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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Thoroughbreds (2017) – Film Review

Originally written for the stage, 2017’s Thoroughbreds juggles many conflicting tones, but does so with such panache and charm that it’s rare to find deficiencies within its tonal shifts. With a straightforward yet deeply engrossing plot, elegant visuals and a pair of top-notch performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, Thoroughbreds delivers a sharply written and refreshingly unpredictable entry into the black comedy genre. Placing far more emphasis on its characters and their internal issues than anything other black comedy in recent memory. 

Plot Summary: In suburban Connecticut, a pair of childhood friends reconnect after many years when the sharply-witted sociopath, Amanda, arrives at the residence of the wealthy and academically inclined, Lily, for a private tutoring session. After rekindling their friendship, however, Lily soon learns of Amanda’s peculiar philosophy, prompting the pair to hatch a plan to solve both their problems, a plan that begins with the murder of Lily’s detestable stepfather…

Stuck in limbo for almost two years, the production of Thoroughbreds technically ceased in mid-2016, yet the film wasn’t released into cinemas until March 9th, 2018. This was due to several factors, but most notably, this was a result of the film’s lengthy and extensive festival circuit in 2017. During this festival run, Thoroughbreds received many positive reactions, which in a way, surprises me, as even though the plot of Thoroughbreds may sound like a set-up for a compelling thriller, the plot twists and suspenseful moments are never the main attributes of the film. Instead, Thoroughbreds is far more focused on having its characters use their words to eke the darkness out of one another, which ultimately leads to an outcome that, in its theatricality, may feel anticlimactic to some. But, for others, will feel like a unique take on what could’ve been a poorly executed sequence for a lower-budget crime-thriller. 

The two central characters of Amanda and Lily, expertly portrayed by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, are unquestionably the primary focus of Thoroughbreds, with much of the runtime being spent developing the pair and depicting many of the similarities and differences between their respective personalities. For instance, since their early days of horseback riding, Lily has turned into a polished, upper-class teenager with outstanding grades and a coveted internship on her resume. Meanwhile, Amanda has developed a strong sense of perception and a stern attitude, all in the process of becoming a social outcast and unregistered sociopath, which is flawlessly depicted through Cooke’s impassive performance. Sadly, Thoroughbreds was also the final project to feature a terrific performance from actor, Anton Yelchin, as the small-time drug dealer, Tim, before his tragic death on June 19th, 2016, at the age of twenty-seven. As such, the film is dedicated to him.

Despite writer-director Cory Finley (Bad Education) bearing a more extensive background in theatre than filmmaking, Finley displays a natural cinematic instinct right from the opening scene. Depicting the baroque, marble-lined mansion where Lily, her mother and her stepfather reside as more of a prison than a utopia, as the cinematography by Lyle Vincent stalks through the location in lengthy, restless takes. Lingering on specific elements, such as an SUV driving up the gravel driveway or two characters staring at each other from adjacent rooms. Furthermore, the visuals retain a surprisingly vibrant colour palette when considering the grim nature of the story, utilising luminous whites, greens and greys for the majority of the runtime.

For the original score, composer, Erik Friedlander, manipulated various instruments to achieve a number of atonal sounds like boinks and sproings, which all serve as disconcerting counterpoints to the refined visuals. And while there are many excellent tracks throughout the seemingly unstructured score as a result of these unusual sounds, the final track; Win Win, is undoubtedly the best track of the original score, concluding the black comedy on a bittersweet note thanks in part to the optimistic piece.

Bleak yet direct in its underlining commentary on the turmoil of being a teenager in the modern world, Thoroughbreds takes the problems of the young and privileged and explores them through the narrative. With many teenagers (particularly teenage girls) often being told to act or react in specific ways, this story of two girls who are both removed yet acutely aware of their emotions is something to be appreciated in modern character studies. Still, as a consequence of this gradual exploration of the two central characters, I believe many audience members will be turned off by the film on account of its slow pacing and total lack of on-screen violence. However, that’s not to say that I agree with these conceivable criticisms, as even with Thoroughbreds‘ slow pacing, I actually feel that the runtime could’ve been slightly extended, providing more time for characterisation in the first act before the girls reunite.

In summary, Thoroughbreds is a quirky, darkly comedic and entertaining crime-thriller anchored by some exceptional performances and praiseworthy filmmaking. Although the film may not be for everyone given its harsh perspective on teenage life, shortage of blood/gore and frequently slow pacing, Thoroughbreds lavish presentation and snappy dialogue are immensely effective. To the point that the screenplay even manages to make the audience empathise with a character that is completely incapable of empathy, which is a rather impressive feat. Rating: 8/10.

