Easy A (2010) – Film Review

Taking inspiration from romantic coming-of-age comedies like ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘Clueless’ and ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Easy A’ released in 2010, certainly has its ups and downs. As despite Emma Stone leading the film with an extremely lively and charismatic performance, its hard to ignore the film’s immensely corny tone and many, many moments of humour that fall completely flat. Still, for those looking for a light-hearted morality tale about how a small lie can ramify out-of-control, ‘Easy A’ should suffice.

Plot Summary: After being prompted by her best friend to spill details of her boring weekend, ‘Olive Penderghast,’ a clean-cut seventeen-year-old high-schooler, decides to spice things-up by telling a little white lie about losing her virginity. But when the high-school busybody overhears their conversation and spreads it all over campus, ‘Olive’ suddenly becomes popular for all the wrong reasons…

Written by Bert V. Royal and directed by Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits, Annie, Peter Rabbit), ‘Easy A’ doesn’t strive too far from what we usually expect to see in our teenage romantic-comedies, taking-place primarily in a high-school and focusing on the rippling effects of: ‘Olive’s constant lies and her growing popularity after she fully-embraces her new persona as the school tart. And while I wouldn’t call ‘Easy A’s portrayal of an American high-school realistic per-say, many of the teenage characters we meet throughout the story are purposely represented as over-the-top stereotypes or even just one-note jokes through the film’s witty writing, which does vary from being hilarious to tiresome depending on the scene.

Possibly being the biggest role of her career at the time, Emma Stone’s performance is undoubtedly the film’s finest aspect, as Stone truly brings her all to the role, portraying ‘Olive’ with such self-assurance that she elevates the game of every actor/actress around her. Having perfect comic-timing and a strong yet not irritating playful attitude that ensures ‘Olive’ will remain a likable and intelligent character for viewers to follow. Then there is the supporting cast of Amanda Bynes, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow, who all attain at least one or two amusing moments even if many of their characters serve little-to-no purpose within the actual narrative.

With its story being set in California, ‘Easy A’ does utilise its West Coast setting for a handful of attractive wide-shots. But aside from these few shots, nearly all of the film’s cinematography by Michael Grady fails to display anything overly-interesting or creative. However, with that said, the film does flaunt its opening titles in a pretty imaginative fashion, having every cast/crew credit placed inside the shots themselves, whether that’s on the ground where characters are walking or placed on signs above the character’s heads, which is a fairly inventive way to avoid having each piece of text simply appear at the bottom of the screen.

Although the original score by Brad Segal is barley noticeable, ‘Easy A’ fills a large majority of its short runtime with a huge assortment of various pop-songs, from ‘Change of Seasons’ to ‘Cupid Shoot Me,’ ‘Trouble is a Friend,’ ‘Bad Reputation’ and of course, ‘Pocketful of Sunshine’ by Natasha Bedingfield (which essentially becomes a running joke within the film as a result of the song’s catchy nature). Yet regardless of how widespread or beloved many of these songs may be, the sheer amount of licensed music that appears in the film is almost overwhelming, and when combined with the film’s editing, soon begins to feel quite choppy when rushing from song-to-song.

While the plot of: ‘Easy A’ does parallel the romantic novel: ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in more ways than one, ‘Easy A’ isn’t exactly a film that’s subtle about its influences. So, just as the film embraces its similarities to that story with ‘Olive’ continuously mentioning both the novel and film in addition to wearing the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothes, ‘Easy A’ also takes clips from many of the films its directly inspired by. In particular, when it comes to John Hughes’ iconic filmography, as everything from ‘The Breakfast Club’ to ‘Ferris Buller’s Day Off’ to the previously mentioned ‘Sixteen Candles’ is not only referenced, but eventually, even sampled into the film during a clip-montage, which while unique, I couldn’t but think is a just a clever tactic of escaping criticisms regarding the film’s lack of originality in some areas.

Overall, whilst ‘Easy A’ owes an enormous debt to older (and in all honesty, better) teenage romantic-comedies, it is enjoyable in bit-size chunks, particularly for those who are fond of Emma Stone. As in many ways ‘Easy A’ was unknowingly a showcase for the actress, alluding to her future career in Oscar-winning films such as: ‘La La Land’ and ‘The Favourite.’ And even though I’m certain its underlining cheesiness and subplots that feel like afterthoughts will annoy some, in my opinion, ‘Easy A’ has its moments, but its unlikely to leave a strong impression. Final Rating: low 6/10.

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Gravity (2013) – Film Review

A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable abyss of outer-space, 2013’s ‘Gravity’ is equal parts tense and beautiful. Taking over four-years to produce and winning numerous Oscars back in 2014 for everything from its effects to its cinematography to its sound editing, ‘Gravity’ serves as not only the long-awaited follow-up to director Alfonso Cuarón‘s previous sci-fi film: ‘Children of Men,’ but also as one of the most immersive films to ever take-place in the inhospitable vacuum of space.

Plot Summary: On her very first mission aboard the NASA space shuttle: ‘Explorer,’ novice biomedical engineer: ‘Dr. Ryan Stone’ and her accompanying seasoned astronaut: ‘Matt Kowalski’ come face-to-face with an irrevocable disaster during a routine spacewalk when a barrage of debris from a crippled Russian satellite inflicts devastating damage to their shuttle, leaving them both stranded in orbit…

Co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón, ‘Gravity’ is many ways less of a science fiction flick than it is a film grounded in real-world science, as it quickly becomes clear whilst watching ‘Gravity’ that the pair did their research into the fundamentals of space, presenting the narrative almost as if its based on a true story oppose to relying on flashy explosions to morph the film into a generic sci-fi blockbuster. Yet interestingly, author Tess Gerritsen actually filed suit against Warner Bros. Pictures following ‘Gravity’s release, claiming the film was unofficially based on her novel and that she was entitled to a screen credit and a fair percentage of the film’s profits, but this was never proven to be true, even if both stories do share many similarities. 

