Rio (2011) – Film Review

From Blue Sky Studios, the production company behind many light-hearted family animations like ‘Robots,’ ‘Epic,’ ‘Ferdinand,’ ‘Spies in Disguise,’ and most notably, the ‘Ice Age’ series. ‘Rio,’ released in 2011, is a vibrant animated adventure which despite its occasionally childish humour and relatively straight-forward story is sure to keep adults and children alike joyfully content without reinventing the wheel, compensating for its lack of originality though its charming voice cast and exuberant chase sequences.

Plot Summary: After being captured by smugglers and taken from Brazil when he was just a hatchling, a blue macaw named: ‘Blu’ never learned to fly and now lives a happily domesticated life in Minnesota with his owner: ‘Linda.’ But when ornithologist: ‘Tulio’ arrives at their door and informs the pair that ‘Blu’ is the last male of his kind, the two decide to travel to Rio de Janeiro to meet ‘Jewel,’ the last female…

Taking inspiration from the true story of a Spix’s macaw named Elvis, whose owner agreed to let him join the captive breeding program to help preserve his species. ‘Rio’ may follow a very familiar formula for a family flick, yet what makes ‘Rio’ stand-out is exactly that, Rio de Janeiro itself. As director Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Robots, Ferdinand) is himself a resident of Rio, and first came-up with the concept in 1995, only at that point in time the story focused on a penguin washing-up on the beaches of the Brazilian city. However, when Saldanha learned two other penguin-related animated features were in production, these being: ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Surf’s Up,’ he was forced to radically rewrite the film’s screenplay. Interestingly, this film is also cited as the reason as to why Pixar cancelled their film: ‘Newt,’ as it was said to have had a very similar plot.

Recording many of his lines while filming for: ‘The Social Network’ was still underway, Jesse Eisenberg agreed to provide his voice for: ‘Blu’ on weekends to compensate for lost time, admitting that it diverted him away from the mindset of his nearly joyless ‘Social Network’ character. And while Eisenberg doesn’t give a ground-breaking performance here, Eisenberg is in my opinion, the perfect casting choice for this kind of character. As ‘Blu’s awkward and nervous personality shines perfectly through Eisenberg’s whiny vocal performance, which is only amplified after he encounters the feisty female: ‘Jewel’ portrayed by Anne Hathaway, as their shy romance gradually blossoms over the course of the runtime. Furthermore, the supporting cast of George Lopez, Jemaine Clement, Will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, and Tracey Morgan all do a wonderful job, with nearly every member of the cast also stretching their vocal cords for many of the film’s lively songs.

When it comes to the film’s visuals, director Carlos Saldanha uses the exquisitely rendered backdrop of his home city to great advantage, as the film’s animated cinematography is constantly swooping, soaring and spinning high above the sunny beaches and multicoloured parasols of Rio de Janeiro as ‘Blu’ and ‘Jewel’ scamper through the city on trolleys, cable cars, and in one of the film’s most uplifting scenes, atop the wings of a paraglider. In spite of its characters always being on the move, ‘Rio’ also manages to avoid the usual problem animated films tend to run into, as the film’s plot moves along at just the right pace to keep younger viewers entertained.

With ‘Rio’ being Blue Sky Studios’ first attempt at a musical, one or two of the film’s songs are catchy, but inevitably are nowhere near as memorable as many songs from Disney’s vast catalogue of animated classics. Yet I feel this may be due to Will.i.am’s potential influence, as many of the film’s songs such as: ‘Hot Wings’ and ‘Funky Monkey’ sound like nothing more than modern, age-appropriate pop songs forced into the film’s soundtrack. Contrarily, the original score by John Powell slightly elevates itself above your standard family film score through tracks like ‘Morning Routine,’ ‘Paradise Concern,’ and ‘Birdnapped.’

Whilst the actual animation throughout ‘Rio’ is usually just as energetic and colourful as any other modern animation, its undoubtedly at its best when replicating Rio’s many iconic landmarks, with a large majority of them being almost picturesque. This accuracy is more than likely due to the crew’s research, as many of the film’s animators not only visited Rio de Janeiro in order to precisely replicate the city, but also consulted with a macaw expert at the Bronx Zoo for the design/movements of their avian characters.

Overall, although most audience members have always seen Blue Sky Studios as secondary to more well-known production companies like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and even Sony Pictures Animation in recent years, I’ve always enjoyed Blue Sky’s animated endeavours even if many of their stories feel fairly unoriginal from time-to-time. Still, just as ‘Rio’ proves, this issue of unoriginality can be overshadowed with the right methods, as ‘Rio’s titular setting and dazzling colour palette will ensure the film’s place as a love letter to Brazil if nothing else. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Pet (2016) – Film Review

An unsettling indie horror firmly within the mould of the classic thriller: ‘The Collector’ from 1965, 2016’s ‘Pet’ takes what could potentially be nothing but an exploitative horror and twists it into a unique story that continuously indulges in defying its audience’s expectations. And although the film never manages to fully escape its various flaws by the end of its brief runtime, ‘Pet’ is able to achieve a nice balance between many of its best and worst aspects.

