What If (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red Riding Hood (2011) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mortal Engines (2018) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Iron Giant (1999) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Casino Royale (2006) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enola Holmes (2020) – Film Review

Based on the book series; The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer, a string of books centralising on Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ younger sister, Enola. 2020’s Enola Holmes serves as an alternate take on the Sherlock Holmes mythology, aiming itself towards preteens (specifically preteen girls) and injecting the world of the renowned detective with both colour and humour. Unfortunately, however, on account of the film’s poor pacing, overly long runtime and comedic sequences that frequently fall flat, Enola Holmes struggles to attain much appeal outside its preteen demographic. Even with a terrific performance from Millie Bobby Brown as the titular character.

Plot Summary: When Enola Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister, discovers that her mother has gone missing, she embarks on a daring mission to the city of London to find her. Swiftly becoming a proficient detective in her own right as she outwits her older brothers and unravels a treacherous conspiracy surrounding a young, runaway Lord…

Adapting the first entry of the book series into an origin story, of sorts. The plot of Enola Holmes revolves around a mystery, similar to many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes literature. However, unlike many other adaptations of the world’s greatest detective, Enola Holmes repeatedly breaks the fourth wall throughout its narrative. Having Enola turns towards the camera and speaks directly to the audience, delivering exposition and sharing her various thoughts on her current situation. Yet this isn’t too surprising as director Harry Bradbeer (As the Beast Sleeps, The Brides in the Bath, Perfect Day: The Millennium) is predominantly a television director, directing episodes on several well-known series, including Fleabag, which also features a number of fourth-wall-breaking moments. Furthermore, with a female protagonist at the centre of the story, Enola Holmes attempts to weave themes of feminism and the sexist nature of the 1800s into its narrative, which is an admirable goal, yet often comes across as preachy in its delivery as the female characters continuously outperform and belittle the male characters, including Sherlock Holmes himself.

Best known for her role as Eleven in the smash-hit television series; Stranger Things, Millie Bobby Brown portrays the youthful detective, Enola Holmes, with plenty of wit and confidence. And although the screenplay doesn’t give Enola much complexity beyond occasionally being too headstrong for her own good, she is a fine protagonist, especially for impressionable young girls. The supporting cast also does well in their respective roles, with Henry Cavill, in particular, portraying a remarkable iteration of Sherlock Holmes in a more traditional portrayal of the character following the rather wild and scattered portrayals from Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. Cavill is calm and collected as the stark image of his older brother, Mycroft Holmes, portrayed by Sam Claflin, who is far more rigid. Mycroft also makes an excellent foil to Enola as he demands she conforms to the standards of 18th-century women. Then there is Helena Bonham Carter, who doesn’t have much to do as the Holmes matriarch, Eudoria Holmes, but makes the most of her screentime through her monologues, bouncing from various tones with her eccentric behaviour and sage advice.

For added freedom and flexibility when it comes to camera movement, Enola Holmes was shot almost exclusively using a Steadicam system. This allowed cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, to obtain many of the energetic shots seen throughout the film. Yet, despite this persistent sense of movement, many of the shots in Enola Holmes aren’t anything overly inventive, and instead, a large portion of the camerawork simply presents the detailed costumes and sets with pride. All of which feel period-accurate, if a little excessively vibrant.

Whist not as memorable or as distinct as many of his other scores, composer Daniel Pemberton does a passable job with the soundtrack for Enola Homes. Crafting an orchestra-led score brimming with bouncy rhythms and sassy melodies, all united by guitar. Effectively, it’s a modern score that makes no real attempt to convey the time period of the story. Instead, the original score concentrates on Enola as a protagonist, accentuating her personality through tracks like Gifts from MotherCracking the Chrysanthemums Cypher and The Game is Afoot.

According to the novel; A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes first met his assistant, Dr. Watson, in 1881. But, in Enola Holmes, which is set in 1884, Lestrade states that Sherlock always works alone, indicating that the pair have not yet met. As such, it’s a safe assumption that Enola Holmes is set outside of the series’ usual continuity, further playing into the idea that Enola Holmes is an entirely new interpretation of the series. This assumption is inadvertently also a pleasant distraction from the film’s countless cringe-worthy quips and one-liners.

In summary, Enola Holmes is the type of film that preteens will delight in; a charming, family-friendly adventure with an intriguing mystery at its core. For others, however, this family flick is unlikely to impress as a result of its notable flaws and restrictive appeal, not to mention its constant attempts to plant seeds for the inevitable sequels that will be coming to Netflix later down the line. Having said that, I feel Millie Bobby Brown will certainly advance her career with this project as she was actually one of the main reasons Enola Holmes was green-lit, approaching author, Nancy Springer, with the intention of starring in and producing an adaptation of her work. Rating: 5/10.

