Please Stand By (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harbinger Down (2015) – Film Review

In 2010, practical effects company Amalgamated Dynamics (or ADI for short) was hired by Universal Pictures to create effects for their upcoming prequel to the 1984 classic: ‘The Thing,’ but just before the film was released, the majority of ADI’s work was digitally replaced by CGI. This decision greatly upset the Amalgamated Dynamics team, especially since ‘The Thing’ wasn’t the first film they had worked on only to later discover their effects had been replaced. So, in response to queries about what became of their effects, the founders of Amalgamated Dynamics uploaded a behind-the-scenes video to YouTube which showcased their original effects, and the overwhelmingly positive response they received began a new phase for the company, as soon after, ADI began a Kickstarter with the intention of creating their own sci-fi-horror titled: ‘Harbinger Down,’ a film that would exclusively employ practical techniques.

Plot Summary: While studying the effects of global warming on a pod of Belugas in the Bering Sea, grad students on a crabbing vessel fortuitously uncover a Soviet space shuttle buried within layers of ice. But when the ship’s crew bring the Soviet wreckage aboard, they unintentionally release a long-dormant extraterrestrial parasite that relies on the warmth of the human body to survive…

Commonly known by its alternate title: ‘Inanimate.’ ‘Harbinger Down’ was written, directed, and produced by Amalgamated Dynamics co-founder Alec Gillis. And although I have a huge admiration for Gillis and his partner Tom Woodruff, Jr. as the duo courageously opposed the mammoth production companies that no longer respected the art of practical effects, ‘Harbinger Down’ frequently suffers as a result of the pair’s lack of experience when it comes to filmmaking, as is it’s not uncommon to see exaggerated performances, cliché dialogue, and messy editing. Furthermore, ‘Harbinger Down’ like many sci-fi-horrors takes plenty of inspiration from ‘The Thing,’ though in this case, this inspiration is a little too evident in the final film, as many story-beats are either extremely similar or a stark contrast in an attempt to avoid comparisons, such as the creature being maimed by liquid nitrogen rather than fire.

Eminent ‘Aliens’ and ‘Pumpkinhead’ actor Lance Henriksen headlines the film, being by far the most prominent performer present, and suitably gives a stand-out performance due to his raspy authority and effortless professionalism. However, just like the rest of the cast of forgettable stock characters, Henriksen is given very little to work with, only being able to portray his character: ‘Graff’ as an adept ship captain who cares deeply for his astute granddaughter: ‘Sadie,’ sufficiently portrayed by Camille Balsamo.

The film’s cinematography by Benjamin L. Brown does allow for one or two attractive shots, yet because of its over-reliance on hand-held techniques, often feels frantic, again playing into the idea of Gillis’ deficiency of filmmaking experience, as whilst Alec Gillis may know how to fabricate outstanding effects, he doesn’t seem sure how to capture them on film or hide them when necessary. As such, the effects on-screen soon become gluttonous, holding on certain shots until the point when the effects begin to appear fake and rubbery. That being said, the film’s setting and production design are brilliant without fault, as the film manages to craft the convincing illusion that the characters are all confined to ‘The Harbinger,’ a vessel that has indeed been set adrift on frigid waters.

Nowhere close to memorable, Christopher Drake’s intense original score does at least add to the film’s atmosphere, but where the score succeeds, the sound design utterly fails. As in addition to numerous areas of the ship utilising time-worn sound effects, the story’s shapeshifting creature rarely makes any sound beyond generic grunts and growls, none of which are menacing nor daunting, and considering the film had a budget of over £250.000, refining the sound design couldn’t have been that arduous of a task.