Plot Summary: After ‘Seth,’ a socially awkward recluse bumps into his old high-school crush: ‘Holly,’ he subsequently becomes obsessed with her just as he was many years ago, ultimately leading him to abduct her and hold her captive beneath the animal shelter where he spends his working days, enclosing her in a cage just as he does with the canines above…

Directed by Carles Torrens (Apartment 143) and written by Jeremy Salter, the writer partly responsible for the disastrous ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot in 2015. ‘Pet’ was considered an utter failure upon its initial release, with the film only earning a box-office gross of around £8,000 on a total budget of £15,800, in addition to receiving a series of extremely mixed reviews from both critics and audiences alike. While this may be due to many fearing ‘Pet’ would be nothing but a grotesque ‘captive woman’ flick, ‘Pet’ is actually much more interested in going against the typical clichés many viewers will be associate with this idea to delve into the ever-shifting power-dynamic between ‘Seth’ and ‘Holly,’ making for a pretty engrossing and unpredictable watch even if a level of disbelief is surely required as a result of the film’s many, many plot twists.

Much of what makes ‘Pet’ work can be attributed to its two leads, with Dominic Monaghan being hugely effective as ‘Seth,’ portraying him as a soft-spoken introvert who simply meanders his way through life with a small apartment and boring job, looking anyone (or anything) that could make his life truly worth living. And whilst Monaghan is certainly capable of being intimidating when the story requires it, it is a shame that much of: ‘Seth’s transformation from a wholly-reclusive loner to a plotting unhinged stalker feels very rushed. Then of course, there’s ‘Holly’ portrayed excellently by Ksenia Solo, who is far from your usual helpless victim alluded to almost immediately through Solo’s sly performance and the unhealthy relationship that grows between her and ‘Seth’ as the story continues on. However, ‘Pet’ sadly still features a weak link amongst its cast, as Jennette McCurdy’s performance as ‘Holly’s best friend: ‘Claire’ feels lacking in nearly every scene she’s in, despite her actual character serving a crucial role in the overall development of: ‘Holly’s character.

A large majority of the cinematography by Timothy A. Burton is visually interesting, but unfortunately, many of the film’s shots are spoilt due the overreliance on hand-held camerawork, with a number of shots being accomplished through hand-held for seemingly no reason. Still, the cinematography is varied enough to stop the story’s limited number of locations from becoming monotonous, especially when placed alongside the film’s dramatic lighting and grimy set-design.

Similarly, the original score by Zacarías M. de la Riva is competent, yet many tracks do feel more suited to something like a modern crime thriller than a disturbing psychological horror such as this, feeling especially out-of-place during any scenes that feature graphic violence. Furthermore, there are also a number of moments where the film implements its soundtrack during scenes that I personally feel would’ve been far more effective should they have been completely silent or possibly placed more emphasis on sound design.

The main issue ‘Pet’ suffers from is the inconsistency of its writing, as although its many subversions of the horror genre immediately put it on a level higher than a large majority of modern horror flicks that entirely rely on obnoxiously loud jump-scares. Much of the film’s characterisation is ruined as a result of clunky dialogue, whether that’s due to the actual line itself or its delivery, which is unfortunate as many of the film’s extended dialogue scenes are where the story has the most to chew on, developing its characters and their motivations while simultaneously implementing its signature theme of taking advantage of the opposite sex, even if this underlining theme is fairly surface level.

In short, whilst ‘Pet’ undoubtedly has its strengths, many of them do feel undermined by its weaknesses. From Jennette McCurdy’s weak performance to the peculiar dialogue and continuous overreliance on hand-held camerawork, ‘Pet’s constant tension building and subversion of classic horror tropes may not have been enough to draw in horror fans back in 2016, especially with the likes of: ‘Don’t Breathe,’ ‘Hush,’ and ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ all releasing around the same time. Still, while I understand why ‘Pet’ was given so little attention, I do hope more viewers stumble across this horror, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll receive praise from all. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Saw (2004) – Film Review

Before it became the colossal horror franchise, we know it to be today, ‘Saw’ was originally just a low-budget thriller ingeniously co-written by Leigh Whannell and debuting horror writer/director James Wan. Boasting an intricate structure consisting of flashbacks within flashbacks, the original: ‘Saw’ was far more focused on crafting a compelling (and occasionally confusing) mystery that takes place primarily within a single location rather than plainly indulging in blood and guts similar to its many sequels, and as a result, still remains the best entry of the ‘Saw’ franchise to-date.

Plot Summary: When two strangers awaken in a grimy bathroom with their ankles chained to pipes and no recollection of how they got there, the pair soon discover they’re pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by the notorious serial killer: ‘Jigsaw.’

Despite the ‘Saw’ series being predominantly known for its constant display of extreme violence, with the franchise even becoming infamous at one time for introducing the ‘Torture Porn’ subgenre to general audiences. The original: ‘Saw’ actually contains very little in the way of gore, as director James Wan never intended to make an immensely disturbing film. It was not until the sequels that the films became what he describes as “More Explicitly Nasty.” Still, this wouldn’t stop ‘Saw’ from its rampant train of success, as the first film alone would go on to earn over £90 million on a budget of only £1 million, instantly providing Wan and Whannell with the funds for their next project(s) in addition to placing ‘Jigsaw’ among the ranks of: ‘Jason Voorhees,’ ‘Freddy Kruger,’ ‘Chucky,’ and ‘Michael Myers’ as a horror icon.

Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell lead the film as ‘Dr. Lawrence Gordon’ and ‘Adam Stanheight’ respectively, and whilst neither actor gives a truly poor performance, Elwes easily outshines Whannell in many scenes. Obviously, this is due to Whannell being a writer (and now director) first and foremost, but with a better actor in Whannell’s place I feel many moments during the narrative could’ve been greatly enhanced. And while Danny Glover, Monica Potter, and Tobin Bell all do a serviceable job, due to Elwes and Whannell’s performances taking-up nearly the entirety of the film’s runtime, any faults in the actor’s portrayals are tremendously hard to ignore.

