Moonlight (2016) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Southpaw (2015) – Film Review

Raw, dramatic and gripping, ‘Southpaw’ released in 2015, may suffer from feeling a little too-familiar at points. Following an almost identical structure to many other boxing flicks like ‘Rocky’, ‘Warrior’ and ‘The Fighter’, in addition to featuring some fairly bland filmmaking. But through Jake Gyllenhaal’s powerhouse performance alongside the story’s strong grasp on realism, ‘Southpaw’ rolls with the punches to become a mostly enthralling watch throughout its typical rags-to-riches narrative.

Plot Summary: Professional boxer: ‘Billy Hope’ lives a life of luxury with his supportive wife: ‘Maureen’ and their daughter: ‘Leila’ after winning forty-three consecutive fights in a row, becoming a world-famous champion in light-heavyweight boxing. But after the zealous contender: ‘Miguel Escobar’ publicly challenges ‘Billy’, a violent confrontation breaks-out between the two, during which, ‘Maureen’ is fatally shot, sending ‘Billy’ down a rampant-path of self-destruction. Months later, ‘Billy’ is forced back into the ring, now fighting to revive his career and reclaim his daughter from child protective services.

Directed by Antonie Fuqua (Training Day,  The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven), ‘Southpaw’ is quite a diversion from Fuqua’s usual trend of directing action-heavy blockbusters. However, strangely, ‘Southpaw’ was originally conceived as an unofficial follow-up to the film: ‘8 Mile’, which was based on the real-life story of iconic rapper: ‘Eminem’, with the rapper himself also set to return as the film’s protagonist. But as a result of both the evolution of the film’s script and ‘Eminem’s music career conflicting with the film’s production schedule, the idea was eventually scrapped. Yet ‘Eminem’ still has an appearance within the film having worked on the soundtrack, performing the songs: ‘Phenomenal’ and ‘Kings Never Die’ alongside being an executive producer for the rest of the film’s music.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is for most, the best element of: ‘Southpaw’ as a whole, and it’s clear to see why. As Gyllenhaal makes the film far more engaging through his portrayal of: ‘Billy Hope’, displaying a huge range of emotions for the boxer from intense rage to devastating loneliness. Gyllenhaal’s performance even hints to the idea his character may be suffering from a traumatic brain injury, as early on in the film, after ‘Billy’ is brutally beaten during a fight, he struggles to have a simple conversation with his wife or answer questions from the press. Gyllenhaal has stated that he was inspired by real-world boxer Miguel Cotto, which might explain why his portrayal is so accurate. Forrest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams and Oona Laurence are all also excellent within the film, with each character undertaking an important role within the story.

When it comes to ‘Southpaw’s editing or it’s cinematography by Mauro Fiore, the film doesn’t really allow for anything overly creative or surprising. As while many close-ups are effectively utilised for when ‘Billy’ fights his opponents within the ring, with the camera paying close-attention to the sheer amount of sweat, spit and blood that protrudes from the pugilists. Most of the film’s camerawork consists of standard close-ups of character’s reactions or mid-shots of dimly-lit rooms. That is, before the story travels to the Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden stadiums, which are both much larger in scale and therefore, also spectacle.

Sadly, the second to last film to be composed by James Horner. ‘Southpaw’s original score doesn’t receive too much focus during the runtime, despite being a decently emotional and impactful score even if it isn’t all that memorable. Interestingly, director Antonie Fuqua actually had no money to pay James Horner to compose the film as a result of: ‘Southpaw’s budget running short. However, Horner didn’t care as he adored the script, and eventually (and generously) decided he’d compose the film for free.

In spite of the film pummelling viewers with genre clichés, I did find a few of: ‘Southpaw’s story-beats interesting. Most notably, the concept of: ‘Billy’ dealing with everything from severe grief to anger issues to drug abuse throughout his career, which all eventually cause him to lose custody of his daughter. As I feel these personality flaws make the audience resonate with ‘Billy’ far more as a character and as a father, rather than just being a boxing champion who fails to beat an opponent due to his pride. The screenplay also gives the impression that writer Kurt Sutter did his research into the world of professional boxing, as the film continuously displays how unforgiving the sport can be, with ‘Billy’ receiving serious bruises/wounds after each-fight, and when training, has to perform an abundance of techniques beyond just hitting a punching-bag.

In conclusion, although ‘Southpaw’ does have its issues and isn’t likely to become a drama recognised for generations to come, Jake Gyllenhaal’s spectacular performance certainly raises the film higher, and makes for an enjoyable time whether you’re a fanatic of sport-based dramas or not, with the film’s grimy realism and commentary on the harsh world of boxing (as underdeveloped as it may be) simply being extra-additions to the mixture. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Jojo Rabbit (2019) – Film Review

From Taika Waititi, the now-esteemed comedy director behind: ‘What We Do in the Shadows’, ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, comes a beautifully-crafted war film with a strangely pleasant sense of humour. As ‘Jojo Rabbit’ really stands-out within the war genre for being one of the first films set during World War II to be an anti-hate satire, telling it’s heart-warming and optimistic story in an amusing yet respectful fashion, soon cementing itself as one of the most noteworthy releases of 2019.