Needless to say, all the traction that ‘Harbinger Down’ gained was likely on account of its practical effects, which make use of everything from animatronics to prosthetic makeup to stop-motion and even miniatures, all of which are marvellous to see, particularly for those who enjoy films with little reliance on CG effects, as the film’s creature relies on no digital animation whatsoever outside of rod/rig removal. As mentioned previously, however, the way some of these effects are presented occasionally takes away their impact. Another issue arises with the creature design itself, as every form the creature takes is entirely different from its prior appearance, so the creature never has the chance to fully borrow into the audience’s mind as a recognisable extraterrestrial antagonist.

To conclude, ‘Harbinger Down’ ultimately falls somewhere between a cheesy SyFy Channel flick and a better than average direct-to-video product, which is unfortunate. As for myself, as a fan of 80’s creature-features, I truly wanted this low-budget claustrophobic horror to triumph, but as a result of its long list of flaws, many of the film’s practical effects (and the scenes in which they are employed) tend to just be echoes of well-known moments in better films. Be that as it may, ‘Harbinger Down’ does have a captivating backstory when it comes to its creation and the passionate team behind it. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Winter’s Bone (2010) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To conclude, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is spectacular in its efforts as a drama and a crime-thriller alike, as it’s intelligent, well-written, and entirely non-patronising story is as tense and as entertaining as these respective genres come. And whilst many Oscar-winning films can often be disappointing beyond whatever aspect is their main talking point, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is also beautifully shot and well-paced, with Jennifer Lawrence’s career-defining performance simply being the icing on top of the cake. So, even if the first act of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ is slightly slow and repetitive, after that initial hump, the film thrives as a rewarding and richly detailed exploration of the strength required when being confronted with unpleasant truths. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Coherence (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slow West (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ritual (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pet (2016) – Film Review

An unsettling indie horror firmly within the mould of the classic thriller: ‘The Collector’ from 1965, 2016’s ‘Pet’ takes what could potentially be nothing but an exploitative horror and twists it into a unique story that continuously indulges in defying its audience’s expectations. And although the film never manages to fully escape its various flaws by the end of its brief runtime, ‘Pet’ is able to achieve a nice balance between many of its best and worst aspects.

Plot Summary: After ‘Seth,’ a socially awkward recluse bumps into his old high-school crush: ‘Holly,’ he subsequently becomes obsessed with her just as he was many years ago, ultimately leading him to abduct her and hold her captive beneath the animal shelter where he spends his working days, enclosing her in a cage just as he does with the canines above…

Directed by Carles Torrens (Apartment 143) and written by Jeremy Salter, the writer partly responsible for the disastrous ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot in 2015. ‘Pet’ was considered an utter failure upon its initial release, with the film only earning a box-office gross of around £8,000 on a total budget of £15,800, in addition to receiving a series of extremely mixed reviews from both critics and audiences alike. While this may be due to many fearing ‘Pet’ would be nothing but a grotesque ‘captive woman’ flick, ‘Pet’ is actually much more interested in going against the typical clichés many viewers will be associate with this idea to delve into the ever-shifting power-dynamic between ‘Seth’ and ‘Holly,’ making for a pretty engrossing and unpredictable watch even if a level of disbelief is surely required as a result of the film’s many, many plot twists.

Much of what makes ‘Pet’ work can be attributed to its two leads, with Dominic Monaghan being hugely effective as ‘Seth,’ portraying him as a soft-spoken introvert who simply meanders his way through life with a small apartment and boring job, looking anyone (or anything) that could make his life truly worth living. And whilst Monaghan is certainly capable of being intimidating when the story requires it, it is a shame that much of: ‘Seth’s transformation from a wholly-reclusive loner to a plotting unhinged stalker feels very rushed. Then of course, there’s ‘Holly’ portrayed excellently by Ksenia Solo, who is far from your usual helpless victim alluded to almost immediately through Solo’s sly performance and the unhealthy relationship that grows between her and ‘Seth’ as the story continues on. However, ‘Pet’ sadly still features a weak link amongst its cast, as Jennette McCurdy’s performance as ‘Holly’s best friend: ‘Claire’ feels lacking in nearly every scene she’s in, despite her actual character serving a crucial role in the overall development of: ‘Holly’s character.

