Upgrade (2018) – Film Review

Recently gaining a large amount of traction through his reinterpretation of the horror classic: The Invisible Man in 2020, writer and director Lee Whannell first proved himself a talented filmmaker with Upgrade in 2018. A riveting sci-fi-thriller that combines elements of Black MirrorMinority Report and 1990s action flicks to construct a gripping yet dreary tale of revenge, morality and technology through detailed world-building and stimulating action sequences, promptly overcoming its handful of minor glitches.

Plot Summary: In the near future, technology controls almost every aspect of day-to-day life as the world relies on artificial intelligence to complete even the most basic of tasks. As a result, the old-school, tech-shy mechanic, Grey Trace, feels like a fish out of water in an ever-changing world. But after a brutal assault leaves Grey paralysed and his beloved wife dead, he’s approached by the reclusive tech mogul, Eron Keen, who offers him a solution; a powerful microchip named; STEM, that will bridge the gap between his mind and unresponsive limbs. Now, able to walk once again, Grey decides to seek revenge against the thugs who destroyed his life…

Originally titled: STEMUpgrade was Whannell’s first project outside of the horror genre, being best known beforehand for his collaborations with writer-director James Wan, co-writing and starring in both the Saw and Insidious series. And for being the first time Whannell has truly stepped out of Wan’s shadow, Upgrade immediately proves Whannell to be a more than capable director with a distinct style, a style that certainly wasn’t displayed in his directorial debut; Insidious: Chapter 3, three years prior. Upgrade also exhibits Whannell’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, with some scenes feeling as if they’ve been ripped straight from an ’80s buddy-cop comedy as Grey humorously argues with the artificial intelligence residing inside his body. This isn’t to say that the film is light-hearted, however, as Upgrade is, in reality, quite the opposite, never shying away from bloody, squirm-inducing violence even with its surprisingly modest budget.

With regard to the cast, Logan Marshall-Green gives a very ranged performance as protagonist, Grey Trace. Quickly being established as a technophobe whose main devotions in life are mechanical tinkering and his beautiful wife, Asha Grey. That is before the seemingly unprompted assault leaves him crippled, alone and infuriated by his situation to the point of attempted suicide. Then, once receiving STEM, Grey begins to express far more concern regarding how much bodily control he’s handed over, with Marshall-Green’s performance becoming far more physically demanding as he slowly loses control of his own body. Harrison Gilbertson and Simon Maiden as Eron Keen and the voice of STEM, respectively, also portrayal their roles well, with Maiden doing a particularly great job at giving STEM a soothing yet simultaneously menacing voice.

But one of the greatest parts of Upgrade is by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio as after obtaining STEM, the camera itself visually mirrors Grey’s newly acquired agility/coordination by wildly tilting with every movement Grey makes, keeping him in the centre of the frame at all times to provide the audience with a unique perspective without sacrificing visibility as a result. Furthermore, despite the story being set in America, Upgrade was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia, this location was chosen in order to take advantage of the city’s gothic architecture, giving the film an expansive backdrop not too dissimilar to that of Minority Report and The Matrix sequels. However, unlike those films, Upgrade does occasionally run into the issue of its sci-fi world feeling slightly inconsistent between shots as the city’s slick, looming skyscrapers almost seem out-of-place when compared to the graffitied and dilapidated warehouses on street level.

Managing to be moody, suspenseful and tranquil, occasionally even all at the same time. Jed Palmer’s original score is more than fitting for a film like Upgrade as the electronic score echoes films like Blade Runner during its quieter moments through tracks such as Aftermath and A Better Place before the more action-orientated cues kick in, that is, with tracks like We Can’t Let Them Win and Control. The sound design throughout the film is equally excellent, with every thrust and slash hitting hard during the various action sequences.

On that note, Upgrade‘s absurdly well-executed action set pieces are possibly some of the finest the sci-fi genre has seen in a long time. As not only does the camera ceaselessly track Grey, as previously mentioned, but the fight choreography is almost faultless. It’s also during these scenes that the cutting-edge technology of Upgrade‘s criminal underworld first appears, from bio-mechanically-implanted firearms to memory-retaining contact lenses and even a weaponised nanotech sneeze, The Upgraded (as they are nicknamed) are essentially seen as the next stage of human evolution, blatantly showing the audience the true extent to which humanity now relies on technology.

