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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Skyline (2010) – Film Review

Spawning multiple direct-to-streaming sequels despite its discouraging box office return, 2010’s Skyline is, at best, a middling sci-fi-action blockbuster. Offering undeniable evidence that impressive visual effects alone can’t overcome a predictable storyline, cliché dialogue and vapid characters, with much of Skyline‘s runtime being dedicated to tedious indoor melodrama rather than the potentially exhilarating extraterrestrial invasion occurring just outside, ultimately making for a science fiction flick with few original ideas and very limited scope.

Plot Summary: In the wake of an unexpected pregnancy, Elaine and her boyfriend, Jarrod, travel to Los Angeles to convene with their old friend, now-successful entrepreneur, Terry, for a party-filled weekend getaway. But the morning after their arrival, a cluster of strange lights descend over the city, drawing residents outside like moths to a flame as an extraterrestrial force threatens to wipe the entire human population off the face of the planet…

Predominantly visual effects artists, directors Colin and Greg Strause (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) financed Skyline almost entirely by themselves without the assistance of any major production company, with filming only costing around £372,000, while the visual effects cost an additional £742,000. However, whilst it is commendable what the Brothers Strause achieved on such a low-budget for a blockbuster-level film, Skyline eschews a creditable screenplay in order to focus purely on boundless CG spectacle. That is when the film doesn’t just consist of the characters hiding away in Terry’s penthouse, peeping through his conveniently installed telescope to observe the chaos transpiring on the streets below, which, while at first, may sound like an interesting way to experience an extraterrestrial incursion, in execution, is rather dull due to a severe lack of tension. An issue that the later sequels: Beyond Skyline and Skylines, did somewhat rectify.

The film’s biggest downfall comes when we are introduced to the characters. As even when ignoring the apathetic performances from Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Donald Faison and David Zayas, the main group of individuals are simply no different to the characters of any other alien invasion story. Being given the absolute bare minimum of characterisation, every member of the group (including the two protagonists) feels incredibly underwritten and frequently come across as unlikeable. Even if the film does attempt to keep its characters grounded in realism by representing them as agitated civilians hunkering down and utilising what little knowledge they obtain of the invaders to their advantage rather than foolishly sprinting outside and confronting the extraterrestrial force one-on-one.

When it comes to visuals, Michael Watson’s cinematography fulfils its purpose in showcasing the scale of the invasion across the world, but beyond that, the camerawork doesn’t get any more imaginative, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups, never attempting the utilise the claustrophobic penthouse setting (which, in reality, was part of co-director Greg Stause’s condo building) to its full effect. Another element that spoils the handful of pleasant visuals Skyline has its use of blue lighting as although the abnormal blue lights seen throughout the film are a crucial plot component (being the source that draws civilians outside before they are abducted), their constant usage does result in the film having a hefty over-reliance on vexing lens flares. An irritation that even extends to the captions and credits.

A mix of both electronic and orchestral tracks, the original score by Matthew Margeson, unfortunately, has quite the shortage of memorability, with simplistic tracks like The EscapeThey’re Not Dead and Arrival being nothing but unremarkable. With that said, credit has to be given that the computerised segments of the score do produce an eerie alien-like sound. And whilst on the topic of audio, the film’s sound design is serviceable though nothing spectacular, with the aliens having a daunting set of screeches and grunts.

Featuring over one thousand visual effects shots, Skyline‘s main selling point is unmistakably its CG effects and subsequent action sequences, which are actually few and far between due to a large majority of the narrative taking place within one location. Luckily, the rare moments of excitement we do receive don’t squander the extraterrestrial force. From the oily, cephalopod-like, Harvesters, who possess the ability to purloin and utilise the brains of different species to revitalise themselves, to the towering brutes known as Tankers, who use their immense size and strength to tear through buildings. The hyper-advanced extraterrestrials are given some much-needed variety in their designs. Additionally, many of the alien spaceships were designed using the basis of low-altitude clouds such as Stratocumulus to Cumulus, and are all brought to life through some solid CGI, particularly when they are seen swallowing masses of the human population in one of the film’s most striking shots.

In summary, whilst the broad premise of Skyline has promise, the resulting film is fairly predictable. Not only because of its numerous faults, but because the film was fighting a losing battle right from its inception, with nearly every possible idea relating to the concept of an extraterrestrial invasion already being seen. From the original: War of the Worlds in 1953, all the way up to the patriotic all-American blockbuster: Independence Day in 1996, it’s an onerous task to fabricate new ways of writing an alien intrusion, further proved by the countless other extraterrestrial occupation stories that have freshly emerged. Rating: 4/10.

