Review: Arrival (2016)

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“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”. You may have come across this question before but never has it been so relevant as in Denis Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi film, an exciting picture that explores a wide variety of topics including time-travel, extra-terrestrial life and linguistics. Arrival aims to inspire and challenge the audience and it does so very well.

Eric Heisserer had been trying for years to adapt the Nubella winner novella “Story of your life” by Ted Chiang. As of 2012, he had almost given up and the screenplay found its way in “The Black List”, a collection of the best unproduced screenplays. Fortunately for all of us, Denis Villeneuve got an interest in it and the result was one of the best director/writer pairings of the year. The main character is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who is hired by the US military who are trying to translate the language of some unidentifiable beings that have apparently come from another place in the universe in twelve mysterious spacecrafts.Political tension grows all over the planet as the aliens’ purpose is unknown and their only way of communicating is an incomprehensible writing. Teamed up with physics professor Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise must find a way to decipher the bewildering writing before the situation gets out of hand as nations all over the world start to face the spacecrafts with hostility.

Denis Villeneuve proves again that he is one of the most exciting directors working now in Hollywood. The directing is top-notch and combined with Bradford Young’s cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score we have an excellently paced, visually stunning and deeply affecting feature. To top it all, Amy Adams gives an extraordinary performance. The absence of her name in the Best Leading actress Oscar nominations is probably the single most shocking snub of the year. She is absolutely stunning in this one. I could almost feel nausea myself when I first saw her in that suit. 

The reason why Arrival works is that it tackles so many matters without offering a specific take on them. Everything is left to the audience. How should humanity tackle a possible alien approach? How important is language in our way of perceiving our nature? What would we change if we knew the future? I don’t even dare to put myself in Louise’s place. I can’t tell if she made the right or wrong decision and the film won’t tell you either. What else is remarkable about Arrival is how thoroughly it was researched scientifically. Several scientists, especially linguists, were approached to give their consult and this is what gives the film a realistic tone and solid background. If there is one thing that I didn’t like was the confrontation with the “Bootstrap Paradox”. This is when a future and a present action are both caused by one another without a logical explanation of how this cycle started. It’s actually common among sci-fi films that deal with time travel, but it always feels irritating to me. Interstellar, Minority Report and Donnie Darko are just some of the titles. The paradox even has its own film titled Predestination. Fortunately, it’s not so important in the plot of this film.

In summary, Arrival is an outstanding picture and I was delighted to know that it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography. I repeat it’s a shame Amy Adams was snubbed. It’s good to know that films like these are produced in Hollywood and can’t wait to see Villeneuve’s next feature, the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel. He has showcased better than ever what he is capable of with Arrival and I really hope he continues to do what he knows best.

8/10

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La La Land ending scene analysis

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La La Land has given us one of the most interesting, thought-provoking and some may say confusing endings of the recent years. I have read and discussed about several interpretations of it during the last few days and finally I believe I understand what the meaning is. Everyone who’s seen the film knows what I’m talking about. We see Mia 5 years after she left for Paris to start her acting career. She’s now famous, has a new man in her life (they’re probably married too) and even has a child. One night as they wander in the streets of LA, they enter a random club which turns out to be Sebastian’s club, the one he dreamt of creating all his life. He even used the logo Mia designed. When they see each other, Sebastian starts to play their favourite song and we see a vision of an alternative ending. It’s basically a montage of all the major events that happened before only with different, more ideal to say, outcomes. In the vision Mia and Sebastian instantly fall in love with each other, they live the perfect live, Mia performs her play in front of a crowded theatre, Sebastian follows her in Paris where he plays his jazz music, they have a child together and live happily ever after. We then return to reality for a last shot where we see Mia and Sebastian smiling at each other.

Before I share my own interpretation, I would like to point out some things that people got wrong. Apparently, a lot of people think that the vision is Mia and Sebastian imagining what could it be if they stayed together. However, some of the alternative scenes are irrelevant with that. That is, some things we see in the vision wouldn’t have happened, them being together or not. First of all, half of the vision depicts their life before they broke up, but it’s still different. Then there are scenes like Mia’s play which in the vision is crowded. This has nothing to do with them breaking up. So, this is not what would have happened if they stayed together.