In summary, even though Upgrade is guilty of playing into some overly familiar ideas with its story being based around the well-trodden concept of artificial intelligence outmatching humanity. There are enough twists and turns within its narrative to ensure that the film will hold up upon multiple viewings, serving as an exciting and stylish sci-fi-thriller in addition to providing undeniable evidence that exchanging one genre for another is a risky yet rewarding road when it comes to certain filmmakers. Rating: 8/10.

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Beneath (2013) – Film Review

Directed by Larry Fessenden (HabitWendigoDepraved) and distributed by the horror-centric production company, Chiller Films, a now-defunct television network responsible for many low-budget supernatural horrors, including SirenAnimal and Dead SoulsBeneath, released in 2013, may have sounded like an estimable idea during its conception, being pitched as a minimalist creature feature that explores the direful outcomes of human behaviour under the influence of extreme isolation and fear. But as a result of its overemphatic performances, mindless screenplay and frequently mishandled visuals, whatever little tension and intrigue Beneath manages to build up is completely capsized by the time the end credits roll.

Plot Summary: Following their high school graduation, a group of friends decide to spend one last summer outing together at Black Lake before going their separate ways. But when their rowboat is struck by an amphibious creature, subsequently killing a member of the group and destroying their oars, the five remaining friends find themselves trapped in the middle of the reservoir, contemplating whether one of them should be thrown overboard as a distraction…

While the original screenplay for the film had flashbacks that further developed the characters and explored their individual journeys throughout high school, Fessenden ultimately decided to remove them. This allowed the entire film to be shot in a mere eighteen days, which certainly shows as Beneath is a largely dull affair, following the usual formula for a creature feature outside of one or two subversive moments. Given Fessenden’s past work, it would also make sense that the film could go so far as to suggest that the creature in the lake doesn’t actually exist, and is, in reality, just a physical manifestation of the characters’ ulterior motives. Yet, regrettably, this is not the case, and Beneath opts to play things relatively straight, with the characters being devoured one by one in equally idiotic ways.

On a similar note, the title of the film doesn’t just refer to what lurks in the tranquil water, but is also a guide to where Beneath‘s substance lies. With the film’s unbearable roster of characters, compromising of Johnny; a brooding, long-haired loner, Kitty; the rotating object of desire for practically every male character in the film, Matt; the golden-boy jock whose prospects seem to be going downhill since graduating, his younger, less athletic but more intelligent brother, Simon, along with Kitty’s best friend, Deb, and the hyperactive filmmaker, Zeke, each having a respective outburst as simmering high school grudges, rivalries and romantic betrayals factor into the survival stakes. But as a result of the exceptionally awful dialogue, the prospect of any tension within the story soon becomes virtually non-existent, even with the cast of Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jon Orsini, Mackenzie Rosman and Griffin Newman having their brief moments of promise in a film brimming with atrocious performances. Moreover, the friendship between the characters feels so unnatural from the outset considering their vastly different backgrounds and personalities.

Cinematographer, Gordon Arkenberg, tries his best at keeping the solitary setting of a stranded rowboat visually interesting, which beyond some oddly framed shots and sequences that can only be described as ‘visual disarray,’ is a goal he somewhat succeeds in, particularly whenever the camera is pointed towards the beautiful scenery, where the stillness of the lake accentuates the ominous threat of the creature prowling just beneath its surface. Nevertheless, these shots are soon defaced by harsh shadows and a bleached colour palette due to the whole film being shot using natural light. Judging by the editing, you would also be forgiven for thinking that Black Lake is the largest lake in America as the characters spend hours upon hours rowing with their broken oars (and eventually hands) only to make zero progress in a poor attempt of elongating the runtime.

Even though there is next to no emphasis placed on the original score by Will Bates, the score for Beneath is competent if very forgettable, making a fair effort to enhance the supposed tension on-screen. Except for the track: Last Stand, that is, which sounds as if it’s from another soundtrack entirely, mimicking the score from a light-hearted romantic comedy more than anything else.