A large majority of the cinematography by Timothy A. Burton is visually interesting, but unfortunately, many of the film’s shots are spoilt due the overreliance on hand-held camerawork, with a number of shots being accomplished through hand-held for seemingly no reason. Still, the cinematography is varied enough to stop the story’s limited number of locations from becoming monotonous, especially when placed alongside the film’s dramatic lighting and grimy set-design.

Similarly, the original score by Zacarías M. de la Riva is competent, yet many tracks do feel more suited to something like a modern crime thriller than a disturbing psychological horror such as this, feeling especially out-of-place during any scenes that feature graphic violence. Furthermore, there are also a number of moments where the film implements its soundtrack during scenes that I personally feel would’ve been far more effective should they have been completely silent or possibly placed more emphasis on sound design.

The main issue ‘Pet’ suffers from is the inconsistency of its writing, as although its many subversions of the horror genre immediately put it on a level higher than a large majority of modern horror flicks that entirely rely on obnoxiously loud jump-scares. Much of the film’s characterisation is ruined as a result of clunky dialogue, whether that’s due to the actual line itself or its delivery, which is unfortunate as many of the film’s extended dialogue scenes are where the story has the most to chew on, developing its characters and their motivations while simultaneously implementing its signature theme of taking advantage of the opposite sex, even if this underlining theme is fairly surface level.

In short, whilst ‘Pet’ undoubtedly has its strengths, many of them do feel undermined by its weaknesses. From Jennette McCurdy’s weak performance to the peculiar dialogue and continuous overreliance on hand-held camerawork, ‘Pet’s constant tension building and subversion of classic horror tropes may not have been enough to draw in horror fans back in 2016, especially with the likes of: ‘Don’t Breathe,’ ‘Hush,’ and ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ all releasing around the same time. Still, while I understand why ‘Pet’ was given so little attention, I do hope more viewers stumble across this horror, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll receive praise from all. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Saw (2004) – Film Review

Before it became the colossal horror franchise, we know it to be today, ‘Saw’ was originally just a low-budget thriller ingeniously co-written by Leigh Whannell and debuting horror writer/director James Wan. Boasting an intricate structure consisting of flashbacks within flashbacks, the original: ‘Saw’ was far more focused on crafting a compelling (and occasionally confusing) mystery that takes place primarily within a single location rather than plainly indulging in blood and guts similar to its many sequels, and as a result, still remains the best entry of the ‘Saw’ franchise to-date.

Plot Summary: When two strangers awaken in a grimy bathroom with their ankles chained to pipes and no recollection of how they got there, the pair soon discover they’re pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by the notorious serial killer: ‘Jigsaw.’

Despite the ‘Saw’ series being predominantly known for its constant display of extreme violence, with the franchise even becoming infamous at one time for introducing the ‘Torture Porn’ subgenre to general audiences. The original: ‘Saw’ actually contains very little in the way of gore, as director James Wan never intended to make an immensely disturbing film. It was not until the sequels that the films became what he describes as “More Explicitly Nasty.” Still, this wouldn’t stop ‘Saw’ from its rampant train of success, as the first film alone would go on to earn over £90 million on a budget of only £1 million, instantly providing Wan and Whannell with the funds for their next project(s) in addition to placing ‘Jigsaw’ among the ranks of: ‘Jason Voorhees,’ ‘Freddy Kruger,’ ‘Chucky,’ and ‘Michael Myers’ as a horror icon.

Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell lead the film as ‘Dr. Lawrence Gordon’ and ‘Adam Stanheight’ respectively, and whilst neither actor gives a truly poor performance, Elwes easily outshines Whannell in many scenes. Obviously, this is due to Whannell being a writer (and now director) first and foremost, but with a better actor in Whannell’s place I feel many moments during the narrative could’ve been greatly enhanced. And while Danny Glover, Monica Potter, and Tobin Bell all do a serviceable job, due to Elwes and Whannell’s performances taking-up nearly the entirety of the film’s runtime, any faults in the actor’s portrayals are tremendously hard to ignore.

