What I enjoyed about the film’s tone was how it floated through Paterson’s life by way of repetitive but slightly reworked shots, overheard conversations on buses and in bars, and the appearances of supporting cast members in the bar Paterson visits, which give the film a sense of community. Everything is wrapped up in an atmosphere of wistfulness – though not one that dwells on sadness; just a simple acceptance of moving through life – which is complemented by the delicate score.

It’s the overall tone of the piece that strikes as you watch, and that tone softens potentially negative elements such as the lack of character arcs or real development; indeed, it may be precisely the point that such things can be ignored without doing damage to the piece. The film depicts a quiet life, adopts a quiet  manner in which to tell it, and is subtly affecting in doing so. It won’t be for everybody, and could perhaps have been edited down a little, but as a tonal piece it really works.

4/5

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 17 Nov 2016

This spin-off of the Harry Potter series, set in New York in the 1920s, takes some aspects of JK Rowling’s ‘wizarding world’ and places them in a new context, with a focus on adult characters. Show the rest of this post…

It is the first in what will be a five-film franchise and is directed by David Yates, who directed the final four entries in the Harry Potter series, and who has been confirmed as the director for all four sequels to this opening chapter. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is based on the book of the same name, which Rowling wrote as a side note to her Potter series, and sees the author make her debut as a screenwriter.

It tells the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who, on a trip to New York, accidentally releases a number of magical creatures into the neighbourhood. This is particularly unfortunate because MACUSA (Magic Congress of the United States of America) is struggling to keep the existence of magic secret from the “No-Majs” (those unpossessed of magical ability, or ”muggles”, to us Brits), with whom the wizarding world has had a strained relationship in the past. This setup forms the basis of most of the film’s narrative, although the actual focus of the plot is elsewhere, and will lead into the sequels.

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Initially the film’s lack of focus is distracting. Newt’s efforts to subdue his creatures are fitfully entertaining, but because the film keeps cutting away to other plot strands and introducing new characters, the first half feels rambling and struggles to hold the interest. As the plot moves on a sense of momentum begins to emerge, which is a relief, and the final act is surer of foot as a result – there’s even genuine emotion in the final movement, which I had not expected. There are bits of the narrative which feel a little rushed because the film is attempting to fit so much in, but by the end we get a pretty good sense of how the US’ relationship with magic differs from that of the UK.

There’s a subplot involving a group of magic-hating extremists led by Samantha Morton’s unnerving Mary Lou Barebone, although the significance of this group is only fleetingly addressed, to the point that one major plot point in particular feels oddly incidental. But what the film sometimes lacks in structure and plotting, it makes up for in charm and energy. Redmayne gives an endearing performance as Newt, his collection of nervy ticks moving quickly from weird to charming. The supporting cast makes the weaker scenes play better than they might have done, in particular Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, the No-Maj caught up in Newt’s actions, who brings welcome warmth to his scenes.

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Rowling and Yates build and inhabit the world of 1920s New York convincingly, and crucially make this feel like the same world as, albeit slightly removed from, the one we’ve read about and watched for many years. But the film lacks real heart to match its world building. Newt is a charming but mostly one-note protagonist, who hopefully will be fleshed out in the next film, and the same applies to Tina, a MACUSA employee who first arrests and then befriends Newt. The villainous element of the plot is also thin, and an unintentionally amusing reveal at the end fails to drum up the interest it’s hoping for.

There’s strong effects work on the numerous critters in the film, in particular a kleptomaniac marsupial ‘Niffler’ with a penchant for nicking shiny goods, and even though most of the action sequences feel incidental as regards the plot, they provide enough energy to be fun. Technically the film is as adept as we’d expect from the later Potter films, with a sweeping (if slightly overwrought) soundtrack and a strong sense of place.

Fantastic Beasts is a solid if unspectacular introduction to a new franchise. The next entry would benefit from a tighter plot, better paci ng and more focus on character. But whether for die-hard fans of the series, who will be going to see this whatever, or those with a more casual interest, it’s worth a viewing.

