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After Life (2019– )
10/10
Brilliant: incredibly dark, gritty, thought-provoking and emotional yet hilariously funny
23 March 2019
Tony's wife of 25 years, Lisa, has just died of cancer, leaving Tony a shattered, suicidal wreck. He goes from happy, caring and fun-loving person to cynical, rude and self-destructive. He figures that there's no downside to acting this way: after all, if things get too dire he can always commit suicide. But what if there are things and people worth living for?

Written by, directed by and starring Ricky Gervais, After Life is a brilliant drama. Incredibly relevant, relatable, realistic and dark. Makes you think about your own life, how you handle tragedy and other setbacks, what it all means and what's important to you.

Clever, original and bold plot from Gervais. Can't think of too many movies or TV series that have captured how one deals with tragedy, and suicidal tendencies, so directly and confrontingly ('Leaving Las Vegas' would be the best example I can think of). Not at all predictable: from the outset there are several paths the plot could have taken and Gervais keeps his options open all the way through.

Quite emotional ending that ties everything together without being trite and Hollywoodesque.

It's not all drama though. With Tony's character being so cynical, there is plenty of room for comedy. The humour comes thick and fast, without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter. The jokes are woven into the dialogue so well that the humour doesn't seem forced at all.

Great work by Gervais in the lead role. We know he can do drama, from 'Derek', especially, but his work here is quite eye-opening. The casting of Ashley Jensen is a masterstroke: the two of them recapture the chemistry they had in 'Extras' to great effect.

Superb series and evidence that Ricky Gervais is a force to be reckoned with not just in comedy but also in drama.
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R (2010)
9/10
Great prison drama
18 March 2019
Great prison drama. Very original - the twists are totally unexpected - and very gritty. Certainly pulls no punches in portraying prison life.
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Luther (2010– )
9/10
Superb cop-drama
17 March 2019
(Reviewed after Season 5).

John Luther is a police detective, and a very good one. He deals with murder cases, often involving serial killers, and has a knack for getting inside the mind of the killer. However, his methods, personality and troubled private life often get him into strife with his superiors, leading some to regard him as the problem rather than the solution.

Superb drama. The plots around the crimes and the solving thereof are very clever and highly intriguing, with some great twists and turns, investigative work and psychological aspects. Good character drama too, with Luther and some of the other major characters given good character depth and development. Very gritty: hardly any character is above being killed off and it's not all American-style gung ho, guns-blazing police work.

Great work by Idris Elba in the lead role with an excellent supporting cast. Ruth Wilson is especially good as Alice Morgan, as is Warren Brown as DS Ripley. Dermot Crowley is irritating as Martin Schenk, however, especially in Seasons 1 and 2.

On the negative side, while the main plots, tracking down the killers, are really good the writing gets a bit loose with the sub-plots. Plot developments don't always make sense and it often seems a case of creating a tense, no-win situation for the sake of it. Season 2 has a great example of this, with the situation involving the mother and her daughter who ended up in the adult industry. The leverage they and then the criminals had over Luther never made any sense.

On a minor note, it would be great if the BBC had not added the "Next week" bits at the end. They gave away far too many twists and important plot developments. Yes, I could just skip the closing credits but the closing music was always so good...
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Watchmen (2009)
5/10
Goodish special effects, and that's about it
13 March 2019
Goodish special effects, and that's about it. Story drifts along for 160 minutes. I didn't feel particularly engaged by the movie, or entertained. Not boring, but not that interesting either.

(And seeing Billy Crudup / Dr Manhattan's blue schlong in every second scene was a bit disconcerting!).

For a great adaptation of a graphic novel, see Sin City instead.
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5 Fingers (1952)
6/10
Initially intriguing but doesn't quite live up to its potential
8 March 2019
Ankara, 1944. The valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey starts selling military and diplomatic secrets to the Germans. If acted upon, some of these secrets could change the course of the war.

