The Invitation (2015) – Film Review

A fairly subdued but very effective thriller, ‘The Invitation’ released in 2015, builds-up an almost absurd amount of tension over the course of its ninety-nine-minute runtime, maintaining the intrigue within its plot whilst also constantly defying the viewer’s expectations. Although the film does eventually devolve into generic slasher-territory for its final act, this indie thriller utilises its confined location and fantastic performances so effectively that it soon overcomes the majority of its flaws.

Plot Summary: After ‘Will’ and his girlfriend: ‘Kira’ accept a formal invitation to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills hosted by his ex-wife: ‘Eden’ and her new husband, ‘Will’ begins to feel unsettled as his ex-wife seems overly-eager to reunite with her previous lover and the friends she lost contact with over two years ago. But as the dinner party continues, ‘Will’ is presented with mounting evidence that their hosts have a more sinister agenda…

Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body, Destroyer), ‘The Invitation’ is a low-budget film in the best possible way, as the director and writers had complete creative-control over the project due to it being produced without any involvement from major production companies. This is more than likely why the film lacks any unnecessary jump-scares or a forced cliffhanger ending to serve as sequel/prequel bait. Instead, the story has strong underlining themes of past trauma, as the protagonist: ‘Will’ along with his ex-wife: ‘Eden’ both share a dark past which looms over their present-day lives.

Logan Marshall-Green portrays: ‘Will’ very well, as the excellent character-writing combined with Marshall-Green’s performance make ‘Will’ feel like not only a realistic character, but also somewhat of a stand-in for the audience themselves. As upon ‘Will’s arrival at the party, he immediately suspects that something is wrong, as he analyses the small yet strange details of their hosts. But obviously its also understandable as to why the other guests question or even just deny his claims, as his traumatic background makes him appear almost jealous that his ex-wife has moved on from their past in search of happiness. The rest of the cast of Tammy Blanchard, Emayatzy Corinealdi, John Carroll Lynch and Toby Huss (just to name a few), are all also stellar in their respective roles.

Everything from the film’s colour palette to its lighting to its cinematography by Bobby Shore, all visually-display the contrast between the story’s cozy setting and the tension and discomfort that is building throughout the narrative. As the film’s visuals are intentionally quite dim and warm in order to relate to the idea of the lavish house being a safe environment, when in reality, something far more ominous is at work, which in a way is also visually-represented through the darkness of the night creeping its way into the house via the windows. Additionally, the film’s huge amount of variety when it comes to its camerawork helps to make ‘The Invitation’ a more engrossing experience, as with the film mostly relying on its structure of every combination of characters slinking away into the next room for a conversation, it manages to avoid becoming tiresome as a result of its cinematography and score.

Speaking of the soundtrack, the original score by Theodore Shapiro goes a long way to accentuate the feeling of foreboding that the story protrudes, as the soundtrack only utilises solitary stringed instruments. This minimalist approach works perfectly, as the subtlety is reflective of both the story itself and the dimmed-down visuals, really driving a knife through the viewer through the simple use of a violin. The two tracks: ‘Into the Canyon’ and ‘I’m Actually Early’ are brilliant examples of this, but in all honestly, the original score features so many wonderful tracks that its hard to choose.

Spoilers ahead in this section for those who wish to go in blind. But when its finally revealed that the goal of the dinner party is to murder all the guests present for a malevolent cult, the film does lose much of its charm. As the short scene we see of the guests being shot one-by-one doesn’t feel like a truly rewarding payoff considering how long the build-up actually was. However, the film does still make an attempt to develop the cult, and it quickly becomes clear that the group share many similarities to real-world cults, with the two most obvious being: ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and of course, Charles Manson and ‘The Manson Family’.

To conclude, ‘The Invitation’ is quite the underappreciated gem, as the film makes great use of its thin budget to craft a slow-burning yet layered thriller. While there are a few minor plot threads left lingering, the film does give enough clues/hints for keen-eyed viewers to find, and aside from perhaps the lacklustre climax, I personally have very few gripes with ‘The Invitation’, and I would recommend it to anyone in search of a tense and entrancing story with equally entrancing filmmaking. Final Rating: low 8/10.

invitation_ver2_xxlg

Hotel Artemis (2018) – Film Review

Easily one of the most overlooked and commercially-underwhelming films of 2018, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is one of those rare releases that feels very unsuited to the genre its actually a part of. As whilst this enclosed story set within the walls of an illegal hospital is certainly interesting, ‘Hotel Artemis’ also bizarrely serves as a science fiction flick. Boasting plenty of futuristic technology alongside its snappy dialogue, charismatic performances and gorgeously-designed central location. Its just a shame the film doesn’t always know what to do with any of the above.

Plot Summary: In the riot-torn, near-future of Los Angeles, 2028. Disgruntled thieves and criminals make their way to ‘Hotel Artemis’, a secret members-only hospital operated by ‘The Nurse’, a no-nonsense doctor who tends to their injuries under the condition that anyone who enters the hotel sticks to the set-rules. But after ‘The Nurse’ receives word the notorious crime lord: ‘The Wolf King’ is in-bound with a gunshot wound, ‘The Nurse’ is forced to break her own rules as the hotel is thrown into violent chaos.

