The Martian (2015) – Film Review

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which was originally self-published on Weir’s personal blog in a serialised format. The Martian, released in 2015, is a sci-fi drama that combines witty dialogue, stunning cosmic visuals and real-world science to craft a captivating story of survival and innovation. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Matt Damon, The Martian is a cinematic triumph of the science fiction genre, ticking every box that needs to be ticked in this modern era of sci-fi flicks.

Plot Summary: When a fierce storm causes an exploratory mission on Mars to be aborted, astronaut and botanist, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and left behind by his crew. Awakening hours later, injured and alone, Mark is forced to draw upon his wit and scientific ingenuity to endure the hostile surface of the red planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, employees of NASA, alongside a team of international scientists, work around the clock to develop a plan to bring their missing astronaut home… 

Just as much a survival thriller as it is a grandiose sci-fi drama, The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott (Blade RunnerThelma & LouiseGladiator), who, of course, is no stranger to the science fiction genre, with two of the most notable releases of his filmography being Alien in 1979, and Blade Runner in 1982, both renowned as some of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time. And although The Martian likely won’t reach the same level of recognition in ten years, I would say the film has about the same level of directional skill as those well-known flicks. The unsung hero of the film, however, is the screenwriter/executive producer, Drew Goddard, who laces the story with humour and energy, in addition to approaching much of the scientific exposition in a comprehensible yet never overly simplistic fashion. 

The incredible all-star cast of Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover (among others), are all phenomenal in their various roles. And whilst there are a lot of characters, the story juggles them rather efficiently, never taking too much attention away from Mark Watney’s fight for survival, and subsequently, Damon’s terrific performance, which manages to be both humorous and heartfelt. As far as adaptions go, The Martian also solves one of the novel’s biggest issues, that being Mark’s constant internal monologues to provide the reader with commentary on his situation. The film gets around this by having Mark record video logs, in which he explains the science behind what he needs to do to survive, which again, is never dull thanks to Damon’s ceaseless charisma and dry wit.

Primarily filmed in the Middle Eastern desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan. The gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski emphasises the solitariness of Mars throughout the film, illustrating just how alone Mark truly is and making his line: “I Am the First Man to Be Alone on an Entire Planet,” seem all the more impactful. Furthermore, the colour palette of The Martian is surprisingly diverse considering the story takes place on the red planet. While most of the film retains a burnt orange look, many of the shots on Earth or in outer space form a remarkable contrast to the Mars sequences through their use of whites, greys, greens and blues. Much of the set design is also beautifully crafted, riding a careful line between sci-fi futurism and modern comfort. Interestingly, one of the panoramic shots on Mars displays Olympus Mons, the largest volcano discovered in our solar system. Olympus Mons is almost three times larger than Mount Everest and covers an area roughly the size of the U.S. state, Missouri.

Stylistically, the original score for The Martian is an assortment of soothing synth and the orchestral arrangements composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, is best known for. The most notable tracks are Mars, a stark, oppressive track comprised of synth chords and impressionistic processed effects, depicting the planet as a cold, inhospitable place. Making Water, which feels slightly more playful through its use of harps and optimistic strings. And Crossing Mars, the most triumphant-sounding track of the entire score, which ultimately comes across as a little generic as it ditches much of the atmospheric synth in exchange for an orchestral motif.

Amidst its many other qualities, The Martian is also a testament to science being employed rather accurately in a science fiction flick, as despite not every line of the screenplay being scientifically exact due to the story taking place in the near future of 2035, The Martian comes pretty close. In fact, NASA was actually consulted on many aspects of the story, specifically regarding Mars, with the film even being supported in its science by famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

In summary, The Martian isn’t quite a flawless film as the supporting cast occasionally feel under-served and at one-hundred and forty-one minutes, the runtime is admittedly rather excessive. But, with the exception of these few (and frankly, minor) flaws, The Martian is a rousing story and an expertly crafted film in which the protagonist recognises he is going to die, and then willfully refuses to accept it. It’s an ennobling and uplifting story delivered with sass, allure and intelligence, essentially being everything a story from the science fiction genre should be. Rating: high 8/10.

martian_xxlg

Wiener-Dog (2016) – Film Review

A comedy-drama anthology that is far more drama than black comedy. 2016’s Wiener-Dog, written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the DollhouseHappinessLifetime During War), centres on a series of short, personal stories, all connected by the titular sausage-resembling canine. And while Wiener-Dog certainly has its moments as a mordantly witty tour of the human condition, seen from the low-slung position of an ordinary dachshund, Wiener-Dog‘s distinct combination of bleak storytelling and deadpan humour can make for a very inconsistent viewing experience, especially if you aren’t sure what to expect going in.