Largely based on actual events, the basic plot to the movie was very intriguing and the movie had the potential to a be a tense espionage-drama classic. There is a degree of intrigue throughout the movie but, other than the final few scenes, it is never that tense and is never compelling viewing.

The main problem is that the main character, Cicero, is not that engaging. James Mason does well in the role but it is not the performance that leaves you cold. It is the fact that he's not someone you want to support: he's a spy, a spy for money, and he's spying for the Nazis. There's not that much to like about him.

The writer and director try to colour Cicero's character by introducing a love interest but all that does is slow the momentum of the film. You'll have a reasonably intriguing plot development, piquing your interest, followed by a romantic scene which is dull and is just filler.

This all said, the final few scenes are quite exciting and there's a good twist right at the end. The final few scenes turned what was an uneven, dull movie into a watchable one.
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King Kong (1933)
8/10
The original and best
3 March 2019
Famed movie producer Carl Denham is about to embark on his latest project. He has his ship chartered, his crew assembled and his leading lady hired. The location: an uncharted island off Sumatra. The main star of his film: a huge gorilla, King Kong.

The original King Kong, and best. Good plot, with a solid set up, a fair degree of intrigue and exciting developments. Good adventure and action along the way.

Some good sub-plots and character development too.

Probably the most outstanding area of this movie is the quality of the special effects. Yes, by today's CGI standards the special effects are pretty basic but by 1933's standards they must have been revolutionary. Even today, when we're used to seamless CGI, many of the effects in this movie, especially the huge gorilla and dinosaurs, look pretty life-like.

And these special effects contribute some of the most iconic images in film history, not least of which is the famous scene with King Kong on the Empire State Building, swatting at fighter planes.

A seminal movie in the history of cinema.
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Deadpool 2 (2018)
8/10
Hilariously funny: a great follow-up to the first Deadpool movie
3 March 2019
After his trials and tribulations in the first movie, the life of Wade Wilson (aka Deadpool) has now settled down. He's still killing bad guys, but it's more business-as-usual now. Moreover, he and girlfriend Vanessa are madly in love and want to start a family. Then a tragic event throws his life into disarray.

The first Deadpool movie was great, and was a very pleasant surprise, being a comic book movie. Instead of the usual CGI-driven, all style no substance, drivel that most comic book movies are, Deadpool was a comedy, and a really good one. Outrageously funny, original and entertaining. Clever, snappy, laugh-a-minute dialogue. Some great cultural references and in-jokes, especially regarding other comic book movies.

Deadpool 2 continues in the same vein. Some brilliantly funny, laugh-out-loud moments, often based around in-jokes, cultural references and film-industry-deprecating humour.

More action than the first, which is disappointing. Part of Deadpool's charm is that it parodies other comic book movies. By becoming an action movie it threatens to become what it is parodying. There's always an element of humour involved though, even in the deadliest fight scenes, and in so doing the writer and director manage to avoid the hypocrisy of the film becoming what it mocks.

Great work again from Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool: his comedic timing and delivery is spot-on. Good supporting cast, with Josh Brolin playing a great straight character to Reynolds' clowning.
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Another Woman (1988)
8/10
One of the better Woody Allen dramas
2 March 2019
A woman has a mid-life crisis after she accidentally overhears another woman's intimate discussion with her psychiatrist. All her regrets, fears, shortcomings, insecurities and failed relationships come back to haunt her.

Great drama, and the best of Woody Allen's pure (i.e. no comedy) human dramas. Quite engaging and relatable (for me at least, being of an age where you start to look back with regret and look forward with apprehension), making the whole experience so much more harrowing and real.

Emotional too, as you see all these experiences and anxieties through her eyes.