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Another thing which people are quick to assume is that the film has a sad ending. However, there is no evidence that it was sad for the characters. In fact, a lot of things point in the opposite direction. Just because every single person who’s seen the film wanted Mia and Sebastian to be together doesn’t necessarily mean that THEY wanted to be together. First of all, they were not forced to break up. They could very well stay together if they wanted to, but they chose to go their separate ways. They actually broke up before Mia got her role. They still had love for each other, but they thought that it wouldn’t work and it was best to move on. Furthermore, Mia has a new man in her life, David and it seems that she considers her relationship with him much more serious than her relationship with Sebastian. We see that 5 years later, she has a child that is about 3 years old. This means that she probably met David quite early in her new life and in less than 2 years they had a child together. We also need to consider that at least the first year of her acting career must have been very difficult. Her dream wasn’t fulfilled when she got the role, but much later. In order to become the actress she dreamt of, several things had to happen first; hard work for her first role, commercial and critical success of the movie, interest from other studios/filmmakers, etc. In any case, it wasn’t a good timing for a new relationship. We can assume then that she loved him a lot and was pretty serious about him. Remember that her life with Sebastian was relatively easy and they had plenty of time for each other. Their relationship started to deteriorate when they both faced challenges in their line of work. Moreover, we don’t know anything about Sebastian’s new life. It’s possible that he has a new girlfriend too. He has fulfilled his dream and it wouldn’t be absurd to assume that he’s also very happy in his life. So, they both live their dreams and Mia at least seems to have found the man of her life. You may feel that the story had a sad ending, but did you consider the possibility that the characters were actually happier than ever?

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Now, to explain the ending. The most important question we need to ask here is whose is the vision. The way I see it, there can be two interpretations. The most probable one is that it is Mia who’s imagining the alternative ending. Everything focuses on Mia’s dream in the vision. She performs her play in front of a full theatre, she gets the role, Sebastian follows her in Paris, she becomes a famous actress and has a beautiful child. We see nothing about Sebastian’s dream. The club they enter is someone else’s and we see him following Mia instead of focusing on his dream. If you’re not convinced, remember that the last part of the vision, where the couple gets out of the traffic jam and walks to the club, exists only in Mia’s memory so it can’t be that Sebastian is imagining an alternative version of it when he never experienced the original one in the first place. One has to look no further than the title to realize the meaning of the vision. La-La Land is an idiom for a place that is out of touch with reality. Mia has lived for months in La-La Land with Sebastian. She thought that everything was going to work in a sort of magical way, but eventually she snapped out of it. She realized that her relationship with Sebastian wasn’t going to work and that what she really needed to do was work hard to fulfill her dream. Besides, being with Sebastian was never part of her dream. She only dreamt of becoming an actress. While their relationship was supporting her dream everything was perfect, but it didn’t last for long. So upon seeing him again, she visits La-La Land for one last time. Then, she returns to reality realizing that it was foolish to expect Sebastian to only focus on her instead of her dream and that things were better this way. They have both fulfilled their dreams and they still love each other and are grateful for having each other in their life for a while as this has helped them both advance further. Then they smile! How much happier than this can it get?

The other interpretation is that what we see is nobody’s vision. It is rather a message for us, the audience. The film is trying to tell us that the perfect life and perfect relationship simply don’t exist. This is actually the general meaning of the film and it also applies to the case where the vision is Mia’s. It is pointless to expect for everything to work out in an ideal way. The best thing we can do is focusing on our dreams and believe in them. These are what defines us, we are nothing without our dreams and despite many people’s belief, dreams do come true. Even if there are challenges ahead, even if we get disappointed, we should hang on and pursue our goals until we achieve them. La-La Land and Hollywood worlds don’t exist. Life is much different from that and it’s actually very beautiful if we see it the right way.