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Cargo (2017) – Film Review

Based on the short film of the same name, which went on to be an online sensation following its release in 2013, garnering over thirteen million views on YouTube alone. ‘Cargo’ takes a refreshingly character-driven approach to the post-apocalyptic genre, differentiating itself from other films featuring flesh-devouring monstrosities through its secluded setting and Martin Freeman’s terrific lead performance. A combination that will surely satisfy most zombie fanatics even if the genre’s more mainstream crowd could potentially be disappointed at the exclusion of decaying hordes of the undead, a true sense of dread and a lack of extravagant gore.

Plot Summary: After an epidemic spreads across Australia morphing humanity into flesh-eating monsters, ‘Andy,’ along with his wife: ‘Kay’ and infant daughter: ‘Rosie,’ attempt to escape the Outback via the river, making their way to a presumably secure military base. But when the trio stumbles upon an abandoned yacht, ‘Kay’ is bitten while searching for supplies, soon passing the virus onto her husband. Now, with his time running short, ‘Andy’ has one mission: find a new home for his daughter…

Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, ‘Cargo’ is not only Howling and Ramke’s first feature-length film, but is also Australia’s first-ever production to be spotlighted as a Netflix Original, releasing globally on the streaming service in 2017. And although Netflix has ventured into the post-apocalyptic genre before with projects like ‘Ravenous’ and ‘Z Nation,’ both Howling and Ramke wanted ‘Cargo’ to be more than just a straight-forward story of survival, subsequently leading the pair to intertwine social commentary into the story relating to everything from environmental fracking to the exploitation of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. But, in my opinion, the best thing about ‘Cargo’ is its central concept, as the idea of a father having only forty-eight-hours to find a new life for his child is a plot enriched with dramatic potential, with a nocuous outbreak providing the perfect backdrop to juxtapose the qualities one would look for in a guardian during such a crisis.

Speaking of the protagonist, Martin Freeman leads the cast brilliantly as ‘Andy,’ portraying an affectionate father/husband who is determined to protect his family at all costs, an intention which, whilst honourable, often lands him and his loved ones in an even worse spot, as ‘Andy’ refuses to accept when he is out of time. Freeman’s young co-star, Simone Landers, unfortunately, doesn’t fare quite as well, as her frail performance frequently results in poignant scenes feeling less sincere. However, ‘Thoomi’ herself is still an intriguing character, with her subplot, focusing on the demise of her father and the survival of a nearby native tribe, providing a vastly different perspective on the epidemic when compared to ‘Andy’s point of view.

Utilising the vegetation-splotched, sun-parched rural land of the Australian Outback flawlessly, the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is both varied and visually interesting. Even if, in reality, the Australian wilderness where ‘Cargo’ was shot threw everything it had at the production crew, with South Australia experiencing what was supposedly its worst weather in a century, with floods, power blackouts, torrential downpours and even a miniature cyclone all occurring over the five weeks of production. Yet miraculously, the crew didn’t lose even a single day’s worth of filming, very fortunate considering that the remote setting is a crucial player in the film’s identity, with its harsh and unforgiving nature hurling countless obstacles at our characters, whilst at the same time, offering them a means to survive.

Managed by four different composers, including Michael Hohnen, Daniel Rankine, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Johnathon Mangarri Yunupingu. The original score for: ‘Cargo’ greatly strengthens each scene’s emotional significance, almost as if the score is applying a proverbial highlighter to certain moments, with sombre, tenuous tracks such as: ‘The Grave’ and ‘Goodbye’ flourishingly pulling at the audience’s heartstrings more times than one.

Taking an alternate route to avoid comparisons to zombie designs of the 1970s, seen in classic horror films like ‘Rabid’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ‘Cargo’ strays away from many of the usual clichés associated with the undead, centring its zombie design around an orange pus-like substance that oozes from the infected’s facial orifices, rather than the bleeding open wounds the living dead are commonly known for. This distinction is further emphasised through what we see of their behaviour, as the infected are presented as mindless animals more than they are man-eating monsters, requiring dark/damp areas to incubate during the daytime, before feasting on whatever wildlife they can find once night falls, reminding the audience that what they are witnessing is a viral infection, hence why the infected are even nicknamed: ‘Virals.’

On the whole, even if ‘Cargo’s story could’ve been executed in a more effective fashion with a motley of improvements, I feel ‘Cargo’ is still a creditable entry into the realm of post-apocalyptic storytelling. Being a zombie film with soul and pathos, which, in turn, makes the living dead formidable once again, not because of jump-scares or excessive bloodshed, but becuase of the film’s biggest drawcard; its sheer humanity. Telling a story that largely revolves around the notion of human determination, seeing how far an individual will go to protect another even in the bleakest of circumstances. Final Rating: 7/10.

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