Written and directed by Drew Pearce, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is actually Pearce’s directorial debut, as before this film Pearce had exclusively worked as a screenwriter, writing blockbusters such as: ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ as well as the ‘Fast and Furious’ spin-off: ‘Hobbs and Shaw’ later down the line. This might explain why ‘Hotel Artemis’ is as compellingly-written as it is, as in spite of its quick-pacing and very limited number of locations, the script manages to squeeze a fair amount into its extremely tight runtime. As the film explores some of world outside of the hotel in addition to developing many of the hotel’s criminal inhabitants, all the while the film remains tense as a result of the interactions between the characters and the impending arrive of: ‘The Wolf King’.

Jodie Foster leads the cast as ‘The Nurse’, her first acting role since the sci-fi film: ‘Elysium’ in 2013. And her all too-rare screen-presence is a pleasure to see again, as she gives a convincingly mournful performance, portraying ‘The Nurse’ as an elderly women refined to the sanctuary of her work following the tragic death of her son. Then there are also the criminals, assassins and thieves (and hotel security) portrayed by Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Dave Bautista, Charlie Day, Zachary Quinto and Jeff Goldblum, who are all enjoyable to watch as the various scum of the futuristic Los Angles, and all receive a fair amount of development although many characters don’t receive the payoff they truly deserve.

The film’s greatest strength is without a doubt its setting, as the penthouse floor of: ‘The Artemis’ is rich with atmosphere as the hotel’s design is incredibly reminiscent of the Art Deco-style of 1930s hotels, almost giving the impression its a building from days past. From the velvet cushions to the green slightly-teared wallpaper, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is a very memorable location, its just unfortunate the film attempts to weave-in sci-fi wires and screens etc. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung also greatly adds to the film’s visuals, as the film keeps its shots and colourful lighting as diverse as possible and avoids utilising too-much hand-held camerawork.

Cliff Martinez’s original score is another superb element of the film, as the soundtrack features plenty of noteworthy tracks like ‘It Smells Like Somebody Died in Here’, ‘Hands Off the Gooch’, ‘I Only Kill Important People’ and ‘Don’t Cross My Line’, all of which elevate both the tension and style of the film. ‘Hotel Artemis’ also integrates a few songs from the 1970s such as: ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Helpless’, which whilst catchy, further adds to the idea of the film seeming out-of-place as a science fiction flick, but then I suppose without the link to that genre we wouldn’t have the rest of this fantastically-computerised score.

As mentioned many times, the biggest flaw of: ‘Hotel Artemis’ for me is its near-future setting, as due to many of the film’s characters feeling like modern-day criminals in their actions and personalities, it soon becomes clear that with just a few small alterations the entire narrative could really be switched to fit within a modern time-period, making the sci-fi aspects ultimately pointless. However, with the idea of a hotel for criminals already being explored with the ‘Continental Hotel’ in the ‘John Wick’ series, its possible that these characteristics were introduced as a way of avoiding too-many similarities with that franchise.

So whilst some characters may not quite get the resolution they deserve and a number of concepts do feel undercooked, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is still a tense and engaging story with many exciting moments of action in-between. Although I personally would only recommend the film to audiences who specifically adore sci-fi-thrillers, it is a pity ‘Hotel Artemis’ received lukewarm reviews and was an utter box-office failure, because there is clearly a level of effort put into the film, and I do feel its worth a watch should it seem appealing. Final Rating: low 7/10.

hotel_artemis_xxlg

Escape Room (2019) – Film Review

Divertive yet still quite thrilling in parts, ‘Escape Room’ directed by Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Insidious: The Last Key) fails to unlock much of the potential in its premise, eventually devolving into what is simply scene-after-scene of the film’s characters solving puzzles in a number of themed rooms whilst on a strict time-limit. Yet depending on what you desire to see from a modern thriller, this may be enough to serve a passing diversion, as the film chooses to just ignore its lack of realism and originality in favour of distracting its audience through creative set-design and tense fast-paced sequences.

Plot Summary: When six strangers are each sent a mysterious black puzzle box withholding an invitation to an immersive escape room, they all make their way to the ‘Minos’ facility on the promise of being able to win a fortune should they escape. But after entering what seems to be the building’s waiting area, innocent fun soon turns into a deadly game as the group discover each room is actually an elaborate trap.

From a mere mention of the film’s plot, the ‘Saw’ and ‘Cube’ franchises are understandably the first two things that come to mind. As in many ways, ‘Escape Room’ is effectively just a far-less violent version of those familiar set-ups, with a character heading into a room only to be greeted with a convoluted trap that will result in their death should they not escape it. And while ‘Escape Room’ does contain at least a couple of sparks regarding something original, the film is also far from subtle in both its storytelling and dialogue, with plenty of cheesy lines, implausible events and character’s backstories being shown through literal flashbacks.

Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll and Nik Dodani all give passable performances as the main group of characters forced into a twisted game. Their actual characters however, are possibly the film’s biggest missed opportunity. As whilst a few of the characters do receive development early on in the narrative, its quickly becomes clear as to which characters the film is favouring, making it easy to predict who is going to live, and who is going to die. But if the film would’ve managed to better balance its characterisation, then not only would the story have been more compelling overall, but this would’ve kept the viewer constantly guessing as to who could go next.

Aside from one or two wide-shots when the group first enter a new room, the cinematography by Marc Spicer is mostly uninspired, never really attempting to integrate any incredibly innovative or unique shots. Still, the cinematography does serve its purpose for the most part, backing-up the story without ever relying too-heavily on the use of hand-held camerawork or overly-choppy editing. Additionally, the film’s CG effects (as sparsely used as they may be), are serviceable but not much else beyond that.