Plot Summary: An endearing dachshund, nicknamed, Wiener-Dog, finds itself shuffled from one oddball owner to the next, with each owner’s radically dysfunctional life being, in some way, impacted by the small canine…

Winning the Best Film Award at the 2017 Milan LongTake Interactive Film Festival, a festival where the films in competition are selected from titles yet unreleased in Italian cinemas, with the winner being chosen by the number of people attending each screening. Wiener-Dog is certainly not a film for everyone as the stories within are actually much dreary in tone than many would expect given the title and/or poster. Moreover, for those going in expecting four straight-forward, humourous narratives, Wiener-Dog frequently takes an unusual approach with its stories, with much of the writing being awkward and clunky and each story largely differing in terms of structure. And even though I adore the idea of using a dog as a framing device for an anthology, Wiener-Dog rarely makes use of its central dachshund, nor do any of the stories fully delve into the emotional arcs of their characters even when some of their self-examining journeys are particularly interesting.

Throughout all of the stories, one element that never fails to impress, however, is the cast. From a struggling family to a despondent screenwriter-turned-film school lecturer, every member of the cast brings their all in Wiener-Dog. And although many of the characters don’t receive as much development as they probably should, they do all feel very distinct from one another. For example, in the first story, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts portray Danny and Dina, an uptight, miserable couple whose young son, Remi, is recovering from cancer. Danny and Dina soon decide to get their son a dog in an attempt to cheer him up, though, this only ends up causing the family more problems. In the next story, Dawn, a veterinarian’s assistant, hopes the dachshund will help her melt the heart of Brandon, whom she knew in school as a notorious bully. The third story introduces us to Dave Schmerz, portrayed by Danny DeVito, a has-been screenwriter now teaching at a film school where the students despise him. The fourth and final story concentrates on a character only ever referred to as Nana, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, a blind, embittered woman suffering from cancer, who is being visited by her granddaughter, Zoe, and her outrageous abstract artist boyfriend, Fantasy.

For the majority of the runtime, the cinematography by Edward Lachman stands as a model of subtle and elegant compositional skill strained by what are fairly uninteresting locations. And whilst the first two stories have a written transition between them, the latter two stories do not, and instead, we just cut to the dachshund being in a new home, with a new owner, with no explanation given, which is rather jarring. That being said, Wiener-Dog does feature an intermission of sorts halfway through, which becomes a short story in itself; a montage of the dachshund walking through a number of colourful locations brought to life via some less-than-stellar green screen. This amusing sequence somewhat feels inspired by Let’s All Go to the Lobby, officially known as Technicolor Refreshment Trailer No. 1, a 1957 animated musical advertisement that played in American cinemas during intermissions. In which, animated characters that resemble various food items urge the audience to purchase snacks.

The original score by Nathan Larson and James Lavino is serviceable during the few scenes when it’s actually used. As for most of the film, Wiener-Dog chooses to employ excerpts from the classic orchestral piece, Clair de Lune, L. 32, which consistently seems out of place. The previously mentioned intermission is also set to an original tune titled: The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog, which is admittedly quite imaginative despite, once again, seeming misplaced.

With an anthology, some segments are always going to be superior to others. In Wiener-Dog‘s case, it’s the third story that is the best of the bunch, mainly because of DeVito’s terrific world-beaten performance. With that said, the third story does have a shortcoming that plagues many of the segments, that being its ending, which feels rushed and premature. The ending of the final story is also likely to leave many audience members with a bitter taste in their mouths as the ending is unnecessarily mean-spirited, concluding the anthology on a dour note.

In summary, similar to the rest of Todd Solondz’s filmography, Wiener-Dog is a black comedy with much of the comedy removed, leaving just black; a dense residue of callousness as the film rarely dwells on its light-hearted gags or charming moments. Nevertheless, Wiener-Dog is enjoyable in parts, and it’s evident that Solondz had a specific vision for the project when crafting it. Perhaps the film is just a little too bleak for its own good. Rating: 4/10.

wiener_dog_xxlg

Left Behind (2014) – Film Review

Awkwardly combining religious proselytising with a number of well-worn tropes from the disaster genre. Left Behind, released in 2014, is an apocalyptic thriller with a fascinating idea at its core, depicting the events that would transpire if millions of people suddenly vanished off the face of the Earth. A brilliant concept that is utterly squandered due to its horrendous execution, with subpar production values, bewildering dialogue and appalling performances being just some of the many issues this overtly religious film suffers from. As such, Left Behind presents one of the most unintentionally hilarious depictions of the apocalypse ever committed to film, which more often than not, devolves into enunciated Christian propaganda.

