Please Stand By (2017) – Film Review

While in years gone by many films surrounding the subject of autism have been seen as overly simplistic or even offensive, with Hollywood often treating characters with ASD like an immeasurable burden upon their entire family, every now and then we do receive a film which presents its autistic character (or characters) with respect and authenticity alike, with 2017’s ‘Please Stand By’ being one such example. Directed by Ben Lewin (Georgia, The Sessions, Falling for Figaro) and based on the 2008 play of the same name by Michael Golamco, ‘Please Stand By’ may hit many familiar beats for a coming-of-age comedy-drama, but with an excellent cast and a subtle sci-fi twist thanks to its focus around all things ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Please Stand By’ manages to keep its story diverting throughout its brief runtime.

Plot Summary: When ‘Wendy Welcott,’ a young autistic woman with a gift for writing, learns that Paramount Pictures is holding a screenwriting competition to celebrate ‘Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, she swiftly writes her own screenplay for submission. But on account of her condition and a great deal of ignorance from those around her, ‘Wendy’ is unable to submit her screenplay in time. So, seeing no other option, ‘Wendy’ decides to leave her group home in Oakland to travel to Los Angeles and deliver her screenplay in person…

Although the film’s screenplay (which is actually written by Michael Golamco) rarely breaks the mould of your typical coming-of-age narrative, ‘Please Stand By’ still has more than its fair share of heart-warming moments. And whilst some may argue that the film’s continuously upbeat tone robs the story of any real stakes, ‘Please Stand By’ isn’t really a film that aims to paint an incredibly dramatic tale of self-realisation, family, and belonging, but instead a film that effectively balances all of those themes through a charming and light-hearted story of a woman embarking on a journey across California in dedication of her favourite science fiction franchise.

In what would’ve been the film’s most criticised performance should it have been executed poorly, Dakota Fanning’s performance as ‘Wendy’ is one of the more thoughtful and accurate portrayals of on-screen autism in quite some time. From her social awkwardness to her flailing arm movements and stiff dialogue readings, Fanning successfully captures the functional spectrum of autism in a delightful and intriguing expression of independence and passion, as due to ‘Wendy’ having few experiences outside of her sheltered routine, the road-trip she embarks upon makes her feel truly unconstrained for the first time in her entire life, both for better and for worse. Meanwhile, her caregiver and older sister wonderfully portrayed by Toni Collette and Alice Eve respectively, attempt to track her down and bring her home, fearing for her safety and greatly doubting her abilities.

When it comes to visuals, despite the ceaselessly vibrant colour palette, the film’s cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson hardly ever veers away from immobile close-ups and/or mid-shots. But where the camerawork truly shines is during the scenes where the film attempts to recreate shots from classic ‘Star Trek’ episodes, as the Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles is quickly swapped-out for the strange alien worlds of: ‘Wendy’s imagination, all the while we hear ‘Wendy’ as she reads excerpts from her ‘Star Trek’ screenplay through calming voiceover.

In a similar sense to the visuals, the original score by Heitor Pereira rarely does anything exceedingly innovative as far as soundtracks go, with the majority of the runtime relying more on the use of lesser-known indie songs such as: ‘Take Me as I Am,’ ‘All or Nothing,’ and ‘Waves.’ Yet the score once again becomes much more interesting once we are transported into ‘Wendy’s screenplay, as the original score morphs into something that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in an actual ‘Star Trek’ film.

Along with recreating shots, ‘Please Stand By’ also pays homage to ‘Stark Trek’ history in nearly every aspect of its production. Firstly, the name tags of: ‘Wendy’s Cinnabon work collogues use the same font as the opening titles of: ‘Star Trek: The Original Series.’ Moreover, the mountain ranges seen in the background of the screenplay sequence are the Vasquez Rocks located in Agua Dulce, California, this area has been an extensively used location for many ‘Star Trek’ films and series, but most notably, for the 1966 episode: ‘Arena.’ Lastly, the suits worn by ‘Captain Kirk’ and ‘Spock’ during this same sequence are similar to suits worn by the characters in the 1968 episode: ‘The Tholian Web,’ visibly proving that the filmmakers did their research when it came to the franchise and its ardent followers.