Plot Summary: Nearing the end of the Second World War, a lonely German boy named: ‘Jojo’ aspires to be a Nazi, hoping to one day fight on the front-line. But ‘Jojo’ soon finds his world-view turned upside-down when he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend: ‘Adolf Hitler’, ‘Jojo’ must confront the girl, and in doing so, confront his blind nationalism.

Originally based on the novel: ‘Caging Skies’ by Christine Leunens, the screenplay for: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ was actually written back in 2011. Putting it in between ‘Boy’ released in 2010, and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ released in 2014 in the chronology of Taika Waititi-penned films. And while ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is certainly one of Waititi’s finest films to date, it is also one of his most controversial. As whilst I personally feel the film goes about its comedy in a tasteful manner, never undercutting the story’s message and mostly just poking-fun at ridiculous Nazi protocols and beliefs. ‘Jojo Rabbit’ did receive plenty of flack from critics as soon as it was even announced the film would contain any-kind of humour, which I find quite unfair on behalf of the film.

The young and impressive Roman Griffin Davis leads the cast excellently as ‘Jojo’, portraying the young boy as simply a regular kid who has a fascination with this ideology the Nazis are fighting for, even though he has little understanding of it nor its horrific consequences. Then there is Thomasin McKenzie, who portrays the opposite side of this, as her character: ‘Elsa’ is a resourceful and intelligent Jewish girl who attempts to open ‘Jojo’s eyes to the real-world, rather than the warped-reality his fellow Nazis have burned-into him. Scarlett Johansson is also fantastic in the film as ‘Jojo’s mother: ‘Rosie’, having the most consistent German accent of the cast by far. But it’s the director himself, Taika Waititi, who takes the short-straw portraying the infamous Adolf Hitler, or at least ‘Jojo’s imaginary interpretation of him. As ‘Hitler’ is always presented in a very discriminating way, with Waititi portraying the dictator like a complete tool, only ever having as much information/maturity as ‘Jojo’ does, and occasionally, even less so.

Oppose to many other war films, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ features a very vibrant colour palette, as Waititi actually discovered through much of his research that Germany during World War II was both colourful and fashionable, and was interested in shying away from war films only ever displaying World War II as dark and dreary. So through this, as well as the fairly creative cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, ‘Jojo’s small town is presented as a seemingly celebratory place with stylishly-dressed citizens. Almost as if the town is attempting to ignore the impending threat, only semi-aware that the Third Reich is crumbling beneath them.

The film’s original score by Michael Giacchino is another wonderful effort from the composer, as the score features a number of memorable tracks, from ‘Jojo’s Theme’ to ‘A Butterfly’s Wings’ and ‘Rosie’s Nocturne’. In many ways, the score for: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ almost sounds as if it’s a military march composed by a group of children, which works perfectly considering the film’s story is told through a child’s perspective. Furthermore, the original score also utilises German vocals to more accurately fit with the story’s setting.

Although the supporting cast of Archie Yates, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Alfie Allen are all brilliant within the film, I really do wish their characters were featured more throughout the narrative. As aside from Sam Rockwell’s ‘Captain Klenzendorf’, who receives a respectable amount of screen-time. Many of the story’s side characters are seemingly only in the film for the sake of a couple of humorous scenes, which is unfortunate, as every member of the cast portrays their Nazi characters as hilariously over-the-top as possible.

Altogether, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ isn’t only another extraordinary entry into Taika Waititi’s catalogue of comedy flicks. But I’d argue it’s his best project thus far, a daring and charming film that simultaneously explores the horrors of war, yet also the compassion in people. And while the film may not be for everyone, with many reviews clearly indicating how divisive the film is with its implementation of comedy, I feel the film juggles its humour and emotional moments immensely well, with its remarkable original score and bright colour palette only helping the film stand further out from the crowd. Final Rating: 8/10.

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The Shallows (2016) – Film Review

Ever since the release of the original blockbuster: ‘Jaws’ in 1975, shark films have never quite managed to reach the same heights, with flops such as: ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘Bait’, ’47 Meters Down’ and ‘Shark Night’ feeling quite distant from reality as they present the animals as nothing but blood-thirsty monsters that devour brain-dead characters. And while ‘The Shallows’ does feel like a slight improvement over many of these other flicks (mostly in regards to its protagonist), the film still falters at many turns.

Plot Summary: After losing her mother in an accident, medical student: ‘Nancy’ dumps her responsibilities in Galveston and travels to Mexico, hitchhiking a ride to a hidden beach that her mother loved when she was young. But following her discovery of a whale carcass whilst surfing, ‘Nancy’ is attacked by a great white shark, leaving her bleeding and stranded on a small rock, with no sign of rescue.

