Film Reviews by WS

Welcome to WS's film reviews page. WS has written 33 reviews and rated 320 films.

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Orphee

If you liked “A Matter of Life and Death” you’ll probably like Orphée.

(Edit) 10/11/2017

Orphée is based on the Greek myth in which Orpheus, a musician who is the son of the god Apollo, goes into the Underworld in search of his recently deceased wife, Eurydice. Hades, the god of the Underworld, agrees to release her under one condition; Orpheus must not look back at his wife as she follows him back to the surface world. He complies at first, but makes the mistake of stealing a backward glance to check that Eurydice really is following him, and thereby loses her a second time. He is later killed and gets to be reunited with Eurydice.

In the film the story is transposed to the artistic scene of 1950s Paris, in which Orphée (Orpheus) is a poet. I did not find the love triangle element of the story wholly convincing, and it has a somewhat contrived happy ending. But it is an ingenious take on the myth, it cleverly integrates modern artefacts into the story (car radios and mirrors) and the special effects are charming although low-tech. The Underworld is portrayed as a deserted and decaying city in a state of perpetual night, in actuality an abandoned military academy. Jean Marais is very convincing in the lead role as the poet torn between his obsessive dedication to his work and his love for his wife.

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Volver

Volver - a review

(Edit) 10/11/2017

A wonderfully energetic and life-affirming film about female friendship, initiative and entrepreneurship, the pain of having to keep secrets from your children, the contrast between city and village life in modern Spain, ageing, ghosts, and much more besides.

Romance doesn’t play much of a role in the plot – all the women are either single, widowed or in rapidly failing marriages. But their singularity isn’t dwelt on or lamented - it’s just the way things are. The men generally don’t get much screen time. It wouldn't be accurate to say they are all swine, however, since Emilio responds sympathetically on learning that Raimunda has re-opened the restaurant without his permission, after hearing about her financial problems. Great performances from the cast, I especially liked the interaction between Raimunda and her sister Soledad (Lola Duenas), but it still wouldn't have been the same film without Carmen Maura as their elderly mother. Yohana Cobo is also very convincing as the teenage daughter who has had to grow up fast to cope with the strain of living in an economically insecure and fractious household - her body language is very much that of a 14 year old but she speaks with the wisdom and experience of an adult.

I feel obliged to say that there is a possible plot weakness involving the death of a male character early on and its cover-up; even if he was unemployed with no close relatives I found it a little implausible that there be would no-one who could report him missing and spark an investigation. But despite this flaw I still enjoyed it a lot more than the other two Almodovars I have seen, "Talk to her" and "All about my mother".

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Toni Erdmann

Won't win everyone over

(Edit) 07/10/2017

Inevitably a divisive film, it seems to have been more of a critics' than an audience favourite. I can think of a number of reasons why many viewers will find it alienating and unapproachable.

Winfried is an oddball who doesn't readily fit into any stock-character mould. An irrepressible prankster, he lacks the swagger and bombast that you would expect to go with it – he has a sort of sadness and air of permanent defeat about him, and you can't help wondering whether his clowning is just a way of coping with some unknown tragedy or setback he has had in past. His daughter is also rather difficult to read – she comes across as highly-strung yet never fragile or vulnerable, good at coping with pressure but never really letting her guard down even when she’s with her friends.

Structurally, it feels a little messy. There are redundant scenes that fail to advance the plot or give additional depth to the characters, and I believe at least ten minutes could have been trimmed painlessly from the running time (not including the notorious “petit-fours” scene). And as one other reviewer has observed, it is competently shot but not very visually rich – for example, little thought has been put into giving it a consistent palette or “look”, unlike that other recent German hit, The Lives of Others.