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Loving Vincent (2017) – Film Review

An arduous labour of love by a team of over one hundred professional artists, Loving Vincent, released in 2017, turns the renowned artwork and tragic life story of the celebrated post-impressionist artist, Vincent van Gogh, into an extraordinary biopic. Initially filmed in live-action before every frame was then hand-painted over in the distinct style of van Gogh’s artwork, Loving Vincent impressively employs hundreds upon hundreds of oil paintings and transforms them into a hypnotic and ambitious animated biography, even if its story and characters are less effectively crafted than its dazzling visuals.

Plot Summary: In the summer of 1891, one year after the presumed suicide of unwonted artist, Vincent van Gogh. Postman, Joseph Roulin, tasks his reluctant son, Armand Roulin, with delivering one of the artist’s final letters to his brother, Theo van Gogh, in Paris. But, when Armand arrives in the French capital, learning that Theo has, too, met his demise, he pledges to investigate van Gogh’s untimely death by venturing to the scenic town of Auvers-sur-Oise…

Obtaining a large amount of attention after its nomination for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture in 2018. Loving Vincent is one of the most unique films to emerge from the animation genre in recent years as immediately from the hand-painted opening title sequence, preceded by van Gogh’s quote; “We Cannot Speak Other Than by Our Paintings.” The audience is pulled into van Gogh’s hyper-sensual worldview through the film’s striking aesthetic. Aside from the astonishing visuals, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman also provide an alternative take on the historic biopic by having the life of Vincent van Gogh viewed from the perspective of a young man, via the stories he is told by those who knew him. And even though this investigative storyline doesn’t quite match up to the amazing visuals on display, it’s an engaging story, nonetheless.

While the main cast of Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Saoirse Ronan, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, the late Helen McCrory and Chris O’Dowd, are all terrific in their performances, none of the characters retain a French accent. And considering that the story takes place in 1800s France, I feel the immersion of the time period/setting could’ve been greatly increased should the filmmakers have chosen to cast English-speaking French actors/actresses. Moreover, similar to the narrative, the characters of Loving Vincent are one of the film’s lesser impressive aspects. Whilst Armand Roulin is serviceable as a headstrong protagonist, eager to fight and drink before he is pulled out of his slump and instructed to deliver van Gogh’s final letter, subsequently becoming more and more invested in the alleged suicide of the gifted yet largely detested artist. The majority of the characters are given little characterisation and merely serve as plot devices to edge Armand towards his next acquaintance/eyewitness.

Moving onto the visuals, Loving Vincent was predominantly animated through the rotoscope technique; an animation process that consists of tracing over live-action footage frame-by-frame. This technique allowed the filmmakers to implement the characters into a number of visually stunning environments, along with numerous recreations of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. However, only the sequences set in 1891 are animated in the style of van Gogh’s artwork, as flashback sequences are animated in the style of black and white photographs of the time period, providing a clear visual distinction. Additionally, details such as cigarette smoke, clouds or flowing rivers make for fantastic transitions between scenes. On the whole, the visuals of Loving Vincent almost appear like purified echoes of Vincent van Gogh’s artwork, as the cinematography by Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal, combined with the vibrant colour palette and beguiling art style, results in countless enchanting shots.

From the outset, the original score by Clint Mansell backs up the stylistic visuals with a sombre and atmospheric soundscape. Through tracks like The Night CaféThe Yellow HouseMarguerite Gachet at the Piano and Five Sunflowers in a Vase, the score creates a sense of sadness that parallels the difficult life Vincent van Gogh led. Furthermore, despite having a noticeable lack of movement in the background of certain scenes, the sound design goes a long way in fleshing out the environment around the characters, whether that be the bustling streets of Paris or a quaint farm in Auvers-sur-Oise.

According to Loving Vincent‘s official website, the collective effort of the many talented artists that worked on the project resulted in a total of eight hundred and fifty-three oil paintings, as each art piece was utilised multiple times, with succeeding frames being painted on top of the original paintings. In the final film, there are around fifty thousand hand-painted frames, which is truly an incredible feat of artsy when taking into account how much time went into just a single scene.