Releasing in 2016 to great success, ‘The Shallows’ was one of the first major shark films released into cinemas in quite some-time, but as well as being a creature-feature, the film also serves as a survival thriller, along the same lines of: ‘127 Hours Later’. As ‘Nancy’ has to face not only the shark, but also hunger, thirst, weather, and of course, the severe leg injury she receives when she first encounters the apex-predator. Yet despite this focus making for a far more engaging experience, the narrative simultaneously tries its hand at character development, with ‘Nancy’ receiving plenty of charactersation in the film’s first act, which is sadly made less interesting as its delivered through some immensely corny dialogue.

Blake Lively, who is by no means a renowned actress, with only two films throughout her career featuring her in the top-billed cast, carries the film solo, and her commitment to this role is certainly admirable, as Lively gives a very intense performance as a result of: ‘Nancy’ being in agonising pain for most of the runtime. Additionally, Lively did most of her own stunts for the film aside from her character’s surfing. In fact, in one particular scene, where ‘Nancy’ crushes a crab and then proceeds to eat it raw, Lively is actually eating a real crab that the production crew found dead on a nearby beach, so her reactions of disgust are genuine even though the crab initially getting crushed was achieved through CGI. This is all made even more impressive by the fact that Lively was pregnant with her second child at the time of filming. 

Flavio Martínez Labiano’s cinematography does provide a handful of attractive and memorable shots when not focusing on the characters, these usually being when the shots revolve more around the shark lurking beneath the water, or when the camerawork effectively uses framing to display how far ‘Nancy’ is from safety. And of course, with the film being shot off the Gold Coast of Australia (excluding a few scenes which were shot in a large water-tank), the film’s signature beach and crystal-clear waves are always an alluring sight, which is a superb visual-clash with the horror that lies within.

The original score by Marco Beltrami serves the story well enough, as the film’s soundtrack drifts from beautiful calming tracks like ‘Paddle In’ and ‘Nancy and Dad Facetime’, to much more tense tracks such as: ‘Main Title’ and ‘Towards the Dead Whale’. However, its when the story shifts into full on threat that the score begins to feel extremely generic, most notably, the track: ‘Underwater Attack’, which is barley distinguishable from any other thriller soundtrack as it doesn’t encapsulate either the beauty or isolation of the ocean as many of the other tracks do.

Unlike ‘Jaws’ or even ‘Deep Blue Sea’ during a few moments, ‘The Shallows’ exclusively uses CGI to bring its shark to-life, which is unfortunate. As while there was clearly a huge level of detail put-into the shark, as director Jaume Collet Serra (Orphan, Unknown, Non-Stop) worked closely with the art department to ensure a sense of realism in the shark’s design, having the team do thousands of hours of research. This all sadly goes to waste due to the demands of the film’s script, as the shark in ‘The Shallows’ rarely acts like a real animal, often feeling like just a hulking murderous monster whose CG effects drastically vary depending on the shot.

To conclude, ‘The Shallows’ is a step-up from a number of other shark flicks, but even with its above-average filmmaking and solid performance from Blake Lively. The film still falls into many of the common issues shark films do, as the story favours the idea of using its shark as a monster of the ocean and that alone, and this on-top of the film’s occasionally strange stylistic choices, shoddy CG effects and cheesy dialogue, result in the film becoming just another poor attempt at revitalising the great white shark as a cinematically enthralling antagonist. Final Rating: high 4/10.

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The Babysitter (2017) – Film Review

Originally filmed in 2015 with the intention of playing in cinemas, the horror-comedy: ‘The Babysitter’ didn’t actually release until 2017 after Netflix acquired the rights to the film for streaming. And although ‘The Babysitter’ doesn’t exactly break any of the rules we’ve come to expect within the horror genre, this horror-comedy with splatters of style must’ve been entertaining enough for those who decided to watch it, as the film would eventually spawn a Netflix-exclusive franchise with two later sequels.

Plot Summary: Riddled with anxiety, twelve-year-old: ‘Cole’ has always been bullied and picked on due to his constant panicking, only finding comfort around the one person who understands him, his attractive babysitter: ‘Bee’. That is, until one night, after ‘Cole’ secretly stays up past his bedtime to discover she’s actually part of a satanic cult, forcing ‘Cole’ to spend the rest of his evening evading ‘Bee’s band of killers who will stop at nothing to prevent him from spilling their dark secret.

Directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Salvation, This Means War) or ‘McG’ as he usually goes by, ‘The Babysitter’ as a film has received a number of alterations since its pre-production. As in the original script, ‘Sonya’ was actually a cheerleader, ‘Allison’ was a journalist for her school paper, ‘John’ had the nickname: ‘John the Baptist’ and ‘Max’ had dreadlocks. Before the characters were later reimagined to more closely reflect the common stereotypes of victims in slasher flicks, only in this film, they’re the antagonists. This idea is one of the film’s best aspects in terms of its writing, as it gives the film a real-sense of self-awareness in addition paying respect to what came before it. Most notably, the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, which ‘Max’ references directly at one-point when he chants: “ch-ch-ch-ah-ah-ah” whilst chasing ‘Cole’.

Judah Lewis does manage to leave an impression in his first film role, portraying protagonist: ‘Cole’ as an innocent twelve-year-old with few friends aside from ‘Bee’, even if a large portion of his anxious characterisation feels far too over-the-top. Then there is also Samara Weaving as the titular babysitter: ‘Bee’, and her cult followers: ‘Max’, ‘Allison’, ‘Sonya’ and ‘John’ portrayed by Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Hana Mae Lee and Andrew Bachelor. Who are all wonderfully devilish throughout the film, having plenty of dark comedic moments between them making their deaths quite unfortunate, as while I’m sure most could’ve guessed their characters do die at some-point within the narrative, we don’t get to spend enough-time with any of them to get a strong grasp on their exaggerated personalities or any understanding of their malevolent cult.

In spite of the usually dull cinematography by Shane Hurlbut, ‘The Babysitter’ still manages to be one of the more visually-interesting Netflix Originals through its unique style. As the film continuously implements different text, graphics and colours to give it a distinct stylistic appeal, not too dissimilar from (although nowhere near impressive as) ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ from 2010. Many of these editing decisions also help to redeem the film’s humour, which is extremely inconsistent, bouncing from hilarious cut-aways and meta horror jokes to embarrassing lines of dialogue which try far too hard.

Whilst composer Douglas Pipes has crafted some great scores in the past like ‘Monster House’ and ‘Trick ‘r Treat’, ‘The Babysitter’ is certainly not one of them, as even with the film having many serviceable tracks. The overall soundtrack just lacks anything overly-distinctive, and I believe that if it was ever compared to any other score from Pipes, or even just a couple of random comedy/horror scores, I doubt most would be able to tell it apart. The film also throws-in the iconic ‘Queen’ song: ‘We Are the Champions’ nearing the story’s end, which feels immensely out-of-place and comes-out of nowhere.

For a large duration of its tight runtime (which the film breezes-through as a result of its unrelentingly fast-pacing), ‘The Babysitter’s story is predominantly just one long chase sequence, and whilst occasionally tense, I couldn’t help but feel that the film’s script could’ve taken better advantage of its evil babysitter concept or its supernatural elements, despite the series second entry: ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ delving more into the latter. Yet the film doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its violence, having plenty of fantastically gruesome gore effects which are all successfully played for comedy.

Overall, I could see ‘The Babysitter’ being an enjoyable experience for some and possibly just a boring viewing for others. As when ignoring the film’s graphic gore and fun stylistic choices, the story leaves a lot to be desired, and can often feel derivative of horror classics even if this was the film’s intention to an extent with its focus on horror tropes/clichés. For me personally, although I do admire the film’s ridiculous tone and dark humour, the disappointing story can often feel sluggish, diminishing the film’s memorability and rewatchability. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Now You See Me (2013) – Film Review

Quite a unique film within the crime genre, ‘Now You See Me’ is seemingly a magician’s rendition of: ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, as director Louis Leterrier crafts an entertaining film following the story of a group of four illusionists, all with different skillsets, robbing establishments across the globe before then vanishing without a trace. And although some viewers may have to suspend their disbelief for a few elements regarding the film’s plot, the film still manages to remain a mostly enjoyable affair throughout its two-hour runtime.

Plot Summary: After four small-time magicians are anonymously invited to attend a meeting in a run-down apartment. They reappear one year later as ‘The Four Horsemen’, performing a live-show in Las Vegas in which they claim they are going to rob a bank in Paris from the stage and distribute the money to the audience. But after the French bank is found empty following the show, F.B.I. Agent: ‘Dylan Rhodes’ is assigned to the case with his partner: ‘Alma Day’, where the two begin to suspect that the heist was just a distraction for a bigger scheme…

Even though ‘Now You See Me’ prioritises its story over anything else, the film does still feature a couple of exciting action sequences including a car-chase and a fist-fight respectively. Both of which stick with the idea of the magicians performing magic-tricks, utilising many of the age-old illusions we know in creative ways, yet this shouldn’t be too surprising, considering director Louis Leterrier has worked on action flicks like ‘The Transporter’ in the past. However, ‘Now You See Me’ does miss a big opportunity to say anything interesting about the actual profession of magic, as with very few films focusing on characters with this skillset, it would make sense to delve further into figures with this expertise.