Review: La La Land (2016)

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Finally, I got to see La La Land and finally I understood what all the fuss was about. I’m not much into romantic films and so I had my doubts about it. I couldn’t be more wrong! I don’t know if it’s the best film of 2016 (I still have a lot to watch), but it certainly is one of the most amazing and memorable cinematic experiences of the year.

La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, follows Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they’re both trying to fulfill their ambitious dreams in the city of Los Angeles. Mia, currently working in a coffee shop, wants to become a famous actress while Sebastian dreams of revitalizing the jazz scene by creating his own jazz club. They fall in love with each other and together try to achieve their goals. For a while everything seems perfect, but the challenges they face test their faith in both their relationship and their visions.

The film has won a record-breaking 7 Golden Globe Awards and received a record-tying 14 Academy Awards nominations. Surely, you can’t always trust the Academy on deciding which is the best picture of the year, but this many accolades cannot be overlooked. So what is it that makes La La Land so special. Well, first of all, it is technically flawless. Cinematography, editing, costumes and acting are top-notch. Emma Stone is one of my favourite actresses and she is absolutely dazzling. However, two other things are what make the film stand out.

The first is the music. The score of Justin Hurwitz (who also composed the music for Damien Chazelle’s two previous features) is utterly enchanting. Hurwitz also wrote most of the songs with two of those being nominated for an Oscar. It really felt that the songs were woven together, like every song was just another verse of a bigger song. The second thing was its thought-provoking ending. I’m not going to spoil it (you can find my interpretation of it here), I just want to say that I spend days trying to figure out what it meant and what message was the film trying to transmit to the audience. It came out unexpectedly to distinguish the film from the average romance film that, satisfying as it may be for teenage girls, lacks any significant substance.

For these reasons, I believe La La Land will be remembered for years and years to come and I wouldn’t be surprised if it broke the Academy Awards record. Overall, an unforgettable masterpiece!

9/10

Review: Rosemary’s baby (1968)

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I’m not a fan of the horror genre and I have to admit that I get scared easily. There are some films though that I just couldn’t miss and Rosemary’s Baby is one of them. Watching it made me realize once again how big is the gap between our days and the 60’s. The film has nothing to do with horror movies released in the 21st century and actually it isn’t that scary. That’s not to say it isn’t good. On the contrary, it’s a great psychological thriller that keeps you wondering until the very end.

Set in New York City, the story starts with a young couple, Rosemary and Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes respectively), recently married as it seems, who are looking to buy an appartment. They eventually settle in the “Bramford” dismissing their friend Hutch’s (Maurice Evans) scary stories about infamous incidents that happened there. They soon get befriended by the wealthy old couple that lives next to them, Minnie and Roman (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer respectively). When under strange circumstances Rosemary gets pregnant, Minnie and Roman offer their help. Minnie arranges for her to have one of the best obstetricians in the city and prepares a herbal drink for her every day. As the day of delivery comes closer mysterious events start to occur that cause Rosemary to be suspicious of everyone around her.

Roman Polanski proves his immerse talent in this film which is actually his first book adaptation ever. Supposedly, he was unaware that directors often adjusted book stories to make their films, resulting in Rosemary’s Baby  being the most faithful adaptation ever according to the author Ira Levin. Polanski (or maybe we should say Levin) effectively manipulates the audience from the beginning of the film. We are first presented with ominous events and rumours so to get a feeling that something terrible is going to happen. However, as we move on, despite Rosemary’s fears and suspicions, there’s hardly any proof for her outrageous allegations. She suspects her neighbours, but all they do is provide her with a herbal drink. She suspects her obstetrician, but he is one of the most renowned in the city, respected even by people that she trusts like Hutch and Dr. Hill. So, since we only follow the events from her point of view, we begin to doubt her. I mean, it’s only natural for a mother to worry too much for her unborn child. What if all these are just in her imagination and the 2-3 unfortunate events are just coincidences? Unfortunately, the film’s reputation precedes it. I knew something was going to happen from the beginning. It must have been a great experience back in 1968 when the audience was completely unaware of it. It still makes for an exhilarating picture though. The most impressive thing about the film, and the one that differentiates it so much from modern horror films, is that we never see anything visually scary. We don’t see any gory scenes or scary satanic rituals or jump scares. We don’t even get to see a single glimpse of the baby! It’s all in the mind.

