Apollo 18 (2011) – Film Review

Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego (King of the HillThe Open Grave, The Hollow Point), Apollo 18 is an intriguing (if infrequently enthralling) found-footage fusion of period-accurate space-flight procedures, U.S. government conspiracy theories, and 1970s creature features. Presenting itself as authentic NASA footage through granular shots from astronauts’ suit cams and Lunar Module cameras alike, Apollo 18 is an interesting filmmaking experiment, to be sure. But, as far as its storytelling is concerned, the film is unlikely to leave an impact on general audiences, though it may appeal to a few sci-fi-horror fanatics.

Plot Summary: When decades-old footage from NASA’s abandoned Apollo 18 mission is uncovered, documenting astronauts, Benjamin Anderson, Nathan Walker and John Grey, as they embark on a classified mission to collect geological samples. The ageing footage reveals a disturbing explanation as to why the U.S. has never attempted another mission to the moon…

A mere six months after the triumph of Apollo 11, NASA renounced its plans for Apollo 20 in January 1970. Soon after, Apollo 18 and Apollo 19 were also cancelled on account of NASA’s planned budgetary cuts for 1971. By this point, public interest in space exploration had declined since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s trip to the moon, with minimal attention paid to Apollo 12. As a result, many newspaper editorials and public figures began calling for the upcoming missions to be cancelled and for the money to be spent on eliminating poverty across America instead. Consequently, many conspiracy theories regarding why NASA never attempted another trip to the moon arose, which is where the filmmakers found their inspiration for the story. And whilst much of this inspiration is rather apparent, it’s even more obvious that the screenwriters lifted a lot from the original Alien, with a later plot twist feeling as if it was ripped straight from the sci-fi-horror classic. To its credit, though, Apollo 18 has no shortage of technically-accurate dialogue throughout its screenplay.

In regard to the cast, Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen and Ryan Robbins are all understated in their performances. Even when their situation escalates, and it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s little chance any of them will make it off the moon, the cast reign in their performances so as to not fall into the trap of screaming and wailing for the entire runtime, a common issue many entries into the found-footage subgenre suffer from. Having said that, Apollo 18 does suffer from another well-known shortcoming of found-footage flicks; one-note characters, as despite the film only containing three characters (excluding the transmissions), the screenplay never takes the time to develop any of them beyond some brief interviews during the first act, introducing each of the astronauts by name.

In addition to utilising a large amount of NASA stock footage to depict the period-accurate space-flight technology and procedures, Apollo 18 was shot using camera lenses from the ’70s, enhancing the visual authenticity of its grainy aesthetic. Furthermore, through a combination of both visual effects and sets, Apollo 18 manages to create a convincing imitation of the moon’s barren surface, harkening back to the hours of mission coverage that kept television spectators entertained during the heyday of the Apollo program. Due to this, José David Montero’s cinematography is able to perfectly capture the essence of the cratered lunar landscape, along with the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of the Apollo Lunar Module, making for an ever-present discomfiting atmosphere.

While the original score by Harry Cohen consists of merely a single sombre track for the end credits. The sound design throughout Apollo 18 is quite effective, with the continuous breathing from the astronauts’ helmets, as well as the constant static and technical malfunctions of the cameras sounding eerie yet not absurdly frightening as to take away from the sense of realism and isolation that the visuals produce.

A likely divisive aspect of Apollo 18 will be its preference for showing very little for most of its runtime, with a large majority of the story acting out like any routine NASA mission. When Apollo 18 does finally reveal what the malevolent threat lurking on the surface of the moon is, however, the film takes a sharp turn into body-horror as its malicious, spider-like creatures infiltrate the lunar module and later the astronauts’ suits. And whilst this approach to the horror elements could have worked should the film have stuck with it, Apollo 18 is more of a slow-paced thriller up to that point. So, these sequences of body-horror end up seeming somewhat out of place. Additionally, while this complaint undoubtedly comes down to preference, I personally feel that the designs of the creatures themselves aren’t all that frightening. So much so, I imagine that the only audience members that will be truly terrified of the extraterrestrial entities will be those with severe arachnophobia or petraphobia.

In summary, Apollo 18 certainly had potential, but as a result of its lack of polish, the film is rarely able to provoke intrigue or an underlining sense of dread to the degree it wants to. Nevertheless, Apollo 18 is a unique film, a largely entertaining found-footage sci-fi-horror with an unnerving atmosphere, capitalising on the claustrophobia of 1970s space travel. And while the film isn’t for everyone, I enjoyed Apollo 18 on account of its period-accurate visuals and surprisingly true-to-life sets and technical details. Rating: 6/10.

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The Forest (2016) – Film Review

The Aokigahara forest, more commonly known as “The Suicide Forest” or “The Sea of Trees,” is a thirty-five-square-kilometre grove lying at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan. The forest is often cited as the most widespread site for suicide in the country, given that in 2003, over a hundred bodies were discovered in the forest, exceeding the previous record of seventy-eight in 2002. The site became so heavily associated with suicide that a sign at the start of the main trail was later installed to urge suicidal visitors to contact a suicide prevention helpline. So, with all of this notoriety, it was merely a matter of time until a film would utilise the infamous location. Enter, 2016’s The Forest, a supernatural horror flick that sacrifices all of its compelling ideas and despairing real-world setting for cheap, predictable scares and an immensely uninteresting story.

