Guns Akimbo (2019) – Film Review

Frenetic to a fault, 2019’s ‘Guns Akimbo’ relishes in its video-game-like violence, utilising its fluid editing, fast-pacing, and wild visuals to construct a thrilling action-comedy inspired by riveting 1980s blockbusters like ‘The Terminator’ and ‘The Running Man.’ Yet with all this insanity, it’s inevitable that ‘Guns Akimbo’ will alienate some viewers, especially those hoping for plenty of engrossing commentary concerning televised violence and online culture, but for many others, the film’s super-charged, energetic action sequences along with Daniel Radcliffe’s committed performance will surely hit the spot as an explosive jaunt.

Plot Summary: When ‘Miles Lee Harris,’ a spineless video-game programmer, awakens one morning to discover that his hands have been bloodily bolted to a pair of pistols, ‘Miles’ is forced to use the fused-firearms to his advantage to save his ex-girlfriend from a group of kidnappers working for a criminal organisation named: ‘Skizm,’ which pits maniacal criminals against each other in live-streamed deathmatches…

Written and directed by Jason Lei Howden (Deathgasm), ‘Guns Akimbo’ is, in many ways, trying to be a satire of the digital age we currently live in, displaying how apps like Instagram and YouTube have made us cynical, and in some instances, even dehumanised us. The problem here being that the film soon becomes exactly what it’s satirising, constantly mocking the online community of: ‘Skizm’ for watching the grisly livestreams even though the film itself is taking just as much pleasure in displaying them to its audience, but considering ‘Guns Akimbo’ is primarily an action flick over anything else, I feel this muddled message is far from the film’s central focus. An issue the film does actually suffer from, however, is its screenplay, as by the time it’s third act arrives, the film is clearly beginning to run out of steam, devolving into essentially just non-stop action with little charm when compared to the first half of the film.

By far one of the film’s best aspects, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as asthmatic protagonist: ‘Miles Lee Harris’ is both hilarious and manic, as ‘Miles’ is forced to leave his boring life as a programmer for a company whose games are designed to exploit children for micro-transactions, to undertake a whole new identity after unwillingly entering: ‘Skizm’ and their city-wide game of death. And whilst ‘Miles’ continuous moments of cowardice and constant wheedling over his ex-girlfriend could’ve been annoying if they were over-played, Radcliffe portrays the character in such a way where it’s easy for the audience to root for him similar to how ‘Skizm’s online audience do. On the flip side of this matchup there is ‘Nix,’ a cocaine-fuelled killer who relishes in profane one-liners and is brilliantly portrayed by Samara Weaving, being the current reigning champion of: ‘Skizm,’ ‘Nix’ serves her purpose as a baleful adversary to ‘Miles’ in addition to having a surprisingly dramatic backstory.

An utterly merciless blend of: ‘Crank,’ ‘Shoot ‘Em Up,’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,’ the cinematography throughout ‘Guns Akimbo’ never fails to be visually dynamic, as cinematographer Stefan Ciupek aims to make the camera feel completely unrestricted, having it flow freely through a variety of techniques including making superb use of body-rigs and car-mounts alike, which does help to redeem some of the uninspired firefight choreography. Moreover, as ‘Guns Akimbo’ frequently has the appeal of a vibrant graphic novel, the on-screen graphics and highly saturated lighting lend themselves remarkably well, with many of the lighting rigs used also being controlled via an iPad, so they could easily be adjusted to fit with the mood and colour of any scene.

Enis Rotthoff’s original score is just as hyperactive as the rest of the film, as any scenes that aren’t filled with iconic songs such as: ‘We’ll Be Good Friends,’ ‘Super Freak,’ or ‘You Spin Me Round’ are amplified by Rotthoff’s thumping techno soundtrack, with tracks like ‘Neon Grey’ and ‘Playcare’ being perfectly in tune with whatever moment of the story they are a part of.

However, even when keeping all these elements in mind, whether you enjoy ‘Guns Akimbo’ or not will ultimately have to do with whether you find the distinctively zany concept endearing, as the film greatly leans into the comedy of its premise, imagining what it would be like to try and use the bathroom or attempt to call someone when you literally have pistols for hands, which has always been the film’s most notable distinction. In fact, during the film’s pre-production, an image of Daniel Radcliffe panicking and holding a pair of pistols whilst wearing a robe went viral as soon as it surfaced online, creating an aura of awareness for the film before it even had an official trailer.

Overall, ‘Guns Akimbo’ is bloody, brutal, and ballistic, colourful and stylish yet admittedly fairly empty-minded. But for a film like this, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, as while some may argue the film starts to lose its desirability once you realise it doesn’t have much to offer beyond its high-octane action sequences, ‘Guns Akimbo’ never lies to you about what it is, as the action is every bit as ludicrously over-the-top as it would be in the fictional reality of violent video-games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Doom.’ Final Rating: 7/10.

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The Mummy (2017) – Film Review

When Universal Pictures first announced their plans to build a cinematic universe based around their gallery of iconic monsters, general audiences seemed to roll their eyes at the idea, seeing the forthcoming franchise as nothing more than a shameless attempt to copy and paste the formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the hopes of making the same box-office returns. Nevertheless, Universal continued with their plan, releasing the first instalment of the series in 2017 with ‘The Mummy,’ a film which even with the star-power of Tom Cruise, failed miserably both critically and commercially, instantly destroying any plans for the future of the franchise and embarrassingly leaving the Dark Universe with a single film to its name.