3/5

Film Review: Nocturnal AnimalsFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 3 Nov 2016

It’s been the best part of seven years since fashion designer turned writer/director Tom Ford impressed cinemagoers with A Single Man, his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name about a bereaved professor who has recently lost his partner. Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, is also an adaptation of a novel: this time Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Show the rest of this post…

The film tells the story of well-to-do artist Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript in the post from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), from whom she split many years prior to the film’s opening. As Susan reads the manuscript, which details a fictional crime involving a thinly disguised version of her and her family, we see that fiction dramatised. There are also flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s early relationship, so Ford – as writer/director – and his editor Joan Sobel, have a challenging task to make all the strands not only work individually, but to come together as a cinematic whole. This is something they have achieved with great success, and is one of the film’s key strengths.

While A Single Man was a relatively stripped down piece of work, Nocturnal Animals is much more ambitious in terms of its scope. The cast is much larger, and the film’s interweaving of narratives is something that could’ve backfired, but Ford has shown he is capable of dealing with both, and that he is very much a director to be taken seriously.

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Both lead actors are required to tackle their central roles in two separate arcs, and Gyllenhaal has the tough task of carrying the weight of the dramatised manuscript sequences which, in the hands of a lesser actor or director, could’ve overwhelmed the film. The fact that they don’t, and that all strands of the film are engaging and affecting, is a triumph that both director and performers can take great credit for. Adams and Gyllenhaal are actors at the top of their game at the moment, and can generally be relied upon to deliver strong performances, and that is very much the case here. Adams conveys the fragility of somebody who is professionally lost and trapped on an emotional plateau between two time periods (not easy when a lot of your screen time is spent reading a book) while Gyllenhaal carries the tension and weight of the novel interludes.

The film’s structure really works in portraying Susan and Edward as each other’s emotional counterweights, even though the two actors spend little actual screen time together. The story’s central arc – of a relationship that ended and the baggage both protagonists are saddled with – worked for me right up until the very well-pitched ending.

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As we expect from Ford, the film has a strong visual style which comes through via Seamus McGarvey’s excellent cinematography; in particular during the many scenes set at night, which are enveloping and atmospheric. The real achievement, though, is that the film juxtaposes the bright, gritty Texan landscapes with the cold, dark cityscapes so flawlessly. The strands are held together too by Abel Korzeniowski’s score, which is dreamlike and menacing in equal measure.

The film’s one significant misstep is the opening credits sequence, which is deliberately provocative but for me felt misjudged. You could also argue the novel sequences are a tad overlong, but to cut them would’ve meant losing some of Michael Shannon’s delicious supporting performance as a Texas lawman. A mention, too, for Aaron Taylor Johnson, who shows us his terrifying side as a sadistic citizen of West Texas, and Laura Linney, who, despite having just one short scene in the entire film, ensures it hits with the required weight.

There’s a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, which pleasingly is a very different film to A Single Man, though equally confident an d compelling. With a cast on great form, a tricky narrative told in a confident way, and excellent technical qualities, there’s a whole lot to enjoy in Tom Ford’s second feature.

4/5

Film Review: Doctor Strange

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 25 Oct 2016

Given how ubiquitous Marvel Studios’ comic book adaptations have become, it would be easy to assume its cinematic universe is populated merely by production line, populist Blockbusters reluctant to take creative risks, but Marvel has shown that it is willing to make left field choices with its big-budget behemoth, particularly with its choices of directors, writers and cast members. Show the rest of this post…

In 2014 Marvel took arguably its biggest risk yet when it released Guardians of the Galaxy, a sci-fi epic featuring a roster of lesser-known heroes, including a talking raccoon, but that film was a hit, both critically and at the box office. Doctor Strange is a risk in a different sense, not just because it introduces us to an entirely new cast and hero in an already bloated fictional universe, but because the subject matter – sorcery and the “mystic arts” – could so easily have backfired.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange, a gifted but arrogant neurosurgeon who, pretty early on, is involved in a devastating car crash which seriously damages his hands, thus throwing his career into jeopardy. Medicine appears unable to fix him, no matter how left field he goes, so Strange looks further afield, to a secretive organisation in Kathmandu headed up by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), where he will learn that everything is not as it seems, in particular his perception of reality.