Plot Summary: When orphan, Sara Price, receives a phone call from the Japanese authorities informing her that her twin sister, Jess Price, has disappeared and was last seen heading into the Aokigahara forest, Sara decides to travel to Japan to investigate her sister’s disappearance. But, after entering the notorious forest, accompanied by her Japanese guide, Michi, and American reporter, Aiden, Sara’s investigation begins to send her down a dark path of tormented souls and supernatural occurrences…

Whilst two other films were released before The Forest inspired by Aokigahara, those being; Shawn4Ever in 2012 and The Sea of Trees in 2015, neither film could be considered a horror. And this is what ultimately attracted director Jason Zada (Project Dead Zone) to the project, as Zada was surprised to learn that there had never been a horror film based on the ill-famed site. After discovering that the Aokigahara forest also has a strong association with demons in Japanese mythology, Zada’s interest in the project grew as this information opened the door for a more supernatural narrative. However, the story eventually selected for The Forest is hardly what I’d call engrossing, as while the first act sufficiently sets the story in motion, the narrative quickly devolves into Sara simply meandering through the forest getting sporadically interrupted by blaring jump-scares, many of which are easily foreseen.

Portraying twin sisters; Sara and Jess Price, Natalie Dormer delivers a compelling performance throughout The Forest by lending her acting talents to dual characters. Yet, she is frequently burdened by the screenplay’s lack of characterisation and stale dialogue, which is often as wooden as the trees in the forest. Moreover, the supporting cast of Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa and Eoin Macken give understandably bland performances as their characters are given next-to-no development and little urgency when it comes to their decisions within the plot.

Since the Japanese government would not allow the filmmakers access to the Aokigahara forest for filming, the Tara National Forest in Serbia served as a suitable stand-in for the location. Aside from the forest itself, however, all of the scenes in Japan were shot on location, and this authenticity does come across on camera. Speaking of the camerawork, the cinematography by Mattias Troelstrup is serviceable, for the most part, as the film makes adequate use of the eerie forest backdrop by implementing a large number of environmental shots, lingering on the calming beauty of the forest in contrast to the tragedies that repeatedly occur within it.

Ominous yet forgettable, the original score by Bear McCreary fits the dreary tone of The Forest appropriately yet lacks anything to make itself distinguishable from other horror scores. Furthermore, whilst there are multiple fast-paced tracks, there is a surprising shortage of slow and moody pieces for a film set in a location like the Aokigahara forest. Nevertheless, I will give McCreary credit for integrating a children’s choir into the score, effectively blending the ghostly juvenile vocals with the rest of the instruments (most notably in the track; Into the Forest), almost as if the choir represents the siren call of the forest.

Interestingly, one of the promotional posters for The Forest features the top half of Natalie Dormer’s face with the bottom half removed, the dividing line between them forming a silhouette of treetops and dangling nooses. This imagery carries a clear resemblance to a photograph of an actual suicide victim once found within the Aokigahara forest; a bald man in such a decomposed state that his jaw had fallen off and strips of flesh were hanging from where it had once been. This photograph is also recreated in the film, albeit in a less grotesque form. Fortunately, outside of this scene, The Forest doesn’t contain much blood/gore, which I’d argue was a good decision on behalf of the filmmakers to remain respectful of the families who have lost loved ones to Aokigahara.

In summary, while The Forest offers Natalie Dormer a few chances to showcase her range through a dual role, it isn’t enough to offset the fact that The Forest is just not all that startling or interesting. Of course, these shortcomings could be attributed to Jason Zada being a music video director by trade, harbouring only one other horror flick in his filmography. But, regardless of the cause, it’s unfortunate, as I feel that given the right attention, the Aokigahara forest could make for a phenomenal setting for a minimalist horror, especially if it’s combined with a tasteful narrative that plays upon the site’s infamy. Rating: low 4/10.

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The Pyramid (2014) – Film Review

Poorly lit, inconsistently shot and lazily written, The Pyramid, released in 2014, is a horror flick that perfectly demonstrates the notion that giving a large budget to a project doesn’t necessarily make it a success. In the case of The Pyramid, this claustrophobic (predominantly) found-footage horror was given a budget of almost £6 million, a rather substantial amount of funding for a modern horror. Yet, even with a budget of this size, the film squanders almost every penny as its potentially captivating delve into Egyptian history/mythology is tainted by repeatedly clunky dialogue and countless lacklustre jump-scares.

Plot Summary: When a team of U.S. archaeologists unearth an ancient pyramid buried beneath the desert just outside Cario, they yearn to explore the interior of the structure despite extensive pushback from locals. Ignoring the residents’ objections, the group decide to head into the depths of the pyramid, soon becoming hopelessly lost in its endless passageways, eventually coming to realise that they aren’t just trapped, they are being hunted…

Directed by Grégory Levasseur, a frequent collaborator of producer Alexandre Aja. The Pyramid was Levasseur’s first and only directorial credit to date, and upon a first watch, it quickly becomes apparent as to why that is as The Pyramid is a horror ripe with imperfections that nearly any critic or casual audience member could spot. However, many of these issues are a result of Levasseur continuously brawling with the constraints of the found-footage subgenre, which might explain why the film makes so many baffling choices when it comes to its cinematography. Moreover, many of the scares throughout are telegraphed well in advance, so if you watch plenty of horror flicks, you’ve likely already seen everything the film has to offer.

When it comes to the story, the first act rushes through a string of contrivances, such as threats of air poisoning following the opening of the pyramid’s entrance, a military-ordered evacuation, and a NASA rover being mysteriously destroyed inside the pyramid, all of which were plainly written into the screenplay in order to get the central group of characters into the foreboding burial site as swiftly as possible. Yet, through this entire act, the screenplay rarely tries to develop any of the characters beyond a few traits, whether that be Dr. Nora Holden; a prodigious prehistorian and graduate of the Christmas Jones Academy of Scientist Couture, portrayed by Ashley Hinshaw, or the dim-witted British cameraman, Fitzie, portrayed by James Buckley. Every one of the characters are remarkably unoriginal and uninteresting. And even though certain supporting cast members, such as Denis O’Hare and Christa Nicola, deliver respectable performances, they ultimately add up to very little as most of the dialogue consists of excessive exposition or generic lines like “This Is the Find of a Century.”