Overall, whilst Golamco’s admittedly predictable screenplay does place the film more in the mid-range of coming-of-age comedy-dramas, by letting the talented actors simply do what they do best, director Ben Lewin does make ‘Please Stand By’ palatable even in its most commonplace moments. And although I obviously can’t speak for everyone on how well the film truly portrays autism given my position, in my eyes, this low-budget flick handles the potentially challenging concept adroitly, displaying the challenges of a life with ASD without ever just devolving into a collection of tics, quirks, and spasms or insulting those who may be on the spectrum. Final Rating: 7/10.

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It: Chapter Two (2019) – Film Review

Once again directed by Andy Muschietti, and once again based on the iconic novel by Steven King (only this time the more adult portions of the story). ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unfortunately a downgrade from the first film, as in spite of its excellent cast and continuously impressive visuals, ‘It: Chapter Two’ proves that bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to sequels, as the film’s over-reliance on giant CG monsters along with its inconsistent tone and unreasonably long runtime of two-hours and fifty-minutes, demonstrate how this spinechilling follow-up frequently over-indulges in its source material.

Plot Summary: After being defeated by ‘The Losers Club’ many years ago, the demonic clown: ‘Pennywise’ returns twenty-seven-years later to terrorise the town of: ‘Derry’ once again. And with the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways, ‘Mike Hanlon,’ the only member of the group to remain in ‘Derry,’ calls his friends home for one final stand against the shapeshifting creature…

Jumping from character-to-character and location-to-location, many of: ‘It: Chapter Two’s biggest faults appear within its screenplay, as rather than focusing on a straight-forward narrative like the original film, this time around the film revolves most of its plot around a bootless errand of a story where ‘The Losers’ search all over ‘Derry’ to acquire various artifacts from their younger days in order to perform ‘The Ritual of Chud,’ which will supposedly destroy ‘Pennywise.’ The problem being that much of this set-up is ultimately meaningless, as almost every character receives their own segment in which they simply recall moments from their childhood, which often just recap scenes from the first film or leave the audience bloated as a result of the huge amount of exposition they have to digest.

Yet it has to be said, that James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ranson, and Andy Bean all portray the older versions of their characters remarkably, as despite the characters now being much older, each actor/actress recreates the younger actor’s body moments and manner of speaking flawlessly. ‘It: Chapter Two’ also never forgets to reinforce the character’s trauma, as even though ‘Bill’ is a successful writer and ‘Ben’ has remodelled himself into a muscular architect etc. Each member of the group is still haunted by their past, or at least, what they can remember from it. Of course, Bill Skarsgård also returns as ‘Pennywise,’ and while his performance does occasionally venture into ‘Beetlejuice’ territory due to how over-the-top he gets, Skarsgård is still endlessly entertaining as the malevolent clown.

This time around the cinematography is handled by Checco Varese, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that ‘It: Chapter Two’ had a different cinematographer, as the film is just as visually pleasing as its predecessor, with some elegantly orchestrated transitions between the character’s incarnations thrown in for good measure. The huge increase in budget also comes across through the film’s visuals, as ‘It: Chapter Two’ feels much grander in scale and presentation alike. However, where the sequel stumbles is with its scares, as instead of utilising ‘Pennywise’s mimicking ability to transform into every character’s greatest fear, the film lazily depends on towering CG creatures, which usually have little relation to the characters or the story at large, and although a number of the monsters are interesting design-wise, it doesn’t stop them from feeling out-of-place.

Benjamin Wallfisch’s original score effectively continues on from that of the first film, as tracks such as: ‘Losers Reunited,’ ‘Nothing Lasts Forever,’ and ‘Stan’s Letter’ are calming and beautiful, whereas tracks like ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Very Scary’ are loud and intense to add to the film’s horror. The main issue with the soundtrack is in its lack of distinction from the first film’s score, and while I understand ‘It: Chapter Two’ is essentially just the second part of a larger story, the original score does little to set itself apart from the first, with some tracks even sounding near-identical to others.