The cinematography throughout ‘Saw’ ranges from brilliantly clever to simply irritating, as director James Wan and cinematographer David A. Armstrong wanted the movement of the camera to reflect the central character’s emotions and personality, meaning ‘Dr. Gordon’ is displayed through steady, controlled shots while ‘Adam’ is seen exclusively through hand-held shots. Yet even with this attention to detail, ‘Saw’s camerawork suffers from its repeated inclusion of the ‘Bullet Time’ shot, first introduced in the sci-fi classic: ‘The Matrix’ in 1999. As although this shot was very impressive when it first appeared, by 2004, this overused technique of having the camera rapidly rotate around an actor feels nothing but exasperating, especially when combined with the film’s chaotic editing and often unpleasant colour palette.

Aside from the film’s signature track: ‘Hello Zepp’ which would go on to become a staple of the series, being utilised for each film’s final scene, the rest of: ‘Saw’s original score isn’t anything special. Being a mostly by-the-numbers horror soundtrack consisting of a variety of tense tracks with the occasional metallic effect thrown in to further relate to the industrial nature of: ‘Jigsaw’s many traps and devices. The sound design itself, however, significantly adds to the horror, implying much of the gruesome violence that isn’t directly seen.

As a result of its smaller-budget, there are many occasions where director James Wan had to get quite creative with how to execute certain scenes. For example, the car chase that appears later within the film was actually filmed inside of a warehouse garage, with the illusion of being outside being achieved by turning off all of the warehouse lights, adding some fog, and aggressively shaking the cars whilst filming directly from the front. This thin budget is also why the film contains no exterior shots whatsoever, as nearly all of the film was shot in a converted warehouse where the bathroom set was built, while any other locations were simply existing rooms redressed. However, even with this restrictive budget, the production crew actually made ‘Jigsaw’s now-iconic puppet: ‘Billy’ completely from scratch instead of pre-purchasing an antique puppet from a local store.

To conclude, the original: ‘Saw’ is far from flawless, but considering the film started-out as just a low-budget short before attracting the attention of Evolution Entertainment, who immediately formed a horror-focused subcompany with Twisted Pictures, the ‘Saw’ franchise has truly come a long way. And although the series’ first instalment is certainly plagued with many problems, there is a clear level of passion and effort poured into the project, and whilst I wouldn’t say it deserves to be one of the most profitable horror films of all time, I would say it deserves a watch even if you’re planning to pass-up the rest of the progressively grotesque franchise. Final Rating: 6/10.

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V/H/S (2012) – Film Review

Combining six found-footage horror stories from upcoming filmmakers of the time, 2012’s ‘V/H/S’ was a pretty ambitious indie horror upon its initial release. As while the film didn’t exactly reinvent the found-footage subgenre or avoid the usual problem anthologies tend to run into with its segments greatly ranging in quality, ‘V/H/S’ does manage to overcome some of its flaws through its eldritch stories and unique 1990s aesthetic, yet the film still pales in comparison to classic horror anthologies like ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Body Bags’ or its much improved sequel: ‘V/H/S/2.’

Plot Summary: When a group of misfits are hired by an unknown party to break into a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they are surprised to come across the owner’s decomposing body sat in front of a wall of video monitors and an endless supply of VHS tapes, each containing a piece of footage more disturbing than the last…

Although nowadays found-footage horror feels mostly played-out and even quite creatively limiting, ‘V/H/S’ does attempt to utilise its concept in the best way possible. Having its wraparound story titled: ‘Tape 56’ explain the other five, as every VHS tape a member of the group watches are the same stories we as the audience are seeing, it’s just a shame that this central narrative goes pretty much nowhere, only seeming to exist for the sake of the film’s anthology structure rather than to provide the film with a terrifying and memorable climax. But it does help that this segment takes-place in the same house as the ‘Marble Hornets’ web series, also known as the YouTube series that popularised the internet icon: ‘Slender Man.’

