Welcome to JoeBakerReviews.com

Hello, my name is Joe Baker. In addition to working as a freelance filmmaker in Nottinghamshire, I am also a passionate film fan and film critic and have been ever since I first stumbled across cinematic classics like Alien, Jaws and Jurassic Park during my younger days. I’ve always been obsessed with the filmmaking craft and the true wonders of storytelling, with those interests only growing over time. 

Thus, I decided to create this site to share my various thoughts and opinions with other film fanatics around the world through a variety of content. So, feel free to explore and remember that you can keep up-to-date with the site via an email subscription or my social media pages as I post new content weekly. The latest post is listed below.

Sausage Party (2016) – Film Review

Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon (The Addams Family, The Addams Family 2) and co-written/produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Sausage Party, released in 2016, is an animated adult comedy with a very specific brand of humour, a brand that I have a strong distaste for. Lazily relying on copious amounts of foul language, sexual imagery and offensive jokes, the potential hilarity of Sausage Party‘s concept is ultimately squandered due to its dreadful execution, giving the impression that this adult-centric animation was written by a group of angsty teenagers.

Plot Summary: Eagerly awaiting the day they will be taken to the Great Beyond by their human deities, Frank the sausage, Brenda the hot dog bun, Sammy Bagel Jr. and the rest of the food items that occupy the shelves of the local supermarket, believe a code that allows them to live blissfully ignorant lives until it’s time to depart their aisle. But, when Frank learns the terrible truth that they will eventually become a human’s dinner, their shared fantasy comes crashing down, forcing the panicked perishables to devise a plan and fight back against their human foes…

An obvious parody of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks’ animated classics. Co-writer and producer, Seth Rogen, first developed the idea for Sausage Party in 2007 while promoting Superbad and Knocked Up, as interviewers would ask Rogen what his next project would be, to which he jokingly replied; “It’s Called Sausage Party.” Rogen frequently described Sausage Party as a dreary take on family-friendly animated films, stating: “People Like to Project Their Emotions Onto the Things Around Them; Their Toys, Their Cars, Their Pets… So We Thought; ‘What Would It Be Like if Our Food Had Feelings?’ We Very Quickly Realised, That It Would Be Fucked Up.” An ingenious idea, to be sure, even if its execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Featuring the likes of Seth Rogan, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Paul Rudd and Craig Robinson, among others. Sausage Party possesses an all-star cast to voice its extensive and diverse line of animated characters. As such, the voice acting quickly becomes one of the best aspects of the film as every member of the cast puts their all into the project, despite the repeatedly low-grade dialogue. And whilst none of the characters could be described as well-developed, Brenda does make for an appropriately uptight love interest for Frank, while characters like Teresa Del Taco and Sammy Bagel Jr. are at least memorable for their cartoonish qualities.

The animated cinematography on display throughout Sausage Party is continuously frantic and often difficult to keep track of as a result of its constant movements. The animation itself also isn’t the most visually appealing as many of the characters’ designs (both human and anthropomorphitic food) are overly cartoonish, oddly sensual and repeatedly disproportionate. Still, there is a handful of amusing visual gags throughout the film. For instance, during the scene where Honey Mustard’s outburst causes two shopping trolleys to collide, hurling multiple food items toward the ground. The resulting carnage is a shot-for-shot homage to the opening sequence of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, with all of the scene’s graphic violence being represented through burst flour bags, squished tomatoes and crumbled biscuits.

When it comes to the original score by Christopher Lennertz and Alan Menken, the soundtrack is serviceable, for the most part, with tracks like ChosenFood Massacre and Magical Sausage all serving their purpose of reinforcing scenes of both horror and humour within the story. However, where the film really shines in terms of music is the opening song; The Great Beyond, composed by Alan Menken, a composer predominantly known for scoring a number of classic animated musicals, including The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Thus, The Great Beyond is very reminiscent of the scores for those films, only with a more satirical edge, thanks to its lyrics.

In addition to the inconsistent quality of the humour, Sausage Party also attempts to integrate the notion of organised religion into its story, as Frank tries to convince his blissed-out companions that they might be heading not for a glorious afterlife, but rather knife-assisted oblivion. Even the Israel/Palestine conflict is riffed upon through the pairing of a lavash and a bagel. Yet, both of these underlining themes are significantly overshadowed by the constant wisecracks and needlessly shocking lines of dialogue. Moreover, the rules of Sausage Party‘s world oftentimes make no sense as many objects that aren’t food come to life, while others seemingly do not. Admittedly, this is more of a nit-pick than a true criticism for an absurdist comedy such as this, but I feel it’s always important for a story and its world to have consistency.

In summary, although Seth Rogen has expressed interest in making a sequel to Sausage Party, along with a number of other animated projects aimed toward older audiences, I have no desire to see any other projects of this nature. Lacking the abundance of laugh-out-loud moments that Rogen and Goldberg have delivered with their better efforts in the comedy genre, such as Pineapple Express and The InterviewSausage Party simply exists as a twenty-minute gag that was somehow stretched into a feature-length film, complete with shoddy writing, unpleasant animation and largely lethargic storytelling. Rating: high 3/10.

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Casino Royale (2006) – Film Review

Much like the sci-fi television series; Doctor Who, or any franchise that reboots itself after a certain amount of time. The biggest hurdle the 007 franchise has to overcome with every incarnation is getting die-hard fans of the long-established espionage franchise on board. Luckily, the 2006 reboot of the series; Casino Royale, succeeded in this regard, with Daniel Craig taking on the iconic role of James Bond in a slick and thrilling mission. Doing away with much of the absurdity present in previous instalments, in exchange for pulse-pounding action sequences and an unexpectedly engaging romantic subplot.

