Welcome to JoeBakerReviews.com

Hello, my name is Joe Baker. In addition to being a current filmmaking student at Nottingham Trent University, I am also a passionate film fan and film critic, as ever since I stumbled across classics like ‘Alien,’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ and ‘Jaws’ during my younger days, I’ve always been obsessed with the filmmaking craft and the true wonders of storytelling.

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

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Harbinger Down (2015) – Film Review

In 2010, practical effects company Amalgamated Dynamics (or ADI for short) was hired by Universal Pictures to create effects for their upcoming prequel to the 1984 classic: ‘The Thing,’ but just before the film was released, the majority of ADI’s work was digitally replaced by CGI. This decision greatly upset the Amalgamated Dynamics team, especially since ‘The Thing’ wasn’t the first film they had worked on only to later discover their effects had been replaced. So, in response to queries about what became of their effects, the founders of Amalgamated Dynamics uploaded a behind-the-scenes video to YouTube which showcased their original effects, and the overwhelmingly positive response they received began a new phase for the company, as soon after, ADI began a Kickstarter with the intention of creating their own sci-fi-horror titled: ‘Harbinger Down,’ a film that would exclusively employ practical techniques.

Plot Summary: While studying the effects of global warming on a pod of Belugas in the Bering Sea, grad students on a crabbing vessel fortuitously uncover a Soviet space shuttle buried within layers of ice. But when the ship’s crew bring the Soviet wreckage aboard, they unintentionally release a long-dormant extraterrestrial parasite that relies on the warmth of the human body to survive…

Commonly known by its alternate title: ‘Inanimate,’ ‘Harbinger Down’ was written, directed, and produced by Amalgamated Dynamics co-founder Alec Gillis. And although I have a huge admiration for Gillis and his partner Tom Woodruff, Jr. as the duo courageously opposed the mammoth production companies that no longer respected the art of practical effects, ‘Harbinger Down’ frequently suffers as a result of the pair’s lack of experience when it comes to filmmaking, as is it’s not uncommon to see exaggerated performances, cliché dialogue, and messy editing. Furthermore, ‘Harbinger Down’ like many sci-fi-horrors takes plenty of inspiration from ‘The Thing,’ though in this case, this inspiration is a little too evident in the final film, as many story-beats are either extremely similar or a stark contrast in an attempt to avoid comparisons, such as the creature being maimed by liquid nitrogen rather than fire.

Eminent ‘Aliens’ and ‘Pumpkinhead’ actor Lance Henriksen headlines the film, being by far the most prominent performer present, and suitably gives a stand-out performance due to his raspy authority and effortless professionalism. However, just like the rest of the cast of forgettable stock characters, Henriksen is given very little to work with, only being able to portray his character: ‘Graff’ as an adept ship captain who cares deeply for his astute granddaughter: ‘Sadie,’ sufficiently portrayed by Camille Balsamo.

The film’s cinematography by Benjamin L. Brown does allow for one or two attractive shots, yet because of its over-reliance on hand-held techniques, often feels frantic, again playing into the idea of Gillis’ deficiency of filmmaking experience, as whilst Alec Gillis may know how to fabricate outstanding effects, he doesn’t seem sure how to capture them on film or hide them when necessary. As such, the effects on-screen soon become gluttonous, holding on certain shots until the point when the effects begin to appear fake and rubbery. That being said, the film’s setting and production design are brilliant without fault, as the film manages to craft the convincing illusion that the characters are all confined to ‘The Harbinger,’ a vessel that has indeed been set adrift on frigid waters.

Nowhere close to memorable, Christopher Drake’s intense original score does at least add to the film’s atmosphere, but where the score succeeds, the sound design utterly fails. As in addition to numerous areas of the ship utilising time-worn sound effects, the story’s shapeshifting creature rarely makes any sound beyond generic grunts and growls, none of which are menacing nor daunting, and considering the film had a budget of over £250.000, refining the sound design couldn’t have been that arduous of a task.

Needless to say, all the traction that ‘Harbinger Down’ gained was likely on account of its practical effects, which make use of everything from animatronics to prosthetic makeup to stop-motion and even miniatures, all of which are marvellous to see, particularly for those who enjoy films with little reliance on CG effects, as the film’s creature relies on no digital animation whatsoever outside of rod/rig removal. As mentioned previously, however, the way some of these effects are presented occasionally takes away their impact. Another issue arises with the creature design itself, as every form the creature takes is entirely different from its prior appearance, so the creature never has the chance to fully borrow into the audience’s mind as a recognisable extraterrestrial antagonist.

To conclude, ‘Harbinger Down’ ultimately falls somewhere between a cheesy SyFy Channel flick and a better than average direct-to-video product, which is unfortunate. As for myself, as a fan of 80’s creature-features, I truly wanted this low-budget claustrophobic horror to triumph, but as a result of its long list of flaws, many of the film’s practical effects (and the scenes in which they are employed) tend to just be echoes of well-known moments in better films. Be that as it may, ‘Harbinger Down’ does have a captivating backstory when it comes to its creation and the passionate team behind it. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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It: Chapter Two (2019) – Film Review

Once again directed by Andy Muschietti, and once again based on the iconic novel by Steven King (only this time the more adult portions of the story). ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unfortunately a downgrade from the first film, as in spite of its excellent cast and continuously impressive visuals, ‘It: Chapter Two’ proves that bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to sequels, as the film’s over-reliance on giant CG monsters along with its inconsistent tone and unreasonably long runtime of two-hours and fifty-minutes, demonstrate how this spinechilling follow-up frequently over-indulges in its source material.