Plot Summary: Once destined to rule all of Egypt, the beautiful princess: ‘Ahmanet’ sees her birth-right stolen from her when her father begets an heir. Knowing this boy would be the Pharaoh’s new successor, ‘Ahmanet’ turns to a dark deity, selling her soul for an unholy power, for which, she is captured by the Pharaoh’s priests, mummified alive and buried in a tomb far from Egypt. Five-thousand-years later, opportunistic U.S. Army reconnaissance sergeant: ‘Nick Morton,’ accidentally discovers her tomb during a firefight in the Middle East, and once venturing inside, inadvertently sets her free…

According to a number of reports, Tom Cruise not only starred in ‘The Mummy,’ but also has an excessive amount of control over the film, having creative oversight on nearly every aspect of the production. So much so, that Cruise even had influence on the film’s screenplay, as it’s been stated that Cruise had his personal writing team rewrite certain scenes to give his character more screen-time and a more dramatic character-arc, and even though most Universal executives weren’t thrilled about the rewrite, feeling it was disjointed and insipid, they reluctantly agreed to keep Cruise on-board. Regardless, Universal Pictures soon saw the fallacy in their blind faith towards Cruise, as despite ‘The Mummy’ earning nearly £300 million worldwide, it was still considered a financial flop when taking into account its immense marketing campaign, which promoted the film purely as the franchise-vehicle it is as opposed to a riveting blockbuster.

Having both her design and gender altered to avoid any similarities with the titular villain of: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse,’ which released just a year prior, ‘The Mummy/Ahmanet’ herself portrayed by Sofia Boutella, is remarkably forgettable, never developing into a compelling or even threating antagonist, which should be nearly impossible considering ‘The Mummy’ fills over a quarter of its runtime with extensive exposition regarding her backstory and sinister motives. Likewise, the actual protagonist of the film: ‘Nick Morton,’ rarely benefits from Cruise’s natural charisma and wit, as ‘Nick’ is simply an unlikable character, emerging as a foolish, self-centred adventurer and leaving in the exact same manner, in addition to being miraculously skilled with/in every type of firearm and hand-to-hand combat, of course.

When it comes to visuals, the film’s cinematography by Ben Seresin is generally visually pleasing, resulting in a fair share of alluring wide-shots, yet much of the film’s beauty is consequently hindered by its ghastly colour palette, which hardly ever strays away from greys, blacks and beiges, an issue that is only worsened by the prosaic setting of modern-day London. Furthermore, the film’s action sequences (which are less frequent than most would expect) are fairly unimpressive, with many of the story’s thrilling moments having an overreliance on apace editing and CG creatures. That is, with the exception of the stunt work, which due to Cruise’s heavy input on the film, is mostly practical and just as awe-inspiring as the stunts in the ‘Mission Impossible’ series, no thanks to director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us).

Built around two central themes with various less significant tracks cropping-up in-between, the film’s original score by Bryan Tyler is serviceable for the most part, balancing its two main tracks of: ‘The Mummy’ and ‘Nick’s Theme’ before then switching to far more dramatic orchestral tracks like ‘Sandstorm,’ ‘Enchantments,’ and ‘World of Monsters’ for the film’s larger-scale set-pieces and handful of brief horror/dream sequences.

Interestingly, ‘The Mummy’ wasn’t actually Universal’s first venture into crafting a cinematic universe of monsters, as the company originally envisioned 2014’s reboot of the renowned vampire: ‘Dracula Untold’ as the first instalment in the series. There was even early talk of: ‘Dracula’ appearing in ‘The Mummy,’ but this idea was ultimately scrapped, and the film was eventually cited as non-canon. However, there are still several Easter eggs alluding to other monsters within the film, as a vampire skull along with the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’s hand can both be seen in ‘Dr. Jekyll’s headquarters.

In all honesty, I feel it’s easy to see why many avoided ‘The Mummy’ when it first released back in 2017, as this film was merely Universal’s first attempt at revitalising the many well-known creatures locked away in their vault by lazily repackaging them for a new generation. The issue being that general audiences had little interest in this concept, and those that did quickly lost their engrossment as the film failed to capture even a fraction of the adventurous spirit present throughout the 90s reboot. Instead, it seems ‘The Mummy’ will simply be lost to time, unremembered and disregarded. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Coherence (2013) – Film Review

A case study in less-is-more filmmaking, 2013’s ‘Coherence’ is a taut puzzle box of a film, brimming with scenes of both existential terror and multidimensional weirdness as its reality-bending story unravels further and further. And even though this sci-fi/drama is by no means a masterpiece, ‘Coherence’ does demonstrate a willingness to embrace the unknown, the implied, and the mysterious, in addition to serving as a strong calling-card for debuting writer and director James Ward Byrkit, a long-time storyboard artist for Oscar-winning director Gore Verbinski.

Plot Summary: On the night of an astronomical anomaly, eight friends meeting for a dinner party in Northern California experience a series of troubling events following a street-wide blackout. But when the group venture outside to investigate a lone house that seemingly still has power, they soon find themselves in an alternate reality where identical versions of themselves exist…

Shot over five-nights on an extremely low-budget of around £36,000, ‘Coherence’ is a true indie film, treating every shred of its thin-budget, short production schedule and small crew of only two sound operators, a cinematographer, a producer, and writer-director James Ward Byrkit as a virtue. This is best seen in Byrkit’s unorthodox directing style, with Byrkit only giving each of his actors a note (that only they would see) as their goals for the day instead of the full screenplay, this approach allows the story to naturally unfold and implies that many of the reactions from the actors are genuine, as they were unaware of what their co-stars would say/do. Yet this method does have one major flaw, as due to a large amount of the film’s dialogue being improvised, a good portion of lines end-up sinking into audio muck as a result of the sheer number of characters present, even if most of the overlapping dialogue is comprehensible.