Due to the film featuring multiple stories, the huge cast of: ‘V/H/S’ ranges about as much as the segments themselves, as whilst no performance throughout the film is particularly bad, no performance is truly excellent either with the exception of Hannah Fierman as ‘Lily,’ who gives a very animalistic and continuously unnerving performance in the film’s first segment: ‘Amateur Night.’ Yet I don’t think this is entirely down to the cast, as ‘V/H/S’ does suffer from an overall lack of characterisation, which while hard to avoid in an anthology film where each story is given a limited timeframe, ‘V/H/S’ simply chooses to fit all of its characters into a certain stereotype and not development them at all beyond that.

The cinematography during every segment of: ‘V/H/S’ remains fairly consistent despite being handled by an array of cinematographers, and while the camerawork is very familiar for a grungy found-footage flick, the film’s assortment of glitch/static effects, grainy overlays, footage corruptions, and occasionally chaotic editing all help to ground many of the segment’s supernatural elements in an almost documentary-like realism. And in spite of: ‘V/H/S’s lower-budget, all the film’s directors including Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid alongside Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and Chad Villella under the title of: ‘Radio Silence,’ each try their hardest to distinguish their segment from the others.

Being a found-footage film, ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t have an original score, but with the film’s visuals leaning heavily into glitch and static effects, the sound design backs-up these effects with a distorted soundscape, adding tension to a number of scenes. And although the film only features one licensed song, that being: ‘They Come to Get Us,’ it does fit well over the film’s end credits.

But ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t escape the most common issue of anthologies, as there is certainly a noticeable shift in quality between its segments. As while I thoroughly enjoy the previously mentioned: ‘Amateur Night,’ the second and third story titled: ‘Second Honeymoon’ and ‘Tuesday the 17th’ respectively, are a drastic downgrade, with the first being an incredibly dull slow-burn thriller, and the second being nothing but a cringy retelling of a ‘Friday the 13th’ film as the title implies, neither of which are very memorable or creative, and feel like a chore to get through. However, these lacklustre segments are redeemed by the last two stories, as both ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ and ’10/31/98′ do implement some more inventive ideas even if they aren’t flawless in execution.

Altogether, ‘V/H/S’ has its strengths but also a great deal of weaknesses, having many of its spectacular moments of horror spoilt by weak writing or the restrictions of its anthology structure, making for an occasionally enjoyable but very inconsistent experience. So, while I personally think ‘V/H/S’ is worth at least one viewing for fans of horror anthologies, just bear in mind that the film never quite reaches the same heights as some others including its own sequel. And despite the third entry in the series: ‘V/H/S: Viral’ being an enormous disappointment for me, I’d still love to see the low-budget franchise continue. But with a prequel titled: ‘V/H/S 94’ being brought to the table by young filmmakers in 2019 only to then never be mentioned again, it seems the future of this series is unforeseeable, even if the first two films are sure-fire candidates for obtaining a cult status. Final Rating: low 6/10.

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Spree (2020) – Film Review

The world of social-media influencers vying for clicks, likes, views and retweets all to achieve viral fandom is a twisted one, and ‘Spree’ is far from the first film to delve into this subject matter with a satirical lens. What makes the film different is its secondary inspiration, being based on the true story of an Uber driver who went on a killing spree in early 2016, ‘Spree’ has plenty of comically violent scenes to accompany its social-media commentary. Yet even in spite of Joe Keery’s magnetic screen-presence, ‘Spree’ is a film that always feels as if it’s on the verge of being something exceptional, but it’s reach far exceeds its grasp.