‘The Four Horseman’, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are all splendid in their roles as the signature group of magicians. As despite Dave Franco’s ‘Jack Wilder’ feeling a little neglected at points as the forth member of the group, all of the cast give very charismatic performances to where you could believe they perform live-shows most evenings. The group also spends most of the film being hunted by a F.B.I. detective duo portrayed by Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent, and although both actors are great within their roles, the film does attempt to build-up a romantic relationship between the two, which comes-off as nothing other than forced and underdeveloped.

Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong’s cinematography is competent overall, having an overeliance on mid-shots to focus on the actor’s performances front and foremost. But when taking-into account the film’s constant emphasis on eye-contact and slight of hand, I did feel the camerawork wasn’t used very effectively to display that trickery, which would’ve surely placed the film’s audience in the same position as ‘The Four Horseman’s live-audience. The cinematography does still allow for plenty of stunning wide-shots during each live-show however, as the camera glides over the huge crowd giving an impressive view of the massive audiences that attend each night.

The original score by Brian Tyler is a jazz-style soundtrack in the same-vein as other crime/heist films such as the previously mentioned: ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. In particular, the tracks: ‘Now You See Me’, ‘The Four Horseman’ and ‘Welcome to the Eye’ are all deeply-rooted in jazz, fitting a familiar tone to many real illusionist shows. So much so, that it soon becomes quite evident that Tyler has done his research as his score fully embraces its funky percussion and snappy brass motifs.

Throughout the film, there are also a number of magnificent effects, CG and practical alike. In fact, near the beginning of the film when ‘Daniel Atlas’ is performing an extraordinary card-trick, we see the hands of Dan or Dave Buck digitally composited with Jesse Eisenberg’s face. These twin brothers are actually acclaimed sleight of hand artists, as well as pioneers in the art of cardistry. Their skills have also been seen in the film: ‘Smokin’ Aces’ from 2006, performing tricks for Jeremy Piven. Cardistry is an open display of skill with cards, similar to juggling, and the sequence of moves performed in ‘Now You See Me’ is called a ‘Pandora’, which at the time of filming, was considered one of the hardest moves to perform in cardistry.

Taking all this into account, I feel ‘Now You See Me’ serves its purpose as a crime/mystery thriller, telling an engaging and mostly well-written story that doesn’t take itself all too seriously. While the film does disguise many of its obvious flaws through smoke and mirrors, I believe the vast majority of viewers will enjoy this film for what it is. And if you have already seen this flick and relished it, then I’d strongly recommend you watch ‘The Prestige’, another magician-related film which I personally think surpasses ‘Now You See Me’ (and its uninspired sequel) in many ways. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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As Above, So Below (2014) – Film Review

Co-written/directed by John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine, Devil), ‘As Above, So Below’ is certainly an interesting found-footage flick, as while at a first mention the film may just sound like another a stereotypical horror, this claustrophobic delve into the caliginous Paris catacombs does actually have some depth hidden beneath its generic exterior. But unfortunately, even with the story’s intriguing religious imagery/influences, the film soon plummets into clichéd mediocrity, mostly as a result of its bland characters and weak scares.

Plot Summary: When a team of explorers venture into the miles of twisting catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, all in search of the historical: ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. They encounter far more than they bargained for when they realise they have entered into the first of the nine rings of: ‘Hell’, where visions of their past sins begin to relentlessly torment them.

From a quick glance at the film’s visuals, its understandable why many would see ‘As Above, So Below’ as just another found-footage horror, only this time capitalising on the daunting real-world location of the Paris catacombs, which hold the remains of more than six-million people in the small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone-quarries. But the film’s setting does heavily-relate to the story of: ‘Inferno’, a short poem written by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth-century, focusing on the tale of man who journeys through ‘Hell’ guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Even the film’s title plays-into this central idea, as the words: ‘As Above, So Below’ are derived from “On Earth as it is in Heaven”, which is a line from the ‘Christian Lord’s Prayer’, which begins with “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…”.

Although their characters are immensely mundane, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert and Ali Marhyar are all serviceable in their respective roles, delivering the usual screaming, ventilating and panicking performances that occur in most found-footage films. However, while the film’s protagonist: ‘Scarlett’ is portrayed well by Perdita Weeks, the character herself is noticeably very unlikable, mostly due to her constant obsession with the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which she places all of her friend’s lives at risk for without question, and its never made clear whether we should actually be rooting for her to survive or not.

The cinematography by Léo Hinstin is more of the usual for this subgenre, providing the viewer with plenty of shaky and out-of-focus shots as the characters make their way through the almost pitch-black burial-ground. This doesn’t distract from what is easily the film’s most impressive (and most ambitious) filming tip-bit however, which is that the film was actually shot in the Paris catacombs themselves, not in a sound-stage. In fact, this was the first production ever to secure permission from the French government to film within the catacombs, which would have been quite a challenge as the series of narrow, winding tunnels with centuries-old skeletons arranged on the walls would’ve had little room for equipment/crew. Yet this does pay-off as the film utilises it’s location extremely well, always placing its characters in tight areas to insight claustrophobia in the audience.