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From there Derickson delivers on his promise that this will be a mind-bending experience, cutting loose on a series of trippy set pieces guided by the impressive visual effects work of Luma Pictures and Industrial Light and Magic. Strange learns how to teleport himself around the world in an instant; to separate his astral form from his body; and much more. But he also learns of a plot by a former pupil of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) to surrender the earth to “the destroyer of worlds”, an entity called Dormammu, who lives in a dark dimension outside time. Strange must decide whether to follow his own path, or to be selfless and work with his new mentors.

The film is in some ways a triumph, but as a whole lacks the cohesion and charm of some of Marvel’s other comic book adaptations. Cumberbatch is well cast as Strange, although his character arc in this film means that, for the most part, he’s a pretty unlikeable protagonist. Though there are hints of development, he comes across as a charismatic but shallow centre for the film to revolve around, which isn’t helped by the fact that most of the supporting characters are thinly drawn, in particular Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange’s ex-girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) and, unfortunately, Kaecilius, whose villainy just isn’t memorable. These are excellent actors, but the film really doesn’t use them enough. The supporting cast fares better in the form of Benedict Wong as Wong, with whom Cumberbatch has a winning, if short-lived, rapport, and Tilda Swinton, who is the best thing in the film as The Ancient One.

Derickson directs the action scenes with flair and there is some captivating stunt work in here allied to well designed visual effects which see cities collapsing in on themselves in an Inception-like way, and an arresting journey into the depths of the unknown multiverse. But while the action scenes are mostly impressive to look at, the rules of engagement here are too thinly drawn. At times its difficult to see exactly what’s going on, but more damagingly the sense of peril sometimes gets lost in the whirling special effects.

There are flashes of humour in here which work well to offset the comic book exposition that is required to get us all up to speed on what’s going on, and tonally Doctor Strange should be able to match up to the other Avengers with whom he is destined to share a universe with one day. Quite how Marvel will deal with the action stakes in forthcoming projects given the implications in this film I’m not sure, but I look forward to seeing how they do it.

I didn’t warm to Doctor Strange as quickly as I have to many of Marvel’s other heroes, but perhaps the character just needs time to settle. Cumberbatch will do better work in the role if he’s given a better story to work with – ideally a film in which the villains are more successful and the supporting cast is given more of a chance to make an impact.

3/5

 

Film Review: I, Daniel BlakeFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 21 Oct 2016

Ken Loach has been making unashamedly political, socially aware films for decades, and his latest, I, Daniel Blake, finds him dealing with the relationship between the British government and its citizens, told mainly through interactions with the bureaucratic Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It’s a film brimming with frustration and anger told in a purposefully restrained manner. Show the rest of this post…

The film is written by regular Loach contributor Paul Laverty and focuses on two down-on-their-luck individuals: Daniel Blake, a widower who has suffered issues with his heart and is trying to claim Employment and Support Allowance until he is fit enough to return to work; and Katie, a young mother of two who is forced to move to Newcastle, where the film is set, because it’s the only place she can get a flat for her family.

A companionship develops between these two characters that highlights the importance of community – something increasingly diminished in our times. Daniel is happy to help struggling Katie because he’s a good man with social values, even despite his own increasingly worsening circumstances. On paper the character of Daniel may look too saintly to work, but that is not the case thanks to Laverty’s sharp writing and the excellent performance of Dave Johns, who brings warmth and dignity and makes Daniel feel real. The same is true of Hayley Squires’ performance as Katie – a terrifically strong and understated turn as somebody whose life is spiralling out of control but is fighting to hold it all together. In fact, Squires gets the most affecting and difficult scene in the film, in a food bank, and really makes it work.

Loach directs the film in pleasingly uncomplicated fashion, capturing honestly the sense of decent people being mistreated by the state in a system that has warped from a safety net into something punitive. The film captures brilliantly the frustration of dealing with bureaucracy and the soulless corporate ethos that sucks the humanity out of human interactions. Audiences around the UK will surely empathise with Daniel’s disbelief at the systems he comes up against, and it’s important to note that Loach and his team researched the film heavily, with input from people who were in or had been in the system, and whistleblowers from within the DWP. Most of what we see in the film reflects real life, in some instances is directly taken from it, and the film has a sense of authenticity that is not easy to capture.