Profound, upbeat ending though, which was a pleasant surprise from his other Bergmanesque offerings, especially Interiors and September, which were depressing in their lack of solution. That's what makes this such a good drama - after all the depressing stuff that happens in the movie, there's a ray of hope at the end.
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7/10
Funny and engaging
2 March 2019
A married couple, Andrew and Adrian, invite a group of friends over to their house in the country for a few days. The guests consist of two couples: Adrian's cousin Leopold, a stuffy academic, and his fiancé Ariel and Andrew's friend Maxwell, a doctor and serial womaniser, and his nurse Dulcy. Andrew and Ariel have a history - Andrew thinks of Ariel as The One That Got Away - and meeting her again rekindles those emotions. However, Maxwell is soon smitten by Ariel too.

Another Ingmar Bergman-inspired Woody Allen movie, though lighter than Allen's usual such offerings. This lightness is largely a good thing in that when Allen goes Full Bergman the result is usually very slow and depressing. Here we have glimpses of the funny Woody Allen mixed with a drama that encompasses fidelity, existence, marriage and metaphysics.

This mix is both a plus and a minus. The plus is that, as mentioned before, this isn't a full-on Bergmanesque drama. The negative is that the movie is neither fish nor fowl: half-drama and half-comedy and doesn't excel at being either. The drama ends without much profundity. The comedy is used sparingly, as if Allen did not want to detract from the (ultimately, half-baked) drama. So many opportunities for a good one-liner or a good skit that went a-begging as Allen pulled his punches. This could have been a great comedy if Allen had abandoned the drama part.

This all said, this is a reasonably entertaining movie. The humour, when it is used, is great - some wonderful one-liners. The characters are engaging and the plot is interesting, with love triangles/rectangles/hexagon that make for intriguing, who-will-end-with-whom mysteries. Good performances all round.

Not brilliant, but moves at a good pace and is never dull.
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Moneyball (2011)
9/10
Brilliant
25 February 2019
I must admit that I was very sceptical about Hollywood making the book into a movie. I enjoyed the book immensely, but did not see how it could be made into a movie.

I was wrong, very wrong. Moneyball is brilliant!

The adaptation of Michael Lewis's book by Aaron Sorkin et al is imaginative, yet doesn't take much poetic licence versus the book. Bennett MIller, directing only his second movie (the first was "Capote"), keeps the movie moving, and doesn't get bogged down with some of the minor details. A faithful reproduction of the book would have been dry, and a documentary.

Brad Pitt provides the star power and puts in a good performance. Jonah Hill is surprisingly good in a dramatic role. Good support from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright.

Very entertaining, and ultimately thought-provoking and uplifting. Yes, I am a baseball nut, but I don't that being one is essential to enjoying this movie.
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Rome (2005–2007)
9/10
Superb, gritty and accurate drama series
25 February 2019
Rome in the time of Julius Caesar, and beyond. From the machinations of politicians, to the domestic lives of the upper class, to the dramatic battles of Roman soldiers, seemingly separate lives that are all connected.

Superb series. Set against the backdrop of the final days of the rule of Julius Caesar and the wars that followed his death, a very gritty and, from I can tell, historically accurate portrayal of the period. Just covering the military campaigns would be interesting enough, but we also have human drama in the form of the plotting and counter-plotting of politicians and the lives of everyday citizens.

Could easily have just been a style-over-substance action series (a la Spartacus) but the characters are well developed, the plots and sub-plots are intelligently formed and there is a classy veneer to the whole series.

A pity it only lasted two seasons. The series could easily have been turned into a further-reaching drama on the Roman Empire.
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Kiss of Death (1947)
7/10
Good crime-drama
25 February 2019
Nick Bianco is caught during a botched jewellery heist. The prosecution offer him a more lenient sentence if he squeals on his accomplices but he doesn't roll over on them. Three years into the sentence an event changes his mind, leading him down a very dangerous path.

Good crime-drama. Interesting plot with a decent degree of intrigue. Great performance by Richard Widmark, in his cinematic debut, as the insanely fiendish Tommy Udo. Widmark got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.

