The Lobster (2015) – Film Review

Bleak, eccentric and ambitious, The Lobster, released in 2015, is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but for those with the fortitude to crack through the film’s offbeat sensibilities, it should prove a cinematic treat as co-writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos (DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Favourite) continuously demonstrates his peculiar style throughout this anomalous black comedy. And although the film does admittedly fall short in its final act as the story loses interest in its animal-transformation premise and abandons its fascinating hotel setting in favour of a less interesting location with equally less interesting characters, this does little to diminish the intrigue of The Lobster‘s unique outlook on human relationships.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future where, by law, all citizens must have a life companion, single people are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner within forty-five days. Should they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild where they will hopefully find love with a different species. Inevitably, as the newly divorced architect David enters the luxurious rehabilitation facility, he too must find a suitable partner, or an uncertain future in the wilderness awaits…

Since its initial release, The Lobster has become an intense hub of speculation regarding its true meaning, but the most common theory is that the film is an absurdist look at modern-day coupling, which, if truthful, is similar to the rest of Lanthimos’ filmography which frequently picks apart damaged characters, attempting to expose the raw and volatile relationship between humans and their fragile sensibilities. Immediately from its opening scene, The Lobster also presents an extraordinarily unusual world, a dystopian future that is simultaneously striking, disquieting and darkly comedic without ever appearing overly futuristic. Needless to say, with a world as irregular as this one is, there are still a few lines of dialogue that feel fairly on-the-nose concerning its world-building.

The film’s large cast of Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly are all superb throughout the film, intentionally delivering their lines with a complete lack of emotion. Instead, many of the characters present much of what they are feeling on their faces whilst seemingly concealing everything else. This approach works flawlessly when it comes to the film’s comedy, with the numerous quirky characters David interacts with giving matter-of-fact line readings that are extremely difficult not to find amusing. Yet these constant stabs at dry humour never feel at odds with the story’s more dramatic/romantic moments either as The Lobster tries to gain emotional investment from its audience by making the characters feel distinctly human through the recognisable neuroses that label them despite their emotionless tones.

Visually, The Lobster is rather impressive as the cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis allows nearly every shot to have something poignant to it, with the symmetrical staircases and hallways of The Hotel presenting a world of order in a simplistic yet elegant manner. One hunting scene, in particular, stands out as gorgeous composition, slow-motion and lighting are all used to great effect. This is made even more impressive when considering that the production crew worked without makeup and exclusively utilised natural light. With large-scale lighting set-ups only being employed for a handful of evening scenes.

When it comes to the film’s music, even though The Lobster lacks a traditional original score, the film does feature a tremendous assortment of brittle classical compositions such as String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 and Strauss, R: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Variation: II, both of which give the film a feeling of serenity yet also push much of the story’s tension to the forefront. Quietly damping down the comedic tone that gradually bubbles up through the carefully placed laugh-out-loud one-liners.

Returning to the visuals briefly, The Lobster was primarily filmed in and around the Parknasilla Hotel in Ireland, an ostentatious hotel that is decorated almost entirely with Dutch flower still life from the 1600s. This ageing pattern along with the film’s exceptional use of colour; primarily blues, greens and a few alternate shades of red, including beige-pink, give The Lobster a distinct visual appeal even more so than its cinematography, as these colours can even be seen in many of the costumes or mentioned in lines of dialogue, such as the scene where the Short-Sighted Woman says she should wear blue and green clothes or when David mentions that lobsters are “Blue Blooded,” (lobster’s shells also being red, of course).

In summary, while The Lobster is a droll piece of storytelling lashed with grim humour, it also offers a rich, surreal take on modern relationships that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As for every moment that makes you laugh, there may be another that leaves you with your mouth wide open. In many ways, The Lobster is as much a black comedy as it is a slice of existential horror, glimpsing into an outrageous yet disturbing future, one that is truly a testament to Lanthimos’ brand of filmmaking and storytelling as he’s able to trump even the most outlandish premise and turn it into an accessible and engrossing narrative. Rating: low 8/10.

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Jack and Jill (2011) – Film Review

After releasing a handful of lethargic comedies near the end of the 2000s, Adam Sandler and his production company, Happy Madison Productions, reached their lowest point in 2011 as Sandler was offered over £14 million to co-write and star in Jack and Jill. A rarely amusing, oddly boring and so gratingly sophomoric comedy that much of it plays with the same level of enjoyment as a high-pitched vocalist screeching into your ear. Packed with cringe-worthy jokes and overt product placement, in many ways, Jack and Jill feels like the result of Adam Sandler using an entire film to express just how cynical and contemptuous he has now become towards his famed comedy persona.