Technically, Rosemary’s Baby is flawless. Roman Polanski did an excellent job. The acting is solid and it’s no surprise that Ruth Gordon’s portrayal of the sinister Minnie Castevet won an Oscar. The score is the icing on the cake and the mesmerizing lullaby sung by Mia Farrow at the beginning and end of the film is one of the most memorable and haunting elements of the feature. What else is needed to say when the film is still discussed and analyzed today almost 50 years later? Even the reclusive Stanley Kubrick was reportedly impressed by it. An amazing picture altogether.

9/10

Fun Fact: Hannibal Lecter’s eyes

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Ever wondered how did Anthon Hopkins manage to look so creepy in his portrayal of the psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter? Well, partly this was because of his eyes. If you pay attention to him in the movie, you’ll notice that most of the time he doesn’t blink. Anthony Hopkins said in an interview that he was inspired by a friend of his who never blinked, something that made everyone around him nervous.

Review: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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Agatha Christie, Sidney Lumet, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Albert Finney, what could possibly go wrong? Well, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. I haven’t read the book, but I have the feeling that the story is too complex to be translated into a 2-hour theatrical release. It’s still a great whodunnit though and one of the most well-known adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books.

The story starts by informing us about a tragic incident in 1930. A young girl was kidnapped and then found murdered even though ransom for her life was paid. Five years later, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express to London accompanied by all sorts of interesting people. While travelling through Yugoslavia, one of the passengers is found murdered and in the meantime, the train stops because of a snowstorm. Poirot takes over investigation and is determined to find who is the killer among the passengers.The story is as challenging  and intriguing as it can possibly be. Everyone is a suspect, but who had the means and the motive to commit the murder? As Poirot questions passenger after passenger, it seems that many of them had a motive and connections with the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong 5 years ago make things even more complex.

Of course, we have Agatha Christie to thank for the story, but what about the rest of the film? What about acting, directing, cinematography and music? Well, unfortunately, none of these is as expected. The cast consists of some of the greatest actors of the time, but Albert Finney seems unconvincing as Poirot. I’m struggling to understand how he got an Oscar nomination. Ingrid Bergman is good, but still not good enough for the Oscar she won. If there is one that stands out for me, this is Lauren Bacall as the intolerable Mrs. Hubbard. Anthony Perkins is very good too. Murder on the Orient Express, is far from Sidney Lumet’s best pictures (12 Angry Men, Network). I got tired of seeing the train moving on after each scene. The screenplay has its flaws too. For several suspects, Poirot seems to arrive at conclusions without sufficient evidence yet nobody argues with him. Surely, as I said above, it wasn’t an easy task to adapt such a novel. It’s still a very easy watch, that keeps you thinking until the final moments when the quite unexpected events concerning the murder are revealed.

6/10

Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film is an insightful study of how people deal with loss, grief and trauma. A very powerful movie indeed that aims to show us that love can be healing and hope is always present. The story is unfolded slowly and requires our patience, but by the time it’s over, we realize that it has taught us many a lesson.

Our main character is Lee (Casey Affleck), an ordinary working man who lives in Boston. At the beginning, he seems like a normal single man who carries his everyday job with no flaws, no complains and most notably, no smiles. Until someday, he learns that his brother is dead, which forces him to go back to his hometown, Manchester, Minnesota, and take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose mother has left the family. Meanwhile, we get to see flashbacks of Lee’s former life in Manchester. There is a striking difference between the past and the present: Lee used to be happy. He had a wife (Michelle Williams), three children, his friends, his brother. So what happened? Well, a tragic mistake has cost him everything and continues to haunt him. Combined with all the memories he has to face in his hometown now, Lee is a wreck. 