It has a political dimension but lacks real political punch – I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, just that it is understated and non-didactic. We learn early on that Ines' assignment is to promote outsourcing at any oil company, implying loss of jobs and worse employment conditions for the workers - but it’s not clear why we should care. We don’t get to meet any ordinary, working-class Romanians until fairly late, then we see one man get fired but that's partly his own fault. One might also expect some incisive comments about workplace gender politics. But despite encountering some fairly mild, non-malevolent sexism, you don’t really get the feeling that Ines is undervalued just for being a woman. Maternity leave, for example, is never raised as an issue (she has no evident aspirations that way). In fact the one power relationship that struck me as particularly iniquitous was between Ines and her Romanian PA, Anca. There was something queasy about the latter's eagerness to please and willingness to follow orders unquestioningly. For instance, when Ines gets blood on her white blouse before a presentation, she gets Anca to swap tops with her, and Anca even apologises that it's not her best one.

The ending is one that can be interpreted it in different ways; it could be seen as either sad or happy depending on what mood you’re in, but either way it doesn’t seem to provide a clear-cut resolution to any of the characters’ life problems.

It is a film about a clash of cultures and world-views, and perhaps articulates a particularly German sense of unease about whether their country can be a force for good internationally. It is about what we are in danger of losing as a society and perhaps have already irretrievably lost. The idealists of the late 60s-early 70’s are sometimes dismissed as wreckers and nihilists, but Winfried’s idealism is really a species of conservatism – he values kindness, hospitality, human interaction and the dignity of the individual, all of which is, unintentionally, being put at risk by Generation X’s “pragmatic” embrace of free-market capitalism.

For me it doesn’t quite achieve “flawed masterpiece” status – I don’t know whether it’s the unevenness of the comedy, the absence of a traditional character arc, or uninspired cinematography. But still it improved on second viewing – I found more laugh-out-loud moments and I found some of the father-daughter scenes moving in spite of the kookiness of the characters and situations. And I like films that don't tie up all the loose ends - after all, real life doesn't tidy up after itself, so why should cinema?

So, three-and-a-half stars rounded up.

6 out of 6 members found this review helpful.

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La La Land

So-so Land

(Edit) 13/09/2017

I enjoyed this a bit more than I was expecting to. The cinematography and production design is gorgeous, I found the characters relatable, Emma Stone's performance was very affecting and I felt she deserved her Oscar. Ryan Gosling doesn't dazzle to the same extent but again I was pleasantly surprised. I'd mainly seen him playing amiable rogues or tough guys (Ides of March, Place Beyond the Pines, Half-Nelson) and was sceptical of his being a convincing romantic lead, but was won over and thought the two of them made a very nice on-screen couple.

The dance routines were just okay (in Hollywood's Golden Age, I guess producers would have looked for dancers who could act rather than actors who could be taught to dance - clearly not the case here) - and the songs ranged from acceptable to quite good. The plot is well-structured but rather conventional.

But the real reason I can't give it more than three stars is this: the different elements just don't gel together. It doesn't ever really feel like a musical; it feels like a romantic drama with a few song and dance routines plonked into it. Some might say that's all a musical ever is. But in order to work, screen musicals need to have a sort of staginess or contrived artificiality to them - you don't want excessive naturalism because that just makes it look even more blatantly artificial when the characters break into song or start hoofing. And in the non-musical portions of La La Land, the style of direction and dialogue are quite naturalistic, and so the song and dance routines are bound to seem ever so slightly incongruous.

At one point, Ryan Gosling's character Sebastian, having earlier stated his passionate belief in the beauty and profundity of jazz as an art form, joins a touring band playing a sort of 80s-style jazz-inflected pop rock with as much likeness to true jazz as Dairylea has to real cheese. The band leader, Keith, tells Sebastian that jazz needs to change in order to survive, and that there's no point in "keeping it real" anymore if the kids won't listen to it. This may be intended as a criticism of the modern philistine obsession with making culture "accessible". But it inadvertently highlights what's wrong with this movie. Just as Keith's combo is producing jazz for people who don't like jazz, La La Land is a musical for people who aren't sure whether they like musicals.

4 out of 4 members found this review helpful.

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Moonlight

A Black mirror?

(Edit) 09/08/2017

Rarely if ever have I seen a film that gives such a relentlessly negative portrayal of Black working class life.