Being primarily a drama despite its initial sci-fi set-up, it was essential that ‘Coherence’ feature as many strong performances as possible, and luckily, this is the case, as the entire cast of Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Lorene Scafaria, Elizabeth Gracen and Hugo Armstrong (among others) are solid, balancing their fear, confusion, and frustration regarding their peculiar situation without ever seeming too outlandish. And while certain characters do receive far more characterisation than others, the main conflict within the group focusing on ‘Em’ and the issues she is currently facing with her boyfriend: ‘Kevin’ is interesting, though it is ultimately there for the sake of the climax, which leaves plenty of room for speculation.

Being shot chronologically to fit with the film’s largely improvised production, ‘Coherence’ is shot almost entirely through hand-held claustrophobic close-ups, and even though this was a stylistic choice as Byrkit wanted to give his actors the freedom to move anywhere they wanted during filming, I feel it works both for and against the film. As this idea of making use of the film’s limited resources through shaky and focus-blurring shots draws-thin by the end of the runtime, especially when the film has no reason to be shot in hand-held when it comes to the story’s quieter moments. However, whilst the cinematography by Arlene Muller and Nic Sadler leaves much to be desired, I did enjoy how ‘Coherence’ utilises shadows, as the many alternate realties that lie just outside the house are only hinted at, with anything outside of the property being shrouded in near-total darkness.

Kristin Ohrn Dyrud’s minimal yet atmospheric original score makes excellent use of eerie drones and moans, amplifying the film’s sense of creeping dread which is present even from early on with tracks like ‘The Box,’ ‘Lights Out’ and ‘Schroedinger’s Cat.’ What’s more impressive, however, is that is ‘Coherence’ is one of the few films Dyrud has actually composed, with most of her career revolving around electronic music. But if this score is anything to go by, then I personally can’t wait to see more from her as a composer.

When ignoring its science fiction elements, ‘Coherence’ is predominantly a film about the choices we make in life and the idea that making a specific choice won’t necessarily lead to happiness. This underlining theme is most evident in the film’s opening conversation, as the various characters discuss their successful careers while simultaneously ignoring their inner struggles, which could also be seen as a sly dig towards the vapid state of American privilege. It’s also during this first act that ‘Coherence’ attempts to utilise editing to display a passage of time, but rather then achieving this in a creative fashion, the film merely cuts to black before then cutting to a scene later in the evening, which is continuously jarring.

In conclusion, considering how much of the film consists of a group of friends becoming increasingly unhinged as they pace around a residential living room, it’s impressive how effectively Byrkit manages to suggest multiple realities and ominous threats, even if it’s trembling camerawork, odd editing choices and occasionally untapped potential cause the film to stumble now and then. Yet whatever its imperfections, ‘Coherence’ is still a thought-provoking and well-crafted experiment in micro-budget sci-fi, working best as a cautionary tale about the paths we choose in life and the alternate selves we sometimes dream of becoming. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Zookeeper (2011) – Film Review

Another lacklustre comedy from the ill-famed Happy Madison Productions, ‘Zookeeper,’ released in 2011, serves as nothing more than a Adam Sandler-perpetrated ego project for Kevin James, as director Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer, Click, Here Comes the Boom) adds little flair to a sodden screenplay riddled with clichés, overly long scenes and gags inappropriate for the young viewers that would be intrigued by its juvenile storyline. Essentially leaving ‘Zookeeper’ a film that feels as if it was made for no one, despite the film supposedly being a family-comedy.

Plot Summary: When kind-hearted: ‘Griffin Keyes,’ the head zookeeper at the Franklin Park Zoo, considers leaving his profession for a more glamorous career to impress his ex-girlfriend, the animals within the zoo begin to panic at the thought of their favourite zookeeper departing. So, to keep him from leaving, the animals decide to break their code of silence, revealing to ‘Griffin’ their ability to speak and offer to teach him the rules of courtship…

Shockingly, the screenplay for: ‘Zookeeper’ has five credited writers (Kevin James being one of them), and yet the story/dialogue is neither interesting nor memorable, stealing many of its ideas from other live-action animal flicks such as: ‘Dr. Dolittle’ and ‘Marmaduke.’ However, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue if ‘Zookeeper’ was amusing or heart-warming, but unfortunately, the film falls flat in both of these areas, as instead of exploring the life of an animal born in captivity for comedic and sentimental purposes alike, the film lazily relies on montages to establish a tone and suggest a friendship between ‘Griffin’ and the various zoo animals, when he isn’t taking a pounding with pratfalls and bicycle spills, of course, a.k.a. Kevin James’ usual form of comedy.

Speaking of Kevin James, James is truly one of the most notable ‘love him or hate him’ actors in film. Having been in a number of roles as the supposedly loveable all-American hero who relies just as much on his weight as he does his comedic timing to get a laugh out of his audience, its not difficult to see why many don’t enjoy his on-screen presence, myself included. But in ‘Zookeeper,’ James is surprisingly bearable, portraying ‘Griffin’ as a likeable guy who feels more comfortable around animals than people after being dumped by his girlfriend when he proposed to her five-years prior, Rosario Dawson as ‘Kate,’ however, is given very little to work with as ‘Griffin’s work colleague and obvious love interest. The numerous animals within the zoo are also voiced by a star-studded yet ultimately squandered cast, with Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Maya Rudolph, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love and even Adam Sandler as ‘Donald’ the monkey (whose over-the-top voice is the vocal equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard), all being heard at one point or another.

Bland and uninspired all around, the cinematography by Michael Barrett rarely attempts anything beyond a simple close-up or mid-shot, with even the film’s wide-shots being few and far between almost as if the production couldn’t afford to feature any sizeable sets, or something of that description. The only visual aspect of the film that is in anyway beguiling is its colour palette, as all of the evening scenes within the zoo are displayed through dark blacks and blues, a dramatic shift in terms of colour from the bright yellows and oranges that represent midday.