With around 80% of the film being shot on a green-screen or consisting of CGI, there were plenty of opportunities for the performances throughout ‘Gravity’ to be underwhelming. And yet, this is not the case, as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney both give brilliant performances here, with Bullock in particular impressing not only due her acting-chops, but also her memorisation skills. As with Alfonso Cuarón bringing his signature lengthy-takes into ‘Gravity,’ Bullock had to memorise long combinations of precise movements in order to hit her marks for each shot, often even having to coordinate her movements with those of the wire-rig and the camera, which is no easy task.

Brimming with many, many stunning shots in addition to the previously mentioned one-takes. ‘Gravity’s cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki rarely ceases to amaze, as the film wastes no time in capturing the viewer’s attention by jumping straight into the story with its opening scene, which begins with the camera traveling from an establishing shot of Earth over to ‘Dr. Stone’ detaching from a structure all without a single cut, which in total, lasts around twelve and a half minutes. That being only one aspect of the impressive camerawork ‘Gravity’ displays, another being the film’s excellent use of P.O.V. shots which place the viewer directly into ‘Dr. Stone’s space-suit, further adding to the film’s tense atmosphere. Furthermore, all of the film’s cinematography is greatly elevated by the magnificent lighting, editing and CG effects which back it up.

As a result of: ‘Gravity’s realistic approach, for a large majority of the film’s nighty-nine-minute runtime there is little sound heard aside from dialogue, this places a lot of pressure onto the film’s original score by Steven Price, which luckily, manages to strike the perfect balance between terror and wonder. As tracks like ‘Above Earth,’ ‘Debris’ and ‘Don’t Let Go’ push the score into becoming a remarkable exploration of the absolute isolationism of outer-space. Gradually building-up with pulsing electronic beats and gloomy vocals, until it eventually expands in intensity and volume alike, capturing the fear of what lies beyond the stars just as it does with the beauty.

The most common criticism ‘Gravity’ has faced since its release is that the film is focused more on spectacle than anything else, as while all of: ‘Gravity’s large-scale setpieces are usually beyond-thrilling, some shots do feel as if they were implemented purely for the sake of 3D and IMAX screenings, which is difficult to ignore. This alongside the film’s lack of development in some areas does leave ‘Gravity’ a little devoid of memorability when compared to some other iconic films set within the vast emptiness of space, e.g. ‘Ad Astra,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Moon.’

In conclusion, whilst ‘Gravity’ may not live-up to the immensely positive reviews its received in recent years, it is still a captivating piece of science fiction and a true marvel of filmmaking. It’s just for me personally, I find the actual filmmaking process and behind-the-scenes material of: ‘Gravity’ far more interesting than the story itself, perhaps that’s due to its underdeveloped characters or another element entirely. Regardless, I feel even with its issues, ‘Gravity’ will remain a testament as to what can truly be achieved with modern technology when it comes to film. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Searching (2018) – Film Review

Although some may see ‘Searching’ as nothing more than a gimmick, as this hyper-modern found-footage thriller utilises (and in many ways refines) the same format as the low-budget 2015 horror: ‘Unfriended’ and it’s 2018 sequel: ‘Unfriended: Dark Web.’ ‘Searching’ has much more to offer than just having its narrative play-out over a computer-screen, as first-time co-writer-director Aneesh Chaganty (Run) constructs an engrossing story around this seldom concept, focusing on the disappearance of a teenage girl and the unfolding drama that follows.

Plot Summary: When ‘David Kim’s sixteen-year-old daughter: ‘Margot’ goes missing, a local investigation is opened and a detective is assigned to the case. But after thirty-seven hours pass without a single lead, ‘David’ decides to search the one place he believes his daughter holds all her secrets, her laptop…

Shot in only thirteen-days yet taking over two-years to complete due to the large amount of prep, editing and animation work. The basic idea of: ‘Searching’ may have already been attempted with the previously mentioned: ‘Unfriended’ franchise among some other horror flicks. But what makes the film stand-out is its story, as ‘Searching’ veers-away from the usual paranormal scares of most found-footage films to focus on a missing-persons case, which does better fit this style of filmmaking in my opinion, a subgenre now commonly known as cyber-horror. Furthermore, the film’s protagonist being: ‘Margot’s father gives ‘Searching’ a strong emotional core, as nearly every parent can relate to the fear of their child going missing. On-top of this, the film also manages to weave-in an overarching theme about the dangers of social media, giving the film quite an impactful message in spite of how many times its been covered in cinema.

Considering John Cho is best known for his comedic roles, it has to be said that Cho does a phenomenal job throughout the film as ‘David Kim.’ Portraying a realistic depiction of a panicked father’s online movements as he desperately tries to track-down his daughter, and the film provides-us with plenty of dramatic moments to really let-us take-in ‘David’s pain. This is an even greater achievement when taking into account that Cho spends the majority of his screen-time just sitting in front of a computer-screen looking ever so slightly right of the camera. Unfortunately, ‘David’s daughter portrayed by Michelle La isn’t as impressive, but this may also be due to her dialogue, as many scenes involving ‘Margot’ seem to be quite trite in nature. And then finally, there is Debra Messing as ‘Detective Vick,’ who is serviceable in her role as a firm detective investigating ‘Margot’s disappearance.

The cinematography of: ‘Searching’ is interesting-enough on itself even without the story’s central mystery, as the film’s camerawork was actually handled by three different cinematographers. The first being the film’s standard cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron for whenever the film is shot through iPhones and GoPro cameras, and second being the film’s virtual cinematographers Nick Johnston and Will Merrick, who help give the film a more dynamic feel by controlling the movement of the camera whenever we are looking through a computer-screen, drawing the viewer’s eye to specific areas/details. But of course, as the film is primarily on a screen or shot through a phone, beautiful shots are basically-nonexistent. Its also not uncommon for the film’s editing to feel overly-intense at points, appearing as if its trying far too hard to build tension.