Even though it can’t be denied that ‘It: Chapter Two’ is trying to accomplish a great deal within its lengthy runtime, spending a large portion of its story in flashbacks and dream sequences as it attempts to adapt everything not already covered in the first film, the sequel is saddled with an even bigger obstacle. That being its climax, as although by this point its well-known that Steven King has difficulty writing a satisfying ending (a criticism that the film repeatedly mocks), ‘It: Chapter Two’ is faced with this exact task. And while the film doesn’t completely fail, the climax does leave a lot to be desired, particularly when the story begins to veer beyond supernatural elements into the metaphysical surrealism that King enjoys.

In conclusion, ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unquestionably an ambitious horror sequel. With a renowned cast, spectacular set-pieces, and numerous exciting moments, the film truly goes all out. But does it work? Well, not entirely, but it’s a diverting horror blockbuster, nonetheless. And whilst I feel that by splitting the story of: ‘It’ into two separate films, Muschietti has done a gratifying job of commanding the massive machine that is King’s extensive novel, most of the issues with ‘It: Chapter Two’ do boil down to its story and structure, which end-up leaving the film a pleasurable romp, but not quite the ghoulish denouement it could’ve been. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Winter’s Bone (2010) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is a bleak, haunting, and yet still somehow hopeful story set in rural America, acting as both a captivating drama and a suspenseful crime-thriller. The film is an intense and uncompromising look at the Missouri underclass through the eyes of a diligent teenager, blending its star-making performance from Jennifer Lawrence with skilfully shot sequences and incredible set-dressing to create a stunning and authentic portrait of Missouri life, all under the capable hand of writer and director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, Leave No Trace).

Plot Summary: With an absent father and a mute, mentally ill mother, seventeen-year-old: ‘Ree Dolly’ acts as the primary guardian for her household, caring for her younger siblings with minimal funds. But when the local Sheriff turns up at her door, informing her that their house has been put up as collateral bail by her missing father, ‘Ree’ is forced to use what little knowledge she has of her father’s nefarious activities to find him before its too late, soon discovering that many locals don’t appreciate her poking her nose into their business…

Despite her many previous successes, Debra Granik still had a great deal of difficulty finding funding for: ‘Winter’s Bone,’ as after the screenplay had been written, Granik and her co-writer Anne Rosellini budgeted the film at around £3 million, but every potential group of financiers they approached all said the same thing: “Cast the Film, and Then We’ll Talk.” Thus, casting directors Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden began approaching various actresses and eventually settled on the then-unknown eighteen-year-old actress, Jennifer Lawrence. As although she had never carried a film before, only having taken small roles in the past, both Schnee and Barden felt Lawrence had the perfect tomboyish demeanour for the character, in addition to having strong roots in Kentucky.

Winning an Oscar for her performance in 2011, ‘Winter’s Bone’ greatly benefits from ‘Ree Dolly’ as a character and Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of her. This is mostly due to ‘Ree’ being such a rare female protagonist for a film such as this, as with her errant father’s only bankable skill being his ability to cook methamphetamine, ‘Ree’ is left to care for her family, teaching her younger siblings survival skills to prepare them for when they are older (for which Jennifer Lawrence had to learn how to correctly skin squirrels and chop wood), and after she is informed of the limited time she and her family still have within their house, ‘Ree’ becomes relentlessly determined to save her home, occasionally even risking her life all in pursuit of caring for her loved ones and ensuring her siblings have a future.

Michael McDonough’s stark cinematography captures the essence of what life in the brutal and sparsely populated Ozark, Missouri (a.k.a. the Ozark Mountains) is like, as the camerawork allows for many delectable shots, from the camera peering around corners to lurking over character’s shoulders, the cinematography constantly lends itself to the film’s frostbitten colour palette and beautiful bitterness of the story’s setting, which is all enhanced by the entire film being shot on-location.