As for the film’s main feature; the creature itself closely resembles the appearance of a giant anglerfish. And whilst I can respect this decision given the anglerfish is one of the most naturally frighting animals on the planet, this choice also displays a great deal of laziness on behalf of the filmmakers as taking what is already an intimidating-looking animal and simply enlarging it is a rather indolent approach to designing your marketable monstrosity. Having said that, the combination of puppetry and animatronics that brings the creature to life is impressive despite their range of movements.

In summary, while some may get an ironic laugh out of this ninety-minute trainwreck, I feel most will agree that Beneath is above all else just a frustrating experience, with one of the film’s only positives being its commendable reliance on practical effects over CGI. But truthfully, the effects alone don’t even come close to rectifying what are the film’s many, many other shortcomings, distinguishing Beneath from other films within the genre solely on how moronic and tiresome of a horror/thriller it is, paling in comparison to Fessenden’s other low-budget efforts. Rating: low 2/10.

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Hush (2016) – Film Review

Exceptionally gripping in the face of its simplicity, ‘Hush,’ released in 2016, navigates the bloody waters of the home invasion subgenre to tremendous results. With only five characters and a single location to speak of, the performances and sound design of: ‘Hush’ are both key in the film’s goal of establishing a disquieting tone, captivating its audience while simultaneously making them dread that the story they are witnessing on-screen could realistically transpire in the most peaceful of surroundings. Certifying ‘Hush’ as a concise and well-executed horror/thriller despite the film’s continuous cat-and-mouse pursuits growing a little tiresome by its third act.

Plot Summary: When ‘Maddie,’ a deaf and mute author, moves to a secluded woodland house with the hopes of living a peaceful, solitary life as she writes her second novel, she soon finds her isolated home the target of a deranged masked killer…

Co-written, directed and even edited by Mike Flanagan, this talented director has been the face of modern horror for many years now, crafting chilling and original genre pieces such as: ‘Oculus,’ ‘Before I Wake’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ in addition to adapting much of Steven King’s iconic catalogue of literature with ‘Gerald’s Game’ and ‘Doctor Sleep.’ ‘Hush,’ however, was one of the director’s earlier films, with Flanagan conceiving the storyline whilst on a dinner date with his co-writer/leading actress Kate Siegel in 2014, not long before the pair married in 2016. To get a better understanding of the film, Siegel and Flanagan even role-played each scene in their house before writing them into the screenplay, enabling them to better envision how the characters would react in the face of danger, a method that I feel ultimately paid-off.

Although the lead role of: ‘Hush’ seems tailor-made for a hearing-impaired actress, Kate Siegel portrays ‘Maddie’ divinely as a quick-witted heroine who keeps the audience on her side at all times, constantly thinking on her feet, overcoming a few of the obstacles that come with her disability, as well as using her hearing impairment to her advantage when possible. John Gallagher Jr. is just as stellar as the mysteriously motivated antagonist; a character only ever known as ‘The Masked Man.’ Who, throughout the film, we learn seems to enjoy playing mind games with his victims, receiving some kind of fetishistic pleasure from toying with those he’s about to slaughter. In many ways, ‘The Masked Man’ shares similarities to the horror icon: ‘Michael Myers,’ with his motivation for killing never being stated and his costume consisting primarily of an unadorned white mask, which only adds to the character’s intrigue.

Whilst a substantial portion of the cinematography by James Kniest is hand-held, removing the possibility of: ‘Hush’ being one of Mike Flanagan’s most visually impressive films. The fluidity of: ‘Hush’s camerawork does allow the audience to follow ‘Maddie’ as she wanders through her contemporary home, the camera tracking her every movement as she enters/exits various rooms on impulse. However, a major shortcoming of the film’s visuals is certainly it’s lighting, as due to all of the narrative taking place at night, it makes sense that ‘Hush’ would be quite gloomy lighting-wise, yet most shots are seemingly over-lit considering the characters are supposed to be in a dense woodland area in the dead of night.

At times peaceful, at times aggressive, the original score for: ‘Hush,’ composed by The Newton Brothers, greatly enhances the story at many points, as tracks like ‘Maddie,’ ‘Intruder,’ ‘Against the Glass’ and ‘Crossbow’ are all incredibly atmospheric. And even if the score lacks a predominant track that could be regarded as the film’s theme in years to come, ‘Hush’s soundtrack still more than serves its purpose, especially when taking into account the film’s reliance on sound as opposed to a non-diegetic score.