In summary, Loving Vincent is an outstanding achievement, not only in the genre of animation, but also in the world of filmmaking. While the story and characters do leave room for improvement, these minor issues hardly detract from Loving Vincent‘s main attribute; its ravishing visuals. From the phenomenal use of colour to the detailed backdrops and innumerable visual references to van Gogh’s most recognised artwork, Loving Vincent is a captivating tribute to one of history’s most influential artists. And, as such, I’d say Loving Vincent is a biopic well worth seeking out, even if it’s merely for the experience of witnessing the craftsmanship of hundreds of animated oil paintings on-screen. Rating: low 9/10.

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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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Wiener-Dog (2016) – Film Review

A comedy-drama anthology that is far more drama than black comedy, 2016’s Wiener-Dog, written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the DollhouseHappinessLifetime During War), centres on a series of short, personal stories, all connected by the titular sausage-resembling canine. And while Wiener-Dog certainly has its moments as a mordantly witty tour of the human condition, seen from the low-slung position of an ordinary dachshund, Wiener-Dog‘s distinct combination of bleak storytelling and deadpan humour can make for a very inconsistent viewing experience, especially if you aren’t sure what to expect going in.

Plot Summary: An endearing dachshund, nicknamed, Wiener-Dog, finds itself shuffled from one oddball owner to the next, with each owner’s radically dysfunctional life being, in some way, impacted by the small canine…

Winning the Best Film Award at the 2017 Milan LongTake Interactive Film Festival, a festival where the films in competition are selected from titles yet unreleased in Italian cinemas, with the winner being chosen by the number of people attending each screening. Wiener-Dog is certainly not a film for everyone as the stories within are actually much dreary in tone than many would expect given the title and/or poster. Moreover, for those going in expecting four straight-forward, humourous narratives, Wiener-Dog frequently takes an unusual approach with its stories, with much of the writing being awkward and clunky and each story largely differing in terms of structure. And even though I adore the idea of using a dog as a framing device for an anthology, Wiener-Dog rarely makes use of its central dachshund, nor do any of the stories fully delve into the emotional arcs of their characters even when some of their self-examining journeys are particularly interesting.

Throughout all of the stories, one element that never fails to impress, however, is the cast. From a struggling family to a despondent screenwriter-turned-film school lecturer, every member of the cast brings their all in Wiener-Dog. And although many of the characters don’t receive as much development as they probably should, they do all feel very distinct from one another. For example, in the first story, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts portray Danny and Dina, an uptight, miserable couple whose young son, Remi, is recovering from cancer. Danny and Dina soon decide to get their son a dog in an attempt to cheer him up, though, this only ends up causing the family more problems. In the next story, Dawn, a veterinarian’s assistant, hopes the dachshund will help her melt the heart of Brandon, whom she knew in school as a notorious bully. The third story introduces us to Dave Schmerz, portrayed by Danny DeVito, a has-been screenwriter now teaching at a film school where the students despise him. The fourth and final story concentrates on a character only ever referred to as Nana, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, a blind, embittered woman suffering from cancer, who is being visited by her granddaughter, Zoe, and her outrageous abstract artist boyfriend, Fantasy.

For the majority of the runtime, the cinematography by Edward Lachman stands as a model of subtle and elegant compositional skill strained by what are fairly uninteresting locations. And whilst the first two stories have a written transition between them, the latter two stories do not, and instead, we just cut to the dachshund being in a new home, with a new owner, with no explanation given, which is rather jarring. That being said, Wiener-Dog does feature an intermission of sorts halfway through, which becomes a short story in itself; a montage of the dachshund walking through a number of colourful locations brought to life via some less-than-stellar green screen. This amusing sequence somewhat feels inspired by Let’s All Go to the Lobby, officially known as Technicolor Refreshment Trailer No. 1, a 1957 animated musical advertisement that played in American cinemas during intermissions. In which, animated characters that resemble various food items urge the audience to purchase snacks.

The original score by Nathan Larson and James Lavino is serviceable during the few scenes when it’s actually used. As for most of the film, Wiener-Dog chooses to employ excerpts from the classic orchestral piece, Clair de Lune, L. 32, which consistently seems out of place. The previously mentioned intermission is also set to an original tune titled: The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog, which is admittedly quite imaginative despite, once again, seeming misplaced.

With an anthology, some segments are always going to be superior to others. In Wiener-Dog‘s case, it’s the third story that is the best of the bunch, mainly because of DeVito’s terrific world-beaten performance. With that said, the third story does have a shortcoming that plagues many of the segments, that being its ending, which feels rushed and premature. The ending of the final story is also likely to leave many audience members with a bitter taste in their mouths as the ending is unnecessarily mean-spirited, concluding the anthology on a dour note.

