Westworld (1973) – Film Review

Before the emergence of the hit sci-fi-drama series of the same name, 1973’s Westworld was a pillar of the science fiction genre. With an engaging story, imaginative concepts and a terrific performance from Yul Brynner as a lethal, automated gunslinger, the original Westworld is a delightful sci-fi-western hybrid that puts its clever gimmicks to creative use, rarely getting bogged down by pretentious statements regarding the creation of artificial life (unlike its contemporary television counterpart), to instead concentrate on its visceral style of storytelling and filmmaking.

Plot Summary: In the near future, the Delos Corporation offers the perfect getaway with the entertainment destinations; Medievalworld, Romanworld and Westernworld, where guests can experience life in the time period of their choosing, indulging in their wildest fantasies while interacting with the attendant androids that populate them. But, when Westworld undergoes a system-wide malfunction, causing the androids’ built-in safety features to fail, the safety of the guests is put into question…

Written and directed by Michael Crichton (ComaLookerPhysical Evidence), author of many celebrated novels, including Jurassic Park. Crichton became inspired to write Westworld following his trip to Disneyland, where he rode the water-based attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, and was impressed by the animatronic pirates. This is also why the iconic attraction is mentioned in the 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park when Malcolm states: “When the Pirates of the Caribbean Breaks Down, the Pirates Don’t Eat the Tourists.” Crichton effectively utilises this inspiration by playing upon humanity’s fears of artificial intelligence one day overthrowing us. Furthermore, through the characters, Crichton’s screenplay retains a solid amount of satire, with the guests hungry for danger and adventure quickly turning spineless once Westworld becomes truly dangerous, much like the real Wild West that inspired it.

Regarding the characters, the screenplay largely depicts them as if they are the audience themselves, with the protagonist, Peter Martin, portrayed by Richard Benjamin, being a recently-divorced Westworld newcomer, whilst his friend, John Blane, portrayed by James Brolin, is a returning guest eager to jump back into the ways of the Old West. As a result, we get to see how Westworld functions from a guest and staff perspective before the chaos begins. And while neither of the central duo is given a lot of development, both characters serve an important purpose within the narrative as wealthy guests who are visiting Westworld to indulge their desires for pampering and daring escapades, whether that a bank robbery, a bar-room brawl or merely taking sexual advantage of a coy-serving wench. Then, on the android side of things, there’s the Gunslinger, portrayed by Yul Brynner, who truly steals the show, becoming fixated on the pair following their confrontation in the first act. The Gunslinger acts as a forbidding embodiment of the widespread malfunction, relentlessly hunting his target(s) with a cold, calculating demeanour and a continually menacing presence.

From the vast desert-set Westworld to Medievalworld, a mead and chicken-leg heaven, to the flowery gardens and toga parties that is Romanworld, the set design throughout Westworld is excellent, excluding a few barren hallways, here and there. The cinematography by Gene Polito isn’t as remarkable, however, overly depending on close-ups and mid-shots, which becomes rather repetitive, despite appearing reminiscent of the camerawork in classic westerns. In addition to the three entertainment destinations, all of the period-set areas are connected by a web of subterranean passageways and an eerily prescient CCTV system, both of which help provide enticing snippets into the unfolding horror once Westworld collapses, furnishing the film with a healthy amount of edge instead of relying on unwarranted bloody violence for its final act.

An efficacious blend of sci-fi and western, Westworld‘s original score frequently alleviates the atmosphere of scenes that could otherwise appear quite sinister, as the score varies from lively, Wild West-era tracks like The Western Warble and Stagecoach Arrival to scratchy, ominous tones and percussions with tracks like Robot Repair. This switch from passé to futuristic pieces never feels out of place, though, as the distinctive tracks lean into the idea of merging multiple time periods via the entertainment destinations.

Intriguingly, Westworld actually marked the first-ever use of computer-digitised images in a feature film (not merely monitor graphics) with the shots from the Gunslinger’s point-of-view. After the technical process was sufficiently developed to produce satisfactory results, it only took around eight hours to produce every ten seconds of footage for the Gunslinger’s pixelated P.O.V., which is monumental for 1970s filmmaking. However, this praise could be applied to almost all of the film’s effects, which have held up well since the ’70s. That is, aside from the fake blood, which looks closer to bright red paint whenever a guest or android is shot dead.

In summary, in an era of pessimism, it’s refreshing to see a sci-fi flick like Westworld that depicts the future as not dystopian, but an affluent and joyous time with merely detrimental forms of recreation, adding a level of appeal to the world-building that many science fiction releases seem to miss out. As such, Westworld comes across as an innovative sci-fi-western, harbouring an appropriate amount of satire along with an abundance of apprehension regarding the evolution of artificial intelligence, keeping the audience captivated throughout its moderate runtime, even in spite of its occasional time-worn aspects. Rating: high 7/10.

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Mad God (2021) – Film Review

Written, directed and produced (among many other credits) by Phil Tippett, the founder and namesake of Tippett Studio, whose varied career in visual effects has spanned more than thirty years and includes two Academy Award wins and six nominations. Mad God, released in 2021, is a rich visual treat for enthusiasts of horror and stop-motion animation alike, serving as a harrowing delve into a post-apocalyptic hellscape that is both unique and disturbing. Harbouring a cinematic allure that is equal parts unsettling and mesmerising, Mad God proves that even in the age of CGI, the art form of stop-motion remains strong, even if the story and characters it’s bringing to life are far from well-developed.