The cinematography throughout ‘Saw’ ranges from brilliantly clever to simply irritating, as director James Wan and cinematographer David A. Armstrong wanted the movement of the camera to reflect the central character’s emotions and personality, meaning ‘Dr. Gordon’ is displayed through steady, controlled shots while ‘Adam’ is seen exclusively through hand-held shots. Yet even with this attention to detail, ‘Saw’s camerawork suffers from its repeated inclusion of the ‘Bullet Time’ shot, first introduced in the sci-fi classic: ‘The Matrix’ in 1999. As although this shot was very impressive when it first appeared, by 2004, this overused technique of having the camera rapidly rotate around an actor feels nothing but exasperating, especially when combined with the film’s chaotic editing and often unpleasant colour palette.

Aside from the film’s signature track: ‘Hello Zepp’ which would go on to become a staple of the series, being utilised for each film’s final scene, the rest of: ‘Saw’s original score isn’t anything special. Being a mostly by-the-numbers horror soundtrack consisting of a variety of tense tracks with the occasional metallic effect thrown in to further relate to the industrial nature of: ‘Jigsaw’s many traps and devices. The sound design itself, however, significantly adds to the horror, implying much of the gruesome violence that isn’t directly seen.

As a result of its smaller-budget, there are many occasions where director James Wan had to get quite creative with how to execute certain scenes. For example, the car chase that appears later within the film was actually filmed inside of a warehouse garage, with the illusion of being outside being achieved by turning off all of the warehouse lights, adding some fog, and aggressively shaking the cars whilst filming directly from the front. This thin budget is also why the film contains no exterior shots whatsoever, as nearly all of the film was shot in a converted warehouse where the bathroom set was built, while any other locations were simply existing rooms redressed. However, even with this restrictive budget, the production crew actually made ‘Jigsaw’s now-iconic puppet: ‘Billy’ completely from scratch instead of pre-purchasing an antique puppet from a local store.

To conclude, the original: ‘Saw’ is far from flawless, but considering the film started-out as just a low-budget short before attracting the attention of Evolution Entertainment, who immediately formed a horror-focused subcompany with Twisted Pictures, the ‘Saw’ franchise has truly come a long way. And although the series’ first instalment is certainly plagued with many problems, there is a clear level of passion and effort poured into the project, and whilst I wouldn’t say it deserves to be one of the most profitable horror films of all time, I would say it deserves a watch even if you’re planning to pass-up the rest of the progressively grotesque franchise. Final Rating: 6/10.

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V/H/S (2012) – Film Review

Combining six found-footage horror stories from upcoming filmmakers of the time, 2012’s ‘V/H/S’ was a pretty ambitious indie horror upon its initial release. As while the film didn’t exactly reinvent the found-footage subgenre or avoid the usual problem anthologies tend to run into with its segments greatly ranging in quality, ‘V/H/S’ does manage to overcome some of its flaws through its eldritch stories and unique 1990s aesthetic, yet the film still pales in comparison to classic horror anthologies like ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Body Bags’ or its much improved sequel: ‘V/H/S/2.’

Plot Summary: When a group of misfits are hired by an unknown party to break into a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they are surprised to come across the owner’s decomposing body sat in front of a wall of video monitors and an endless supply of VHS tapes, each containing a piece of footage more disturbing than the last…

Although nowadays found-footage horror feels mostly played-out and even quite creatively limiting, ‘V/H/S’ does attempt to utilise its concept in the best way possible. Having its wraparound story titled: ‘Tape 56’ explain the other five, as every VHS tape a member of the group watches are the same stories we as the audience are seeing, it’s just a shame that this central narrative goes pretty much nowhere, only seeming to exist for the sake of the film’s anthology structure rather than to provide the film with a terrifying and memorable climax. But it does help that this segment takes-place in the same house as the ‘Marble Hornets’ web series, also known as the YouTube series that popularised the internet icon: ‘Slender Man.’

Due to the film featuring multiple stories, the huge cast of: ‘V/H/S’ ranges about as much as the segments themselves, as whilst no performance throughout the film is particularly bad, no performance is truly excellent either with the exception of Hannah Fierman as ‘Lily,’ who gives a very animalistic and continuously unnerving performance in the film’s first segment: ‘Amateur Night.’ Yet I don’t think this is entirely down to the cast, as ‘V/H/S’ does suffer from an overall lack of characterisation, which while hard to avoid in an anthology film where each story is given a limited timeframe, ‘V/H/S’ simply chooses to fit all of its characters into a certain stereotype and not development them at all beyond that.

The cinematography during every segment of: ‘V/H/S’ remains fairly consistent despite being handled by an array of cinematographers, and while the camerawork is very familiar for a grungy found-footage flick, the film’s assortment of glitch/static effects, grainy overlays, footage corruptions, and occasionally chaotic editing all help to ground many of the segment’s supernatural elements in an almost documentary-like realism. And in spite of: ‘V/H/S’s lower-budget, all the film’s directors including Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid alongside Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and Chad Villella under the title of: ‘Radio Silence,’ each try their hardest to distinguish their segment from the others.

Being a found-footage film, ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t have an original score, but with the film’s visuals leaning heavily into glitch and static effects, the sound design backs-up these effects with a distorted soundscape, adding tension to a number of scenes. And although the film only features one licensed song, that being: ‘They Come to Get Us,’ it does fit well over the film’s end credits.

But ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t escape the most common issue of anthologies, as there is certainly a noticeable shift in quality between its segments. As while I thoroughly enjoy the previously mentioned: ‘Amateur Night,’ the second and third story titled: ‘Second Honeymoon’ and ‘Tuesday the 17th’ respectively, are a drastic downgrade, with the first being an incredibly dull slow-burn thriller, and the second being nothing but a cringy retelling of a ‘Friday the 13th’ film as the title implies, neither of which are very memorable or creative, and feel like a chore to get through. However, these lacklustre segments are redeemed by the last two stories, as both ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ and ’10/31/98′ do implement some more inventive ideas even if they aren’t flawless in execution.

Altogether, ‘V/H/S’ has its strengths but also a great deal of weaknesses, having many of its spectacular moments of horror spoilt by weak writing or the restrictions of its anthology structure, making for an occasionally enjoyable but very inconsistent experience. So, while I personally think ‘V/H/S’ is worth at least one viewing for fans of horror anthologies, just bear in mind that the film never quite reaches the same heights as some others including its own sequel. And despite the third entry in the series: ‘V/H/S: Viral’ being an enormous disappointment for me, I’d still love to see the low-budget franchise continue. But with a prequel titled: ‘V/H/S 94’ being brought to the table by young filmmakers in 2019 only to then never be mentioned again, it seems the future of this series is unforeseeable, even if the first two films are sure-fire candidates for obtaining a cult status. Final Rating: low 6/10.

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Pixels (2015) – Film Review

Despite its undeniably promising story and talented supporting cast, 2015’s ‘Pixels’ is sure to greatly disappoint any viewer hoping for a hilarious and nostalgic throwback to 1980s arcade classics. As due to heavy involvement from Adam Sandler and his production company Happy Madison Productions both on and off-screen, ‘Pixels’ massively stumbles in its transition from the low-budget short film it’s originally based on into an explosive blockbuster, losing all of its charm and creative ideas to simply become another Adam Sandler comedy with some inspired visual effects.

Plot Summary: When aliens misinterpret a satellite video feed of 1980s arcade games as a declaration of war, they begin a full-scale invasion of Earth using games like ‘PAC-MAN,’ ‘Donkey Kong,’ ‘Centipede,’ and ‘Space Invaders’ as models for their various assaults. Eventually leading U.S. President: ‘Will Cooper’ to call on his childhood best friend, 80s video-game champion: ‘Sam Brenner,’ to lead a team of old-school arcaders to help defeat the alien invaders and save the planet…

As previously mentioned, ‘Pixels’ is actually based on a 2011 short film of the same name by French director Patrick Jean, which since being uploaded to YouTube has raked in well over two-million views. And whilst I personally believe the short film’s story of video-game characters invading Earth is a superb set-up for sci-fi-comedy, ‘Pixels’ unique plot is quickly butchered by screenwriter Tim Herlihy’s continuous writing fallbacks, as the film is content to stick with the usual Sandler template, using its inventive premise as simply framework to focus on a tired romantic hook-up storyline. Not even director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) manages to elevate the film’s story when the eight-bit antagonists aren’t on-screen, which is all quite frustrating when considering the film’s enormous budget of over £64 million.

Even though the supporting cast of Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox and Sean Bean do feel as if they are trying their best considering the mélange of underwritten characters and awful dialogue they have to work with. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, and surprisingly even Michelle Monaghan are all immensely irritating throughout the film, playing into their standard goofball personas without even a single attempt to lean outside of their comfort zones as actors. Josh Gad certainly suffers the worst in this regard, however, as his character: ‘Ludlow Lamonsoff’ serves as the cliché for video-game enthusiasts, portraying ‘Ludlow’ as a loud yet awkward loner who spends all of his time playing games in his room rather than socialising, a gag which gets old after about a minute.

The cinematography by Amir Mokri does allow for a few pleasant shots here and there, but whenever the film focuses more on dialogue than action, the camerawork seemingly takes a swift dive into drabness. Luckily, this is where ‘Pixels’ many, many visual effects shots come into play, adding a great level of colour and 1980s authenticity into the film just as the many arcade cabinets littering the sets do, even if games such as: ‘Asteroids,’ ‘Battle Zone,’ and ‘Gravitar’ did cause issues on set due to them being vector-class games, meaning the camera couldn’t pick-up their gameplay from certain angles without the use of a special monitor.

When it comes to the original score by Henry Jackman, ‘Pixels’ doesn’t improve much here either, as tracks like ‘The Invasion,’ ‘To the White House,’ and ‘Sweet Spot’ only continue to empathise the true extent of the soundtrack’s bland and forgettable nature, and similar to Jackman’s score for: ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ I couldn’t help but wonder as to why Jackman didn’t go for a more traditional eight-bit approach.

Whilst we never actually see the invader’s true form at any point during the film, ‘Pixel’s CG effects are consistent and by far the film’s finest attribute, as each iconic video-game character is represented exactly as they were in their original game(s), just as colourful and robotic as when they first appeared to gamers during the 80s. And just like the original short film, when destroyed the various characters also explode, bursting into pixels (glowing multi-coloured cubes), before then configuring themselves back together to transform into another instantly recognisable hieroglyph from video gaming’s past, which never fails to look enticing.