In a surprising turn for a found-footage flick, ‘Searching’ does actually have an original score. Composed by Torin Borrowdale, the film’s soundtrack heavily-leans into the story’s technological focus, being an electronic score with a strong emphasis on building tension or a creating a calming window of relief. And while the opening track: ‘New User’ is immensely corny, later tracks such as: ‘No Reception,’ ‘San Jose Missing Persons’ and ‘Search by Image’ do greatly add to the impact of certain scenes.

Additionally, whilst all of the computer systems, programs, apps and websites we see during the runtime aren’t the actual versions, but instead templates that were recreated from scratch and then animated. The sheer amount of detail and realism that goes into each second of screen-time we spend on the computer-screen simply can’t be ignored, as ‘Searching’ never implements hilariously-fake websites into its story like ‘iGram,’ ‘Search’ and other dreadful knock-offs we’ve in similar films. Instead, both ‘David’ and ‘Margot’s laptops feel real, having their message/Email inboxes overflowing and many real-world apps and websites like Google and YouTube open at one time.

In conclusion, ‘Searching’ may still be a gimmick film in a lot of ways, but I feel for those who can look past the film’s occasionally cheesy moments and in all honestly, fairly bland characters beyond their basic motivations. ‘Searching’ is still an engaging thriller/mystery with enough propulsion and small clues to keep most viewers invested, further ironing-out the kinks in this obscure subgenre so when it all comes together, it’s with a most pleasurable snap. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Steve Jobs (2015) – Film Review

The third film to be based on the real-life story of tech-designer Steve Jobs following ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’ in 1999 and ‘Jobs’ in 2013. ‘Steve Jobs’ is a gripping drama which interestingly chooses to take-place over the time-span of three iconic product-launches, focusing on much of the backstage drama of Jobs’ life as he attempts to revolutionise the world of technology and eventually become the CEO of Apple Inc. Making for the best cinematic-interpretation of Steve Jobs’ life story as of yet, despite the film lacking in memorability in a few areas.

Plot Summary: Steven Paul Jobs has always been known a major player in the digital-revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, his passion and ingenuity being the driving force behind the digital-age we currently inhabit. Yet whilst his commitment to revolutionise the technological-landscape was more than commendable, it was also sacrificial, as Jobs’ work often took a toll on his family life.

Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), ‘Steve Jobs’ was actually considered a box-office failure upon its initial release, with the film being pulled from over two-thousand cinemas after just two-weeks. And while I can’t say this is too surprising, as a biography focused around the story of a computer-designer does sound dull at a first mention. In execution, ‘Steve Jobs’ is anything but boring, as the film’s sharply-written screenplay makes for a very captivating watch, and draws many parallels to ‘The Social Network’ from 2010. Which is no coincidence, as both films were written by Aaron Sorkin. Furthermore, David Fincher was once attached to direct the film following his previous collaboration with Sorkin on ‘The Social Network,’ but Fincher was eventually dropped in favour of Danny Boyle after he demanded a higher-salary.

First and foremost, ‘Steve Jobs’ is definitely an actor’s film, as the performances outweigh nearly every other aspect of the film aside from perhaps the writing, with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg and Jeff Daniels all giving tremendous portrayals of these real-life figures. With Michael Fassbender portraying the titular man himself, and although Fassbender is quite far physically from Jobs’ appearance (with Fassbender going the extra-mile to wear brown eye-contacts to achieve a closer look), Fassbender impresses as usual, presenting Steve Jobs as a brilliant success when it comes to his products, but a significant failure when he tries to communicate with the people in his life. And refreshingly, the film is never afraid to delve into Jobs’ many personality flaws.

With the film playing-out over the course of three different product-launches, beginning with the Macintosh in 1984 and ending with the unveiling of the iMac in 1998. The three time-periods are cleverly represented through the cinematography by Alwin H. Küchler, with each segment being shot on 16mm, 35mm, and digital to illustrate the advancement in Apple’s technology across the sixteen-years of Jobs’ depicted life. And with the camera constantly tracking the actors as they walk through ever-changing locations, the camerawork really helps to make the film more engaging. Director Danny Boyle even integrates some of his signature ‘Trainspotting’ style with the film’s editing, displaying flashbacks through snappy quick-cuts and projection-like images which appear stretched over the walls behind those in frame.

From ‘It’s Not Working’ to ‘Child (Father),’ ‘Russian Roulette’ and ‘1998. The New Mac.’ The original score by Daniel Pemberton is a perfect mixture of minimalist electronic and grand orchestral tracks, encapsulating both the technological achievements of Jobs’ career as well as the spectacle of each one of unveilings. Unfortunately, the one moment the film’s soundtrack falters is an important one, as the film’s very last scene is sadly spoilt by the use of the pop-song: ‘Grew Up at Midnight,’ which feels immensely out-of-place when compared to the remainder of the film’s score.

Whilst ‘Steve Jobs’ is well-written on all regards, with much of the film’s dialogue being continuously witty and humorous in addition to playing-into Jobs’ God-complex and smug nature. However, with that said, a large amount of the film’s writing also relies on tech-specific dialogue, with everything from circuit boards to graphical interfaces and binary code all being casually mentioned in conversations, which I imagine could be fairly confusing for some viewers depending on how familiar they may be with that terminology.

In conclusion, ‘Steve Jobs’ is certainly one of the better biographies in recent years. Although I’m sure many will still be disinterested in the film purely for its main focus, the film does have a lot to offer, and in my opinion not only excels past the previous films based on the story the late tech-designer, but also the novel: ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’ which the screenplay actually takes heavy-inspiration from. And even in spite of several of Jobs’ associates claiming the film doesn’t represent the man they knew, just like Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network,’ this version of Jobs is very much a creation of its writer, and what a sensational creation it is. Final Rating: 8/10.

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About Time (2013) – Film Review

Written and directed by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Pirate Radio), ‘About Time’ would go on to be the final outing for Curtis as a director, as after this time-travelling drama’s release in 2013, Curtis would return to exclusively being a screenwriter, which I feel is probably for the best. As whilst ‘About Time’ does manage to keep itself afloat thanks to its captivating writing and wonderful performances, the film is often let-down by its fairly bland presentation and apparent disinterest in exploring its unique time-travelling concept, ensuring the film’s eventual confusion with many of the other romantic-dramas seen in recent years.