Surprisingly, what seems to be a heavy burden, becomes his salvation. Lee is reluctant to become Patrick’s guardian, but as it turns out, their relationship becomes his redemption. It seems that he has forgotten how it is to care for someone. It seems that he has finally a reason to live, something that he lacked for some time. He is not expressive, not at all. However, you can see that his life with Patrick does him good. It is obvious when in the last scene he does something he hasn’t done in quite a while: he smiles. Not just a smirk or a movement of his lips, but a true, heartfelt smile.

The film is powerful and filled with emotion and it’s impressive how Kenneth Lonergan can transmit so many feelings through a character so self-contained. Casey Affleck delivers the performance of his life with the rest of the cast doing an excellent job as well. What I loved the most was how beautiful the picture was both visually and aurally. I was surprised when I noticed that although the film was nominated for a lot of awards, it got no nominations for the score apart from a Satellite award. I hope that next month’s Oscars will not overlook it. If there is something missing from Manchester by the Sea, it is a climax. Every scene seems like another day in the life, nothing too memorable. This is the only drawback (if you can call it a drawback) I could note. I’m afraid this may result in the film being forgotten in the near future, so you’d better go watch it now.

8/10

Review: Interstellar (2014)

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Christopher Nolan’s most recent film is an epic adventure in space filled with science and philosophy as the characters go into an interstellar expedition in order to save humanity. It is I think the British director’s most mature work and it could have been his best picture if not for its disappointing ending. One can’t avoid drawing comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (one of Christopher Nolan’s favourite films). Interstellar is indeed an odyssey of its own, but it ultimately fails where 2001 succeeds.

The story is quite long and can be split into three parts. The first part (the first 40 minutes) takes place in earth at some point in the future when a kind of space dust has filled the planet eventually causing a food shortage. People are only concentrated in surviving. Most of them become farmers and as a result, technological advance is put aside. Our main character is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer who is struggling to adapt to his new life as a farmer while raising his son and daughter. Murph, his daughter, is a brilliant kid with a great interest in science as her father. One day she claims that a ghost is trying to send some messages to her through the books in her room. Cooper translates one of those messages (without understanding their source), and it leads him to a secret base where what is left of NASA is trying to carry out a mission to find an inhabitable planet. They mention that they also have been conducted by seemingly supernatural forces that they believe to be 5-dimension beings. Cooper is chosen to pilot the spaceship Endurance joined by the scientists Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) as well as two robots.

The second part takes place in space. The goal is to pass through a wormhole near Saturn that will lead them to another galaxy where three previous missions, each for a different planet, have reached planets that can possibly be inhabitable. The plan is to find the best of these three planets and if possible go back to earth to bring all remaining people to this new planet (Plan A). If resources do not allow for a journey back to earth, the plan is to use fertilized eggs they carry with them to create a colony and preserve the human kind (Plan B). Note that these planets are very close to a giant black hole which decelerates time which results in Cooper’s children becoming older than him. I don’t want to go into any more details. Let’s just say that the first two planets didn’t work and the resources left were very limited so Cooper manages to send what is left of Endurance into the third planet sacrificing himself in the process by falling into the black hole. Brand, the only remaining member of the crew, is supposed to follow plan B in this planet.

Before I talk about the third and last part, which is actually only the last 30 minutes, I want to comment on how good this second part was. It was amazing! Everything about it was a masterpiece: the visual effects, the score, the imagery, the story, everything. Most of all though, the dialogues. As I mentioned above the film also gets philosophical at times amidst the so well-researched scientific script. You listen to the astronauts talking about supermassive black holes and the next moment they discuss about love being a total mystery that overcomes the barriers of space and time. It was much more though-provoking than I expected. The idea alone that a time may come when earth won’t have the necessary ingredients to sustain human life is terribly frightening. The main theme of the film I think is survival and how far people are determined to go in order to survive. What would you do if you have to choose between the people you love and the preservation of the human kind? I hope we never come to face this dilemma.