As mentioned previously, The Pyramid bizarrely utilises both a first-person and a third-person perspective. So, despite many of the characters wearing or carrying cameras to present the film as found-footage, the cinematography by Laurent Tangy frequently reverts to well-presented shots that none of the characters could have realistically obtained. This illogical decision pretty much ensures that the audience will be taken out of the spine-chilling, claustrophobic scenarios the screenplay is trying to craft, in addition to breaking the illusion that what the audience is watching is recovered footage. That being said, The Pyramid does harbour some impressive set design, as from the moment the group enter the pyramid, they are ensnared in narrow chambers and passageways, each retaining sand-littered bases and detailed Egyptian wall hieroglyphics.

Similar to the cinematography, the original score by Nima Fakhrara is rather inconsistent. Although the score clearly takes admirable influences from Egyptian culture and includes a commendable array of effective tracks. In actuality, The Pyramid shouldn’t have an original score, given the film is supposedly a found-footage flick. The end credits sequence is also accompanied by the rock song; 5173 by Kevin Hastings, which only adds to the utter strangeness of the soundtrack.

Perhaps The Pyramid‘s greatest flaw, however, is that even those with a strong interest in Egyptian history/mythology are unlikely to enjoy the story, as many of its ideas are barely explored and there are numerous instances where the Egyptian mythology that the story does integrate is incorrect. For example, near the end of the runtime (spoilers ahead in this section for those who wish to go in blind), the evil entity behind the pyramid’s existence is revealed to be Anubis, an ancient Egyptian deity. In the film, Anubis is composed of terrible CGI and presented as a ferocious beast. Yet, in Egyptian mythology, Anubis was quite benevolent towards humans, treating them with respect as they embarked on their voyage into the afterlife. Hence, his characterisation in The Pyramid is a far cry from how Ancient Egyptians actually viewed him.

In summary, very little of The Pyramid is especially engaging or particularly frightening as many of the characters are portrayed as cardboard cutouts, simply meandering their way through an exceedingly tiresome plot. So, aside from some convincing set design and supporting performances, I feel The Pyramid is undoubtedly a horror worth skipping. Considering that the production company behind the project, 20th Century Fox, decided not to release The Pyramid on physical formats in many territories due to its dismal box office performance, it seems that most have already forgotten this found-footage catastrophe. Rating: low 3/10.

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Thoroughbreds (2017) – Film Review

Originally written for the stage, 2017’s Thoroughbreds juggles many conflicting tones, but does so with such panache and charm that it’s rare to find deficiencies within its tonal shifts. With a straightforward yet deeply engrossing plot, elegant visuals and a pair of top-notch performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, Thoroughbreds delivers a sharply written and refreshingly unpredictable entry into the black comedy genre. Placing far more emphasis on its characters and their internal issues than anything other black comedy in recent memory. 

Plot Summary: In suburban Connecticut, a pair of childhood friends reconnect after many years when the sharply-witted sociopath, Amanda, arrives at the residence of the wealthy and academically inclined, Lily, for a private tutoring session. After rekindling their friendship, however, Lily soon learns of Amanda’s peculiar philosophy, prompting the pair to hatch a plan to solve both their problems, a plan that begins with the murder of Lily’s detestable stepfather…

Stuck in limbo for almost two years, the production of Thoroughbreds technically ceased in mid-2016, yet the film wasn’t released into cinemas until March 9th, 2018. This was due to several factors, but most notably, this was a result of the film’s lengthy and extensive festival circuit in 2017. During this festival run, Thoroughbreds received many positive reactions, which in a way, surprises me, as even though the plot of Thoroughbreds may sound like a set-up for a compelling thriller, the plot twists and suspenseful moments are never the main attributes of the film. Instead, Thoroughbreds is far more focused on having its characters use their words to eke the darkness out of one another, which ultimately leads to an outcome that, in its theatricality, may feel anticlimactic to some. But, for others, will feel like a unique take on what could’ve been a poorly executed sequence for a lower-budget crime-thriller. 

The two central characters of Amanda and Lily, expertly portrayed by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, are unquestionably the primary focus of Thoroughbreds, with much of the runtime being spent developing the pair and depicting many of the similarities and differences between their respective personalities. For instance, since their early days of horseback riding, Lily has turned into a polished, upper-class teenager with outstanding grades and a coveted internship on her resume. Meanwhile, Amanda has developed a strong sense of perception and a stern attitude, all in the process of becoming a social outcast and unregistered sociopath, which is flawlessly depicted through Cooke’s impassive performance. Sadly, Thoroughbreds was also the final project to feature a terrific performance from actor, Anton Yelchin, as the small-time drug dealer, Tim, before his tragic death on June 19th, 2016, at the age of twenty-seven. As such, the film is dedicated to him.

Despite writer-director Cory Finley (Bad Education) bearing a more extensive background in theatre than filmmaking, Finley displays a natural cinematic instinct right from the opening scene. Depicting the baroque, marble-lined mansion where Lily, her mother and her stepfather reside as more of a prison than a utopia, as the cinematography by Lyle Vincent stalks through the location in lengthy, restless takes. Lingering on specific elements, such as an SUV driving up the gravel driveway or two characters staring at each other from adjacent rooms. Furthermore, the visuals retain a surprisingly vibrant colour palette when considering the grim nature of the story, utilising luminous whites, greens and greys for the majority of the runtime.

For the original score, composer, Erik Friedlander, manipulated various instruments to achieve a number of atonal sounds like boinks and sproings, which all serve as disconcerting counterpoints to the refined visuals. And while there are many excellent tracks throughout the seemingly unstructured score as a result of these unusual sounds, the final track; Win Win, is undoubtedly the best track of the original score, concluding the black comedy on a bittersweet note thanks in part to the optimistic piece.

