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.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinister (2012) – Film Review

One of the more authentically frightening horrors to be released by production company Blumhouse Pictures, 2012’s ‘Sinister’ steps carefully through familiar horror territory as it crafts a compelling yet chilling narrative, repeatedly see-sawing between drama, mystery, and traditional horror all whilst delivering on plenty of scares through its assorted bag of both old-school and contemporary horror tricks. Making for a well-acted, reasonably paced and continuously intriguing horror, even when taking into account its various issues.

Plot Summary: Desperately searching for a case that can be used to repeat the early success of his career, washed-up true-crime writer: ‘Ellison Oswalt’ uproots his family into a seemingly innocuous house where a married couple and two of their children met a horrible fate while their third child mysteriously vanished. Whilst living there, ‘Ellison’ stumbles across an old box of Super-8 film reels, with each reel he watches further suggesting that the killings he’s currently investigating may be the work of a single serial killer whose work dates back decades…

Co-written and directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us from Evil, Doctor Strange), the initial idea for: ‘Sinister’ first originated through a nightmare co-writer C. Robert Cargill had after watching the 2002 horror classic: ‘The Ring.’ And immediately from the outset, that iconic film’s influence is fairly evident, as a large majority of: ‘Sinister’s story revolves around the idea of footage that shouldn’t be seen by human eyes. However, although ‘Sinister’ much like ‘The Ring’ is centred around a mystery, the film’s structure is far from flawless, which is one of its biggest missteps, as rather than having the plot slowly unfold over the course of the runtime, the film sticks to a particular rhythm, having each ten-minute block of careful investigation or familial drama punctuated by a moment of shrieking fright. Almost implying that the film’s story/characters aren’t engrossing enough to stand on their own, yet I actually feel its the opposite, as ‘Sinister’ is at its worst when it devolves into ‘Ellison’ wandering through his house purely for the sake of a weak jump-scare.

In addition to its engaging story, the main advantage ‘Sinister’ has over many other modern horrors is its central character, as even though a horror film focusing on an American family moving into a new house is anything but original, ‘Ellison Oswalt’ is a captivating protagonist, as his motivations for uprooting his family are far more selfish than your usual father figure, as ‘Ellison’ always places his career over his family, anxious to repeat the success of his bestseller: ‘Kentucky Blood’ and avoid returning to writing school textbooks. And, of course, Ethan Hawke displays this brilliantly though his performance, elevating the struggling writer character-type we’ve seen many times before.

For many, I feel the most harrowing moments within ‘Sinister’ will surely be each piece of grainy Super-8 footage we see, as every scene executed in this fashion is deeply uncomfortable to watch. In some cases, the film even redeems some of its clunky dialogue through its sheer horrific imagery and atmosphere, the clearest example of this being the film’s disturbing opening shot, in which, a masked family are slowly hung from a tree. It also helps that all of these scenes were actually shot on a real Super-8 film camera by cinematographer Christoper Norr, creating a visual contrast between the outdated Super-8 footage and the remainder of the film’s camerawork, which unfortunately, is overly dark and fairly dull aside from a handful of shots.

The unnerving atmosphere that ‘Sinister’ builds is only partly due to these distressing visuals, however, as the film’s original score by Christopher Young is exquisitely terrifying, as immediately from the first track: ‘Portrait of Mr. Boogie,’ which utilises strange synthesiser sounds combined with loud percussion and abrupt stops, it quickly becomes clear that the listener should never know what to expect next. Then there is the track: ‘Levantation,’ which greatly adds to the film’s second Super-8 segment through its use of distorted voices and whispers, quite impressive work considering Young usually keeps his distance from the horror genre.

Perhaps unknown to some, ‘Sinister’ does feature a few supernatural aspects within its story, so when these elements are eventually revealed I can picture the film alienating some viewers, as for the most part, ‘Sinister’ stands its ground as a dreary investigative horror flick. Still, with that said, performer Nicholas King does a decent job portraying the film’s malevolent entity: ‘Bughuul,’ giving the supernatural antagonist a menacing presence purely through his body movements whenever he’s on-screen, though that may not be as frequent as some may hope.