Furthermore, the original score by Dickon Hinchliffe utilises instruments common to the Ozark region, making use of violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos, in a way that is unique to the film. For example, the way banjos are used throughout the soundtrack, particularly in the tracks: ‘I’ll Find Him,’ ‘Hardscrabble Elegy,’ ‘Down the Road,’ and ‘The Trees,’ deviates from the instrument’s stereotypical image of being associated with hillbillies and rednecks. One of the film’s final tracks: ‘The Lake’ is also worth a quick mention, purely for how unnerving and incredibly atmospheric it is.

For authenticity purposes, most of the supporting cast of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ weren’t actual actors/actresses, but locals from the surrounding area. ‘Ree’s sister for instance, was one of these actresses, and the exterior of her home we see in the film is actually her house in real life. Sticking to this idea of authenticity, nearly all of clothes that the characters wear are clothes provided by the locals, as the production crew gave locals brand new clothes in exchange for their old, frayed items. If I had to guess, I’d also assume many of the houses we set foot within belonged to these same locals, as every room we enter appears genuine, with no area ever seeming as if it was set-dressed regardless of how many items are in one space at a time.

To conclude, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is spectacular in its efforts as a drama and a crime-thriller alike, as it’s intelligent, well-written, and entirely non-patronising story is as tense and as entertaining as these respective genres come. And whilst many Oscar-winning films can often be disappointing beyond whatever aspect is their main talking point, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is also beautifully shot and well-paced, with Jennifer Lawrence’s career-defining performance simply being the icing on top of the cake. So, even if the first act of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ is slightly slow and repetitive, after that initial hump, the film thrives as a rewarding and richly detailed exploration of the strength required when being confronted with unpleasant truths. 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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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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The Meg (2018) – Film Review

Following the endless string of horrendous, ultra-low-budget shark films produced for the Syfy Channel, some notable releases of which being: ‘Toxic Shark,’ ‘Ghost Shark,’ ‘Sand Sharks,’ ‘Shark Exorcist,’ ‘6-Headed Shark Attack,’ and ‘Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus.’ ‘The Meg,’ released in 2018, attempted to be an explosive and humorous action blockbuster inspired by these risible science fiction flicks, yet due to its less than mediocre writing, predictable story and often dreadful supporting cast, the film noticeably lacks the thrills or overt cheesiness that make cult sci-fi and horror films so enticing.

Plot Summary: Deemed insane for claiming that a failed submarine rescue was doomed due to an enormous creature lurking within the ocean depths, deep-sea rescue diver: ‘Jonas Taylor’ finds himself heading into the Mariana Trench, five years later, as a team of scientists working for an underwater research facility become trapped inside a crippled submersible after sharing a similar encounter. Soon discovering that the colossal creature corning them is one of the largest marine predators to ever exist… the megalodon.

Even though it’s incredibly rare nowadays to stumble upon a genuinely great shark film, I can appreciate what director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping, National Treasure) and his crew set-out to do with this film. As it’s obvious quite early on that ‘The Meg’ doesn’t take itself that seriously, having numerous jokes and self-aware lines scattered throughout its runtime, a clear departure from the mostly straight-faced novel: ‘MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror’ by Steve Alten, which the film is partly an adaptation of. However, that isn’t to say that the humour within ‘The Meg’ is quality comedy, as a large majority of the film’s comedic lines feel either forced or childish, with any lines that aren’t intended for humour usually being clichéd pieces of dialogue along the lines of: “What Have We Done?” and “There’s Something Out There!”

While there is an argument to be made that all you really need for an enjoyable summer action flick is Jason Statham and something for Jason Statham to kill, I feel ‘The Meg’ is another film that further proves this method of casting for blockbusters isn’t always the right call. As whilst Statham’s actual talent for swimming is put to fantastic use in this film, Statham often just plays himself, rarely even making an effort to make ‘Jonas’ an actual character. The film’s supporting cast are unfortunately, even worse, as whilst Rainn Wilson seems to at least be having fun portraying ‘Jack Morris,’ the smug billionaire funding the underwater research facility, the rest of the cast e.g. Bingbing Li, Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy and Winston Chao, are all saddled with roles that can barely be described as archetypes.