Bleak yet direct in its underlining commentary on the turmoil of being a teenager in the modern world, Thoroughbreds takes the problems of the young and privileged and explores them through the narrative. With many teenagers (particularly teenage girls) often being told to act or react in specific ways, this story of two girls who are both removed yet acutely aware of their emotions is something to be appreciated in modern character studies. Still, as a consequence of this gradual exploration of the two central characters, I believe many audience members will be turned off by the film on account of its slow pacing and total lack of on-screen violence. However, that’s not to say that I agree with these conceivable criticisms, as even with Thoroughbreds‘ slow pacing, I actually feel that the runtime could’ve been slightly extended, providing more time for characterisation in the first act before the girls reunite.

In summary, Thoroughbreds is a quirky, darkly comedic and entertaining crime-thriller anchored by some exceptional performances and praiseworthy filmmaking. Although the film may not be for everyone given its harsh perspective on teenage life, shortage of blood/gore and frequently slow pacing, Thoroughbreds lavish presentation and snappy dialogue are immensely effective. To the point that the screenplay even manages to make the audience empathise with a character that is completely incapable of empathy, which is a rather impressive feat. Rating: 8/10.

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Red Riding Hood (2011) – Film Review

A reinterpretation/modernisation of the centuries-old fairy tale; Little Red Riding Hood; a children’s story centring on a young girl as she encounters the Big Bad Wolf on a journey to visit her grandma. Red Riding Hood, released in 2011, retains the framework of the original story, but not much else, as this reinterpretation aims to be a dark fantasy with elements of romance and gothic horror thrown in. Yet, in almost all of these genres, the film falls flat as a result of its subpar screenplay and direction. That’s not to say that Red Riding Hood doesn’t have any positives, however, as this fantasy flick undoubtedly deserves praise for its outstanding production design and dreary fantasy aesthetic.

Plot Summary: For years, the residents of a remote mountain village have maintained an uneasy truce with a fearsome werewolf by offering the bloodthirsty beast a monthly animal sacrifice. But, when the wolf violates their trust by taking a human life, the village falls into hysteria, prompting the arrival of the famed werewolf hunter, Father Solomon, to assist in their hunt. Meanwhile, Valerie, a beautiful young woman torn between two viable fiancés, begins to suspect that the beast maybe someone she knows…

Similar to most European fairy tales, the origins of Little Red Riding Hood lie within the folk tradition of oral storytelling. So, no singular author can be credited for the story’s creation. However, the two most prominent renditions of the fairy tale are proclaimed to have been written by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm in the 17th century. Despite this history, Red Riding Hood seems to largely disregard the various iterations of the fairy tale, to instead take influence from the first instalment of the infamous Twilight series, as the two films share a number of similarities. For example, the opening title sequence where the camera majestically glides over vast snowy landscapes closely resembles the opening title sequence of Twilight. Furthermore, Taylor Lautner, who previously appeared in Twilight, was considered for the role of Peter early in pre-production. Still, these similarities shouldn’t be that surprising, considering that director Catherine Hardwicke (ThirteenLords of DogtownMiss You Already) helmed the first entry in the series in 2008.

In regard to the cast, Amanda Seyfried portrays the titular character of Valerie/Red Riding Hood sufficiently, but her performance is somewhat hindered on account of her placement between Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons as her love interests, Peter and Henry, whose performances leave a lot to be desired coming across as drab and rather wooden for the majority of their screen-time. As per usual, the highlight of the cast is undoubtedly Gary Oldman as the morally-grey werewolf hunter, Father Solomon. Though Oldman doesn’t get to exhibit immense amounts of emotion (despite his character having a tragic backstory), the veteran actor does stay committed to his detestable character.

Aside from some outlandish CGI and a handful of moments where cast members/props that should seemingly be in focus are not, the cinematography by Mandy Walker is one of the finest components of Red Riding Hood. From the glowing red of Valerie’s hood contrasting against the white snow, to the blood-red moon gradually emerging over the village rooftops, Red Riding Hood is a visually stunning fantasy at points. What’s more is that the set, costume and prop design are all exceptional, as every location feels rustic yet fantastical, whilst every costume/prop appears worn and functional. From a design standpoint, even the trees that appear throughout the runtime are visually unique as they harbour cadaverous spikey branches, giving the impression that merely wandering through any of the dense forests surrounding the village could result in a wound and subsequently a trail of blood.

Unsuitable yet well-crafted, the original score by Alex Heffes and Brian Reitzell begins rather promisingly with the track; Towers of the Void, which Reitzell co-wrote with musician, Anthony Gonzalez, of the electronic band; M83. As such, the ominous track contains waves of strings and industrial-sounding electronics, these instruments then persist onto the second track; Kids, where they are accompanied by ghostly vocals and moody synth. Essentially, while not a bad soundtrack, by any means, the score for Red Riding Hood is simply so unfit for a story set in this time period and genre, that it’s difficult to overlook when reviewing the score.

For a significant portion of the runtime, the story of Red Riding Hood unfolds like a mystery, with the human identity of the werewolf being kept a secret to keep the audience guessing. And whilst many suspects are immediately dismissed, the screenplay does a serviceable job of introducing red herrings without seeming overly conspicuous. When the truth is finally revealed, however, the answer as to who is behind the beastly slayings is rather disappointing, especially since the reveal is quickly followed up by an equally disappointing climax and epilogue.

In summary, as far as gloomy retellings of classic fairy tales go, Red Riding Hood is certainly one of them. While Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman are magnetic in their respective roles, the unremarkable leading men along with the painfully formulaic screenplay, continuously devalue the beautiful production design and often spectacular visuals. So, whilst it’s possible that the Twilight crowd will find a specific appeal in Red Riding Hood, outside of that devoted fanbase, I doubt many others will. Rating: low 5/10.

