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 an 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 enthusiasts 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 the audience in with its breathtaking 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 direction 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 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 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 over-reliance 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 reliance 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 genre fanatics stumble across this obscure 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,’ ‘Leatherface’ 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-centric 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 and 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 even though 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 stories 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 cringey 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 totally 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 (at least for now) 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, body-cams, 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 type 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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The Void (2016) – Film Review

An excellent throwback to 1980s sci-fi and horror, ‘The Void,’ released in 2016 and directed by duo Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, first began its life as a simple idea with two passionate minds behind it. As this surprisingly crowdfunded project makes remarkable use out of its thin-budget especially when considering the film’s many potentially expensive set-pieces, displaying its huge array of fantastic creature designs and effects, colourful lighting, and creative cinematography with enough confidence and innovation to keep any genre enthusiast enthralled.

Plot Summary: After ‘Sheriff Deputy Carter’ stumbles across a blood-soaked man limping down a deserted road, he quickly rushes him to a local hospital with a barebones, night shift staff. But when a series of strange events occur within the hospital, seemingly linked to a group of cloaked figures standing just outside the building, ‘Carter’ decides to lead a mission into the hospital’s basement to find an exit, only to discover something far more concerning…

Even though ‘The Void’ did have a handful of producers on-board more familiar with the horror genre, as mentioned previously, the film was primarily a crowdfunded project, earning most of its budget in addition to a limited theatrical release in 2017 as a result of its online community of donators and fans. And its not exactly difficult to understand why many fanatics of sci-fi and horror alike were so interested in supporting the film, as immediately from the stylised intro any fan of 1980s cinema can tell ‘The Void’ is truly a love letter to everything 80s, with the film’s narrative clearly taking heavy inspiration from classics like ‘The Beyond,’ ‘Night if the Living Dead,’ ‘Re-Animator,’ and, of course, pretty much all of John Carpenter’s filmography. Yet despite all of these influences, ‘The Void’ also manages to never feel overly derivative, even with the film’s plot sharing many similarities to the cult horror: ‘Prince of Darkness’ from 1987.

The cast of: ‘The Void’ is primarily comprised of unknown actors, which is by no means a bad thing, as the cast give solid performances across the board even in spite of their fairly one-note characters, with Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe, Daniel Fathers, Mik Byskov, Evan Stern and Ellen Wong portraying the main group of staff and survivors trapped within the hospital’s walls quite well. But the real stand-out of the film has to be Kenneth Welsh as ‘Dr. Richard Powell,’ easily the compelling character of the story who undergoes some enormous changes over the course of the runtime.

Samy Inayeh handles the film’s cinematography and handles it well, as whilst there are plenty of moments where the camerawork is far too reliant on hand-held shots, the film manages to even itself out over time with plenty of visually appealing ones. However, it’s the lighting and colour palette that are certainly the most visually impressive elements of the film, as ‘The Void’ jumps from harsh reds to cold blues almost from scene-to-scene, not only to add to the film’s unearthly atmosphere of dread, but also to help hide some of the film’s budgetary shortcomings. Furthermore, the story’s signature location of an empty hospital is a very distinct setting for a horror such as this, as the building seemingly becomes more unnatural and dilapidated the further the characters explore it.

For its original score ‘The Void’ actually had quite a large group of composers (five in total), who expertly crafted a classic 1980s synth score with undertones of dark horror, which greatly adds to both the film’s style and atmosphere. And although the film’s soundtrack is usually more atmospheric than cinematic, tracks such as: ‘Starless Night’ and ‘A Hole in the World’ prove the score does have some memorability amongst its many foreboding tracks.

Partly due to the film’s budget and partly due to Gillespie and Kostanski wanting to use as little CGI as possible, ‘The Void’ is a science fiction flick that delights in its practical effects. Ensuring every creature design and the costumes and/or prosthetics that bring them to life are nothing but flawless, from their skin to their teeth to their various tentacles (of which the film seems to relish in), nearly every aspect of each creature looks truly spectacular, and its these otherworldly designs alongside the film’s over-the-top gore and buckets of blood that help create some genuinely disturbing moments.

All in all, I feel ‘The Void’ succeeds in being an enjoyable throwback to many people’s favourite decade for sci-fi and horror, with its astounding filmmaking and many impressive practical effects all resulting in plenty of thrills and chills. And although some may argue the film lacks much in the way of originality, I’d argue otherwise. As I feel ‘The Void’ is less of a capsule for nostalgia and references for all things 80s, and more of a tribute to what came before it, never quite matching-up to many of the films from the time-period its referencing, but still raising the bar for indie filmmaking and crowdfunded projects in its best moments. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Possessor (2020) – Film Review

Following his 2012 directorial debut with ‘Antiviral,’ Brandon Cronenberg, son of legendary sci-fi-horror director David Cronenberg, crafts a captivating sci-fi thriller with ‘Possessor,’ a film that deals with heavy themes of identity loss and sexual discomfort, all whilst displaying its story through some truly spectacular cinematography and lighting. And even though Brandon’s second sci-fi outing doesn’t quite reach the high bar set by his father’s work, ‘Possessor’ is still more than successful as a surreal and layered science fiction flick with outbursts of strong, bloody violence.