Plot Summary: After receiving his license to kill, British Secret Service agent, James Bond, sets out on his first mission as 007, travelling to Madagascar, where he uncovers a link to Le Chiffre, a private banker financing terrorist organisations. Learning that Le Chiffre plans to raise funds through a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale, Montenegro, Bond is instructed to play against him and thwart his plans…

Holding familiarity with the franchise after directing the Pierce Brosnan-era instalment; GoldenEye, in 1995. Director Martin Campbell (The Mask of ZorroVertical LimitThe Foreigner), along with the series’ producers, decided to take the franchise in a more grounded direction following the bombastic action sequences of the later Brosnan entries. So, there are no high-tech gadgets or tumultuous helicopter chases in Casino Royale. Instead, the poker game at the centre of the story is what holds most of the film’s suspense, occupying the majority of the second act and harbouring some of Bond’s best lines. Moreover, Casino Royale is one of the most faithful adaptations of the 007 source material, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming, the first piece of media to feature the character of James Bond.

Despite the casting of Daniel Craig initially sparking outrage amongst the 007 fanbase due to Craig’s blue eyes and blonde hair, the online annoyance didn’t last long as once Casino Royale was released, critics and fans alike instantly fell for Craig’s rendition of the character. This was partially because unlike the other cinematic portrayals of James Bond, whose kills held no more weight than the cheeky one-liners that accompanied them, Craig’s tussles tend to be intimate, bloody and devoid of glamour. Craig’s brooding persona, dry humour and excellent line delivery also find a close match in Eva Green’s take on ‘The Bond Girl,’ Vesper Lynd, whose intelligence and assertive attitude puts aside any negative traits associated with the supporting role. And while Mads Mikkelsen is merely serviceable as the antagonist, Le Chiffre, with his menacing performance leaving little impact, Judi Dench makes the most of her brief screen-time as M, the head of MI6, exuding both confidence and power.

In terms of visuals, Casino Royale makes one subtle change that results in the instalment looking quite different from the ones that precede it. For most of the 007 entries before Casino Royale, the visuals almost seem to have been an afterthought as the lighting is flat, the composition is dull, and the cinematography never does anything to advance the characters or the story. Yet, with Casino Royale, it’s evident that the main principle that guides the camerawork is to always keep the camera moving. Thus, the cinematography by Phil Meheux repeatedly makes effective use of hand-held close-ups and mid-shots. Furthermore, when it comes to filmmaking, the first ten minutes of screen-time are crucial in establishing the tone, mood and style of a project. Casino Royale clearly understands this, as the opening scene employs canted camera angles and intercuts between past and present, all dosed in a fierce, greyscale colour palette for a striking introduction.

Surprisingly, the classic 007 theme, composed by Monty Norman, appears very rarely in the film’s original score. Supposedly, this is because the filmmakers wanted to emphasise Bond’s inexperience, essentially having 007 earn the theme by the time the end credits roll. However, that’s not to say that the rest of the score is terrible, as composer David Arnold steers the soundtrack away from over-the-top action cues and towards more nuanced tracks like Vesper and Blunt Instrument. And, of course, no 007 entry would be complete without a memorable song to pair with the stylish opening title sequence. In this case, it’s You Know My Name, by Chris Cornell, an alternative rock piece that fits the tone of Casino Royale flawlessly.

The action sequences are where Casino Royale delivers some of its most jaw-dropping moments. Almost every set piece could easily be the climactic action sequence of any typical action flick, which truly demonstrates the impressive stunt work and remarkable fight choreography on display throughout Casino Royale. The action-heavy first act, in particular, boasts one of the finest parkour sequences seen in this franchise to date, as Bond chases a terrorist through the streets of a Madagascan town, culminating in an exhilarating hand-to-hand scuffle atop a towering construction crane.

In summary, Casino Royale disposes of the goofiness and gadgetry that plagued older James Bond outings as Daniel Craig delivers what critics and fans have been waiting for; a brutal, haunted and intense reinvention of 007. With rousing action sequences, a compelling narrative and a conclusion filled with plenty of potential. Casino Royale functions as a terrific example of how to reboot a well-known franchise, even if it isn’t particularly distinct when placed alongside other espionage flicks. Rating: high 7/10.

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Enola Holmes (2020) – Film Review

Based on the book series; The Enola Holmes Mysteries, by Nancy Springer, a string of books centralising on Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ younger sister, Enola. 2020’s Enola Holmes serves as an alternate take on the Sherlock Holmes mythology, aiming itself towards preteens (specifically preteen girls) and injecting the world of the renowned detective with both colour and humour. Unfortunately, however, on account of the film’s poor pacing, overly long runtime and comedic sequences that frequently fall flat, Enola Holmes struggles to attain much appeal outside its preteen demographic. Even with a terrific performance from Millie Bobby Brown as the titular character.

Plot Summary: When Enola Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister, discovers that her mother has gone missing, she embarks on a daring mission to the city of London to find her. Swiftly becoming a proficient detective in her own right as she outwits her older brothers and unravels a treacherous conspiracy surrounding a young, runaway Lord…

Adapting the first entry of the book series into an origin story, of sorts. The plot of Enola Holmes revolves around a mystery, similar to many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes literature. However, unlike many other adaptations of the world’s greatest detective, Enola Holmes repeatedly breaks the fourth wall throughout its narrative. Having Enola turns towards the camera and speaks directly to the audience, delivering exposition and sharing her various thoughts on her current situation. Yet this isn’t too surprising as director Harry Bradbeer (As the Beast Sleeps, The Brides in the Bath, Perfect Day: The Millennium) is predominantly a television director, directing episodes on several well-known series, including Fleabag, which also features a number of fourth-wall-breaking moments. Furthermore, with a female protagonist at the centre of the story, Enola Holmes attempts to weave themes of feminism and the sexist nature of the 1800s into its narrative, which is an admirable goal, yet often comes across as preachy in its delivery as the female characters continuously outperform and belittle the male characters, including Sherlock Holmes himself.

