Top TV shows of 2016

It’s been absolutely ages since my last post but the end of the year always feels like a good time to sum up what I’ve seen.

DISCLAIMER: I have watched a lot of television this year but I have not watched all the television. So shows that I have not seen include seasons 4 of Orange is the New Black and The Americans, season 5 of Girls, season 2 of Mr Robot and debut seasons of The Night Of, Atlanta, The Young Pope and The People vs OJ Simpson. I’ve also started, but not finished, the fourth season of Braquo.

Now that that’s clear, here are my favourite TV shows of the year.

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10. Peaky Blinders (Series 3 BBC) – Probably the most stylish show Britain has to offer came back with a third series that definitely improved as it went on. After an opening couple of episodes that felt disjointed, events ramped up and we were treated to acting excellence from the always brilliant Cillian Murphy and guest stars Paddy Considine and Tom Hardy, in particular. And with a rather shocking, unexpected ending, it seems that another series is in store. Swagger.

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9. The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses (BBC) – Whether you’re a fan of Shakespeare or not, this adaptation of his three plays Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II and Richard III, which cover one of the most important periods in British history (The War of the Roses), is television of the highest quality. It successfully treads the line between being adapted well for television and maintaining the feel and theatricality of a play. However, featuring a raft of recognisable British actors, the main focus falls on the wonderful performances, namely of Sophie Okonedo as a Margaret of Anjou spiralling ever further into madness and an absolutely-nothing-like-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch as an evil, Machiavellian and monstrous Richard III. Class.

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8. Planet Earth II (BBC) – Another astonishing feat of television from the legend that is Sir David Attenborough. Through its ‘chase scenes’ (we’re all thinking of one in particular), this incredible show conjures up more tension and creates a much keener sense of investment from its audience in 5 minutes than something like the criminally overrated The Night Manager can muster in its entirety. Any programme that shows a man hand-feeding hyenas on his front step or a jaguar casually walking into a river, grabbing a crocodile by the neck and dragging it back into the jungle to be eaten is simply unmissable. Fascinating.

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7. Better Call Saul (Season 2 Netflix) – Having loved Breaking Bad I was tentative about the prospect of Better Call Saul. As a result, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I watched both seasons of the prequel and thankfully, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The show successfully juggles the act of being similar enough to its predecessor in tone and appearance while also being deep, complex and encapsulating enough to be an excellent series in its own right. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy is as interesting a central character as any currently on TV – quite a testament to Odenkirk and the show’s creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, considering that we know how he will eventually turn out. Unpredictable.

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6. Happy Valley (Series 2 BBC) – Never has a show been so ironically named. It seems there is very little happiness in the valley where the show is set and, after the often brutal events of the first series, the second continues in much the same vein. This is no criticism however because Happy Valley is British TV at its best – raw, real and gritty. And for all the lack of happiness, there is a note-perfect streak of black humour that is woven seamlessly into the show by writer Sally Wainwright and delivered equally as well by Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran, in particular. Gritty.

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5. Line of Duty (Series 3 BBC)Line of Duty has quietly been one of the best shows on (not just British) television for a little while now. It’s a police procedural show that lays bare the mechanics of an investigation or the intricacies of an interview and turns them into some of the most nail-bitingly tense scenes on TV. It has outstanding intro and outro music as well as characters that are neither good nor bad, white nor black but are instead, complex, well-rounded, varying tones of grey – none more so than the fantastic DI Lindsay Denton played with such authenticity by Keeley Hawes. Pulsating.

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4. Stranger Things (Season 1 Netflix) – Few shows have surprised me as much as Stranger Things. When I started writing this list, I hadn’t seen it. Then I watched one episode, and less than 48 hours later I’d watched them all. It’s a bit weird and slightly mad but it’s also engaging and enjoyable with characters that you want to root for. Most of the ideas are borrowed from the 80s B-Movies (and blockbusters) that it openly, lovingly refers to but somehow, the show still feels fresh and unique. It also has an amazing soundtrack and probably the best theme tune I’ve heard in a long time. Heartfelt.

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3. Westworld (Season 1 HBO/Sky Atlantic) – Where to begin. Westworld is one of the most ambitious shows to be released in a long, long time and after a slow start did more than enough to have me counting down the days until the next episode. For all the talk of the show’s mysteries, hidden clues or multiple timelines, at the centre of its maze it is, literally, about what it means to be human. It also features career-best performances from Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton as well as strong supporting turns from Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, amongst others and a brilliant, unsettling score. In a year that, at times, has felt as though it may be being written as part of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series, the meta-narrative within Westworld that we witness being written, reworked and tinkered with by Hopkins’ puppet-master Dr Ford feels rather timely and apt. Enthralling.

