Peter Rabbit (2018) – Film Review

Based on the children’s book; The Tales of Peter Rabbit, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, 2018’s Peter Rabbit is the first live-action adaptation of the mischievous, jacket-wearing bunny. And although Potter herself would’ve more than likely not enjoyed the film as the condemnatory author was well-known for her continuous criticisms of how her characters were utilised (to the extent that she even oversaw much of the characters’ merchandise). Over a century on, it’s understandable that Peter’s garden high-jinks would pale in comparison to many modern family flicks. Thus, Peter Rabbit unsurprisingly attempts to update the character, resulting in a mixed bag of a film brimming with over-the-top antics and wild animal house parties.

Plot Summary: After spending years in the countryside toying and tormenting the old, crotchety gardener, Mr. McGregor, as they steal from his luscious vegetable patch. Peter Rabbit and his twin sisters find themselves up against a real challenge when Mr. McGregor dies of a heart attack, prompting his young, compulsive great-nephew, Thomas McGregor, to inherit his property and all that comes with it…

While screenwriters Rob Lieber and Will Gluck (who also directs) do a serviceable job at crafting a family adventure, one of Peter Rabbit‘s biggest issues is that its story is often told from an American perspective, in which, the picturesque British countryside is exclusively filled with cosy cottages and well-meaning residents. This frequently results in quite the disconnect whenever the story becomes more chaotic as garden rakes begin to fly, explosives go off and electric fences impart a never-ending stream of injuries to both humans and animals, all played with flippant humour that’s somewhat at odds with the emotional fallout of Peter’s parents’ death many years earlier.

The voices of James Cordon, Colin Moody, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Sia lead the cast, lending their star-studded vocals to the various animals ripped straight from the source material in terms of both their designs and personalities. On the human side of things, however, many of the characters have been significantly reworked from their original appearances, mostly in an attempt to modernise them, which is pretty clear from Mr. McGregor being swapped out for his younger nephew in an admittedly bleak fashion. And even though Donald Gleeson is incredibly exaggerated in his performance as Thomas McGregor, the character does serve his purpose well as not only a foil for Peter, but also a reasonably likeable man thrown into an understandably aggravating conflict with a troublesome rabbit. Rose Byrne equally elevates her role as the friendly next-door neighbour who is fond of both Thomas and Peter, often leaving the two boys to fight over her affection.

On a technical level, Peter Rabbit is a fairly polished film as the blend of actors and CG characters is well-done and feels natural, while the cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. ensures the film stays visually appealing even during the story’s more outlandish moments, often having the camera level with Peter and his relatives to give the animals more intimate scenes. Moreover, the film frequently integrates animated sequences which are remarkably reminiscent of the source material, having many flashbacks appear as water-coloured paintings similar to the book’s endearing artwork.

With the exception of the uplifting track: Rascal Rebel Rabbit, the original score by Dominic Lewis isn’t overly memorable. But thankfully, Lewis still manages to compose a score that has a youthful bounce to it as the soundtrack’s melodies all have great energy to them. Furthermore, the way the score is structured means the audience gets to experience the slapstick fun of the film’s first and second acts, but as the third act arrives, some real emotional weight creeps in. Also worth noting is the brilliant use of garden tools in the fabric of the score, the most notable of which is the use of the garden shears as percussion throughout several tracks.

Curiously, many of the live-action scenes for Peter Rabbit were actually filmed in Australia, not the United Kingdom as Sydney was chosen as the primary filming location as the city is home to Animal Logic, the company that produced much of the film’s advanced animation. However, this did cause a problem for the filmmakers as rabbits have been regarded as pests in the country since the 1800s as the country was once overrun with them. And at its illegal to bring living rabbits into the country, the actors had to work opposite CG characters for the entirety of the production, with even their closet of interactions being achieved through the use of CGI, which luckily does hold up.

In summary, Peter Rabbit is bitterly average as it’s a film you can sit through, but not much else beyond that. In many ways, it almost feels as if Will Gluck was bored with the source material and was concerned that audiences would be too, leading him to implement as many disorderly action sequences and childish, fourth-wall-breaking gags as he possibly can. Unfortunately, making the film more frenetic only adds to its sense of desperation. Still, with Peter Rabbit racking in over £229 million at the global box office, I’m convinced we’ll be seeing many, many sequels (and potentially spin-offs) to this family adventure in the near future. Rating: 5/10.

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Molly’s Game (2017) – Film Review

Following his many triumphs as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, in 2017 Aaron Sorkin took a seat in the director’s chair for the first time in his career. And just like many of his previous writing efforts, his impressive directorial debut; Molly’s Game, was based on the exploits of a real-life figure. Adapting the memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom, the self-proclaimed; “Poker Princess,” who became the subject of tabloid infamy in 2007 when she was outed as the brains behind a prestigious underground poker tournament frequented by celebrities, CEOs and mobsters alike.