Plot Summary: Living his perfect life in Los Angeles with a beautiful wife and children, successful advertising executive, Jack Sadelstein, dreads only one thing each and every year; the Thanksgiving visit of his passive-aggressive twin sister, Jill. But as Jack eagerly awaits for his sister to depart, renowned actor, Al Pacino, whom Jack desperately needs to star in a project, takes a shine to Jill, forcing Jack to reluctantly extend his sister’s visit…

Co-written by Steve Koren and Adam Sandler, and directed by Dennis Dugan (Happy GilmoreBig DaddyI Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry). The screenplay for Jack and Jill is often so leaden and formulaic that nearly any audience member will be able to predict where the story goes next as the film follows the typical plot of a dysfunctional family coming together with a sprinkling of pop culture references and numerous offensive gags parodying Indians, Mexicans and Jews, for good measure. Going off the film’s title, it’s also understandable that many would assume Jack and Jill has some kind of relation to the 18th-century nursery rhyme of the same name, which focuses on a boy named, Jack, and a girl named, Jill, as they embark on a journey to collect a pale of water. But, in actuality, the film has no relation to the nursery rhyme beyond its protagonist’s names, which begs the question; why is the film even called Jack and Jill aside from the simple use of alliteration?

In regard to the cast, Adam Sandler portrays Jack Sadelstein similar to how he portrays many of his characters, being a hassled family man whose needy, obnoxious twin sister, Jill, has come to stay for Thanksgiving and subsequently ruin his peaceful existence, once again portrayed by Sandler in profoundly unhilarious drag. What makes this worse, however, is that Sandler is at his most irritating when portraying Jill, raising his voice to be annoying as possible and further fit with her incredibly unlikeable characterisation, being self-absorbed and idiotic to an unbelievable degree. She’s an entirely overbearing character completely oblivious to social cues and seemingly has unresolved incestuous feelings for her brother, which is frequently played for laughs yet is an exceptionally strange choice on behalf of the screenwriters. Then there is Katie Holmes as Jack’s wholesome, good-natured wife, whose performance is dull and generic much like her character. And lastly, there is, of course, Al Pacino, who gives a surprisingly committed performance, continually mocking himself and his lengthy career for the sake of a cheap gag.

Sadly, even legendary cinematographer, Dean Cundey, who has worked on many iconic films from Back to the Future to Jurassic Park and Apollo 13, among many others, isn’t at his best here as the camerawork throughout Jack and Jill is relentlessly uninteresting, being nothing but mid-shot after mid-shot. Moreover, poor editing choices and terrible CG effects (of which there are a startling amount) are very frequent, distracting from much of the ‘comedy’ on-screen.

Placing most of the auditory focus on well-known songs such as I Got You Babe, Vacation and I’m a Believer, it’s easy to predict that the original score for Jack and Jill by Rupert Gregson-Williams and Waddy Wachtel isn’t very memorable. In fact, the score is barely even noticeable in the majority of the scenes it’s featured in.

If all of this wasn’t enough, Jack and Jill was actually the first film in Razzie history to win in every category in a single year, this included: Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actor, Worst Actress, Worst Supporting Actor, Worst Supporting Actress, Worst Screen Couple, Worst Screen Ensemble and even Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel as many believe that Jack and Jill is a rip-off of the exploitation-drama; Glen or Glenda from 1953. This record was previously held by the psychological horror, I Know Who Killed Me with eight awards, including Worst Picture of 2007.

In summary, Jack and Jill is a truly unbearable comedy. With the exception of a few humorous moments and the genuinely charming interviews with real-life twins that bookend the film, this modern comedy has so little to offer it’s frankly impossible to recommend on any level. Still, undoubtedly the most disappointing part of Jack and Jill is that only three years before its release, Adam Sandler headlined the delightful comedy-drama; Funny People, a film that actively poked fun at Sandler’s long list of appalling comedies. This lead many to believe that Sandler was finished with these slothful releases once and for all, but, evidently, this was far from the case. Rating: 2/10.

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Leatherface (2017) – Film Review

Considering the monumental impact of the original, Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the annals of horror cinema, it’s peculiar that the film’s ensuing franchise has had such an erratic history, bouncing from excessively jokey entries like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986, to absolutely bonkers ones such as Texas Chainsaw: The Next Generation in 1995. 2017’s Leatherface continues this trend by once again attempting something different; aiming to be a prequel that explores the origins of the face-wearing menace himself. Unfortunately, however, even though the film has good intentions, Leatherface only succeeds in replicating the skin of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre flick and non of the guts within as the journey its titular character embarks upon ultimately doesn’t feel worth the eighty-seven-minute runtime.