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2. The Fall (Series 3 BBC) – Self-indulgence isn’t always a good trait for a TV show to have; too much time spent basking in its own style or mood can often be a ploy to hide a weak plot or lack of substance. The Fall is the exception to this rule. Rarely is a show so comfortable in its own skin that it dedicates real time to the development of characters and manages to create tense, thrilling scenes from conversations. Back for a third (and potentially final) series, it picks up immediately after the events of series two with serial killer Paul Spector clinging to life in the arms of the detective who’s finally caught him, DSI Stella Gibson. What ensues is powerful, tense and dramatic television at its very best. Jamie Dornan’s Spector is as compelling as his crimes are horrific but Gillian Anderson’s Stella is the real star here. Anderson performs with such authority and dignity and lends so much weight and gravitas to Stella’s words that it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Gripping.

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1. Game of Thrones (Season 6 HBO/Sky Atlantic) – After a rather frustrating and unsteady fifth season, Game of Thrones came back to form with arguably its best season to date. In addition, some of the payoffs that viewers have been waiting for, that many feared would never come, finally came to pass. With the show’s ending now firmly in sight, it felt as though the writers provided the sense of urgency that had perhaps been lacking (possibly due to the show now moving beyond the bounds of the source material), and breathed new life into the show with plot strands coming together and revenge being taken. It’s no secret that Game of Thrones can provide jaw-dropping moments of horror like no other show on TV but this season offered some truly emotional punches too (‘Hold the door’ for example), showing that it’s more than just a one-trick pony. Visually, once again, it was excellent, with the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ episode providing one of the most visceral, unforgettable sequences (and experiences) in TV history. Epic.

Once again, 2016 was a year where I watched more TV series than films but from those that I did see, my clear favourite was the one I’ve seen most recently – Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – which was both spectacular in its simplicity and elegant in its complexity. I also loved Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brutal, beautifully shot The Revenant, which I saw way back at the beginning of the year and, sandwiched in between, a real return to form from Pedro Almodóvar with the intensely memorable and powerful Julieta. A special mention must also go to Whit Stillman’s superbly sharp Love & Friendship (the highlight of which is Kate Beckinsale’s unforgettable performance), a film that I never thought I would even watch, let alone thoroughly enjoy.

My Top TV Shows of 2014

These are my top 13 (random number I know) TV shows of 2014. I must stress that some highly-praised shows such as Mad Men and Orange is the New Black are missing. This is for the simple reason that I haven’t seen them yet. If I had, maybe they would be on here. Maybe not. Enjoy!

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  1. The Bridge

Season 2 once again features excellent central performances from Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia, and a Rubik’s cube of a plot that keeps everyone guessing right until the end. That said, with a season 3 on the way, the writers will have to take care not to trivialise Helin’s autistic Saga, and allow her to be reduced to a mere punch line character.

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  1. Sherlock

Just how was that ending of Series 2 going to be explained? Whether you like the answer or not, Series 3 returned with an altered direction and purpose, yet the intricacy of the plots remained and the writing was as snappy and witty as ever – so much fun to watch.

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  1. Line of Duty

Along with The Fall, one of the shining examples of British TV’s new wave of police crime dramas. Season 2, continuing the theme of corruption, features a monumental, chameleon-like performance from Keeley Hawes at the centre of an utterly compelling plot.

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  1. Braquo

Like The Shield but in France, Braquo‘s third season 3 is rumoured to be its last. If that is the case it will be a shame as there seems to be further scope to explore this tale of fatalism and fraternity within the Parisian police force.

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  1. The Americans

Think Breaking Bad meets Homeland. An entertaining and gripping show that, if you can forgive the implausibility, is deeper and has more to say than its action-thriller persona suggests. Season 2 twisted and turned before nicely setting up an interesting new story arc for the upcoming season 3.

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  1. Fargo

Like everyone else who’s seen/loved the original Coen Brothers’ film, my dismay at the news of a TV series reboot knew no bounds. So, imagine my surprise that upon seeing said TV show it a) wasn’t a complete sacrilegious mess and b) was actually, very, very good. It uses only ‘the world’ of the original film version, and not the actual characters and features standout performances from Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman and Martin Freeman.