Although composer Rupert Gregson-Williams at least strives to make the score for: ‘Zookeeper’ a little more unique through the use of tropical instruments like bongo drums and maracas, the original score is almost unnoticeable throughout most of the runtime. Alternatively, the film relies on well-known songs for the sake of humour, throwing in musical hits like ‘I’ll Supply the Love,’ ‘Low,’ ‘Easy,’ and ‘More Than a Feeling’ in a desperate attempt to make the story feel more emotionally investing than it actually is.

Whilst the film’s CG effects have begun to show their age here and there, the majority of the film’s visual effects are serviceable, this is primarily due to the majority of the animals being real with just one or two CG enchantments including mouth movements or being digitally relocated, as opposed to be represented entirely through CGI. Needless to say, this approach still has its issues, as there are many, many shots of animals standing completely alone where were supposed to believe that ‘Griffin’ is standing just out of frame. But when it came to the film’s gorilla: ‘Bernie,’ the filmmakers actually decided to take an old-school approach, placing an actor inside of ape suit, which sadly doesn’t look very convincing, especially when the camera moves closer towards his face, placing full emphasis on the suit’s unnatural movements.

In summary, ‘Zookeeper’ isn’t offensive or convoluted, it’s quite the contrary, its immature and simplistic, far too simplistic, in fact, as while some children may enjoy the slapstick humour that Kevin James excels at, the film’s mass of adult-centric jokes and typical romantic-comedy structure are likely to turn children off. And although ‘Zookeeper’ is far from the worst Happy Madison-penned film, it’s still significantly less enjoyable than many of the other talking animal escapades you could be watching instead. Final Rating: 3/10.

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Slow West (2015) – Film Review

Musicians have long been drawn to the cinematic tales of the Old West, whether that’s the singing cowboys of early sound cinema with big-screen Elvis vehicles such as: ‘Flaming Star’ and ‘Charro!’ or Glen Campbell’s first step into the scorching deserts of New Mexico for the 1969 classic: ‘True Grit,’ the western genre has always seemed like a second home for musicians regardless of their stature. So, its no surprise that in 2015, part-time musician and part-time music video director John Maclean brought his own vision to the genre with ‘Slow West,’ a subversive story of death and devotion brimming with natural beauty, unsettling violence and a distinctly Coen-esque flavour of bleak, deadpan humour.

Plot Summary: In 1870, a naive Scottish teenager travels to Colorado in pursuit of the woman he loves, whilst there, he attracts the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as his guide across the county. Little does he know, not only does his beloved have a sizeable bounty on her head, but his seemingly helpful guide is actually hiding his true motive…

Described as “An Unconventional Western” by most, ‘Slow West’ was developed and co-financed by Film4, along with receiving some additional funding from the British Film Institute, Fulcrum Media Finance, the New Zealand Film Commission, and production company A24. However, while all this financial support may leave you thinking that writer and director John Maclean has previously produced a number of incredible films, ‘Slow West’ is actually Maclean’s directorial debut, as first and foremost Maclean is a Scottish musician, which does help explain some of the film’s peculiarities. As according to John Maclean, the original idea for: ‘Slow West’ came from a desire to link the British costume drama of a Merchant Ivory film with that of the American western, which is certainly a very interesting concept, even if this approach doesn’t always result in the smoothest or most emotionally impactful story-beats.

Leading the cast, Michael Fassbender as bounty hunter: ‘Silas Selleck’ and Kodi Smit-McPhee as sixteen-year-old: ‘Jay Cavendish’ both do a phenomenal job of bouncing off each other, as ‘Silas’ is a grizzled recluse with little faith in humanity, believing the west is simply a land of murder and theft, a land where everyone will stab you in the back the moment you turn around, whereas ‘Jay’ is the complete opposite of this, an optimistic young lad from an aristocratic family, woefully unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead yet trusts his enervating journey will be worthwhile just to see his beloved ‘Rose’ once again. And despite these characters being endlessly entertaining to watch, ‘Silas’ character-arc does feel a little rushed in the grand scheme of things, along with Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn barely getting a chance to shine due to their character’s limited screen-time.

Shot on digital when originally planned to be shot on 35mm, the cinematography of: ‘Slow West’ handled by Robbie Ryan breaks many of the conventions we associate with western visuals similar to how the narrative has a wizened grasp of when to embrace or reject a western cliché, as ‘Slow West’ ditches the usual western colour palette of beiges and browns for a much more vibrant look. Furthermore, as opposed to being shot in Colorado where the story takes place, the film was actually shot in the South Island of New Zealand, meaning the film has no shortage of stunning vistas, even if, in reality, the film couldn’t have been shot further away from where the American West was located.

The original score by Jed Kurzel isn’t overly memorable or unique, but does suit the film’s many moments of dark comedy remarkably well, as the score utilises a wide array of different instruments to give the soundtrack a bygone western feel, ensuring the original score stays within its 1800s setting and the confines of slow and drawn-out tracks such as: ‘Jay’s Theme’ and ‘The Trading Post,’ which were very common during the golden age of Hollywood when westerns were at their peak.

Alongside a suitable original score, another crucial element to crafting a great western will always been production design, as any film that can make their audience feel as if they have actually travelled back to the story’s time-period has surely succeeded. And director John Maclean makes it clear early on that he understands this, as even in spite of the budget for: ‘Slow West’ being fairly minimal (especially for a western), the film’s production design is often superb, with Maclean taking influence from classic westerns like ‘Iron Horse’ for the period details of both the film’s costumes and architecture.

On the whole, ‘Slow West’ may pay the price now and then for being helmed by a less-than-experienced writer and director, but for the most part, Maclean triumphs with his first cinematic outing, as ‘Slow West’ reaps the rewards of taking the road less-travelled, relishing in the telling of the tale as much as the tale itself. And whilst perhaps not on the same level as a Coen brother’s western, ‘Slow West’ exudes such confidence with its casual weirdness and abundance of ripping performances, subsequently resulting in an unpredictable yet still wildly compelling modern western. Final Rating: 7/10.

