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Middle Earth: Shadow of War

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At the deep, nuggety core of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is one simple concept: killing orcs. Yes there’s a lengthy, and somewhat tortured, story campaign, yes there is bulk loot collecting and RPG elements and yeah, naturally, there are lots of nods and callbacks to the Lord of the Rings movies/books (oh hi, Gollum!) but ultimately SoW is all about killing orcs in elaborate ways. You’ll kill them with fire, you’ll kill them with swords, you’ll kill them with spiders and big caragors. You’ll kill them in castles, you’ll kill them in on hills, you’ll kill them en masse, mate, oh fuck yes, you will!

Happily when it comes to dispatching orcs Shadow of War’s gameplay is fluid, responsive and enjoyable. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel first used in 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, but it adds enough new elements and mechanics to feel more engaging then a simple retread. Most impressive of all is the Nemesis system, which makes a triumphant return. For the uninitiated this system means every time you die the orc who killed you gains social status and becomes more powerful. Conversely some orcs survive their apparent deaths or humiliations and will return, bigger, badder and holding a drake-sized grudge.

These weird vendettas held against you by characters with name like Dush the Obsessed, Gurk the Angry and Trevor Maggot Pants (may have made that last one up) gives SoW a dynamic, exciting sense of tension. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the story which is all over the place. Talion remains duller then unsalted tofu and wraith partner, Celebrimbor, is still one Joy Division album away from being the bloke in his 40s who takes the whole goth thing just a little bit too seriously. They’re joined by some new characters this time, such as sexy Shelob (finally a spider character you can masturbate to!) and Bruz the Chopper, an ocker orc who is easily the most interesting character by a fairly huge margin.

You’ll occupy five large landscapes, collecting collectibles, brainwashing captains, taking over fortresses and, yes, killing many, many orcs. You can probably knock the main campaign over in 30-40 hours (which by AAA game standards is pretty damn generous) but then the game pulls some bullshit which you may find difficult to forgive. The last act, titled “Act IV: Shadow Wars”, turns the endgame into a grindfest. All those forts you spent so long taking over? Well now you’ll need to defend them against legions of tougher orcs, through some twenty increasingly difficult levels. It’s doable, but tough, and the Sauron-like spectre of microtransactions enters the proceedings because how much easier would it be to just buy some powerful orcs to buff your forts? Why not head to the online market place and buys some, my preeeecious?

For a lot of people this won’t be a deal breaker, it certainly wasn’t for me, I had a great time with this game, but there is a certain cynicism to the exercise that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Pay to win is a shitty design choice, especially when it locks you out of the game’s final cutscene. My suggestion? Don’t buy orcs, take a little longer and earn them by enjoying the game’s many combat options. Or just stop playing at Act IV and watch the “true ending” on Youtube. It’s a rough business that we even have to deal with this kind of nonsense, but that’s gaming in 2017. Proceed accordingly.

That one nasty little microtransactional caveat aside, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a bloody belter of a game. The Nemesis system alone makes it worth a visit, and the sheer joy of chopping up literal armies of orcs is potent and exciting. In short: ignore the cash grab and focus on the killing and you’ll have a good time.

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Family abuse, nude modelling, chainsaw art, twins, tattoos, murder, and more…when it comes to ticking outré buttons, Innuendo is edgy independent cinema personified. And indie this Australian-Finnish mash-up is, being crafted well outside the auspices of traditional local funding via crowdfunding and other modes of finance. The work of an impressive multitasker in the form of Finnish-born, Australian-based writer/director/producer star Saara Lamberg, Innuendo wears its influences (David Lynch, Yorgos Lanthimos, and, most clearly, Roman Polanski) proudly and with reckless abandon, but always functions as an engagingly original film in its own right.

Defying easy genre categorisation, Innuendo tracks the dour, disconnected Tuuli (Lamberg) from Finland to Australia, where she hurls herself into the world of nude art class modelling. Haunted by memories of a painful childhood defined by her complex relationship with her angelic twin sister and domineering parents, Tuuli appears to drift aimlessly before lolling into the staid orbit of sensitive uni student, Thomas (Andy Hazel). Unimpressed, Tuuli quickly moves onto the rough, charismatic chainsaw sculptor, Ben (Brendan Bacon), who leads a far more marginalised life. Mixing with his circle of friends, the singular Tuuli begins to act out in strange and confronting ways, eventually becoming a threatening and malignant anti-life force.