Since the protagonist of: ‘Hush’ is both deaf and mute, the film contains less than fifteen minutes of dialogue, meaning, with a runtime of around eighty-two minutes, ‘Hush’ has more than seventy minutes of screen-time without a single word spoken. This set-up provides Mike Flanagan with a perfect opportunity to play with sound in creative ways, removing audio entirely (with the exception of an ultrasound machine) to put the audience into ‘Maddie’s shoes and deliver a sudden jolt when appropriate, avoiding the common horror cliché of having nonsensical, ear-piercing jump-scares for no apparent reason. Through the sound design, we also learn more regarding ‘Maddie’s character, as she hears the echoing voice of her deceased mother whispering to her, a voice that usually helps her conjure-up endings for her novels, but, in this case, layouts her options on how to approach her current situation.

To conclude, ‘Hush’ is a sharp, violent and finely-tuned horror/thriller that goes down familiar paths yet with flair and skill, not quite reinventing the wheel, but proving that the genres it’s drawing from still have firm legs. From ‘The Masked Man’ toying with ‘Maddie’ as he steals her phone and sends pictures to her laptop, to ‘Maddie’ rapidly locking all of her windows and doors before the killer can enter, ‘Hush’ is truly an engrossing story with an excess of suspenseful moments, its sound design only adding to this appeal as the film frequently gets closer to becoming a sensory-deprivation experience. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Terrifier (2016) – Film Review

Grisly, taut and seasonally atmospheric, ‘Terrifier,’ released in 2016, aims to pay homage to the inexpensive slasher flicks of the 1980s, relishing in the same simplistic approach and over-the-top gore that classic horrors like ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Blood Harvest’ specialised in. And while the film does admittedly fall prey to many of the usual limitations low-budget horrors tend to have, ‘Terrifier’ is preserved through a genuinely terrifying performance from David Howard Thornton as ‘Art the Clown,’ in addition to plenty of fantastically gruesome effects and a willingness from writer-director Damien Leone (All Hallows’ Eve, Frankenstein vs. The Mummy) to push on-screen violence to its limit.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, ‘Tara Heyes’ and her best friend: ‘Dawn,’ find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as they become the unfortunate targets of: ‘Art the Clown,’ a demented serial killer with a morbid sense of humour…

With coulrophobia (the name given to the fear of clowns) being one of the most common phobias in the world, it makes sense that the horror genre would try to capitalise on this widespread fear of individuals with white face paint and oversized shoes. And if there’s one area ‘Terrifier’ more than thrives in, it’s fully realising this common phobia, as ‘Art the Clown’ is consistently frightening, as the film jumps from moments of complete silence as ‘Art’ stares down his victims, to violent murders where the sadistic clown’s black and white costume is showered with blood. ‘Terrifier’ isn’t actually ‘Art the Clown’s first appearance though, as Damien Leone first introduced the character in his second short film, which not only shared the ‘Terrifier’ title, but is essentially the same story just condensed into a brief twenty-minute runtime.

Even though the conceited: ‘Dawn,’ somewhat sensible: ‘Tara,’ and loyal sister: ‘Victoria Heyes,’ portrayed by Catherine Corcoran, Jenna Kanell and Samantha Scaffidi, respectively, all serve an important purpose within the narrative. The characters themselves never attain anything beyond being generic slasher victims, and although each of the actress’ screams of terror sound as suitably realistic as a director could hope for, the delivery of some lines (particularly from the supporting cast) can feel clunky. But the true star of the film is undoubtedly David Howard Thornton as ‘Art the Clown,’ as Thornton stays in character ceaselessly as the psychotic murderer, portraying ‘Art’ as a fun-loving mime whose killings involve a combination of predatory sadism and joyful glee. So much so, that ‘Art’ will make many viewers nervous purely due to his unpredictability, as the character’s manic actions make it almost impossible to predict what he’ll do next.