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John Wick (2014) – Film Review

Proving he still has what it takes when it comes to more physically challenging films, fifty-year-old Keanu Reeves triumphantly returned to the action genre in late 2014 with ‘John Wick,’ an exceptional neo-noir action-thriller brimming with incredible stunts, thrilling action sequences, and an unexpectedly high number of attractive shots. And while few films within the action genre are known for their intricate stories or layered dialogue, this included, there’s no denying the dexterity that went into its filming, certifying ‘John Wick’ as a name that will be heard for years to come.

Plot Summary: After retiring from his career as a deadly hitman to marry the love of his life, legendary assassin: ‘John Wick’ finds himself alone once again when her sudden death leaves him in deep mourning. But when a gang of Russian mobsters led by the arrogant mob-prince: ‘Losef Tarasov,’ break into his house in order to steal his prized 1969 Mustang, killing his newly adopted puppy in the process, the last gift from his wife, ‘John’ decides to come out of retirement to track down those that wronged him…

Despite having a smaller-budget than many other action films, directors Chad Stahelski (a former stuntman from a kick-boxing background) and David Leitch, who actually goes uncredited due to DGA regulations only allowing for only one director to be credited, manage to do a lot with very little. Not only in terms of action, but also world-building, as ‘John Wick’ swiftly establishes a seedy criminal underbelly beneath New York City, complete with assassins, mobsters and a contract killer hotel known as ‘The Continental,’ without ever relying on large dumps of exposition from disposable side characters. This fluidity even continues into the film’s screenplay, as the film tells its simplistic yet entertaining story with total proficiency.

Quickly becoming one of his most iconic roles, Keanu Reeves truly shines as ‘John Wick,’ as despite Reeves having given his fair share of weak performances in the past, ‘John Wick’ is certainly not one of them, as Reeves’ preparation for the role included eight-hours of weapons and martial arts training every day for over four-months, which he put to great use as Reeves performed over 90% of his own stunts. And although ‘John Wick’s characterisation is minimal, it’s enough to make his inclination for revenge understandable, as what remained of: ‘John’s peaceful life following his wife’s death is unjustly ruined. The rest of the cast, including the late Mikael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane, all portray their characters well even if many of them simply feel like cogs in a machine, serving their purpose within the plot before then vanishing.

Bathing many of the film’s early scenes in greys and whites before then implementing more colourful visuals through expressive greens and blues as ‘John’ begins to reimmerse himself in the criminal underworld he’d escaped many years ago. The colour palette of: ‘John Wick’ may be grim, but the film never descends into unattractiveness, as the cinematography by Jonathan Sela in addition to the film’s dramatic lighting further enhance the many car chases, fistfights, and shootouts ‘John’ finds himself within. Additionally, the film continues to play into its neo-noir style through its subtitles, with each line fading on-screen in a slick font with specific words even having their colours altered to increase their impact.

Moreover, Tyler Bates’ original score considerably helps build tension during many scenes throughout the film, as pulse-pounding tracks such as: ‘Assassins,’ ‘Shots Fired,’ and ‘Warehouse Smackdown’ are endlessly energetic without ever distracting from the story, along with the titles themselves being a clear indication of the excitement that is to come. Aside from the more action-oriented tracks, the soundtrack also boasts the perfect theme for: ‘John Wick’ himself, as ‘On the Hunt’ captures the relentless nature of the character flawlessly.

Unlike the shaky camerawork and constant quick cutting that make action flicks like ‘Taken’ and ‘Alex Cross’ nearly unbearable at times, ‘John Wick’ thrives when it comes to its action, as every gunfight and fistfight is fast-paced and kinetic yet never bemusing. This is heavily due to the film’s fight choreography being just as comprehensible as it is exhilarating, with each reverting moment having a clear rhythm as ‘John’ never wastes a bullet nor performs an unnecessary move. Furthermore, ‘John Wick’ even features a good portion of humour within its action sequences, adding small visual gags which poke fun at ‘John’s brutal efficiency.

In short, ‘John Wick’ delivers on exactly what anyone would expect to see from a film like this, as the action is thrilling and the body-count is excessive, plus most of the filmmaking surprisingly is better than average for the action genre. And although it’s true that later films in the ‘John Wick’ franchise are much flashier, I find that the sequels often get bogged down by their continuous attempts to introduce as many new characters and locations as possible, as well as constantly pushing the limit of what ‘John’ can actually survive. So, in many ways, ‘John Wick’ is a film that proves there really is beauty in simplicity, as the admirably lean screenplay propels the film’s galvanising action forward with only the barest of narrative essentials. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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The Ritual (2017) – Film Review

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Adam Nevill, 2017’s ‘The Ritual’ is possibly one of my favourite horrors from Netflix’s extensive list of original films, as although its story revolves around a scenario that many horror fans will likely be familiar with, ‘The Ritual’ effectively uses its sound design and adept visual obfuscation to create an immensely unsettling atmosphere. All the while, developing its characters and exploring themes of grief and manhood in equal measure, turning what could’ve been a wearisome adaptation into an efficient and discomfiting low-budget British horror.