It depicts a world in which lethargy, casual violence, and self-destructiveness rule, in which drug-dealers are the only positive role models in their community, and in which there is seemingly no-one around with the guts or the self-awareness to challenge the way things are. Chiron's mom is a respectable citizen in the first segment of the film; by part two she has become a drug addict for no apparent reason. At one point some teens play "get down, stay down" - a sort of endurance game in which one boy gets voluntarily punched in the face repeatedly and the aim is to see how many blows he can take before he rises no more. What better illustration of the levels of male self-loathing in this community?

It's bleak and often very uncomfortable viewing. At least the writer-director had the courage to remain true to his fatalistic, cyclical vision of humanity - I respect him for doing something different instead of falling back on cliches about redemption and social justice. Perhaps sometimes it is also necessary to hold a mirror up to the disreputable aspects of society as a challenge to them to improve themselves and stop blaming others for their degradation.

But I would not want to see it again - I would rather watch films that portray multi-faceted urban black communities and emotionally complex individuals.

4 out of 4 members found this review helpful.

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Total Recall

An unfairly dismissed futuristic thriller

(Edit) 17/04/2016

I suspect the reason many people dislike this film is because they consider it a form of blasphemy to remake the original. For my part, I have little time for this sort of fundamentalism, especially when the "definitive" version with Arnold Schwarzenegger was itself only a very loose adaptation of the source material, a story called "We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale"!

Colin Farrell acquits himself well as a generic Hollywood action hero, the pace is almost unrelentingly fast with no wasted scenes, it has astounding chase sequences and fantastic set design and visual effects. It parts company with the 1990 version in several ways, including being somewhat more restrained in its portrayal of graphic violence, and there being no mutants!

I accept the structure is conventional, that some aspects of the plot make little sense, or that it owes an obvious debt to Blade Runner. It is not very cerebral but if you approach it as a futuristic thriller rather than science-fiction it's a very good example of its type.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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Anomalisa

Sometimes, less is more

(Edit) 13/04/2016

I found Anomalisa to be the equivalent of peeling a ripe satsuma only to find that half the segments are missing - well-structured and beautifully packaged, but strangely unsatisfying.

The morose, lethargic Michael Stone endures a banal and joyless existence. It's difficult to feel sorry for him, though, as his unhappiness is largely self-imposed. We learn that several years ago he walked out on long-term girlfriend for no explicable reason, and even though there's nothing evidently amiss in his present marriage, he seems to find it a chore just to talk to his wife and son on the phone. All the human beings Michael interacts with have the same face and voice - one assumes that this is really just an externalisation of his own misanthropic world-view and his refusal to see meaning or beauty in everyday life. Until, that is, he meets Lisa - who, significantly, doesn't have the same production-line face as the other inhabitants of the hotel, and is voiced by a different actor.

What follows could have been an exceptionally tender and well-observed story about 21st Century romance and dating, about chronic discontent and our illusion that the grass is always greener on the other side. The problem is that there is insufficient screen time devoted to the development of the central story (at least, what I assume is meant to be the central story) - Michael and Lisa's romance. This is partly because of the relatively short running time, which I suppose may have been the result of financial constraints as it was a crowd-funded endeavour. But the frustrating thing is that Charlie Kaufman could have done a lot more with those 90 minutes if he had left out some of the diversions, sub-plots and other unnecessary boondoggles. The film contains one of the most tediously over-extended sex scenes I've ever witnessed (yes - that's right - puppet sex!). Then there's a sequence half way through where he is summoned to the manager's office and it seems we're about to venture into sci-fi or conspiracy thriller territory. But just as we're seemingly on the brink of a "big reveal", Michael wakes up and realises he'd been having a nightmare! I can't remember the last time I felt so cheated! There is also a creepy subplot involving Michael's infatuation with a mechanical geisha doll he has bought from a sex shop - is this supposed to be saying something about objectification of women? Or that we don't really desire human interaction as much as we think we do? To make things even more confusing, there are hints that some of the scenes involving Lisa may have been figments of Michael's imagination.