Not brilliant though. The tension is never dialled up enough and certain plot developments aren't entirely plausible. Some flat, listless periods that slow the momentum.
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Downsizing (2017)
4/10
Great, novel set-up but remainder is incredibly dull and disappointing
23 February 2019
Scientists have discovered a way to miniaturise life, including humans. This is seen as a solution to overpopulation and people start to voluntarily be 'downsized', forming communities of downsized people. Paul and Audrey Safranek, an average suburban couple, decide to take the plunge.

Incredibly disappointing. This not due to being sucked in by the trailer and then getting something different. On the contrary: the trailer made this movie out to be a silly hijinks-filled comedy, so I immediately disregarded the movie. It was only when I discovered that the movie was written and directed by Alexander Payne, who gave us such superb offerings as Sideways, Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants and Nebraska, that I decided to watch it.

Initially I was very glad I had changed my mind. The downsizing concept and plot around it was highly original and ambitious, making for an excellent Act 1. The set-up was superb: very engaging and interesting and I was eager to see where Payne went with the concept he had created.

Unfortunately, the answer was 'nowhere'. Having created this world, Payne doesn't know what to do with it. The plot just drifts, has a dull storyline and ultimately makes no point or provides anything to care about. There's no focus: one moment it's a character-drama, next it's an eco-drama, next it's a romantic drama, and ultimately it tries to be all three, unsuccessfully. From a point I just wanted it to end, as soon as possible.

I guess Alexander Payne had to make a poor movie eventually, and this is it.
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7/10
More style than substance, but what style it is!
23 February 2019
A prequel to Spartacus - Blood and Sand, covering the period immediately before Spartacus's arrival in Capua. Centres the gladiators in Capua, especially Gannicus and Crixus.

Meant as a stop-gap series while actor Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus in Season 1, was ill (sadly, he died of his affliction), Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is entertaining in its own right. Similar to Blood and Sand it is entertaining as a visual spectacle, rather than for any plot- or character-driven devices and works as an excellent guilty pleasure. It's about the action (come of which is between consenting adults...), and what action it is! The fight scenes are some of the most visceral and gory ever put to screen but show just how primal the life of a gladiator was.

This said, it's not all style, no substance: the plot is quite interesting at times and character engagement is decent - a reasonable number of people to support and there is a fair degree of character development.

Not quite as substantial as Blood and Sand though, plus you know there's no long-term plot: its just about marking time until Spartacus arrives. In addition. as with Blood and Sand, some of the sub-plots are quite silly and the secondary performances are quite woeful at times. Who knew gladiators spoke with a New Zealand accent? The slo-mo fight scenes get overdone too.

All up, not as good as Blood and Sand but close enough and highly entertaining.
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Spartacus (2010–2013)
8/10
More style than substance, but what style it is!
23 February 2019
The life of Spartacus, the gladiator who lead a rebellion against the Romans. From his time as an ally of the Romans, to his betrayal and becoming a gladiator, to the rebellion he leads and its ultimate outcome.

Entertaining as a visual spectacle, rather than for any plot- or character-driven devices, Spartacus works as an excellent guilty pleasure. It's about the action (come of which is between consenting adults...), and what action it is! The fight scenes are some of the most visceral and gory ever put to screen but show just how primal the life of a gladiator was.

This said, it's not all style, no substance: the plot is quite interesting at times and character engagement is decent - a reasonable number of people to support and there is a fair degree of character development.

Hardly brilliant though: some of the sub-plots are quite silly and the secondary performances are quite woeful at times. Who knew gladiators spoke with a New Zealand accent? The slo-mo fight scenes get overdone too.

All up, hardly a cerebral experience but highly entertaining.
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7/10
Good, but not entirely compelling viewing
21 February 2019
London, 1827. A body has washed up on the banks of the Thames. Inspector John Marlott of the River Police discovers that the body is composite of body parts from several people, sewn together. The Home Secretary tasks Marlott with solving the mystery.

Good drama. The connections with Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' make for a fair amount of intrigue and twists. The connections with Frankenstein seem quite direct at first, adding a layer of engagement, as the series appears to be re-imagining of the classic tale.

