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Alien: Covenant – Review

28 May

Since 1979, the Alien series has been consistently revisited. The original film is a classic, and the same can be said about James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, which is my personal favorite in the series. David Fincher’s Alien 3 is a major disappointment, and an all around ugly film, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection is an off kilter, almost comic book adaptation. It’s an odd one but I like it. Ridley Scott returned to the series with his 2012 prequel Prometheus, which opened up a lot of new doors for the series and left many people scratching their heads and asking questions. Well, it’s time for those questions to be answered because we have a new movie in the series, and I was really hyped up for it. Alien: Covenant is a rollicking, violent, and disturbing summer blockbuster that filled me with plenty of emotions and made my gag reflexes work some overtime. This is a welcome addition to the series.

In 2104, the colonization ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6, which will become a new home to humanity. After a disaster hits the ship, Walter (Michael Fassbender), the android watching the ship, wakes the rest of the crew from stasis. With the ship’s captain dead, the next in command is the faith based Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup). After receiving a signal from a nearby planet that looks habitable, the crew decides to check it out, much to the protests of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the terraforming expert onboard the Covenant. On the planet, members of the crew are soon infected by spores which then produce creatures that erupt out of the bodies of the crew. They soon meet David (Fassbender again), who survived the Prometheus mission and is hiding out in a temple that holds more secrets than the Covenant team was expecting. Soon it’s the aliens against the humans, and David’s true motivations make survival all the more difficult.

When watching an Alien movie, I expect a certain kind of standard, and some of the movies in the series do not meet the criteria. This one certainly does despite some obvious flaws in character and storytelling. Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way first. For one thing, there’s a certain character that is completely wasted, and it isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this happen in this series. Sure, there’s a moment of shock when this character’s fate is revealed, but it kind of left me wishing I could have seen more of them. There’s also a lot of exposition that crowds the middle of the movie, but a lot of this exposition is dishonest, which leads to more exposition, which then leads to confusion. Any fan of Prometheus may have well guessed that this prequel trilogy is not going to be a straightforward one, and the confusion and questions that Covenant raises just adds to that theory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when this all happens in a murky and dark and muddled part of the movie, that’s when there’s a little bit of a problem.

Much like the other films in this franchise, Alien: Covenant has a slow start, but that’s a wise way to tell this story in the grand scheme of things. Tension is built up for a long time, and when that tension is finally released, the screen explodes with terror and gore and just outrageous violence that sometimes made my stomach turn. This is easily the most violent Alien movie, and it shocked me in more ways than one. When an alien first explodes out of a crew members body, my mouth was side open at the shamelessness of it all. Ridley Scott clearly wanted this reaction and he sure got it. It’s so fun to be in a movie theater and hear gasps coming from all around the auditorium. The intensity in this movie is amped up to 11 and a lot of this comes from the incredible production design. The claustrophobia of the ships and the wide open spaces on the planet’s surface makes it very clear that no one is safe in this movie. There is one computerized effect that looked kind of weird, but the rest of the movie looked excellent.

Alien: Covenant takes what happens in Prometheus and builds off of it, so it would be hard to like this movie without liking its predecessor. The world building in Covenant is awesome and motivations for the characters feel very strong and often times tragic. A lot of the success has to do with Fassbender’s performance as both Walter and David. He is the crux of this whole prequel trilogy and he brings more menace to the screen than I was expecting. He is the perfect villain that this series needs and his calmness plays off the chaos of the xenomorphs perfectly. This is one of those movies that made me excited to see what more the series has to offer, and I really can’t wait to see what happens next, but that’s a review for another time.

Alien: Covenant isn’t the best film in the series, but it is the best film since Aliens and it’s just the sequel that Prometheus needed. This film is also not for the squeamish, but long time fans of the Alien series probably expect nothing less. Still, this movie managed to shock and horrify while also building the science fiction universe of androids, aliens, heroes, and the evil Weyland Corporation quite well. Fans of the series will have to check out this one out. If I  had to rank this movie, I’d say it’s my third favorite Alien film.

Final Grade: B+

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X-Men: Apocalypse – Review

13 Jun

Ever since X-Men was first released back in 2000, there’s been a slew of movies added to this series to make it one of the biggest superhero franchises of all time. Some of these entries have been outstanding, like X2: X-Men United and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Others have become something of a bad joke, like X-Men 3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It really seems like the makers had absolutely no idea what to actually do with the material, and what we have left is a storyline filled with time travel, alternate universes, and people dying and coming back to life. It’s all very hard to keep track of. Now we have X-Men: Apocalypse, a film that tries to tie up a lot of loose ends while also introducing some of the most badass characters to the universe to date. This movie may be a bit of a mess, but it’s still a strong installment in the series.