In summary, similar to the rest of Todd Solondz’s filmography, Wiener-Dog is a black comedy with much of the comedy removed, leaving just black; a dense residue of callousness as the film rarely dwells on its light-hearted gags or charming moments. Nevertheless, Wiener-Dog is enjoyable in parts, and it’s evident that Solondz had a specific vision for the project when crafting it. Perhaps the film is just a little too bleak for its own good. Rating: 4/10.

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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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Resistance (2020) – Film Review

During the German occupation of France in 1940, a young Jewish man named, Marcel Mangel, fled with his family to Limoges where his cousin, Georges Loinger, a member of the French Resistance, urged him to join the cause. Eventually, both Marcel and his older brother, Alain, would join the French Resistance, adopting the last name, Marceau, and helping rescue countless Jewish children from race laws and concentration camps. Throughout his time in the Resistance, Marcel frequently used his skills as a mime artist to keep the children quiet and entertained as he helped them escape to Switzerland. With all that in mind, it’s difficult to imagine how a filmmaker could possibly disappoint when creating a cinematic interpretation of Marcel’s extraordinary story, but 2020’s Resistance is just that; a disappointment. Serving as a flawed yet honourable biopic that somewhat pushes past its varying performances and peculiar execution to function as an earnest tribute to its real-life protagonist.

Plot Summary: Before he became a world-famous mime, aspiring Jewish actor and artist, Marcel Marceau, joined the French Resistance alongside his brother, Alain, in an effort to save thousands of orphaned Jewish children from the impending threat of the Third Reich…

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express, Hands of Stone). The screenplay for Resistance continuously appears distracted, creating a scattershot portrait of Marcel Marceau’s life when it could’ve easily been a straightforward celebratory biopic documenting his valiant actions and incredible feats throughout the Second World War. The perfect example of the film’s unconventional approach can be seen in the structure as Resistance bizarrely chooses to tell Marceau’s story through the means of a flashback, narrated by General Patten (portrayed by Ed Harris) as he addresses the serried ranks of the U.S. troops who have just liberated France. This flashback structure adds nothing of value to the plot and ultimately only serves as a distraction. However, the film does partially redeem this issue during its epilogue as the filmmakers pay respect to the real-life events they’re documenting, inserting text that states that the Nazis killed over a million children during World War II and that this film is dedicated to them.

When it comes to the cast, the supporting actors of Clémence Poésy, Félix Moati, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey and Matthias Schweighöfer all give serviceable performances as various members of the French Resistance and those who oppose them. The standout, however, is, of course, Jesse Eisenberg, who portrays Marcel Marceau himself. And even though Marcel’s personality is only explored in bullet-point tropes, swiftly moving from one trait to the next, Eisenberg portrays the war hero with complete serenity, his performance only being hindered by his inconsistent French accent. Still, there are plenty of undeniably tense moments that showcase Eisenberg’s ability to jump from comedic to dramatic acting on the fly.

Visually, Resistance is more than competent as the cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin-Menz has its fair share of attractive shots, often utilising the story’s diverse mix of locations to great effect with symmetrical lines. And for all its unusual choices in terms of structure, it can never be stated that Resistance leans too hard on certain moments to drain them of maximum emotion. Take the opening scene, for example, in which a little girl’s house is raided by Nazis who subsequently kill her parents. A brief scene, during which, we see no on-screen violence whatsoever. With that said, the colour palette of Resistance never tries to be anything but gloomy and grey. Whilst I understand that this was likely done to further establish the story’s World War II setting, even in more cheerful moments where Marcel makes the children laugh, Resistance rarely employs vibrant colours in its visuals.

Similarly, the film’s music is a rather mixed bag. As while the original score by Angelo Milli features a handful of memorable tracks such as You Are Not Alone and Adagio for a Silent Performance, both of which help add dramatic weight to the scenes they are featured in. There are also plenty of moments where the film is lazily manipulative with its music as the sound of an angelic children’s choir is contrasted with scenes of brutal executions.

Another problem Resistance suffers from is its overabundance of subplots, an issue that frequently results in a complete lack of narrative focus. From Marcel’s somewhat strained relationship with his father, who after seeing one of his performances as Charlie Chaplin calls him; “A Clown Dressed Like Hitler in a Whore House,” to a similar kind of resentment toward his brother, as well as a romantic fling with fellow Resistance member, Emma. Nearly every subplot in Resistance goes nowhere and practically fades into thin air by the time the end credits roll. Proving that when it comes to biopics, more story doesn’t necessarily mean a better story.