Plot Summary: When millions of people suddenly disappear without a trace, throwing the world into disarray as unmanned vehicles crash, planes fall from the sky and mass riots break out. Airline pilot, Ray Steele, struggles to keep composure aboard his proceeding flight to London as he and his passengers try to comprehend the inexplicable scenario they find themselves within. Meanwhile, Ray’s daughter, Chloe Steele, braves the chaos of the city streets below in search of her mother and brother…

If the Left Behind title sounds familiar, that’s likely because the film is actually a reboot of a relatively well-known series, with Left Behind: The Movie, Left Behind II: Tribulation and Left Behind III: World at War being released prior in 2000, 2002 and 2005, respectively. All of them are based on the best-selling series of apocalyptic novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye; a series that is essentially a modern-day rendition of the biblical rapture, where all Christians are transported to Heaven as divine forces decimate the Earth. 2014’s Left Behind adapts a small portion of the first book in the series, setting the majority of the story aboard an airliner piloted by Ray Steele, which for an apocalyptic thriller, isn’t the most exciting location to view a large-scale catastrophe from.

Speaking of the protagonist, despite the uproarious actor, Nicolas Cage, portraying the central character of Ray Steele. Left Behind never manages to get an entertaining performance out of the actor as for most of the runtime, Cage, who in interviews has stated that he took the role at the urging of his pastor brother, seems practically sedated, even when his character is convinced that the plane is heading towards certain doom. Regrettably, none of the supporting cast are much better, with Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thomson, Nicky Whelan and Gary Grubbs (among others) all portraying one-dimensional characters continually reciting unnatural dialogue. From the Southern entrepreneur, Dennis Beese, to Cameron ‘Buck’ Williams, a renowned news reporter who inadvertently becomes Ray’s co-pilot, none of the characters throughout Left Behind are indelible or significantly developed outside of their lack of devotion to Christianity.

In regard to the visuals, Left Behind doesn’t exhibit much improvement over its dialogue and performances as the set pieces appear small and chintzy, the lighting is flat, Jack Green’s cinematography is largely styleless and the editing between the drama on-board Ray’s flight and the disorder on the ground below is a monotonous back-and-forth of plot points with no scene being given enough time to sink in. Moreover, the CG effects for the airliner itself are rather poor, particularly during one of the film’s final moments where Ray is forced to land the plane on a makeshift runway.

Likewise, the original score by Jack Lenz has no identity or anything even remotely unique about it, subsequently causing the soundtrack to dissolve into the background where the majority of audience members will forget it even exists. Quite surprising considering that Lenz has proven himself to be a capable composer in the past, penning many respectable scores, including the theme for the Goosebumps television series.

Yet even when overlooking all of Left Behind‘s shortcomings in terms of filmmaking, the film continues to stutter as there are plenty of moments within the film that can be mocked. But by far the easiest scene that illustrates just how uniquely awful Left Behind is would be the moment in which Irene Steele stares adoringly at a terribly photoshopped picture of her family. It is possible, however, that the film’s flawed execution could be a result of a lack of experience on the part of director Vic Armstrong (Joshua TreeA Sunday Horse), as Armstrong is best known for his work as a stunt coordinator/stunt performer rather than a director.

In summary, while Left Behind‘s narrative is undoubtedly an interesting one and could’ve made for a compelling apocalyptic thriller if placed in the hands of the right director and screenwriter. The version of Left Behind we did receive is far from compelling as its flaws are nearly endless, consequently leading the film to be panned by critics and perform poorly at the box office. Still, this wasn’t the end for Left Behind as not long after, the producers of the film decided to finance the sequel through an Indiegogo campaign simply titled: “Help Us Make Left Behind 2.” The campaign received £61,558 out of the half a million asked, with the last update on the project being on May 7th 2015. So, more than likely, the project was cancelled, which I’d say is for the best. Rating: 2/10.

left_behind_ver3_xxlg

Resistance (2020) – Film Review

During the German occupation of France in 1940, a young Jewish man named, Marcel Mangel, fled with his family to Limoges where his cousin, Georges Loinger, a member of the French Resistance, urged him to join the cause. Eventually, both Marcel and his older brother, Alain, would join the French Resistance, adopting the last name, Marceau, and helping rescue countless Jewish children from race laws and concentration camps. Throughout his time in the Resistance, Marcel frequently used his skills as a mime artist to keep the children quiet and entertained as he helped them escape to Switzerland. With all that in mind, it’s difficult to imagine how a filmmaker could possibly disappoint when creating a cinematic interpretation of Marcel’s extraordinary story, but 2020’s Resistance is just that; a disappointment. Serving as a flawed yet honourable biopic that somewhat pushes past its varying performances and peculiar execution to function as an earnest tribute to its real-life protagonist.