Plot Summary: At the age of twenty-one, the timid: ‘Tim Lake’ is informed by his father that men in their family have the unique ability to travel through time. Although this ability is restricted to the window of their own lives, it can be used to undo any past mistakes, so ‘Tim’ decides to use his newly-found ability to escape his current lonely existence, visiting all of his past loves to find the one who could be his future.

Due to Richard Curtis writing a number of iconic rom-coms from ‘Love Actually’ to ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ in the past, it comes as no surprise that ‘About Time’s screenplay is certainly its finest aspect. As in many scenes, the film chooses to push ‘Tim’s time-travelling ability aside in favour of delivering sincere character moments, playing into the story’s theme of life itself being the greatest experience. Yet while I do like both of these ideas, its a shame that the film barley touches upon the great deal of consequence time-travelling can have, as scenes focusing on time-paradoxes/the butterfly effect could’ve made for some of the film’s most impactful story-beats. Sadly, they are incredibly sparse and only appear when the story necessitates them.

The main couple of: ‘Tim’ and ‘Mary’ portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams do share a good amount of chemistry and have plenty of charming moments together, as ‘Tim’ tries desperately to impress ‘Mary’ by recalling everything he remembers about her from his past encounters. The supporting cast of Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander and Margot Robbie are all also great, as each member of the cast serve an important purpose within the narrative whether big or small. But its ‘Tim’s father portrayed by Bill Nighy who is the true emotional core of the film outside of: ‘Tim’s love-life, with Nighy doing a fantastic job as usual.

Despite visuals never being the main focus of rom-coms, the cinematography by John Guleserian is the film’s worst element. As any even somewhat-creative shots are rarely seen throughout the runtime, with the film usually just relying on mid-shots or close-ups to enhance the drama. The film’s colour palette doesn’t help in this regard either, as the pale colours almost present the film as if each scene is an extension of a photo framed in the family’s home, which is ingenious if that was the filmmakers’ attention, yet I’m not entirely sure it was. ‘Tim’s time-traveling ability however, is a little more visually-interesting in spite of its simplicity. As the film makes use of rapid-editing to cut between many different events during ‘Tim’s life, a straight-forward but understandable method of displaying how ‘Tim’ is flicking-through his memories.

Although ‘About Time’s cinematography is lacking, the original score by Nick Laird-Clowes is far more enthralling, as the film’s soundtrack utilises ticking clocks and heart-beating sound effects to relate to the story’s aspect of time-travel. And when focusing more on the story’s characters, the score switches things-up to be piano-focused, depicting a variety of experiences of life such as joy, heartbreak, reflection and confusion. ‘About Time’ also features a number of recognisable songs similar to much of Richard Curtis’ other work, which luckily, never distract from the story.

While ‘About Time’ does eventually continue on to cover a fair number of years throughout the character’s lives, much of the early portion of the film leans on ‘Tim’ trying to ignite the spark with ‘Mary,’ and with Rachel McAdams’ previously portraying the titular character in ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ from 2009, this should seem like familiar ground. However, unlike McAdams’ character in that sci-fi flick, ‘Mary’ is never made aware of: ‘Tim’s time-bending secret, which might make some viewers a little uncomfortable regarding the absence of honesty in their relationship.

To conclude, ‘About Time’ is enjoyable overall, it just doesn’t quite live-up to its interesting ideas or nearly two-hour runtime. As unfortunately, whilst the film’s many humorous and heartwarming moments do excel, the story’s huge missed opportunities are always ever-present, and the mostly dull cinematography/colour palette simply can’t be ignored. Although I would personally only recommend ‘About Time’ to those who have a sweet-tooth for light-hearted romantic-dramas, I can’t deny that the film is heartfelt, with a fragile sort of sincerity at its centre. Final Rating: 6/10.

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Black Swan (2010) – Film Review

Fantastically deranged at all times, ‘Black Swan’ directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Mother!) is for many, the pinnacle of the director’s filmography as of yet. As the film’s combination of numerous genres soon evolves into an incredibly unique experience that leaps onto the stage in an effort to impress, with its gorgeous lighting, dreamlike atmosphere and occasionally grotesque visuals all elevating the film’s twisted tale of a dancer obsessed with achieving her dreams. And whilst the film does trip over itself once or twice, its faults are few and far between.

Plot Summary: When ‘Nina,’ a ballerina for the New York ballet company discovers she has been chosen for the lead role in the company’s production of: ‘Swan Lake,’ she struggles to maintain her sanity as her rival dancers, eccentric casting director and obsessive mother twist her perception of reality, forcing ‘Nina’ to prove herself worthy of the duel role and be the exemplary for both the ‘White’ and ‘Black Swan.’

Although the film was never marketed as such, director Darren Aronofsky has always maintained that ‘Black Swan’ is first and foremost a psychological horror film, as the story delves into themes of mental illness and obsession, in addition to displaying many graphic sequences of what is essentially body-horror. And yet, the film also somehow manages to never feel restrained to just one genre, which is what keeps it so compelling. This experimental nature might also explain why it took around ten-years to be green-lit, as Aronofsky made many changes to the original screenplay in an attempt to get the film funded, with his original hopes for a budget of around £22 million being drastically-lowered to roughly £9 million in the end.

The phenomenal lead performance from Natalie Portman nabbed the actress an Oscar back in 2010, and throughout the film it quickly becomes clear as to why she won, as Portman flawlessly portrays ‘Nina’ as a committed and talented dancer being crushed by the pressure of the role she is undertaking. Portman even went to the extent of altering her voice (which had been continuously criticised by directors in the past for its childish qualities), as Aronofsky requested that for the role of: ‘Nina,’ Portman would need to regress backwards and make her voice more child-like. Furthermore, Portman not only lost over twenty-pounds for the role, but at least 95% of the dancing seen within the film was performed by Portman herself, with the professional ballerina Sarah Lane acting as her body/dance-double for the complex en-pointe work. All of this is without even mentioning the excellent supporting cast of Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, whose performances all add to the film’s surrealist feel.