Overall, while I, like many others am not a Sandler fanatic, ‘Pixels’ is a film that truly baffles me as to just how far it is from its original inspiration. As even in spite of its annoying cast, childish characters and forced romantic subplot, there could still be a fairly enjoyable throwback to alien invasion flicks and 1980s gaming hidden somewhere within this mess. But when looking at the film head on, I now think it’s just too hard to ignore all its problems, and while most had the common sense to stay clear of this abysmal sci-fi/comedy, I’m still amazed ‘Pixels’ managed to ruin all of its fleeting moments of eight-bit invaders wreaking havoc just to fall into Adam Sandler’s long list of detestable comedies. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Spree (2020) – Film Review

The world of social-media influencers vying for clicks, likes, views and retweets all to achieve viral fandom is a twisted one, and ‘Spree’ is far from the first film to delve into this subject matter with a satirical lens. What makes the film different is its secondary inspiration, being based on the true story of an Uber driver who went on a killing spree in early 2016, ‘Spree’ has plenty of comically violent scenes to accompany its social-media commentary. Yet even in spite of Joe Keery’s magnetic screen-presence, ‘Spree’ is a film that always feels as if it’s on the verge of being something exceptional, but it’s reach far exceeds its grasp.

Plot Summary: Desperate for an online following, twenty-three-year-old wannabe influencer and rideshare driver: ‘Kurt Kunkle’ devises a malicious scheme to go viral, installing a series of cameras inside his rideshare car in order to film his unsuspecting victims as they meet a gruesome end…

Co-written and directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko (A Wonderful Cloud, Wobble Palace, We Are), ‘Spree’ was initially envisioned as a claustrophobic horror based around the story of the previously mentioned serial killing Uber driver who claimed a “Devil Figure” inside of the rideshare app was controlling his actions. And although this terrifying true story would have certainly provided enough inspiration for an indie horror, Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh soon began to swerve more into dark comedy after giving the killer an intense craving for attention. This eventually evolved into the film’s central theme of social-media obsession, which while often used to great effect to mock online influencers, does frequently feel underdeveloped and retracts from the film’s tension, pushing ‘Kurt’s killing spree into the background in exchange for awkward character moments, which will inevitably disappoint those hoping to see plenty of grisly kills.

Joe Keery portrays the film’s psychotic protagonist: ‘Kurt Kunkle,’ who is suitably just as upbeat and inappropriate as many real-world influencers. This realism is most likely a result of Eugene Kotlyarenko and Joe Keery’s research, as the pair watched many cringe compilations of people online without a big following to help create the character, and this comes across through Keery’s body movements and relentless optimism, making for an occasionally irritating yet charismatic protagonist as ‘Kurt’ always remains hopeful his night of murder will increase his follower-count after trying (and failing) for the past decade. It’s just unfortunate that ‘Kurt’ doesn’t receive much development over the course of the runtime aside from one or two scenes, with much of: ‘Kurt’s life outside of the internet being left a mystery.

The cinematography by Jeff Leeds Cohn is obviously in the style of found-footage, but rather than simply having ‘Kurt’ film his every move similar to most found-footage flicks, the camera itself takes on numerous forms as the story is seemingly spliced together through iPhone cameras/screens, dash-cams, bodycams and even CCTV footage. Yet despite this ever-changing camerawork ensuring ‘Spree’s visuals stay varied, there does come a point when it begins to feel as if the film is simply piling on footage, even sometimes having three shots displayed at once through a split-screen effect which does become slightly overwhelming, especially when combined with the film’s rapid-editing.

Whilst there a few found-footage films that have successfully integrated an original score without taking away the sense of realism the subgenre provides, ‘Spree’ is most definitely not one of those films. As although the pulsing electronic score composed by James Ferraro does help to build excitement, the film’s soundtrack often plays over scenes with no clear in-world source, which does greatly dampen the illusion of the film being found-footage.

Of course, with ‘Spree’ having a heavy focus around all things social-media, it would be crucial that the film stays truthful to what the internet is actually like (even through its cynical view). And while the film does have many scenarios that feel as though they lack realism, whether that’s due to incredibly forced dialogue or ‘Kurt’s beyond-moronic actions when trying to avoid the Los Angeles police force, anytime the film displays a phone screen there is a certainty that every app/website will be a real brand and will be overflowing with detail. For example, ‘Kurt’s constant livestreaming never shies away from reality, meaning his stream’s comments are always rapidly unfurling with insults, jokes, and questions all from distinct usernames, which according to Eugene Kotlyarenko, took him over forty-nights to write out.

In short, Joe Keery’s entertaining performance can’t distract from ‘Spree’s shallow critique of social-media. As whilst some may argue the story’s lack of depth is precisely the point, for me the film feels as if its unsure as to what to do with its concept, which is greatly disappointing. As I personally think a dark comedy revolving around the obsessive culture of social-media is ingenious, and films like ‘Ingrid Goes West’ prove this idea can be executed well. ‘Spree,’ however, fails to deliver on this or its even promise of a violent and comedic thrill ride. So, while I do still believe the film will have a niche appeal, ‘Spree’s apparent flaws are likely to stop most from hitting the subscribe button. Final Rating: high 4/10.

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Easy A (2010) – Film Review

Taking inspiration from romantic coming-of-age comedies like ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘Clueless,’ and ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Easy A’ released in 2010, certainly has its ups and downs. As despite Emma Stone leading the film with an extremely lively and charismatic performance, it’s hard to ignore the film’s immensely corny tone and many, many moments of humour that fall completely flat. Still, for those looking for a light-hearted morality tale about how a small lie can ramify out-of-control, ‘Easy A’ should suffice.