Best known for her role as Eleven in the smash-hit television series; Stranger Things, Millie Bobby Brown portrays the youthful detective, Enola Holmes, with plenty of wit and confidence. And although the screenplay doesn’t give Enola much complexity beyond occasionally being too headstrong for her own good, she is a fine protagonist, especially for impressionable young girls. The supporting cast also does well in their respective roles, with Henry Cavill, in particular, portraying a remarkable iteration of Sherlock Holmes in a more traditional portrayal of the character following the rather wild and scattered portrayals from Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. Cavill is calm and collected as the stark image of his older brother, Mycroft Holmes, portrayed by Sam Claflin, who is far more rigid. Mycroft also makes an excellent foil to Enola as he demands she conforms to the standards of 18th-century women. Then there is Helena Bonham Carter, who doesn’t have much to do as the Holmes matriarch, Eudoria Holmes, but makes the most of her screentime through her monologues, bouncing from various tones with her eccentric behaviour and sage advice.

For added freedom and flexibility when it comes to camera movement, Enola Holmes was shot almost exclusively using a Steadicam system. This allowed cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, to obtain many of the energetic shots seen throughout the film. Yet, despite this persistent sense of movement, many of the shots in Enola Holmes aren’t anything overly inventive, and instead, a large portion of the camerawork simply presents the detailed costumes and sets with pride. All of which feel period-accurate, if a little excessively vibrant.

Whist not as memorable or as distinct as many of his other scores, composer Daniel Pemberton does a passable job with the soundtrack for Enola Homes. Crafting an orchestra-led score brimming with bouncy rhythms and sassy melodies, all united by guitar. Effectively, it’s a modern score that makes no real attempt to convey the time period of the story. Instead, the original score concentrates on Enola as a protagonist, accentuating her personality through tracks like Gifts from MotherCracking the Chrysanthemums Cypher and The Game is Afoot.

According to the novel; A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes first met his assistant, Dr. Watson, in 1881. But, in Enola Holmes, which is set in 1884, Lestrade states that Sherlock always works alone, indicating that the pair have not yet met. As such, it’s a safe assumption that Enola Holmes is set outside of the series’ usual continuity, further playing into the idea that Enola Holmes is an entirely new interpretation of the series. This assumption is inadvertently also a pleasant distraction from the film’s countless cringe-worthy quips and one-liners.

In summary, Enola Holmes is the type of film that preteens will delight in; a charming, family-friendly adventure with an intriguing mystery at its core. For others, however, this family flick is unlikely to impress as a result of its notable flaws and restrictive appeal, not to mention its constant attempts to plant seeds for the inevitable sequels that will be coming to Netflix later down the line. Having said that, I feel Millie Bobby Brown will certainly advance her career with this project as she was actually one of the main reasons Enola Holmes was green-lit, approaching author, Nancy Springer, with the intention of starring in and producing an adaptation of her work. Rating: 5/10.

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The Martian (2015) – Film Review

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which was originally self-published on Weir’s personal blog in a serialised format. The Martian, released in 2015, is a sci-fi drama that combines witty dialogue, stunning cosmic visuals and real-world science to craft a captivating story of survival and innovation. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Matt Damon, The Martian is a cinematic triumph of the science fiction genre, ticking every box that needs to be ticked in this modern era of sci-fi flicks.

Plot Summary: When a fierce storm causes an exploratory mission on Mars to be aborted, astronaut and botanist, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and left behind by his crew. Awakening hours later, injured and alone, Mark is forced to draw upon his wit and scientific ingenuity to endure the hostile surface of the red planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, employees of NASA, alongside a team of international scientists, work around the clock to develop a plan to bring their missing astronaut home… 

Just as much a survival thriller as it is a grandiose sci-fi drama, The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott (Blade RunnerThelma & LouiseGladiator), who, of course, is no stranger to the science fiction genre, with two of the most notable releases of his filmography being Alien in 1979, and Blade Runner in 1982, both renowned as some of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time. And although The Martian likely won’t reach the same level of recognition in ten years, I would say the film has about the same level of directional skill as those well-known flicks. The unsung hero of the film, however, is the screenwriter/executive producer, Drew Goddard, who laces the story with humour and energy, in addition to approaching much of the scientific exposition in a comprehensible yet never overly simplistic fashion. 

The incredible all-star cast of Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover (among others), are all phenomenal in their various roles. And whilst there are a lot of characters, the story juggles them rather efficiently, never taking too much attention away from Mark Watney’s fight for survival, and subsequently, Damon’s terrific performance, which manages to be both humorous and heartfelt. As far as adaptions go, The Martian also solves one of the novel’s biggest issues, that being Mark’s constant internal monologues to provide the reader with commentary on his situation. The film gets around this by having Mark record video logs, in which he explains the science behind what he needs to do to survive, which again, is never dull thanks to Damon’s ceaseless charisma and dry wit.