In summary, Resistance is neither a fully drawn biopic nor a thrilling war epic despite its largely convincing performance from Jesse Eisenberg as the mime artist-turned-war hero. The main reason for this is that Resistance constantly feels as if it isn’t sufficiently delving into Marcel’s numerous talents or his brave endeavours within the French Resistance. Nevertheless, I do believe this was a film worth making as its mere existence helps in celebrating Marcel Marceau’s remarkable life. A life that many may not have even been aware of before this film’s release. Rating: low 6/10.

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Knives Out (2019) – Film Review

A brilliant spin on the well-worn formula of kindred murder mysteries, 2019’s Knives Out is a charming, captivating and hilarious film from beginning to end. Functioning as both a subversive whodunit as well as a modernised homage to the prominent works of crime-fiction author, Agatha Christie, Knives Out offers the kind of classy entertainment we could use more of on the silver screen as the film, through its all-around marvellous cast, excellent direction and witty dialogue, quickly overcomes the one or two minor flaws it has to thoroughly immerse its audience in a delectable delicacy of a mystery and its affiliated suspects.

Plot Summary: When renowned crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey, is found dead in his study on the night of his eighty-fifth birthday, the inquisitive and debonair, Detective Benoit Blanc, is enlisted to investigate his passing. Now, in a mansion full of potential suspects, from Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Detective Blanc must sift through a tangled web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan’s untimely death…

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (BrickLooperStar Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), the plot of Knives Out follows one of the most timeworn formats in the whodunit playbook; as family members and associates gather after a rich patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances. And although many of them may act like they want to uncover who’s responsible for the premature death of their loved one, in reality, they’re far more interested in knowing how much they stand to gain monetarily from said loved one’s death. However, at many points, Knives Out actually acknowledges its audience’s familiarity with this formula, battling against it by integrating a series of compelling twists and turns into its story. So, even if you’ve already guessed who isn’t responsible, it won’t be easy to deduce who is. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that Rian Johnson has more than just murder and mysteries on his mind, as Knives Out quietly threads political commentary into its narrative through the family’s conversations concerning immigration and the many shades of venality, exposing an entirely different side to the ignorance and pride of the Thrombey family.

With an enormous ensemble cast featuring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, LaKeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome and Christopher Plummer, it’s understandable that a few of the actors and/or characters would be misspent. And this is most apparent with the character, Jacob Thrombey, portrayed by Jaeden Martell as beyond serving a single plot point and a handful of jokes, Jacob, and by default, Martell, has little screen-time, very few lines and the least development of any member of the family, making his inclusion seem rather pointless. Detective Blanc also brings two police underlings with him to solve the case, neither of whom make much of an impression. Still, every member of the cast somehow manages to make their character feel distinguishable when placed alongside the others, from the bohemian Instagram influencer, Joni Thrombey, to the foul-mouthed freeloader, Ransom Drysdale, Harlan’s entire family is relentlessly amusing as they continuously squabble with each other despite pretending they are on the same side.

The gothic abode in which Detective Blanc’s suspects are confined is an interesting location for a murder mystery, to say the least, as Harlan Thrombey’s gigantic mansion is not only unique exterior-wise, but inside, is decorated with antique furniture and an assortment of ghoulish accoutrements, including crystal skulls, oil paintings, artwork that resembles giant eyeballs and, of course, a large metal ring of knives and other sharp implements. All of this elegant set design greatly adds to the already pleasing visuals of Steve Yedlin’s cinematography, but there’s no denying that characters and humour are certainly the biggest draws of Knives Out as a whole.

By that same token, the original score by Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) never overshadows the comedy or drama unfolding on-screen, but instead enhances it. Matching the highbrow, old-fashioned style of Harlan’s grand mansion, the symphonic score plays more like a concerto for strings than a traditional film soundtrack. With tracks like Knives Out! (String Quartet in G Minor), Like Father, Like Son and The Thrombey Family Theme, all being wonderful pieces of classical pastiche dripping with a rich gothic atmosphere.

Interestingly, Nathan was not the only member of Rian Johnson’s extended family to assist in the production of Knives Out, as Rian also brought on board two further cousins of his; Mark Johnson, who created the film’s opening titles and designed a font based on a series of Agatha Christie paperbacks, and Zack Johnson, who painted the cast portraits seen in the end credits. Further adding to the film’s high-class stylings and inadvertently tieing into the story’s focus on familial relations.