Plot Summary: After being prompted by her best friend to spill details of her boring weekend, ‘Olive Penderghast,’ a clean-cut seventeen-year-old high-schooler, decides to spice things-up by telling a little white lie about losing her virginity. But when the high-school busybody overhears their conversation and spreads it all over campus, ‘Olive’ suddenly becomes popular for all the wrong reasons…

Written by Bert V. Royal and directed by Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits, Annie, Peter Rabbit), ‘Easy A’ doesn’t strive too far from what we usually expect to see in our teenage romantic-comedies, taking place primarily in a high-school and focusing on the rippling effects of: ‘Olive’s constant lies and her growing popularity after she fully embraces her new persona as the school tart. And while I wouldn’t call ‘Easy A’s portrayal of an American high-school realistic per-say, many of the teenage characters we meet throughout the story are purposely represented as over-the-top stereotypes or even just one-note jokes through the film’s witty writing, which does vary from being hilarious to tiresome, depending on the scene.

Possibly being the biggest role of her career at the time of the film’s release, Emma Stone’s performance is undoubtedly the film’s finest aspect, as Stone truly brings her all to the role, portraying ‘Olive’ with such self-assurance that she elevates the game of every actor/actress around her. Having perfect comic-timing and a strong yet not irritating playful attitude that ensures ‘Olive’ will remain a likable and intelligent character for viewers to follow. Then there is the supporting cast of Amanda Bynes, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church, and Lisa Kudrow, who all attain at least one or two amusing moments even if many of their characters serve little-to-no purpose within the actual narrative.

With its story being set in California, ‘Easy A’ does utilise its West Coast setting for a handful of attractive wide-shots. But aside from these few shots, nearly all of the film’s cinematography by Michael Grady fails to display anything overly-interesting or creative. However, with that said, the film does flaunt its opening titles in a pretty imaginative fashion, having every cast/crew credit placed inside the shots themselves, whether that’s on the ground where characters are walking or placed on signs above the character’s heads, which is a fairly inventive way to avoid having each piece of text simply appear at the bottom of the screen.

Although the original score by Brad Segal is barely noticeable, ‘Easy A’ fills a large majority of its short runtime with a huge assortment of various pop songs, from ‘Change of Seasons’ to ‘Cupid Shoot Me,’ ‘Trouble is a Friend,’ ‘Bad Reputation,’ and, of course, ‘Pocketful of Sunshine’ by Natasha Bedingfield, which essentially becomes a running joke within the film as a result of the song’s catchy nature. Yet regardless of how widespread or beloved many of these songs may be, the sheer amount of licensed music that appears in the film is almost overwhelming, and when combined with the film’s editing, soon begins to feel quite choppy when rushing from song-to-song.

While the plot of: ‘Easy A’ does parallel the romantic novel: ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in more ways than one, ‘Easy A’ isn’t exactly a film that’s subtle about its influences. So, just as the film embraces its similarities to that story with ‘Olive’ continuously mentioning both the novel and film in addition to wearing the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothes, ‘Easy A’ also takes clips from many of the films its directly inspired by. In particular, when it comes to John Hughes’ iconic filmography, as everything from ‘The Breakfast Club’ to ‘Ferris Buller’s Day Off’ to the previously mentioned: ‘Sixteen Candles’ is not only referenced, but eventually, even sampled into the film during a clip-montage, which while unique, I couldn’t but think is a just a clever tactic of escaping criticisms regarding the film’s lack of originality in some areas.

Overall, whilst ‘Easy A’ owes an enormous debt to older (and in all honesty, better) teenage romantic-comedies, it is enjoyable in bit-size chunks, particularly, for those who are fond of Emma Stone. As in many ways ‘Easy A’ was unknowingly a showcase for the actress, alluding to her future career in Oscar-winning films such as: ‘La La Land’ and ‘The Favourite.’ And even though I’m certain its underlining cheesiness and subplots that feel like afterthoughts will annoy some, in my opinion, ‘Easy A’ has its moments, but it’s unlikely to leave a strong impression. Final Rating: low 6/10.

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Gravity (2013) – Film Review

A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable abyss of outer-space, 2013’s ‘Gravity’ is equal parts tense and beautiful. Taking over four-years to produce and winning numerous Oscars back in 2014 for everything from its effects to its cinematography to its sound editing, ‘Gravity’ serves as not only the long-awaited follow-up to director Alfonso Cuarón’s previous sci-fi film: ‘Children of Men,’ but also as one of the most immersive films to ever take place in the inhospitable vacuum of space.

Plot Summary: On her very first mission aboard the NASA space shuttle: ‘Explorer,’ novice biomedical engineer: ‘Dr. Ryan Stone’ and her accompanying seasoned astronaut: ‘Matt Kowalski’ come face-to-face with an irrevocable disaster during a routine spacewalk when a barrage of debris from a crippled Russian satellite inflicts devastating damage to their shuttle, leaving them both stranded in orbit…

Co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón, ‘Gravity’ is many ways less of a science fiction flick than it is a film grounded in real-world science, as it quickly becomes clear whilst watching ‘Gravity’ that the pair did their research into the fundamentals of space, presenting the narrative almost as if it’s based on a true story oppose to relying on flashy explosions to morph the film into a generic sci-fi blockbuster. Yet interestingly, author Tess Gerritsen actually filed suit against Warner Bros. Pictures following ‘Gravity’s release, claiming the film was unofficially based on her novel and that she was entitled to a screen credit and a fair percentage of the film’s profits, but this was never proven to be true, even if both stories do share many similarities.

With around 80% of the film being shot on a green-screen or consisting of CGI, there were plenty of opportunities for the performances throughout ‘Gravity’ to be underwhelming. And yet, this is not the case, as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney both give brilliant performances here, with Bullock in particular impressing not only due her acting chops, but also her memorisation skills. As with Alfonso Cuarón bringing his signature lengthy takes into ‘Gravity,’ Bullock had to memorise long combinations of precise movements in order to hit her marks for each shot, often even having to coordinate her movements with those of the wire-rig and the camera, which is no easy task.