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Thousands of years ago, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), also known as Apocalypse, is betrayed and buried hundreds of feet below ground. Jump to 1983 in what is now Cairo. Apocalypse finally awakens and moves to the surface to start a plan that will rid Earth of the humans who have “destroyed” the planet so that the “strong” can keep living. This presence is soon felt by Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) who is still running the ever growing school for mutants to learn how to harness their abilities. As Xavier tries to pinpoint and identify what’s cause this disturbance he’s feeling, Apocalypse begins recruiting his soldiers including Psylocke (Olivia Munn), a young Ororo Monroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and a completely broken down and hopeless Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). As the might of Apocalypse is being wrought all throughout the world, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and a group of young mutants find their way to the Professor in order to stop En Sabah Nur from fulfilling his ultimate plan.

While this movie features many of the same actors we’ve seen in First Class and Days of Future Past, there are also a good amount of new faces. I’ve already said that I love James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto, and while I don’t like what’s happening to her character, Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique very well. I’d much rather look at some of the new faces. Sophia Turner is note perfect as a young Jean Grey, as is Tye Sheridan as a young Scott Summers/Cyclops. Alexandra Shipp is also perfectly cast as a young Storm, complete with an accent and back story. Let’s be real though. The stand out of this movie is Apocalypse, himself. Apocalypse is one of the coolest villains Marvel has ever created, and Oscar Isaac is absolutely menacing. He doesn’t even need to be speaking to be terrifying. The looks he gives his enemies is so full of powerful confidence and violence, mixed with the excellent make up that was applied. He steals the show and is one of the stand out characters, for me, in the entire franchise.

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X-Men: Apocalypse has some of the coolest moments in the entire series, which I will most certainly get to later. I also would like to point out that it also has some of the most tedious and pointless moments in the entire series. The movie starts out well enough and there’s more set up that happens than you might expect, but that’s ok. I was going with it for a while. However, there’s a part in the middle that is completely unnecessary to the plot concerning Apocalypse. Anyone who’s seen this movie knows what scene I mean, and it definitely is a cool scene, but I couldn’t help but feel like I got off at the wrong exit and had to turn back around to get back to where I wanted to be. It would’ve been fine, but once that whole section was over it was never discussed again and had no effect on the main story. Plus, I have to say that the X-Men timeline and continuity has gotten so out of control it’s best to just watch these movies and not think too hard about how they all lead into each other.

Now that we got all that garbage out of the way, I’d like to get back to all the awesome stuff. I’ve already mentioned how epic I think Apocalypse is, so let’s move on to more. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver, and if you thought he was cool in Days of Future Past, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Not only does he get a cooler slow motion scene, but he also gets to do more with the X-Men and has a dramatic arc that brings a lot to his character. I also have to give a huge shout out to the people who worked on the sound and visual effects. Apocalypse’s awakening made the ground rumble and got me so pumped for the rest of the movie. Meanwhile the CGI in the final battle was epic. Things were flying all over the place, buildings were collapsing, and all hell was just breaking loose. This is a really well made movie and acts as further proof that Bryan Singer is the X-Men guy.

X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t the best entry in the series, but it’s also far from being the worst. In fact, it’s a perfectly competent and often times exhilarating exercise in the super hero genre. This series seems to have gone on since the beginning of time, and after seeing this one I’ve realized that I’m nowhere near ready to see these movies cease to exist. They’re just too much fun to forget about.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Review

11 Jun

The X-Men franchise, which has been around for over a decade (their movies at least), is a franchise that has had some strong up and some really strong downs. Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2: X-Men United were both triumphant examples of how a superhero movie should be made. That’s when tragedy struck. X3: X-Men United was a complete disaster that ruined everything Singer had done, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a mediocre entry, and The Wolverine was downright boring. Only with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class did the series seem to get its footing once again with one of the best entries of the franchise. Now, Singer’s back in the director’s chair and has created the most exciting, dramatic, and action packed entries yet, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

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The future is a bleak place for both humans and mutants. Giant robots called Sentinels have ravaged the planet killing both mutants and normal people who have the mutant gene, leaving the world completely devastated. It is revealed that the cause of this is because the mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated the designer of the Sentinels, Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), and prompted the government to capture her and use her genes to create the murderous robots and making Trask appear as some sort of martyr for humankind. Now, the only chance of survival lies with a small group of remaining X-Men, particularly Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose consciousness is sent back in time by Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) to bring together the young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and find Mystique to stop her before she can carry out her assassination. Meanwhile, in the future, the Sentinels are closing in on the X-Men’s hide out, forcing the survivors to fight for their lives so Wolverine can complete his near impossible mission.