Matthew Libatique handles the film’s cinematography, which despite relying far too heavily on hand-held shots during some scenes, also makes for some truly astonishing visuals at points. As the film’s cinematic lighting alongside the grand gothic-influence that the film borrows from cult horrors and other art-house films, most notably, the stylised supernatural horror: ‘Suspiria’ from 1977, grant the film a very distinct and striking look. Aronofsky’s trademark of camerawork also creeps its way into the film, as there are a number of moments throughout the runtime where the camera tracks ‘Nina’ from behind as she walks through various locations, giving the cinematography a great sense of movement not too dissimilar to dancing.

The original score by Clint Mansell suitably feels like a score composed for a ballerina recital, as ‘Black Swan’s orchestral soundtrack is mostly a variation on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ ballet, the only difference being that the notes are played backwards in a distorted manner. This makes the entire score feel very extravagant and almost overly-dramatic, as tracks like ‘Nina’s Dream,’ ‘A Swan is Born’ and ‘Perfection’ add to both the tragedy and beauty of the story.

As previously mentioned, due to its many scenes of graphic (and frankly disturbing) moments of mutilation, ‘Black Swan’ is far from an easy watch. As while the film doesn’t feature any ‘gore’ per-say, all of the scenes of: ‘Nina’s harmful acts towards herself feel more grounded in realism as a result of how minimal they are, with all of the skin-picking and dancing injuries she endures being reminiscent of a real disorder, known to medical professions as Dermatillomania, a disorder primarily focused on skin-picking.

In conclusion, although many believe ‘Black Swan’ to be Aronofsky’s best effort, ‘Requiem for a Dream’ will always be my personal favourite film from the director. As in spite of: ‘Black Swan’s beautiful visuals and captivating narrative, the film also feels like it isn’t quite reaching its full potential, mostly due to its overuse of hand-held camerawork and unexplored characters/ideas. Regardless, this art-house horror does sustain its entertainment-value for the most part, and just like many other art-house films, can be interpreted very differently from viewer to viewer. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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The Invitation (2015) – Film Review

A fairly subdued but very effective thriller, ‘The Invitation’ released in 2015, builds-up an almost absurd amount of tension over the course of its ninety-nine-minute runtime, maintaining the intrigue within its plot whilst also constantly defying the viewer’s expectations. Although the film does eventually devolve into generic slasher-territory for its final act, this indie thriller utilises its confined location and fantastic performances so effectively that it soon overcomes the majority of its flaws.

Plot Summary: After ‘Will’ and his girlfriend: ‘Kira’ accept a formal invitation to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills hosted by his ex-wife: ‘Eden’ and her new husband, ‘Will’ begins to feel unsettled as his ex-wife seems overly-eager to reunite with her previous lover and the friends she lost contact with over two years ago. But as the dinner party continues, ‘Will’ is presented with mounting evidence that their hosts have a more sinister agenda…

Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body, Destroyer), ‘The Invitation’ is a low-budget film in the best possible way, as the director and writers had complete creative-control over the project due to it being produced without any involvement from major production companies. This is more than likely why the film lacks any unnecessary jump-scares or a forced cliffhanger ending to serve as sequel/prequel bait. Instead, the story has strong underlining themes of past trauma, as the protagonist: ‘Will’ along with his ex-wife: ‘Eden’ both share a dark past which looms over their present-day lives.

Logan Marshall-Green portrays: ‘Will’ very well, as the excellent character-writing combined with Marshall-Green’s performance make ‘Will’ feel like not only a realistic character, but also somewhat of a stand-in for the audience themselves. As upon ‘Will’s arrival at the party, he immediately suspects that something is wrong, as he analyses the small yet strange details of their hosts. But obviously its also understandable as to why the other guests question or even just deny his claims, as his traumatic background makes him appear almost jealous that his ex-wife has moved on from their past in search of happiness. The rest of the cast of Tammy Blanchard, Emayatzy Corinealdi, John Carroll Lynch and Toby Huss (just to name a few), are all also stellar in their respective roles.

Everything from the film’s colour palette to its lighting to its cinematography by Bobby Shore, all visually-display the contrast between the story’s cozy setting and the tension and discomfort that is building throughout the narrative. As the film’s visuals are intentionally quite dim and warm in order to relate to the idea of the lavish house being a safe environment, when in reality, something far more ominous is at work, which in a way is also visually-represented through the darkness of the night creeping its way into the house via the windows. Additionally, the film’s huge amount of variety when it comes to its camerawork helps to make ‘The Invitation’ a more engrossing experience, as with the film mostly relying on its structure of every combination of characters slinking away into the next room for a conversation, it manages to avoid becoming tiresome as a result of its cinematography and score.

Speaking of the soundtrack, the original score by Theodore Shapiro goes a long way to accentuate the feeling of foreboding that the story protrudes, as the soundtrack only utilises solitary stringed instruments. This minimalist approach works perfectly, as the subtlety is reflective of both the story itself and the dimmed-down visuals, really driving a knife through the viewer through the simple use of a violin. The two tracks: ‘Into the Canyon’ and ‘I’m Actually Early’ are brilliant examples of this, but in all honesty, the score features so many wonderful tracks that its difficult to pick favourites.

Spoilers ahead in this section for those who wish to go in blind. But when its finally revealed that the goal of the dinner party is to murder all the guests present for a malevolent cult, the film does lose much of its charm. As the short scene we see of the guests being shot one-by-one doesn’t feel like a truly rewarding payoff considering how long the build-up actually was. However, the film does still make an attempt to develop the cult, and it quickly becomes clear that the group share many similarities to real-world cults, with the two most obvious being: ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and of course, Charles Manson and ‘The Manson Family’.