Contrarily, the original score by Brian Tyler and John Carey is fairly inventive, as the pulsing and suspenseful electronic score utilises everything from ticking clocks to power tools, representing the time-pressed characters and the constantly changing environments from which they are trying to escape. This means tracks such as: ‘Coaster’ and ‘Testing Your Limits’ massively help to build tension, whereas moody tracks like ‘The King of Trading’ and ‘Let the Games Begin’ feel more sci-fi and atmospheric in nature. The film’s main theme simply titled: ‘Escape Room’, even receives a dubstep-like remix by musicians ‘Madsonik’ and ‘Kill the Noise’, which plays over the film’s end credits.

The film’s set-design is possibly its best aspect, as rather than going for the bog-standard look of libraries and basements for the basis of each room, the film explores an array of diverse environments for its puzzles. From a log cabin complete with a snowy mountain vista to an upside-down billiards bar, the film’s ever-changing locations help keep the story’s signature concept feeling fresh. Many of the rooms also relate to the character’s traumatic backstories, the first room for example, is essentially a giant oven which will burn the group alive should they not escape, this mimics ‘Amanda’s backstory, who was badly burned after she barley survived an IED explosion.

In conclusion, not only is ‘Escape Room’ similar to the ‘Saw’ series in terms of its story and set-up, but unfortunately, also in terms of its franchise potential. As its pretty obvious from the film’s extremely forced ending that Sony Pictures wanted their own low-budget horror/thriller franchise as an easy way to gain profit, and riffing on an already iconic series is a trouble-free way to achieve this. So although it’s set-design and original score are admirable, in addition to a large majority of the filmmaking ‘Escape Room’ has on display being above-average if not better, the film definitely has its share of problems, and in my opinion, isn’t worthy of an entire film series. Final Rating: 5/10.

escape_room_xxlg

A Monster Calls (2016) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness and directed by J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), 2016’s ‘A Monster Calls’ is far from being the simplistic creature-feature it’s title may imply. Instead, this imaginative and soul-stirring drama balances it’s mature themes and fairytale-esque elements to deliver an engrossing and incredibly moving story, which despite its many positive reviews, has mostly gone unmentioned by many film fanatics since it’s initial release.

Plot Summary: After realising his mother is dying from terminal cancer, twelve-year-old: ‘Conor O’Malley’ struggles to accept that he soon may have to live in a world without his caring mum. Until, later that night, when ‘Conor’ is visited by a tree-like monster in what he believes to be a dream, ‘Conor’ sees an opportunity to save his mother as the creature tells the boy he will heal her after he listens to his three stories.

Focusing on heavy themes of family and loss, the film adaptation of: ‘A Monster Calls’ follows its source material very closely, with only a few small differences. One of these alterations being some additional scenes that were written exclusively for the film, including one scene that takes-place immediately after the ending of the novel. But with the original author Patrick Ness writing the film’s screenplay, this accuracy shouldn’t be too surprising. However, interestingly, it wasn’t Patrick Ness who originated the story, as the novel was actually started by Siobhan Dowd, who sadly left it unfinished after her death, leaving Ness to complete the novel in 2011, yet Dowd is still credited as the creator of the original idea during the film’s end credits.

While the film’s supporting cast of Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell and Liam Neeson as the voice of: ‘The Monster’ are all superb in their various roles, its Lewis MacDougall who takes on the lead role as ‘Conor’, which is by no means an easy feat considering his age. As ‘Conor’ is a fairly complex character, being a young boy dealing with a very difficult situation he doesn’t fully understand, unwilling to accept that is mother is in constant pain, and more than likely, won’t be able to recover from her sickness. ‘Conor’s young age also makes his outbursts of rage/sorrow more understandable, as nearly every viewer can probably recall the difficulty of attempting to control their emotions when they themselves were a child. The now sought-after actor Tom Holland also has a small role in the film, as Holland actually served as the stand-in for: ‘The Monster’ on-set, following his previous collaboration with Bayona on ‘The Impossible’ in 2012.

The film’s cinematography by Oscar Faura not only manages to capture the true scale of: ‘The Monster’ at many points, but also allows for a large array of visually-appealing shots, effectively utilising everything from extreme close-ups to aerial wide-shots to increase the story’s overall spectacle. The film’s CG effects aren’t quite as impeccable however, as there are a noticeable amount of CGI-heavy moments which have suffered (if only slightly) from the film’s age.

Although the story of: ‘A Monster Calls’ is very powerful on-itself, there is no denying it is greatly elevated by Fernando Velázquez’s original score. As many of the film’s accompanying tracks such as: ‘Dad Arrives’, ‘Big Dreams’, ‘The Truth’ and certainly the film’s final track: ‘End Credits’, all massively help to invoke emotion in the viewer, inevitably adding-up to the film’s gut-wrenching conclusion. Any fans of Bayona’s early filmography are also sure to enjoy the film’s quick throwback to the director’s horror-roots, as the score becomes quite dread-inducing during the first scene with ‘The Monster’, as ‘Conor’ remains unsure of the creature’s intentions.

But without a doubt the most impressive aspect of this adaptation has to be ‘The Monster’s stories, as every-time ‘The Monster’ tells ‘Conor’ these fantastical tales, the film takes a dramatic shift from live-action into animation, bringing its stories to-life through water-coloured drawings and sketches, which not only plays into ‘Conor’ and his mother’s flair for artistry, but these sequences are also when the film is at its most creative, having the camera fly through splurges of paint and water, engulfing the viewer in an array of magnificent colours and locations alike.