Add in Mary Shelley herself as a character in the series, plus William Blake, and you have a series with great ambition.

However, it is not entirely compelling viewing. Things drift on occasion and the tension is never sustained very well.

Still, not bad and quite entertaining.
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Black Water (2007)
5/10
Ok, but not great
20 February 2019
Ok, but not great. Reasonably tense, but not very original - pretty much your average killer-animal drama, but this time with a crocodile. Tedious in parts.
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4/10
Very disappointing
15 February 2019
Very disappointing. Plot was quite jumbled and confusing, acting was nothing special, despite the cast. Casting Hillary Swank as a rich spoiled femme fatale was a mistake.
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The Code (2011– )
6/10
Okay, but many of the concepts and 'revelations' are hardly new or revolutionary
12 February 2019
Oxford Mathematics Professor Marcus du Sautoy examines the numbers and formulae that govern the world around us.

So-so. Should have been quite interesting but instead largely consisted of hyping up basic physics into something earth-shatteringly profound. Unless you've never done high school science, physics or maths, many of the 'revelations' are things you already know and take for granted, e.g. gravity, pi (and its significance in circles).

Maybe it is because I have a mathematical background (Masters degree in Statistics), but just about everything seemed dumbed down. Even to the point where du Sautoy dumbs down the science itself, e.g. using speed instead of velocity in one example. Maybe that was the target audience - people who don't know much about science or maths.

Not that it's all unedifying. There are some parts that are genuinely new and interesting, e.g. patterns and codes in nature. The nautilus's shell and the swallows' flying pattern were quite interesting.
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Rabu hoteru (1985)
4/10
Had potential but ultimately quite weak
10 February 2019
Muraki is at wits end after several aspects of his life fall apart simultaneously. He decides to commit suicide but figures on taking someone with him. He books himself in at an hotel and orders in a prostitute. He is set to kill her and then himself but then loses his nerve and flees. Two years later he runs into her again.

Had potential. The story arc was quite poetic, initially, and looked set to go somewhere profound. However, the story was never entirely engaging and there are sub-plots and scenes that go nowhere and slow down the pace of the movie.

Moreover, the poetic development didn't really convert into a profound ending. Ending is more Pretty Woman than Shakespeare - quite conventional. (And yes, I know Pretty Woman was released after this movie, but Pretty Woman was pretty derivative itself).

Ultimately quite weak, and disappointing.
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6/10
Starts very well but second half is disappointing
10 February 2019
I am a fan of Wes Anderson's movies. I liked all his previous offerings: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Rushmore, in particular, was superb. All had a similar structure: character-driven, rather than plot-driven, dramas with moments of offbeat comedy and quaint bitter-sweet pictures of everyday people and the ups and downs of their lives.

The Darjeeling Limited is no exception, in terms of structure, and for the first half of the movie promises to be at least as good as his best (i.e. Rushmore, for me). However, it loses direction, focus and momentum in the second half, to the point that I was eagerly waiting for it to end.

It could have been a lot better.
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Isle of Dogs (2018)
8/10
Another sweet, quirky, charming and original creation by Wes Anderson
10 February 2019
Dog flu has broken out among the canine population of the Japanese city of Megasaki. The ruling, cat-loving, Kobayashi clan has a several-centuries long enmity with dogs. Mayor Kobayashi orders all dogs moved to the city's waste dumping ground, Trash Island, henceforth known as the Isle of Dogs.

Written and directed by Wes Anderson who brought us such gems as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs has many of his trademarks. Highly original plot, from the word go, I was immediately drawn in by how different and clever it was. There's also a wonderful sweetness, innocence and charm about the movie, making it suitable for all ages. Add in the subtle, often tongue-in-cheek, quirky humour and you can clearly see his hand in this movie.

Interesting animation. Not your perfect cartoon style, but a rougher sort of animation. Can be a bit jarring at times but it suits the story and Anderson's style of storytelling.