The film’s cinematography by Tom Stern is creative when it wants to be, occasionally dragging the camera in and out of the water almost as if the camera operator is in the middle of the ocean just beside the characters, which is even more impressive as all of the film’s ocean sequences were filmed within two large water-tanks built in Kumeu, New Zealand, with one tank utilising a two-hundred-foot green-screen on one side for shots above the ocean’s surface. Yet where the film falters in terms of visuals is with the meg itself, as although the CGI that brings the gigantic apex-predator to-life is more than serviceable, the film’s camerawork rarely displays the creature’s size in-full through wide-shots, which is an abysmal waste of potential considering the film’s megalodon is over seventy-five-foot-long.

Furthermore, Harry Gregson-Williams’ original score for: ‘The Meg’ has its moments, but is often disappointing, as despite the film’s signature track: ‘Mana One’ being a coruscating way to introduce the underwater research facility. This track is sadly very underused, only making two more appearances from that point onwards, which is frustrating as the rest of the soundtrack, in particular, the tracks: ‘Prehistoric Species,’ ‘Tracker,’ ‘Shark Cage’ and ‘Beach Attack’ merely sound like tracks taken from any generic action score.

When it comes to the film’s titular creature, many of the visual effects artists who worked on ‘The Meg’ did research into how sharks swim, breathe and hunt in real life in an attempt to understand how a creature of that scale could realistically be presented on-screen. Most of these supposed details are generally unavailing, however, as the film constantly plays fast and loose with the laws of deep-water biology similar to most shark films, in addition having nearly all of the meg’s kills be entirely devoid of blood.

All in all, whilst ‘The Meg’s goal of modernising a creature-feature storyline and then transferring it into an exciting summer blockbuster is certainly commendable. I’d rather stick to ‘Deep Blue Sea’ for my fill of a cheesy shark flick, as when ‘The Meg’ is lacking, it’s truly lacking, becoming nothing more than a trite and stereotypical mess that is often too formulaic for its own good. Still, the film’s flaws didn’t stop it from becoming a worldwide success, as ‘The Meg’ grossed over £383 million, meaning its very likely that we’ll be receiving a sequel (with many of the same problems no doubt) in the near future. Final Rating: low 4/10.

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Logan (2017) – Film Review

Even though many comic book fans weren’t delighted when it was first announced that the then-unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman, would be taking on the pivotal role of: ‘Wolverine’ for the first live-action ‘X-Men’ film, nowadays it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, with Jackman appearing in multiple films as the regenerative superhero. But when it finally came time for Jackman to sheathe his claws in 2017 with ‘Logan,’ the foreboding task of bringing this beloved character’s cinematic story to a close fell to director James Mangold (Walk the Line, The Wolverine, Le Mans ’66), who suitably crafted a brutal, bloody, and surprisingly thoughtful final-outing for the iconic hero.

Plot Summary: In a bleak future where mutants are nearly extinct, a weary ‘Logan’ leads a quiet life as an undercover limo driver, caring for an ailing: ‘Charles Xavier’ at a remote outpost on the Mexican border as he awaits his inevitable death, slowly being poisoned by his adamantium skeleton. But ‘Logan’s plans to hide himself away from the outside world are swiftly upended when he meets ‘Laura,’ a mutant child on the run from a sinister organisation…

Very loosely based on the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series, ‘Logan’ is a film free of the baggage that comes with being a part of the ‘X-Men’ franchise, as beyond a couple of nods/references the film essentially ignores much of: ‘Logan’s past, which is definitely a decision made for the better, in my opinion. As the now-discontinued franchise was only ever consistent in its lack of consistency, jumping from entertaining entries such as: ‘X-Men: First Class’ and ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ to greatly disappointing ones like ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse.’ ‘Logan,’ however, takes a very different route, focusing on a straight-forward road-trip narrative that explores ‘Logan’s struggle between his human compassion and animalistic killer instinct.