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  1. True Detective

Addictive and compulsive viewing, never more so than during episode 4’s six-minute long tracking shot, which is hands down the television scene of the year. The acting is supreme, and although the metaphysical and philosophical slant can at times seem a bit ropey, the writing and tone of the show is largely spot on.

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  1. Masters of Sex

Not only does the show feature some of the best performances on TV today, it also has some of the most interesting and multi-layered female characters. Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen will gain most of the plaudits, and rightly so, but Julianne Nicholson’s performance is heartbreaking and mesmerising in equal measure. Episode 3 – ‘Fight’ is a particular highlight, in the vein of Mad Men‘s ‘The Suitcase’ or Breaking Bad’s ‘Fly’.

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  1. The Leftovers

In a time where audiences are given everything on a plate and ambiguity seems a distant concept, how refreshing to find a well-made, intriguing show that ends with just as many, if not more, questions than it started with. An enthralling new show about how people react when their lives are irrevocably altered.

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  1. Homeland

Liberated by a change of plot focus, Season 4 was the best so far. It had some of the most tension-filled scenes seen on screen this year and enough double and triple crosses to make your head swim, not to mention another ferocious performance from Claire Danes.

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  1. Game of Thrones

An excellent season of a show which, at its peak, remains unparalleled, particularly in terms of its ballsiness and desire to never let anyone (characters or audiences) feel too comfortable. Shocking, gory deaths aside, season 4 also had plenty of feeling and genuine emotion in a number of episodes.

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  1. House of Cards

After a solid first season, season 2 really takes off. Machiavellian machinations galore and one moment in particular, so jaw-dropping, that it rivals even Game of Thrones. That aside, there may not be a more complex and intricately portrayed relationship currently on TV, than that of Francis and Claire. The mind boggles at what season 3 holds in store.

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  1. The Fall

Very rarely is a show afforded the time to simply exist and develop naturally. Yet in series 2 of The Fall, that’s what we’re treated to. Nothing much happens in the way of narrative progression or action, we’re simply allowed to watch as a game of cat and mouse is methodically and meticulously played out, often inside the heads of DSI Stella Gibson and Paul Spector (towering performances from Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, particularly in the Heat-esque scene of the final episode) – the result is one of the best TV shows of the last 10 years.

Honourable mentions: Boardwalk Empire, Penny Dreadful, Hannibal, The Killing US

Five Word Review: Monsters [Edwards, 2010]

Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) find themselves a literal and metaphorical journey in Gareth Edwards' engaging, politically-aware film.

Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) find themselves a literal and metaphorical journey in Gareth Edwards’ engaging, politically-aware film.

Monsters [2010]

Director: Gareth Edwards

Plot: In the near future, a cynical newspaper photographer tries to help his boss’ daughter get back to the USA, after both are stranded in a Mexico which has become inhabited by giant extra-terrestrial monsters. As their journey takes them deeper into dangerous territory, so more about their personalities and lives is revealed.

In Five Words: Characters.   Metaphorical.   Journey.   Anti-blockbuster.   Budget.

See this if you like… Children of Men (2006), District 9 (2009) or The Road (2009)

Rating: 4 out of 5

Daftly drab Dexter’s demise

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WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR DEXTER.

Finally. It has finally happened. Dexter, the other show that ended recently, went out with the stale stench of mediocrity that has plagued the show since its fifth season. In these days of superhero obsession and vigilantism on screen, it’s perhaps no surprise that Dexter‘s popularity has continued to grow (Season 8’s opening episode was the watched ever until the show’s finale), it’s just a shame that the quality hasn’t.

Upon hitting small screens  back in 2006, it came as a breath of fresh air – a unique and truly original series, full of intrigue, wit and suspense. Yet after a truly ballsy ending to Season 4 (that would’ve made a perfect ending for the show as a whole), that saw Dexter’s innocent and sweet wife Rita left murdered in bath full of blood, the show has meandered along seemingly unsure which direction to take – each new season trying something new, regardless of logic or character arcs.

After various later opportunities (when he’s almost caught by Debra in Season 5, when he is caught by Debra in Season 6 etc.), the show has finally ended after its EIGHTH season – an all-round damp squib, of which the final episode did little to redeem matters.

In the aftermath of Vogel’s murder, a game of cat and mouse ensues between Dexter and Saxon. Eventually, Dexter has Saxon under the knife, before changing his mind and allowing Debra to arrest him instead, as he sets off for a new life in Argentina with Hannah and Harrison. Just as the happy ending is so tangibly close, Saxon breaks free and shoots Debra, causing Dexter to drop his plans and return. Saxon is arrested and Debra subsequently suffers complications causing her to be left with permanent brain damage. Dexter contrives to kill Saxon in a way that makes it look (sort of) like self-defence. Dexter then takes Debra off the life support machine before faking his own death and leaving Harrison and Hannah alone in Argentina.