Of course, I’m leaving a lot out of that quick little plot summary because there really is so much going on in this movie, to the point that it’s almost mind boggling. Time travel movies are rarely simple, but I found that this one was not too difficult to understand, and that has a lot to do with the writing and directing. I could tell, right from the opening scene (which might be one of the most violent scenes in this entire series) that this movie was not only going to be entertaining, but it was also going to impress me. There’s so much to love in this movie from the action and drama to its strong sense of style and humor. Finally, but the end, it becomes obvious that Bryan Singer fixed everything that was ruined, at least for the most part.

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One of the most impressive parts of this movie is the cast, but I feel like that really goes without saying. When I first heard that the casts from both the original X-Men movies and First Class were going to be in the same movie that involves Sentinels and time travel, I was immediately down with the entire idea. Everyone really brings their A-game to this film as well. Hugh Jackman gives his expected performance as Wolverine, which has really been a perfect combination right from the start. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen also give their expected performances as well, which says a lot because I’ve never seen them off their game in anything that they’ve been in. In my opinion though, the real scene stealers come from the people in the past. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have difficult jobs in this entry, being that both of their characters appear to be at the lowest points in their lives. McAvoy, especially, delivers his lines with such emotion and power, it’s hard not to get just a little choked up. How could I forget Evan Peters, though, and his brief role as Quicksilver? Not only was his brief role one of the most memorable parts of the movie, but it also showed Singer’s strength as a film maker.

To go off from the main story a little bit, this movie got me very curious for what’s to come with the X-Men movie franchise. The post credit scene was crazy enough, but I just mean with things that were added in the plot itself. It’s almost as if Bryan Singer was standing on the side, wiping off his hands, and proclaiming “There. I fixed it.” Not only is the story put completely back on track, but there’s finally some style that’s returned in both the writing and the directing. That being said, kudos have to be given to the screenwriter, Simon Kinberg.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is, without a doubt, the best entry in this franchise and is also a refreshingly awesome and dramatic summer blockbuster. There’s a lot to marvel at with the outstanding special effects that add a level of epicness, but the dramatic story and social critique is just as excellent. The characters aren’t stupid and neither is the story, which only makes this film all the better. If you’re looking to just be mildly entertained, watch X-Men Origins. If you want to be blown right out of your seats with pure amazement, check out Days of Future Past.

 

12 Years a Slave – Review

12 Jan

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that spectacular time of year called award season is upon us. It’s a time when film lovers get together and argue or agree on the nominations and predicted winners of all the major awards. It’s also a time where I have to catch up on all the great movies of the year that I may have missed. This is where 12 Years a Slave comes in. Being nominated for over 100 different awards, this is a film that is getting some major recognition, and I was really excited to see it. Well, it was a really good movie that showed terrible things in an uncompromising way. While this may be required viewing, I have major problems with the artistic execution, and the flaws in its presentation made 12 Years a Slave more disappointing than I would have wanted it to be.

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Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and two children. After two white men drug him and illegally strip him of his freedom, he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) where he works on his plantations as a slave. After a violent altercation with one of Ford’s carpenters, Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) for his own protection. Unfortunately, Epps isn’t as understanding as Ford. Epps is an alcoholic and violent towards his slaves, especially to Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave woman who is constantly abused by Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson). As Northup waits for his opportunity to free himself from Epps, he must watch and be subjected to the horror that was slavery.

It needs to be said that this is a great movie. There really is no doubt about it. The acting is the shining beacon of this entire things. Everyone, and I mean everyone, give amazing performances. Ejiofor carries the weight of his role was superb talent, proving that this part couldn’t have been casted any better. His facial expressions alone speak more words than any line of dialogue written. Fassbender deserves an Academy Award for his work as Epps, the character that strikes as much fear into his victims as Ralph Fiennes did in Schindler’s List. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o has set a career in motion that I’d love to see blossom. These are just a few of this huge cast that struck hard with their performances. Without these believable and talented actors, 12 Years a Slave wouldn’t be as powerful as it is.

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Along with the powerful acting comes powerful imagery. Director Steve McQueen is no stranger when it comes to visual punishment. Hunger was not an easy movie to sit through, and Shame, although visually tamer, was no picnic either. Both are still fascinating films and great to look at, and 12 Years a Slave is no different. There are beautifully executed long takes, amazing nature shots, and other camera work that makes it feel like it is another character in the film. This is a really great addition to the film, but it’s also where 12 Years a Slave begins to fail.