To conclude, ‘A Monster Calls’ is truly a touching and prodigious film. Whilst perhaps not completely flawless in its execution, mostly due to its unexplored side characters and occasional piece of hand-held camerawork, I feel most would find it impossible to not relate to the story in someway. As it’s sublime performances, enchanting visuals and beautiful original score all serve their purpose of complimenting the film’s narrative, which is just as captivating as it’s novel counterpart. And for me, ‘A Monster Calls’ still reigns as my personal favourite film from J. A. Bayona, and I’m hopeful the film will become a window of opportunity for Patrick Ness as a successful screenwriter. Final Rating: low 8/10.

monster_calls_xxlg

Arthur Christmas (2011) – Film Review

From Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animations, the latter being the iconic British company behind many beloved hand-crafted films such as: ‘Wallace and Gromit’, ‘Chicken Run’, ‘Morph’ and ‘Early Man’. Comes a festive family adventure focusing on ‘Santa’s son: ‘Arthur’ as he races across the globe to deliver a present to an overlooked child, and although the film doesn’t feature the impeccable stop-motion animation the company is well-known for, it does make-up for its mostly generic CG visuals through its amusing moments, charming characters and inventive story.

Plot Summary: On the night of Christmas Eve, after ‘Santa’ and his enormous team of elves believe themselves to have succeed in another year of present delivery for the children of the world. ‘Santa’s clumsy son: ‘Arthur’ and a skilled wrapping elf named: ‘Bryony’, discover a young girl’s present has been misplaced, leaving her the only child in the world without a gift from ‘Santa’. Fearing what the young girl will think when she awakens to find nothing under the tree Christmas morning, ‘Arthur’ sets-out on a mission with ‘Santa’s elderly father to deliver the forgotten gift.

Directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook, ‘Arthur Christmas’ is actually the first directorial effort from Cook since the Disney flick: ‘Mulan’ in 1998, with Smith having never directed a feature before in her career. Yet even with these fairly inexperienced directors, ‘Arthur Christmas’ never gets muddled within its own story, managing to balance its many characters, exciting sequences and themes of family and symbolism/icons immensely well, whilst the film also cleverly answers the question that has perplexed children around the world for years, that being: “How Does Santa Deliver All His Presents in a Single Night?” The only major issue ‘Arthur Christmas’ suffers from as a film is its fast-pacing, which does remain very quick throughout the runtime and results in some scenes feeling very rushed.

James McAvoy portrays the film’s protagonist: ‘Arthur’, who is likable-enough and easy to root for as a character in wanting to deliver the misplaced present, though I could see McAvoy’s performance irritating some viewers, as ‘Arthur’ is always very energetic, jumping from fearful to cheerful incredibly fast even if it is a nice change-of-pace for a protagonist to have nothing but love for the Christmas season. The rest of the cast of Bill Nighy, Hugh Laurie, Ashley Jensen, Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton are all exceptional in their roles as the ‘Claus’ family, adding-up to a splendid family-dynamic which the story actually explores a fair amount of.

Just as lively as the film’s fast-pacing, the animated cinematography for: ‘Arthur Christmas’ is very innovative, constantly displaying a number of visually-interesting and fairly unique shots, many of which capture the massive scale of the ‘S-1’ (the high-tech sleigh-replacement ‘Santa’ now utilises) as it soars across the sky. Additionally, with ‘Arthur’ and ‘Grandsanta’ being unfamiliar with the modern world due to them being mostly confined to the North Pole, much of their journey revolves around them accidently arriving at various locations as they attempt to find the young girl’s home in Trelew, England. And each location manages to feel diverse and allows for many exhilarating set-pieces, from the sleigh being chased by the Spanish police force through Trelew, Argentina, to ‘Arthur’ and ‘Grandsanta’ almost being eaten by lions after finding themselves on the Savannah plains.

However, the original score by Harry Gregson-Williams is the complete opposite, as the film’s soundtrack is your standard animated score with little memorable or interesting about it. From tracks like ‘Trelew, Cornwall, England’, ‘Operation Christmas’ and ‘Goodbye Evie’, the original score is fairly disappointing when considering many of the film’s creative ideas in regards to its story. Still, with that said, the track: ‘One Missed Child’ does capture ‘Arthur’s true awe at the sight of the original sleigh perfectly, as short as the scene itself may be.

The animation itself isn’t extremely well-detailed but does remain attractive throughout the story, despite my distaste of a few of the character’s designs that is, as I personally found many of the characters to appear far too cartoonish and even slightly unappealing, particularly when it comes to many of the elves’ designs. These design choices are actually intentional however, as the animators decided to approach the character-designs with the goal of making them feel authentically British and quirky, rather than air-brushed and immensely appealing.

On the whole, ‘Arthur Christmas’ has far more merits than it does faults, as the film serves as a refreshing take on the typical ‘Santa’ saves Christmas story. Interjecting a family-dynamic and a large array of adult-centered humour into what is already an entertaining and surprisingly smart narrative for a family flick. So even in spite of its average-looking animation and overly-fast pacing, ‘Arthur Christmas’ is truly a joyful film to watch with a heartfelt message at its core, and I feel is likely to become a modern Christmas classic in-time. Final Rating: high 7/10.

0c1f74f2f315a3b102cde84ba1b6000e

The Grinch (2018) – Film Review

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as his pen-name: ‘Dr. Seuss’, is recognised today as one of the best authors in children’s literature. Through his whimsical writing, memorable characters and surreal illustrations, many of Geisel’s stories have become truly timeless as a result of how original they were compared to other children’s books released around the same-period. So of course, it would only be a matter of time till Geisel’s various characters began making their way to the silver screen, with one of his most villainous characters: ‘The Grinch’, receiving many adaptations, the most recent of which possibly being the worst to-date.

