Molly’s Game (2017) – Film Review

Following his many triumphs as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, in 2017 Aaron Sorkin took a seat in the directing 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 biographies 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 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 an adept poker player and professional actor, who despite having their name changed to protect their privacy, 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. Particularly, whenever the story brings us back to the poker table, as here 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, meaning tracks like ‘Staring Down a Mountain,’ ‘Molly’s Journey,’ ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Therapy Session’ make for a dazzling mixture between 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 in nature, 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 short, ‘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’ likely won’t change your mind. Final 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 1138, American Graffiti, Star 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 when looking at what the film was trying to accomplish.

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 the 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 idea 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 individuals 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 within the ‘Dark Forest.’ Yet this isn’t too surprising considering that ‘Strange Magic’ was animated by Lucas’ famed visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, standing as their first fully animated feature since their debut with ‘Rango’ in 2011.

Moving from the visuals to the audio, ‘Strange Magic’ is what’s known as a jukebox musical, meaning that rather than creating original songs for the film, all of the songs heard throughout the runtime 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 song choices is undoubtedly what’ll make or break ‘Strange Magic’ for most, as older audiences may feel as if they are being pandered to, whilst young audience members will simply be confused as to why none of the song lyrics directly relate to any of the characters/plot points within the film. Furthermore, the original score by Marius De Vries (in what few scenes it’s actually utilised) is barely distinguishable from any other animated flick.

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, only establishing the two regions that reside side-by-side; the unimaginatively named: ‘Fairy Kingdom’ and ‘Dark Forest,’ and not much else as to the way this fantastical world functions.

All in all, ‘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 feature-length ‘Tinker Bell’ films. 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. Final 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 (Spy, Bridesmaids, A 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 view of 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 staying with them.

In terms of 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 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 overdoing it through the use of jingling bells etc.

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 relevance as opposed to emotional weight or social commentary.

In conclusion, 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, leaving ‘Last Christmas’ a digestible film at best and an irritating one at worst, even with its climactic plot twist being very much in line with the story’s wistful yuletide spirit. Final 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 Claus’ 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 Claus’ 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 Claus’ suit. ‘Silent Night’ isn’t the first voyage director Steven C. Miller (The Aggression Scale, Marauders, The 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 as 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’s ‘Santa’ suit, which remains a glowing red.

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

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

To conclude, ‘Silent Night’ is a modern slasher with its heart firmly in the ’80s, and I say that as a good thing. As with the film being a remake, 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, I believe ‘Silent Night’ will please fans of the series as well as those seeking a festive slasher. Final Rating: 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 Roof, Bunny and the Bull, Paddington 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…

With the story itself sharing many similarities to the creation of the ‘Paddington’ 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, its clear that King understands the importance of this character in pop-culture. Yet suitably, the film also doesn’t play things too safe and updates the character 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, depicting ‘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,’ 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 London,’ ‘This 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 were not actually part of the character’s original design, but were added over the years by toy manufacturers to ensure that the real-life ‘Paddington’ teddy bears were able to stand on their feet.

Overall, 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. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Extraction (2020) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturally, the action sequences of: ‘Extraction’ are what most of the film hinders on, and luckily, they do deliver, being brutal, bloody and fast-paced. As unlike a character like ‘John Wick,’ for example, whose fighting style is inherently tactical and calculated, ‘Tyler Rake’ engages in combat more spontaneously, improvising weapons and thinking on his feet whenever he is thrown into a dangerous scenario. As previously mentioned, much of the film’s camerawork also adds to many of these moments, particularly during one car chase sequence in which Sam Hargrave actually manned the camera himself whilst strapped to the front of a pursuing vehicle.

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

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Gone Girl (2014) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beneath (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skyline (2010) – Film Review

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

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

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

The film’s biggest downfall comes when we are introduced to the characters, as even when ignoring the apathetic performances from Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Donald Faison and David Zayas alike, the main group of individuals are just no different to the characters of any other alien invasion story. Being given the absolute bare minimum of characterisation, every member of the group (including the two protagonists) feel incredibly underwritten and frequently come across as unlikeable, even if the film does attempt to keep its characters grounded in realism by representing them as genuine civilians, as the characters never contemplate sprinting outside and confronting the extraterrestrial force face-to-face. Instead, they simply hunker down and use what little knowledge they obtain to their advantage.

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

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

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

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

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Cargo (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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