Plot Summary: When a catastrophic injury robs her of a promising sports career and a long-coveted Olympic medal, former competitive skier, Molly Bloom, moves to Los Angeles to take a year out and avoid attending law school. But shortly after arriving, Molly discovers that the quickest way to achieve success is through the world of high-stakes poker, building herself up through the ranks of deep-pocketed celebrities and the corporate elite as she hosts weekly poker nights, soon drawing the attention of the Russian mob and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now, facing a variety of federal charges, Molly’s only hope rests in the capable hands of the criminal defence lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, who learns there is more to Molly Bloom than meets the eye…

Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Molly’s Game was the first film to be both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, as previously mentioned. And although the screenplay itself isn’t as unique as some of Sorkin’s other work, with A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs being just some of the immensely well-received and Oscar-nominated/winning biopics Sorkin has written in the past. The screenplay for Molly’s Game still crackles and excites at many points as the writing is quick-witted and frequently goes into extreme detail whenever Molly recounts parts of her story, subsequently earning Sorkin another Oscar nomination in 2018 for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Real-world entrepreneur and author, Molly Bloom, actually told Aaron Sorkin that she wanted actress Jessica Chastain to portray her should a film adaptation of her story ever be made. And it seems that this was certainly the right call in retrospect as Chastain perfectly expresses resolve and vulnerability in her role as Molly, portraying a woman who uses her intellect as a weapon. Carving her own path as she leans into her former career as a competitive skier to fuel her drive to succeed as high achieving doesn’t even come close to the grand ambitions she harbours. Nevertheless, years later, after leaving the world of poker behind, Molly is still far from free as she is arrested by The Federal Bureau of Investigation on tentative crimes, which is where Charlie Jaffey comes into the story, excellently portrayed by Idris Elba. Additionally, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera give superb performances as Molly’s father and Player X, respectively. The latter being a professional actor and adept poker player who, despite having his real name disclosed, is widely believed to be based on Tobey Maguire.

While the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen does tend to over-rely on mid-shots and close-ups now and then, Molly’s Game still contains some admirable shots whenever the film decides to fully indulge in its visuals. Specifically, whenever the story brings us back to the poker table as there the film utilises many on-screen graphics to visually display the fundamentals of poker, in the event that some audience members (such as myself) aren’t familiar with the game’s regulations, sidestepping the need for lengthy scenes of poker-related specification. Furthermore, the editing frequently attempts to keep pace with the dialogue, occasionally even employing archive footage when Molly goes into certain topics, giving the film a terrific sense of style.

On a similar note, the original score by Daniel Pemberton is a fast-paced soundtrack that varies between light synthetic rock and electronic dance. This means tracks like Staring Down a Mountain, Molly’s Journey, House of Cards and Therapy Session make for a dazzling mixture of electronic and more classical compositions. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t slow tracks, as both Molly’s Dream and Scars are far slower and more melodic, with Molly’s Dream, in particular, explicitly featuring a piano, a marked contrast from the bulk of the score.

Interestingly, due to Aaron Sorkin’s constant focus on realism, right down to the way players handled their cards during games, all of the extras seen during the poker games are actually professional poker players. According to Sorkin, the cast could often be seen playing poker between takes with the professional players. This meant that the extras (who are usually paid around £65 for a twelve-hour workday) were usually some of the highest-paid individuals on set.

In summary, Molly’s Game is a film that in the grand scheme of well-acted biopics, won’t demolish the competition, but is a well-crafted and entertaining film, nonetheless. Especially for fans of Sorkin, its one-hundred and forty-minute runtime will fly by as this delve into a world of glamour, privilege and gambling is just as compelling as Sorkin’s other screenplays, perhaps even more so in some aspects. If you’re a little exasperated with Sorkin’s self-satisfied writing, however, then Molly’s Game isn’t likely to change your mind. Rating: low 8/10.

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Strange Magic (2015) – Film Review

After selling Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company in late 2012, writer and director George Lucas (THX 1138American GraffitiStar Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) turned his attention away from the mega franchises of Star Wars and Indiana Jones to produce many of his long-gestating passion projects. This ambitious new turn began with the war epic; Red Tails, in 2012, and soon after, Strange Magic, in 2015, an animated fantasy musical that Lucas had long wanted to produce for his three daughters, having written an early draft of the story fifteen years earlier. Upon its eventual release, however, Strange Magic was deemed a colossal failure, earning only £9 million at the box office on a budget of approximately £74 million, along with receiving largely negative reviews from critics and audiences alike due to its predictable story, dreadful humour and bizarre song choices. All of which I feel are valid criticisms.

Plot Summary: In a mystical woodland realm where primrose flowers mark the border between two regions; the Fairy Kingdom and the Dark Forest. The undesirable, Bog King, rules over his gloomy domain without love, going so far as to imprison the Sugar Plum Fairy, who is capable of mixing love potions through the use of primroses, in a bid to permanently cease adoration across his domain…

Technically the first Lucasfilm production to be distributed by The Walt Disney Company following its acquisition. The story of Strange Magic is predominantly based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as both narratives are romantic comedies that involve misunderstandings and cross-purposes between different races or, in this case, species. The film also takes inspiration from many well-known fairy tales, including The Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast for its central underlining theme, which focuses on the belief that beauty is only skin deep and internal beauty is far more meaningful. An important message for children, to be sure. But as a result of this theme being delivered with zero charm or subtlety, the message itself comes across as incredibly forced and even somewhat contradictory thanks to some of the screenplay’s ill-timed gags.

The main voice cast of Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Sam Palladio and Meredith Anne Bull all do a sufficient job at lending some personality to their respective characters. Especially since Strange Magic supplies very little in the way of characterisation, with a majority of the animated characters only being set apart from one another by what species they are, e.g. a fairy, elf or goblin etc. Quite unfortunate as for many characters, there is a solid foundation alluding to what they could’ve been should they have been further developed. For example, Marianne (the closet thing the story has to a protagonist), becomes distrustful of men once she witnesses her fiancée, Roland, cheating on her on the day of their wedding, quickly vowing to never love again and instead dedicate her life to protecting her family, specifically her sister, Dawn, who supposedly falls in love with every man she meets.