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Mortal Engines (2018) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, the first entry in a string of young-adult novels, 2018’s Mortal Engines seemed like a blockbuster destined for success and an ensuing franchise upon its initial release, but, evidently, that was not the case. Carrying over much of the same crew behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, Mortal Engines has no shortage of eye-catching visuals and large-scale action set pieces, but the film lacks the interesting characters and engrossing story required to fuel a post-apocalyptic blockbuster of epic proportions.

Plot Summary: Thousands of years after human civilisation was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, mankind has adapted, and a new way of life has evolved. Gigantic roaming cities now wander the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller municipalities to feed their enormous engines. One of these cities; the great traction city of London, is home to Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian, who eventually finds himself stranded and fighting for survival in the barren Outlands after encountering the evasive fugitive, Hester Shaw…

Directed by Christian Rivers, a prior storyboard and visual effects artist for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Mortal Engines shares more than a few similarities with co-writer/producer Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R Tolkien’s high-fantasy novels. For instance, much like the trilogies set within Middle-Earth, Mortal Engines places a heavy focus on world-building, continuously introducing new characters, lore and pieces of futuristic technology to flesh out its post-apocalyptic world. However, the diverse mix of locations throughout the narrative is by far the most fascinating aspect of the fictional world. From the roaming city of the former British capital to Airhaven; a metropolis floating amongst the clouds, to the nefarious Rustwater Marshes; an expansive section of swampland where countless unethical exchanges take place. Every location presented during the runtime is far more memorable than any of the characters that traverse through them. 

Speaking of the characters, whether they derive from one of the monumental roaming cities or the desolate Outlands, the characters of Mortal Engines are exceptionally bland. Harbouring generic traits and obligatory backstories, the characters merely exist to push the story forward. The main cast of Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae Kim, Ronan Raftery, Leila George and Hugo Weaving, don’t elevate the screenplay either, as their exaggerated British accents and equally exaggerated deliveries of corny and exposition-heavy dialogue make it difficult to care for any of them. Furthermore, by the time the third act arrives, we’re told that Hester and Tom have developed feelings for each other, a plot point that seems extremely far-fetched considering that the pair share only a handful of conversations that aren’t directly related to the narrative.

Largely consisting of wide shots to establish the extensive amount of locations visited throughout the story, Simon Raby’s cinematography undoubtedly enriches the film by impressively capturing the scope of the world and the enormous cities that roam within it. Moreover, the steampunk aesthetic supplies a hefty dose of personality to the visualsparticularly whenever it comes to scenes set within the roaming city of London, as the rundown futuristic technology combined with British iconography, forms a striking visual meld. Contrarily, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Outlands is devoid of life and colour, making the industrial levels of the motorised cities almost seem appealing in comparison. 

The original score by Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Junkie XL, is, for the most part, action-dominated, with tracks like The ChaseFirst Strike and No Going Back, all bleeding into one another due to their similarities. And whilst the soundtrack never really drags, the score does become rather repetitive as Holkenborg struggles to innovate on the action-orientated tracks. Meaning that all of the action sequences essentially contain the same selection of interchangeable tracks, each blaring out pounding percussions and string ostinatos.

Although many of the action sequences are relatively uninspired, the visual effects throughout Mortal Engines cannot be faulted. The most blatant example of how remarkable the visual effects are can be seen with the CG character, Shrike, a cyborg assassin, portrayed by Stephen Lang. While the film’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, is well-known for developing exceptional motion-capture characters, such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the most-recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. In Mortal Engines, Shrike was created using alternative techniques to Weta Digital’s usual approach, as visual effects artists disregarded modern motion-capture methods to instead employ traditional keyframe animation and accurately capture Lang’s subtle facial expressions. Nevertheless, much like many of the other characters within Mortal Engines, Shrike and his poignant relationship with protagonist, Hester Shaw, feels greatly under-realised, somewhat dampening the terrific CGI.

In summary, for a blockbuster that revolves around massive roaming cities, soaring airships and steampunk cyborgs, Mortal Engines is strangely forgettable. Whilst the film is visually creative, dynamic and propulsive, emotionally and thematically, it’s hollow and flat, barely giving a reseason for its audience to be engaged. And even though I understand that in the last few years, Peter Jackson seems to have turned his attention towards directing documentaries as opposed to blown-up blockbusters. I believe that Mortal Engines could’ve been improved should Jackson have helmed the project and given the screenplay a few more rewrites and lookovers, potentially capturing some of the magic that made his prior plunges into the mystical world of Middle-Earth so enthralling. Rating: high 4/10.

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Loving Vincent (2017) – Film Review

An arduous labour of love by a team of over one hundred professional artists, Loving Vincent, released in 2017, turns the renowned artwork and tragic life story of the celebrated post-impressionist artist, Vincent van Gogh, into an extraordinary biopic. Initially filmed in live-action before every frame was then hand-painted over in the distinct style of van Gogh’s artwork, Loving Vincent impressively employs hundreds upon hundreds of oil paintings and transforms them into a hypnotic and ambitious animated biography, even if its story and characters are less effectively crafted than its dazzling visuals.