Plot Summary: After being defeated by ‘The Losers Club’ many years ago, the demonic clown: ‘Pennywise’ returns twenty-seven-years later to terrorise the town of: ‘Derry’ once again. And with the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways, ‘Mike Hanlon,’ the only member of the group to remain in ‘Derry,’ calls his friends home for one final stand against the shapeshifting creature…

Jumping from character-to-character and location-to-location, many of: ‘It: Chapter Two’s biggest faults appear within its screenplay, as rather than focusing on a straight-forward narrative like the original film, this time around the film revolves most of its plot around a bootless errand of a story where ‘The Losers’ search all over ‘Derry’ to acquire various artifacts from their younger days in order to perform ‘The Ritual of Chud,’ which will supposedly destroy ‘Pennywise.’ The problem being that much of this set-up is ultimately meaningless, as almost every character receives their own segment in which they simply recall moments from their childhood, which often just recap scenes from the first film or leave the audience bloated as a result of the huge amount of exposition they have to digest.

Yet it has to be said, that James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ranson, and Andy Bean all portray the older versions of their characters remarkably, as despite the characters now being much older, each actor/actress recreates the younger actor’s body moments and manner of speaking flawlessly. ‘It: Chapter Two’ also never forgets to reinforce the character’s trauma, as even though ‘Bill’ is a successful writer and ‘Ben’ has remodelled himself into a muscular architect etc. Each member of the group is still haunted by their past, or at least, what they can remember from it. Of course, Bill Skarsgård also returns as ‘Pennywise,’ and while his performance does occasionally venture into ‘Beetlejuice’ territory due to how over-the-top he gets, Skarsgård is still endlessly entertaining as the malevolent clown.

This time around the cinematography is handled by Checco Varese, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that ‘It: Chapter Two’ had a different cinematographer, as the film is just as visually pleasing as its predecessor, with some elegantly orchestrated transitions between the character’s incarnations thrown in for good measure. The huge increase in budget also comes across through the film’s visuals, as ‘It: Chapter Two’ feels much grander in scale and presentation alike. However, where the sequel stumbles is with its scares, as instead of utilising ‘Pennywise’s mimicking ability to transform into every character’s greatest fear, the film lazily depends on towering CG creatures, which usually have little relation to the characters or the story at large, and although a number of the monsters are interesting design-wise, it doesn’t stop them from feeling out-of-place.

Benjamin Wallfisch’s original score effectively continues on from that of the first film, as tracks such as: ‘Losers Reunited,’ ‘Nothing Lasts Forever,’ and ‘Stan’s Letter’ are calming and beautiful, whereas tracks like ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Very Scary’ are loud and intense to add to the film’s horror. The main issue with the soundtrack is in its lack of distinction from the first film’s score, and while I understand ‘It: Chapter Two’ is essentially just the second part of a larger story, the original score does little to set itself apart from the first, with some tracks even sounding near-identical to others.

Even though it can’t be denied that ‘It: Chapter Two’ is trying to accomplish a great deal within its lengthy runtime, spending a large portion of its story in flashbacks and dream sequences as it attempts to adapt everything not already covered in the first film, the sequel is saddled with an even bigger obstacle. That being its climax, as although by this point its well-known that Steven King has difficulty writing a satisfying ending (a criticism that the film repeatedly mocks), ‘It: Chapter Two’ is faced with this exact task. And while the film doesn’t completely fail, the climax does leave a lot to be desired, particularly when the story begins to veer beyond supernatural elements into the metaphysical surrealism that King enjoys.

In conclusion, ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unquestionably an ambitious horror sequel. With a renowned cast, spectacular set-pieces, and numerous exciting moments, the film truly goes all out. But does it work? Well, not entirely, but it’s a diverting horror blockbuster, nonetheless. And whilst I feel that by splitting the story of: ‘It’ into two separate films, Muschietti has done a gratifying job of commanding the massive machine that is King’s extensive novel, most of the issues with ‘It: Chapter Two’ do boil down to its story and structure, which end-up leaving the film a pleasurable romp, but not quite the ghoulish denouement it could’ve been. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Into the Storm (2014) – Film Review

Clumsily written and populated with forgettable characters, ‘Into the Storm,’ released in 2014, has little to offer beyond its admittedly prodigious CG effects. Taking heavy inspiration from the exemplary tornado blockbuster: ‘Twister’ from 1996, ‘Into the Storm’ plays it fast and loose with its story, jumping from scene-to-scene without much thought as to how well everything connects or even functions, this is especially clear when looking at the film’s visuals, which rarely stick to the found-footage style its camerawork is trying to emulate.

Plot Summary: In the span of a single day, the small town of Silverton, Oklahoma is ravaged by an unprecedented onslaught of tornadoes, forcing residents to abandon their daily duties and seek shelter as fast as they possibly can. But as the entire town is at the mercy of the destructive cyclones, one group of storm-chasers ride directly into the storm, risking their lives to study the phenomenon and procure that perfect shot…

Directed by Steven Quale (Starfire, Final Destination 5, American Renegades), ‘Into the Storm’ not only takes (perhaps a little too much) inspiration from ‘Twister’ for its plot, but also many real-world events. Specifically, a catastrophe that occurred in Dallas County in 1986, where there were several reported occurrences of multiple tornadoes striking the same county over a roughly one-hour time-period. And whilst the image of a tornado of fire may sound like a creation ripped straight out of a campy 80s action flick, the cyclone of flames is in reality, just one of the many seemingly absurd moments in the film that were actually based on real life events, at least, according to screenwriter John Swetnam.

While disaster films have always valued spectacle over character, ‘Into the Storm’ is on another level, as the entire cast of Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Arlen Escarpeta, and Alycia Jasmin Debnam-Carey are all immensely dull to watch, not necessarily because of their performances, but because of the screenplay. As aside from the single-minded storm-chaser: ‘Pete’ portrayed by Matt Walsh, who has at least something resembling a personality, most of the characters feel as if they are made out of wood, exclaiming cringy jokes and unnatural lines of dialogue that come across as nothing but forced. It seems many of the actors even tried to make their characters more interesting where they could, as supposedly there was a fair amount of improvisation on set.