Voice casting is spot-on and features a Hollywood who's-who of names. Most interesting casting: Yoko Ono as herself...sort of.

Not perfect, however. The plot gets a bit loose and hard to follow in the second half. The first half was perfect - engaging, tight, interesting - but the second half gets a bit random at times and feels more like a conventional adventure story.

Overall, great: wonderfully funny, interesting and entertaining.
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Mission of Honor (II) (2018)
6/10
Clumsy but watchable
9 February 2019
The exploits of 303 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Britain. The squadron consisted of Polish pilots, many of whom were veterans of the air battles involved in Germany's invasion of Poland.

Broadly based on a true story, with 'broadly' being the key word. If you've watched Battle of Britain you'll know of the legendary Polish squadron that generally didn't obey orders and was indisciplined but had tons of initiative and skill and ended up the most effective squadron of the Battle of Britain. This movie captures those aspects well, plus what the pilots saw and endured in Poland, how they managed to escape to Britain and their struggles to be allowed to fly fighters for the RAF. Also shows how badly they were treated after WW2, by the Soviets when they returned home and by the British to appease Stalin.

The sheer courage, tenacity and impressiveness of their story pretty much writes the movie itself, all the writers and director had to do was keep the plot tight and accurate and the action sequences plausible. Alas, this is where everything goes wrong. Much poetic licence is taken with the story, to the point you have some marked departures from the truth and some eye-rollingly silly scenes. Even if you don't know the true story certain things don't make sense, militarily or practically.

Plot is far from tight: heaps of sub-plots that add nothing and/or go nowhere.

The action scenes are generally okay but also provide some of the more ridiculous, implausible moments. How Zumbach gets two of his kills, in the movie, is all about style rather than substance.

Engagement is also rather limited. Zumbach is the only character you really care about. The rest are very superficially drawn, if at all. Means that when a pilot dies or is injured, you hardly know who they are, let alone care about them.

Overall, despite the clumsy plot and far-fetched combat sequences, the movie is watchable. The story of 303 Squadron is and interesting one and one that needed to be told. Plus, the dogfights are quite exciting.
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Paddington 2 (2017)
9/10
Wonderfully funny, charming and entertaining
7 February 2019
Happily living with the Browns in London, Paddington Bear is looking for a gift to give his adopted mother, Aunt Lucy, for her 100th birthday. He discovers the perfect gift but cannot afford it and is framed when it is stolen.

Wonderfully funny, charming and entertaining. The first Paddington movie, from 2014, was great. At first glance a children's movie, it was great no matter what age you are. Solid plot and very funny, with a wonderful English whimsicalness and quirkiness.

Paddington 2 takes that formula and improves upon it, ending even better than the initial movie, a rarity. Even funnier, even more emotional and the warmth, innocence and charm are all there too. Interesting, entertaining plot that moves at a brisk pace.

Another factor in what makes Paddington 2 so great is the performance of Hugh Grant. He absolutely steals the show as the villainous Phoenix Buchanan.

Superb movie, and suitable for all ages.
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Tangerines (2013)
9/10
Superb drama on the inanity and wastefulness of war
6 February 2019
1992. A war rages in Abkhazia, a separatist region within Georgia. A small village in the region has a largely Estonian population but the vast majority of them have left, due to the war. Two men remain - Ivo and Margus. They are staying to harvest, box and sell Margus's tangerine crop. However, the war catches up with them when a skirmish between the opposing forces occurs in their village. The only survivors are on opposing sides - a Georgian and a Chechen mercenary - and they're both wounded. Ivo takes them both in, but the animosity between the two soldiers could end in bloodshed.

Superb. A modest, understated movie that grittily shows he inanity and wastefulness of war. Incredibly plausible, making the point so much more painful.

Highly engaging as you see Ivo and his guests come to terms with the situation and learn to live together.

Very emotional too, especially towards the end. Powerful ending that really rams the movie's point home.

One of the best anti-war movies you'll see.
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