Primarily filmed in the Middle Eastern desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan. The gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski emphasises the solitariness of Mars throughout the film, illustrating just how alone Mark truly is and making his line: “I Am the First Man to Be Alone on an Entire Planet,” seem all the more impactful. Furthermore, the colour palette of The Martian is surprisingly diverse considering the story takes place on the red planet. While most of the film retains a burnt orange look, many of the shots on Earth or in outer space form a remarkable contrast to the Mars sequences through their use of whites, greys, greens and blues. Much of the set design is also beautifully crafted, riding a careful line between sci-fi futurism and modern comfort. Interestingly, one of the panoramic shots on Mars displays Olympus Mons, the largest volcano discovered in our solar system. Olympus Mons is almost three times larger than Mount Everest and covers an area roughly the size of the U.S. state, Missouri.

Stylistically, the original score for The Martian is an assortment of soothing synth and the orchestral arrangements composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, is best known for. The most notable tracks are Mars, a stark, oppressive track comprised of synth chords and impressionistic processed effects, depicting the planet as a cold, inhospitable place. Making Water, which feels slightly more playful through its use of harps and optimistic strings. And Crossing Mars, the most triumphant-sounding track of the entire score, which ultimately comes across as a little generic as it ditches much of the atmospheric synth in exchange for an orchestral motif.

Amidst its many other qualities, The Martian is also a testament to science being employed rather accurately in a science fiction flick, as despite not every line of the screenplay being scientifically exact due to the story taking place in the near future of 2035, The Martian comes pretty close. In fact, NASA was actually consulted on many aspects of the story, specifically regarding Mars, with the film even being supported in its science by famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

In summary, The Martian isn’t quite a flawless film as the supporting cast occasionally feel under-served and at one-hundred and forty-one minutes, the runtime is admittedly rather excessive. But, with the exception of these few (and frankly, minor) flaws, The Martian is a rousing story and an expertly crafted film in which the protagonist recognises he is going to die, and then willfully refuses to accept it. It’s an ennobling and uplifting story delivered with sass, allure and intelligence, essentially being everything a story from the science fiction genre should be. Rating: high 8/10.

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Wiener-Dog (2016) – Film Review

A comedy-drama anthology that is far more drama than black comedy. 2016’s Wiener-Dog, written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the DollhouseHappinessLifetime During War), centres on a series of short, personal stories, all connected by the titular sausage-resembling canine. And while Wiener-Dog certainly has its moments as a mordantly witty tour of the human condition, seen from the low-slung position of an ordinary dachshund, Wiener-Dog‘s distinct combination of bleak storytelling and deadpan humour can make for a very inconsistent viewing experience, especially if you aren’t sure what to expect going in.

Plot Summary: An endearing dachshund, nicknamed, Wiener-Dog, finds itself shuffled from one oddball owner to the next, with each owner’s radically dysfunctional life being, in some way, impacted by the small canine…

Winning the Best Film Award at the 2017 Milan LongTake Interactive Film Festival, a festival where the films in competition are selected from titles yet unreleased in Italian cinemas, with the winner being chosen by the number of people attending each screening. Wiener-Dog is certainly not a film for everyone as the stories within are actually much dreary in tone than many would expect given the title and/or poster. Moreover, for those going in expecting four straight-forward, humourous narratives, Wiener-Dog frequently takes an unusual approach with its stories, with much of the writing being awkward and clunky and each story largely differing in terms of structure. And even though I adore the idea of using a dog as a framing device for an anthology, Wiener-Dog rarely makes use of its central dachshund, nor do any of the stories fully delve into the emotional arcs of their characters even when some of their self-examining journeys are particularly interesting.

Throughout all of the stories, one element that never fails to impress, however, is the cast. From a struggling family to a despondent screenwriter-turned-film school lecturer, every member of the cast brings their all in Wiener-Dog. And although many of the characters don’t receive as much development as they probably should, they do all feel very distinct from one another. For example, in the first story, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts portray Danny and Dina, an uptight, miserable couple whose young son, Remi, is recovering from cancer. Danny and Dina soon decide to get their son a dog in an attempt to cheer him up, though, this only ends up causing the family more problems. In the next story, Dawn, a veterinarian’s assistant, hopes the dachshund will help her melt the heart of Brandon, whom she knew in school as a notorious bully. The third story introduces us to Dave Schmerz, portrayed by Danny DeVito, a has-been screenwriter now teaching at a film school where the students despise him. The fourth and final story concentrates on a character only ever referred to as Nana, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, a blind, embittered woman suffering from cancer, who is being visited by her granddaughter, Zoe, and her outrageous abstract artist boyfriend, Fantasy.

For the majority of the runtime, the cinematography by Edward Lachman stands as a model of subtle and elegant compositional skill strained by what are fairly uninteresting locations. And whilst the first two stories have a written transition between them, the latter two stories do not, and instead, we just cut to the dachshund being in a new home, with a new owner, with no explanation given, which is rather jarring. That being said, Wiener-Dog does feature an intermission of sorts halfway through, which becomes a short story in itself; a montage of the dachshund walking through a number of colourful locations brought to life via some less-than-stellar green screen. This amusing sequence somewhat feels inspired by Let’s All Go to the Lobby, officially known as Technicolor Refreshment Trailer No. 1, a 1957 animated musical advertisement that played in American cinemas during intermissions. In which, animated characters that resemble various food items urge the audience to purchase snacks.

The original score by Nathan Larson and James Lavino is serviceable during the few scenes when it’s actually used. As for most of the film, Wiener-Dog chooses to employ excerpts from the classic orchestral piece, Clair de Lune, L. 32, which consistently seems out of place. The previously mentioned intermission is also set to an original tune titled: The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog, which is admittedly quite imaginative despite, once again, seeming misplaced.