When a movie with a storyline as moving, horrifying, and tragic as this one is, I expect the director to keep a focused eye on the plot. Unfortunately for this film, McQueen gets a little out of hand with showing the beauty of the South. There are way too many shots of trees and lakes and flowers, which only became a distraction as the movie went on. I understand his showing a beautiful South as a backdrop for such horror, but that only goes so far. By the third act, I was getting sick of the unnecessary shots of nature, and long takes for the sake of long takes. Some just never ended. These problems drag the movie down so much and make me really disappointed. These may seem trivial, but if you’ve seen the movie you may know what I mean.

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12 Years a Slave tells a story, not just of one man, but of the struggle of an entire race in a very dark time of American history. I applaud the movie and McQueen for showing such an uncompromising look at this time, and I also applaud the actors for giving such incredible performances, be they human or horrific. I’m still disappointed, and I really don’t want to be. This is in no way a bad movie, it’s a great movie. Unfortunately, the over-stylization of certain scenes make the movie slow down and lose focus of what is actually happening. I still stand by my point that this is required viewing, even with its artistic flaws.

Fish Tank – Review

2 Oct

I was first exposed to the work of Andrea Arnold in my first screenwriting class when the professor put on one of her short films called Wasp. This was a pretty incredible short film that showed a realistic depiction of the lower middle class in Britain, but more importantly, it showed the struggles of a family. The drama was never overdone and it was a very personal story. Now I can add Fish Tank to the list of Arnold’s movies that I have seen, and although the story is a lot more dramatic than that of Wasp, it still doesn’t seem like it couldn’t happen. In fact, this is one of the best examples of realism I have ever seen.

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Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a fifteen year old girl living in a council estate with her mother and her younger sister. She is on the path to destruction with the type of people that she associates with and how her mother treats her. Her only solace can be found in dancing to hip hop. Her life undergoes a drastic change when her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), starts hanging around and making his way into their lives. Mia takes a surprising liking to Connor that she doesn’t really understand, but this connection flips her and her entire family’s life upside down.

This doesn’t really seem like the kind of movie that I’d run out to the store and spend a good amount of money on. The only reason I did purchase it was because I saw that Andrea Arnold made the film and Michael Fassbender had a starring role. When I actually saw what the story was about, I wasn’t to thrilled about actually watching. This just goes to show that I need to learn not to judge a movie before I see it, because Fish Tank is a really powerful movie in both its realism and its multiple layers of thematic material and a cast of characters whose problems really hit you where it hurts.

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I keep using the word “realism” to describe this movie, but that’s because it really is an excellent example of British realism. Italian Neo-Realism was a popular movement in the early to mid 1900s, but now the British are having their turn at the realist style. Every where from the down to earth acting, the complete lack of extravagant lighting, and the very natural set pieces really turn this movie into something special. The locations, save for a few, have this grit to them that makes the places seem livable, but not too comfortable. In terms of the camera work, a lot of it is steadicam, and Arnold seems to relish in tracking shots to pull the viewer in to the character’s lives more and make them forget that they are watching a movie.

So while there is a lot of minimalism of style when it comes to the set design and other aesthetic areas of this movie, the acting is on par with the story. Katie Jarvis gives an outstanding performance where, as cliché as it might sound, you can see the pain and confusion in her eyes. Matching Jarvis’ naïve angst is Fassbender’s pleasant, yet suspicious, personality. Seeing the two characters clash works so well because the writing and the performances are all spot on.

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So while Fish Tank doesn’t seem like my first choice of a movie to watch, I am in no way disappointed in what I saw. The story was understated at first, but really winds up into something explosive, without ever going overboard. While the movie could be a tad shorter, that is really my only complaint. If you don’t mind a slow pace and a minimal, gritty style, Fish Tank is an excellent drama that you should check out.

Haywire – Review

23 Aug

There’s a lot of things about Haywire that made me really excited. For one thing, Steven Soderbergh is one of my favorite directors and seeing him tackle an espionage action/thriller film would be awesome. Secondly, the cast looked out of this world awesome, with the lead  character being an MMA fighter. And finally, I heard nothing but great things about the action sequences. I felt concerned right before the film started that I would be disappointed with it, and disappointment with this movie would be a big letdown.

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Mallory (Gina Carano) is the top employee of a company, led by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), which gets hired out by different corporations to get certain jobs done. This time, the contractor is American government official Coblenz (Michael Douglas) and his Spanish contact, Rodrigo (Antonio Bandaras).  The mission goes well but she is soon betrayed by another agent, Paul (Michael Fassbender), which starts her on a mission of vengeance that will rope in her father (Bill Paxton) and a close employee (Channing Tatum).