To conclude, ‘The Invitation’ is quite the underappreciated gem, as the film makes great use of its thin budget to craft a slow-burning yet layered thriller. While there are a few minor plot threads left lingering, the film does give enough clues/hints for keen-eyed viewers to find, and aside from perhaps the lacklustre climax, I personally have very few gripes with ‘The Invitation,’ and I would recommend it to anyone in search of a tense and entrancing story with equally entrancing filmmaking. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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A Monster Calls (2016) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness and directed by J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), 2016’s ‘A Monster Calls’ is far from being the simplistic creature-feature it’s title may imply. Instead, this imaginative and soul-stirring drama balances it’s mature themes and fairytale-esque elements to deliver an engrossing and incredibly moving story, which despite its many positive reviews, has mostly gone unmentioned by many film fanatics since it’s initial release.

Plot Summary: After realising his mother is dying from terminal cancer, twelve-year-old: ‘Conor O’Malley’ struggles to accept that he soon may have to live in a world without his caring mum. Until, later that night, when ‘Conor’ is visited by a tree-like monster in what he believes to be a dream, ‘Conor’ sees an opportunity to save his mother as the creature tells the boy he will heal her after he listens to his three stories.

Focusing on heavy themes of family and loss, the film adaptation of: ‘A Monster Calls’ follows its source material very closely, with only a few small differences. One of these alterations being some additional scenes that were written exclusively for the film, including one scene that takes-place immediately after the ending of the novel. But with the original author Patrick Ness writing the film’s screenplay, this accuracy shouldn’t be too surprising. However, interestingly, it wasn’t Patrick Ness who originated the story, as the novel was actually started by Siobhan Dowd, who sadly left it unfinished after her death, leaving Ness to complete the novel in 2011, yet Dowd is still credited as the creator of the original idea during the film’s end credits.

While the film’s supporting cast of Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell and Liam Neeson as the voice of: ‘The Monster’ are all superb in their various roles, its Lewis MacDougall who takes on the lead role as ‘Conor’, which is by no means an easy feat considering his age. As ‘Conor’ is a fairly complex character, being a young boy dealing with a very difficult situation he doesn’t fully understand, unwilling to accept that is mother is in constant pain, and more than likely, won’t be able to recover from her sickness. ‘Conor’s young age also makes his outbursts of rage/sorrow more understandable, as nearly every viewer can probably recall the difficulty of attempting to control their emotions when they themselves were a child. The now sought-after actor Tom Holland also has a small role in the film, as Holland actually served as the stand-in for: ‘The Monster’ on-set, following his previous collaboration with Bayona on ‘The Impossible’ in 2012.

The film’s cinematography by Oscar Faura not only manages to capture the true scale of: ‘The Monster’ at many points, but also allows for a large array of visually-appealing shots, effectively utilising everything from extreme close-ups to aerial wide-shots to increase the story’s overall spectacle. The film’s CG effects aren’t quite as impeccable however, as there are a noticeable amount of CGI-heavy moments which have suffered (if only slightly) from the film’s age.

Although the story of: ‘A Monster Calls’ is very powerful on-itself, there is no denying it is greatly elevated by Fernando Velázquez’s original score. As many of the film’s accompanying tracks such as: ‘Dad Arrives’, ‘Big Dreams’, ‘The Truth’ and certainly the film’s final track: ‘End Credits’, all massively help to invoke emotion in the viewer, inevitably adding-up to the film’s gut-wrenching conclusion. Any fans of Bayona’s early filmography are also sure to enjoy the film’s quick throwback to the director’s horror-roots, as the score becomes quite dread-inducing during the first scene with ‘The Monster,’ as ‘Conor’ remains unsure of the creature’s intentions.

But without a doubt the most impressive aspect of this adaptation has to be ‘The Monster’s stories, as every-time ‘The Monster’ tells ‘Conor’ these fantastical tales, the film takes a dramatic shift from live-action into animation, bringing its stories to-life through water-coloured drawings and sketches, which not only plays into ‘Conor’ and his mother’s flair for artistry, but these sequences are also when the film is at its most creative, having the camera fly through splurges of paint and water, engulfing the viewer in an array of magnificent colours and locations alike.

To conclude, ‘A Monster Calls’ is truly a touching and prodigious film. Whilst perhaps not completely flawless in its execution, mostly due to its unexplored side characters and occasional piece of hand-held camerawork, I feel most would find it impossible to not relate to the story in someway. As it’s sublime performances, enchanting visuals and beautiful original score all serve their purpose of complimenting the film’s narrative, which is just as captivating as it’s novel counterpart. And for me, ‘A Monster Calls’ still reigns as my personal favourite film from J. A. Bayona, and I’m hopeful the film will become a window of opportunity for Patrick Ness as a successful screenwriter. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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This Year in Film (2020) – Film List

Due to COVID-19, the film industry (much like the world itself) has deeply suffered this year, with many films be pushed-back or even put on-hold indefinitely. And while I obviously agree with all of the new precautions introduced for the safety of both the cast and crew for films currently in production, I’m also truly hoping that the film industry can recover by next year. Regardless, in no particular order, here’s my thoughts on what few films I did manage to see this year, which I will update in time as I get around to seeing any other films I may have missed.

Soul

A return to form for Pixar Animation, Pixar’s ‘Soul’ not only features the usual gorgeous animation the company is known for, but also delivers on an original and unique story with many fascinating ideas melded within. Although some of its concepts may be a little difficult for younger viewers to understand, ‘Soul’ is still a wonderful mixture of heart and creativity, and is such a breath of fresh-air for both the animated genre and Pixar themselves.

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Mank

Capturing the look and feel of a 1940s film, the sharply-written and brilliantly performed: ‘Mank,’ peers behind-the-scenes of one of the greatest films ever made, that being: ‘Citizen Kane,’ to tell an old Hollywood tale that is just as engaging as it is well-crafted. And while I don’t believe the film will end-up becoming a classic in its own right, as I could see general audiences finding the film quite dull, cinephiles will surely get a kick out of this remarkable drama.