Plot Summary: In the town of: ‘Whoville’, the residents known as ‘Whos’ excitedly await the arrival of Christmas Day. But just north of: ‘Whoville’, on the top of: ‘Mount Crumpit’, the cantankerous and green-furred: ‘Grinch’ begins to hatch a plan with his pet-dog: ‘Max’, crafting a scheme to steal Christmas from the ‘Whos’ in an attempt to silence their irritating holiday cheer once and for all.

This 2018 readaptation of: ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ is animated by Illumination Animation, the animation company behind modern family flicks like ‘Despicable Me’, ‘Sing’ and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ in addition to a previous ‘Dr. Seuss’ adaptation: ‘The Lorax’ in 2012. This isn’t surprising of course, as Illumination Animation have truly exploded in popularity since 2010, mostly due to their creation of: ‘The Minions’. And whilst I personally don’t despise the company as a whole as I feel many of their films are entertaining-enough for younger viewers, its fair to say their film catalogue is spotty at best, with many of their films bosting extremely predicable humour and usually attractive yet repetitive-looking animation, and ‘The Grinch’ is unfortunately no exception.

Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the title character, and although Cumberbatch is usually an actor I adore, having given an array of brilliant performances throughout his career. ‘The Grinch’ is without a doubt one of his weakest, as his performance somehow manages to feel both minimum effort and also far too cartoonish. Resulting in this version of the nefarious characters becoming instantly forgettable, especially when put in comparison with Jim Carrey’s beloved performance. Then there is also Cameron Seely and Rashida Jones who portray ‘Cindy-Lou Who’ and her mother: ‘Donna’, who this time around have their own subplot mostly unrelated to ‘The Grinch’s scheme, which serves little purpose aside from one particular scene. And finally there is Pharrell Williams as the story’s narrator, which is some of the most bizarre casting I’ve ever seen, as his typical American-accent doesn’t remotely fit the role of a traditional storyteller.

Similar to the rest of Illumination Animation’s films, ‘The Grinch’ is visually-impressive at a first-glance, as the film’s animated cinematography and extremely vibrant colour palette is likely to catch any viewer’s eye. Yet also in-line with their other films, Illumination Animation’s style does feel very repetitive after so long, as each character/location does little to make itself stand-out. A perfect example of this is ‘The Grinch’ himself, as while ‘The Grinch’ is implied to have very poor hygiene similar to other adaptations of the story, neither ‘The Grinch’ nor his home within ‘Mount Crumpit’ are ever displayed as unpleasant, even though ‘The Grinch’s home being dark and filthy serves as an extension of his vile personality.

Aside from ‘Tyler the Creator’s abysmal new rendition of: ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’, the original score by Danny Elfman is completely unremarkable. From ‘A Wonderful Awful Idea’ to ‘Stealing Christmas’, all of the film’s tracks lack both memorability and charm, barley embracing the fantastical nature of: ‘Dr. Seuss’ stories or the festive season itself, with the rest of the film’s soundtrack just relying on other modern renditions of classic Christmas songs.

Undoubtedly the most disappointing aspect of this readaptation however, is the actual animation style. As one obvious benefit that this new adaptation has over the live-action adaptation of: ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ is simply being animated, as this allows the film’s designs to greatly lean-into the wonderful illustrations of: ‘Dr. Seuss’, as his sketches are incredibly difficult to recreate in real-life as result of their harsh curves and gravity-defying arictecture. But strangely, the film doesn’t take advantage of this, with many designs only having a slight ‘Seuss’ influence in spite of the clearly-inspired rhyming dialogue.

Overall, ‘The Grinch’ is a worst-case scenario for a readaptation, as I feel this animated film falls-flat in most areas, never reaching the emotional or comedic heights of: ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ from 2000, or even matching-up to the delightful hand-drawn animation seen in the original 1966 short. So whilst its visuals may appear pleasant at first, it quickly becomes apparent something is missing. As this new adaptation gives the impression it was made by a team of producers rather than just one director, and as a result, fails to breathe new life into this age-old Christmas tale. Final Rating: 3/10.

grinch_ver5_xxlg

Krampus (2015) – Film Review

Whilst most Christmas films get across their message about how family is the true meaning of the holiday in a wholesome and light-hearted fashion, ‘Krampus’ takes quite a different approach. As director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) crafts a cynical and amusing horror-comedy based-around: ‘Krampus’, a creature from European folklore with origins stretching back to the days before Christianity, serving as essentially the sinister twin of jolly ‘Saint Nicholas’, punishing those who misbehave in various odious ways. And while the film is far from perfect, ‘Krampus’ creative ideas and impressive practical effects make the film worth it’s runtime.

Plot Summary: When his dysfunctional family clash over the holidays, young ‘Max’ finally decides to turn his back on Christmas, tearing-up his letter to ‘Santa Clause’ in a fit of rage. Little does he know, his lack of Christmas spirit has unleashed the wrath of: ‘Krampus’, an ancient demon who punishes those who don’t celebrate the festive season. Forcing ‘Max’ and the rest of his family to fight for one another if they hope to survive.