With an anthology, some segments are always going to be superior to others. In Wiener-Dog‘s case, it’s the third story that is the best of the bunch, mainly because of DeVito’s terrific world-beaten performance. With that said, the third story does have a shortcoming that plagues many of the segments, that being its ending, which feels rushed and premature. The ending of the final story is also likely to leave many audience members with a bitter taste in their mouths as the ending is unnecessarily mean-spirited, concluding the anthology on a dour note.

In summary, similar to the rest of Todd Solondz’s filmography, Wiener-Dog is a black comedy with much of the comedy removed, leaving just black; a dense residue of callousness as the film rarely dwells on its light-hearted gags or charming moments. Nevertheless, Wiener-Dog is enjoyable in parts, and it’s evident that Solondz had a specific vision for the project when crafting it. Perhaps the film is just a little too bleak for its own good. Rating: 4/10.

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Left Behind (2014) – Film Review

Awkwardly combining religious proselytising with a number of well-worn tropes from the disaster genre. Left Behind, released in 2014, is an apocalyptic thriller with a fascinating idea at its core, depicting the events that would transpire if millions of people suddenly vanished off the face of the Earth. A brilliant concept that is utterly squandered due to its horrendous execution, with subpar production values, bewildering dialogue and appalling performances being just some of the many issues this overtly religious film suffers from. As such, Left Behind presents one of the most unintentionally hilarious depictions of the apocalypse ever committed to film, which more often than not, devolves into enunciated Christian propaganda.

Plot Summary: When millions of people suddenly disappear without a trace, throwing the world into disarray as unmanned vehicles crash, planes fall from the sky and mass riots break out. Airline pilot, Ray Steele, struggles to keep composure aboard his proceeding flight to London as he and his passengers try to comprehend the inexplicable scenario they find themselves within. Meanwhile, Ray’s daughter, Chloe Steele, braves the chaos of the city streets below in search of her mother and brother…

If the Left Behind title sounds familiar, that’s likely because the film is actually a reboot of a relatively well-known series, with Left Behind: The Movie, Left Behind II: Tribulation and Left Behind III: World at War being released prior in 2000, 2002 and 2005, respectively. All of them are based on the best-selling series of apocalyptic novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye; a series that is essentially a modern-day rendition of the biblical rapture, where all Christians are transported to Heaven as divine forces decimate the Earth. 2014’s Left Behind adapts a small portion of the first book in the series, setting the majority of the story aboard an airliner piloted by Ray Steele, which for an apocalyptic thriller, isn’t the most exciting location to view a large-scale catastrophe from.

Speaking of the protagonist, despite the uproarious actor, Nicolas Cage, portraying the central character of Ray Steele. Left Behind never manages to get an entertaining performance out of the actor as for most of the runtime, Cage, who in interviews has stated that he took the role at the urging of his pastor brother, seems practically sedated, even when his character is convinced that the plane is heading towards certain doom. Regrettably, none of the supporting cast are much better, with Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thomson, Nicky Whelan and Gary Grubbs (among others) all portraying one-dimensional characters continually reciting unnatural dialogue. From the Southern entrepreneur, Dennis Beese, to Cameron ‘Buck’ Williams, a renowned news reporter who inadvertently becomes Ray’s co-pilot, none of the characters throughout Left Behind are indelible or significantly developed outside of their lack of devotion to Christianity.

In regard to the visuals, Left Behind doesn’t exhibit much improvement over its dialogue and performances as the set pieces appear small and chintzy, the lighting is flat, Jack Green’s cinematography is largely styleless and the editing between the drama on-board Ray’s flight and the disorder on the ground below is a monotonous back-and-forth of plot points with no scene being given enough time to sink in. Moreover, the CG effects for the airliner itself are rather poor, particularly during one of the film’s final moments where Ray is forced to land the plane on a makeshift runway.

Likewise, the original score by Jack Lenz has no identity or anything even remotely unique about it, subsequently causing the soundtrack to dissolve into the background where the majority of audience members will forget it even exists. Quite surprising considering that Lenz has proven himself to be a capable composer in the past, penning many respectable scores, including the theme for the Goosebumps television series.

Yet even when overlooking all of Left Behind‘s shortcomings in terms of filmmaking, the film continues to stutter as there are plenty of moments within the film that can be mocked. But by far the easiest scene that illustrates just how uniquely awful Left Behind is would be the moment in which Irene Steele stares adoringly at a terribly photoshopped picture of her family. It is possible, however, that the film’s flawed execution could be a result of a lack of experience on the part of director Vic Armstrong (Joshua TreeA Sunday Horse), as Armstrong is best known for his work as a stunt coordinator/stunt performer rather than a director.

In summary, while Left Behind‘s narrative is undoubtedly an interesting one and could’ve made for a compelling apocalyptic thriller if placed in the hands of the right director and screenwriter. The version of Left Behind we did receive is far from compelling as its flaws are nearly endless, consequently leading the film to be panned by critics and perform poorly at the box office. Still, this wasn’t the end for Left Behind as not long after, the producers of the film decided to finance the sequel through an Indiegogo campaign simply titled: “Help Us Make Left Behind 2.” The campaign received £61,558 out of the half a million asked, with the last update on the project being on May 7th 2015. So, more than likely, the project was cancelled, which I’d say is for the best. Rating: 2/10.

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Resistance (2020) – Film Review

During the German occupation of France in 1940, a young Jewish man named, Marcel Mangel, fled with his family to Limoges where his cousin, Georges Loinger, a member of the French Resistance, urged him to join the cause. Eventually, both Marcel and his older brother, Alain, would join the French Resistance, adopting the last name, Marceau, and helping rescue countless Jewish children from race laws and concentration camps. Throughout his time in the Resistance, Marcel frequently used his skills as a mime artist to keep the children quiet and entertained as he helped them escape to Switzerland. With all that in mind, it’s difficult to imagine how a filmmaker could possibly disappoint when creating a cinematic interpretation of Marcel’s extraordinary story, but 2020’s Resistance is just that; a disappointment. Serving as a flawed yet honourable biopic that somewhat pushes past its varying performances and peculiar execution to function as an earnest tribute to its real-life protagonist.