Plot Summary: Haunted by the death of his best friend who was killed during a liquor store robbery six months prior, ‘Luke’ and a group of his former university housemates reunite to mark his passing, hiking across the Scandinavian mountains as a tribute to their lamented friend. But when one of them sprains their ankle, the group are forced to take a short-cut through a nearby forest in order to arrive at their lodge before nightfall, a forest which undenounced to them, is actually the domain of an ancient evil…

Directed by David Bruckner (The Signal, Southbound – Segment: The Accident, The Night House) and executively produced by well-known motion-capture performer Andy Serkis, ‘The Ritual’ takes a large amount of inspiration for its story from classic 1970s horror films in addition to the obvious influences of: ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Deliverance.’ Yet ‘The Ritual’ helps itself stand-out amongst these other ‘lost in the woods’ films predominantly due to its implementation of Norse mythology, as the film continuously integrates many of the darker, more disturbing elements of Norse folklore into its plot, linking back to the film’s Scandinavian setting.

In a refreshing turn for a modern horror, the four central characters of: ‘The Ritual’ frequently act as if they have actually seen a horror film before, but the film doesn’t use this self-awareness to simply indulge in cheeky one-liners and pop-culture references. Instead, the characters use this perspective to make insightful decisions, almost immediately realising there is something trailing them. The group of friends, led by Rafe Spall as ‘Luke,’ are all in fine form when it comes to their performances, even if the other three members of the group portrayed by Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, and Arsher Ali all receive less characterisation when compared to ‘Luke,’ which in a way also makes sense, as ‘Luke’ is the cause of the lingering tension among the quartet, with group seemingly believing if ‘Luke’ would’ve intervened as oppose to being frozen in fear, their friend would still be alive. And this resentment comes boiling to the surface over time, giving Spall the perfect opportunity to convey a real sense of frustration and guilt as the group begins to splinter.

The film’s forest setting is utilised incredibly well throughout the film, as the cinematography by Andrew Shulkind treats the vast wilderness as a formidable presence, crafting a sense of pervasive doom with each step the characters take. From extreme wide-shots to uncomfortable P.O.V. shots, the camerawork remains both inventive and visually appealing until the end of the runtime, almost luring viewers in with its breath-taking locations before putting them on edge through the abnormal emptiness. Additionally, more observant viewers may be able to spot many minor details hidden within the background of certain shots, some being far more frightening than others.

The original score by Ben Lovett expertly and artfully taps into the film’s arboreal vibe of Norse mythology, as aside from a handful of tracks which more on synthwave to add to the story’s various dream sequences, most of the soundtrack makes marvellous use of strings, horns, and a small choir, giving the film an old-world feel in the same spirit of modern horrors like ‘The Witch.’ With tracks such as: ‘Four Tents,’ ‘The Ritual,’ ‘Through the Trees,’ and ‘Fear God’ all reflecting the horror elements of the story as well as the fractured relationship between the characters.

As mentioned previously, ‘The Ritual’ heavily leans into many of the dourer aspects of Norse folklore when it comes to its story, as the film explores ritual sacrifices and ever lasting life following the reveal of the film’s antagonist, who is a towering elk-like creature known as ‘Jōtunn,’ one of the children of: ‘Loki,’ the God of mischief and mayhem. And whilst ‘Loki’ is famously known to have fathered a multitude of strange beings, including a giant wolf named: ‘Fenrir’ and the colossal sea serpent: ‘Jörmungandr,’ ‘Jōtunn’ is an ideal pick for the film. Being brought to life through some above-average CG effects and an exceptional design by renowned concept artist Keith Thompson, ‘Jōtunn’ is a fascinating and distinctive creature, even having many of its attributes further relate back to other stories within Norse mythology.

To conclude, ‘The Ritual’ is a solid entry into the horror genre for more reasons than one, as despite its story not being anything revolutionary and occasionally falling back into skilfully delivered horror tropes. ‘The Ritual’ still manages to construct a mature and slow-burning narrative, only elevated by its fantastic filmmaking, mythological influences, and strong directing from David Bruckner, playing upon the Scandinavian tales of old to deliver something truly alluring. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Rampage (2018) – Film Review

There has been a debate amongst film buffs for many years now regarding whether it’s possible to make a great film based on a video-game, and whilst I’ve always strongly believed it is, I feel the reason we haven’t received a great film as of yet is that many of the video-games chosen for adaptations were simply not the right choices, nor did the films have talented writers or directors behind them. ‘Rampage,’ released in 2018, is the perfect example of this, as this moronic blockbuster is actually based on the arcade classic of the same name, a video-game which contained no characters and little-to-no story, and the film faces all of the repercussions as a result.

Plot Summary: Sharing a special bond with ‘George,’ an extraordinarily intelligent albino gorilla, ‘Davis Okoye,’ a retired U.S. Army soldier and now a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist, sees his world turned upside-down when his primate companion is accidentally exposed to a gene-mutating pathogen. Morphing ‘George’ along with an unsuspecting wolf and crocodile into ravenous monsters as they grow to gargantuan proportions, thrusting ‘Davis’ and ‘Dr. Kate Caldwell’ into a race against time as they struggle to find an antidote….

Even when ignoring its video-game origins, ‘Rampage’ is merely a predictable and at times fairly dull creature-feature, as director Brad Peyton (Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Incarnate, San Andreas) never attempts to do anything to set the film apart from other action blockbusters. For instance, in the original 1986 arcade game, players controlled one of three giant monsters, playing as either: a wolf, a lizard, or a gorilla, as they are tasked with destroying cities before the military can shoot them down and transform them back into the humans they once were. This aspect of the creatures being mutated humans could’ve added a more emotional viewpoint to the film not present in many other action flicks, as the characters deal with the morality of their actions, yet the film just abandons this idea in exchange for oblivious animals simply having their growth and aggression altered, which is a far less engrossing concept.