Plot Summary: Equipped with a gas mask and an ageing map, the Assassin, a lone iron-clad humanoid, descends into an underworld of tortured souls, ruined cities and wretched monstrosities on a covert mission to reach the heart of this nightmarish realm of suffering…

First starting work on the project in the late 1980s, shortly after creating effects for RoboCop 2, released in 1990. Mad God has been Tippett’s pet project for over thirty years, despite the filmmaker almost considering abandoning the project when Jurassic Park was released in 1993, as CG effects appeared to make stop-motion a thing of the past. After some urging from those around him, however, Tippett decided to create a Kickstarter campaign that allowed him to complete the project. In the following years, three parts of Mad God were released online, which made up around half of the full eighty-two-minute version that was eventually screened at various film festivals. And whilst this story behind the film’s creation is certainly intriguing, Mad God‘s biggest shortcoming is that it lacks a narrative itself, or at least a coherent one. Instead, the film relies on visual storytelling and world-building as the audience follows the Assassin on his lengthy journey, encountering many distinct creatures, locations and civilisations on a mission that is never disclosed. As such, watching Mad God requires a lot of concentration to get the most out of it, much like how the project was crafted, I suppose.

With no dialogue or characterisation to speak of, Mad God‘s characters hinge entirely on their design. Thankfully, every character/creature that appears throughout the runtime is visibly repulsive, unnerving and eccentric. At the core of Mad God‘s story is a character only known as the Assassin, a silent, gas mask-wearing humanoid who also receives no characterisation, instead functioning as an audience surrogate through Tippett’s fever dream of a post-apocalyptic world. As the film features no dialogue, the central cast, including Alex Cox, Niketa Roman and Satish Ratakonda, only appear in a handful of live-action sequences, which similar to the scenes of stop-motion, are grimy and discomforting whilst relying on visuals over direct storytelling. While these sequences are interesting and count towards what little plot there is, many of these moments also pull you out of the experience and are often plagued by the film’s need to implement oral sounds to ensure the human characters don’t appear mute, meaning noises like “Eh?” and “Hmmm” become rather repetitious.

The cinematography by Chris Morley and Phil Tippett allows for spectacular framing within every scene, lending to the atmosphere and intrigue of each setting, whether its an oxidised factory of greasy machinery or a society of helpless slaves ruled over by an electronic screen that speaks in child-like gibberish. Furthermore, each of the surroundings the Assassin treks across is distinguished by the film’s colour palette, which seamlessly jumps from cold blues to vile greens and blood reds, making the stop-motion appear incredibly cinematic. Interestingly, one scene, which features a mountain of dead soldiers, was actually accomplished by melting thousands of plastic army men together on a wire. This scene took six animators around three years to complete, demonstrating the substantial amount of dedication required to animate even a single scene of Mad God.

Through prolonged tracks like Long Way Down and ConveyanceMad God‘s original score by Dan Wool enhances many of the surreal visuals in a relatively nuanced fashion, making for a soundtrack that isn’t all that memorable, but avoids becoming overbearing as to let the visuals speak for themselves. However, the sound design is where the film’s audio truly shines as the countless animalistic growls of the mutated creatures that roam Mad God‘s mystifying world are ghastly and add audible depth to whichever location the Assassin finds himself.

As most would expect from Tippett Studio, the animation itself is smooth yet appropriately unearthly, providing every creature with its own jittery method of walking/crawling that feels remarkably natural. What’s even more impressive is that, according to Tippett, a considerable amount of the animation on Mad God was actually conducted by novice students who wanted to gain some filmmaking experience.

In summary, Mad God will likely be a very divisive film on account of its largely interpretive narrative and absence of well-defined characters. But, these annoyances ultimately don’t matter that much in the grand scheme, as Mad God thrives in what it’s trying to do. Presenting itself as a love letter to stop-motion that could only be realised by a legendary visual effects artist like Phil Tippett. And with stop-motion animation in such short supply nowadays, an outstanding piece of artsy like Mad God will always be a joy to behold, faults or not. Rating: 7/10.

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Project X (2012) – Film Review

Partially based on a real house party that occurred in Melbourne in 2008, where the then-sixteen-year-old Australian teenager, Corey Worthington, posted his home address on MySpace, attracting around five-hundred people to his home and subsequently causing over $20,000 in property damage. 2012’s Project X undeniably has its flaws, yet through its efficacious use of the found-footage format and fantastically over-the-top narrative, this teen comedy is a surprisingly engaging watch. Standing as one of the rare entries in the found-footage genre to feature no horror content whatsoever, Project X will no doubt repel some older audience members on account of its typically teenage characters and near-constant use of foul language. Yet, for the younger generation, this comedic flick will maintain its appeal thanks to its terrific utilisation of its central concept and real-world inspirations.

Plot Summary: As their tenure as high school seniors draws to a close, two friends, Costa and JB, attempt to finally make a name for themselves by throwing a life-changing birthday party for their friend, Thomas. But, as word of their prodigious house party spreads online, the situation quickly begins to spiral out of control as the guest list rises rapidly…

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh (American Ultra) and produced by Todd Philips, director of many renowned comedies, including The HangoverOld School and War DogsProject X mines the depths of the teen comedy and found-footage genres to deliver eighty-seven minutes of enjoyable debauchery, with its runtime largely consisting of music video-type sequences that fully indulge in the colourful chaos of a neighbourhood-spanning party. And while some moments, such as a scene where a dwarf makes his way through Thomas’ house punching various partygoers in their crotches, could be seen as rather far-fetched, other moments are unexpectedly hilarious thanks to their increasing absurdity. That being so, I would encourage first-time viewers to blindly go into Project X so they can experience many of the film’s surprises first-hand.