While the film doesn’t feature a complete original score for obvious reasons, one of the strongest aspects of found-footage flicks, sound design, is actually an area where ‘As Above, So Below’ is lacking. As despite the film’s many attempts to feel impactful when the characters dive into water or are nearly crushed by a collapsing celling, a vast majority of the sound effects don’t sound as if they are coming from within the catacombs, usually sounding quite evident they have been added in post-production on account of the absence of any echo or density.

As a large portion of the film’s narrative is based on Dante’s ‘Inferno’, the film’s basic structure revolves around the characters heading further and further into ‘Hell’, with each character facing a vision of a personal sin from their past. These rings (or levels) in order are ‘Limbo’, ‘Lust’, ‘Gluttony’, ‘Greed’, ‘Anger’, ‘Heresy’, ‘Violence’, ‘Fraud’ and ‘Treachery’. But outside of the film’s previously mentioned religious symbolism, after the characters leave the initial catacombs, each ring is represented purely through dark empty caverns, which become quite repetitive after a point.

Altogether, despite the Paris catacombs being a very compelling setting for a modern horror film, in addition to much of the film’s religious influences making for quite a unique story. I’d still suggest other claustrophobic horrors like ‘The Descent’ and ‘The Thing’ before ‘As Above, So Below’, as not only does the film eventually devolve into the standard horror formula without much experimentation, but if you’re unaware of any of the religious-context, then I could definitely see the film being fairly forgettable. In all honestly, I feel this film may have been better-off as non-found-footage, as I think this would’ve allowed the film to better explore its story and themes. Final Rating: 5/10.

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) – Film Review

Both a stylish Guy Ritchie comedy as well as a reimagining of the classic 1960s espionage show of the same name, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ is a mostly-successful modern-take on the classic spy-caper. Capturing a familiar tone in spite of its unremarkable story, which the film tries to distract from through its charismatic cast and many exciting set-pieces. Equalling overall, to a decently entertaining 60s action/comedy even if it may be on the lower-side of Ritchie’s filmography, with ‘Snatch’ and ‘The Gentlemen’ still being far superior films in my opinion.

Plot Summary: In the early 1960s, CIA agent: ‘Napoleon Solo’ successfully helps ‘Gaby Teller’ escape East Berlin despite the intimidating opposition of KGB agent: ‘Illya Kuryakin’. Later, all three unexpectedly find themselves working together on a globe-trotting mission to stop a private criminal organisation, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.

Being co-written/directed by Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes, The Gentlemen), ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ takes-in much of the director’s usual style/humour, having an abundance of witty and amusing dialogue (much of which is brimming with innuendos), in addition to plenty of editing flair. But ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ also serves as the first film interpretation of the 60s espionage show, which Warner Bros. Pictures had actually been trying to adapt for over a decade, director Steven Soderbergh was once even attached to the project with George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Emily Blunt all set to play the three main characters. The film’s story isn’t just a recreation of a specific episode from the show however, as Ritchie and his story-team actually decided to create an original narrative based-around the origin of: ‘U.N.C.L.E.’, a backstory that was only hinted at in the show.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer portray the film’s protagonist duo, and while neither of their characters are exactly memorable, they do both give great performances, sharing many comedic moments together and bouncing-off each other very well. The film even gives its characters a sufficient amount of development early-on in the story, though it is delivered through mission briefings and expositional dialogue. Yet its the third member of the cast where some issues begin to arise, as Alicia Vikander as ‘Gaby’ is supposed to be the emotional-centre of the story, as her father is being forced to make nuclear weapons. But the film makes it quite hard to resonate with her due to her lack of characterisation and inconsistent German accent, which seemingly disappears at random. Elizabeth Debicki also appears in the film as antagonist: ‘Victoria’, but similar to Hugh Grant’s character: ‘Waverly’, she has little impact on the viewer.

Aside from the occasional CGI-enhanced shot, the cinematography by John Mathieson is pretty creative throughout the film, having many unique shots alongside plenty of shots which feel like throwbacks to classic espionage flicks. The film also makes excellent use of Ritchie’s signature editing style, cutting between scenes in a variety of visually interesting ways as well as colourfully implementing the film’s Russian/German subtitles, all of which are displayed in a bright yellow text almost as if they are taken from a 1960s spy poster, not too dissimilar to the film’s opening and ending credits, which are reminiscent of the original show’s intro whilst also feeling fresh.

Daniel Pemberton’s original score is in keeping with the film’s tonal integrity, as Pemberton sought to capture a sound that combined the crispness and sophistication of today with a distinctly 1960s flavour. The first-step of which was the venue, as ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ score was actually recorded in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, where even the most casual music fan likely knows that this is where ‘The Beatles’ recorded their iconic albums. Yet apart from the tracks: ‘His Name is Napoleon Solo’ and ‘Escape from East Berlin’, the soundtrack feels well-crafted but still falls-short, becoming fairly forgettable in the long-run.