There are one or two moments when I felt the script was a little too forthright in its emoting, and some elements of the drama feel a tad sidelined because of the structure, in particular Katie’s third-act attempt to make money and the film’s powerful but brief den ouement, but overall I found I, Daniel Blake to be a powerful, important piece of work that sheds light on the treatment of decent people by an increasingly dehumanised state.

4/5

Film Review: In Pursuit of SilenceFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 20 Oct 2016

Patrick Shen’s documentary In Pursuit of Silence is a captivating investigation into what silence really is, and why humans might seek it out, or even require it. Show the rest of this post…

Shen begins his documentary with an ode to John Cage’s 4’33”, using a montage of images with only ambient sounds captured, which serves a compelling introduction, not least of which because John Cage is clearly an important figure in the film, in terms of both his presence in it and his ideas. We then see a series of talking heads, interspersed with Shen’s arresting imagery, from a wide range of professions and cultures, talking about what silence can mean and why it is important.

The most involving part of the documentary juxtaposes the potential benefits of silence and silent contemplation alongside the helter-skelter of modern day life, the cumulative noise of which, Shen and his contributors argue, is having a number of negative effects on us. This is the heart of the film, and Shen makes a compelling argument that noise has become a pervasive influence in our lives.

The film is technically impressive, not just in its vivid imagery, but in its use of sound and sound mixing, as well as talking heads, to put forward its argument. The way the film is edited, we’re invited to experience the kind of calm that Shen is telling us is so important, and it’s difficult not to see sense in the film’s ideas. Compelling interviews, combined with visual artistry and a very considered soundscape, give the film a persuasive through line that actually reminding me of the way Patricio Guzman’s film Nostalgia for the Light presented its ideas.

The film spends a little too much of its runti me indulging in imagery and soundscapes – time it could’ve spent delving deeper into the ideas it puts forward – but this remains a thought-provoking and well made documentary.

4/5

Film Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 19 Oct 2016

Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher film came out the best part of four years ago, and given that film was a solid, but not spectacular, financial success, it was not always guaranteed that we’d see Tom Cruise back as Lee Child’s titular drifter. Show the rest of this post…

But here we are with Never Go Back, which is based on Child’s 2013 novel of the same name, and directed by Edward Zwick, who has done good work with Cruise before in The Last Samurai.

The 2012 film was an unremarkable if better-than-you-might-expect detective thriller, and that’s a description that can be applied with equal validity to this sequel, which sees Reacher attempting to visit a military contact (Cobie Smulders) before finding out she’s been taken into custody accused of serious crimes. The plot initially seems only tangentially connected to the lead character, meaning the first act has to work a bit to get us involved, but the film does give Reacher a personal connection to the case fairly early on, which works as a not entirely original but well played side plot – namely, there is a young girl involved in things who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter.

Never Go Back functions as a sequel to the 2012 film only in as much as Tom Cruise is back as Jack Reacher, because in all other respects the film is standalone. This was perhaps a wise decision as the first film, though it did adequately at the box office, was not widely seen. The first act tries a little too hard to build a legend around its central character (also a minor problem in the first film) but once the plot settles down it’s an enjoyable watch all told, even despite the odd bit of ropey and unintentionally funny dialogue.

Reacher is a charismatic drifter with kick-ass combat skills, i.e. not much of a stretch for Cruise; but that’s fine, because although Cruise can play this kind of thing in his sleep, he’s still good at it. The interest is more in the supporting performances. Smulders, tougher than we’ve seen her before, does a good job of portraying a strong, smart military type who is more than capable of looking after herself, and Danika Yarosh does good work as the kid thrust into Reacher’s care.

Where the film lets itself down is in the plotting. The mystery behind everything ultimately relies too much on characters who have little or no actual involvement in the film, or on schemes we haven’t been allowed to care much about, meaning the narrative revelations tend to be underwhelming. There’s also a charisma gap as far as the villains are concerned. Patrick Heusinger is actually perfectly good as the nameless, relentless figure hunting Reacher and his companions, but the character is entirely one-note. The film lacks a charismatic figure like Werner Herzog, who was so good in the first one, despite being on screen for about five minutes.