Despite ‘Into the Storm’ apparently also being a found-footage flick, it’s rare that the cinematography by Brian Pearson actually appears like one, from vast wide-shots to intimate close-ups, many shots are completely devoid of harsh movements and always retain flawless quality regardless of which character is filming or what device they are filming on. Moreover, with much of the film’s narrative relying on the idea of the film itself being a documentary, various interviews are featured near the beginning and end of the runtime, yet this potentially stimulating concept is soon spoilt as a result of the film’s structure, which is fairly disorganised. The only aspect of this found-footage approach that comes across effectivity is in the final scene, as the film utilises archive footage from news stations that covered a real EF5 tornado that hit Oklahoma in 2013.

Although the original score by Brian Tyler is expectedly quite bland, there are still a few tracks such as: ‘Into the Storm,’ ‘Fate,’ and ‘We Stay Together’ that back-up many of the film’s exciting moments successfully. But the issue here isn’t within the score itself, it’s the fact that there is a score to begin with, as every second ‘Into the Storm’ attempts to be an intense and realistic disaster epic, its simultaneously sabotaging itself by bombarding the audience with a loud, non-diegetic soundtrack, often distracting from the destructive chaos on-screen with its whirling violins and blaring brass horns.

When it comes to realism, some film buffs have questioned whether certain events within the story could occur in real life, such as whether a tornado could actually lift an aircraft off the ground as depicted in one scene. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the CG effects during these scenes are certainly the finest element of: ‘Into the Storm,’ as along with its voluminous set-design, which perfectly displays the incredible force of nature that a tornado is with cars, trees, and billboards thrown in every direction, are magnificent in their sheer scale alone. Even if the film would’ve benefited from the use of a few more practical effects to even out its enormous use of CGI, harkening back in a way to the classic disaster films of the 70s like ‘Airport’ and ‘Earthquake.’

All in all, ‘Into the Storm’ is essentially just a visual effects showreel that lasts over ninety-minutes. As although the film boats some exhilarating yet feasible moments of peril as director Steven Quale crafts plenty of riveting set-pieces ranging from crashing trucks to golf ball-sized hailstorms. Due to the film’s lack of compelling characters, inconsistent filmmaking, and truly awful lines of dialogue, such thrills soon become monotonous, and by the end of its runtime, ‘Into the Storm’ winds-up as either an unimaginative disaster flick, or a near-remake of: ‘Twister’ depending on your perspective. Final Rating: 3/10.

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Winter’s Bone (2010) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is a bleak, haunting, and yet still somehow hopeful story set in rural America, acting as both a captivating drama and a suspenseful crime-thriller. The film is an intense and uncompromising look at the Missouri underclass through the eyes of a diligent teenager, blending its star-making performance from Jennifer Lawrence with skilfully shot sequences and incredible set-dressing to create a stunning and authentic portrait of Missouri life, all under the capable hand of writer and director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, Leave No Trace).

Plot Summary: With an absent father and a mute, mentally ill mother, seventeen-year-old: ‘Ree Dolly’ acts as the primary guardian for her household, caring for her younger siblings with minimal funds. But when the local Sheriff turns up at her door, informing her that their house has been put up as collateral bail by her missing father, ‘Ree’ is forced to use what little knowledge she has of her father’s nefarious activities to find him before its too late, soon discovering that many locals don’t appreciate her poking her nose into their business…

Despite her many previous successes, Debra Granik still had a great deal of difficulty finding funding for: ‘Winter’s Bone,’ as after the screenplay had been written, Granik and her co-writer Anne Rosellini budgeted the film at around £3 million, but every potential group of financiers they approached all said the same thing: “Cast the Film, and Then We’ll Talk.” Thus, casting directors Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden began approaching various actresses and eventually settled on the then-unknown eighteen-year-old actress, Jennifer Lawrence. As although she had never carried a film before, only having taken small roles in the past, both Schnee and Barden felt Lawrence had the perfect tomboyish demeanour for the character, in addition to having strong roots in Kentucky.

Winning an Oscar for her performance in 2011, ‘Winter’s Bone’ greatly benefits from ‘Ree Dolly’ as a character and Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of her. This is mostly due to ‘Ree’ being such a rare female protagonist for a film such as this, as with her errant father’s only bankable skill being his ability to cook methamphetamine, ‘Ree’ is left to care for her family, teaching her younger siblings survival skills to prepare them for when they are older (for which Jennifer Lawrence had to learn how to correctly skin squirrels and chop wood), and after she is informed of the limited time she and her family still have within their house, ‘Ree’ becomes relentlessly determined to save her home, occasionally even risking her life all in pursuit of caring for her loved ones and ensuring her siblings have a future.

Michael McDonough’s stark cinematography captures the essence of what life in the brutal and sparsely populated Ozark, Missouri (a.k.a. the Ozark Mountains) is like, as the camerawork allows for many delectable shots, from the camera peering around corners to lurking over character’s shoulders, the cinematography constantly lends itself to the film’s frostbitten colour palette and beautiful bitterness of the story’s setting, which is all enhanced by the entire film being shot on-location.

Furthermore, the original score by Dickon Hinchliffe utilises instruments common to the Ozark region, making use of violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos, in a way that is unique to the film. For example, the way banjos are used throughout the soundtrack, particularly in the tracks: ‘I’ll Find Him,’ ‘Hardscrabble Elegy,’ ‘Down the Road,’ and ‘The Trees,’ deviates from the instrument’s stereotypical image of being associated with hillbillies and rednecks. One of the film’s final tracks: ‘The Lake’ is also worth a quick mention, purely for how unnerving and incredibly atmospheric it is.