On a technical level, ‘Terrifier’ is top-notch considering its thin budget, as whilst the cinematography by George Steuber is far from groundbreaking, the film has a reasonable amount of creative shots, the majority of which are enhanced by the film’s highly saturated colour palette, thin layer of granularity, and scenes lit primarily by natural light, truly giving the film a low-budget ’80s appeal. And, as mentioned previously, Terrifier’ does not hold back when it comes to brutality and depravity, certifying the film as one, not for the faint of heart, as the gore effects are gut-churning and grotesque with the amount of work and detail that has gone into each effect being more than deserving of applause, especially when once again acknowledging the film’s budget, which is estimated to have been around £73,000.

The original score by Paul Wiley is a triumphant blend of 2010 and 1980s horror scores, with tracks such as: ‘In Pieces’ and ‘Clown Car’ being daunting and metallic-sounding similar to many modern horror scores, whereas tracks like ‘Kill Horn’ and the film’s main theme, simply titled: ‘Terrifier Theme,’ are reminiscent of the original: ‘Halloween’ score in more ways than one, which by no means a poor comparison when it comes to unnerving soundtracks.

These connections to past genre films continue further into the film’s visuals, as director Damien Leone inserts many explicit nods and visual tributes to everything from ‘Psycho’ to ‘Hostel’ to everything in-between. And whilst some may not like when a film relies so heavily on pastiche, it never feels overdone in ‘Terrifier,’ as the film strikes a satisfying balance between throwbacks and unique ideas, occasionally playing with the conventions of slashers by adding some twists to the killer and final girl dynamic, which will most definitely catch some viewers off-guard.

In short, ‘Terrifier’ has plenty of entertainment value should you fit into the film’s principal audience, as this modern slasher is an unabashed reminder of the bloodthirsty horror films that populated the 1980s, a.k.a. the kind of nasty flicks that were banned during the video-nasty era. The film has its issue, undeniably, most notably with its shortage of interesting characters and often oversimplified story. But ‘Terrifier’ does make the most of its foreboding atmosphere and unsettling killer, and it quickly becomes clear while watching the film that Damien Leone wants ‘Art the Clown’ to join the ranks of: ‘Jason Voorhees’ and ‘Michael Myers’ as a horror icon in the near future, which I think is more than feasible depending on how the horror community perceive the film as a whole. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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The Wretched (2019) – Film Review

When it comes to the horror genre, you may not always desire a film that sets-out to rewrite the rules of spine-tingling storytelling, occasionally you find yourself just wanting to dim the lights and ensconce with a low-budget popcorn flick, and 2019’s ‘The Wretched’ falls firmly within this category. With appealingly modest ambitions, the film utilises its cast of unknowns, unique creature design and admirable focus on body-horror as effectively as its thin-budget will allow. And even though ‘The Wretched’ is far from a game-changer for the realm of supernatural horror stories, it still overcomes its various flaws to be a mostly engaging if fairly foreseeable tale of witchcraft and body-snatching.

Plot Summary: After being sent to live with his father for the summer on account of his parents’ imminent divorce, defiant teenager: ‘Ben’ begins to suspect there is something wrong with his current next-door neighbour, eventually discovering that there is an execrable entity lurking just beneath her skin…

Originally titled: ‘Hag’ before it was later changed following negative feedback from test audiences. ‘The Wretched’ was certainly a departure for writer-director duo Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce, as the pairs’ prior film: ‘Deadheads,’ released in 2011, was a zombie road-trip comedy. Even so, this leap in tone and genre rarely seems to impair ‘The Wretched’ from a directorial standpoint, as the film leaps head-first into its grim tone and horrifying visuals right from the opening scene. And whilst the film does struggle to balance its plot threads from time-to-time, it quickly becomes clear that the main source of inspiration for the story was the low-budget creature-features of the 1980s, tied together with a desire to create a newfangled interpretation of witchcraft and revitalise hags into terrifying antagonists.