Although there are plenty of enjoyable films out there to watch over the festive season, I usually always find myself craving something new around the Christmas-period, as the cliché narrative of children helping ‘Santa Claus’ save Christmas gets very old quick. ‘Krampus’ however, does certainly attempt something new, even if it isn’t always successful. As whilst the original outline for the film was closer to a straight-forward horror, focusing mostly on ‘Krampus’ picking people off throughout ‘Max’s town, it was eventually decided to make it more of a dark retelling of a traditional Christmas film. This is why the plot is kicked-off with a letter to ‘Santa’, and why the film’s first act begins much like a family film would, before then having a drastic turn towards horror and dark fantasy.

The film’s large cast of Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Stefania LaVie Owen, Conchata Ferrell and Krista Stadler are all serviceable in their roles, even though many of their characters aren’t developed nowhere near enough. Additionally, ‘Tom Engel’, a.k.a. ‘Max’s father, also has many moments where he doesn’t seem to take their life-threating situation that seriously, almost as if he is acknowledging how bizarre the story is, which does diminish the film’s tension at points. But with ‘Krampus’ featuring moments of humour and fright alike, the film obviously has many shifts in tone between scenes.

Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography is nothing amazing altogether, as in spite of the film having quite a few memorable and attractive shots, there are also a large amount of bland shots whenever the camera is focusing on the actors themselves. What is far more admirable though is how the camerawork enhances the film’s set-design, making the audience believe that the film was shot inside a real house and outside on a real wintry street. When in reality, over 95% of the film was shot on a soundstage, with the snow covering the ground being made from a material that’s commonly used for making nappies.

Composer Douglas Pipes handles the film’s original score, and he described his soundtrack as “A Collection of Twisted Christmas Carols with Pagan Thrown in”. As the score incorporates everything from the sounds of chains, bells, bones and animal-skin drums in addition to having choirs chant and whisper in different tongues, making for a foreboding but suitably Christmassy score. The track: ‘A Cold Wind’ also does a phenomenal job of reiterating ‘Krampus’ as the ominous shadow of: ‘Santa Clause’ through its use of sleigh bells. However, the film’s actual sound design features some incredibly strange choices for a horror, as many goofy/cartoonish sound effects can be heard within the film, feeling immensely out-of-place every-time they are.

One of the finest aspects of: ‘Krampus’ as a film has to be its effects, as rather than having an over-reliance on CG visuals, ‘Krampus’ brings all of its uniquely-creepy creatures to-life through detailed costumes and animatronics, harkening back to classic 80s horror-comedies like ‘Gremlins’. Many of the film’s terrifying monsters also share wonderfully-horrific designs, with the final design for: ‘Krampus’ and his elves being distilled from various postcards and illustrations seen over-time. Or in the case of the malevolent toys, taking inspiration from the 1992 low-budget horror: ‘Demonic Toys’, with the angel ornament, teddy bear, robot and Jack-in-a-box that attack the family sharing many similarities to that obscure film.

In conclusion, ‘Krampus’ is a rollicking ride of a Christmas film even if it isn’t quite as polished as Dougherty’s Halloween flick: ‘Trick ‘r Treat’. As the film’s excellent practical effects, menacing creature designs and great original score all lend themselves very well to the distinctive story, despite the narrative itself often feeling like wasted potential considering ‘Krampus’ doesn’t fully appear until near the end of the runtime. Regardless, this horror-comedy is still the best on-screen interpretation of: ‘Krampus’ and his minions as of yet. Final Rating: 7/10.

krampus_ver3_xxlg

Chronicle (2012) – Film Review

Despite its short runtime and novice director, ‘Chronicle’ is both a unique and refreshing take on the found-footage sub-genre. Diverting from the usual teen horror stories that have completely overtaken the found-footage style for a more sci-fi-esque narrative, which overcomes its gimmicky camerawork and occasionally dated CG effects through riveting moments of action, fast-paced direction and charismatic performances from its young cast.

Plot Summary: After three high-school friends venture into a mysterious hole which travels deep beneath the Earth, they reemerge with incredible telekinetic abilities, with introvert: ‘Andrew’ becoming the most powerful of the three. But as ‘Andrew’ struggles to cope with his mother’s terminal illness and his father’s alcoholic abuse towards him, his friends ‘Matt’ and ‘Steve’ soon realise ‘Andrew’s abilities are beginning to consume him.

Directed by the infamous Josh Trank (Fantastic Four, Calpone) and written by Max Landis, most known for his work on Netflix’s ‘Bright’ and ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’. ‘Chronicle’ takes a lot of inspiration from modern superhero blockbusters, which in a way is ironic, as cast members Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan would later go on to star in big-budget superhero films, with DeHaan portraying ‘Harry Osborn/The Green Goblin’ in ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’, and Jordan going on to portray ‘Johnny Storm’ in the ‘Fantastic Four’ remake as well as the antagonist: ‘Killmonger’ in 2018’s ‘Black Panther’. So for DeHann and Jordan, ‘Chronicle’ essentially served as the jumping-off point for their future careers.

Before filming actually began on ‘Chronicle’, director Josh Trank had actors Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan live in a house together for fifteen days, and its due to this (in addition to Landis’ teenage-accurate writing) that you do feel a genuine bond between the three. As the group of friends act like real teenagers, reckless and immature yet not totally unlikable, which was an important area to succeed in as a large majority of the story early on leans on their antics as they share banter and test how far their abilities can truly go. However, even with all three characters having quite diverse personalities, it’s ‘Andrew’ who really steals the film as a character. As his descent into hysteria serves as a compelling character-arc within the story, and is well-executed aside from one or two lines nearing the end of the runtime, which are reminiscent of a cheesy supervillain quote from an early 2000s blockbuster.