Plot Summary: In 1955, the young, Jedediah Sawyer, is assigned the task of luring an unsuspecting traveller into his family’s decrepit barn for the sake of blood. But when it turns out that this unfortunate victim was actually the lone daughter of Texas ranger, Hal Hartman, Jedediah is forcibly separated from his family and placed in a mental institution. Ten years later, the now near-adult, Jedediah, along with a handful of criminally insane inmates, manage to escape the asylum during a riot, beginning a journey of murder and turmoil as the group trudge across rural Texas evading the vengeful ranger pursuing them…

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside, Among the Living, The Deep House). Leatherface is, for all its flaws, at least an earnest attempt at franchise course correction, avoiding another reboot of the series to instead tell a story that tries to connect a few dots in the very tangled web of this horror franchise. Needless to say, being a prequel, Leatherface still suffers from the usual problem most prequels do: explaining things that don’t need explanation. As in the original film, Leatherface stands out because he is a complete enigma even in a family of cannibalistic lunatics. We never receive answers to any of the questions we have about him as Leatherface simply exists, which is what makes him so terrifying. So, naturally, exploring his backstory diminishes that aspect. Furthermore, with Leatherface being just one member of a homicidal family, a prequel would be a great opportunity to develop some of the lesser-explored members of the Sawyer family such as the Proprietor, the Hitchhiker and Grandpa Sawyer, yet none of their backstories are even hinted at.

Despite their frequently flat dialogue, the film’s main cast of Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Sam Coleman Jessica Madsen, James Bloor and Stephen Dorff all throw themselves into their respective characters with confidence as once Jedediah finds himself inside the mental institution, he encounters several intriguing patients. From the silent brute, Bud, to the callous couple, Ike and Clarice, all of whom make members of the Sawyer family look sane by comparison. Then there is the idealistic nurse, Lizzy, who essentially serves as the story’s final girl, yet due to a severe lack of development similar to many of the other characters, it does become increasingly difficult to empathise with her outside of just acknowledging her horrific situation. However, the highlight of the cast is undoubtedly Lili Taylor as Verna Sawyer, the family matriarch who is bursting with pride for her boys, but devoted to the point where every outsider is seen as an adversary.

When it comes to the visuals, even though Leatherface wasn’t actually shot in America, but instead in Bulgaria for budgetary reasons. The film does utilise its varied colour palette along with natural lighting to create an effective and convincing backdrop of back-country Texas, giving cinematographer, Antoine Sanier, plenty of opportunities to integrate creative shots, including a shot that references the extreme low-angle dolly shot from the original film.

Regrettably, the original score by John Frizzell isn’t quite as remarkable as the soundtrack rarely breaks the mould of a typical horror soundscape, being rather forgettable outside of the score’s occasional use of a chainsaw-like rumble. Numerous songs from the 1960s can also be heard throughout the film such as Leave Me Alone, Working on the Line and Don’t Take Me for Granted, which help further ground the story in the ’60s time period alongside the lavish costume and production design.

On another note, for those who desire graphic violence, there is a commendable amount of gore in Leatherface even if the film is more plot-driven than kill-driven. Still, I will always prefer minimal gore over a constant bombardment of blood when it comes to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise as whilst no sequel, prequel or spin-off will ever be able to recapture the ominous tone and documentary-like feel of the 1974 classic, having minimal violence does at least make any later entry in the series seem closer to the original’s deceptive absence of on-screen brutality.

In summary, Leatherface is repulsive and disturbing much like the original film. The only difference is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also relied on intrigue and an eerie atmosphere to back up many of its horrifying concepts, whereas Leatherface does not. And while the film does admittedly deserve some credit for doing something different with the franchise, being the eighth instalment in this ongoing series, it’s apparent that Leatherface and his chainsaw slayings are starting to wear thin, becoming less and less enthralling each time they return to the silver screen. Rating: high 3/10.