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Tenet

Thrilling and distinctive yet very flawed in terms of its writing, ‘Tenet’ is nowhere near as compelling as many of Christopher Nolan’s other blockbusters, suffering from an incredibly undeveloped protagonist/antagonist as well as a handful of moments that feel like spectacle-over-substance. But through its impressive CG effects and exciting action sequences, ‘Tenet’ does certainly have plenty of entertainment-value even if it’s script was in need of some refinement.

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Mulan

Another of Disney’s live-action reimaginings of their beloved classics, the new incarnation of: ‘Mulan’ is beyond lacklustre, with its unlikable protagonist, dull filmmaking and more historically-accurate yet uninteresting story all being far less enjoyable than the original animated adventure. And with this film flopping at the box-office due to its purchasable release on Disney+, we can only hope that ‘Mulan’ is one of the last remakes Disney decides to force upon its viewers, but after looking at their current release schedule, this does seem unlikely.

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Scoob!

Serving as what was intended to be the first film in an animated Hanna-Barbara cinematic universe, ‘Scoob!’ Is an enormous missed opportunity for a reboot of: ‘Mystery Inc.’ As the film quickly becomes distracted by its singular goal of setting-up this interconnected universe and as a result, forgets to tell the entertaining and charming origin story its trailers promised, or even a classic spooky adventure more in-line with the original animated show.

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Onward

An intriguing idea/story quickly spoiled by its overly-fast-pacing and overstuffed world, before ‘Soul’ came along and redeemed their streak, ‘Onward’ simply felt like another disappointing film in the long-list of underwhelming Pixar flicks released in recent years. Whilst the modern-fantasy world the film takes-place within does take its opportunities to be amusing or charming, it also isn’t very memorable in the long-run.

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The Hunt

While the political-commentary throughout ‘The Hunt’ is quite easy to ignore if you only desire to see some dark comedy and intense violence. ‘The Hunt’ still somehow managed to be one of the most controversial yet also most neglected films of the year, eventually leading Blumhouse Pictures to use the film’s controversy to market the film, which really displays the company’s lack of faith in the film itself, which is nothing short of a slightly more comedic but just as bland ‘Purge’ flick.

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Possessor

From the son of David Cronenberg, Brandon Cronenberg. ‘Possessor’ may not be quite as ground-breaking as horror/sci-fi classics like ‘The Fly’ or ‘Scanners’, but this original and intriguing narrative is only complimented by its compelling themes and exceptional filmmaking, and serves as a brilliant second outing for this iconic director’s son, who I personally can’t wait to see more from.

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Extraction

Although ‘Extraction’ is very loose on story and characterisation alike, the film’s exciting action set-pieces will be more than enough to satisfy action fanatics. As Chris Hemsworth fittingly places all of his training and gruff-exterior to the forefront for the film’s many violent, exhilarating and occasionally even over-the-top moments.

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His House

A low-budget British horror with some intriguing themes, ‘His House’ is a terrifying and eye-opening look at the specters of the refugee experience. Directed by first-time filmmaker Remi Weekes, the film is certainly not for everyone, as it avoids many common horror clichés in favour of aggressively playing into its central concept, which usually works quite well aside from one or two moments where it can feel a little heavy-handed.

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Underwater

A fantastic throwback to 80s creature-features, ‘Underwater’ was undoubtedly one of the most overlooked entries into the sci-if genre this year. And although it’s story isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, this simplistic yet flashy flick will surely please any fans of cult horrors and science fiction stories, having heavy inspirations of both H.P. Lovecraft and even the 1979 classic: ‘Alien.’

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The Gentlemen

Going back to his ‘Snatch’ roots, ‘The Gentlemen’ directed by the brilliant Guy Richie is simultaneously stylish, well-crafted and hilarious. Whilst I personally feel ‘Snatch’ still has a slight edge over Richie’s latest feature, it’s still a very enjoyable ride nevertheless, and is more than likely one of my favourites from this year.

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The Midnight Sky

Iconic actor George Clooney returned to directing this year with the Netflix Original: ‘The Midnight Sky,’ and even though it lacks the dramatic heft to match its narrative scale, its flaws are often balanced by its thoughtful themes and poignant performances from both Felicity Jones and George Clooney himself.

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The Invisible Man

Another one of my personal favourites from this year, this remake of the classic 1930s monster flick: ‘The Invisible Man,’ is a refreshing and very well-directed take on the iconic character. Remaining tense and entertaining throughout its mostly original storyline, all the while continuing to impress with its excellent performances, effective cinematography and impactful original score.

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We Can Be Heroes

Attempting to capture both the imagination of younger viewers as well as the nostalgia of older audiences who grew-up with colourful family flicks like ‘SpyKids’ and ‘The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,’ ‘We Can Be Heroes’ had an opportunity to interject some light-hearted fun into this challenging year. But with its predictable and overly-marketed focus on superheroes, not to mention its clearly inexperienced young cast and abysmal CG effects and costume-design, ‘We Can Be Heroes’ ended-up being just as irritating as it was corny, lacking any of the charm those older films had for all their problems.

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Color Out of Space

A wonderful slice of cosmic-horror, ‘Color Out of Space’ explores this subgenre and its weirdly-fascinating story remarkably well. As although I personally adore cosmic-horror, this subgenre has always received little attention in modern-day cinema, yet this adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novel of the same name is just as creative and disturbing as it’s source material, sometimes even more so despite a few moments of robotic dialogue and weak acting, resulting in a strange yet truly captivating experience.

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The New Mutants

Finally, after years and years of waiting, the horror-esque superhero flick: ‘The New Mutants’ was released in 2020. And it’s fair to say it made its way into cinemas with little applause, missing its train of anticipation by years at this point, and as a result, ‘The New Mutants’ seemed to have just gone unwatched by most, and for those who did see the film such as myself, simply experienced a dull, cheesy and messy film which felt unsure of what it even wanted to be by the runtime’s end.