Plot Summary: Desperate for an online following, twenty-three-year-old wannabe influencer and rideshare driver: ‘Kurt Kunkle’ devises a malicious scheme to go viral, installing a series of cameras inside his rideshare car in order to film his unsuspecting victims as they meet a gruesome end…

Co-written and directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko (A Wonderful Cloud, Wobble Palace, We Are), ‘Spree’ was initially envisioned as a claustrophobic horror based around the story of the previously mentioned serial killing Uber driver who claimed a “Devil Figure” inside of the rideshare app was controlling his actions. And although this terrifying true story would have certainly provided enough inspiration for an indie horror, Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh soon began to swerve more into dark comedy after giving the killer an intense craving for attention. This eventually evolved into the film’s central theme of social-media obsession, which while often used to great effect to mock online influencers, does frequently feel underdeveloped and retracts from the film’s tension, pushing ‘Kurt’s killing spree into the background in exchange for awkward character moments, which will inevitably disappoint those hoping to see plenty of grisly kills.

Joe Keery portrays the film’s psychotic protagonist: ‘Kurt Kunkle,’ who is suitably just as upbeat and inappropriate as many real-world influencers. This realism is most likely a result of Eugene Kotlyarenko and Joe Keery’s research, as the pair watched many cringe compilations of people online without a big following to help create the character, and this comes across through Keery’s body movements and relentless optimism, making for an occasionally irritating yet charismatic protagonist as ‘Kurt’ always remains hopeful his night of murder will increase his follower-count after trying (and failing) for the past decade. It’s just unfortunate that ‘Kurt’ doesn’t receive much development over the course of the runtime aside from one or two scenes, with much of: ‘Kurt’s life outside of the internet being left a mystery.

The cinematography by Jeff Leeds Cohn is obviously in the style of found-footage, but rather than simply having ‘Kurt’ film his every move similar to most found-footage flicks, the camera itself takes on numerous forms as the story is seemingly spliced together through iPhone cameras/screens, dash-cams, bodycams and even CCTV footage. Yet despite this ever-changing camerawork ensuring ‘Spree’s visuals stay varied, there does come a point when it begins to feel as if the film is simply piling on footage, even sometimes having three shots displayed at once through a split-screen effect which does become slightly overwhelming, especially when combined with the film’s rapid-editing.

Whilst there a few found-footage films that have successfully integrated an original score without taking away the sense of realism the subgenre provides, ‘Spree’ is most definitely not one of those films. As although the pulsing electronic score composed by James Ferraro does help to build excitement, the film’s soundtrack often plays over scenes with no clear in-world source, which does greatly dampen the illusion of the film being found-footage.

Of course, with ‘Spree’ having a heavy focus around all things social-media, it would be crucial that the film stays truthful to what the internet is actually like (even through its cynical view). And while the film does have many scenarios that feel as though they lack realism, whether that’s due to incredibly forced dialogue or ‘Kurt’s beyond-moronic actions when trying to avoid the Los Angeles police force, anytime the film displays a phone screen there is a certainty that every app/website will be a real brand and will be overflowing with detail. For example, ‘Kurt’s constant livestreaming never shies away from reality, meaning his stream’s comments are always rapidly unfurling with insults, jokes, and questions all from distinct usernames, which according to Eugene Kotlyarenko, took him over forty-nights to write out.

In short, Joe Keery’s entertaining performance can’t distract from ‘Spree’s shallow critique of social-media. As whilst some may argue the story’s lack of depth is precisely the point, for me the film feels as if its unsure as to what to do with its concept, which is greatly disappointing. As I personally think a dark comedy revolving around the obsessive culture of social-media is ingenious, and films like ‘Ingrid Goes West’ prove this idea can be executed well. ‘Spree,’ however, fails to deliver on this or its even promise of a violent and comedic thrill ride. So, while I do still believe the film will have a niche appeal, ‘Spree’s apparent flaws are likely to stop most from hitting the subscribe button. Final Rating: high 4/10.

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