Saturday, 24 December 2016

2016 Catch-Up Reviews 4

Spoiler free.

Tale of Tales

When it comes to fantasy films, inventiveness is key. Fairy tales and fantasy stories cannot work if the film-maker behind the camera isn't able to create enough wacky and wild stuff to make us believe that the world they are depicting is genuine. Tale of Tales doesn't struggle with this at all. In fact, it manages to feel perfectly akin to a bog standard fantasy film but with its own brilliant little twist: it's about as dark as the genre comes. Telling three stories that only collide twice (once at a funeral, and once at a coronation), the film is able to really buy us into the messed up world its depicting, and it helps from the offset. The world of Tale of Tales is a stark and harsh one, and its three stories do well to portray this: in one, a desperate Queen resorts to dark magic to create a child, but is forced to live in suffering when the ritual kills her husband and her new son is weirdly attracted to his male twin born from a different mother; in another, a King raises a small flea into a large and grotesque creature, which unintentionally causes his young daughter to be married to an Ogre and forced away from him; and finally, a King falls in love with the sound of a woman's singing voice, failing to realise she is an anciently old woman who now plans to use the King's lust to her advantage.

Tale of Tales masterfully interweaves its three stories. The pacing is pinpoint accurate from the start; we never flit too rapidly between the three strands, but they're tightly focused enough to never grow dull. The performances are excellent almost all round, with Salma Hayek's performance as the Queen longing for a connection with her son hitting the hardest - take note of the joy in her voice and on her face when chasing her son through a maze, crossed with her heartbreak and anger when she overhears him scheming against her. The film's cinematography is also breathtaking, contrasting a wide array of colours that may seem well-worn, yet Tale of Tales manages to frame everything in a way that feels both rustic and fresh. It's a twisted trilogy of fairy tales that understands how to work the genre, and even if there aren't as many big moments as perhaps you'd like from a film on this scale, the character beats and narrative journeys are more than enough to satisfy anyone who longs for something a little bit darker, and a little bit weirder.

To Summarise: Well performed across the board, Tale of Tales is a dark and delightfully twisted fantasy feature that's as visually stunning as it is narratively rewarding.


Films focused around a technical gimmick can be woefully frustrating, especially when they have a killer story running alongside them that gets lost in the gimmickry. Victoria is a film that relies on a pretty ambitious gimmick - the entire feature, which runs at 138 minutes long, was shot in a single take - but it never lets this outshine its story. It's perfectly possible to watch the film in its entirety and not notice the technical aspect of it since the characters and the story remain focused throughout. Unfolding in real-time, as a film of this nature must, Victoria's script (which was reportedly just twelve pages long, due to the heavily improvised nature of the dialogue) packs a hell of a lot of stuff into its two hours, but the constant energy of the film sweeps you up within moments. While it begins with a lonely woman chatting to some guys outside a nightclub in the early hours of the morning, it isn't long before she's a getaway driver in a robbery she shouldn't have any part in. Victoria's focus on keeping itself moving is the film's biggest strength; the camera glides in and out of cars, up and down ladders, and even comes full circle and returns to the club that the film opens in. It finds something gleefully unpredictable in the late night streets of Berlin, and that it does this without a single cut is masterful film making.

This would all be for nought, though, if the film Victoria can't make us actually care about Victoria. But boy, does it do this by the bucket load. Laia Costa's performance here is sensational. The film's poster, seen at the top of this page, is made up of nothing but her face, and it's impressive that the film perfectly captures this too; it is all about her. The way she performs the early scenes in which she's just chatting and bonding with some guys she's met gives us a sense of her playful personality, but her time alone with Sonne in the cafe hints at something much more sorrowful about her. By the time the film reaches its climax she's an almost entirely different person altogether, but Costa lets those earlier moments seep through. In one heartbreaking sequence the camera simply follows her face as she breaks down sobbing, understanding her situation for the first real time, and it's impossible not to feel that moment hit you. Victoria's mind blowing cinematography may be what draws you to it, but it's Victoria's character that stays with you long after it cuts to black for the very first time.

To Summarise: Relentlessly tense, excitingly unpredictable, and boasting a superb performance from Laia Costa, Victoria transforms a one-take gimmick into a powerful, highly effective drama.

Train to Busan

I'm not a huge fan of the zombie genre. Shaun of the Dead does very little for me, The Walking Dead seems to never be able to grip me into watching it for longer than a week, even Zombieland didn't really hold up on a second viewing. It's just not my cup of tea. Train to Busan released to critical acclaim earlier this year, breaking records in its home country of South Korea, so I figured I'd check it out. Granted, it still has a lot of the flaws that most zombie film get caught up in, but what Train to Busan has that most zombie films lack is an impending sense of dread. In every sequence, you cannot possibly relax and assume everyone is safe for a while. This is about as intense as zombie films can get, and what's even more impressive is how many different atmospheres the film manages to cram into its claustrophobic environment. We're stuck on a train for most of the film's two hours but it still finds time for moments of over the top violence, sequences of quiet tension, scenes of pure visceral horror, thrilling action choreography, and so on. It has a brilliant setting to take advantage of, and utilises it to the max.

Where it doesn't fare so well, like most zombie offerings, is in its characters. The characters in Train to Busan are all likable enough. I mean, how could they not be? They're practically engineered to be likable, and therein lies my issue with this film. The performances are all terrific (notably 10 year old Kim Su-an, who is nothing short of revelatory), but the characters are so forcibly obvious that it detracts from the film's emotional core. We have a workaholic man and his distant daughter, a pregnant woman and her devoted husband, a pair of young lovers, a selfish businessman. It all feels far too engineered to make us like them, and it prevents the character arcs from working. Seok-woo, the film's lead, embarks on a journey of redemption across the film, but his arc's climax has little weight due to how predictable his character is. It's tough to truly care about people you've seen in a film countless times before. That said, Train to Busan achieves something that very rarely happens: it made me consider watching a zombie movie twice. Its characters may not work, but it's terrifically well made.

To Summarise: Horrifying and thrilling in equal measure, Train to Busan manages to outshine its sloppy characterisation and becomes a notably strong entry in the zombie sub-genre.

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