While the film’s cinematography by Matthew Jensen does begin as your standard affair for a found-footage flick, when it comes to the film’s final act it can be quite difficult to tell where (or what) the camera is actually supposed to be. As its during the final act the characters fully embrace their abilities, allowing them to fly, tear through buildings, make objects float with ease and even throw vehicles, with many of their impowered actions being seen through various CCTV footage or onlooker’s floating phones and tablets, resulting in a fairly chaotic conclusion in spite of its creativity.

Also as a result of its found-footage style, ‘Chronicle’ lacks an original score, yet the film still features many songs through sources within the world of the film itself like radios and phones. And while the film does have a more realistic feel because of this, the film’s constant overreliance on glitchy edits/transitions have the complete opposite effect, as the overuse of glitches soon becomes just as irritating as it is distracting considering ‘Andrew’ is often filming through a contemporary camera.

Sadly, in the years since it’s release, much of the CGI throughout ‘Chronicle’ hasn’t aged well. As while some of the CG effects still hold-up, there is such a huge number of effects seen within the film that it would’ve been difficult for all of them to remain unblemished. These dated CG visuals might also relate to the film’s budget of £8.9 million, which may seem like a large amount, but is actually quite thin when taking into account what is required of it. The film’s budget also played a part in where it was filmed, as ‘Chronicle’ was primarily shot in Cape Town, South Africa, with American-designed vehicles needing to be shipped-over for the production, even though the story takes-place in Seattle.

To conclude, whilst the film has its issues like many other found-footage flicks, ‘Chronicle’ is certainly an under-appreciated entry in the subgenre, excelling in many different ways. And since the film’s initial release, there have been plenty of rumours regarding a sequel, with Max Landis constantly being attached and then unattached as its writer. But I think it’s pretty evident now that we’ll probably never see a sequel to this underrated science fiction story, which I believe is a good thing. As although the film does have some concepts which could be further explored, I feel the story of: ‘Andrew’s psychotic downfall will always be the main focus of: ‘Chronicle’, and without his character, it would seem incomplete. Final Rating: 7/10.

chronicle-teaser-poster

Non-Stop (2014) – Film Review

Although ‘Non-Stop’ has been heavily overshadowed by a number of other films within the thriller genre, being mostly forgotten amongst the strew of critically-acclaimed films that released in 2014. I personally feel this high-altitude thriller is one of the better stories set within the confines of an aircraft, utilising Liam Neeson’s action expertise to craft a compelling mystery with occasional moments of excitement, even if the film is noticeably lacking in both realism and memorability.

Plot Summary: While on a flight from New York to London, ‘Bill Marks’, a worn and alcoholic air marshal, receives an anonymous text message, informing him that unless one-hundred and fifty-million dollars are transferred into an offshore account within the next twenty-minutes, someone aboard the plane will die. Now finding himself in the middle of this deadly cat-and-mouse game, ‘Bill’ desperately searches for the suspect, unintentionally implicating himself into a hostage crisis unfolding at thirty-thousand feet.

‘Non-Stop’ is actually the second of four films directed by Jaume Collet-Serra that feature Liam Neeson, beginning with ‘Unknown’ in 2011, then ‘Run All Night’ in 2015, and lastly ‘The Commuter’ in 2018. And whilst Collet-Serra’s other films also contain a central mystery, ‘Non-Stop’ certainly has the most interesting location of the bunch, using its tight and claustrophobic setting of an aircraft to great effect. As the film never cuts-away from the plane itself, even when ‘Bill’s contacts his superiors we the audience remain inside the aircraft with the characters, adding to the suspense. The film also attempts to integrate themes of airline safety and security into its story, which are intriguing though they are never fully explored, nor is the terrorist’s motivation when its finally revealed.

Liam Neeson leads the cast as ‘Bill Marks’, giving his standard action film performance as a mostly straight-faced action-hero. But just as he is in the ‘Taken’ franchise and every other explosive blockbuster, Neeson is an easy protagonist to root for, and ‘Bill’ is given a fair amount of development for what is required. Julianne Moore also makes an appearance in the film as ‘Jen Summers’, who similar to the rest of the supporting cast of Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Jason Butler Harner, Nate Parker, Omar Metwally and Lupita Nyong’o, is given limited characterisation and is mostly in the film to serve as a potential suspect, but I suppose considering this is the basis for the story, it would’ve been an enormous challenge to development the huge array of passengers and crew aboard the flight.

The cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is serviceable for the most part, as whilst the film features a few attractive shots and focus-pulls throughout its runtime, the majority of the film’s camerawork focuses on hand-held shots, which aside from lending themselves effectively to action sequences and scenes where the plane experiences turbulence, do become a little monotonous. ‘Non-Stop’ also features a couple of scenes that were filmed entirely within a single-take, most notably, from the moment ‘Bill’ begins his announcement to the passengers about his phone inspection, through to the moment he duct-tapes a suspect’s hands together, there isn’t a single cut.

John Ottman’s original score does suit the film well, with tracks like ‘Non-Stop’, ‘Welcome to Aqualantic’ and ‘Reluctant Passenger/Blue Ribbon’ having a nice fusion of synth sounds, percussion, strings and brass, adding-up to simplistic yet competent soundtrack. Constantly pushing or creating the tension in a simple and confined environment while simultaneously fitting with the modern set-design of the plane and ‘Bill’ as a reluctant hero forced into action.