The comradery between the central three friends desperately tries to recall those in quintessential teen comedies like Superbad and American Pie, but unlike those earlier films, the leading trio of Thomas, Costa and JB can occasionally come across as somewhat repugnant, despite being sufficiently portrayed by Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper and Jonathan Daniel Brown, respectively. This is primarily due to the characters being written as authentic teenagers, depicting them as immature, foul-mouthed, impassioned youths who are clearly lacking in favour at their local high school. And whilst none of the characters receive much development beyond this basic level of characterisation, I feel that unlikeability in some scenes is just a repercussion of making the trio seem like genuine teenagers bearing teenage traits. That’s not to say, however, that you don’t feel sorry for Thomas once he starts to panic at the sight of his house being defiled, evidently suffering the consequences of submitting to his friends’ grand scheme.

Shot on a set instead of a real neighbourhood to minimise local disruption, a decision that proved to be a wise one as the set was essentially trashed during production. The cinematography by Ken Seng is realistically shaky and boisterous similar to many other found-footage films, yet still manages to be clear enough to impressively place the audience in the middle of Thomas’ larger-than-life birthday extravaganza. Moreover, to add to the realism, some pieces of footage were shot by the supporting cast with handed-out phones, which all varied in quality or retained visual distinctions to stand out. Another reason Project X looks as captivating as it does is a product of the film’s excellent use of colour, which steadily grows in variation as the party grows in size, making great use of the dynamic lighting setups Costa hires out for the party.

Lacking an original score as a result of its found-footage format, Project X places much of its auditory focus on its remarkable soundtrack, as dance songs like Pursuit of HappinessHeads Will Roll and Le Disko perfectly match the upbeat, stimulating atmosphere of a congested house party. And although the film places some of its songs over sequences where non-diegetic music shouldn’t really be present, such as a tumultuous moment in which a riot ensues and the rock song, Battery by Melltaica, is heard. I am willing to ignore that irritation on the basis that the songs chosen for each scene feel more than suitable, adding to the underlining sensation of each sequence, whether that be chaotic or cordial.

Interestingly, many of the minor antics throughout Project X were improvised by the supporting cast, including a scene where a female partygoer gets caught urinating behind a car. Many of these moments add to the pandemonium of the story, appearing inspired by scenarios the filmmakers found themselves in at actual house parties. These short, humourous shots also help redeem the screenplay’s handful of on-the-nose dialogue, especially from minor characters like Thomas’ parents before they leave for the weekend.

In summary, even though the mere notion of Project X will almost certainly turn off any audience members over the age of twenty-five, considering that the plot revolves around dancing and consuming various substances until 05:00 am. I am keen to encourage those on the fence to give the film a chance, as I believe Project X thrives as a teen comedy and will leave many feeling as if they’ve just attended the most epic house party in existence. Rating: 7/10.

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Overlord (2018) – Film Review

Initially thought to be the fourth instalment in the Cloverfield franchise, an anthology-like series featuring the projects of Cloverfield10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox. Producer J.J Abrams later confirmed at New York City CinemaCon in 2018 that the war-horror hybrid flick, Overlord, would not be part of the series, despite being produced under the same production company, Bad Robot Productions. In a similar vein to the Cloverfield franchise, however, Overlord frequently appears disjointed and underwhelming in its effort to combine many diverse genres and ideas in a World War II gore-fest.

Plot Summary: On the eve of D-Day, a squad of American paratroopers is dropped behind enemy lines with the mission of penetrating the walls of a fortified local church and destroying the radio-jamming tower inside. But, as the soldiers approach their target, they soon discover that the Nazis are conducting a series of ungodly experiments in a hidden laboratory beneath the church. Experiments that could change the tide of the Second World War…

Evidently inspired by the renowned video game multiplayer mode, Call of Duty: ZombiesOverlord, directed by Julius Avery (Son of a GunSamaritan), grounds its absurdist story around a real military operation; “Operation: Overlord,” a code name for the Allied mission for the Battle of Normandy, which launched the successful invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. This procedure, alongside “Operation: Neptune,” would become known as D-Day. This connection to the factual history of World War II does add some depth to the narrative, in addition to playing into a number of conspiracy theories regarding Nazi experimentation and the classified missions many American soldiers embarked upon during the Second World War. However, a downside to this sort of approach is that Overlord is repeatedly in a tonal conflict with itself, as the first hour of the runtime is a largely straightforward war epic, whilst the final half-hour is a plethora of blood, bullets and superhuman, zombie-like creatures. As such, the film feels as if it’s split into two halves, both at odds with each other. Still, at least Overlord ditches the irritating use of storytelling mystery boxes, a J.J. Abrams staple.

While the performances of Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro and Pilou Asbæk continually range from serviceable to immensely hammy. The dialogue and characterisation throughout Overlord are somehow much worse, often coming across as cheesy, and in the case of the characterisation, wildly inconsistent. For example, Private. Edward Boyce is initially portrayed as quiet, nervous and hesitant to kill. Yet, as runtime continues, Boyce soon changes his disposition almost entirely to become confident and adept on the battlefield, having no issue killing others, all without any semblance of a character arc. Corporal. Lewis Ford suffers from a different issue as the squad’s ruthless leader, wanting to ensure that his unit completes its mission at any cost. Yet, his no-nonsense attitude and bleak outlook are never explained beyond the simplistic reasoning of ‘war changes people.’

Primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups, many of Overlord‘s finest shots can be seen whenever the squad are outdoors amongst the burning fields and aircraft-filled skies of the small French village where their target resides. Outside of these outdoor shots, the cinematography by Laurie Rose isn’t all that impressive. However, the various sets and locations chosen for the film are rather impressive, appearing period-accurate and extremely unsanitary in regard to the undisclosed Nazi laboratory and connecting subterranean access tunnels.

When it comes to the original score by Jed Kurzel, tracks like Mist PatrolDevil DogsApproaching the Church and Re-Animation, do a respectable job of adding to the tension and brutality of many scenes, yet rarely feel distinguishable or noteworthy by themselves. The film’s end credits song, Bridging the Gap by Naz, is also a peculiar choice given that the well-known jazz-rap song doesn’t fit the time period, tone or even location of Overlord on account of its lyrical references to Mississippi and New York City.