Aside from the flavourless designs of the fairies, which appear as if they’ve been yanked from any generic fantasy flick of the early 2000s. The visuals of Strange Magic are by far the film’s finest component with nearly every shot retaining plenty of colour and ingenuity on account of the animated cinematography and the animation itself, which exhibits even the smallest of details right down to the threads on characters’ clothing or the patches of watery moss on tree branches. Yet this isn’t too surprising considering that Strange Magic was animated by famed visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, standing as their first fully animated feature since 2011’s Rango.

Moving from the visuals to the music, Strange Magic is what’s known as a jukebox musical. This means that rather than creating original songs for the film, all of the songs heard throughout Strange Magic are popular songs from past decades. From Can’t Help Falling in Love to Love is Strange and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), the film’s continuous use of on-the-nose songs is undoubtedly what will make or break Strange Magic for most as older audiences will feel as if they are being pandered to whilst younger audiences will simply be confused as to why none of the songs directly relate to any of the characters/locations within the film. Furthermore, the original score by Marius De Vries is barely distinguishable from any other fantasy score.

On a separate note, although the first entry in the Star Wars saga rarely lacked in world-building when it first introduced audiences to a galaxy far, far away. Strange Magic seems to actively avoid developing its world beyond one or two throwaway lines, establishing the two unimaginatively named regions that reside side-by-side, and not much else as to how this fantastical world functions.

In summary, Strange Magic is a film that feels far too familiar to sing its own tune, with its derivative story coming across as a hodgepodge of well-worn elements from other animated and fantasy films. Most evidently, 2013’s Epic and the everlasting series of animated Tinker Bell flicks. And, as such, there’s virtually nothing about this fractured fairy tale that feels remotely fresh aside from some of its attractive visuals. There are enjoyable moments, of course, but, for the most part, Strange Magic is simply half-hearted and creatively lazy. Rating: high 3/10.

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Last Christmas (2019) – Film Review

While on paper, 2019’s Last Christmas might have seemed like a recipe for success. With two charismatic leads in Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding alongside a soundtrack consisting of innumerable George Michael songs, all wrapped up in a festive London setting under the watchful eye of proficient comedy director Paul Feig (SpyBridesmaidsA Simply Favor). In execution, Last Christmas is never as humorous or affectionate as it thinks it is, with many scenes coming across as incredibly dull and derivative as the film lacks originality to such an extent that audiences will frequently be reminded of romantic comedy classics like Love Actually and The Holiday as they sit through its poorly conceived story and underbaked subplots.

Plot Summary: While working at a year-round Christmas store and sofa-surfing instead of facing her overbearing mother, aspiring singer and frustrated Londoner, Kate, meets, Tom, an alluring young man who charms her with his unusual observations, challenging Kate’s cynical outlook on the world as a result of her dysfunctional relationships and continuously unsuccessful auditions…

Written by actress Emma Thompson, who also appears in the film as Kate’s mother, Petra. Last Christmas evidently takes a lot of inspiration from well-known Christmas rom-coms such as the previously mentioned; Love Actually. Only, in this case, it becomes difficult to tell the two apart after a while as Last Christmas has very few distinctions in terms of both story and visuals, only being set apart by its pivotal plot twist, which some may find absurdly over-the-top and frustrating. Sadly, for a romantic-comedy, Last Christmas also falls short when it comes to humour, with many of the film’s gags seeming either immature or foreseeable, as the film rapidly cuts between the characters trying to make it appear as if their quips are transpiring non-stop.

The characters themselves, however, are one of the better aspects of the film, with Kate’s journey from being a self-hating, narcissistic borderline alcoholic, to a content woman savouring every second of her life is enjoyable to watch even in spite of its predictability. And Clarke portrays the character well, leaning more into her actual personality off-camera as a witty, self-effacing and expressive individual. Henry Golding also breaks away from his usual roles for his performance as Tom, behaving like a handsome goofball as he and Kate wander through the streets of London, never caring what those around him may think. With that said, the main issue with the characters is their absence of backstory as whilst we are told many things about Kate and her sombre past, including when she was severely unwell the previous Christmas, eventually leading her to have a heart transplant. We never see a flashback of this event or anything similar beyond a brief mention, which is a problem that also applies to Kate’s desire to become a West End star as well as the many friends of hers she supposedly screwed over in the past while temporarily living with them.

When it comes to the visuals, the cinematography by John Schwartzman conveys the narrative effectively enough, yet barely experiments outside of standard mid shots or the occasional wide shot/close-up. A tremendous missed opportunity considering the many brightly light and architecturally captivating streets the characters walk down, which are regularly littered with enchanting Christmas decorations and lights, even if they are primarily white, silver or gold rather than multicoloured.

In addition to the music of George Michael and Wham!, which is, of course, weaved into the film in nearly every scene. The original score by Theodore Shapiro fills in the gaps in-between, with tracks like Secret Garden, Self-Pity Party and Take Care serving as relaxing breaks from the film’s relentless use of beloved Christmas songs. Yet this score is worthy of praise in itself, having many tracks that are beautiful and melancholic pieces that encapsulate the festive setting without exaggerating it through the use of chime bells.

Peculiarly, Last Christmas also features a subplot revolving around post-Brexit xenophobia as Kate and her family first came into the United Kingdom as refugees from former Yugoslavia. Now, her mother cowers in her home, watching news reports of right-wing demonstrations. A bizarre choice for a Christmas film to be sure, but even more bizarre considering this idea never goes anywhere and isn’t brought up until the second act. Still, at least one good thing comes out of these moments, as we find out Kate’s full name is Katarina, yet she refuses to be called by it, spending much of the film reasserting her own Britishness. A compelling idea that once again, goes nowhere and only feels as if it was put into the screenplay for the sake of political relevance as opposed to emotional weight or social commentary.