In spite of convincing us for the entire season that Dexter had developed emotions and actually loved his fellow serial killer Hannah (one of the few interesting story arcs and believable in terms of performance and chemistry) and that he had changed, grown and evolved as a character and a human being, the ending appeared to suggest otherwise. Having switched off the life support machine of the most important person in his life (his brain damaged sister Debra), he gives her a supposedly emotional burial at sea – the same place he dumps the bodies of the despicable people that he secretly murders. He then proceeds to (somehow) fake his own death by driving his boat head on into an oncoming tropical storm.

Thus he ends up truly alone, assumed dead by the only two people left in his life – utterly neglected son, Harrison and Hannah. And why? Perhaps as penance for the guilt he feels over the death of his beloved sister Debra? Or perhaps as some futile attempt to protect his son and girlfriend (who herself is a serial killer and wanted fugitive) from himself? And if this second option is the case, then why now? Why not when he was being investigated by various fellow law enforcement officers? Or the numerous times he compromised his sister’s integrity/ruined her life? Or when any number of people he was close to were brutally murdered as he was hunted by another serial killer? Any of these times would’ve made sense for him to disappear in order to protect others – but now, when he was free from investigation and suspicion, when he had just finished proclaiming that his infamous need to kill was gone and that all he needed was Hannah and when she was the only person in the World (apart from Season 5’s never again mentioned Lumen) who knew his secret, is a little hard to swallow.

In spite of never being a show that relied on great performances (Michael C. Hall aside), such as Breaking Bad or Homeland, the main actors (Michael C. Hall included) have been phoning it in for quite some time now. Prior to this final season, the addition of Charlotte Rampling as some kind of ‘psychopath whisperer’, while utterly preposterous, at least inspired interest. Yet, to say that her performance was soulless and empty would be an understatement. The cast themselves seemed as tired and disillusioned at their characters must be, and a number of fans certainly have been. For quite some time, the show has shown little or no credible character arc – characteristics, motivations and personalities  seem to change from scene to scene, making the plot feel convoluted and forced.

At times, it felt like the creators had run out of ideas and were just killing time – the introduction of Zach and the idea of Dexter passing the torch; Masuka’s daughter; the Joey, Jamie and Debra love triangle; Joey taking the sergeants exam – all of these elements had no significance or meaning in the final season. The Wire‘s mantra is ‘all the pieces matter’ (a formula present in the incredible Breaking Bad also),whereas for Dexter, it seemed to be that none of them did.

As a long suffering fan, for me, it would’ve been better if he had been caught and/or arrested and/or killed when turning off Debra’s life support. Or if he had simply killed Saxon in a less contrived and rational way – finally being punished for an understandable crime of passion and rage as opposed to his moral, methodical picking off of serial killers. (When was the last time he did that by the way?) Yet to leave him in some sort of self enforced exile seems rather weak and unsatisfying, particularly with how much Dexter has been to-ing and fro-ing the longer the show has worn on. It also, potentially, leaves events ripe for revisit in the future (PLEASE, NO).

Even his claim that “As much as I may have pretended otherwise, for so long all I’ve wanted was to be like other people, to feel what they felt… Now that I do, I just want it to stop.” felt false. For me, it has appeared that far from wanting to be like other people, he has felt that he needed to be like other in order to fit in and reinforce his cover life. If anything, Dexter has also seemed bored by social normalities – one of the show’s great black comic elements.

So as the sun sets on Dexter’s time in Miami, I can’t help but feel mixed emotions – relief that the show has final found its way to its protagonist’s table, yet disappointment that what started out as a brilliant TV show was allowed to limp on long passed its sell by date.

That said, everyone’s favourite serial killer, or at least the memory of what he once was, will be missed, as even in the disappointing later seasons, there was still nothing quite like Dexter.

Only God Forgives [Winding-Refn, 2013]

 

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Only God Forgives [Winding-Refn, 2013]

In the opening scenes of Only God Forgives, the sadistic and cruel Billy (Tom Burke) murmurs that it’s “time to meet the devil”, shortly before he’s literally beaten to a pulp by the vengeful father of a young girl Billy had previously, savagely raped and killed. Devil or not, there is no doubting that we’re in hell – albeit one gorgeously rendered with murky shadows and a ravenous red hue, the seediness and depravity of Thailand’s rotten underbelly secreting its neon-infused poison into every scene.