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The Martian (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Left Behind (2014) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Rabbit (2018) – Film Review

Based on the children’s book; The Tales of Peter Rabbit, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, 2018’s Peter Rabbit is the first live-action adaptation of the mischievous, jacket-wearing bunny. And although Potter herself would’ve more than likely not enjoyed the film as the condemnatory author was well-known for her continuous criticisms of how her characters were utilised (to the extent that she even oversaw much of the characters’ merchandise). Over a century on, it’s understandable that Peter’s garden high-jinks would pale in comparison to many modern family flicks. Thus, Peter Rabbit unsurprisingly attempts to update the character, resulting in a mixed bag of a film brimming with over-the-top antics and wild animal house parties.

Plot Summary: After spending years in the countryside toying and tormenting the old, crotchety gardener, Mr. McGregor, as they steal from his luscious vegetable patch. Peter Rabbit and his twin sisters find themselves up against a real challenge when Mr. McGregor dies of a heart attack, prompting his young, compulsive great-nephew, Thomas McGregor, to inherit his property and all that comes with it…

While screenwriters Rob Lieber and Will Gluck (who also directs) do a serviceable job at crafting a family adventure, one of Peter Rabbit‘s biggest issues is that its story is often told from an American perspective, in which, the picturesque British countryside is exclusively filled with cosy cottages and well-meaning residents. This frequently results in quite the disconnect whenever the story becomes more chaotic as garden rakes begin to fly, explosives go off and electric fences impart a never-ending stream of injuries to both humans and animals, all played with flippant humour that’s somewhat at odds with the emotional fallout of Peter’s parents’ death many years earlier.

The voices of James Cordon, Colin Moody, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Sia lead the cast, lending their star-studded vocals to the various animals ripped straight from the source material in terms of both their designs and personalities. On the human side of things, however, many of the characters have been significantly reworked from their original appearances, mostly in an attempt to modernise them, which is pretty clear from Mr. McGregor being swapped out for his younger nephew in an admittedly bleak fashion. And even though Donald Gleeson is incredibly exaggerated in his performance as Thomas McGregor, the character does serve his purpose well as not only a foil for Peter, but also a reasonably likeable man thrown into an understandably aggravating conflict with a troublesome rabbit. Rose Byrne equally elevates her role as the friendly next-door neighbour who is fond of both Thomas and Peter, often leaving the two boys to fight over her affection.

On a technical level, Peter Rabbit is a fairly polished film as the blend of actors and CG characters is well-done and feels natural, while the cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. ensures the film stays visually appealing even during the story’s more outlandish moments, often having the camera level with Peter and his relatives to give the animals more intimate scenes. Moreover, the film frequently integrates animated sequences which are remarkably reminiscent of the source material, having many flashbacks appear as water-coloured paintings similar to the book’s endearing artwork.

With the exception of the uplifting track: Rascal Rebel Rabbit, the original score by Dominic Lewis isn’t overly memorable. But thankfully, Lewis still manages to compose a score that has a youthful bounce to it as the soundtrack’s melodies all have great energy to them. Furthermore, the way the score is structured means the audience gets to experience the slapstick fun of the film’s first and second acts, but as the third act arrives, some real emotional weight creeps in. Also worth noting is the brilliant use of garden tools in the fabric of the score, the most notable of which is the use of the garden shears as percussion throughout several tracks.

Curiously, many of the live-action scenes for Peter Rabbit were actually filmed in Australia, not the United Kingdom as Sydney was chosen as the primary filming location as the city is home to Animal Logic, the company that produced much of the film’s advanced animation. However, this did cause a problem for the filmmakers as rabbits have been regarded as pests in the country since the 1800s as the country was once overrun with them. And at its illegal to bring living rabbits into the country, the actors had to work opposite CG characters for the entirety of the production, with even their closet of interactions being achieved through the use of CGI, which luckily does hold up.

In summary, Peter Rabbit is bitterly average as it’s a film you can sit through, but not much else beyond that. In many ways, it almost feels as if Will Gluck was bored with the source material and was concerned that audiences would be too, leading him to implement as many disorderly action sequences and childish, fourth-wall-breaking gags as he possibly can. Unfortunately, making the film more frenetic only adds to its sense of desperation. Still, with Peter Rabbit racking in over £229 million at the global box office, I’m convinced we’ll be seeing many, many sequels (and potentially spin-offs) to this family adventure in the near future. Rating: 5/10.