These ideas all massively benefit from the film’s performances, as ‘Logan’ is without a doubt Jackman’s finest performance as the titular character. As when placed alongside Patrick Stewart, who returns as ‘Charles Xavier/Professor X,’ the pair of actors portray far more broken versions of their respective characters, as ‘Logan’ grapples with alcoholism and the immense guilt for all those he has hurt, while ‘Charles’ is now a delusional shell of the man he once was, battling dementia with all the pharmaceuticals that ‘Logan’ can afford. Boyd Holbrook also delivers a praiseworthy performance as ‘Donald Pierce,’ the leader of the merciless security team tasked with capturing ‘Laura’ (portrayed brilliantly by Dafne Keen). And whilst it’s no easy task to stand toe-to-toe with Jackman’s ‘Wolverine’ and seem like a sincere threat, Holbrook does exactly that. For me, the only out-of-place casting choice is Stephen Merchant as ‘Caliban,’ as although Merchant isn’t awful by any means, I never felt his performance quite matched-up to those around him. Though this is somewhat redeemed by the parental relationship between ‘Logan’ and ‘Laura,’ which in many ways, is the true heart of the film.

Taking heavy inspiration from a number of classic westerns, the cinematography for: ‘Logan’ handled by John Mathieson gives the film a vastly different appeal than any of the films the character has previously appeared in. As director James Mangold keeps the film grounded in reality as much as possible, having the story take place primarily in remote towns, barren deserts, and wide-reaching woodlands, in addition to filming on-location and utilising a large number of practical effects to avoid becoming too CGI-heavy similar to some of the other entries in the ‘X-Men’ series.

The film’s original score by Marco Beltrami is also incredibly effective at building tension and evoking emotion, as the score combines almost horror-esque tracks with far more dramatic pieces to deliver a varied yet still fitting soundtrack, with tracks such as: ‘The Reavers,’ ‘X-24,’ and ‘Farm Aid’ being almost uncomfortable to listen to, while the score’s final track: ‘Don’t Be What They Made You’ is a beautifully sombre piece that will undoubtedly bring a tear to any listener’s eye.

Yet the highlight of: Logan’ for most viewers will surely be its thrilling action sequences, as due to ‘Logan’ being the second ‘X-Men’ film to have a higher age rating behind 2016’s ‘Deadpool,’ the film never shies away from displaying graphic violence, having scene-upon-scene of criminals and security alike being slashed and torn apart by ‘Logan’ and ‘Laura.’ Finally giving in to comic book enthusiast’s demands and allowing ‘Wolverine’ to exhibit his animalistic nature and fully unleash his berserker rage, resulting in innumerable moments of blood-spattering, barbarous fight choreography.

Altogether, I feel ‘Logan’ earns the gut-wrenching reactions it initially received from ‘Wolverine’ fanatics. As despite the ‘X-Men’ franchise as a whole being extremely inconsistent, ‘Logan’ is a film that proves blockbuster franchises should save their best film for last, as Hugh Jackman’s long-running portrayal of the character will no doubt go down in cinematic history. And I truly have pity for whichever Marvel executive will tasked with recasting ‘Wolverine’ when the day eventually arrives for a reboot of the character/franchise, as finding another actor to fill Jackman’s shoes will be no easy task, but for whoever does, I’m sure most fans will need an adjustment period. Final Rating: high 8/10.

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Cats (2019) – Film Review

Despite ‘Cats’ being well-known as one of the longest-running stage shows in West End/Broadway history, it is also widely acknowledged that the musical is empty spectacle and not much else. This along with many other reasons, may explain why the adaptation of the musical we received in late 2019 has since gone on to be regarded as one of the worst musicals ever put to film, as director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) utterly squanders an enormous budget and a talented cast in exchange for a paper-thin plot, a constant bombardment of irritating songs and some truly horrendous CG effects that will leave most viewers begging to be put out of their misery.