Though the low budget occasionally hurts, Innuendo is a stylish exercise into dark psychological territory, with a finely tuned pay-off electrifying the final act. The performances are strong, with Brendan Bacon a particular stand-out. Boasting the kind of idiosyncratic physicality and presence that would mark him for top-tier character actor gigs if he was American, he provides the film with much needed earthiness in the face of its often elliptical stylisation. Dreamy, strange, and daring in its willingness to challenge and distance the audience with its remote, icy anti-heroine, Innuendo is a brave effort from the keenly talented Saara Lamberg.

The kind of experimental trip rarely taken in this country, this true original manages to draw you in while keeping you at arm’s length at the same time, and that’s no mean feat.

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The Snowman

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Everything interesting about The Snowman happens around the main thrust of the plot. Alcoholic detective Harry Hole’s (Michael Fassbender) search for the titular serial killer is pretty old hat in Nordic Noir subgenre. Much more interesting is Harry himself, a willfully old school genius-level investigator who eschews newfangled devices like cars and phones and drinks to dull the incredible surfeit of empathy that lets him operate as Norway’s top murder cop. The film lives when we’re seeing how Harry relates to the people around him, be it his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son, to whom he still feels paternal affection; his freshly-minted partner, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson); his long-suffering boss (Ronan Vibert); or anyone else in the quite impressive cast (JK Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloe Sevigny and Val Kilmer all crop up).

Unfortunately, this is a murder mystery, culled from the lengthy series of novels by Jo Nesbo (The Snowman is #7 of 11), and plot is paramount, and that’s where Tomas Alfredson’s film falls down. The script, which involved the  normally reliable Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) manages the neat trick of being simultaneously unoriginal and murky, obfuscating familiar narrative and thematic elements in an overly complicated, structurally messy storyline.

It all centres, more or less, on the titular serial killer, who targets single mothers throughout Norway, striking only when the snow is falling and leaving a crude snowman as his calling card. It might have something to do with a similar series of murders that took place years ago, the investigation of which apparently drove investigator Gert Rafto (Kilmer in a fun cameo) to suicide. It might have something to do with predatory industrialist Arve Stop (Simmons), the public face of Norway’s bid for the Winter Games, who harbours private sexual obsessions.

It might be all manner of things, but what it really is, is an excuse to have soulful, damaged Fassbender stalk the wintry environs (rather beautifully shot by Dion Beebe) in search of his prey – someone whose identity, by the way, can be can be augured by simple subtraction rather than investigation, once you get a handle on who’s a name character and who’s just ambulatory set dressing. To be fair, that’s a pretty good time; Fassbender is as watchable as ever, even if The Snowman does little for his obvious franchise ambitions (with this and Assassin’s Creed under his belt, he’s two-for-two when it comes to unfulfilled sequels).

It’s almost impossible not to wonder what might have been if The Snowman had come out much earlier in the Nordic Noir period, when all this snow and blood and hidden horror was a much less familiar set of signifiers. This late in the game, there’s not much novelty to be found, especially if you know your Dragon Tattoos from your Midnight Suns. Alfredson, actually in a much more playful mood here than either his back catalogue or the material might suggest, does what he can, but the problems run deeper than anything on-camera execution (or, indeed, executions) can address. If you’re a tragic for the genre, The Snowman will scratch your itch, but don’t expect anything spectacular – and don’t expect to be seeing the further adventures of Harry Hole any time soon.

Click here for nationwide movie time for The Snowman

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Home Again

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In romantic comedy land, anything can happen. Two complete strangers from opposite sides of the world decide to swap houses for two weeks? Sure, that’s normal. A selfish businessman and hooker with a heart of gold fall in love? Happens all the time. Rival bookstore owners fall in love on an online chatroom? That’s just par for the course.

So, when in Home Again, the directorial debut of Hallie Meyers-Shyer (yes, the daughter of rom-com queen Nancy Meyers), a woman lets three young, strange men move into her house after a wild night out, don’t be surprised.

Reese Witherspoon is Alice, a 40 year-old, recently separated mother of two who, after a romantic evening with younger man Harry (Pico Alexander), lets he and his two filmmaker friends (Jon Rudnitsky and Nat Wolff) live at her house as they try to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. So, it’s just as crazy as every other romantic comedy.

But once you get past how ridiculous the premise is (this woman is willing to let strange young men live with her daughters? And basically, inducts them into her family after one night? Um, what?), Home Again throws so much charm and wit at you that you get lost in its relationships and utterly lovable characters.

Witherspoon is as watchable as ever as she forges new relationships with Harry, George and Teddy, and the chemistry between the four of them is light and sweet as they figure out their changing lives together, all the while parenting Alice’s precocious daughters Isabel and Rosie (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield). And then, of course, we’ve got to have a bad guy, and Michael Sheen’s estranged ex-husband Austen is the perfect fit, devilishly charming yet definitely bad news.