Plot Summary: Before he became a world-famous mime, aspiring Jewish actor and artist, Marcel Marceau, joined the French Resistance alongside his brother, Alain, in an effort to save thousands of orphaned Jewish children from the impending threat of the Third Reich…

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express, Hands of Stone). The screenplay for Resistance continuously appears distracted, creating a scattershot portrait of Marcel Marceau’s life when it could’ve easily been a straightforward celebratory biopic documenting his valiant actions and incredible feats throughout the Second World War. The perfect example of the film’s unconventional approach can be seen in the structure as Resistance bizarrely chooses to tell Marceau’s story through the means of a flashback, narrated by General Patten (portrayed by Ed Harris) as he addresses the serried ranks of the U.S. troops who have just liberated France. This flashback structure adds nothing of value to the plot and ultimately only serves as a distraction. However, the film does partially redeem this issue during its epilogue as the filmmakers pay respect to the real-life events they’re documenting, inserting text that states that the Nazis killed over a million children during World War II and that this film is dedicated to them.

When it comes to the cast, the supporting actors of Clémence Poésy, Félix Moati, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey and Matthias Schweighöfer all give serviceable performances as various members of the French Resistance and those who oppose them. The standout, however, is, of course, Jesse Eisenberg, who portrays Marcel Marceau himself. And even though Marcel’s personality is only explored in bullet-point tropes, swiftly moving from one trait to the next, Eisenberg portrays the war hero with complete serenity, his performance only being hindered by his inconsistent French accent. Still, there are plenty of undeniably tense moments that showcase Eisenberg’s ability to jump from comedic to dramatic acting on the fly.

Visually, Resistance is more than competent as the cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin-Menz has its fair share of attractive shots, often utilising the story’s diverse mix of locations to great effect with symmetrical lines. And for all its unusual choices in terms of structure, it can never be stated that Resistance leans too hard on certain moments to drain them of maximum emotion. Take the opening scene, for example, in which a little girl’s house is raided by Nazis who subsequently kill her parents. A brief scene, during which, we see no on-screen violence whatsoever. With that said, the colour palette of Resistance never tries to be anything but gloomy and grey. Whilst I understand that this was likely done to further establish the story’s World War II setting, even in more cheerful moments where Marcel makes the children laugh, Resistance rarely employs vibrant colours in its visuals.

Similarly, the film’s music is a rather mixed bag. As while the original score by Angelo Milli features a handful of memorable tracks such as You Are Not Alone and Adagio for a Silent Performance, both of which help add dramatic weight to the scenes they are featured in. There are also plenty of moments where the film is lazily manipulative with its music as the sound of an angelic children’s choir is contrasted with scenes of brutal executions.

Another problem Resistance suffers from is its overabundance of subplots, an issue that frequently results in a complete lack of narrative focus. From Marcel’s somewhat strained relationship with his father, who after seeing one of his performances as Charlie Chaplin calls him; “A Clown Dressed Like Hitler in a Whore House,” to a similar kind of resentment toward his brother, as well as a romantic fling with fellow Resistance member, Emma. Nearly every subplot in Resistance goes nowhere and practically fades into thin air by the time the end credits roll. Proving that when it comes to biopics, more story doesn’t necessarily mean a better story.

In summary, Resistance is neither a fully drawn biopic nor a thrilling war epic despite its largely convincing performance from Jesse Eisenberg as the mime artist-turned-war hero. The main reason for this is that Resistance constantly feels as if it isn’t sufficiently delving into Marcel’s numerous talents or his brave endeavours within the French Resistance. Nevertheless, I do believe this was a film worth making as its mere existence helps in celebrating Marcel Marceau’s remarkable life. A life that many may not have even been aware of before this film’s release. Rating: low 6/10.

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Dark Skies (2013) – Film Review

As much a science fiction as it is a horror, Dark Skies, released in 2013, has a solid cast, a fascinating premise and some admirable ambitions, attempting to break away from the familiar tropes of alien abduction stories in favour of delivering its own take on the common phobia of extraterrestrials discreetly arriving on Earth. Unfortunately, however, writer and director Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest, Holidays – Segment: Christmas) doesn’t seem to know how to utilise any of these elements, and as such, Dark Skies ends up being an extremely underwhelming film in more ways than one, even if it is a slight improvement over Blumhouse Productions’ usual jump-scare-filled endeavours.

Plot Summary: Suffering from financial troubles and the slow decline of their marriage, middle-aged couple, Lacy and Daniel Barrett, soon find their suburban life even further disrupted when an escalating series of unexplainable events leads them to discover that a terrifying force is monitoring them, a force which may have arrived from beyond the stars…

Originally pitched as a found-footage film with a screenplay written in only six weeks. Dark Skies curiously borrows more from supernatural horrors than it does from other extraterrestrial stories like SignsSkinwalker Ranch and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the film somewhat follows the structure of a conventional haunted house/possessed child storyline. And, as a result, suffers from many of the same issues that those films do. Appearing overly formulaic and frequently missing the opportunity to shift into full-on genre mode by the time its final act arrives. Furthermore, this structure results in many of the daytime sequences feeling quite tiresome as almost all of the extraterrestrial-related events don’t transpire until nightfall, leaving the daytime scenes to solely be used for kindred drama than foreboding moments of sci-fi dread.