Acting-out since his parents’ separation, seventeen-year-old: ‘Ben’ competently portrayed by John-Paul Howard, is the protagonist of the film. And while it’s always challenging to portray an angsty teenager due to the concern of the character becoming incredibly abrasive, Howard pulls it off successfully, presenting ‘Ben’ as a frustrated and confused adolescent struggling to come to terms with his altering life. Furthermore, ‘The Wretched’ even aims to justify the common horror trope of parents not believing their children once the supernatural occurrences begin, as when ‘Ben’ tries to explain the situation to his father, ‘Ben’s past transgressions of trespassing and stealing medicine come to light, prompting his father to dismiss his claims as either lies or delusions. The supporting cast of Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai and Zarah Mahler are also serviceable in their small roles as members of the lakeside community.

Filmed around Omena and Northport, Michigan, near the Pierce brothers’ hometown, the cinematography for: ‘The Wretched’ by Conor Murphy often ranges in quality. As some scenes are beautifully shot with a strong focus on close-ups, whereas others, usually during conversations between characters, seemingly just rely on dull, hand-held shots. With that said, when working in synch with each other, the camerawork and lighting do a remarkable job of masking the creature early on in the story, only giving the audience brief glimpses of the witch in her contorted, feral state, before later displaying the film’s full range of prosthetic make-up and practical effects.

Excluding the ominous theme for the titular witch heard in the tracks: ‘Woods’ and ‘The Wretched Appears,’ both of which feature avant-garde strings led by a manipulated sarangi, the original score by Devin Burrows admittedly leaves some room for improvement. As tracks like ‘Don’t Let Her In,’ ‘Honey… Beer?’ and ‘Broken Window’ continuously overuse strings and brass horns to the point where the tracks themselves become too disruptive, often mismatching with what’s on-screen.

Of course, the witch herself is unquestionably the main draw of the film, and ‘The Wretched’ presents its central creature with pride, making sure to include all of the most off-putting aspects of the creature’s devilish design and malicious nature. And whilst the witch isn’t grounded into any specific mythology, with the screenplay only giving small hints towards its origins, the witch’s carved symbols, salt fragility and quasi-religious shrines all give the creature an element of personality when outside of its human disguise. Speaking of which, the way the creature is presented when inside a body is just as disturbing, as we along with ‘Ben’ observe how the witch essentially lives the life of the person whose skin she now inhabits, caring for her decaying body the best she can as she attempts to act human, each day climbing closer to feasting on the unfortunate children of the mother she is impersonating.

All in all, although ‘The Wretched’ isn’t as polished as it could be, I feel this well-paced horror flick will please most genre fans. As even in spite of its occasional continuity issues, corny dialogue, and lack of focus regarding the film’s duel plot lines, ‘The Wretched’ still delivers on its promise of a skin-crawling creature-feature reminiscent of ’80s cult classics. The film is also one of the few horror films I’d personally like to see a sequel or prequel to someday, as I feel the concept of a witch that feeds on the forgotten is an intriguing idea that doesn’t reach its full potential here, but undoubtedly could in a more refined film. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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Adult Life Skills (2016) – Film Review

Based on the BAFTA-nominated short: ‘Emotional Fusebox,’ which premiered at the London Film Festival in 2014. ‘Adult Life Skills’ is the directorial debut of writer and director Rachel Tunnard, who was primarily an editor before writing and directing the original short film. And whilst Tunnard’s lack of experience in these duel roles is evident, now and then, as this low-budget coming-of-age comedy-drama hardly breaks new ground when it comes to its respective genres. The endearingly quirky story, distinctly British charm, and august performance from Jodie Whittaker all make ‘Adult Life Skills’ well worth a watch.

Plot Summary: Deeply grieving from the death of her twin brother, twenty-nine-year-old: ‘Anna’ spends her days living in her mother’s shed, retreating into herself as she makes videos using homemade props and her thumbs as actors. But on the eve of her 30th birthday, ‘Anna’ meets a troubled little boy going through the same life-altering experience she did, a boy who may be the answer to getting her out of her year-long slump…

Originally titled: ‘How to Live Yours.’ ‘Adult Life Skills’ had its first appearance at a film festival just as its predecessor did, only this time around, it was the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, where Rachel Tunnard quickly won one of the top awards: the Nora Ephron prize for best female director. Yet, in my opinion, much of the allure of: ‘Adult Life Skills’ comes from its screenplay rather than Tunnard’s direction, as the dialogue is continuously both witty and dramatic, balancing moments of laughs and tears without ever feeling disjointed or unnatural, amplifying the film’s feeling of solace and upbeat tone thanks to its homespun, playful aesthetic.