It’s difficult to summarize this movie because there are so many twists and turns packed into a 90 minute movie. What I gave is pretty skeletal, but I certainly don’t want to ruin the movie, especially one that is as entertaining as this! Steven Soderbergh does it again, and this time he takes the spy genre and throws his own unique vision over it all. The only thing that really wears the film down is its plot. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it seemed to just take a back seat to everything else. It’s a simple story with a lot of complex twists and characters. In that sense it became more about the action and the characters more than the story, which is fine, but it’s sort of weird for this genre of film.

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This cast is way too big to ignore. Gina Carano, who is known for being an MMA fighter, does fine but can come off as a little flat sometimes. More on her later though. Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Bandaras are adequately sleazy and easy to distrust right off the bat. I really liked Michael Douglas’ performance as the government official who is working for himself, pretty much. I still don’t know what he’s all about and Douglas played it perfectly. Bill Paxton was fine, nothing too special, but fine nonetheless. Now we come to Channing Tatum. Ok, I see why people don’t like him, but I stand by a statement I previously made in another review. If you put him with the right director and/or give him the right role, he acts very well. This is one of those times, and Soderbergh also seems to agree, casting him in Magic Mike and Side Effects as well.

Now this is the part I really want to talk about. The action sequences. You know how cool the fight sequences are in The Bourne Identity and its sequels? Well, picture those scenes, with a camera that is far from the action, and completely still. Those are the fight scenes in Haywire. This is where Carano shines the most. Using her skills as an MMA fighter, the interesting camera placement by Soderbergh, and the lack of any music, these fight scenes are really something to behold. You can see every punch, kick, or defensive maneuver that a character does, and the sounds of grunts, hits, and broken bones only help to immerse you in what is happening.

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Haywire is definitely a great way to spend 90 minutes of your time. With Soderbergh’s attention to style, the action sequences, and the all star cast, Haywire is a surprisingly memorable movie. There are plenty of ways to mess up an espionage film, but this one borrows from the ’60s and reinvents itself into something new. I recommend Haywire to everyone. It’s awesome.

Hunger – Review

27 Feb

Not too long ago, I did a review for the film Michael Collins, which told the story of the early days of the IRA, with the focal point being Collins, himself. For this review, I will be returning to the subject of the IRA, but in a completely different way with Steve McQueen’s film Hunger. Take everything you have learned about biopics and throw them all out the window. This is a biopic like no other. It is a gripping experience that will leave you pondering your own moral beliefs.

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The year: 1981. The place: Maze Prison in Ireland. Members of the IRA are held in this jail without being granted rights that are given to political prisoners. These rights involve the uniform policy and visitations, among other things. After a long running “no wash” protest is broken apart by the guards, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) decides to take these protests to the extreme. He proposes a hunger strike to anyone who wants to be a part of it. He is the first to protest, and we have to watch.

In terms of story, Hunger doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. It definitely does have a story to tell and it tells it well, but in a very unconventional way. The first half of the movie isn’t so much about Bobby Sands than it is about creating the atmosphere and way of life of Maze Prison. During this time, we don’t grow to hate the guards or any of the prisoners. This film doesn’t offer you the chance to take a side. Instead it purely shows what happens in the most beautiful way possible. That’s what really hit me about this movie. McQueen has taken such an ugly event and turned it into a wonderful work of art.

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Seeing an actor get so deep into a role can be an unsettling thing. I think a very good example would be Christian Bale in The Machinist. I wanted to use that example so I could segue easily to Fassbender’s performance in Hunger. Like Bale, he lost an obscene amount of weight for scenes in the latter half of the movie where Sands is slowly deteriorating. He looks terrible, and McQueen feeds off this. There is nothing held back, which may be a turn off to some, but others will appreciate the realism which seems almost undramatized.

The artistic element of this movie is completely out of this world. For the first quarter of the movie, there is barely anything said. The story relies on the framing of the shots and the physical performances of the actors. Then, in what must be on of the biggest game changers in film history, there is a 17 minute long take of Sands and his priest friend engaging in brilliantly layered thematic dialogue about protests, morality, and death. McQueen proves that he isn’t afraid to take major chances in order to get his artistic vision on screen.

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Like I said before, this is a biopic like no other. Calling Hunger a story about Bobby Sands wouldn’t be doing the film justice. It’s an examination at a time period in a culture that has been uprooted, changed, and fought over for many years. Being entertained by this movie is asking a lot. Hunger isn’t so much entertaining as it is an immersive experience that must be seen and felt to really appreciate it. Artistically, this film is beautiful and Fassbender gives an outstanding performance that proves he is one of the most powerful actors of our time.