Of course you have to admire the craftsmanship involved. The sets are amazingly detailed and realistic, and I've learned that over 100,000 separate still shots had to be undertaken, which is an astonishing undertaking in itself. So giving it less than 5 out of 10 might seem a bit mean-spirited. But it could have been so much more if Kaufman had shown a bit more self-discipline, had kept his eye on the ball and hadn't tried to overcomplicate things.

7 out of 7 members found this review helpful.

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Jauja

So you think you like slow movies?

(Edit) 18/11/2015

Well, think again! This makes "Once upon a Time in Anatolia" look like Mission Impossible 6!!

I found myself wondering whether I could be watching result of an auteurs' contest to see who could produce a film telling the simplest story possible in the most dilatory way possible. This is achieved partly through long pauses in the dialogue, but principally by the device of sustaining a shot as the character walks or rides off into the middle, then the far distance, before finally disappearing over a ridge or behind a hummock.

Mortensen's powerful and affecting performance as the intrepid engineer struggling to fulfil his self-imposed mission while dimly aware that he is hopelessly out of his element, helps to keep you interested in the story. But the developments that occur in the last 20 minutes are incomprehensible, and I suspect, intentionally so - an old woman in a cave who may be a ghost or a time-traveller, and the tailpiece set in contemporary Denmark. There are echoes of David Lynch's mystery dramas here, as well as Kieslowski's "Double Life of Veronique".

The unconventional choice of 1.33 aspect ratio, so that the image appears as a fat oblong with rounded corners in the middle of the TV screen with a thick black band either side, is something that I found very distracting and didn't seem the best way to present the stunning landscapes. In an accompanying featurette, Viggo Mortensen gives an explanation for this decision, but I didn't follow it.

3 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Blue Velvet

A poor transfer and no subtitles

(Edit) 06/10/2015

I can understand why even fans of David Lynch's work rarely seem to rate it as on of their favourites. There's a good amount of weirdness, and it's quite clever in the way that it takes staples of popular culture such as film noir, and '70s cop shows and melds them into something strange and unsettling. But some of the acting was wooden (or maybe this was intentional?) and it doesn't quite transport you into a believable alternative reality (or surreality) like, say Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway.

I would happily grant it 3 or even 4 stars were it not for the poor transfer. I noticed throughout how fuzzy the picture was. At first I thought it might be just my eyes! but when it got to the end credits they were too blurry to read. So the fault must lie in the process of transferring the film to digital.

2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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Three Monkeys

One of Ceylan's more accessible films

(Edit) 27/06/2015

I don't know whether this is Ceylan's greatest film, but it's probably one of his most accessible.

In contrast to "Climates" which is rather heavy on atmosphere and symbolism, the minimalism of "Uzak" and the slow-paced, dialogue-heavy "Winter Sleep", 3 Monkeys tells a conventionally-paced story without too many long pauses.

It offers a powerful, though not overbearing, critique of a society in which money is all-powerful and corruption is as natural as breathing. The father doesn't seem to seem to suffer from any moral dilemma about accepting his employer's pay-off, or apprehensive about going to jail - it's presented as if it's perfectly normal thing to do. At the same time, when he gets out he doesn't seem to be very excited about getting the money, but more annoyed at the wife and son spending the advance on a new car without consulting him.

Meanwhile, the wife seems to have been enjoying her new freedom. Traditional masculine honour codes haven't died out but are seen to be taking a back seat to class differences. There is one deeply uncomfortable and sexually-charged scene in which the husband can't decide whether to make love to his wife or beat her. He strongly suspects her infidelity but can't bear to openly acknowledge it because of the humiliation it would involve.

Ironically, it is left up to the son to uphold "traditional values". Discovering his mother's liaison with the politician, he decides he isn't willing to "see no evil".

The politician is not portrayed as a wicked man, but is a bit too fond of the sound of his own voice, and has an image of himself as a man of integrity which doesn't accord with reality.