However, the world of: ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ isn’t as forgettable, as the film’s 1960s time-period mixes-together the elegant class of the era with more futuristic spy technology/gadgets. One of the reasons the film stayed in the 60s time-period was to allow the film to have its own reality, setting it apart from films like ‘The Bourne’ franchise and other recent spy thrillers, according to director Guy Ritchie. Obviously, this means that the film constantly revels in its period-accurate vehicles, set-design and costumes, a few pieces of which were actually vintage.

In conclusion, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ isn’t a film that will surpass expectations, as while the film delivers on what it sets-out to for the most part, displaying some fantastic action scenes and enjoyable gags. Its hard to ignore the film’s uninteresting story, which simultaneously feels drawn-out and dull, even branching into convoluted at points with the sheer amount of characters/locations mentioned. But for myself and any other classic espionage enthusiasts, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ will suffice, even though it could’ve done with some refinement in certain areas. Final Rating: 6/10.

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How to Train Your Dragon (2010) – Film Review

One of the highest-regarded films from DreamWorks Animation, 2010’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is successful in nearly every regard as an animated feature, making many changes to its original source material (all of which for the better), to excel as a brilliant piece of family-focused storytelling. With plenty of memorable characters, exhilarating action sequences and an outstanding original score by John Powell, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ would soon go on to become one of DreamWorks’ most recognisable and profitable franchises for good reason.

Plot Summary: On the island of: ‘Berk’, ‘Hiccup’, the frail son of the Viking Chief, aspires to hunt dragons and keep his home safe like the rest of his clan, earning the respect of his fellow Vikings. But after inuring a ‘Night Fury’, one of the rarest and most powerful dragons known to exist, ‘Hiccup’ forms an unlikely friendship with the creature, soon realising that dragons aren’t at all what Vikings believe them to be.

The first film to be directed by duo Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois since the Disney classic: ‘Lilo and Stitch’ in 2002. The film adaptation of: ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ makes many alterations to the story seen in the original children’s book. As firstly, ‘Hiccup’ does not have a love interest, and the now-iconic DreamWorks character: ‘Toothless’ is about the size of the ‘Terrible Terror’ dragon breed, his skin is also green and red, not black. Furthermore, ‘Toothless’ gets his name when ‘Hiccup’ first finds him with no teeth. But the film’s producers decided, with the approval of author Cressida Cowell, that it would be more cinematic to make ‘Toothless’ large enough to be ridden as a flying mount. As such, ‘Toothless’ was completely redesigned as a rare ‘Night Fury’, a highly intelligent breed of dragon evolved for speed and stealth with teeth that retract into their jaw when shooting a fiery-pulse.

Protagonist: ‘Hiccup’ is portrayed by Jay Baruchel, a fairly under-the-radar actor. But similar to his character in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ from 2011, Baruuchel suits a nervous character like ‘Hiccup’ extremely well due to his naturally-anxious voice, making for a likeable yet never vexatious protagonist. Gerard Butler as ‘Hiccup’s father: ‘Stoick’ is another member of the cast who naturally fits his character, as Butler’s rough Scottish voice melds with the hefty Viking leader’s design perfectly. The film also features a great ensemble cast for the other young dragon recruits through America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig, who together provide many of the film’s comedic moments.

The animated cinematography throughout ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is superior to a number of other animated flicks when put in comparison, as the film continuously features beautiful visuals. The most obvious being within the scene: ‘First Flight’, in which, ‘Hiccup’ hops aboard ‘Toothless’ for the first-time as they soar across the stunning land of: ‘Berk’, breezing over acres of forest and past/through cliffs all while being tracked by the camera. Interestingly, many of these dragon-flying moments are also inspired by combat and aerobatic aircrafts, as ‘Toothless’ performs many aerobatic maneuvers and combinations such as a ‘Loop and Snap’.

Nominated for an Oscar at one point-in-time, the original score by John Powell is truly sensational, a majestic score that occasionally even utilises bag-pipes in order to further fit with the film’s Scottish setting (which is alluded to by the many Scottish accents). And while Powell has always been known for creating phenomenal scores for animated flicks, with ‘Ice Age’, ‘Kung Fu Panda’ and ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ being just some of his sublime work, the soundtrack for: ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is by far some of his best, with the tracks: ‘This is Berk’ and ‘Forbidden Friendship’ becoming some of the most notable tracks in all animation.

The animation itself has begun to show its age in a handful of shots since the film’s initial release, but as a result of the film’s many wonderful designs, usually in relation to its dragons, which display different abilities, colours, horns and skin-tones for each breed, the film manages to redeem any shot that feels at all dated. These pleasant designs also help distract from the film’s overly-fast-pacing, as whilst I understand that younger viewers may have shorter attention-spans, the film can sometimes feel as if its rushing through one scene to quickly get to the next.