For authenticity purposes, most of the supporting cast of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ weren’t actual actors/actresses, but locals from the surrounding area. ‘Ree’s sister for instance, was one of these actresses, and the exterior of her home we see in the film is actually her house in real life. Sticking to this idea of authenticity, nearly all of clothes that the characters wear are clothes provided by the locals, as the production crew gave locals brand new clothes in exchange for their old, frayed items. If I had to guess, I’d also assume many of the houses we set foot within belonged to these same locals, as every room we enter appears genuine, with no area ever seeming as if it was set-dressed regardless of how many items are in one space at a time.

To conclude, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is spectacular in its efforts as a drama and a crime-thriller alike, as it’s intelligent, well-written, and entirely non-patronising story is as tense and as entertaining as these respective genres come. And whilst many Oscar-winning films can often be disappointing beyond whatever aspect is their main talking point, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is also beautifully shot and well-paced, with Jennifer Lawrence’s career-defining performance simply being the icing on top of the cake. So, even if the first act of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ is slightly slow and repetitive, after that initial hump, the film thrives as a rewarding and richly detailed exploration of the strength required when being confronted with unpleasant truths. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Guns Akimbo (2019) – Film Review

Frenetic to a fault, 2019’s ‘Guns Akimbo’ relishes in its video-game-like violence, utilising its fluid editing, fast-pacing and wild visuals to construct a thrilling action-comedy inspired by riveting 1980s blockbusters like ‘The Terminator’ and ‘The Running Man.’ Yet with all this insanity, it’s inevitable that ‘Guns Akimbo’ will alienate some viewers, especially those hoping for plenty of engrossing commentary concerning televised violence and online culture, but for many others, the film’s super-charged, energetic action sequences along with Daniel Radcliffe’s committed performance will surely hit the spot as an explosive jaunt.

Plot Summary: When ‘Miles Lee Harris,’ a spineless video-game programmer, awakens one morning to discover that his hands have been bloodily bolted to a pair of pistols, ‘Miles’ is forced to use the fused-firearms to his advantage to save his ex-girlfriend from a group of kidnappers working for a criminal organisation named: ‘Skizm,’ which pits maniacal criminals against each other in livestreamed deathmatches…

Written and directed by Jason Lei Howden (Deathgasm), ‘Guns Akimbo’ is in many ways trying to be a satire of the digital age we currently live in, displaying how apps like Instagram and YouTube have made us cynical, and in some instances, even dehumanised us. The problem here being that the film soon becomes exactly what it’s satirising, constantly mocking the online community of: ‘Skizm’ for watching the grisly livestreams even though the film itself is taking just as much pleasure in displaying them to its audience, but considering ‘Guns Akimbo’ is primarily an action flick over anything else, I feel this muddled message is far from the film’s central focus. An issue the film does actually suffer from, however, is its screenplay, as by the time it’s third act arrives, the film is clearly beginning to run out of steam, devolving into essentially just non-stop action with little charm when compared to the first half of the film.

By far one of the film’s best aspects, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as asthmatic protagonist: ‘Miles Lee Harris’ is both hilarious and manic, as ‘Miles’ is forced to leave his boring life as a programmer for a company whose games are designed to exploit children for micro-transactions, to undertake a whole new identity after unwillingly entering: ‘Skizm’ and their city-wide game of death. And whilst ‘Miles’ continuous moments of cowardice and constant wheedling over his ex-girlfriend could’ve been annoying if they were over-played, Radcliffe portrays the character in such a way where it’s easy for the audience to root for him similar to how ‘Skizm’s online audience do. On the flip side of this matchup there is ‘Nix,’ a cocaine-fuelled killer who relishes in profane one-liners and is brilliantly portrayed by Samara Weaving, being the current reigning champion of: ‘Skizm,’ ‘Nix’ serves her purpose as a baleful adversary to ‘Miles’ in addition to having a surprisingly dramatic backstory.

An utterly merciless blend of: ‘Crank,’ ‘Shoot ‘Em Up,’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,’ the cinematography throughout ‘Guns Akimbo’ never fails to be visually dynamic, as cinematographer Stefan Ciupek aims to make the camera feel completely unrestricted, having it flow freely through a variety of techniques including making superb use of body-rigs and car-mounts alike, which does help to redeem some of the uninspired firefight choreography. Moreover, as ‘Guns Akimbo’ frequently has the appeal of a vibrant graphic novel, the on-screen graphics and highly saturated lighting lend themselves remarkably well, with many of the lighting rigs used also being controlled via an iPad, so they could easily be adjusted to fit with the mood and colour of any scene.

Enis Rotthoff’s original score is just as hyperactive as the rest of the film, as any scenes that aren’t filled with iconic songs such as: ‘We’ll Be Good Friends,’ ‘Super Freak,’ or ‘You Spin Me Round’ are amplified by Rotthoff’s thumping techno soundtrack, with tracks like ‘Neon Grey’ and ‘Playcare’ being perfectly in tune with whatever moment of the story they are a part of.

However, even when keeping all these elements in mind, whether you enjoy ‘Guns Akimbo’ or not will ultimately have to do with whether you find the distinctively zany concept endearing, as the film greatly leans into the comedy of its premise, imagining what it would be like to try and use the bathroom or attempt to call someone when you literally have pistols for hands, which has always been the film’s most notable distinction. In fact, during the film’s pre-production, an image of Daniel Radcliffe holding a pair of pistols, panicking and covered whilst wearing a robe went viral as soon as it surfaced online, creating an aura awareness before the film even had an official trailer.

Overall, ‘Guns Akimbo’ is bloody, brutal, and ballistic, colourful and stylish yet admittedly fairly empty-minded. But for a film like this, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, as while some may argue the film starts to lose its desirability once you realise it doesn’t have much to offer beyond its high-octane action sequences, ‘Guns Akimbo’ never lies to you about what it is, as the action is every bit as ludicrously over-the-top as it would be in the fictional reality of violent video-games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Doom.’ Final Rating: 7/10.