Plot Summary: A tribe of cats known as ‘The Jellicles’ yearly meet for a ‘Jellicle Ball’ to decide which of their group will ascend to the ‘Heaviside Layer’ and return to a new life. But on this year, the mysterious napoleon of crime: ‘Macavity,’ has other, more sinister plans…

Ever since it was first announced that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper would be adapting the iconic feline-focused musical, the film has become such joke-fodder that it’s hard to see past the countless number of memes mocking the film’s dreadful visuals or comedic moments, which is a shame. Not because the film we received is even remotely entertaining, of course, but because the adaptation we almost received could’ve been fantastic. As originally, animation house Amblimation planned to adapt the musical into an animated film before the project was shelved following the company’s closure. This idea of translating ‘Cats’ into a traditionally animated film remained all the way to Hooper coming on-board to direct, and, in my opinion, also makes considerably more sense considering the original musical is based on the 1939 poetry collection: ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by T. S. Elliot, a book brimming with whimsical sketches of various cats from a variety of backgrounds.

Newcomer Francesca Hayward, stands-out as one of the film’s few redeeming aspects, as her character: ‘Victoria’ serves as an audience surrogate, her empathy occasionally shining through as she is rapidly introduced to character after character until we uncover which ‘Jellicle’ cat will be chosen to ascend. The rest of the film’s prominent cast, however, including Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, James Cordon, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen and many more, range from extraordinarily cringy to subpar at best, although their performances are further hindered by the story’s lack of characterisation and dramatic moments.

Whilst the film’s cinematography by Christopher Ross does a successful job of upgrading the beige setting of the stage show into a vibrant, neon-lit approximation of old London, allowing for an assortment of visually pleasing shots, it’s impossible for: ‘Cats’ to claw itself away from the rest of its distracting visuals. That not only includes the obvious, but also much of the film’s set-design, as several of the large-scale sets the cats enter are supposed to appear overly large in order to display each cast member as cat-sized, yet there is usually no consistency with this scale between shots.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of the original musical, handles the film’s original score/songs in addition to writing a couple of songs exclusively for the film. And while classic songs like ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,’ ‘The Old Gumbie Cat,’ ‘The Rum Tum Tugger,’ and ‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’ may be beloved among fanatics of the stage show, in the film these songs come across as infuriating as they are so repetitive, barely making time for anything aside from one or two atrocious cat puns.

Lastly, there is the appearance of the cats themselves, by far the most discussed/mocked element of the entire film, and for good reason. As the uncanny part-human, part-CG appearances of the furred cats appear extremely unnatural and very under-polished, so much so, that a mere two-days after the film’s initial release, Universal Pictures announced that they would be releasing an updated version of: ‘Cats’ with enhanced CGI. Whilst this is partly a result of Tom Hooper’s broad direction, an article published the following year by The Daily Beast featured multiple visual effects artists who worked on the film, each claiming they had little-to-no time to finish the film’s huge array of effects, with some artists even having to sleep under their desks to get the film completed on time, at least, if said article is truthful.

In short, even though I’m personally not an admirer of Tom Hooper’s filmography, Hooper is not a wholly incompetent director, but ‘Cats’ is undeniably, an absolute catastrophe of a fantasy-musical from beginning-to-end. Quickly being placed amongst the one-hundred worst films of all-time on IMDb and forcing the plans for its sequel (and spinoff TV series) to be immediately scrapped, ‘Cats’ is possibly one of the biggest cinematic failures of the past decade, as its copious number of flaws massively overshadow what few, if any, redeeming factors the film had left, resulting in an insufferable viewing experience that’ll make most film buffs feel remorse for everyone involved in this embarrassing production. Final Rating: high 1/10.

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Hellboy (2019) – Film Review

In mid 2012, actor Ron Perlman once again endured the four-hour make-up routine required to transform him into his iconic character: ‘Hellboy’ and fulfil the Make-A-Wish request of a six-year-old boy with leukaemia. Director Guillermo del Toro was so touched by this event that it inspired him to start production on a third: ‘Hellboy’ instalment. But following a dispute between del Toro and producer Mike Mignola, the project was soon cancelled, and instead, Mignola and his team began work on a reboot of the franchise, which finally released in 2019 to truly abysmal results.