I don't think this is meant to be a cynical portrait of Turkey, but more a warning that money is causing even decent people to lose sight of what matters in life.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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Foxcatcher

A compelling sports drama without stereotypical characters

(Edit) 27/06/2015

The super-rich Du Pont, who becomes mentor to Olympic champion Mark Schultz, is one of the eeriest characters I've seen in a mainstream movie for a long time. Pitiable but not likeable, it's clear that despite his wealth he is desperately insecure and lonely and feels marginalised by his mother's success as a renowned racehorse trainer. At the same time, his benevolence is mixed with an evident sense of entitlement and self-importance. He doesn't mind taking credit for his Team Foxcatcher's success even when he has done very little to earn it.

At first, Mark thrives under Du Pont's guidance, but later begins to self-destruct, perhaps because his dependence on a wealthy benefactor has undermined his self-respect (although being plied with cocaine can't have helped much either). Salvation comes in the shape of his older brother, who agrees to move to the estate to give Mark some moral support and stability. Unfortunately, Du Pont's escalating paranoia ensure that the arrangement is not going to last.

Tatum is outstanding as Mark Schultz, whose formidable prowess in the ring is, sadly, not accompanied by personal confidence or career success. It's easy to see how he could be over-awed and manipulated by someone Du Pont. The wrestling scenes are very authentic-looking and both he and Ruffalo must have trained hard. I especially liked the scenes where the two brothers are together - Dave, like Mark, is a man of few words but you can sense the deep emotional bond between them.

From what I've read, Foxcatcher is an accurate depiction of real events. But even if it were fiction it would still be a compelling portrayal of ambition, jealousy, and what happens when two men of drastically different backgrounds and life expectations come into contact.

3 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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The Falling

'A' for production values, 'F' for coherence

(Edit) 21/06/2015

This is what might be termed an "experience" film - one to watch on the big screen if at all so you can be enthralled by the superb cinematography and historical atmosphere while overlooking the fact that narratively, it's a mess.

The idea of a mass outbreak of schoolgirls stumbling, fainting and convulsing for no apparent reason may not be completely preposterous - I heard of something similar in the 1990s called the Toronto Blessing. But the annoying thing is that in hinting at explanations for the outbreak it seems to nudge the viewer first towards one interpretation, then another. Mass psychosomatic illness brought on by unresolved grief? Extreme suggestibility? Something to do with hormones? Supernatural forces, such as in the scene when the students' watches all stop? Attention-seeking behaviour? I don't think a mystery drama necessarily has to tie up all the loose ends or spoon-feed solutions to audience, but flirting with different explanations in this way without any real resolution feels capricious, glib and dishonest.

The use of seemingly meaningful imagery is fine on the level of art for art's sake, but does it really move the story along or give us more insight into the characters? For instance, there's the repeated shot of the tree by the lake where the girls congregate. This is presumably meant to indicate that the girls are in touch with the forces of nature, which makes them . . . what? Stronger? More vulnerable to whatever it is that's making them faint all them time? Or just more female?

If that's not enough, in the last ten minutes we get a jarringly abrupt change of focus from teen group-bonding to familial dysfunction - almost if they’d decided at the last moment to turn it into a '60s version of Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies”!

Premature death and bereavement, under-age sex, mother-daughter resentment, the individual versus group identity, mental illness . . . it couldn't be more overstuffed with ideas and issues if it tried. The film-makers evidently had plenty of ideas but apparently lacked the time, money or self-discipline to bring them to maturity, and the end result feels like an awkward mish-mash of social realism and fantasy.

8 out of 9 members found this review helpful.

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Interstellar

An elegant and distinguished piece of sci-fi with some shortcomings

(Edit) 07/12/2014

Delivers all the awe and visual splendour you'd expect in a big-budget space exploration movie, from the astounding extra-terrestrial landscapes to the haunting scenes of farmers struggling to defend themselves against dust storms amid the cornfields of the Mid West. I liked the ship's robot helper, TARS, and was pleased that they had designed something new and unexpected instead of resorting to an R2D2 knock-off or a man in a tin suit.