In summary, even though the combination of iconic Christmas music, a cosy, festive aesthetic and picturesque London scenery should outweigh what flaws Last Christmas has, they don’t quite achieve their goal by the runtime’s end as the film’s constant use of clichés, exposition-heavy dialogue and feeble gags soon become far too overbearing. Ultimately leaving Last Christmas a digestible film at best and an irritating one at worst, even if its climactic plot twist is very much in line with the story’s wistful yuletide spirit. Rating: high 4/10.

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Silent Night (2012) – Film Review

One of the most controversial films of the 1980s, primarily due to its promotional material, which featured a killer Santa Clause brandishing an axe as he emerged from a chimney. Silent Night, Deadly Night, released in 1984, is well-known amongst horror fans for its bizarre legacy, spawning a franchise consisting of four low-budget sequels that had barely any relation to each other, yet still gained a cult following thanks to their bewildering stories and unintentionally hilarious moments. Years later, in 2012, we received Silent Night, a remake of the original film that reimagines the concept of a murderous Father Christmas for modern audiences, utilising its attractive visuals and creative kills to provide slasher fanatics with their fill of ho-ho-horror, even if Silent Night is filled with many of its own unique issues.

Plot Summary: When a sadistic serial killer dressed as Santa Clause embarks on a Christmas Eve rampage through a remote Midwestern town, the local police force must follow the killer’s trail of victims in the hope of uncovering his identity and averting the rest of his festive bloodbath…

Partially inspired by the 2008 Covina Holiday Massacre, during which, forty-five-year-old, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, killed nine people at a Christmas party whilst wearing a Santa Clause suit. Silent Night isn’t the first voyage director Steven C. Miller (The Aggression ScaleMaraudersThe Line of Duty) has taken into the horror genre, though, it may be his goriest as Miller along with screenwriter Jayson Rothwell, up the ante from the original film by jumping straight into the violence, having the kills drive the story forward as they occur one after another. However, the screenplay certainly falls short when it comes to some other aspects such as developing the characters or building intrigue regarding the true identity of the masked killer as the characters are insipid and the mystery uninteresting, making the film’s climactic plot twist feel less than galvanising, which is only made worse by the overcompensating dialogue.

The main cast of Jaime King, Malcolm McDowell, Donal Logue and Ellen Wong all try their hardest at giving their lifeless characters a personality and a reason for the audience to empathise with them, but it’s a largely wasted effort as King and Logue merely go through the motions as small-town police officers with a few glimmers of characterisation. While McDowell truly steals the spotlight as a dimwitted and pompous sheriff, often coming across as if his performance was taken from another film entirely. Then there is veteran stuntman, Rick Skene, who fulfils the demanding physical requirements of the killer Santa without saying a word, using his size and threatening demeanour to great effect.

Contrasting the horrific bloodshed of the story with a candy-coated aesthetic of stereotypical Christmas traditions, the cinematography by Joseph White allows for a number of visually interesting shots throughout the runtime, nearly all of which are enhanced by the festive colour palette, which employs an abundance of bright red, green and blue lights to make potentially bland locations such as the police station or a motel more visually appealing. And despite the moments of barbaric murder frequently falling back on hand-held shakiness in a feeble attempt of increasing the brutality of said murders, Silent Night does redeem itself during its flashback sequences as these scenes are entirely coated in black and white, aside from the killer Santa’s suit, which remains a glowing red.

Contrarily, the original score by Kevin Riepl is a blaring and often tedious horror soundtrack, as outside of the track: Sheriff Cooper, which strangely contains a guitar riff that sounds as if it’s from a ’70s crime-thriller. The majority of the score, including the tracks: The Chipper and Rack Mounted, are simply loud and unexceptional. Of course, being a film set at Christmas, the film also features a handful of renowned Christmas songs such as Up on the Housetop and Deck the Halls, which thankfully aren’t overused.

Although Silent Night, Deadly Night had its fair share of gore, Silent Night takes its gruesome violence to another level, as the bloodthirsty Santa make use of a range of tools including an axe, a cattle-prod, a scythe and even a flamethrower, in addition to constantly exploiting the environment around him, such as a scene where he impales a teenager onto a mounted set of deer antlers in a clear reference to the original film. What’s more, is all of the practical effects seen throughout these moments are magnificent, rarely relying on CG enhancements for further shock factor.

In summary, Silent Night is a modern slasher with its heart firmly in the ’80s, and I say that as a good thing as rather than being dull and instantly forgettable, it maintains the same level of cheese, dark humour and seduction as Silent Night, Deadly Night, but as a result of its modern techniques, looks far better than most horror remakes/reimaginings. So, it’s truly a shame that the screenplay and original score continuously let the film down as with a few improvements, Silent Night could’ve gone down as a certified Christmas horror classic. But, as it stands, while the film is far from a masterpiece, Silent Night will please fans of the series as well as those seeking a festive slasher. Rating: high 5/10.

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Paddington (2014) – Film Review

Inspired by a lone teddy bear author, Michael Bond, noticed on a store shelf near Paddington Station on Christmas Eve 1956. The literature debut of the loveable little bear known as Paddington came in the children’s book: A Bear Called Paddington in 1958. And has since been featured in more than twenty books written by Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, among other artists. In 2014, writer and director Paul King (Under One RoofBunny and the BullPaddington 2) brought the darling bear to the silver screen in a film that affectionately honours its source material while simultaneously delivering a family-friendly fable that is just as heart-warming and amusing as its marmalade-munching protagonist.