Never Go Back is at its best when Cruise, Smulders and Yarosh are doing their dysfunctional fugitive family routine, or in the crunchy confrontations between Cruise and a succession of faceless  henchmen. Like the previous film, there’s enough in here to recommend a viewing if you’re after a relatively old-fashioned thriller; it just won’t stick with you for too long.

3/5

Film Review: Under the ShadowFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 27 Sep 2016

Here is an Iranian horror-thriller that takes many of the standard tropes of haunted-house cinema and makes a good fist of refreshing them with to its good performances, strong sense of place, and understated political commentary. Show the rest of this post…

The film is set in Tehran in the late 1980s, during the final part of the Iran-Iraq War, in an apartment building in which Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives with her husband (Bobby Naderi) and young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Director Babak Anvari, in his debut feature, takes his time in the first act to set up the gist of the situation: we begin as Shideh is refused re-entry to medical school because of her previous involvement in political activism. The film suggests, and we believe, that this is a harsh mistreatment. Shideh’s husband, who is a practicing doctor, is then sent to the front lines of the war, leaving her and Dorsa alone in the flat, while increasingly creepy goings on appear to be happening around them. Dorsa is convinced that something supernatural has entered the building, and one of the neighbours suggests it may be a Djinn – a creature from Arabian mythology.

What follows is a tense, if familiar, series of sequences in which things get progressively more creepy, until the point where Shideh starts to believe that there may indeed be something very wrong. Anvari’s film does use jump scares to puncture the tension he skilfully creates, and while jump scares can often feel a little cheap, the ones here are well orchestrated and used sparingly enough that the film doesn’t lose focus.

What’s more interesting about Under the Shadow is the spectre of war that always lingers in the background, be it the air raid sirens that frequently summon the protagonists to the basement of their building, or the terrifying shaking of the building when distant rockets are detonated. As in the best horror-inflected stories, the film invites us to think about the nature of the evil that is plaguing its characters, and the context in which it is happening. Although the war is kept in the background, I have no doubt it is the ‘shadow’ described in the film’s title, and there is also a subtle undercurrent of commentary on the oppression of women, which begins in the film’s opening scenes and runs beneath the surface. In one sequence, Shideh is apprehended by the police for appearing outside without her chador, even though she had little choice in the matter, while her tormentor’s appearance eerily resembles the garment.

Anvari directs the action convincingly, his camera movements becoming more hurried and inventive as the film enters its increasingly hysterical final movement. There isn’t a great deal new in here in terms of how the film deals with its barely seen antag onist, but the tension builds pretty successfully and the characters are drawn well enough that we care what happens to them, which is more than can be said of a great many chillers.

4/5

Blu-ray Review: Green RoomFan The Fire Recommends

By Martin Roberts on 16 Sep 2016

Director Jeremy Saulnier’s first feature was a little-seen horror called Murder Party, but the film that established him as a director to watch was Blue Ruin, a taut, stripped-down thriller with a stream of jet-black humour running through it. Show the rest of this post…

And that description more or less suits his follow-up, Green Room, in which a punk band become trapped in a neo-Nazi stronghold after stumbling upon a crime following a gig.

Like Blue Ruin, Green Room’s premise is simple. There isn’t a superfluity of narrative here, just a situation played out to its resolution. The members of the band – played by Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner – are variously wounded and picked off by Nazi thugs as their attempts to escape become more and more desperate. The owner of the titular green room, Darcy (played with understated menace by Patrick Stewart), dispatches his henchmen calmly and collectedly while his underling Gabe (Macon Blair, who was so good in Blue Ruin) tries his best to clean up the mess.

Saulnier orchestrates the outbursts of violence with aplomb, proving once again he has a knack for tense situations exploding into disarray. While Green Room’s narrative is perhaps a tad repetitive and the ending a little anticlimactic, it establishes its idea wholeheartedly and runs with it until there’s nowhere left to go. There isn’t a massive amount of depth in its characters , but the performances are strong and the actors inject the film with charm and tension. Green Room is a memorable thriller, and I can’t wait to see what Saulnier does next.

4/5

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