Plot Summary: In the summer of 1891, one year after the presumed suicide of unwonted artist, Vincent van Gogh. Postman, Joseph Roulin, tasks his reluctant son, Armand Roulin, with delivering one of the artist’s final letters to his brother, Theo van Gogh, in Paris. But, when Armand arrives in the French capital, learning that Theo has, too, met his demise, he pledges to investigate van Gogh’s untimely death by venturing to the scenic town of Auvers-sur-Oise…

Obtaining a large amount of attention after its nomination for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture in 2018. Loving Vincent is one of the most unique films to emerge from the animation genre in recent years as immediately from the hand-painted opening title sequence, preceded by van Gogh’s quote; “We Cannot Speak Other Than by Our Paintings.” The audience is pulled into van Gogh’s hyper-sensual worldview through the film’s striking aesthetic. Aside from the astonishing visuals, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman also provide an alternative take on the historic biopic by having the life of Vincent van Gogh viewed from the perspective of a young man, via the stories he is told by those who knew him. And even though this investigative storyline doesn’t quite match up to the amazing visuals on display, it’s an engaging story, nonetheless.

While the main cast of Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Saoirse Ronan, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, the late Helen McCrory and Chris O’Dowd, are all terrific in their performances, none of the characters retain a French accent. And considering that the story takes place in 1800s France, I feel the immersion of the time period/setting could’ve been greatly increased should the filmmakers have chosen to cast English-speaking French actors/actresses. Moreover, similar to the narrative, the characters of Loving Vincent are one of the film’s lesser impressive aspects. Whilst Armand Roulin is serviceable as a headstrong protagonist, eager to fight and drink before he is pulled out of his slump and instructed to deliver van Gogh’s final letter, subsequently becoming more and more invested in the alleged suicide of the gifted yet largely detested artist. The majority of the characters are given little characterisation and merely serve as plot devices to edge Armand towards his next acquaintance/eyewitness.

Moving onto the visuals, Loving Vincent was predominantly animated through the rotoscope technique; an animation process that consists of tracing over live-action footage frame-by-frame. This technique allowed the filmmakers to implement the characters into a number of visually stunning environments, along with numerous recreations of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. However, only the sequences set in 1891 are animated in the style of van Gogh’s artwork, as flashback sequences are animated in the style of black and white photographs of the time period, providing a clear visual distinction. Additionally, details such as cigarette smoke, clouds or flowing rivers make for fantastic transitions between scenes. On the whole, the visuals of Loving Vincent almost appear like purified echoes of Vincent van Gogh’s artwork, as the cinematography by Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal, combined with the vibrant colour palette and beguiling art style, results in countless enchanting shots.

From the outset, the original score by Clint Mansell backs up the stylistic visuals with a sombre and atmospheric soundscape. Through tracks like The Night CaféThe Yellow HouseMarguerite Gachet at the Piano and Five Sunflowers in a Vase, the score creates a sense of sadness that parallels the difficult life Vincent van Gogh led. Furthermore, despite having a noticeable lack of movement in the background of certain scenes, the sound design goes a long way in fleshing out the environment around the characters, whether that be the bustling streets of Paris or a quaint farm in Auvers-sur-Oise.

According to Loving Vincent‘s official website, the collective effort of the many talented artists that worked on the project resulted in a total of eight hundred and fifty-three oil paintings, as each art piece was utilised multiple times, with succeeding frames being painted on top of the original paintings. In the final film, there are around fifty thousand hand-painted frames, which is truly an incredible feat of artsy when taking into account how much time went into just a single scene.

In summary, Loving Vincent is an outstanding achievement, not only in the genre of animation, but also in the world of filmmaking. While the story and characters do leave room for improvement, these minor issues hardly detract from Loving Vincent‘s main attribute; its ravishing visuals. From the phenomenal use of colour to the detailed backdrops and innumerable visual references to van Gogh’s most recognised artwork, Loving Vincent is a captivating tribute to one of history’s most influential artists. And, as such, I’d say Loving Vincent is a biopic well worth seeking out, even if it’s merely for the experience of witnessing the craftsmanship of hundreds of animated oil paintings on-screen. Rating: low 9/10.

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The Iron Giant (1999) – Film Review

Partially based on the novel; The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, 1999’s The Iron Giant is an incredible achievement in both storytelling and animation. Tackling ambitious themes and complex animation techniques for the time through its near-seamless blend of hand-drawn and CG animation, The Iron Giant is a captivating and uplifting animated sci-fi adventure with plenty of humour and heart entrenched in its story. And while perhaps not the peak of director Brad Bird’s filmography, with The IncrediblesRatatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol all serving as stiff competition. As far as directorial debuts go, The Iron Giant was undoubtedly a curtain-raiser for Bird and his team.

Plot Summary: When a massive metal automaton, sent from somewhere in the black void of outer space, crash-lands on Earth just outside the small town of Rockwell, Maine. Eleven-year-old, Hogarth Hughes, stumbles across the android and quickly strikes up a friendship with the giant. But, unbeknownst to Hogarth, U.S. government agent, Kent Mansley, has his sights set on finding the extraterrestrial visitor and will stop at nothing to ensure its destruction…

Whilst The Iron Giant bears little resemblance to the novel it’s based upon, the stories behind both the novel and the film’s creation are tragic yet fascinating. As originally, the author of the novel, Ted Hughes, wrote the story as a way of comforting his children after the suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath. Similarly, Brad Bird was in part inspired to adapt the novel as a memorial to his sister, Susan Bird, emphasising the anti-gun message of the story as she was shot by her estranged husband in a murder-suicide in 1989. His initial pitch was this; “What if a Gun Had a Soul and Didn’t Want to be a Gun?” And even if the title of the adaptation (and subsequently the titular character’s name), was later changed to The Iron Giant to avoid confusion with the renowned comic book character, Iron Man. This underlining theme has always been associated with the character and is weaved into the narrative exceptionally.

The main voice cast of Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., and Christopher McDonald all do a fantastic job as the central clump of well-defined characters, portraying them as surprisingly grounded personalities for an animated flick. However, the most significant member of the cast has to be Vin Diesel as the Iron Giant himself. Sharing similarities with his later role as Groot/Baby Groot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Diesel only speaks a total of fifty-three words throughout the entire runtime, excluding yells and groans. Yet, even with these limited lines, Diesel provides the enormous android with a suitably weighty voice and plenty of amusing/endearing moments.