Following Billy’s death, orchestrated by karaoke singing cop and all-round dispenser of ‘moral justice’ Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), Billy’s younger brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with exacting revenge by their brilliantly vile mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). What follows is a game of cat and mouse, albeit one as unsubtle as a hammer to the head.

But what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in style by the bucket load. Each scene and shot have been so painstakingly composed that it’s almost enough to make you forget that this is a film, a MOVING image – like a neo-noir nightmare version of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Yet, it is only almost enough. Whereas Marker’s film was seminal and unique, Only God Forgives, at times, feels little more than Drive transposed to Thailand.

The film neglects to utilize Golsing’s ability to act (he can do it, see Half Nelson and Blue Valentine), instead parading him to the point of adoration in a number of flashbacks, hallucinations and dreams, always beautifully lit and framed in a nigh-on catatonic state. And too, just like Drive, the soundtrack here is pulsating – thumping throughout its 90 minute running time, only pausing for surreal moments of Chang singing karaoke, which incidentally provide some of the film’s most memorable scenes.

That said, there are signs of post-Drive evolution from Refn here. Beneath the punchy visuals of Only God Forgives, there is a core of subtext and metaphor that its predecessor perhaps lacked. This includes an excellent recurring shot of Gosling’s outstretched arms; first sliding up the thighs of his exotic dancer girlfriend, later into his mother’s disembowelled stomach and finally being removed by Chang’s justice-wielding sword. These shots invite not only Oedipal connotations but also Julian’s fear of castration – a fear perpetuated by his intense love-hate relationship with the abhorrent and domineering Crystal, and linked to his guilt about previously killing his father with his bare hands.

All in all, Only God Forgives is another excellent exercise in slick style from the Winding-Refn/Gosling partnership that does have allusions to something deeper, although perhaps it does not go quite deep enough. That said, if God can forgive, then so can I.

3.5 out 5 – Seek it out!

Perfect Sense [Mackenzie, 2011]

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Perfect Sense [Mackenzie, 2011]

David Mackenzie, directing from a Kim Fupz Aakeson script, offers an intriguing, if not perfect, take on the apocalyptic movie, of which we have seen increasing numbers (Children of Men, 28 Weeks Later, Melancholia, Contagion et al.).

In Perfect Sense, Ewan McGregor plays Michael, a slick Glaswegian sous-chef who we first see, post-coitus, politely asking a woman to leave as he’s “unable to sleep while anyone else is in the bed”. However, he soon meets Eva Green’s Susan, an emotionally damaged epidemiologist, and changes his womanizing-ways. As romance (or adaptability?) blossoms, a mysterious virus that destroys the senses begins to sweep the globe. First, smell. And then, taste. Each one accompanied by a shocking side-dish of side-effects including uncontrollable sadness and ravishing hunger.

Initially, instead of the all out panic that ensues in the likes of 28 Days Later and Children of Men, people simply adapt. As the foreboding, yet occasionally clunky, narration (Green, herself) tells us “life goes on”. And so it does, beautifully. Mackenzie and director of photography Giles Nuttgens do a spine-tingling job of heightening audience senses as the characters slowly lose theirs with their hand-held camera and majestic lighting. In this way, the film calls to mind Lars von Trier’s equally visually vibrant Melancholia.

Visuals aside, the film at time lacks direction. Although the premise is thought-provoking and a new twist on the genre, Perfect Sense is never quite bold enough to explore the big questions it threatens to ask. At the same time, the love story at the centre of it all is a little nonsensical and on occasion, just plain unconvincing. McGregor and Green never quite seem to spark in a way as to engross you within their plight. And considering the film is largely based around a series of moments and connections between these two leads, on the whole, you’re left with the feeling that proceedings are all just a bit too superficial.

That said, as the senses continue to evaporate, emotions become sharper, culminating in a uniquely engaging final 10 minutes that are as good as anything the film has to offer – including a fleetingly poignant post-deafness moment, in which Michael returns to the alleyway outside Susan’s apartment building , standing in the spot where he used to whistle to get her attention – a subtle and sensory moment of connection, now gone in the blink of an eye.

So as the world ends with a hug described in darkness, Mackenzie’s gorgeously shot film makes perfect stylistic sense, it’s just a shame that the story at the centre of it is not quite so finely-tuned.

3 out of 5 – Worth a watch.