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The Mummy (2017) – Film Review

When Universal Pictures first announced their plans to build a cinematic universe based around their gallery of iconic monsters, general audiences seemed to roll their eyes at the idea, seeing the forthcoming franchise as nothing more than a shameless attempt to copy and paste the formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the hopes of making the same box-office returns. Nevertheless, Universal continued with their plan, releasing the first instalment of the series in 2017 with ‘The Mummy,’ a film which even with the star-power of Tom Cruise, failed miserably both critically and commercially, instantly destroying any plans for the future of the franchise and embarrassingly leaving the Dark Universe with a single film to its name.

Plot Summary: Once destined to rule all of Egypt, the beautiful princess: ‘Ahmanet’ sees her birth-right stolen from her when her father begets an heir. Knowing this boy would be the Pharaoh’s new successor, ‘Ahmanet’ turns to a dark deity, selling her soul for an unholy power, for which, she is captured by the Pharaoh’s priests, mummified alive and buried in a tomb far from Egypt. Five-thousand-years later, opportunistic U.S. Army reconnaissance sergeant: ‘Nick Morton,’ accidentally discovers her tomb during a firefight in the Middle East, and once venturing inside, inadvertently sets her free…

According to a number of reports, Tom Cruise not only starred in ‘The Mummy,’ but also has an excessive amount of control over the film, having creative oversight on nearly every aspect of the production. So much so, that Cruise even had influence on the film’s screenplay, as it’s been stated that Cruise had his personal writing team rewrite certain scenes to give his character more screen-time and a more dramatic character-arc, and even though most Universal executives weren’t thrilled about the rewrite, feeling it was disjointed and insipid, they reluctantly agreed to keep Cruise on-board. Regardless, Universal Pictures soon saw the fallacy in their blind faith towards Cruise, as despite ‘The Mummy’ earning nearly £300 million worldwide, it was still considered a financial flop when taking into account its immense marketing campaign, which promoted the film purely as the franchise-vehicle it is as opposed to a riveting blockbuster.

Having both her design and gender altered to avoid any similarities with the titular villain of: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse,’ which released just a year prior, ‘The Mummy/Ahmanet’ herself portrayed by Sofia Boutella, is remarkably forgettable, never developing into a compelling or even threating antagonist, which should be nearly impossible considering ‘The Mummy’ fills over a quarter of its runtime with extensive exposition regarding her backstory and sinister motives. Likewise, the actual protagonist of the film: ‘Nick Morton,’ rarely benefits from Cruise’s natural charisma and wit, as ‘Nick’ is simply an unlikable character, emerging as a foolish, self-centred adventurer and leaving in the exact same manner, in addition to being miraculously skilled with/in every type of firearm and hand-to-hand combat, of course.

When it comes to visuals, the film’s cinematography by Ben Seresin is generally visually pleasing, resulting in a fair share of alluring wide-shots, yet much of the film’s beauty is consequently hindered by its ghastly colour palette, which hardly ever strays away from greys, blacks and beiges, an issue that is only worsened by the prosaic setting of modern-day London. Furthermore, the film’s action sequences (which are less frequent than most would expect) are fairly unimpressive, with many of the story’s thrilling moments having an overreliance on apace editing and CG creatures. That is, with the exception of the stunt work, which due to Cruise’s heavy input on the film, is mostly practical and just as awe-inspiring as the stunts in the ‘Mission Impossible’ series, no thanks to director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us).

Built around two central themes with various less significant tracks cropping-up in-between, the film’s original score by Bryan Tyler is serviceable for the most part, balancing its two main tracks of: ‘The Mummy’ and ‘Nick’s Theme’ before then switching to far more dramatic orchestral tracks like ‘Sandstorm,’ ‘Enchantments,’ and ‘World of Monsters’ for the film’s larger-scale set-pieces and handful of brief horror/dream sequences.

Interestingly, ‘The Mummy’ wasn’t actually Universal’s first venture into crafting a cinematic universe of monsters, as the company originally envisioned 2014’s reboot of the renowned vampire: ‘Dracula Untold’ as the first instalment in the series. There was even early talk of: ‘Dracula’ appearing in ‘The Mummy,’ but this idea was ultimately scrapped, and the film was eventually cited as non-canon. However, there are still several Easter eggs alluding to other monsters within the film, as a vampire skull along with the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’s hand can both be seen in ‘Dr. Jekyll’s headquarters.

In all honesty, I feel it’s easy to see why many avoided ‘The Mummy’ when it first released back in 2017, as this film was merely Universal’s first attempt at revitalising the many well-known creatures locked away in their vault by lazily repackaging them for a new generation. The issue being that general audiences had little interest in this concept, and those that did quickly lost their engrossment as the film failed to capture even a fraction of the adventurous spirit present throughout the 90s reboot. Instead, it seems ‘The Mummy’ will simply be lost to time, unremembered and disregarded. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Coherence (2013) – Film Review

A case study in less-is-more filmmaking, 2013’s ‘Coherence’ is a taut puzzle box of a film, brimming with scenes of both existential terror and multidimensional weirdness as its reality-bending story unravels further and further. And even though this sci-fi/drama is by no means a masterpiece, ‘Coherence’ does demonstrate a willingness to embrace the unknown, the implied and the mysterious, in addition to serving as a strong calling-card for debuting writer and director James Ward Byrkit, a long-time storyboard artist for Oscar-winning director Gore Verbinski.