On account of The Iron Giant being the first traditionally animated film to feature a principal character that is entirely computer-generated, there are a few scenes where cracks have begun to form in the animation and the animated cinematography. However, for the most part, the visuals on display throughout The Iron Giant are magnificent as the film contains an extensive amount of vibrant and alluring shots that meld both animation techniques. Many of these shots also make superb use of the remote, coastal setting of Rockwell, as well as the 1950s time period.

The original score by the late Michael Kamen is largely superior to a number of other orchestral scores for animated family flicks, with the acclaimed track; No Following, standing as a beautiful yet heart-rending composition that considerably enriches the final act. Further tracks, such as The Eye of the Storm and Souls Don’t Die, are pleasant to listen to and serve their purpose within the story, despite not being particularly memorable.

Another noteworthy aspect of The Iron Giant is how the film takes inspiration from classic sci-fi films of the 1950s. Intentionally playing into many of the staples of the science fiction genre around that time, including the widespread fears of nuclear war and Earth being invaded by creatures from another world. This ’50s inspiration even extends to the character designs with the appearance of the Iron Giant himself, who is instantly recognisable as a result of his atomic-age headpiece. Furthermore, the tentacles that emerge from the Iron Giant’s back during the final act are an unmistakable visual homage to one of the most well-known extraterrestrial films in cinematic history; The War of the Worlds, released in 1953.

In summary, whilst it still saddens me that The Iron Giant was such a box office failure upon its initial release, only grossing around £19 million on an estimated budget of £58 million. I am delighted that the film has gone on to become such a cult classic, predominately through positive word-of-mouth, no less. Releasing on August 6th 1999, the same day as The Sixth SenseThe Iron Giant was commercially overshadowed immediately out of the gate. Moreover, following the success of Toy Story in 1995, The Iron Giant was released at a time when hand-drawn animation was being superseded by CGI. So much so, that Warner Bros. Pictures was in the process of shutting down its traditional animation division during the film’s production. And yet, The Iron Giant still flourished in spite of all these obstacles, which, in my opinion, is a testament to the efforts of Brad Bird and his masterful team of animators and creatives. Rating: low 8/10.

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Sausage Party (2016) – Film Review

Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon (The Addams Family, The Addams Family 2) and co-written/produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Sausage Party, released in 2016, is an animated adult comedy with a very specific brand of humour, a brand that I have a strong distaste for. Lazily relying on copious amounts of foul language, sexual imagery and offensive jokes, the potential hilarity of Sausage Party‘s concept is ultimately squandered due to its dreadful execution, giving the impression that this adult-centric animation was written by a group of angsty teenagers.

Plot Summary: Eagerly awaiting the day they will be taken to the Great Beyond by their human deities, Frank the sausage, Brenda the hot dog bun, Sammy Bagel Jr. and the rest of the food items that occupy the shelves of the local supermarket, believe a code that allows them to live blissfully ignorant lives until it’s time to depart their aisle. But, when Frank learns the terrible truth that they will eventually become a human’s dinner, their shared fantasy comes crashing down, forcing the panicked perishables to devise a plan and fight back against their human foes…

An obvious parody of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks’ animated classics. Co-writer and producer, Seth Rogen, first developed the idea for Sausage Party in 2007 while promoting Superbad and Knocked Up, as interviewers would ask Rogen what his next project would be, to which he jokingly replied; “It’s Called Sausage Party.” Rogen frequently described Sausage Party as a dreary take on family-friendly animated films, stating: “People Like to Project Their Emotions Onto the Things Around Them; Their Toys, Their Cars, Their Pets… So We Thought; ‘What Would It Be Like if Our Food Had Feelings?’ We Very Quickly Realised, That It Would Be Fucked Up.” An ingenious idea, to be sure, even if its execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Featuring the likes of Seth Rogan, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Paul Rudd and Craig Robinson, among others. Sausage Party possesses an all-star cast to voice its extensive and diverse line of animated characters. As such, the voice acting quickly becomes one of the best aspects of the film as every member of the cast puts their all into the project, despite the repeatedly low-grade dialogue. And whilst none of the characters could be described as well-developed, Brenda does make for an appropriately uptight love interest for Frank, while characters like Teresa Del Taco and Sammy Bagel Jr. are at least memorable for their cartoonish qualities.

The animated cinematography on display throughout Sausage Party is continuously frantic and often difficult to keep track of as a result of its constant movements. The animation itself also isn’t the most visually appealing as many of the characters’ designs (both human and anthropomorphitic food) are overly cartoonish, oddly sensual and repeatedly disproportionate. Still, there is a handful of amusing visual gags throughout the film. For instance, during the scene where Honey Mustard’s outburst causes two shopping trolleys to collide, hurling multiple food items toward the ground. The resulting carnage is a shot-for-shot homage to the opening sequence of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, with all of the scene’s graphic violence being represented through burst flour bags, squished tomatoes and crumbled biscuits.

When it comes to the original score by Christopher Lennertz and Alan Menken, the soundtrack is serviceable, for the most part, with tracks like ChosenFood Massacre and Magical Sausage all serving their purpose of reinforcing scenes of both horror and humour within the story. However, where the film really shines in terms of music is the opening song; The Great Beyond, composed by Alan Menken, a composer predominantly known for scoring a number of classic animated musicals, including The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Thus, The Great Beyond is very reminiscent of the scores for those films, only with a more satirical edge, thanks to its comical lyrics and profanity.