There were things, however, that detracted from my enjoyment of this film. Firstly, some aspects of the background to the story didn't make sense. We learn that America has reverted to an agrarian economy as a result of an ecological and economic catastrophe. I found it puzzling, then, that people in this post-apocalyptic environment still have mod cons like microwave ovens, dishwashers and laptops, wear quartz watches, drive combine harvesters, and so on.

Secondly, there could have been more explanation of the science. Some elements that seemed preposterous at the time - that a planet orbiting a black hole can experience daylight, or that someone could enter said black hole without being annihilated - are, I've since discovered, theoretically possible in some circumstances. Christopher Nolan engaged the services of a scientific consultant in the making of Interstellar so he must have been satisfied that the science was rigorous, but we, the viewer, are simply expected to take these things on trust.

As for the cast and performances . . . whilst Matthew McConaughey is superb, Anne Hathaway seemed stiff and awkward and had a disconcerting tendency to smile inappropriately while delivering her lines.

Some of the dialogue was a bit corny (and I don't mean when the characters were talking about corn!) - but you don't expect completely naturalistic speech in a Christopher Nolan film anyway, so I didn't find this too bothersome.

Altogether, an intelligent film of great beauty and distinctiveness, never dull despite its 3-hour running time, but not flawless.

5 out of 6 members found this review helpful.

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Journey to Italy

"He wasn't a fool, he was a poet." "What's the difference?"

(Edit) 20/11/2014

There's certainly dramatic potential in the storey of this ill-matched couple in an unfamiliar country. Katherine is captivated by Italy and is open to new experiences even though she finds some aspects of Italian culture eerie and discomforting. Her husband Alex is a philistine bon viveur who loves wine, good food and beautiful women, but affects to find Italy insufferably boring. He cultivates a brusque, cynical attitude which barely conceals a deep insecurity, especially a terror of being alone.

The development of the plot and characters, it has to be said, is flaky. Early on, the Joyces remark on how this is the first time they've really been alone together since they were married - but how is this possible when they have no children or live-in relatives? They talk about their floundering marriage in a surprisingly casual and dispassionate way, and in successive scenes in the first half they alternate between frigidity and affection for no apparent reason. The George Sanders character is evidently a man of means but lacks the bombast and swagger you would expect in a member of the old moneyed elite or a self-made businessman - he comes across as just too reserved and middle-class. Ingrid Bergman, despite her accent lurching between Stockholm and the Home Counties, brings greater subtlety and conviction to her role.

So how can I justify 4 stars? Partly the gorgeous photography and locations. There's the beautiful tree-lined avenues, the Neapolitan street scenes, the fumaroles and lapilli plains on the slopes of Vesuvius, the catacombs - which work partly on the level of pure spectacle, but also often symbolically, although the symbolism is never blatant or over-wrought. Reminders of sex and death are death are everywhere, whether it's the nude Hercules and limbless Venus in the museum, the skulls in the crypt, or the bodies of ancient Pompeiians being excavated from their volcanic mausoleum. Faced with the precariousness of human existence, the couple are compelled to re-evaluate their own lives and relationship.

Despite its narrative flaws I felt motivated to watch the disc a second time and it's grown on me since.

2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths

(Edit) 03/10/2014

The key players certainly deliver, especially Woody Harrelson as the mobster and Christopher Walken as the dog-kidnapper with a sinister past, but the Colin Farrell character - a borderline alcoholic writer struggling for inspiration - seemed bland and stereotyped, overshadowed by the other male leads, and nothing like as memorable as the suicidal hit-man Ray of In Bruges. Of the stories-within-stories, two of the three were quite weak (and there were only 3 not 7 as I was expecting) and were not really about psychopaths at all, just vengeful obsessives.

The action and situations often feel too much like an unironic mash-up of early Coen Brothers and Tarantino movies, although lacking their tautness and memorable dialogue. But this slightly clunky attempt at fusing genres - action, neo-noir, farce - does at least deliver a funny and macabre twist at the end.

Altogether it is moderately entertaining but if you've seen In Bruges, don't get your hopes up too high.

4 out of 4 members found this review helpful.
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