Plot Summary: Whilst working side-by-side with his adopted father for the ‘Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence.’ ‘Hellboy,’ a supernatural creature who came into our world in 1944 as a result of a demonic Nazi ritual, struggles to accept which world he belongs to, that being one of monsters or one of men. All the while, an evil sorceress known as ‘The Blood Queen,’ returns to the modern world, eager to take her revenge on humanity for imprisoning her centuries ago…

According to producer Mike Mignola, the intention with this reboot was to replicant a style and tone closer to that of the original source material, as despite del Toro’s version of: ‘Hellboy’ often being light-hearted aside from one or two disturbing moments, the original comic series created by Mike Mignola is in reality, far darker and more gruesome. And whilst this goal of wanting to make a ‘Hellboy’ film more horror/fantasy-oriented rather than just a typical superhero blockbuster is commendable, this reboot of the series continuously stumbles due to this tonal shift, even with talented director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) overseeing the project. Yet this is only one of the film’s many problems, as it’s hard to sit through even a single viewing of: ‘Hellboy’ without noticing the film’s incredibly fast-pacing, awful comedic moments and beyond messy plot, which for some reason draws from four separate comic book storylines.

‘Hellboy,’ or particularly, David Harbour’s performance as the titular character, is possibly the film’s finest aspect. As rather than just lazily mimicking Perlman’s beloved version of the character, Harbour displays a less mature interpretation of the superhero. Portraying the horned hero as a conflicted character, younger and stronger than Perlman’s version, but unsure as to if he is a real hero, which is an interesting internal conflict to explore and about the only element of the film that is consistent. Then there is Ian McShane as ‘Hellboy’s father figure, who is serviceable in his role alongside Milla Jovovich as the villainous: ‘Blood Queen,’ who unfortunately, gives one of the most over-the-top performances of her entire career here.

Aside from the small detail of the filmmakers ensuring the colour red is never present in the same scenes as ‘Hellboy’ himself (excluding scenes where blood is shed, of course), the cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore is your usual affair for a superhero flick, having a handful of pleasant shots scattered amongst the plethora of bland hand-held camerawork utilised for action scenes and grand moments of destruction. But regardless of how impressive the cinematography may or may not be, there is no distracting from the film’s unappealing CG effects. As in spite of the creature department clearly trying their best with the detailed costumes, prosthetics, and makeup on display, nearly all of the CG effects throughout ‘Hellboy’ appear instantly dated.

The original score by Benjamin Wallfisch is a peculiar concoction, being an odd mish-mash of orchestral and electronic tracks which only succeed in making the soundtrack feel quite dull when it’s not overly-loud and irritating. Or at least, that’s the score before mentioning it’s use of electric guitars, which try desperately to present the soundtrack as something ‘awesome,’ but only emerges as annoying at best, with the film’s signature track: ‘Big Red’ being the biggest offender for this.

However, an aspect of the film that is more in line with del Toro’s previous ‘Hellboy’ adaptation is its creatures, as although the effects that bring them to-life aren’t impeccable, the actual creature designs are truly something be admired, with the ‘Hellboy’ comics clearly providing the filmmakers with plenty of visual influence. Even ‘Hellboy’s redesign was inspired by David Harbour’s own features, with the crew adding a larger jaw and a heavier brow to further fit with Harbour’s facial structure.

To conclude, while I can appreciate the effort that went into ‘Hellboy’ in some areas, the film’s flaws are just so evident its near-impossible to ignore them. From its convoluted and overstuffed story to its dreadful CG effects, ‘Hellboy’s thrilling moments of action or amusing dark humour are minor when compared to its faults. Yet by far the most frustrating part of this reboot is that it stripped away our final chance of seeing a third entry in the original: ‘Hellboy’ series, an instalment myself and many other fans of this beloved character had been wanting to see for quite some time. Instead, we’re now stuck with this disappointing reboot, which failed miserably to reignite the spark of excitement in this superhero franchise. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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