On a more positive note, unlike many modern horror releases, Overlord actually features a reasonable amount of practical effects. One scene in which practical effects were utilised is the opening sequence, which sees soldiers leaping from a burning aircraft as it plummets to the ground. This thrilling moment was accomplished by rigging an aircraft-themed set on a tilting gimbal and then having stuntmen tumble through real flames via its back portion. Sadly, however, many of these effect-filled sequences are somewhat tainted by the film’s need to place CG enchantments on top of its practical effects. Most of which make many of the effects (including a gruesome scene in which a soldier’s neck snaps back so quickly bones pierce out of his chest) appear as if they were achieved purely through CGI.

In summary, when it was first announced many years ago, Overlord seemed practically destined for cult status, appealing to fanatics of war epics, zombie thrillers and gory, low-budget horror flicks alike. But, looking at it now, it’s clear that Overlord doesn’t fully dedicate itself to its bonkers premise, preferring to be a predominately solemn war piece instead of the outrageous, violent homage to the niche horror subgenre of Nazi zombies. As a result, whether it’s your first viewing or your fifth, it’s hard not to wonder how much stronger Overlord would’ve been should it have stuck the landing. Rating: low 4/10.

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Cooties (2014) – Film Review

For many, children can seem like loud, disease-infested monsters, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s usually something leaking out their noses, their meals are often encrusted around their mouths, and they care little for social decorum or personal space. As such, it’s not too surprising that a horror-comedy like Cooties would come along in 2014 to take this waggish status to a more terrifying level, altering children into nimble monstrosities hungry for human flesh. Unfortunately, however, in spite of how much potential a concept like this holds, Cooties ultimately squanders many of its favourable qualities, never fully committing to its absurd premise and the horror/humour it holds.

Plot Summary: When a mysterious virus originating from contaminated chicken nuggets hits an isolated elementary school, transforming the children within into a feral swarm of flesh-eating monsters. A group of misfit teachers are forced to band together as they attempt to flee the bloody, juvenile carnage…

Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion (BushwickBecky), Cooties undoubtedly harbours a remarkable premise, and the screenplay effectively sets itself up as a hybrid of both comedy and horror in its first act, balancing conversational witticisms and light moments of characterisation, with violent sequences of teachers and parents being torn apart by the infected children. However, the screenplay quickly turns sour once the second act arrives, as a number of plot conveniences/inconsistencies arise to make the perilous situation of the central group of characters survivable. Moreover, as the virus spreads and the teachers become trapped inside the school, the story begins to feel rather generic as the screenplay moves between uninteresting plot points from the chintzy jokes that preceded them.

While the characters featured throughout Cooties aren’t what I’d describe as particularly memorable or unique, they are, at least, well-defined and have their respective witty moments. A fair portion of this character appeal could also be attributed to the cast, however, as Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Leigh Whannel, Jack McBrayer and Jorge Garcia all deliver excellent performances as self-centred educators who are evidently displeased with how their lives have turned out. For example, Clint (the protagonist), who formerly moved to New York City in an attempt to become a novelist, reluctantly finds himself back in his hometown of Fort Chicken, Illinois, as a substitute teacher. The only positive outcome of his return home is his reconciliation with his childhood crush, Lucy, who now works at the same school. But, any chance of sparking a connection with her is swiftly stomped out by P.E. teacher, Wade, her loathsome boyfriend. Presumably, leaving many audience members grateful they don’t lead a life as a downtrodden, small-town elementary school teacher.

Aside from the truly nauseating opening title sequence at a chicken farm, which is sure to turn many audience members into vegetarians. Thanks in part to its use of vile close-ups, sludgy green colour palette and singular chicken nugget stuffed with an ominous black gloop. The rest of Lyle Vincent’s cinematography is relativity drab, relying on monotonous mid-shots to depict the puerile chaos. Outside of a handful of moments where close-ups are effectively employed to display the fantastic practical effects, that is, including a darkly comedic sequence in which the infected children pull the hapless school principal apart, using his intestines as a skipping rope, soon after.

Cooties‘ original score, composed by Kreng (a.k.a. Pepijn Caudron), is an interesting musical composition, a quirky mix of electronic horror and childlike innocence, much like the film itself. And whilst the score is occasionally too synth-heavy, which can seem a little odd given the film’s lack of 1980s influences. Cooties‘ soundtrack does make space for haunting vocals and violins where it can, blending comforting and madcap cues to create splendid tracks like Opening Titles and Rick’s Tape.

As previously mentioned, Cooties does appear fairly derivative following its first act, relying on no end of familiar tropes for the zombie subgenre. In addition to caving into an array of plot convinces, such as the sex-ed teacher, Doug, possessing a significant amount of knowledge on viruses and the human brain alike, so he can explain to the others that adults cannot be infected. Still, that isn’t where the writing-related issues cease, as towards the end of the third act (spoilers ahead in this section for those who wish to go in blind), the story becomes virtually aimless, providing no resolution as the characters scurry through the barren, nearby town of Danville until the credits roll. Of course, there is always the possibility that this sudden discontinuation was a result of the film’s limited budget, but it’s a less-than-satisfying way of concluding the narrative, nonetheless.

In summary, Cooties‘ screenplay is largely what drags the rest of the project down, appearing almost confined in its storytelling as if the screenwriters couldn’t reach beyond the typical traits of a zombie flick. Once the teachers hunker down inside a classroom, the story grinds to a tedious halt, merely observing the characters as they crawl through air ducts and suit up with school equipment to escape, scenes you’ve seen a thousand times before in other zombie-centric stories. Yet, what’s most disappointing, is that Cooties wastes such an inspired idea, as teachers surviving against a horde of infected children is an imaginative and amusing concept that could’ve easily made for an enjoyable, low-budget horror-comedy if it was executed skillfully. Rating: 4/10.