Plot Summary: Before he became a world-famous mime, aspiring Jewish actor and artist, Marcel Marceau, joined the French Resistance alongside his brother, Alain, in an effort to save thousands of orphaned Jewish children from the impending threat of the Third Reich…

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express, Hands of Stone). The screenplay for Resistance continuously appears distracted, creating a scattershot portrait of Marcel Marceau’s life when it could’ve easily been a straightforward celebratory biopic documenting his valiant actions and incredible feats throughout the Second World War. The perfect example of the film’s unconventional approach can be seen in the structure as Resistance bizarrely chooses to tell Marceau’s story through the means of a flashback, narrated by General Patten (portrayed by Ed Harris) as he addresses the serried ranks of the U.S. troops who have just liberated France. This flashback structure adds nothing of value to the plot and ultimately only serves as a distraction. However, the film does partially redeem this issue during its epilogue as the filmmakers pay respect to the real-life events they’re documenting, inserting text that states that the Nazis killed over a million children during World War II and that this film is dedicated to them.

When it comes to the cast, the supporting actors of Clémence Poésy, Félix Moati, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey and Matthias Schweighöfer all give serviceable performances as various members of the French Resistance and those who oppose them. The standout, however, is, of course, Jesse Eisenberg, who portrays Marcel Marceau himself. And even though Marcel’s personality is only explored in bullet-point tropes, swiftly moving from one trait to the next, Eisenberg portrays the war hero with complete serenity, his performance only being hindered by his inconsistent French accent. Still, there are plenty of undeniably tense moments that showcase Eisenberg’s ability to jump from comedic to dramatic acting on the fly.

Visually, Resistance is more than competent as the cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin-Menz has its fair share of attractive shots, often utilising the story’s diverse mix of locations to great effect with symmetrical lines. And for all its unusual choices in terms of structure, it can never be stated that Resistance leans too hard on certain moments to drain them of maximum emotion. Take the opening scene, for example, in which a little girl’s house is raided by Nazis who subsequently kill her parents. A brief scene, during which, we see no on-screen violence whatsoever. With that said, the colour palette of Resistance never tries to be anything but gloomy and grey. Whilst I understand that this was likely done to further establish the story’s World War II setting, even in more cheerful moments where Marcel makes the children laugh, Resistance rarely employs vibrant colours in its visuals.

Similarly, the film’s music is a rather mixed bag. As while the original score by Angelo Milli features a handful of memorable tracks such as You Are Not Alone and Adagio for a Silent Performance, both of which help add dramatic weight to the scenes they are featured in. There are also plenty of moments where the film is lazily manipulative with its music as the sound of an angelic children’s choir is contrasted with scenes of brutal executions.

Another problem Resistance suffers from is its overabundance of subplots, an issue that frequently results in a complete lack of narrative focus. From Marcel’s somewhat strained relationship with his father, who after seeing one of his performances as Charlie Chaplin calls him: “A Clown Dressed Like Hitler in a Whore House,” to a similar kind of resentment toward his brother, as well as a romantic fling with fellow Resistance member, Emma. Nearly every subplot in Resistance goes nowhere and practically fades into thin air by the time the end credits roll. Proving that when it comes to biopics, more story doesn’t necessarily mean a better story.

In summary, Resistance is neither a fully drawn biopic nor a thrilling war epic despite its largely convincing performance from Jesse Eisenberg as the mime artist-turned-war hero. The main reason for this is that Resistance constantly feels as if it isn’t sufficiently delving into Marcel’s numerous talents or his brave endeavours within the French Resistance. Nevertheless, I do believe this was a film worth making as its mere existence helps in celebrating Marcel Marceau’s remarkable life. A life that many may not have even been aware of before this film’s release. Rating: low 6/10.

resistance_ver3_xxlg

Dark Skies (2013) – Film Review

As much a science fiction as it is a horror, Dark Skies, released in 2013, has a solid cast, a fascinating premise and some admirable ambitions, attempting to break away from the familiar tropes of alien abduction stories in favour of delivering its own take on the common phobia of extraterrestrials discreetly arriving on Earth. Unfortunately, however, writer and director Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest, Holidays – Segment: Christmas) doesn’t seem to know how to utilise any of these elements, and as such, Dark Skies ends up being an extremely underwhelming film in more ways than one, even if it is a slight improvement over Blumhouse Productions’ usual jump-scare-filled endeavours.