Though not much happens throughout the film after the boys move in, not much really needs to: while Alice struggles to get her new interior design business off the ground, and Harry, George and Teddy attempt to get their acclaimed short film adapted in the Hollywood system, the more interesting part of this film is its interactions, the kinds of unlikely friendships that the Meyers women are so good at creating.

It’s a small slice of life, no matter how unlikely, that reminds you that movies don’t have to be an epic, fast-paced fight-fest to be a delightful afternoon at the movies.

Click here for nationwide movie time for Home Again

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Star Trek: Discovery S1E5: Choose Your Pain

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When Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is captured by the Klingons, Commander Saru (Doug Jones) commands the USS Discovery in a rescue attempt. Using the Tardigrade’s space-jumping powers is critical to the mission – but Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is convinced that with every jump the creature is moving closer to death.

Now that we are five episodes into the series, it is becoming easier to predict how Star Trek: Discovery is going to play out on an episode-by-episode basis. “Choose Your Pain” appears to be the series in a nutshell: a dark aesthetic and emotional tone, comparatively graphic violence and coarse language for Star Trek, morally compromised characters and a cavalier attitude to the franchise continuity into which the series’ creators deliberately boxed themselves. It is enjoyable in fits and starts, but is – much like the series overall – a red-hot mess of highly variable quality.

Somewhere nestled into the core of the episode is a very Star Trek concept: the alien Tardigrade used to power the Discovery’s weird spore-powered engine is wracked with pain every time it is exploited, and Burnham is growing rapidly convinced that it is a sentient creature. Releasing it from captivity and finding another method of powering the drive is a very traditional sort of Star Trek storyline. Also on familiar ground is Captain Lorca’s experience on the Klingon spaceship; pretty much every space captain in the franchise has done their ‘space prison’ episode, so in a way it’s nice to see Lorca get his out of the way early.

On the Klingon ship he meets a human trader named Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) and a Starfleet officer named Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Tyler feels relatively inoffensive and by-the-numbers at this stage. Mudd of course is a famous guest character from the original Star Trek, played in two live-action episodes by Roger C. Carmel. He was played for laughs back in the 1960s; here he is an embittered Klingon collaborator with a decidedly unpleasant sense about him. Like the rest of the series, he’s been dragged down into the grim pit of the Federation-Klingon war.

That, to me, is one of Discovery’s key problems. There is always going to be a debate about whether Star Trek is a setting or a genre. I find myself leaning towards the latter. You can find grim and unpleasant science fiction elsewhere, but Star Trek was established and went along merrily for decades as pretty much the epitome of Utopian fiction. There was conflict, but the characters were good-hearted. There were difficult choices from time to time, but the various Starfleet officers ultimately wound up making the right decisions. Discovery features a former mutineer for a protagonist, working for a captain who murdered his entire former crew rather than have them be captured by the Klingons, whose first officer deliberately orders the torture of a sentient creature to complete a mission. Klingon crack human skulls beneath their boots. People get stabbed. The Discovery’s security chief got graphically mauled to death. ‘This fucking rocks,’ explains Ensign Tilly in this week’s episode.

I don’t think it rocks. To be honest, I don’t really think it’s Star Trek. There is visible talent involved in making the series. Much of the design work is great, and the actors are all giving one hundred per cent, but it is all in service of what seems more and more to be a fundamentally wrong-headed vision of what Star Trek is supposed to be.

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I Can Speak

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At first, director Kim Hyun-seok, sensitively leads viewers into a typical light-hearted Korean situation comedy, where daily routines of certain characters are enacted in a way that manages to put a smile (or even laughter) on our faces. Viewers are introduced to a working-class marketplace in the middle of Seoul. Facing a redevelopment crisis that threatens the life of the local people, the market is brought to life by the necessary existence of Ok-boon, an elderly woman (nicknamed Goblin Granny) who has filed more than 8.000 complaints to the local authority. Ok-boon herself has been a nightmare, until she meets Min-jae, a newbie civil servant who is tolerant enough to handle her cases. They gradually form a friendship, with Ok-boon asking Min-jae to be her English tutor. Why does she want to learn English at her age, we may ask ourselves? As the story progresses, this seemingly Korean comedy turns out to be a persuasive drama with underlying political issues, as viewers dig deeper into Ok-boon’s true motivation behind her willingness to speak English fluently.