Although I share the quite controversial opinion of disliking the sequels to ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, as I personally find them much more generic and paint-by-numbers in terms of plot. The original film is still one of DreamWorks Animation’s best efforts, and I’d even argue is on the level of beating-out their previous fantasy franchise: ‘Shrek’ when it comes to its characters and world-building. So even if you don’t enjoy animated/family films, perhaps ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ will sway you into the genre just as it does with its wonderous story. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) – Film Review

Dealing with heavy themes of loneliness, mental health and suicide, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ may not astonish when it comes to its visuals. But through its strong performances, heartfelt story and well-written script (aside from one or two cliché lines), the film soon becomes a very sincere and captivating adaptation of the acclaimed coming-of-age novel many grew-up with when it released in 1999, now being seen as one of the best teenage dramas in recent years.

Plot Summary: Fifteen-year-old: ‘Charlie’ is a socially-awkward teenager heading into his first year of high-school, used to watching life from the sidelines, ‘Charlie’ soon discovers the joys of friendship, love and music as the free-spirited: ‘Sam’ and her stepbrother: ‘Patrick’, open his eyes to the real-world. But when his friends prepare to leave for college after graduating high-school, ‘Charlie’s inner-sadness threatens to shatter his newly-found confidence.

In a rare scenario, the film adaptation of: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is not only based on the novel of the same name by Steven Chbosky, but is actually written and directed by Chbosky himself. As originally, beloved writer/director John Hughes, the comic genius behind: ‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘Sixteen Candles’ amongst many other 80s teen flicks, was intended to direct the adaptation, initially wanting to make the film into more of a dark comedy with Shia LaBeouf set to play ‘Charlie’, Kirsten Dunst as ‘Sam’, and Patrick Fugit as ‘Patrick’. But with Hughes sudden-death in 2009 stalling the project, his script was eventually scrapped as he’d not completed it before his passing, leaving Chbosky to take the reins.

Throughout the entirety of the film, the main trio of friends are portrayed wonderfully by Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson, in one of her first roles following the end of the ‘Harry Potter’ series. As each member of the young cast display plenty of range with their respective characters receiving an almost-absurd amount of characterisation alongside, resulting in all three of the central protagonists soon forming a real bond with the audience through their lovable yet realistic portrayals of high-school teenagers. Well-known comedy actor Paul Rudd also appears within the film as ‘Mr. Anderson’, using his natural charisma to portray a genuinely kind-hearted teacher, guiding ‘Charlie’ to what he believes is his future career as a writer.

The film’s cinematography by Andrew Dunn is noticeably where the filmmaking dips in quality, as despite the camerawork occasionally allowing for some interesting framing, such as when ‘Charlie’ is framed alone with only bare walls surrounding him, visually presenting him as an outcast due to his anxiety when interacting with others. Most of the film’s cinematography feels fairly mundane, with the colour palette in particular, seeming very confined, always utilising quite warm/calming colours regardless of what’s happening within the narrative. However, with that said, near the end of the runtime, the film does manage to impress with its editing as ‘Charlie’ begins to suffer from a panic-attack, represented through the film cutting rapidly between an array of previous scenes, ensuring a feeling of being overwhelmed within any viewer whilst watching. 

From iconic songs such as: ‘Heroes’ and ‘Come on Eileen’, to the beautifully somber original score by Micheal Brook. The entire soundtrack for: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is both graceful and immensely under-appreciated, capturing the film’s many alternating tones, whether that’s its unrelenting isolation, or its upbeat bliss. But my personal two favourite tracks have to be ‘Charlie’s First Kiss’ and ‘Shard’, a pair of tracks that are both truly touching pieces of music, invoking emotion in any listener in spite of their simplicity.

Another aspect of the film I adore is how it represents high-school, as while many coming-of-age flicks usually lean into the idea of high-school being an often chaotic but satisfying experience. ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ never glorifies school, refusing to represent it as either a positive or negative place. This all backed-up of course, by the story’s interesting themes which the film handles with care, never overemphasising it’s concepts in a similar fashion to the source material. Also in-line with the original novel is the film’s apparent 1990s setting. Yet with the exception of the numerous mix-tapes the characters listen to, you’d be forgiven for being unaware that the film even takes-place within this time-period, as its neither mentioned nor plays-into the film’s style in any-way.

Overall, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is deserving of all the praise it receives. As while the film’s uninspired cinematography does leave some room for improvement. For a directorial-debut, Stephen Chbosky really knocks it out of the park here, with brilliant performances and very underrated original score, the film is truly an adaptation to be admired. And regardless of whatever time-period its story is set within, many of its themes/messages are timeless, and I personally believe this is what any other films focusing on troubled teenage characters should strive to be. Final Rating: 8/10.

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