Plot Summary: On the night of an astronomical anomaly, eight friends meeting for a dinner party in Northern California experience a series of troubling events following a street-wide blackout. But when the group venture outside to investigate a lone house that seemingly still has power, they soon find themselves in an alternate reality where identical versions of themselves exist…

Shot over five-nights on an extremely low-budget of around £36,000, ‘Coherence’ is a true indie film, treating every shred of its thin-budget, short production schedule and small crew of only two sound operators, a cinematographer, a producer, and writer-director James Ward Byrkit as a virtue. This is best seen in Byrkit’s unorthodox directing style, with Byrkit only giving each of his actors a note (that only they would see) as their goals for the day instead of the full screenplay, this approach allows the story to naturally unfold and implies that many of the reactions from the actors are genuine, as they were unaware of what their co-stars would say/do. Yet this method does have one major flaw, as due to a large amount of the film’s dialogue being improvised, a good portion of lines end-up sinking into audio muck as a result of the sheer number of characters present, even if most of the overlapping dialogue is comprehensible.

Being primarily a drama despite its initial sci-fi set-up, it was essential that ‘Coherence’ feature as many strong performances as possible, and luckily, this is the case, as the entire cast of Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Lorene Scafaria, Elizabeth Gracen and Hugo Armstrong (among others) are solid, balancing their fear, confusion, and frustration regarding their peculiar situation without ever seeming too outlandish. And while certain characters do receive far more characterisation than others, the main conflict within the group focusing on ‘Em’ and the issues she is currently facing with her boyfriend: ‘Kevin’ is interesting, though it is ultimately there for the sake of the climax, which leaves plenty of room for speculation.

Being shot chronologically to fit with the film’s largely improvised production, ‘Coherence’ is shot almost entirely through hand-held claustrophobic close-ups, and even though this was a stylistic choice as Byrkit wanted to give his actors the freedom to move anywhere they wanted during filming, I feel it works both for and against the film. As this idea of making use of the film’s limited resources through shaky and focus-blurring shots draws-thin by the end of the runtime, especially when the film has no reason to be shot in hand-held when it comes to the story’s quieter moments. However, whilst the cinematography by Arlene Muller and Nic Sadler leaves much to be desired, I did enjoy how ‘Coherence’ utilises shadows, as the many alternate realties that lie just outside the house are only hinted at, with anything outside of the property being shrouded in near-total darkness.

Kristin Ohrn Dyrud’s minimal yet atmospheric original score makes excellent use of eerie drones and moans, amplifying the film’s sense of creeping dread which is present even from early on with tracks like ‘The Box,’ ‘Lights Out’ and ‘Schroedinger’s Cat.’ What’s more impressive, however, is that is ‘Coherence’ is one of the few films Dyrud has actually composed, with most of her career revolving around electronic music. But if this score is anything to go by, then I personally can’t wait to see more from her as a composer.

When ignoring its science fiction elements, ‘Coherence’ is predominantly a film about the choices we make in life and the idea that making a specific choice won’t necessarily lead to happiness. This underlining theme is most evident in the film’s opening conversation, as the various characters discuss their successful careers while simultaneously ignoring their inner struggles, which could also be seen as a sly dig towards the vapid state of American privilege. It’s also during this first act that ‘Coherence’ attempts to utilise editing to display a passage of time, but rather then achieving this in a creative fashion, the film merely cuts to black before then cutting to a scene later in the evening, which is continuously jarring.

In conclusion, considering how much of the film consists of a group of friends becoming increasingly unhinged as they pace around a residential living room, it’s impressive how effectively Byrkit manages to suggest multiple realities and ominous threats, even if it’s trembling camerawork, odd editing choices and occasionally untapped potential cause the film to stumble now and then. Yet whatever its imperfections, ‘Coherence’ is still a thought-provoking and well-crafted experiment in micro-budget sci-fi, working best as a cautionary tale about the paths we choose in life and the alternate selves we sometimes dream of becoming. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Zookeeper (2011) – Film Review

Another lacklustre comedy from the ill-famed Happy Madison Productions, ‘Zookeeper,’ released in 2011, serves as nothing more than a Adam Sandler-perpetrated ego project for Kevin James, as director Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer, Click, Here Comes the Boom) adds little flair to a sodden screenplay riddled with clichés, overly long scenes and gags inappropriate for the young viewers that would be intrigued by its juvenile storyline. Essentially leaving ‘Zookeeper’ a film that feels as if it was made for no one, despite the film supposedly being a family-comedy.

Plot Summary: When kind-hearted: ‘Griffin Keyes,’ the head zookeeper at the Franklin Park Zoo, considers leaving his profession for a more glamorous career to impress his ex-girlfriend, the animals within the zoo begin to panic at the thought of their favourite zookeeper departing. So, to keep him from leaving, the animals decide to break their code of silence, revealing to ‘Griffin’ their ability to speak and offer to teach him the rules of courtship…

Shockingly, the screenplay for: ‘Zookeeper’ has five credited writers (Kevin James being one of them), and yet the story/dialogue is neither interesting nor memorable, stealing many of its ideas from other live-action animal flicks such as: ‘Dr. Dolittle’ and ‘Marmaduke.’ However, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue if ‘Zookeeper’ was amusing or heart-warming, but unfortunately, the film falls flat in both of these areas, as instead of exploring the life of an animal born in captivity for comedic and sentimental purposes alike, the film lazily relies on montages to establish a tone and suggest a friendship between ‘Griffin’ and the various zoo animals, when he isn’t taking a pounding with pratfalls and bicycle spills, of course, a.k.a. Kevin James’ usual form of comedy.