Plot Summary: After many years of working as a corporate agent utilising brain implanted technology to inhabit other people’s bodies and force them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. ‘Tasya Vos’ struggles to suppress her violent memories and urges, soon causing her to completely lose control when taking over the mind of a new subject, whose identity now threatens to destroy her own…

Debuting at Sundance Film Festival in early 2020, ‘Possessor’ has quickly gone down as one of the best low-budget releases of that year. Or at least this version of the film has, as according to writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, there was an alternate screenplay for: ‘Possessor’ which drastically differed from the version that was released. So much so, that Brandon stated it could possibly become a second film later down the line, encompassing all of the material that didn’t quite make it into the first, which was primarily inspired by two pieces of media, the first being the 1971 novel: ‘Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psycho-Civilised Society’ by José Delgado, and the second being the short film: ‘Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You,’ written and directed by David Cronenberg.

Andrea Riseborough gives a fantastically cold performance throughout the film as ‘Tasya Vos,’ making it clear within only a few minutes that ‘Tasya’ is deeply suffering from the effects of her job, as each time she steps into the life of a new subject, she remerges different, finding it harder and harder to untangle her true identity from the one she just inhabited. And it probably goes without saying that as a sci-fi focused around entering other people’s bodies, the story does explore sexual desire/sexual discomfort, never shying away from scenes of: ‘Tasya’ being entranced with her new body after taking over the mind of: ‘Colin Tate’ portrayed by Christopher Abbott. Who also gives a superb performance as the unfortunate host chosen to execute the company’s assassination, continuously switching between two personalities before eventually becoming devoid of all emotion as minds conflict.

‘Possessor’s cinematography by Karim Hussain also rarely ceases to impress, as nearly every shot is both attractive and memorable, with many shots leaning into the narrative’s themes in addition to providing a closer look at the heavily detailed gore effects through an array of extreme close-ups. The innovative camerawork is also enhanced by the film’s terrific use of colour, as the lighting and colour palette swiftly alters from bright yellows to dark blues to eye-piercing reds. But this isn’t where ‘Possessor’s filmmaking peaks, as it can’t be denied that the film is at its best whenever it visualises ‘Tasya’ and ‘Colin’ mentally battling for control of: ‘Colin’s body, as the film visually displays this interesting concept of a psychic battle on the astral plane through a range of editing techniques and creative yet strange practical effects. The scene in which ‘Tasya’ first enters ‘Colin’s mind is particularly astounding, as the film displays fake bodies of the two main cast members, which then melt entirely into liquid flesh.

Many of the film’s bizarre visuals are also elevated to a great extent by Jim Williams’ original score, as ‘Possessor’s synth-esque soundtrack keeps the film’s eerie atmosphere present throughout the runtime, capturing the story’s surreal tone and constantly building tension through its atmospheric feel until we arrive at the story’s thrilling climax. My two personal favourite tracks: ‘Reborn in the Mind of Another’ and ‘A False Reputation’ aren’t exactly distinctive, but both tracks do help tremendously in this regard.

The main issue ‘Possessor’ suffers from is its lack of world-building, as supposedly the film takes place in an alternate version of the year 2008, but aside from one short scene where we see ‘Colin’s day-to-day job as a data miner, which does at least serve as a comment on the paranoia of corporate overlords and their nefarious activities, the world of: ‘Possessor’ receives very little development and can often feel inconsistent when it comes to its technological advances.

To conclude, ‘Possessor’ is the perfect hybrid of sci-fi, character study and body-horror. As whilst its lack of world-building and compelling side characters do stop the film from reaches its true potential, ‘Possessor’ (along with Brandon’s previous film), definitely prove that Cronenberg’s son has talent for telling harrowing and violent stories, all the while never forgetting to integrate intriguing concepts and ideas. And with Brandon pushing for most of: ‘Possessor’s effects to be completed in-camera rather than with CGI, the two directors may be even more alike than I first thought. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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The Invitation (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Year in Film (2020) – Film List

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

Soul

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

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Mank

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

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Tenet

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

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Mulan

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

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Scoob!

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

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Onward

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

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The Hunt

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

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Possessor

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

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Extraction

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

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His House

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

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Underwater

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

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The Gentlemen

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

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The Midnight Sky

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

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The Invisible Man

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

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We Can Be Heroes

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

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Color Out of Space

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

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The New Mutants

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

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Sonic the Hedgehog

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

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The Devil All the Time

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

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The King of Staten Island

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

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The Babysitter: Killer Queen

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

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The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

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

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