And then comes the last part, the ending. This is where everything goes wrong. We discover that the ghost and these 5-dimension beings are actually future humans who have evolved into much more powerful beings and allow for Cooper to send messages in the past to help the people of his age. Then, we learn that Murph and her team managed to create a station that can travel in space and save a lot of people, Cooper somehow is transferred there from the black hole and Brand starts a new human colony in the third planet. All this carefully taken care of scientific background becomes something closer to fantasy. First of all there’s the predestination paradox we so often come across in sci-fi movies. How did future humans survive if they needed Cooper to send these messages to NASA? And even if there is an explanation for that as some people claim, why didn’t future humans make things a bit easier? They could travel through time and they supposedly created the wormhole that made the whole plan possible. Couldn’t they create a wormhole next to the earth so that everyone could be saved? Couldn’t they inform people about the best possible planet? And if NASA created a station in space that could sustain life for thousands of people, couldn’t it do the same in the Earth saving many more? Maybe Christopher Nolan just wanted a happy ending. Maybe he wanted to satisfy people who didn’t care much about science. For me, the last minutes only managed to ruin my impression of the previous 2 hours.

In any case Interstellar is a great and very engaging film and its technical aspects are amazing. The ending made the plot seem a bit faulty, but this doesn’t make it a bad film. In fact I would recommend it to everyone. You never know, maybe there is a pretty good and scientific explanation for everything and I’m completely wrong. Maybe this is why 2001 is better. Kubrick knew which answers he could answer and which he could not. So instead of coming up with some out-of-place explanations about the monolith and evolution, he just leaves everything open for interpretation letting the movie speak for itself. I wish Interstellar did the same.

8/10

 

Fun Fact: The Shining Bat Swinging Scene

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According to the Guinness Books of Records, the scene where Shelley Duvall swings a bat at Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, has the record for number of retakes with 127 shots. The filming was indeed a real struggle for the actors as perfectionism was at a whole different level. The scene where Scatman Crothers explains the Shining was shot so many times that reportedly the actor broke down crying “What do you want mr Kubrick?”. It’s perhaps no surprise that Jack Nicholson swore never to work with Stanley Kubrick again.

Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

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Hell or High Water is easily one of the best movies of the year. Set in Texas, this suspenseful crime thriller reminded me of older classics where the bad guys suddenly become your heroes. It was one of the most pleasant surprises back in the summer of 2016 which was mostly filled with flop blockbusters. Somehow, I only got to see it in January.

The film was directed by David MacKenzie and follows the story of two brothers that try to raise money to save their deep in debt family ranch. Toby, the younger brother (Chris Pine), realizes that he has no other option than to steal money and chooses a local bank as his target. Tanner (Ben Foster), his unpredictable and dangerous ex-con older brother agrees to help him. They follow a methodical plan targeting small branches of Texas Midlands, the bank that is about to foreclose their ranch. Naturally, they get the attention of the police and the soon-to-be retired ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). Hell or high water eventually does come as the plot reaches its climax leaving the viewer with a bittersweet feeling.

The impressive thing about this film is the way it makes you feel about its characters. You see a homicidal Ben Foster saying “I love you little brother” and hope that he gets away with the money. The next moment you see Jeff Bridges crying over his dead partner and wish he gets Ben Foster in the head. By the time the ending credits roll, you can’t tell for certain what is wrong or right, good or evil.

The acting is solid throughout the movie. Jeff Bridges, one of my favourite actors, deservedly got a golden globe nomination. Ben Foster was awesome too and he should get more attention after this. The other very strong aspect of the film was the soundtracks. A mix of country, blues and classic rock, the songs seem to be the perfect choice for each scene. Gillian Welch’s I’m not afraid to die playing as the brothers share their nostalgic moments during what might be their last day in the ranch where they grew up, is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while. After three Golden Globe nominations (with no wins unfortunately), I really hope it gets rewarded in next month’s Academy Awards.

8/10