Brimming with many, many stunning shots in addition to the previously mentioned one takes. ‘Gravity’s cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki rarely ceases to amaze, as the film wastes no time in capturing the viewer’s attention by jumping straight into the story with its opening scene, which begins with the camera traveling from an establishing shot of Earth over to ‘Dr. Stone’ detaching from a structure all without a single cut, which in total, lasts around twelve and a half minutes. That being only one aspect of the impressive camerawork ‘Gravity’ displays, another being the film’s excellent use of P.O.V. shots which place the audience directly into ‘Dr. Stone’s space suit, further adding to the film’s tense atmosphere. Furthermore, all of the film’s cinematography is greatly elevated by the magnificent lighting, editing, and CG effects which back it up.

As a result of: ‘Gravity’s realistic approach, for a large majority of the film’s nighty-nine-minute runtime there is little sound heard aside from dialogue, this places a lot of pressure onto the film’s original score by Steven Price, which luckily, manages to strike the perfect balance between terror and wonder. As tracks like ‘Above Earth,’ ‘Debris,’ and ‘Don’t Let Go’ push the score into becoming a remarkable exploration of the absolute isolationism of outer-space. Gradually building-up with pulsing electronic beats and gloomy vocals, until it eventually expands in intensity and volume alike, capturing the fear of what lies beyond the stars just as it does with the beauty.

The most common criticism ‘Gravity’ has faced since its release is that the film is focused more on spectacle than anything else, as while all of: ‘Gravity’s large-scale set-pieces are usually beyond-thrilling, some shots do feel as if they were implemented purely for the sake of 3D and IMAX screenings, which is difficult to ignore. This alongside the film’s lack of development in some areas does leave ‘Gravity’ a little devoid of memorability when compared to some other iconic films set within the vast emptiness of space, e.g. ‘Ad Astra,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and ‘Moon.’

In conclusion, whilst ‘Gravity’ may not live-up to the immensely positive reviews its received in recent years, it is still a captivating piece of science fiction and a true marvel of filmmaking. It’s just for me personally, I find the actual filmmaking process and behind-the-scenes material of: ‘Gravity’ far more interesting than the story itself, perhaps that’s due to its underdeveloped characters or another element entirely. Regardless, I feel even with its issues, ‘Gravity’ will remain a testament as to what can truly be achieved with modern technology when it comes to film. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Hellboy (2019) – Film Review

In mid 2012, actor Ron Perlman once again endured the four-hour make-up routine required to transform him into his iconic character: ‘Hellboy’ and fulfil the Make-A-Wish request of a six-year-old boy with leukaemia. Director Guillermo del Toro was so touched by this event that it inspired him to start production on a third: ‘Hellboy’ instalment. But following a dispute between del Toro and producer Mike Mignola, the project was soon cancelled, and instead, Mignola and his team began work on a reboot of the franchise, which finally released in 2019 to truly abysmal results.

Plot Summary: Whilst working side-by-side with his adopted father for the ‘Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence.’ ‘Hellboy,’ a supernatural creature who came into our world in 1944 as a result of a demonic Nazi ritual, struggles to accept which world he belongs to, that being one of monsters or one of men. All the while, an evil sorceress known as ‘The Blood Queen,’ returns to the modern world, eager to take her revenge on humanity for imprisoning her centuries ago…

According to producer Mike Mignola, the intention with this reboot was to replicant a style and tone closer to that of the original source material, as despite del Toro’s version of: ‘Hellboy’ often being light-hearted aside from one or two disturbing moments, the original comic series created by Mike Mignola is in reality, far darker and more gruesome. And whilst this goal of wanting to make a ‘Hellboy’ film more horror/fantasy-oriented rather than just a typical superhero blockbuster is commendable, this reboot of the series continuously stumbles due to this tonal shift, even with talented director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) overseeing the project. Yet this is only one of the film’s many problems, as it’s hard to sit through even a single viewing of: ‘Hellboy’ without noticing the film’s incredibly fast-pacing, awful comedic moments and beyond messy plot, which for some reason draws from four separate comic book storylines.

‘Hellboy,’ or particularly, David Harbour’s performance as the titular character, is possibly the film’s finest aspect. As rather than just lazily mimicking Perlman’s beloved version of the character, Harbour displays a less mature interpretation of the superhero. Portraying the horned hero as a conflicted character, younger and stronger than Perlman’s version, but unsure as to if he is a real hero, which is an interesting internal conflict to explore and about the only element of the film that is consistent. Then there is Ian McShane as ‘Hellboy’s father figure, who is serviceable in his role alongside Milla Jovovich as the villainous: ‘Blood Queen,’ who unfortunately, gives one of the most over-the-top performances of her entire career here.

Aside from the small detail of the filmmakers ensuring the colour red is never present in the same scenes as ‘Hellboy’ himself (excluding scenes where blood is shed, of course), the cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore is your usual affair for a superhero flick, having a handful of pleasant shots scattered amongst the plethora of bland hand-held camerawork utilised for action scenes and grand moments of destruction. But regardless of how impressive the cinematography may or may not be, there is no distracting from the film’s unappealing CG effects. As in spite of the creature department clearly trying their best with the detailed costumes, prosthetics, and makeup on display, nearly all of the CG effects throughout ‘Hellboy’ appear instantly dated.