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Carol (2015) – Film Review

A period-set romantic drama with a pleasant festive aesthetic in the former half of its runtime, 2015’s Carol is based on the novel; The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Powered by the fantastic performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the lead roles, Carol is a well-told and engrossing tale of forbidden love between two women that lives up to its cherished source material. Thanks in part to its elegant production design and magnificent original score by Carter Burwell.

Plot Summary: During the Christmas season of 1952, aspiring photographer, Therese Belivet, encounters Carol Aird whilst working at a boutique store in Manhattan. Semi-divorced and entrapped in a loveless relationship with her former husband, Carol quickly sparks a connection with Therese over their shared romantic hardships. Yet, amidst the strict social norms of their time, their undisguised interest in one another soon turns into profound affection…

The original novel the film is based upon was actually inspired by a blonde woman in a mink coat who ordered a doll from Patricia Highsmith when she was working as a temporary salesgirl at Bloomingdale’s in New York City during the 1948 Christmas season. Highsmith recalled feeling; “Odd and Swimmy in the Head, Near to Fainting. Yet, at the Same Time, Uplifted.” Highsmith completed the outline for the story in about two hours that same night. Moreover, the character of Carol Aird was inspired by Virginia Kent Catherwood, a Philadelphia socialite six years older than Patricia Highsmith, with whom the author had a love affair in the 1940s. Catherwood subsequently lost custody of her daughter after her homosexuality was used against her with a taped recording of a lesbian liaison she had in a hotel room. Director Todd Haynes (Velvet GoldmineFar from HeavenI’m Not There) sufficiently employs all these ideas into a grander narrative in his adaptation, primarily concentrating on the senseless consequences of a lesbian relationship in a time when they were strongly frowned upon.

When it comes to the cast, the pairing of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is superb, with Blanchett portraying the thirty-two-year-old, Carol Aird, as a woman chafing against the constraints of her role as an upper-class wife and mother, continually expressing her sexual desires for women as a method of rebelling against her husband and her conformist world. While Mara’s performance as nineteen-year-old, Therese Belivet, is more suppressed, depicting the quiet young woman as a self-deprecating, novice photographer who prefers to hide behind her camera than engage with others. Softly spoken and sweet-natured, Therese is as single-minded in her relationship with her boyfriend as she is in her pursued career. As such, it’s easy to see why the pair bond, given that they provide a sense of escapism for each other, and upon their first meeting, the sexual tension between them is palpable.

Although the cinematography by Edward Lachman is doubtful to blow any audience member away with its framing or use of colour, Carol still features a number of visually interesting shots that occasionally even illustrate what the characters are feeling. For instance, in the opening shot, we see an iron floor grille from which the camera slowly pulls out, visually representing the entrapment that Carol and Therese feel at the beginning of the narrative. Another intriguing attribute in regard to the visuals is that Carol was shot on Super-16 millimetre film to better resemble the look of photographic film from the late 1940s/early 1950s. Many of the shots are also directly influenced by the photojournalism of Vivian Maier, Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt and Esther Bubley, respectively.

Moving onto the original score, through orchestral tracks like OpeningDatebookChristmas Trees and Waterloo, the score by Carter Burwell consistently sounds wrapped in a gauze of wistful minimalism, with the leading duo being audibly identified by two instrumental markers; Carol by piano and Therese by woodwinds. In addition to the wonderful original score, Carol makes terrific use of songs from the time period. In fact, prior to the start of production, Todd Haynes compiled a playlist of seventy-nine songs that were popular during the era the story is set within to further understand the period. A few of the songs that were ultimately chosen for the film include; One Mint JulepEasy Living and Smoke Rings.

From start to finish, the production design of Carol is also outstanding, capturing the polish and aristocratic nature of the ’50s without seeming excessive. This praise can be applied to all parts of the production, but, most notably, the costume design. What makes the costume design even more spectacular is that excluding the suit Therese wears in her first and last scene(s), all of Rooney Mara’s costumes were actually well-worn, vintage clothing pieces.

In summary, whilst Carol isn’t one of the finest romantic dramas ever made, it is still a tremendous flick in more ways than one. While the pacing is sometimes too slow for its own good, and the original score occasionally does a lot of the heavy lifting during the more emotionally impactful moments, Carol is an indelible and captivating story, all the same. On top of that, even though many may see Carol as a rather strange choice for a Christmas viewing. I feel the joyous, snowy aesthetic that the film presents during its first half is enough to make the flick a reliable, less whimsical pick for the festive season. Rating: low 7/10.

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RED (2010) – Film Review

Loosely based on the comic book mini-series of the same name by Warren Ellis, RED, released in 2010, is a fast-paced and humourous action-comedy with an all-star cast of ageing actors and actresses. Yet, despite everything the film has going for it, RED never quite reaches the soaring heights of exhilaration most would expect to see from an action flick with a cast of this calibre. Still, at the very least, RED doesn’t just rely on its renowned performers to impress, as director Robert Schwentke (The Family JewelsR.I.P.D.The Captain) integrates a sufficient amount of both style and wit into the adaptation.