Speaking of Kevin James, James is truly one of the most notable ‘love him or hate him’ actors in film. Having been in a number of roles as the supposedly loveable all-American hero who relies just as much on his weight as he does his comedic timing to get a laugh out of his audience, its not difficult to see why many don’t enjoy his on-screen presence, myself included. But in ‘Zookeeper,’ James is surprisingly bearable, portraying ‘Griffin’ as a likeable guy who feels more comfortable around animals than people after being dumped by his girlfriend when he proposed to her five-years prior, Rosario Dawson as ‘Kate,’ however, is given very little to work with as ‘Griffin’s work colleague and obvious love interest. The numerous animals within the zoo are also voiced by a star-studded yet ultimately squandered cast, with Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Maya Rudolph, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love and even Adam Sandler as ‘Donald’ the monkey (whose over-the-top voice is the vocal equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard), all being heard at one point or another.

Bland and uninspired all around, the film’s cinematography by Michael Barrett rarely attempts anything beyond a simple close-up or mid-shot, with even the film’s wide-shots being few and far between almost as if the production couldn’t afford to feature any sizeable sets, or something of that description. The only visual aspect of the film that is in anyway beguiling is its colour palette, as all of the evening scenes within the zoo are displayed through dark blacks and blues, a dramatic shift in terms of colour from the bright yellows and oranges that represent daytime.

Although composer Rupert Gregson-Williams at least strives to make the score for: ‘Zookeeper’ a little more unique through the use of tropical instruments like bongo drums and maracas, the original score is almost unnoticeable throughout most of the runtime. Alternatively, the film relies on well-known songs for the sake of humour, throwing-in musical hits like ‘I’ll Supply the Love,’ ‘Low,’ ‘Easy,’ and ‘More Than a Feeling’ in a desperate attempt to make the story feel more emotionally investing than it actually is.

Whilst the film’s CG effects have begun to show their age here and there, the majority of the film’s visual effects are serviceable, this is primarily due to the majority of the animals being real with just one or two CG enchantments including mouth movements or being digitally relocated, as opposed to be represented entirely through CGI. Needless to say, this approach still has its issues, as there are many, many shots of animals standing completely alone where were supposed to believe that ‘Griffin’ is standing just out of frame. But when it came to the film’s gorilla: ‘Bernie,’ the filmmakers actually decided to take an old-school approach, placing an actor inside of ape suit, which sadly doesn’t look very convincing, especially when the camera moves closer towards his face, placing full emphasis on the suit’s unnatural movements.

In summary, ‘Zookeeper’ isn’t offensive or convoluted, it’s quite the contrary, its immature and simplistic, far too simplistic, in fact, as while some children may enjoy the slapstick humour that Kevin James excels at, the film’s mass of adult-centric jokes and typical romantic-comedy structure are likely to turn children off. And although ‘Zookeeper’ is far from the worst Happy Madison-penned film, it’s still significantly less enjoyable than many of the other talking animal escapades you could be watching instead. Final Rating: 3/10.

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Slow West (2015) – Film Review

Musicians have long been drawn to the cinematic tales of the old west, whether that’s the singing cowboys of early sound cinema with big-screen Elvis vehicles such as: ‘Flaming Star’ and ‘Charro!’ or Glen Campbell’s first step into the scorching deserts of New Mexico for the 1969 classic: ‘True Grit,’ the western genre has always seemed like a second home for musicians regardless of their stature. So, its no surprise that in 2015, part-time musician and part-time music video director John Maclean brought his own vision to the genre with ‘Slow West,’ a subversive story of death and devotion brimming with natural beauty, unsettling violence and a distinctly Coen-esque flavour of bleak, deadpan humour.

Plot Summary: In 1870, a naive Scottish teenager travels to Colorado in pursuit of the woman he loves, whilst there, he attracts the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as his guide across the county. Little does he know, not only does his beloved have a sizeable bounty on her head, but his seemingly helpful guide is actually hiding his true motive…

Described as “An Unconventional Western” by most, ‘Slow West’ was developed and co-financed by Film4, along with receiving some additional funding from the British Film Institute, Fulcrum Media Finance, the New Zealand Film Commission, and production company A24. However, while all this financial support may leave you thinking that writer and director John Maclean has previously produced a number of incredible films, ‘Slow West’ is actually Maclean’s directorial debut, as first and foremost Maclean is a Scottish musician, which does help explain some of the film’s peculiarities. As according to John Maclean, the original idea for: ‘Slow West’ came from a desire to link the British costume drama of a Merchant Ivory film with that of the American western, which is certainly a very interesting concept, even if this approach doesn’t always result in the smoothest or most emotionally impactful story-beats.

Leading the cast, Michael Fassbender as bounty hunter: ‘Silas Selleck’ and Kodi Smit-McPhee as sixteen-year-old: ‘Jay Cavendish’ both do a phenomenal job of bouncing off each other, as ‘Silas’ is a grizzled recluse with little faith in humanity, believing the west is simply a land of murder and theft, a land where everyone will stab you in the back the moment you turn around, whereas ‘Jay’ is the complete opposite of this, an optimistic young lad from aristocratic family, woefully unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead yet trusts his enervating journey will be worthwhile just to see his beloved ‘Rose’ once again. And despite these characters being endlessly entertaining to watch, ‘Silas’ character-arc does feel a little rushed in the grand scheme of things, along with Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn barely getting a chance to shine due to their character’s limited screen-time.

Shot on digital when originally planned to be shot on 35mm, the cinematography of: ‘Slow West’ handled by Robbie Ryan breaks many of the conventions we associate with western visuals similar to how the narrative has a wizened grasp of when to embrace or reject a western cliché, as ‘Slow West’ ditches the usual western colour palette of beiges and browns for a much more vibrant look. Furthermore, as opposed to being shot in Colorado where the story takes place, the film was actually shot in the South Island of New Zealand, meaning the film has no shortage of stunning vistas, even if in reality, the film couldn’t have been shot further away from where the American west was located.