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Sonic the Hedgehog

Jim Carrey makes his long-awaited return to the silver screen in this adaptation of the iconic video game character: ‘Sonic the Hedgehog,’ delivering an expectedly over-the-top performance as the film’s antagonist: ‘Dr. Robotnik.’ And while the film follows the usual formula many family films stick-to, never really doing anything unexpected or overly-impressive, it does remain enjoyable-enough for children and fans of the video game series alike throughout its simplistic story.

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The Devil All the Time

Gripping, tense and dramatic, ‘The Devil All the Time’s descent into darkness may be harrowing to the point of unwatchability for some, and isn’t a film I’d recommend to general audiences. Having a devilish mix of neo-noir intrigue and gothic horror based on William Hjortsberg’s page-turning novel, the film is a compelling feature only elevated by the strong work from its all-star cast.

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The King of Staten Island

This comedy/drama from director Judd Apatow isn’t one of the director’s best films to-date, as ‘The King of Staten Island’s uncertain tone and indulgent length stop this coming-of-age dramedy’s ability to find itself, but Pete Davidson’s soulful performance and the director’s usual flair for comedy do manage to keep the film afloat.

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The Babysitter: Killer Queen

Whilst this sequel to 2017’s ‘The Babysitter’ does delve more into the supernatural aspects only hinted at in the first film, ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ is worse than it’s predecessor when it comes to both its comedy and it’s pacing. Ending-up as a mostly straight-forward and drawn-out chase sequence similar to the original film, only this time without the amusing jokes or clever horror satire to hold it up.

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The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

Aside from its attractive animation and extremely vibrant colour palette, the third major film focusing on the iconic cartoon character: ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ contains barley any story or hilarious moments. Instead, relying on bizarre celebrity cameos and strange dream sequences to fill it’s short runtime, which is sure to do nothing other than leave children bored, adults confused and fans of the beloved animated show immensely disappointed.

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Moonlight (2016) – Film Review

Directed by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy, If Beale Street Could Talk) and based on the unproduced play: ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney. ‘Moonlight’ has been heavily praised since its initial release in 2016, being just one of the films from adored production company A24, who also brought-us modern indie classics like ‘Hereditary,’ ‘Waves,’ ‘Eighth Grade,’ ‘The Witch’ and ‘A Ghost Story’ just to name a few. And although ‘Moonlight’ may not be the company’s greatest film to-date, it is certainly one of the finest examples of visual storytelling and subtle characterisation in recent memory.

Plot Summary: Through three different time-periods, young adolescence, mid-teen and young adult. An African-American man (Chiron) grapples with his identity and sexuality as he grows-up in Miami. His journey to manhood being guided by the kindness, support and love of the community that help raise him.

In addition to receiving almost universally positive reviews, ‘Moonlight’ also won three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor in 2017. And with the film only having a budget of around £1.1 million, ‘Moonlight’ has the lowest-budget of any Best Picture winner since ‘Rocky’ in 1976, which cost only £820,000. However, even with this smaller-budget, director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney always had a clear-vision as to what the film would be. As both men had similar childhood experiences living in Miami, with mothers who had both struggled with drug addiction. So it was decided early on to replicate those experiences, with roughly 80% of the film being shot in the same neighbourhood the pair originally grew-up.

Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray ‘Chiron’ across the three different time-periods of his life, and all do a great job in spite of them not sharing many of the same mannerisms outside of: ‘Chiron’s manner of speaking, yet this doesn’t stop the trio from still making ‘Chiron’s quiet and sheepish personality shine. The supporting cast of Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe and André Holland are all also fantastic, but with all four being such skilled actors who have given few bad performances throughout their careers, it was unlikely this indie drama would ever be an exception, it’s just a shame their characters aren’t featured more within the narrative.

Despite a large amount of James Laxton’s cinematography consisting of shaky hand-held shots, the film’s camerawork does allow for plenty of movement, as the camera rarely remains still during conversations between characters, making many of the story’s dramatic moments far more visually-interesting and giving each scene a consistent flow through the many revolving shots. Additionally, the film also utilises its cinematography to reflect ‘Chiron’s emotional state at many points, combining with the film’s original score for some very impactful story-beats. All of this working in-synch with the film’s bright colour palette and smooth editing, which both make superb use of the beautiful setting of Miami.

Another masterful and memorable aspect of: ‘Moonlight’ is its original score by Nicholas Britell, as the film has a very diverse yet gentle score with tracks ranging from orchestral to more piano-focused. As Britell decided to ‘Chop and Screw’ the orchestra to create a new kind of sound, this technique can be seen throughout the tracks: ‘The Middle of the World,’ ‘Chiron’s Theme’ and ‘Chef’s Special,’ with director Barry Jenkins stating that he always wanted the film’s score to be distinctive, as he actively tried to avoid the cliché of black-lead films featuring exclusively hip-hop soundtracks.

Much of: ‘Moonlight’s story was also inspired by Barry Jenkins’ own childhood in Miami, where he was surrounded by lush green grass and stunning golden sunsets, yet also lived in a neighbourhood where some tragic events took-place, declaring his childhood: “A Beautiful Struggle.” And whilst the film’s slow-pacing allows this story to be fully-explored, this shouldn’t put viewers off, as the narrative doesn’t move along at a brutally slow-pace, only slow enough to fully-immerse its events/characters in realism. Then of course, there is the film’s visual/minimalist storytelling, which is some of the best-executed I’ve seen in a long-time. As the film hides many small visual/audio details for those paying close-attention, presenting its themes of embracing yourself, addiction and masculinity in such a fashion where I feel different viewers will interpret the story in their own way.

To conclude, ‘Moonlight’ is a prepossessing coming-of-age story even if it isn’t one of the best films A24 has to offer, as while the film is still is an incredibly entertaining and well-written drama with an equally well-crafted original score and some creative cinematography to-boot. A24 simply has such a vast and exceptional range of indie films to choose from, as the production company is never hindered by genre, style or tone for projects they green-light. But if you enjoy dramas or are a fan of Barry Jenkins’ other work, then ‘Moonlight’ will surely be a captivating watch followed by a fascinating discussion, just be sure your paying full-attention. Final Rating: 8/10.

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