Plot Summary: When his peaceful life becomes threatened by persistent attacks from squads of heavily armed, masked assailants. Former black-ops agent, Frank Moses, reassembles his old team of highly-trained assassins in a last-ditch effort to uncover who his assailants work for and why they are hunting him…

One of the few DC Comics properties not based around superheroes and/or supervillains. RED was surprisingly the first widely-released adaptation of a DC Comics series not produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, as Batman, released in 1966 by Twentieth Century Fox, was a spin-off from the television series. Whereas Superman, released in 1948 by Columbia Pictures, was technically a serial. These comic book roots factor into the film in a number of ways, some visual, some not. For instance, when it comes to the narrative, the pacing often seems unnecessarily quick, making the constant location-jumping of the characters feel overwhelming at points. On top of this, there is an abundance of scenes throughout RED that seem to serve little-to-no purpose, such as a moment in the opening montage of Frank’s day-to-day life where he positions Christmas decorations, implying the festive season will somehow play a part in the story. Yet, from that scene on Christmas isn’t even mentioned, so why is it there?

The leading component to the enjoyability of RED is undoubtedly its formerly mentioned cast and their respective characters. From Bruce Willis as the hard-boiled protagonist, Frank Moses, to Morgan Freeman as the capable yet cancer-ridden; Joe Matheson, along with John Malkovich and Helen Mirren as Marvin Boggs and Victoria, a paranoid nut-job and sophisticated assassin, respectfully. All of the characters that are part of the central team known as R.E.D. (an acronym for; “Retired and Extremely Dangerous”), are well-defined and sufficiently likeable. Outside of this primary team, however, some of the characters suffer from a lack of development. Most notably, William Cooper, portrayed by Karl Urban, a misguided CIA agent assigned the task of capturing Frank and his team. Frank’s love interest, Sarah Ross, portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker, is unfortunately just as bland, with her character arc of maturing from a fearful, reluctant companion to an adrenaline junkie relishing in her time beside Frank, being both corny and unbelievable.

Evidently inspired by the comic book mini-series it’s based upon, RED is generally rather creative with its visuals, implementing a considerable number of innovative shots that rotate around the characters as they perform various tasks. Nevertheless, the cinematography by Florian Ballhaus isn’t impeccable, as the film is frequently impaired by the jerky, hand-held style of camerawork that plagued many action sequences in the early 2010s. Furthermore, while I appreciate the attempt to add some flair to the visuals by integrating a string of imaginative location transitions, a few of these transitions come across as somewhat cheesy, particularly whenever they revolve around a screen-overspreading postcard.

In a quirky little detail, all of the tracks throughout RED‘s original score are titled to fit the acronym of R.E.D. Some of these titles include; Rotating Enforcement DeviceRegular Easygoing Dudes and Rehash Every Detail. However, even when ignoring this minor detail, the original score by Christophe Beck is rather impressive, adding to the film’s appeal as a lively and stimulating guitar-led soundtrack that more than fits the quick-pacing and sharp wit seen throughout the rest of the runtime.

When it comes to the action sequences, it may surprise many to learn that RED largely spreads out its rousing set pieces. If truth be told, the film’s most interesting narrative decision is that every act feels different in its approach. The first act, for example, predominantly focuses on humour, whilst the second act takes on a more serious tone, and the third act bursts into an exhilarating display of discharged firearms and downed adversaries. That’s not to say that the first two acts don’t retain any of their own exciting moments, however, as they certainly do. Interestingly, actress Helen Mirren had to learn how to fire a gun without blinking to appear more like an experienced assassin in her action sequences. This is actually an issue that has troubled cast members of the action genre for years. In fact, blinking was one of the main reasons why the cast of The Matrix trilogy wore sunglasses, concealing their involuntary reactions.

In summary, whilst RED is an action-comedy endowed with prominent names, most will come away imbued with the reassuring thought that all of the cast left their egos at home to assemble something amusing and easily digestible. Although the film isn’t anything extraordinary and definitely has its fair share of flaws, RED does have some of the makings of an entertaining action-comedy, pleasing fanatics of the veteran actors/actresses whose names litter the film’s promotional material, especially. Rating: high 5/10.

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Room (2015) – Film Review

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, 2015’s Room is a captivating and immensely well-crafted drama, guided by a pair of astonishing performances from Brie Larson and the young Jacob Tremblay. Simultaneously showcasing the best and worst of humanity, Room undoubtedly begins in a very dark place narrative-wise, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bleak film, as Room is filled with just as many uplifting moments as it has sombre ones. Ultimately making for a harrowing yet equally rewarding piece of both filmmaking and storytelling.

Plot Summary: Held captive for seven years by a rapist, eventually giving birth to a baby boy. Joy Newsome, and her now five-year-old son, Jack, spend their days trapped inside a small room, this enclosed space being the only world Jack has ever known. Knowing that Jack’s growth has made their situation precarious, however, Joy, with the help of her son, orchestrates an escape plan in the hope that they can finally gain their freedom…

Maintaining the same narrative stance as the novel the film is based upon, much of Room‘s story is told from the perspective of Jack, with many of the plot points being childishly interpreted as the sheltered youngster can barely comprehend much of what he sees. By telling its story from the point of view of a child, the film is able to easily differentiate Jack’s distorted understanding of the world from the real world that lies just outside his view, all the while leaving the more unsettling aspects of the story, such as Joy’s abduction and subsequent sexual abuse, to be tastefully implied as opposed to occurring on-screen, as those events transpire out of Jack’s presence/eyesight.

Predominantly shot in chronological order to make it easier for the then-eight-year-old Jacob Tremblay to perform as his character matures. The pairing of Brie Larson and Tremblay as mother and son is no doubt one of the best elements of Room, as the pairs’ performances are astoundingly believable, with the development of their characters only furthering this sense of realism. To Jack, the ten-foot square room he and his mum live within is the entire world, where objects such as a table, a rug and a wardrobe are the only ones of their kind. Whereas for Joy (repeatedly referred to as “Ma” by her son), this room is her prison. A cell in which she has been kept for over seven years since she was kidnapped at seventeen by a man who has raped her countless times, ultimately fathering Jack. Yet, through sheer willpower and the love she harbours for her son, Joy keeps all these harsh truths to herself. And throughout the runtime, Larson turns in a tragically punishing performance to match this broken yet incredibly resilient character, finding courage from the need to protect her child from the enormity of their tormentor, only ever referred to as “Old Nick.” With that in mind, it’s not too much of a surprise that Larson later went on to win an Oscar for her performance in 2016.