Reteaming with Peyton after the pair worked together on 2015’s ‘San Andreas,’ Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson flashes the same effortless, self-deprecating appeal that’s always been the hallmark of his work. And although I’m personally rather weary of the ‘muscular action hero’ stereotype, there’s no denying Johnson has a natural charisma as ‘Davis Okoye’ beyond his constant smouldering. Naomi Woods, however, is nowhere near her best here, as her character: ‘Dr. Caldwell’ is nothing more than a sassy female scientist with little to offer aside from exposition dumps and an unnecessary romantic subplot with ‘Davis.’ Then there are the film’s antagonists portrayed by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, who fully embrace the absurdity of the film they are in, overacting in every scene alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a government agent who saunters around the screen like a modern-day cowboy, speaking in painfully forced good-old-boy idioms.

Aside from one rip-roaring sequence where the trio of monsters rage through the streets of Chicago destroying everything in their path, which is supposed to appear as one singular take. The majority of the film’s cinematography by Jaron Presant is fairly standard for a modern blockbuster, primarily utilising mid-shots for conversations between characters, and wide-shots whenever possible to display the huge scale of the creatures, which luckily helps to distract from the film’s innumerable lines of cringy dialogue.

As the creatively named tracks: ‘Gorillas,’ ‘Kate,’ ‘Cornfield,’ ‘Chicago,’ and ‘George’ would imply, the original score by Andrew Lockington is a minimal-level effort from the composer at best, as the predominately orchestral score is instantly forgettable but does its job well enough during the film’s few tender moments. But with action dominating a large portion of: ‘Rampage’s runtime, the score mostly has to rely on aggressive string ostinatos and a collection of simplistic motifs, all of which simply enter one ear and fall out of the other.

While I can appreciate that there was a clear level of effort put into ‘Rampage’s visual effects, with a small crew from Weta Digital even traveling out to Chicago to examine the materials and architecture style of each building before creating a virtual model of the Chicago Loop that could be destroyed in the film’s climactic battle. Many of the CG effects throughout ‘Rampage’ range in quality all the same, specifically with the scene: ‘Plane Crash,’ which looks absolutely horrendous during a handful of shots as Johnson and Woods are digitally recreated as they fall out of the sky.

Overall, whilst ‘Rampage’ does feature some entertaining action sequences and the occasional piece of self-aware humour, I mostly just find the film to be an exasperating waste of potential considering the film is a video-game adaptation. As when there are so many video-games with riveting stories, worlds, and characters, with ‘Bioshock,’ ‘Portal,’ ‘Mirror’s Edge,’ ‘Gears of War,’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption’ being just a few considerable options, it’s insulting that production companies continue to adapt games with barely any plot or characters to speak of, and with so many of them ultimately ending-up as your run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster, is it even worth the effort? Final Rating: high 3/10.

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Inception (2010) – Film Review

After directing the superhero smash-hit: ‘The Dark Knight’ in 2008, established director Christopher Nolan wanted to tackle something far more ambitious, a screenplay that he’d been working on for over nine-years focusing on a mind-bending journey through dreams and reality alike. This, of course, was ‘Inception,’ a sci-fi-thriller many now regard as one of the finest films in the science fiction genre, and for good reason, as ‘Inception’ combines striking visuals with an all-star cast and a phenomenal original score by legendary composer Hans Zimmer, all tied together by an enthralling narrative, securing the film as one of Nolan’s most revered efforts.

Plot Summary: When ‘Dominic Cobb,’ a thief who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology is approached by a wealthy business magnate, ‘Cobb’ sees his shot at redemption as he is offered his freedom for accomplishing a seemingly impossible mission: plant an idea inside the mind of a powerful C.E.O. If he succeeds, it will be the perfect crime, but a dangerous enemy anticipates ‘Cobb’s every move…

As its title implies, ‘Inception’ is a film about traveling through dreams, or more accurately, dreams within dreams, which is a very creative concept, yet could leave some viewers confused upon their first viewing, as the characters travel through multiple dreamscapes, each one effecting the others in some way. This complicated style of storytelling may also be why ‘Inception’ took so long to become a reality, as although Christopher Nolan first pitched ‘Inception’ to Warner Bros. Pictures in early 2001, Nolan decided to give himself more time to refine the screenplay, even in spite of the initial interest from Warner Bros. Yet this extra time in the writing room ultimately paid off in the end, as when ‘Inception’ eventually released in 2010, it went to be one of the highest-earning original films in history, grossing over £600 million worldwide.

Featuring a prominent cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Marion Cotillard and Michael Caine, ‘Inception’ is never short on entertaining performances. However, whilst every actor is given their chance to shine, many of the film’s characters suffer as a result of the film’s attention being placed almost exclusively on ‘Cobb,’ pushing his inner struggle of coping with his wife’s suicide to the forefront of the narrative. And while ‘Cobb’s character-arc is certainly captivating, its unfortunate that many members of: ‘Cobb’s charismatic crew don’t receive any of their own scenes (unrelated to the plot or exposition dumps that is).

Cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has collaborated with Christopher Nolan for every film of his since ‘Memento’ in 2000, is once again behind the camera for: ‘Inception,’ and although much of the camerawork throughout the film isn’t anything exceptional outside of the film’s stylish visual effects, it is still competent. With that said, much of the cinematography does lend itself effectively to the film’s numerous riveting action sequences, as many of these moments (in particular, the snowbound action sequence in the third dream level) are brimming with wide-shots that display the true scale of each thrilling set-piece. Then there is the film’s colour palette, which subtlety changes as the characters enter each new dream level, almost becoming a guide for the audience, visually informing them of what dream level they are currently in.

In spite of the film’s signature track: ‘Time’ being vastly over-played nowadays, ‘Inception’s original score by Hans Zimmer was nothing short of ground-breaking at the time of the film’s release, as the score went on to be become incredibly iconic in of itself, with the score’s most recognisable motif: a booming foghorn-like brass, being mimicked thereafter by nearly every action blockbuster. But its easy to see why this is, as ‘Inception’s soundtrack adds to both the tension and drama of the film, focusing less on themes and motifs and more on ambience, blurring the lines between dreams and reality with layers of electronic pulses and grand synthesised chords.