But with 95% of the film taking-place within an aircraft, the set for the plane itself was certainly a crucial detail to get right. Luckily, ‘Non-Stop’ does succeed here, as despite the set having to be built slightly larger than a standard commercial airliner to accommodate for equipment and Liam Neeson’s 6’4′ height. The set does feel like a real plane, having both sleek business-class and first-class areas as well as lavatories and a crew rest-compartment, all of which are very crampt and dimly-lit, as the story takes-place over the course of one night. This realism is even more impressive considering that the aircraft and airline are clearly fictional, as the aircraft type is never referred to yet its cabin interior and flight deck layout doesn’t match any real aircraft design.

So even though films like ‘Red Eye’ and ‘Flightplan’ have taken the enclosed setting of an airplane and made it work before, I still believe ‘Non-Stop’ has slightly more entertainment value. As whilst some viewers may find the story’s absence of realism quite frustrating at points, the film distracts from its over-the-top ideas and bland side characters through its tense and fast-paced narrative, making for a thrilling mystery for those that can suspend their disbelief for a few elements. And with Liam Neeson and the rest of the cast helping ‘Non-Stop’ to collect plenty of air-miles for enjoyability, I’d say the film is worth a watch. Final Rating: low 7/10.

nonstop_xxlg

Moonlight (2016) – Film Review

Directed by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy, If Beale Street Could Talk) and based on the unproduced play: ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney. ‘Moonlight’ has been heavily praised since its initial release in 2016, being just one of the films from adored production company A24, who also brought-us modern indie classics like ‘Hereditary’, ‘Waves’, ‘Eighth Grade’, ‘The Witch’ and ‘A Ghost Story’ just to name a few. And although ‘Moonlight’ may not be the company’s greatest film to-date, it is certainly one of the finest examples of visual storytelling and subtle characterisation in recent memory.

Plot Summary: Through three different time-periods – young adolescence, mid-teen and young adult. An African-American man (Chiron) grapples with his identity and sexuality as he grows-up in Miami. His journey to manhood being guided by the kindness, support and love of the community that help raise him.

In addition to receiving almost universally positive reviews, ‘Moonlight’ also won three Oscars for: ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Supporting Actor’ in 2017. And with the film only having a budget of around £1.1 million, ‘Moonlight’ has the lowest-budget of any ‘Best Picture’ winner since ‘Rocky’ in 1976, which cost only £820,000. However, even with this smaller-budget, director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney always had a clear-vision as to what the film would be. As both men had similar childhood experiences living in Miami, with mothers who had both struggled with drug addiction. So it was decided early on to replicate those experiences, with roughly 80% of the film being shot in the same neighbourhood where Jenkins and Tarell originally grew-up.

Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray ‘Chiron’ across the three different time-periods of his life, and all do a great job in spite of them not sharing many of the same mannerisms outside of: ‘Chiron’s manner of speaking, yet this doesn’t stop the trio from still making ‘Chiron’s quiet and sheepish personality shine. The supporting cast of Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe and André Holland are all also fantastic, but with all four being such skilled actors who have given few bad performances throughout their careers, it was unlikely this indie drama would ever be an exception, it’s just a shame their characters aren’t featured more within the narrative.

Despite a large amount of James Laxton’s cinematography consisting of shaky hand-held shots, the film’s camerawork does allow for plenty of movement, as the camera rarely remains still during conversations between characters, making many of the story’s dramatic moments far more visually-interesting and giving each scene a consistent flow through the many revolving shots. Additionally, the film also utilises its cinematography to reflect ‘Chiron’s emotional state at many points, combining with the film’s original score for some very impactful story-beats. All of this working in-synch with the film’s bright colour palette and smooth editing, which both make superb use of the beautiful setting of Miami.

Another masterful and memorable aspect of: ‘Moonlight’ is its original score by Nicholas Britell, as the film has a very diverse yet gentle score with tracks ranging from orchestral to more piano-focused. As Britell decided to ‘Chop and Screw’ the orchestra to create a new kind of sound, this technique can be seen throughout the tracks: ‘The Middle of the World’, ‘Chiron’s Theme’ and ‘Chef’s Special’, with director Barry Jenkins stating that he always wanted the film’s score to be distinctive, as he actively tried to avoid the cliché of black-lead films featuring exclusively hip-hop soundtracks.

Much of: ‘Moonlight’s story was also inspired by Barry Jenkins’ own childhood in Miami, where he was surrounded by lush green grass and stunning golden sunsets, yet also lived in a neighbourhood where some tragic events took-place, declaring his childhood: “A Beautiful Struggle”. And whilst the film’s slow-pacing allows this story to be fully-explored, this shouldn’t put viewers off, as the narrative doesn’t move along at a brutally slow-pace, only slow enough to fully-immerse its events/characters in realism. Then of course, there is the film’s visual/minimalist storytelling, which is some of the best-executed I’ve seen in a long-time. As the film hides many small visual/audio details for those paying close-attention, presenting its themes of embracing yourself, addiction and masculinity in such a fashion where I feel different viewers will interpret the story in different ways.

To conclude, ‘Moonlight’ is a prepossessing coming-of-age story even if it isn’t one of the best films A24 has to offer, as while the film is still is an incredibly entertaining and well-written drama with an equally well-crafted original score and some creative cinematography to-boot. A24 simply has such a vast and exceptional range of indie films to choose from, as the production company is never hindered by genre, style or tone for projects they green-light. But if you enjoy dramas or are a fan of Barry Jenkins’ other work, then ‘Moonlight’ will surely be a captivating watch followed by a fascinating discussion, just be sure your paying full-attention. Final Rating: 8/10.

moonlight_ver2_xxlg