Shot over a period of ten weeks, the first month of Room‘s production primarily took place inside a tiny set with immovable walls. As such, director Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & PaulFrankThe Little Stranger) and his crew had to work entirely within the confines of the limited space. Nevertheless, the cinematography by Danny Cohen still manages to remarkably capture the innocent outlook of childhood, employing a number of low-angled close-ups in just the right shaft of light to illustrate how Jack finds enjoyment in his everyday life. Many of these shots also display the grubby surfaces and worn objects in the claustrophobic space Jack and his mother reside, reminding the audience that this sealed room is closer to a dungeon than an inviting family quarter.

Similar to the narrative itself, the original score by Stephen Rennicks is the perfect combination of beauty and trepidation, with some tracks, most notably; OpeningMouseIn the World and New End, standing as beautiful piano-led pieces that bring a level of warm comfort. Whilst other tracks, like I’m Scared and Roll Up, are much more atmospheric and even somewhat unnerving. In many ways, these two types of tracks could be seen as representations of Jack and Joy, respectively, as the piano melodies are direct and naïve with very little room for movement, a.k.a. Jack. While the violin arrangements could be personified as Joy, being mature, tense and somewhat damaged.

In terms of its structure, Room is a film that is largely divided into two halves. And whilst I don’t want to reveal too much regarding how the plot develops, I will note that the film does lose some of the dramatic steam it builds up in the first half of its story due to a substantial change in the direction and tone of its latter half.

In summary, Room is undeniably a depressing and challenging viewing at points, but it’s also more sanguine in its storytelling than many may expect from a film with such a horrific setup. Through its tremendous performances, thoughtful use of visuals and detailed sets, Room is a terrific drama (and an effective thriller) that explores the uncomfortable topic of abduction from a unique perspective. Formulating a tear-jerking adaptation that occasionally makes too much room for melodrama, but is an expertly told tale, nonetheless. Rating: high 8/10.

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Villains (2019) – Film Review

Engrossing, suspenseful and darkly humorous, Villains, released in 2019, is a fast-paced crime-thriller with a sharp comedic edge. Led by a quartet of strong performances, including the likes of Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe as the leading pair of romantically-entangled criminals, Villains has more than a few noteworthy elements. Alongside its many qualities, however, Villains also suffers from several shortcomings, mainly in regard to the lack of style in its visuals, despite what the film’s flamboyant promotional posters would lead you to believe.

Plot Summary: On the run after robbing a local gas station, amateur lovebird criminals, Mickey and Jules, find themselves breaking into a secluded house in search of a new set of wheels. But, upon entering the quaint abode, the pair discover that the home they have stumbled into is actually the residency of a sadistic couple with more than a few dark secrets…

While never outright frightening, Villains does have a surplus of tense sequences and bloody violence to quench one’s thirst for excitement. However, these stirring moments don’t persist into the third act, as Villains‘ story actually reaches its peak absurdity during the second act, and then opts for a quieter, more emotionally resonant third act to conclude its narrative. Admittedly, this is a rather jarring decision, and the film’s pacing does suffer as a result, but it undeniably works in the characters’ favour. Furthermore, whilst not filled to the brim with plot twists and narrative subversions, the first act of Villains features enough twists and turns that I would advise those going in to go in blind as possible to get the full impact of the reveals.

Headed southbound for a fresh start in the sunshine state of Florida, the central couple of Mickey and Jules, portrayed by Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe, are surprisingly likeable characters in spite of being wanted criminals. Monroe is the most charismatic she’s ever been in her role as Jules, whilst Skarsgård portrays Mickey as a goofy yet considerate partner, delivering some of the film’s most amusing lines of dialogue. The pair could have easily been depicted as despicable, but Monroe and Skarsgård imbue them with such warmth and earnestness that you can’t help but root for them. As for the demented homeowners, George and Gloria, portrayed by Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Minturn, are charismatic yet equally intimidating, portraying their characters with a subdued sense of lunacy as opposed to being overly insane to an almost comical degree. On top of the terrific performances, all of the characters receive an adequate amount of development. I’d even go so far as to say it’s unfortunate that the runtime isn’t a little longer to further flesh out the characters, as the hints of backstory we receive for some of them (particularly Gloria) are both tragic and fascinating.

Visually, Villains is somewhat flat, as the cinematography by Matt Mitchell largely relies on unremarkable close-up and mid-shots without much innovation or implementation of style. Excluding the end credits, that is, which are vibrant and chaotic, emulating a skater-like art style through its animation and font choices. Luckily, the production design fairs better than the camerawork as George and Gloria’s house is uniquely coated in 1960s decor, complete with radiant colours and a vintage television. All of the outfits that the psychotic couple sport also play into this ’60s aesthetic. Moreover, writers-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen (BodyThe Stakelander) effectively utilise the setting of George and Gloria’s home, establishing the geography of their house scene by scene so the audience has a clear understanding of where each character is in relation to one another during the many cat-and-mouse chase sequences.

The original score by Andrew Hewitt is regrettably rather generic, boasting several tracks that sound as if they were lifted from various scores from a selection of genres, from mysteries to horrors. But, on a more positive note, Villains does make sufficient use of a number of soothing instrumental pieces, such as The Free LifeTime for Romance and Looking Back on Love, which all serve as excellent contrasts to the on-screen violence and grim setup of the narrative.