The original score by Benjamin Wallfisch is a peculiar concoction, being an odd mish-mash of orchestral and electronic tracks which only succeed in making the soundtrack feel quite dull when it’s not overly-loud and irritating. Or at least, that’s the score before mentioning it’s use of electric guitars, which try desperately to present the soundtrack as something ‘awesome,’ but only emerges as annoying at best, with the film’s signature track: ‘Big Red’ being the biggest offender for this.

However, an aspect of the film that is more in line with del Toro’s previous ‘Hellboy’ adaptation is its creatures, as although the effects that bring them to-life aren’t impeccable, the actual creature designs are truly something be admired, with the ‘Hellboy’ comics clearly providing the filmmakers with plenty of visual influence. Even ‘Hellboy’s redesign was inspired by David Harbour’s own features, with the crew adding a larger jaw and a heavier brow to further fit with Harbour’s facial structure.

To conclude, while I can appreciate the effort that went into ‘Hellboy’ in some areas, the film’s flaws are just so evident its near-impossible to ignore them. From its convoluted and overstuffed story to its dreadful CG effects, ‘Hellboy’s thrilling moments of action or amusing dark humour are minor when compared to its faults. Yet by far the most frustrating part of this reboot is that it stripped away our final chance of seeing a third entry in the original: ‘Hellboy’ series, an instalment myself and many other fans of this beloved character had been wanting to see for quite some time. Instead, we’re now stuck with this disappointing reboot, which failed miserably to reignite the spark of excitement in this superhero franchise. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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The Void (2016) – Film Review

An excellent throwback to 1980s sci-fi and horror, ‘The Void’ released in 2016 and directed by duo Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, first began its life as a simple idea with two passionate minds behind it. As this surprisingly crowdfunded project makes remarkable use out of its thin-budget especially when considering the film’s many potentially expensive set-pieces, displaying its huge array of fantastic creature designs/effects, colourful lighting and creative cinematography with enough confidence and innovation to keep any genre enthusiast enthralled.

Plot Summary: After ‘Sheriff Deputy Carter’ stumbles across a blood-soaked man limping down a deserted road, he quickly rushes him to a local hospital with a barebones, night shift staff. But when a series of strange events occur within the hospital, seemingly linked to a group of cloaked figures standing just outside the building, ‘Carter’ decides to lead a mission into the hospital’s basement to find an exit, only to discover something far more concerning…

Even though ‘The Void’ did have a handful of producers on-board more familiar with the horror genre, as mentioned previously, the film was primarily a crowdfunded project, earning most of its budget in addition to a limited theatrical release in 2017 as a result of its online community of donators and fans. And its not exactly difficult to understand why many fanatics of sci-fi and horror alike were so interested in supporting the film, as immediately from the stylised intro any fan of 1980s cinema can tell ‘The Void’ is truly a love letter to everything 80s, with the film’s narrative clearly taking heavy inspiration from classics like ‘The Beyond,’ ‘Night if the Living Dead,’ ‘Re-Animator’ and of course, pretty much all of John Carpenter’s filmography. Yet despite all of these influences, ‘The Void’ also manages to never feel overly-derivative, even with the film’s plot sharing many similarities to the cult horror: ‘Prince of Darkness’ from 1987.

The cast of: ‘The Void’ is primarily comprised of unknown actors, which is by no means a bad thing, as the cast give solid performances across the board even in spite of their fairly one-note characters, with Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe, Daniel Fathers, Mik Byskov, Evan Stern and Ellen Wong portraying the main group of staff and survivors trapped within the hospital’s walls quite well. But the real stand-out of the film has to be Kenneth Welsh as ‘Dr. Richard Powell,’ easily the compelling character of the story who undergoes some enormous changes over the course of the runtime.

Samy Inayeh handles the film’s cinematography and handles it well, as whilst there are plenty of moments where the camerawork is far too reliant on hand-held shots, the film manages to even itself out over-time with plenty of visually-appealing ones. However, it’s the lighting and colour palette that are certainly the most visually-impressive elements of the film, as ‘The Void’ jumps from harsh reds to cold blues almost from scene-to-scene, not only to add to the film’s unearthly atmosphere of dread, but also to help hide some of the film’s budgetary shortcomings. Furthermore, the story’s signature location of an empty hospital is a very distinct setting for a horror such as this, as the building seemingly becomes more unnatural and dilapidated the further the characters explore it.

For its original score ‘The Void’ actually had quite a large group of composers (five in total), who expertly crafted a classic 1980s synth score with undertones of dark horror, which greatly adds to both the film’s style and atmosphere. And although the film’s soundtrack is usually more atmospheric than cinematic, tracks such as: ‘Starless Night’ and ‘A Hole in the World’ prove the score does have some memorability amongst its many foreboding tracks.

Partly due to the film’s budget and partly due to Gillespie and Kostanski wanting to use as little CGI as possible, ‘The Void’ is a science fiction flick that delights in its practical effects. Ensuring every creature design and the costume/prosthetics that bring it to-life are nothing but flawless, from their skin to their teeth to their various tentacles (of which the film seems to relish in), nearly every aspect of each creature looks truly spectacular, and its these otherworldly-designs alongside the film’s over-the-top gore and buckets of blood that help create some genuinely disturbing moments.

All in all, I feel ‘The Void’ succeeds in being an enjoyable throwback to many people’s favourite decade for sci-fi and horror, with its astounding filmmaking and many impressive practical effects all resulting in plenty of thrills and chills. And although some may argue the film lacks much in the way of originality, I’d argue otherwise. As I feel ‘The Void’ is less of a capsule for nostalgia and references for all things 80s, and more of a tribute to what came before it, never quite matching-up to many of the films from the time-period its referencing, but still raising the bar for indie filmmaking/crowdfunded projects in its best moments. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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