I Can speak is neorealistic and romantic in its portrayal of Seoul life. Viewers observe the energy of the market neighborhood and how each individual struggles to earn a living. Through this, social issues are addressed, such as the gerascophobia (the fear of aging) of Korean society, famous for its industry of cosmetic surgery and its own standard of beauty. Ok-boon becomes a seemingly annoying lady, intruding the lives of others, which reflects her loneliness as she grows older each day. Her friend, Jung-sim, suffering from dementia, also supports this lingering fear of social isolation among the elderly. On the other hand, loneliness manifests itself not just with the aging characters but also the younger individuals. Min-jea possesses a typical Seoul lifestyle, working from morning until late evening and always has to eat out or buy takeaway food whereas his younger brother eats uncooked ramen for snacks. Then, at one point, the narrative erases all these fears of isolation when Ok-boon treats the two brothers with her homemade dinner in a much cozier and touching scene, turning Ok-boon into a motherly figure.

I Can Speak is an Asian cinematic experience that balances many styles – comedy, tragedy, social and political issues, all weaved into one film. Conventional melodramatic techniques may be overused and plot convenience too often drives the motivation of the characters forward, but Na Mun-hee (Harmony) as the bittersweet elderly woman enthusiastic about learning English at the heart of this politically themed film will certainly leave an impression.

Click here for nationwide movie times for I Can Speak

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Bad Blood

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Crime novelist Vincent’s (Xavier Samuel) first book was a smash hit – and was based in part on the murder, as yet unsolved, of his wife two years previously. Perhaps that’s why he’s having so much trouble making progress on his follow-up book. Worse, he’s being harassed by a private detective (Rob Macpherson), who thinks that he had something to do with his wife’s death, and stalked by a mysterious hooded figure. It’s possible that a retreat to a remote country house with his new girlfriend, Carrie (Morgan Griffin) in tow, might be just the tonic he needs. Then again, this being a fairly rote example of Australian Gothic cinema, that might be just the place for everything to come to a head, complete with ghosts from the past, dark family secrets, and the odd bit of grim murder.

As a thriller, David Pulbrook’s (Last Dance) latest offering is pretty perfunctory. It’s competently directed and realised on what is evidently a fairly limited budget, which accounts for the low number of both characters and locations, but the script isn’t dexterous enough to overcome those handicaps. Bad Blood is heavily predicated on a surprise reveal that we won’t be callous enough to expose here. In the context of the film, it works a treat; the problem is, outside of that surprise, there’s not a lot left, narratively speaking, to keep the viewer engaged. Surprises only work once – there’s not a lot of re-watch value here.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth looking at once. Samuel and Griffin, last seen together in the B&S Ball rom-com Spin Out, both give good performances, with Samuel in particular stretching himself to play the frustrated writer who may or may not be a murderer – and who may or may not be cracking up. For her part, Griffin makes for a good Final Girl – even though, in this scenario, she’s almost the Only Girl – in the film’s last act.

Indeed, putting Griffin at the centre of things might have made Bad Blood a lot more effective as a thriller. Instead, we drift from Vincent’s perspective to Carrie’s as the film progresses and the plot demands, which feels like undisciplined writing. It’s easy to imagine a tighter version of the film with Carrie as our sole POV character, and Vincent by default a more suspect and menacing figure.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Bad Blood will depend on your generosity as a viewer. It’s solid but unspectacular fare that will be all too familiar for genre regulars, but still provides a thrill or two.

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Films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are considered classics in their genre; true tales of steely US determination to conquer the stars. Conversely, Russia, the US’s only real competitor in the great space race, is painted as a footnote in America’s climb to the top. Spacewalker attempts to re-address the balance with the true story of cosmonauts, Pavel Belyayev (Konstantin Khabenskiy) and Alexey Leonov (Evgeniv Mironov).

It’s the ‘60s and the US and Russia are competing to be the first to have a man walk in outer space. Getting wind of the progress their rivals are making, the Kremlin pull their deadlines forward by two years in the hope of being the first out of the gate. Directed by Dmitry Kiselyov (Black Lightning), Spacewalker starts with a tame first act that follows Belyayev and Leonov through their training. Slowly, we begin to see cracks in the veneer. Yes, a technician dies whilst helping to build the very craft that will be shot off into space. But hey, it’s nothing that isn’t to be expected and can’t be quickly dusted under the carpet all in pursuit of glory.

Once the cosmonauts are blasted off into the unknown, the aforementioned death retroactively becomes a portance of things to come. The rush to be first leads to problems and very quickly, Spacewalker breaks free from the biopic tropes that weigh it down to become a throughly engaging and tense thriller. Backed by a score that would make Hans Zimmer blush, Kiselyov racks up a surprisingly large amount of tension from a setting which is essentially two men in a metal box, whilst on Earth their fates are decided by bureaucratic yes-men more concerned about the reputation of the motherland.