Should ‘Inception’ have been directed by any other filmmaker, I can imagine a large amount of the effects seen during the film would’ve been created entirely through CGI, but in true Nolan fashion, many of the effects in ‘Inception’ including the snowbound avalanche, the Penrose stairs and the zero-gravity sequence were all completed practically. The most well-known of these prodigious effects has to be the rotating hallway, however, an effect that was achieved through an enormous hallway rig which spun around as the actors fought inside, making for one truly unforgettable set-piece. Due to these practical effects, ‘Inception’ only had around five-hundred visual effects shots, a tiny number compared to most blockbusters, which can feature well over two-thousand.

In conclusion, I feel ‘Inception’ is worthy of its paradigmatic status among Christopher Nolan’s filmography, as even though the film isn’t flawless, often stumbling from its lack of compelling side characters and drawn-out blocks of exposition, ‘Inception’ still remains a multi-layered, self-reflexive sci-fi-thriller that fires on all cylinders, manipulating time through meticulous editing to deliver a hard-hitting cinematic experience. And with production companies usually relying on sequels, prequels, remakes and franchises these days, ‘Inception’ did a difficult thing, being a wholly original blockbuster that succeeds viscerally as well as intellectually. Final Rating: 8/10.

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The Grey (2012) – Film Review

Directed by Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team, Boss Level) and based on the short story: ‘Ghost Walker’ by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, 2012’s ‘The Grey’ is a sombre tale of survival populated with fleshed-out characters and some surprisingly compelling themes. As Liam Neeson throws aside his stereotypical action-hero role in exchange for a far more realistic protagonist, which in turn allows the film to fully indulge in its dreary nature and overcome many of its screenplay-related faults to ensure its perilous journey through the Alaskan mountains remains engaging.

Plot Summary: Following a gruelling five-week shift at an Alaskan oil refinery, a team of oil workers including skilled huntsman: ‘John Ottway,’ are flying home for a much-needed rest. But when a savage storm causes their plane to crash in the Alaskan wilderness, the group are forced to trek southward toward civilisation, with a pack of ravenous wolves trailing their every step…

Although ‘The Grey’ is very reminiscent of the 1993 survival-thriller: ‘Alive’ in more ways than one, it’s apparent that Carnahan had something more ambitious in mind than just your conventional story of survival when directing ‘The Grey,’ as the film focuses a large amount of its overly long runtime on extensive dialogue scenes which attempt to develop the film’s characters. And while all of this talk could’ve been dull if executed poorly, ‘The Grey’ is never tedious to watch, as the film intercuts many of its moments of characterisation with uncomfortably tense sequences of the wolf pack stalking (or killing) members of the group.

Speaking of the characters, the whole cast of Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie and James Badge Dale all portray men on the brink of defeat extremely well, as the further the story goes on, the more tired and desperate they look, making the viewer feel genuine empathy for every one of them as they remain stuck in their horrific situation with so sign of rescue. However, Liam Neeson especially never fails to impress throughout the film, giving a truly committed performance as he portrays ‘John Ottway,’ a hunter who since the tragic death of his wife suffers from suicidal tendencies and a lack of self-worth, often leading him to become distant from those he still has left.

Masanobu Takayanagi handles the film’s cinematography, which is, in my opinion, the weakest element of the film, as despite ‘The Grey’ featuring a number of attractive shots, I feel this is less to do with the actual camerawork (which is often hand-held) and more to do with the copious number of beautiful locations the story is set within. As despite my initial belief that ‘The Grey’ was primarily filmed in a temperature-controlled studio, according to Liam Nesson, much of the film was shot on-location in Smithers, British Columbia, where temperatures were as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Meaning that all of the snowstorms seen within the film were actual prevailing weather conditions and not visual effects, so whether the characters were next to an snowy cliff or a flowing stream, I couldn’t help but gaze at the natural beauty of each scenic location the film presented. And just as its title would imply the colour palette of: ‘The Grey’ relies heavily on greys, blues, and whites, which only add to the film’s bleak tone.

Throughout the film, the original score by Marc Streitenfeld is dramatic, atmospheric, and fairly minimal, with the final track: ‘Into the Fray’ being without a doubt being my personal favourite (and most iconic) track from the film, as the largely orchestral soundtrack sustains long notes accompanied by the twinkle of a keyboard or the occasional brass stinger. All being elevated through the score’s exceptional use of howling wolves, glacial winds and most disturbingly… complete silence. Ultimately, adding-up to a chilling yet not exceedingly memorable original score.

An aspect of: ‘The Grey’ that I could see some viewers taking issue with may be how the film’s wolves are represented, as while I personally enjoy how the wolves are depicted in ‘The Grey,’ essentially serving as a pack of ruthless, brutal creatures that will stop at nothing to kill our characters, the animals aren’t exactly treated that realistically with the exception from one or two lines from ‘John’ regarding their protective behaviour. Be that as it may, visually the wolves are brought-to-life through CGI, which could’ve been a disaster considering the film’s moderate-budget, but director Joe Carnahan made the clever decision to obscure the wolves whenever they are on-screen through everything from fog to snow to shadows. So, ‘The Grey’ manages to avoid its CG effects becoming dated as a result of this technique.

To conclude, “Grim” is truly the perfect word to describe ‘The Grey,’ as this harrowing and merciless story of survivalism with very little in the way of positivity or hope. Yet for those who can look past its relentlessly depressing outlook, ‘The Grey’ is a captivating story about pushing through melancholy to reach contentment, which is greatly amplified by its strong cast, prepossessing CG effects and visually stunning locations even in spite of its occasionally bland cinematography and frequently chaotic editing whenever the wolves are on-screen. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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