Plot Summary: After a devastating earthquake destroys his home in the Peruvian rainforest, a young bear with an affection for all things British travels to London in search of a new home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he begins to realise that city life is not all he had imagined it to be until he encounters the Brown family, who after reading the label around his neck, offer him a temporary haven. But just as things seem to be looking up for the Peruvian bear, he soon catches the eye of a fiendish museum taxidermist…

As it happens, the story of Paddington actually shares many similarities to the creation of the character; as the idea of a lonely bear sitting in Paddington Station can be linked back to old newsreels depicting child evacuees leaving London during World War II with labels around their necks and their possessions packed in small suitcases. Indicating that King understands the importance of this character in British pop culture, yet the film can’t be criticised for playing things too safe with this narrative as it does update the Peruvian bear where it can to stay relevant within modern times. Additionally, as a family comedy, Paddington hits all the right notes as the film’s gags range from laugh-out-loud observations regarding the transformative effects of fatherhood to slapstick bathroom antics, satisfying any audience member regardless of their age.

The voice of Paddington is provided by Ben Whishaw, who it turns out is the perfect voice for the beloved bear as his line delivery is naive yet charming, portraying Paddington as an innocent character who always sees the positive in any given situation. Moreover, the supporting cast of Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Nicole Kidman are all delightful and are given an unexpected amount of characterisation, with Henry Brown being an uptight, risk analyst who is reluctant to take Paddington in, whilst his kind, artistic wife, Mary Brown, treats Paddington almost as if he is their own child. But it’s Kidman who truly steals the show as the film’s antagonist, Millicent, riding the line between sinister and playfully over-the-top in her portrayal of a museum taxidermist who catches and stuffs exotic animals in her spare time.

Continuously imaginative and vibrant, the cinematography by Erik Wilson is ceaselessly innovative, assembling many visually pleasing shots with equally pleasant bursts of colour, especially when snow begins to fall over London during the final act. It also becomes apparent when examining the camerawork that Paddington is just as much a love letter to the city of London as it is an adaptation of a classic child-friendly character. So, of course, there’s the usual display of postcard locations, from the London Eye to Buckingham Palace, along with a stream of light-hearted wisecracks surrounding taxis, the underground and the mundanity of modern life in the British capital.

On a separate note, the original score for the film is by no means a work of art, but composer, Nick Urata, does manage to craft a score that remains both diverse and playful through tracks like Arrival in LondonThis Will Do Nicely, Millicent’s Lab and Theif Chase. While the more tender tracks such as Journey from Peru and The Letter Home, blend austere piano melodies with subtle strings, making for an altogether cheerful if slightly prosaic score.

When it comes to Paddington himself, the film brings the character to life via the use of CGI. And whilst this information may worry a few fans of the character, the CG effects used throughout the film are almost faultless, as Paddington expresses a range of emotions and seamlessly interacts with the environments/objects around him. Furthermore, Paddington’s outfit is an exact replica of what he wears in the book series, including his iconic blue duffel coat and red Peruvian hat. However, producer David Heyman dismissed his well-known red Wellington boots as they weren’t actually part of the character’s original design, but were added over the years by toy manufacturers to ensure that the real-life Paddington bears were able to stand on their feet.

In summary, even though Paddington follows a formula seen in numerous other family flicks, the film is understandably more concerned with making its audience laugh and cry than it is reinventing the genre (something it achieves with aplomb). And with a heart as big as its protagonist’s appetite for marmalade, I feel Paddington deserved the successful franchise it later received, with its superb humour, pitch-perfect performances and incidental details proudly cementing the film as an adaption that could go hand-to-hand with some of the finest adaptions of children’s literature. Rating: 8/10.

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Extraction (2020) – Film Review

Based on the graphic novel: Ciudad by Ande Parks, which in itself was based on an unproduced screenplay written by Joe Russo in 2014. 2020’s Extraction transfers the story it’s adapting from the Paraguayan city of Ciudad Del Este to Dhaka in Bangladesh whilst still indulging in all of the same barbaric violence and exciting action set pieces. Yet despite its spectacular stunt work, impressive long takes and electric performance from Chris Hemsworth, Extraction isn’t entirely saved from its generic complexion, as the film frequently falls back on many of the usual tropes we tend to see in modern action flicks.

Plot Summary: In an underworld of weapons dealers and traffickers, Ovi Mahajan, the son of a notorious drug lord, becomes the pawn in a war between two criminal syndicates. Now, held hostage by a group of kidnappers in one of the world’s most impenetrable cities, his rescue beckons the unparalleled skill of black-market mercenary, Tyler Rake, a broken man with nothing to lose, harbouring a death wish that makes an already dangerous mission near impossible…

Extraction marks the feature-length directorial debut of Avengers: Endgame stunt coordinator/second unit director, Sam Hargrave, who producers, Joe and Anthony Russo, hand-picked to helm the project following their collaboration on the superhero blockbuster. Meaning, of course, that Hargrave’s profession as a stunt coordinator (and stunt double) repeatedly comes into focus as each of the film’s action sequences are relentlessly thrilling and well-orchestrated. If truth be told, however, most of Extraction‘s faults come not from its directing, but rather its screenplay, as, in many ways, Extraction‘s screenplay is structured much like a video game, continuously introducing new ‘boss levels’ that Tyler must complete before advancing, such as a corrupt general who also happens to be the country’s best sniper. Quickly equalling to tiring formula, especially when the film introduces the odd interesting idea, such as a subplot focusing on a troubled teenager taking his first steps into the world of organised crime.