Jodie Whittaker, who reprises her role from ‘Emotional Fusebox,’ portrays ‘Anna’ magnificently, rapidly jumping from one emotion to another as ‘Anna’s method of grieving often manifests in her hiding away from her own life, locking herself inside her mother’s shed as she cherishes her brother’s old clothes and watches videos the pair made together during their younger days. Essentially, ‘Anna’ is a character whose growth has been stunted by grief, and the story explores this concept of a person growing into adulthood with a piece of their identity personified in a lost sibling brilliantly, an idea that is only enhanced by Whittaker’s sublime performance. Needless to say, it takes her mother’s grumbling, her grandmother’s wisdom, and her best friend’s guidance to help bring her back into the real-world, restoring her life to what it once was, and the supporting cast of Lorraine Ashbourne, Eileen Davies and Rachael Deering all do a great job of bringing these characters to life, despite some of the side characters being woefully underdeveloped.

One advantage ‘Adult Life Skills’ has over many other British stories is its setting, as the film truly feels as if it couldn’t be set anyway else. Breaking away from the typical locations where stories within the United Kingdom tend to be set such as London or less commonly Manchester/Birmingham, in exchange for the remote Yorkshire countryside, a unique location that even helps to redeem the film’s over-reliance on hand-held techniques when it comes to the cinematography by Bet Rourich. As Yorkshire has more than its fair share of natural beauty, even when the weather is gloomy.

Although there is no original score for the film, most likely due to budgetary restrictions. ‘Adult Life Skills’ does feature a number of songs both well-known and obscure. From ‘Jesus Came to My Birthday Party’ to ‘You Lost Sight on Me,’ ‘Champions of the River Nile’ and ‘Here I Go Again,’ every song that can be heard throughout the runtime fits the tone remarkably well, never once feeling inappropriate or unsuitable to the specific scene they are featured within.

In addition to being a comedy-drama, ‘Adult Life Skills’ makes a few (unsuccessful) attempts towards being a romantic-comedy, as one of: ‘Anna’s close friends, the soft-spoken, estate agent: ‘Brendan’ portrayed by Brett Goldstein, persistently speaks to ‘Anna,’ trying to impress her with his comforting charm and handmade gifts. His efforts are ultimately pointless, however, as ‘Anna’s jading reactions to his kind gestures are on account of: ‘Anna’ believing ‘Brendan’ is gay. And whilst this misunderstanding does result in a winsome relationship, this subplot suffers due to not being given enough attention, as the story instead places far more emphasis on ‘Anna’s relationship with her mother and the young boy: ‘Clint,’ who is surprisingly well portrayed by the then eight-year-old actor Ozzy Myers.

In short, ‘Adult Life Skills’ is a film that wears its oddball eccentricities on its sleeve. Tackling weighty themes of grief, loneliness and dealing with one’s emotions, while simultaneously never losing its optimistic outlook. In many ways, ‘Adult Life Skills’ is an undemanding film for those in need of something comforting, an easily watchable comedy-drama that is sure to put a smile on most viewers’ faces, even in spite of its overly familiar ideas. Still, there’s no denying that Jodie Whittaker is the best thing about ‘Adult Life Skills,’ as whenever the screenplay is lacking, Whittaker appears on-screen with confidence, fleshing-out ‘Anna’ as a sympathetic character and ensuring the audience remains emotionally invested in what is occurring narratively. Final Rating: 7/10.

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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 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 and travel to Los Angeles to 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 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 work collogues use the same font as the opening titles of: ‘Star Trek: The Original Series.’ Secondly, 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 in regard to 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 devolving into a exaggerated collection of tics and quirks, 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 pairs’ 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. Just like the rest of the cast of forgettable stock characters, however, 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. And, 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 make-up to stop-motion and even miniatures, all of which are marvellous to see, particularly for those who enjoy films with little reliance on CGI, as the film’s creature relies on no digital animation whatsoever outside of rod/rig removal. However, as mentioned previously, 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, a fan of ’80s 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 appears 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.

Primarily being 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.

Shot chronologically to further 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’ uses 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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