Upon first viewing, it quickly becomes apparent that Villains takes a lot of influence from other crime flicks. Most notably for its protagonists, Mickey and Jules, as the pair share many similarities to the couple; Pumpkin and Honey Bunny from the opening and closing scenes of the quintessential crime flick; Pulp Fiction, released in 1994. The film even pays tribute to this specific influence through a small Easter egg, as if you look closely, you can see that Mickey has a tattoo on his wrist of Stuntman Mike’s car from 2007’s Death Proof, another flick directed by Quentin Tarantino.

In summary, Villains is an entertaining crime-thriller, but it’s also a film that continuously feels as if it’s on the cusp of something extraordinary, yet it never quite reaches whatever that may be. While the performances are solid and the plot is engaging, the almost total absence of style and flair is exceedingly difficult to ignore. Still, Villains has enough of its own offbeat energy to avoid merely coming across as an assemblage of two young filmmakers’ cinematic influences, which is more than can be said for many modern releases. Rating: 6/10.

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What If (2013) – Film Review

Based on the novel and later stage play; Toothpaste & Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, 2013’s What If (alternatively titled: The F Word), is a light-hearted romantic-comedy that largely overcomes its familiar framework and few derivative elements. Continuously mindful of the many clichés associated with rom-coms, What If employs an abundance of witty dialogue, subversive story decisions and the effervescent chemistry of its leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, to deliver a charming, self-aware romantic-comedy that will appeal to those well-acquainted with the genre (and its typical shortcomings), as well as those who prefer the ‘com’ to the ‘rom’ portions of a rom-com.

Plot Summary: After being repeatedly burned by bad relationships, medical school dropout, Wallace, decides to put his love life on hold while everyone around him seems to be finding the perfect partner. But, when Wallace meets Chantry at a house party, an endearing animator who lives with her long-time boyfriend, Ben. The pair form an instant connection, striking up a close friendship and leaving Wallace to contemplate whether his newly-found friend could also be the love of his life…

Directed by Michael Dowse (It’s All Gone Pete TongGoonStuber) and written by Elan Mastai. In many ways, the screenplay for What If feels as if it was conceived as an unabashed tribute to the exemplary romantic-comedy; When Harry Met Sally from 1989. Primarily due to its underlining theme/question of whether a man and a woman can truly just be friends. However, unlike that renowned rom-com, What If places a heavy emphasis on its characters and their relationships, alongside its hilarious gags. As a result, many of the cringe-inducing comedic moments feel very natural and in-character, as opposed to feeling like embarrassing scenarios the screenwriter conjured up on the spot. As previously mentioned, What If is also continually conscious of the numerous painful clichés that plague the rom-com genre, attempting to avoid them at every turn. As such, the film crafts many of its amusing yet romantically uncomfortable situations in unpredictable ways, rather than what the audience would typically expect, which works remarkably well. 

Portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, the story’s polite and self-effacing protagonist, Wallace, is close enough to Radcliffe’s actual personality that the actor rarely feels as if he is portraying a fictional character, yet he is immensely entertaining to watch, nonetheless. And, when paired with the charismatic and equally likeable Zoe Kazan, whose character, Chantry, is luminously quirky, the pair’s excellent chemistry quickly bubbles to the surface. In addition to the leading duo, Wallace’s outlandish best friend, Allan, portrayed by Adam Driver, provides a considerable amount of the film’s most amusing moments, as his wild personality is a fantastic foil to Wallace’s often pessimistic view of the world. Then there is Rafe Spall as Chantry’s long-lasting boyfriend, Rob, who, thankfully isn’t written as a simplistic, cheating miscreant designed to simply push his girlfriend into the arms of the protagonist. If truth be told, the only character the film squanders is Wallace’s sister, Ellie, portrayed by Jemima Rooper, as she is incredibly under-utilised, only appearing in two (inconsequential) scenes. 

When it comes to visuals, the cinematography by Rogier Stoffers maintains a light touch throughout the runtime, allowing the photogenic city of Toronto to function as a vibrant setting without ever seeming overly romanticised, which is a satisfying contrast to many other city-set romantic-comedies. Additionally, to correspond with Chantry working at an animation studio, What If seizes the opportunity to add some flair to its visuals by having many of its characters sporadically daydream. These mental fabrications are represented by Chantry’s cartoonish sketches coming to life and appearing alongside the characters, usually in a projection-like form via their surroundings.  

Despite What If presenting its song choices as the focal point of its audio instead of its acoustic-led original score, many of the tracks by composer; A.C. Newman, including Beach Bummer and Packing with Dalia, are cordial and possess a delightful little motif. Still, the licensed songs are naturally the most memorable part of the soundtrack, with upbeat tunes like Best of FriendsBig Bird in a Small Cage and Let’s Get High sufficiently supporting the story and its central underlining theme.

Sticking with the notion of avoiding romantic-comedy tropes, the ending of What If is a rather restrained piece of storytelling that merely gets across what details it needs to before cutting to black. The ending is a terrific throwback to a line of dialogue from earlier in the film, bringing the story to completion. That is essentially why I prefer that original ending to the extended ending that was shot eighteen months later, as where the original climax is drawn-back and concise, the extended ending feels unnecessarily long and even falls into a couple of the stale plot points What If was trying to sidestep throughout its narrative.

In summary, What If is a feel-good flick that frequently flirts with rom-com clichés yet skillfully evades the worst of them, all while traversing into unexpected territory, both comedically and dramatically. Whilst I’d argue the film has widespread appeal, those who enjoyed Michael Dowse’s previous outings are especially likely to appreciate What If, as it similarly blends a warm, earnest attitude with shocking, irreverent jokes. Repeatedly pointing out how much better romantic-comedies can be when you have fully-formed characters and exceptional performances, in addition to side-splitting wisecracks. Rating: low 8/10.

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