Plot Summary: Suffering from financial troubles and the slow decline of their marriage, middle-aged couple, Lacy and Daniel Barrett, soon find their suburban life even further disrupted when an escalating series of unexplainable events leads them to discover that a terrifying force is monitoring them, a force which may have arrived from beyond the stars…

Originally pitched as a found-footage film with a screenplay written in only six weeks. Dark Skies curiously borrows more from supernatural horrors than it does from other extraterrestrial stories like SignsSkinwalker Ranch and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the film somewhat follows the structure of a conventional haunted house/possessed child storyline. And, as a result, suffers from many of the same issues that those films do. Appearing overly formulaic and frequently missing the opportunity to shift into full-on genre mode by the time its final act arrives. Furthermore, this structure results in many of the daytime sequences feeling quite tiresome as almost all of the extraterrestrial-related events don’t transpire until nightfall, leaving the daytime scenes to solely be used for kindred drama than foreboding moments of sci-fi dread.

The central cast of Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett and J.K. Simmons all do a serviceable job throughout the film, portraying members of a family that is slowly growing apart as time goes on. A situation that is only made more difficult by the family’s mounting bills and Daniel’s numerous attempts to find a replacement job falling flat at every turn. And whilst all of this is interesting for a family-centred plot, the problem here is that outside of the family’s general struggles, all of the characters are given very little development, an issue that is only exacerbated by the film’s many altering subplots, which cover everything from Lacy and Daniel’s declining sex life to their teenage son’s developing hormones and subsequent teenage crush.

Moving onto the visuals, with the exception of a couple of bewitching shots, the film’s cinematography by David Boyd is rather bland, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups. The film also continuously employs dim lighting for the majority of its runtime, meaning that nearly every shot at night is almost pitch-black with only a few small beams of moonlight to illuminate each room in the family’s house. Additionally, the film’s setting is, again, rather bland. As even though the location of a pleasant, everyday American suburb was chosen by Scott Stewart to help ground the story in reality, the setting itself is exceedingly dull, particularly for the horror genre.

Luckily, the original score fares a little better as composer, Joseph Bishara, best known for his fear-evoking score on 2010’s Insidious, once again uses his musical skills to craft a chilling soundtrack stocked with eerie futuristic noises and unsettling sound cues most present in the tracks: Two PosibitliesNight RideNot in Control and The Disturbances. Showcasing the true terror that these extraterrestrials are capable of purely through a distorted soundscape.

When it comes to the concept of creatures from another world studying our planet, it isn’t often that this idea drifts into the realm of horror, especially with the cliché image of a small, grey-skinned alien with an oversized head and black eyes, commonly referred to as a Gray, being any but frightening. However, in Dark Skies, the Grays are genuinely unnerving beings, appearing as lanky, shadow-like figures that tower over the Barrett family. In addition to the Grays, the film establishes two other extraterrestrial races known as the Reptilians and the Insectoids. Interestingly, all three of these races are actually based on real-life abduction reports where abductees described their encounters, with Reptilians being described as green-skinned humanoids with attributes of reptiles such as hairless scaled-skin, concave-vertical pupils and the ability to shapeshift, changing from reptilian to human at will, while Insectoids are described as large beings with a close resemblance to grasshoppers/praying mantises. Playing into the various conspiracies that surround life on other planets.

In summary, whilst Dark Skies doesn’t earn many points for originality. When the film manages to tap into more low-level, relatable anxieties with its family-focused story, it does come far closer to getting under its audience’s skin than your typical horror film ghost or ghoul. Having said that, Dark Skies also repeatedly devalues the effectiveness of the alien abduction subgenre with its uninspired visuals and fairly predictable plot. And while I do consider Scott Stewart to be a talented writer and director with the right project, his films occasionally do leave something to be desired, Dark Skies simply being another example. Rating: low 5/10.

dark_skies_xxlg

Knives Out (2019) – Film Review

A brilliant spin on the well-worn formula of kindred murder mysteries, 2019’s Knives Out is a charming, captivating and hilarious film from beginning to end. Functioning as both a subversive whodunit as well as a modernised homage to the prominent works of crime-fiction author, Agatha Christie, Knives Out offers the kind of classy entertainment we could use more of on the silver screen as the film, through its all-around marvellous cast, excellent direction and witty dialogue, quickly overcomes the one or two minor flaws it has to thoroughly immerse its audience in a delectable delicacy of a mystery and its affiliated suspects.