Although Chris Hemsworth gives an admirable performance as the film’s protagonist, Tyler Rake, a fearless mercenary and former SASR operator, discreetly mourning the loss of his son who died from lymphoma. The character’s promising (if a little cliché) set-up is soon spoilt by the complete lack of development from that point onwards as Tyler essentially goes nowhere after the groundwork for his character is laid, cementing him as a by-the-book action hero and nothing more. Surprising, considering that Extraction was effectively conceived as a star vehicle for Hemsworth, a remarkable actor who has struggled to obtain a signature role outside of Thor Odinson. On the flip of this, there is the school-age son of a Mumbai drug lord, Ovi Mahajan, portrayed by Rudhraksh Jaiswal, who serves his purpose as an innocent child caught in the crossfire between two gangs. It’s just unfortunate that the film tries to build a parental relationship between the two, merely reminding the audience how paper-thin its characters are.

When overlooking the murky, displeasing colour palette, a majority of the visuals throughout Extraction are spellbinding as the film uses its dynamic, hand-held cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel to place the audience alongside the characters in the busy streets of Dhaka. Having Tyler grapple with corrupt police officers while tuk-tuks and scooters disorderly rush past, a feeling that is only amplified by the film’s multiple one-takes. One of said takes, which clocks in at around eleven minutes and twenty-nine seconds, is, in actuality, comprised of thirty-six stitched sequences, some of which took over twenty-five takes to line up correctly, according to director, Sam Hargrave.

Regrettably, the original score by Henry Jackman and Alex Belcher isn’t as innovative as the soundtrack almost solely consists of indistinguishable ostinato-driven action tracks such as Police Search and Checkpoint, all of which have a heavy emphasis on percussion, with only the occasional pause for breath. And whilst there is no standout theme, as such, Extraction does have an effective little motif that runs through some of the tracks to give the score a bit of personality.

Naturally, the action sequences of Extraction are what the majority of the film hinders. And luckily, they do deliver, being brutal, bloody and fast-paced as dissimilar to characters like John Wick, whose fighting style is inherently tactical and calculated, Tyler Rake engages in combat far more spontaneously, improvising weapons and thinking on his feet whenever he is thrown into a dangerous scenario. As previously mentioned, the film’s camerawork also amplifies many of these exhilarating moments, particularly one car chase sequence, during which, Sam Hargrave actually manned the camera himself whilst he was strapped to the hood of the vehicle pursuing Tyler and Ovi.

In summary, Extraction is slightly contrived and sporadically over-the-top, and there’s no question that the film’s characters are essentially just cardboard cutouts delivering line after line of uninspired dialogue. In fact, for most of its runtime, Extraction almost feels as if you’re watching someone play a video game, which as I’m sure any video game enthusiast will tell you, is only amusing for a short time. But purely in terms of action, Hargrave and the Russo Brothers bring the noise with a film fueled by the charisma and physicality of its star, suggesting that Hemsworth has found his genre once he retires his iconic superhero. Rating: high 6/10.

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Gone Girl (2014) – Film Review

An intricate and satisfying adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, which went on to be a New York Times bestseller following its release in 2012, being hailed by many publications as a literary masterpiece. Gone Girl, released in 2014, flawlessly combines its maze-like plot with the distinct style of director David Fincher (SevenFight ClubThe Social Network) and a duet of astonishing performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Promptly resulting in an unmissable mystery-thriller that represents an exceptional pairing of filmmaker and source material, fully expressing Fincher’s cynicism regarding the current age of televised media and the darkness lurking just beneath the surface of contemporary life.

Plot Summary: On the occasion of his 5th wedding anniversary, former New York-based writer, Nick Dunne, returns home to find that his wife, Amy, has vanished. After reporting her disappearance to the authorities, the couples’ public portrait of a blissful marriage soon begins to crumble as the cases’ ever-growing media attention places Nick as the prime suspect, ultimately leading everyone to ask the same question… did Nick Dunne murder his wife?

Making her screenwriting debut, Gillian Flynn does an extraordinarily efficient job of streamlining her four hundred and thirty-two-page novel, retaining its bifurcated structure and elaborate twists without significantly altering the story as a whole. Certainly not an easy task as the very nature of Gone Girl‘s story requires the film to be constantly jumping through time, depicting the entire timeline of Nick and Amy’s marriage from their first encounter through to the total collapse of their love life, giving the audience a clear understanding of their individual personalities and relationship. And through it all, Amy remains a consistent screen presence, continually popping up in flashbacks to her earlier, happier days living in New York City, where she led a life of luxury as a thriving children’s author. That is, until her relationship with Nick, a working-class Midwesterner, comes into focus, gradually draining Amy of her individuality, which is only worsened by the pairs’ eventual layoffs and relocation to Nick’s hometown. Quickly spawning whispers of spousal neglect, infidelity and domestic violence, all of which are condensed for the sake of the film’s runtime, yet never feel rushed.

Both Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are phenomenal throughout the film with not a single weak moment between them as Affleck, who has never been more ideally cast, delivers a captivating balancing act of a performance, fostering sympathy and the suspicion that his true self lies somewhere between shallow husband and heartless murderer. While Pike, who has actually had very few lead roles despite her extensive filmography, is continuously emphatic and commanding. What’s more, is that Gone Girl is a film that doesn’t aim to paint either of these two characters in a purely positive or negative light. Instead, Flynn frequently leaves it to the audience to decide which character (if any) they should be rooting for as the couple copes with the rapid decline of their marriage in dissimilar ways. The outstanding leads aside, Gone Girl also features a terrific supporting cast of Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, all of whom serve crucial roles within the story.