The original score by Jed Kurzel isn’t overly memorable or unique, but does suit the film’s many moments of dark comedy remarkably well, as the score utilises a wide array of different instruments to give the soundtrack a bygone western feel, ensuring the original score stays within its 1800s setting and the confines of slow and drawn-out tracks such as: ‘Jay’s Theme’ and ‘The Trading Post,’ which were very common during the golden age of Hollywood when westerns were at their peak.

Alongside a suitable original score, another crucial element to crafting a great western will always been production design, as any film that can make their audience feel as if they have actually travelled back to the story’s time-period has surely succeeded. And director John Maclean makes it clear early on that he understands this, as even in spite of the budget for: ‘Slow West’ being fairly minimal (especially for a western), the film’s production design is often superb, with Maclean taking influence from classic westerns like ‘Iron Horse’ for the period details of both the film’s costumes and architecture.

On the whole, ‘Slow West’ may pay the price now and then for being helmed by a less-than-experienced writer and director, but for the most part, Maclean triumphs with his first cinematic outing, as ‘Slow West’ reaps the rewards of taking the road less-travelled, relishing in the telling of the tale as much as the tale itself. And whilst perhaps not on the same level as a Coen brother’s western, ‘Slow West’ exudes such confidence with its casual weirdness and abundance of ripping performances, subsequently resulting in an unpredictable yet still wildly compelling modern western. Final Rating: 7/10.

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John Wick (2014) – Film Review

Proving he still has what it takes when it comes to more physically challenging films, fifty-year-old Keanu Reeves triumphantly returned to the action genre in late 2014 with ‘John Wick,’ an exceptional neo-noir action-thriller brimming with incredible stunts, thrilling action sequences and an unexpectedly high number of attractive shots. And while few films within the action genre are known for their intricate stories or layered dialogue, this included, there’s no denying the dexterity that went into its filming, certifying ‘John Wick’ as a name that will be heard for years to come.

Plot Summary: After retiring from his career as a deadly hitman to marry the love of his life, legendary assassin: ‘John Wick’ finds himself alone once again when her sudden death leaves him in deep mourning. But when a gang of Russian mobsters led by the arrogant mob-prince: ‘Losef Tarasov,’ break into his house in order to steal his prized 1969 Mustang, killing his newly adopted puppy in the process, the last gift from his wife, ‘John’ decides to come out of retirement to track down those that wronged him…

Despite having a smaller-budget than many other action films, directors Chad Stahelski (a former stuntman from a kick-boxing background) and David Leitch, who actually goes uncredited due to DGA regulations only allowing for only one director to be credited, manage to do a lot with very little. Not only in terms of action, but also world-building, as ‘John Wick’ swiftly establishes a seedy criminal underbelly beneath New York City, complete with assassins, mobsters and a contract killer hotel known as ‘The Continental,’ without ever relying on large dumps of exposition from disposable side characters. This fluidity even continues into the film’s screenplay, as the film tells its simplistic yet entertaining story with total proficiency.

Quickly becoming one of his most iconic roles, Keanu Reeves truly shines as ‘John Wick,’ as despite Reeves having given his fair share of weak performances in the past, ‘John Wick’ is certainly not one of them, as Reeves’ preparation for the role included eight-hours of weapons and martial arts training every day for over four-months, which he put to great use as Reeves performed over 90% of his own stunts. And although ‘John Wick’s characterisation is minimal, it’s enough to make his inclination for revenge understandable, as what remained of: ‘John’s peaceful life following his wife’s death is unjustly ruined. The rest of the cast, including the late Mikael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane, all portray their characters well even if many of them simply feel like cogs in a machine, serving their purpose within the plot before then vanishing.

Bathing many of the film’s early scenes in greys and whites before then implementing more colourful visuals through expressive greens and blues as ‘John’ begins to reimmerse himself in the criminal underworld he’d escaped many years ago. The colour palette of: ‘John Wick’ may be grim, but the film never descends into unattractiveness, as the cinematography by Jonathan Sela in addition to the film’s dramatic lighting further enhance the many car chases, fistfights, and shootouts ‘John’ finds himself within. Additionally, the film continues to play into its neo-noir style through its subtitles, with each line fading on-screen in a slick font with specific words even having their colours altered to increase their impact.

Moreover, Tyler Bates’ original score considerably helps build tension during many scenes throughout the film, as pulse-pounding tracks such as: ‘Assassins,’ ‘Shots Fired’ and ‘Warehouse Smackdown’ are endlessly energetic without ever distracting from the story, along with the titles themselves being a clear indication of the excitement that is to come. Aside from the more action-oriented tracks, the soundtrack also boasts the perfect theme for: ‘John Wick’ himself, as ‘On the Hunt’ captures the relentless nature of the character flawlessly.

Unlike the shaky camerawork and constant quick-cutting that make action flicks like ‘Taken’ and ‘Alex Cross’ nearly unbearable at times, ‘John Wick’ thrives when it comes to its action, as every gunfight and fistfight is fast-paced and kinetic yet never bemusing. This is heavily due to the film’s fight choreography being just as comprehensible as it is exhilarating, with each reverting moment having a clear rhythm as ‘John’ never wastes a bullet nor performs an unnecessary move. Furthermore, ‘John Wick’ even features a good portion of humour within its action sequences, adding small visual gags which amusingly poke fun at ‘John’s brutal efficiency.

In short, ‘John Wick’ delivers on exactly what anyone would expect to see from a film like this, as the action is thrilling and the body-count is excessive, plus most of the filmmaking surprisingly is better than average for the action genre. And although it’s true that later films in the ‘John Wick’ franchise are much flashier, I find that the sequels often get bogged down by their continuous attempts to introduce as many new characters and locations as possible, as well as constantly pushing the limit of what ‘John’ can actually survive. So, in many ways, ‘John Wick’ is a film that proves there really is beauty in simplicity, as the admirably lean screenplay propels the film’s galvanising action forward with only the barest of narrative essentials. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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