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Molly’s Game (2017) – Film Review

Following his many triumphs as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, in 2017 Aaron Sorkin took a seat in the director’s chair for the first time in his career. And just like many of his previous writing efforts, his impressive directorial debut; Molly’s Game, was based on the exploits of a real-life figure. Adapting the memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom, the self-proclaimed; “Poker Princess,” who became the subject of tabloid infamy in 2007 when she was outed as the brains behind a prestigious underground poker tournament frequented by celebrities, CEOs and mobsters alike.

Plot Summary: When a catastrophic injury robs her of a promising sports career and a long-coveted Olympic medal, former competitive skier, Molly Bloom, moves to Los Angeles to take a year out and avoid attending law school. But shortly after arriving, Molly discovers that the quickest way to achieve success is through the world of high-stakes poker, building herself up through the ranks of deep-pocketed celebrities and the corporate elite as she hosts weekly poker nights, soon drawing the attention of the Russian mob and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now, facing a variety of federal charges, Molly’s only hope rests in the capable hands of the criminal defence lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, who learns there is more to Molly Bloom than meets the eye…

Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Molly’s Game was the first film to be both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, as previously mentioned. And although the screenplay itself isn’t as unique as some of Sorkin’s other work, with A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs being just some of the immensely well-received and Oscar-nominated/winning biopics Sorkin has written in the past. The screenplay for Molly’s Game still crackles and excites at many points as the writing is quick-witted and frequently goes into extreme detail whenever Molly recounts parts of her story, subsequently earning Sorkin another Oscar nomination in 2018 for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Real-world entrepreneur and author, Molly Bloom, actually told Aaron Sorkin that she wanted actress Jessica Chastain to portray her should a film adaptation of her story ever be made. And it seems that this was certainly the right call in retrospect as Chastain perfectly expresses resolve and vulnerability in her role as Molly, portraying a woman who uses her intellect as a weapon. Carving her own path as she leans into her former career as a competitive skier to fuel her drive to succeed as high achieving doesn’t even come close to the grand ambitions she harbours. Nevertheless, years later, after leaving the world of poker behind, Molly is still far from free as she is arrested by The Federal Bureau of Investigation on tentative crimes, which is where Charlie Jaffey comes into the story, excellently portrayed by Idris Elba. Additionally, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera give superb performances as Molly’s father and Player X, respectively. The latter being a professional actor and adept poker player who, despite having his real name disclosed, is widely believed to be based on Tobey Maguire.

While the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen does tend to over-rely on mid-shots and close-ups now and then, Molly’s Game still contains some admirable shots whenever the film decides to fully indulge in its visuals. Specifically, whenever the story brings us back to the poker table as there the film utilises many on-screen graphics to visually display the fundamentals of poker, in the event that some audience members (such as myself) aren’t familiar with the game’s regulations, sidestepping the need for lengthy scenes of poker-related specification. Furthermore, the editing frequently attempts to keep pace with the dialogue, occasionally even employing archive footage when Molly goes into certain topics, giving the film a terrific sense of style.

On a similar note, the original score by Daniel Pemberton is a fast-paced soundtrack that varies between light synthetic rock and electronic dance. This means tracks like Staring Down a Mountain, Molly’s Journey, House of Cards and Therapy Session make for a dazzling mixture of electronic and more classical compositions. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t slow tracks, as both Molly’s Dream and Scars are far slower and more melodic, with Molly’s Dream, in particular, explicitly featuring a piano, a marked contrast from the bulk of the score.

Interestingly, due to Aaron Sorkin’s constant focus on realism, right down to the way players handled their cards during games, all of the extras seen during the poker games are actually professional poker players. According to Sorkin, the cast could often be seen playing poker between takes with the professional players. This meant that the extras (who are usually paid around £65 for a twelve-hour workday) were usually some of the highest-paid individuals on set.

In summary, Molly’s Game is a film that in the grand scheme of well-acted biopics, won’t demolish the competition, but is a well-crafted and entertaining film, nonetheless. Especially for fans of Sorkin, its one-hundred and forty-minute runtime will fly by as this delve into a world of glamour, privilege and gambling is just as compelling as Sorkin’s other screenplays, perhaps even more so in some aspects. If you’re a little exasperated with Sorkin’s self-satisfied writing, however, then Molly’s Game isn’t likely to change your mind. Rating: low 8/10.

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