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Escape Plan (2013) – Film Review

Bringing together two action legends, Escape Plan, released in 2013, was an action-thriller long in the making as the idea of a film co-starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had been discussed between the pair for many years, as far back as the mid-1980s. Over time, many different screenplays were pitched or written for the duo, but Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s schedules were continuously unable to match up. That is until Schwarzenegger landed a cameo appearance in 2010’s The Expendables alongside Stallone, prompting the two to revisit the idea of working together. Yet after all this build-up, Escape Plan is a fairly unremarkable film, simply plodding through its predictable screenplay with little charm or wit outside of the mere sight of seeing these two ’80s action icons share the silver screen.

Plot Summary: Having committed his life to searching for weak spots in the reliability of high-security prisons, Ray Breslin, the leading authority on penitentiary security, goes against his own policies when he accepts an offer from the CIA to infiltrate their new black-site prison facility, The Tomb, where the world’s most dangerous criminals are admitted. But shortly after arriving, Ray discovers that he has been double-crossed, lured into a trap and an inescapable fate. Now, with no alternative, he must put his faith in his fellow cell-block inmate, Emil Rottmayer, to forge a daring escape plan that can save them both…

Even though Escape Plan is a great harken back to 1990s action flicks such as FortressNo Escape and Death Warrant, primarily thanks to the film’s prison setting and total absence of pretensions. The interplay in the screenplay frequently ping-pongs between banal and idiotic, yet this is still preferable to the incoherence of the final act, in which, Ray spends most of his time trapped inside a chamber that seemingly fills and subsequently drains itself of water between shots, all whilst a riot breaks out on a lower floor. The absurdities only continue to mount near the end of the film as director Mikael Håfström (1408, The Rite, Outside the Wire) reveals who’s been in cahoots with who. All of this alongside some of the screenplay’s baffling dialogue does secure Escape Plan‘s place as one of the more half-witted releases into the prison escape subgenre.

Playing into their personas as courageous action heroes, both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger give the exact performances you’d expect from a film like this as Stallone portrays Ray Breslin as a gruff prison expert constantly analysing everything around him. While Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer is the charismatic engine that drives the film, picking up the pace when Stallone’s slow performance threatens to diminish it. And although we do get to see many of Ray’s skills in action through a fast-paced opening sequence that depicts how Ray accomplishes what seems like impossible feats using nothing more than patience, observation and the assistance of his trusty team. Both characters suffer from a lack of development beyond their basic skillsets and amusing quips. The rest of the cast, including Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill and Vincent D’Onofrio are all solid in their respective roles whether big or small.

The other star of the show is the prison itself, with its perspex cells and spartan layout converging to give The Tomb a striking appearance that makes superb use of the New Orleans facility where 90% of the film was shot, being a windowless facility previously used by NASA to construct space shuttles. However, this sleek appearance as well as the handful of alluring shots by cinematographer, Brendan Galvin, are soon shattered by a drought of consistency as whilst some areas of the prison share this semi-futuristic feel, other areas often appear rusty and run-down. This issue also carries over to the prison guards that patrol the facility as the guards are kitted out in black jumpers and unadorned black masks which while distinct, continually appear out-of-place and look quite cheap.

Unfortunately, the original score by Alex Heffes is nothing more than a generic action soundtrack with the exception of the foremost track: Bendwater High-Security Prison, which gets the score off to a substantial start, employing electronic beats that flow into the following track: Escaping Bendwater, with high-energy rhythms that trickle excitement just as much as the opening sequence they are both a part of.

On a positive note, despite much of the on-screen action being limited to punches and judo holds with barely any blood to be seen, the fight choreography itself is efficiently constructed. The only distracting aspect of these action-filled sequences is that Ray and Emil somehow turn out to far more accurate shots than the prison’s highly-trained guards as they gun them down one at a time without breaking a sweat.

In summary, although action fanatics will get their fill of violence, thrills and cheesy one-liners, Escape Plan is a relatively uninspired action-thriller when compared to any of the 1980s and 1990s classics that made Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s careers skyrocket. With strange dialogue, inconsistent production design and a forgettable original score, it’s a shame that Escape Plan couldn’t reach the high levels of excitement that combining two action legends brings with it. Even if there is still satisfaction in seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger side-by-side at long last. Rating: high 4/10.

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Peter Rabbit (2018) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Molly’s Game (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strange Magic (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last Christmas (2019) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Silent Night (2012) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although Silent Night, Deadly Night had its fair share of gore, Silent Night takes its gruesome violence to another level, as the bloodthirsty Santa make use of a range of tools including an axe, a cattle prod, a scythe and even a flamethrower, in addition to constantly exploiting the environment around him, such as a scene where he impales a teenager onto a mounted set of deer antlers in a clear reference to the original film. What’s more, 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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