Plot Summary: When renowned crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey, is found dead in his study on the night of his eighty-fifth birthday, the inquisitive and debonair, Detective Benoit Blanc, is enlisted to investigate his passing. Now, in a mansion full of potential suspects, from Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Detective Blanc must sift through a tangled web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan’s untimely death…

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (BrickLooperStar Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), the plot of Knives Out follows one of the most timeworn formats in the whodunit playbook; as family members and associates gather after a rich patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances. And although many of them may act like they want to uncover who’s responsible for the premature death of their loved one, in reality, they’re far more interested in knowing how much they stand to gain monetarily from said loved one’s death. However, at many points, Knives Out actually acknowledges its audience’s familiarity with this formula, battling against it by integrating a series of compelling twists and turns into its story. So, even if you’ve already guessed who isn’t responsible, it won’t be easy to deduce who is. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that Rian Johnson has more than just murder and mysteries on his mind, as Knives Out quietly threads political commentary into its narrative through the family’s conversations concerning immigration and the many shades of venality, exposing an entirely different side to the ignorance and pride of the Thrombey family.

With an enormous ensemble cast featuring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, LaKeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome and Christopher Plummer, it’s understandable that a few of the actors and/or characters would be misspent. And this is most apparent with the character, Jacob Thrombey, portrayed by Jaeden Martell as beyond serving a single plot point and a handful of jokes, Jacob, and by default, Martell, has little screen-time, very few lines and the least development of any member of the family, making his inclusion seem rather pointless. Detective Blanc also brings two police underlings with him to solve the case, neither of whom make much of an impression. Still, every member of the cast somehow manages to make their character feel distinguishable when placed alongside the others, from the bohemian Instagram influencer, Joni Thrombey, to the foul-mouthed freeloader, Ransom Drysdale, Harlan’s entire family is relentlessly amusing as they continuously squabble with each other despite pretending they are on the same side.

The gothic abode in which Detective Blanc’s suspects are confined is an interesting location for a murder mystery, to say the least, as Harlan Thrombey’s gigantic mansion is not only unique exterior-wise, but inside, is decorated with antique furniture and an assortment of ghoulish accoutrements, including crystal skulls, oil paintings, artwork that resembles giant eyeballs and, of course, a large metal ring of knives and other sharp implements. All of this elegant set design greatly adds to the already pleasing visuals of Steve Yedlin’s cinematography, but there’s no denying that characters and humour are certainly the biggest draws of Knives Out as a whole.

By that same token, the original score by Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) never overshadows the comedy or drama unfolding on-screen, but instead enhances it. Matching the highbrow, old-fashioned style of Harlan’s grand mansion, the symphonic score plays more like a concerto for strings than a traditional film soundtrack. With tracks like Knives Out! (String Quartet in G Minor), Like Father, Like Son and The Thrombey Family Theme, all being wonderful pieces of classical pastiche dripping with a rich gothic atmosphere.

Interestingly, Nathan was not the only member of Rian Johnson’s extended family to assist in the production of Knives Out, as Rian also brought on board two further cousins of his; Mark Johnson, who created the film’s opening titles and designed a font based on a series of Agatha Christie paperbacks, and Zack Johnson, who painted the cast portraits seen in the end credits. Further adding to the film’s high-class stylings and inadvertently tieing into the story’s focus on familial relations.

In summary, Knives Out is a sly, wry and stylish throwback to the murder mysteries of yesteryear, with a splashing of self-aware humour to boot. Updating the genre for modern audiences whilst simultaneously satisfying fans of the classic whodunits, Knives Out demonstrates (in a similar sense to many contemporary westerns), that some of the genres we may perceive as defunct are, in actuality, still far from gone, and that we could potentially see more from these less prevalent, but immensely enjoyable genres, in the future. Rating: 8/10.

knives_out_ver13_xxlg

The Lobster (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lobster_xxlg

Jack and Jill (2011) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jack_and_jill_xxlg

Leatherface (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

leatherface-p1002138

Escape Plan (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

escape_plan-p877555