In addition to the inconsistent quality of the humour, Sausage Party also attempts to integrate the notion of organised religion into its story, as Frank tries to convince his blissed-out companions that they might be heading not for a glorious afterlife, but rather knife-assisted oblivion. Even the Israel/Palestine conflict is riffed upon through the pairing of a lavash and a bagel. Yet, both of these underlining themes are significantly overshadowed by the constant wisecracks and needlessly shocking lines of dialogue. Moreover, the rules of Sausage Party‘s world oftentimes make no sense as many objects that aren’t food come to life, while others seemingly do not. Admittedly, this is more of a nit-pick than a true criticism for an absurdist comedy such as this, but I feel it’s always important for a story and its world to have consistency.

In summary, although Seth Rogen has expressed interest in making a sequel to Sausage Party, along with a number of other animated projects aimed toward older audiences, I have no desire to see any other projects of this nature. Lacking the abundance of laugh-out-loud moments that Rogen and Goldberg have delivered with their better efforts in the comedy genre, such as Pineapple Express and The InterviewSausage Party simply exists as a twenty-minute gag that was somehow stretched into a feature-length film, complete with shoddy writing, unpleasant animation and largely lethargic storytelling. Rating: high 3/10.

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Casino Royale (2006) – Film Review

Much like the sci-fi television series; Doctor Who, or any franchise that reboots itself after a certain amount of time. The biggest hurdle the 007 franchise has to overcome with every incarnation is getting die-hard fans of the long-established espionage franchise on board. Luckily, the 2006 reboot of the series; Casino Royale, succeeded in this regard, with Daniel Craig taking on the iconic role of James Bond in a slick and thrilling mission. Doing away with much of the absurdity present in previous instalments, in exchange for pulse-pounding action sequences and an unexpectedly engaging romantic subplot.

Plot Summary: After receiving his license to kill, British Secret Service agent, James Bond, sets out on his first mission as 007, travelling to Madagascar, where he uncovers a link to Le Chiffre, a private banker financing terrorist organisations. Learning that Le Chiffre plans to raise funds through a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale, Montenegro, Bond is instructed to play against him and thwart his plans…

Holding familiarity with the franchise after directing the Pierce Brosnan-era instalment; GoldenEye, in 1995. Director Martin Campbell (The Mask of ZorroVertical LimitThe Foreigner), along with the series’ producers, decided to take the franchise in a more grounded direction following the bombastic action sequences of the later Brosnan entries. So, there are no high-tech gadgets or tumultuous helicopter chases in Casino Royale. Instead, the poker game at the centre of the story is what holds most of the film’s suspense, occupying the majority of the second act and harbouring some of Bond’s best lines. Moreover, Casino Royale is one of the most faithful adaptations of the 007 source material, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming, the first piece of media to feature the character of James Bond.

Despite the casting of Daniel Craig initially sparking outrage amongst the 007 fanbase due to Craig’s blue eyes and blonde hair, the online annoyance didn’t last long as once Casino Royale was released, critics and fans alike instantly fell for Craig’s rendition of the character. This was partially because unlike the other cinematic portrayals of James Bond, whose kills held no more weight than the cheeky one-liners that accompanied them, Craig’s tussles tend to be intimate, bloody and devoid of glamour. Craig’s brooding persona, dry humour and excellent line delivery also find a close match in Eva Green’s take on ‘The Bond Girl,’ Vesper Lynd, whose intelligence and assertive attitude puts aside any negative traits associated with the supporting role. And while Mads Mikkelsen is merely serviceable as the antagonist, Le Chiffre, with his menacing performance leaving little impact, Judi Dench makes the most of her brief screen-time as M, the head of MI6, exuding both confidence and power.

In terms of visuals, Casino Royale makes one subtle change that results in the instalment looking quite different from the ones that precede it. For most of the 007 entries before Casino Royale, the visuals almost seem to have been an afterthought as the lighting is flat, the composition is dull, and the cinematography never does anything to advance the characters or the story. Yet, with Casino Royale, it’s evident that the main principle that guides the camerawork is to always keep the camera moving. Thus, the cinematography by Phil Meheux repeatedly makes effective use of hand-held close-ups and mid-shots. Furthermore, when it comes to filmmaking, the first ten minutes of screen-time are crucial in establishing the tone, mood and style of a project. Casino Royale clearly understands this, as the opening scene employs canted camera angles and intercuts between past and present, all dosed in a fierce, greyscale colour palette for a striking introduction.

Surprisingly, the classic 007 theme, composed by Monty Norman, appears very rarely in the film’s original score. Supposedly, this is because the filmmakers wanted to emphasise Bond’s inexperience, essentially having 007 earn the theme by the time the end credits roll. However, that’s not to say that the rest of the score is terrible, as composer David Arnold steers the soundtrack away from over-the-top action cues and towards more nuanced tracks like Vesper and Blunt Instrument. And, of course, no 007 entry would be complete without a memorable song to pair with the stylish opening title sequence. In this case, it’s You Know My Name, by Chris Cornell, an alternative rock piece that fits the tone of Casino Royale flawlessly.

The action sequences are where Casino Royale delivers some of its most jaw-dropping moments. Almost every set piece could easily be the climactic action sequence of any typical action flick, which truly demonstrates the impressive stunt work and remarkable fight choreography on display throughout Casino Royale. The action-heavy first act, in particular, boasts one of the finest parkour sequences seen in this franchise to date, as Bond chases a terrorist through the streets of a Madagascan town, culminating in an exhilarating hand-to-hand scuffle atop a towering construction crane.

In summary, Casino Royale disposes of the goofiness and gadgetry that plagued older James Bond outings as Daniel Craig delivers what critics and fans have been waiting for; a brutal, haunted and intense reinvention of 007. With rousing action sequences, a compelling narrative and a conclusion filled with plenty of potential. Casino Royale functions as a terrific example of how to reboot a well-known franchise, even if it isn’t particularly distinct when placed alongside other espionage flicks. Rating: high 7/10.

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