Engrossing, nerve rattling and patriotic without turning into parody, Spacewalker is a fascinating glimpse into another time and place.


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Grain (BFI London Film Festival)

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It is sometime in the not-too-distant future, and after some unspecified environmental collapse, genetically modified crops designed to save humanity are failing. Geneticist Erol (Jean-Marc Barr) hears tell of Cemil (Ermin Bravo), a controversial scientist who predicted what he called “genetic chaos” which now seems to be occurring. Looking for answers to the world’s current plight, Erol leaves the protection of the city and ventures out into the poisoned wilderness in search for Cemil, and what he discovers will change him forever.

Shot in gorgeous black and white by Hell or High Water cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, Grain unfortunately only has its visuals to recommend it. The plot itself is, after a very promising start, laborious new age twaddle masquerading as insightful reflection. The characters feel all too wooden, existing just as pontification devices, and with a running time of over two hours, there becomes a fine line between quiet, soulful contemplation and utter tedium.

Director Kaplanoğlu is obviously wearing his influences on his sleeve, as the film calls to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a dash of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, but is considerably, achingly, less profound or entertaining. It is perfectly fine for filmmakers to adopt styles or framing from other filmmakers, as part of the enjoyment of the art form is how films become conversations with each other, but one also needs to measure up to those directors they are conversing with. If a film just ends up reminding the audience of a laundry list of better films, then it is in trouble.

As mentioned before, Nuttgens’s cinematography is absolutely stunning. The only thing that carries this film through its tedious quiet moments is the black and white images of the cold and barren landscape. It perfectly captures the dystopian vision of the film, while at the same time reinforcing the film’s themes of man’s relationship to nature and our hubristic obsession with “perfecting” it. These images are so well composed and bring forth the themes so strongly it is unfortunate the screenplay hammers them home so thoroughly, rather than letting those prolonged, silent moments of beautiful imagery just speak for themselves.

A strong start, amazing cinematography, and an interesting premise is not enough to save Grain from the protracted tedium of most of its running time. Props to the filmmakers for wanting to tell a worthy story about humanity’s environmental impact, and setting it in a dystopian future is a perfect way to do that. It is unfortunate that the film seems more interested in naval gazing than looking outward and making its story more universal, because then this morsel may have become a touch more palatable.

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The Party (BFI London Film Festival)

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Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) are having a party for close friends after Janet’s unspecified British political party wins an election, putting her in the position of Health Minister. One by one the friends arrive: staunch pessimist April (Patricia Clarkson), her life coach husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz),  Bill’s university colleague Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer), and finally Tom (Cillian Murphy), the husband of Janet’s aide-de-camp who has arrived coked to the eyeballs and secretly armed with a handgun. Needless to say, the party begins civilly enough but quickly descends into a night of accusation, paranoia and violence.

Sally Potter’s brutal satire on modern society and politics starts quietly and builds to a hilarious crescendo as she manipulates her room of characters like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Working with a murderers’ row of acting talent from Britain, Europe and America, it isn’t hard for Potter to hit the right comedic beats at the right time, as they are all on very fine form here. The black and white cinematography and the single location give the film the right amount of claustrophobia, which gets tighter and tighter as the story progresses.

One is reminded, at least at first, of the Australian play Don’s Party by David Williamson, as a group of friends congregate (in this instance after the election) and as the liquor flows an unspoken tension rises to the surface and the cordial atmosphere begins to fracture. Then in the later scenes it begins to resemble Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, as the characters seem to feel trapped inside the house, unable to escape the escalating events, even though the front door is right there in front of them.

The Party feels more like a filmed play than a piece of cinema, but with the acting talent on display that hardly matters, the script is thing and these performers make it positively sing. Kristin Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall are excellent as the upper class married couple whose relationship teeters on the brink of collapse, Murphy is wonderfully unhinged as the cocaine addled, villainised investment banker, and Jones and Mortimer provide a great counterpoint to one another, with Jones as the freewheeling feminist and Mortimer the traditional family woman. But the standouts in a film of standouts have to be Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz. Clarkson spends the entire movie spouting pessimistic and unhelpful rhetoric while Ganz is superb as the hippy guru wannabe, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, whispering new age gibberish, much to the consternation of most in the room.

The Party is whip-smart satire at its very best. A cast of incredible actors given a sparkling script can raise any film above the stratosphere and they do just that very thing here. Potter is a master filmmaker and may not be working at full capacity but she doesn’t have to. She gives the film exactly what it needs to be a claustrophobic, tightly wound snapshot of absurd humanity at its most acerbic.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Party