As ever, Fincher’s regular collaborators turn in work of an exceedingly high standard with Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography being unerringly well-placed in nearly every scene, bringing a drab, underlit look to Nick and Amy’s home, the police station and other North Carthage locations. And although Gone Girl does admittedly have quite the over-reliance on mid-shots, Cronenweth’s intentionally controlled approach does lend itself well to creating many memorable shots, speaking less to visual flair and more to Fincher’s adroit style.

Along these same lines, the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a gloomy composition, invoking feelings of anxiety in the audience with subtle electronic pulses. Allegedly, Fincher’s musical brief to Reznor and Ross was based on a visit he took to a spa in which the accompanying melody was supposed to be relaxing, yet Fincher perceived it as unsettling. And this undoubtedly comes across in Gone Girl‘s score, with tracks like What Have We Done to Each Other?With Suspicion and Technically, Missing perfectly capturing this idea of a supposedly comforting soundtrack which, in actuality, instils a sense of dread.

Similar to the novel, Gone Girl‘s story is also teeming with compelling themes and social commentary covering a range of topics. On a broader level, however, the story is really about public perception and how televised media builds fabulations that quickly get subsumed as truth, as the American populace is willing to swallow whatever narrative is sold to them without question, a thought-provoking theme that the film never forgets to explore and build upon.

In summary, Gone Girl is a shining example of an adaptation that stays faithful to the source material whilst simultaneously injecting the narrative with its own style, not once letting the story drag nor the suspense settle in its goal of transferring an acclaimed novel to the silver screen. Still, with a plethora of attractive visuals and tremendous performances, along with a handful of darkly comedic moments, I feel Gone Girl would’ve been a memorising film even in the absence of its engrossing central mystery. Rating: high 8/10.

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Upgrade (2018) – Film Review

Recently gaining a large amount of traction through his reinterpretation of the horror classic: The Invisible Man in 2020, writer and director Lee Whannell first proved himself a talented filmmaker with Upgrade in 2018. A riveting sci-fi-thriller that combines elements of Black MirrorMinority Report and 1990s action flicks to construct a gripping yet dreary tale of revenge, morality and technology through detailed world-building and stimulating action sequences, promptly overcoming its handful of minor glitches.

Plot Summary: In the near future, technology controls almost every aspect of day-to-day life as the world relies on artificial intelligence to complete even the most basic of tasks. As a result, the old-school, tech-shy mechanic, Grey Trace, feels like a fish out of water in an ever-changing world. But after a brutal assault leaves Grey paralysed and his beloved wife dead, he’s approached by the reclusive tech mogul, Eron Keen, who offers him a solution; a powerful microchip named; STEM, that will bridge the gap between his mind and unresponsive limbs. Now, able to walk once again, Grey decides to seek revenge against the thugs who destroyed his life…

Originally titled: STEMUpgrade was Whannell’s first project outside of the horror genre, being best known beforehand for his collaborations with writer-director James Wan, co-writing and starring in both the Saw and Insidious series. And for being the first time Whannell has truly stepped out of Wan’s shadow, Upgrade immediately proves Whannell to be a more than capable director with a distinct style, a style that certainly wasn’t displayed in his directorial debut; Insidious: Chapter 3, three years prior. Upgrade also exhibits Whannell’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, with some scenes feeling as if they’ve been ripped straight from an ’80s buddy-cop comedy as Grey humorously argues with the artificial intelligence residing inside his body. This isn’t to say that the film is light-hearted, however, as Upgrade is, in reality, quite the opposite, never shying away from bloody, squirm-inducing violence even with its surprisingly modest budget.

With regard to the cast, Logan Marshall-Green gives a very ranged performance as protagonist, Grey Trace. Quickly being established as a technophobe whose main devotions in life are mechanical tinkering and his beautiful wife, Asha Grey. That is before the seemingly unprompted assault leaves him crippled, alone and infuriated by his situation to the point of attempted suicide. Then, once receiving STEM, Grey begins to express far more concern regarding how much bodily control he’s handed over, with Marshall-Green’s performance becoming far more physically demanding as he slowly loses control of his own body. Harrison Gilbertson and Simon Maiden as Eron Keen and the voice of STEM, respectively, also portrayal their roles well, with Maiden doing a particularly great job at giving STEM a soothing yet simultaneously menacing voice.

But one of the greatest parts of Upgrade is by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio as after obtaining STEM, the camera itself visually mirrors Grey’s newly acquired agility/coordination by wildly tilting with every movement Grey makes, keeping him in the centre of the frame at all times to provide the audience with a unique perspective without sacrificing visibility as a result. Furthermore, despite the story being set in America, Upgrade was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia, this location was chosen in order to take advantage of the city’s gothic architecture, giving the film an expansive backdrop not too dissimilar to that of Minority Report and The Matrix sequels. However, unlike those films, Upgrade does occasionally run into the issue of its sci-fi world feeling slightly inconsistent between shots as the city’s slick, looming skyscrapers almost seem out-of-place when compared to the graffitied and dilapidated warehouses on street level.

Managing to be moody, suspenseful and tranquil, occasionally even all at the same time. Jed Palmer’s original score is more than fitting for a film like Upgrade as the electronic score echoes films like Blade Runner during its quieter moments through tracks such as Aftermath and A Better Place before the more action-orientated cues kick in, that is, with tracks like We Can’t Let Them Win and Control. The sound design throughout the film is equally excellent, with every thrust and slash hitting hard during the various action sequences.