The central cast of Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett and J.K. Simmons all do a serviceable job throughout the film, portraying members of a family that is slowly growing apart as time goes on. A situation that is only made more difficult by the family’s mounting bills and Daniel’s numerous attempts to find a replacement job falling flat at every turn. And whilst all of this is interesting for a family-centred plot, the problem here is that outside of the family’s general struggles, all of the characters are given very little development, an issue that is only exacerbated by the film’s many altering subplots, which cover everything from Lacy and Daniel’s declining sex life to their teenage son’s developing hormones and subsequent teenage crush.

Moving onto the visuals, with the exception of a couple of bewitching shots, the film’s cinematography by David Boyd is rather bland, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups. The film also continuously employs dim lighting for the majority of its runtime, meaning that nearly every shot at night is almost pitch-black with only a few small beams of moonlight to illuminate each room in the family’s house. Additionally, the film’s setting is, again, rather bland. As even though the location of a pleasant, everyday American suburb was chosen by Scott Stewart to help ground the story in reality, the setting itself is exceedingly dull, particularly for the horror genre.

Luckily, the original score fares a little better as composer, Joseph Bishara, best known for his fear-evoking score on 2010’s Insidious, once again uses his musical skills to craft a chilling soundtrack stocked with eerie futuristic noises and unsettling sound cues most present in the tracks: Two PosibitliesNight RideNot in Control and The Disturbances. Showcasing the true terror that these extraterrestrials are capable of purely through a distorted soundscape.

When it comes to the concept of creatures from another world studying our planet, it isn’t often that this idea drifts into the realm of horror, especially with the cliché image of a small, grey-skinned alien with an oversized head and black eyes, commonly referred to as a Gray, being any but frightening. However, in Dark Skies, the Grays are genuinely unnerving beings, appearing as lanky, shadow-like figures that tower over the Barrett family. In addition to the Grays, the film establishes two other extraterrestrial races known as the Reptilians and the Insectoids. Interestingly, all three of these races are actually based on real-life abduction reports where abductees described their encounters, with Reptilians being described as green-skinned humanoids with attributes of reptiles such as hairless scaled-skin, concave-vertical pupils and the ability to shapeshift, changing from reptilian to human at will, while Insectoids are described as large beings with a close resemblance to grasshoppers/praying mantises. Playing into the various conspiracies that surround life on other planets.

In summary, whilst Dark Skies doesn’t earn many points for originality. When the film manages to tap into more low-level, relatable anxieties with its family-focused story, it does come far closer to getting under its audience’s skin than your typical horror film ghost or ghoul. Having said that, Dark Skies also repeatedly devalues the effectiveness of the alien abduction subgenre with its uninspired visuals and fairly predictable plot. And while I do consider Scott Stewart to be a talented writer and director with the right project, his films occasionally do leave something to be desired, Dark Skies simply being another example. Rating: low 5/10.

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Knives Out (2019) – Film Review

A brilliant spin on the well-worn formula of kindred murder mysteries, 2019’s Knives Out is a charming, captivating and hilarious film from beginning to end. Functioning as both a subversive whodunit as well as a modernised homage to the prominent works of crime-fiction author, Agatha Christie, Knives Out offers the kind of classy entertainment we could use more of on the silver screen as the film, through its all-around marvellous cast, excellent direction and witty dialogue, quickly overcomes the one or two minor flaws it has to thoroughly immerse its audience in a delectable delicacy of a mystery and its affiliated suspects.

Plot Summary: When renowned crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey, is found dead in his study on the night of his eighty-fifth birthday, the inquisitive and debonair, Detective Benoit Blanc, is enlisted to investigate his passing. Now, in a mansion full of potential suspects, from Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Detective Blanc must sift through a tangled web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan’s untimely death…

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (BrickLooperStar Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), the plot of Knives Out follows one of the most timeworn formats in the whodunit playbook; as family members and associates gather after a rich patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances. And although many of them may act like they want to uncover who’s responsible for the premature death of their loved one, in reality, they’re far more interested in knowing how much they stand to gain monetarily from said loved one’s death. However, at many points, Knives Out actually acknowledges its audience’s familiarity with this formula, battling against it by integrating a series of compelling twists and turns into its story. So, even if you’ve already guessed who isn’t responsible, it won’t be easy to deduce who is. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that Rian Johnson has more than just murder and mysteries on his mind, as Knives Out quietly threads political commentary into its narrative through the family’s conversations concerning immigration and the many shades of venality, exposing an entirely different side to the ignorance and pride of the Thrombey family.

With an enormous ensemble cast featuring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, LaKeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome and Christopher Plummer, it’s understandable that a few of the actors and/or characters would be misspent. And this is most apparent with the character, Jacob Thrombey, portrayed by Jaeden Martell as beyond serving a single plot point and a handful of jokes, Jacob, and by default, Martell, has little screen-time, very few lines and the least development of any member of the family, making his inclusion seem rather pointless. Detective Blanc also brings two police underlings with him to solve the case, neither of whom make much of an impression. Still, every member of the cast somehow manages to make their character feel distinguishable when placed alongside the others, from the bohemian Instagram influencer, Joni Thrombey, to the foul-mouthed freeloader, Ransom Drysdale, Harlan’s entire family is relentlessly amusing as they continuously squabble with each other despite pretending they are on the same side.