In summary, Knives Out is a sly, wry and stylish throwback to the murder mysteries of yesteryear, with a splashing of self-aware humour to boot. Updating the genre for modern audiences whilst simultaneously satisfying fans of the classic whodunits, Knives Out demonstrates (in a similar sense to many contemporary westerns), that some of the genres we may perceive as defunct are, in actuality, still far from gone, and that we could potentially see more from these less prevalent, but immensely enjoyable genres, in the future. Rating: 8/10.

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The Lobster (2015) – Film Review

Bleak, eccentric and ambitious, The Lobster, released in 2015, is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but for those with the fortitude to crack through the film’s offbeat sensibilities, it should prove a cinematic treat as co-writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos (DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Favourite) continuously demonstrates his peculiar style throughout this anomalous black comedy. And although the film does admittedly fall short in its final act as the story loses interest in its animal-transformation premise and abandons its fascinating hotel setting in favour of a less interesting location with equally less interesting characters, this does little to diminish the intrigue of The Lobster‘s unique outlook on human relationships.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future where, by law, all citizens must have a life companion, single people are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner within forty-five days. Should they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild where they will hopefully find love with a different species. Inevitably, as the newly divorced architect David enters the luxurious rehabilitation facility, he too must find a suitable partner, or an uncertain future in the wilderness awaits…

Since its initial release, The Lobster has become an intense hub of speculation regarding its true meaning, but the most common theory is that the film is an absurdist look at modern-day coupling, which, if truthful, is similar to the rest of Lanthimos’ filmography which frequently picks apart damaged characters, attempting to expose the raw and volatile relationship between humans and their fragile sensibilities. Immediately from its opening scene, The Lobster also presents an extraordinarily unusual world, a dystopian future that is simultaneously striking, disquieting and darkly comedic without ever appearing overly futuristic. Needless to say, with a world as irregular as this one is, there are still a few lines of dialogue that feel fairly on-the-nose concerning its world-building.

The film’s large cast of Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly are all superb throughout the film, intentionally delivering their lines with a complete lack of emotion. Instead, many of the characters present much of what they are feeling on their faces whilst seemingly concealing everything else. This approach works flawlessly when it comes to the film’s comedy, with the numerous quirky characters David interacts with giving matter-of-fact line readings that are extremely difficult not to find amusing. Yet these constant stabs at dry humour never feel at odds with the story’s more dramatic/romantic moments either as The Lobster tries to gain emotional investment from its audience by making the characters feel distinctly human through the recognisable neuroses that label them despite their emotionless tones.

Visually, The Lobster is rather impressive as the cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis allows nearly every shot to have something poignant to it, with the symmetrical staircases and hallways of The Hotel presenting a world of order in a simplistic yet elegant manner. One hunting scene, in particular, stands out as gorgeous composition, slow-motion and lighting are all used to great effect. This is made even more impressive when considering that the production crew worked without makeup and exclusively utilised natural light. With large-scale lighting set-ups only being employed for a handful of evening scenes.

When it comes to the film’s music, even though The Lobster lacks a traditional original score, the film does feature a tremendous assortment of brittle classical compositions such as String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 and Strauss, R: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Variation: II, both of which give the film a feeling of serenity yet also push much of the story’s tension to the forefront. Quietly damping down the comedic tone that gradually bubbles up through the carefully placed laugh-out-loud one-liners.

Returning to the visuals briefly, The Lobster was primarily filmed in and around the Parknasilla Hotel in Ireland, an ostentatious hotel that is decorated almost entirely with Dutch flower still life from the 1600s. This ageing pattern along with the film’s exceptional use of colour; primarily blues, greens and a few alternate shades of red, including beige-pink, give The Lobster a distinct visual appeal even more so than its cinematography, as these colours can even be seen in many of the costumes or mentioned in lines of dialogue, such as the scene where the Short-Sighted Woman says she should wear blue and green clothes or when David mentions that lobsters are “Blue Blooded,” (lobster’s shells also being red, of course).

In summary, while The Lobster is a droll piece of storytelling lashed with grim humour, it also offers a rich, surreal take on modern relationships that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As for every moment that makes you laugh, there may be another that leaves you with your mouth wide open. In many ways, The Lobster is as much a black comedy as it is a slice of existential horror, glimpsing into an outrageous yet disturbing future, one that is truly a testament to Lanthimos’ brand of filmmaking and storytelling as he’s able to trump even the most outlandish premise and turn it into an accessible and engrossing narrative. Rating: low 8/10.

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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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