On that note, Upgrade‘s absurdly well-executed action set pieces are possibly some of the finest the sci-fi genre has seen in a long time. As not only does the camera ceaselessly track Grey, as previously mentioned, but the fight choreography is almost faultless. It’s also during these scenes that the cutting-edge technology of Upgrade‘s criminal underworld first appears, from bio-mechanically-implanted firearms to memory-retaining contact lenses and even a weaponised nanotech sneeze, The Upgraded (as they are nicknamed) are essentially seen as the next stage of human evolution, blatantly showing the audience the true extent to which humanity now relies on technology.

In summary, even though Upgrade is guilty of playing into some overly familiar ideas with its story being based around the well-trodden concept of artificial intelligence outmatching humanity. There are enough twists and turns within its narrative to ensure that the film will hold up upon multiple viewings, serving as an exciting and stylish sci-fi-thriller in addition to providing undeniable evidence that exchanging one genre for another is a risky yet rewarding road when it comes to certain filmmakers. Rating: 8/10.

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Beneath (2013) – Film Review

Directed by Larry Fessenden (HabitWendigoDepraved) and distributed by the horror-centric production company, Chiller Films, a now-defunct television network responsible for many low-budget supernatural horrors, including SirenAnimal and Dead SoulsBeneath, released in 2013, may have sounded like an estimable idea during its conception, being pitched as a minimalist creature feature that explores the direful outcomes of human behaviour under the influence of extreme isolation and fear. But as a result of its overemphatic performances, mindless screenplay and frequently mishandled visuals, whatever little tension and intrigue Beneath manages to build up is completely capsized by the time the end credits roll.

Plot Summary: Following their high school graduation, a group of friends decide to spend one last summer outing together at Black Lake before going their separate ways. But when their rowboat is struck by an amphibious creature, subsequently killing a member of the group and destroying their oars, the five remaining friends find themselves trapped in the middle of the reservoir, contemplating whether one of them should be thrown overboard as a distraction…

While the original screenplay for the film had flashbacks that further developed the characters and explored their individual journeys throughout high school, Fessenden ultimately decided to remove them. This allowed the entire film to be shot in a mere eighteen days, which certainly shows as Beneath is a largely dull affair, following the usual formula for a creature feature outside of one or two subversive moments. Given Fessenden’s past work, it would also make sense that the film could go so far as to suggest that the creature in the lake doesn’t actually exist, and is, in reality, just a physical manifestation of the characters’ ulterior motives. Yet, regrettably, this is not the case, and Beneath opts to play things relatively straight, with the characters being devoured one by one in equally idiotic ways.

On a similar note, the title of the film doesn’t just refer to what lurks in the tranquil water, but is also a guide to where Beneath‘s substance lies. With the film’s unbearable roster of characters, compromising of Johnny; a brooding, long-haired loner, Kitty; the rotating object of desire for practically every male character in the film, Matt; the golden-boy jock whose prospects seem to be going downhill since graduating, his younger, less athletic but more intelligent brother, Simon, along with Kitty’s best friend, Deb, and the hyperactive filmmaker, Zeke, each having a respective outburst as simmering high school grudges, rivalries and romantic betrayals factor into the survival stakes. But as a result of the exceptionally awful dialogue, the prospect of any tension within the story soon becomes virtually non-existent, even with the cast of Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jon Orsini, Mackenzie Rosman and Griffin Newman having their brief moments of promise in a film brimming with atrocious performances. Moreover, the friendship between the characters feels so unnatural from the outset considering their vastly different backgrounds and personalities.

Cinematographer, Gordon Arkenberg, tries his best at keeping the solitary setting of a stranded rowboat visually interesting, which beyond some oddly framed shots and sequences that can only be described as ‘visual disarray,’ is a goal he somewhat succeeds in, particularly whenever the camera is pointed towards the beautiful scenery, where the stillness of the lake accentuates the ominous threat of the creature prowling just beneath its surface. Nevertheless, these shots are soon defaced by harsh shadows and a bleached colour palette due to the whole film being shot using natural light. Judging by the editing, you would also be forgiven for thinking that Black Lake is the largest lake in America as the characters spend hours upon hours rowing with their broken oars (and eventually hands) only to make zero progress in a poor attempt of elongating the runtime.

Even though there is next to no emphasis placed on the original score by Will Bates, the score for Beneath is competent if very forgettable, making a fair effort to enhance the supposed tension on-screen. Except for the track: Last Stand, that is, which sounds as if it’s from another soundtrack entirely, mimicking the score from a light-hearted romantic comedy more than anything else.

As for the film’s main feature; the creature itself closely resembles the appearance of a giant anglerfish. And whilst I can respect this decision given the anglerfish is one of the most naturally frighting animals on the planet, this choice also displays a great deal of laziness on behalf of the filmmakers as taking what is already an intimidating-looking animal and simply enlarging it is a rather indolent approach to designing your marketable monstrosity. Having said that, the combination of puppetry and animatronics that brings the creature to life is impressive despite their range of movements.

In summary, while some may get an ironic laugh out of this ninety-minute trainwreck, I feel most will agree that Beneath is above all else just a frustrating experience, with one of the film’s only positives being its commendable reliance on practical effects over CGI. But truthfully, the effects alone don’t even come close to rectifying what are the film’s many, many other shortcomings, distinguishing Beneath from other films within the genre solely on how moronic and tiresome of a horror/thriller it is, paling in comparison to Fessenden’s other low-budget efforts. Rating: low 2/10.

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