The gothic abode in which Detective Blanc’s suspects are confined is an interesting location for a murder mystery, to say the least, as Harlan Thrombey’s gigantic mansion is not only unique exterior-wise, but inside, is decorated with antique furniture and an assortment of ghoulish accoutrements, including crystal skulls, oil paintings, artwork that resembles giant eyeballs and, of course, a large metal ring of knives and other sharp implements. All of this elegant set design greatly adds to the already pleasing visuals of Steve Yedlin’s cinematography, but there’s no denying that characters and humour are certainly the biggest draws of Knives Out as a whole.

By that same token, the original score by Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) never overshadows the comedy or drama unfolding on-screen, but instead enhances it. Matching the highbrow, old-fashioned style of Harlan’s grand mansion, the symphonic score plays more like a concerto for strings than a traditional film soundtrack. With tracks like Knives Out! (String Quartet in G Minor), Like Father, Like Son and The Thrombey Family Theme, all being wonderful pieces of classical pastiche dripping with a rich gothic atmosphere.

Interestingly, Nathan was not the only member of Rian Johnson’s extended family to assist in the production of Knives Out, as Rian also brought on board two further cousins of his; Mark Johnson, who created the film’s opening titles and designed a font based on a series of Agatha Christie paperbacks, and Zack Johnson, who painted the cast portraits seen in the end credits. Further adding to the film’s high-class stylings and inadvertently tieing into the story’s focus on familial relations.

In summary, Knives Out is a sly, wry and stylish throwback to the murder mysteries of yesteryear, with a splashing of self-aware humour to boot. Updating the genre for modern audiences whilst simultaneously satisfying fans of the classic whodunits, Knives Out demonstrates (in a similar sense to many contemporary westerns), that some of the genres we may perceive as defunct are, in actuality, still far from gone, and that we could potentially see more from these less prevalent, but immensely enjoyable genres, in the future. Rating: 8/10.

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The Lobster (2015) – Film Review

Bleak, eccentric and ambitious, The Lobster, released in 2015, is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but for those with the fortitude to crack through the film’s offbeat sensibilities, it should prove a cinematic treat as co-writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos (DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Favourite) continuously demonstrates his peculiar style throughout this anomalous black comedy. And although the film does admittedly fall short in its final act as the story loses interest in its animal-transformation premise and abandons its fascinating hotel setting in favour of a less interesting location with equally less interesting characters, this does little to diminish the intrigue of The Lobster‘s unique outlook on human relationships.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future where, by law, all citizens must have a life companion, single people are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner within forty-five days. Should they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild where they will hopefully find love with a different species. Inevitably, as the newly divorced architect David enters the luxurious rehabilitation facility, he too must find a suitable partner, or an uncertain future in the wilderness awaits…

Since its initial release, The Lobster has become an intense hub of speculation regarding its true meaning, but the most common theory is that the film is an absurdist look at modern-day coupling, which, if truthful, is similar to the rest of Lanthimos’ filmography which frequently picks apart damaged characters, attempting to expose the raw and volatile relationship between humans and their fragile sensibilities. Immediately from its opening scene, The Lobster also presents an extraordinarily unusual world, a dystopian future that is simultaneously striking, disquieting and darkly comedic without ever appearing overly futuristic. Needless to say, with a world as irregular as this one is, there are still a few lines of dialogue that feel fairly on-the-nose concerning its world-building.

The film’s large cast of Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly are all superb throughout the film, intentionally delivering their lines with a complete lack of emotion. Instead, many of the characters present much of what they are feeling on their faces whilst seemingly concealing everything else. This approach works flawlessly when it comes to the film’s comedy, with the numerous quirky characters David interacts with giving matter-of-fact line readings that are extremely difficult not to find amusing. Yet these constant stabs at dry humour never feel at odds with the story’s more dramatic/romantic moments either as The Lobster tries to gain emotional investment from its audience by making the characters feel distinctly human through the recognisable neuroses that label them despite their emotionless tones.

Visually, The Lobster is rather impressive as the cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis allows nearly every shot to have something poignant to it, with the symmetrical staircases and hallways of The Hotel presenting a world of order in a simplistic yet elegant manner. One hunting scene, in particular, stands out as gorgeous composition, slow-motion and lighting are all used to great effect. This is made even more impressive when considering that the production crew worked without makeup and exclusively utilised natural light. With large-scale lighting set-ups only being employed for a handful of evening scenes.

When it comes to the film’s music, even though The Lobster lacks a traditional original score, the film does feature a tremendous assortment of brittle classical compositions such as String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 and Strauss, R: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Variation: II, both of which give the film a feeling of serenity yet also push much of the story’s tension to the forefront. Quietly damping down the comedic tone that gradually bubbles up through the carefully placed laugh-out-loud one-liners.

Returning to the visuals briefly, The Lobster was primarily filmed in and around the Parknasilla Hotel in Ireland, an ostentatious hotel that is decorated almost entirely with Dutch flower still life from the 1600s. This ageing pattern along with the film’s exceptional use of colour; primarily blues, greens and a few alternate shades of red, including beige-pink, give The Lobster a distinct visual appeal even more so than its cinematography, as these colours can even be seen in many of the costumes or mentioned in lines of dialogue, such as the scene where the Short-Sighted Woman says she should wear blue and green clothes or when David mentions that lobsters are “Blue Blooded,” (lobster’s shells also being red, of course).

In summary, while The Lobster is a droll piece of storytelling lashed with grim humour, it also offers a rich, surreal take on modern relationships that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As for every moment that makes you laugh, there may be another that leaves you with your mouth wide open. In many ways, The Lobster is as much a black comedy as it is a slice of existential horror, glimpsing into an outrageous yet disturbing future, one that is truly a testament to Lanthimos’ brand of filmmaking and storytelling as he’s able to trump even the most outlandish premise and turn it into an accessible and engrossing narrative. Rating: low 8/10.

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