In conclusion, it’s a shame that ‘Sinister’ suffers from a fair amount of horror clichés, as when the film isn’t forcing in jump-scares or relying on a rushed performance from Vincent D’Onofrio to bombard the viewer with exposition, ‘Sinister’ is truly a formidable delve into a murder investigation. And although Scott Derrickson’s directing career realistically had nowhere to go but up after taking on the dismal remake of: ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ in 2008, I feel ‘Sinister’ overcoming most of its faults to become an entertaining horror was Derrickson’s first step on his path to greatness. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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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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Searching (2018) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-Stop (2014) – Film Review

Although ‘Non-Stop’ has been heavily overshadowed by a number of other films within the thriller genre, being mostly forgotten amongst the strew of critically-acclaimed films that released in 2014. I personally feel this high-altitude thriller is one of the better stories set within the confines of an aircraft, utilising Liam Neeson’s action expertise to craft a compelling mystery with occasional moments of excitement, even if the film is noticeably lacking in both realism and memorability.

Plot Summary: While on a flight from New York to London, ‘Bill Marks,’ a worn and alcoholic air marshal, receives an anonymous text message, informing him that unless one-hundred and fifty-million dollars are transferred into an offshore account within the next twenty-minutes, someone aboard the plane will die. Now finding himself in the middle of this deadly cat-and-mouse game, ‘Bill’ desperately searches for the suspect, unintentionally implicating himself into a hostage crisis unfolding at thirty-thousand feet…

‘Non-Stop’ is actually the second of four films directed by Jaume Collet-Serra that feature Liam Neeson, beginning with ‘Unknown’ in 2011, then ‘Run All Night’ in 2015, and lastly ‘The Commuter’ in 2018. And whilst Collet-Serra’s other films also contain a central mystery, ‘Non-Stop’ certainly has the most interesting location of the bunch, using its tight and claustrophobic setting of an aircraft to great effect as the film never cuts-away from the plane itself, even when ‘Bill’s contacts his superiors we the audience remain inside the aircraft with the characters, adding to the suspense. The film also attempts to integrate themes of airline safety and security into its story, which are intriguing though they are never fully explored, nor is the terrorist’s motivation when its finally revealed.

Liam Neeson leads the cast as ‘Bill Marks,’ giving his standard action film performance as a mostly straight-faced action hero. But just as he is in the ‘Taken’ franchise and every other explosive blockbuster, Neeson is an easy protagonist to root for, and ‘Bill’ is given a fair amount of development for what is required. Julianne Moore also makes an appearance in the film as ‘Jen Summers,’ who similar to the rest of the supporting cast of Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Jason Butler Harner, Nate Parker, Omar Metwally and Lupita Nyong’o, is given limited characterisation and is mostly in the film to serve as a potential suspect, but I suppose considering this is the basis for the story, it would’ve been an enormous challenge to development the huge array of passengers and crew aboard the flight.

The cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is serviceable for the most part, as whilst the film features a few attractive shots and focus-pulls throughout its runtime, the majority of the film’s camerawork focuses on hand-held shots, which aside from lending themselves effectively to action sequences and scenes where the plane experiences turbulence, do become a little monotonous. ‘Non-Stop’ also features a couple of scenes that were filmed entirely within a single take, most notably, from the moment ‘Bill’ begins his announcement to the passengers about his phone inspection, through to the moment he duct-tapes a suspect’s hands together, there isn’t a single cut.

John Ottman’s original score does suit the film well, with tracks like ‘Non-Stop,’ ‘Welcome to Aqualantic’ and ‘Reluctant Passenger/Blue Ribbon’ having a nice fusion of synth sounds, percussion, strings and brass, adding-up to simplistic yet competent soundtrack. Constantly pushing or creating the tension in a simple and confined environment while simultaneously fitting with the modern set-design of the plane and ‘Bill’ as a reluctant hero forced into action.

But with 95% of the film taking-place within an aircraft, the set for the plane itself was certainly a crucial detail to get right. Luckily, ‘Non-Stop’ does succeed here, as despite the set having to be built slightly larger than a standard commercial airliner to accommodate for equipment and Liam Neeson’s 6’4′ height. The set does feel like a real plane, having both sleek business class and first class areas as well as lavatories and a crew rest compartment, all of which are very crampt and dimly lit, as the story takes-place over the course of one night. This realism is even more impressive considering that the aircraft and airline are clearly fictional, as the aircraft type is never referred to yet its cabin interior and flight deck layout doesn’t match any real aircraft design.

So, even though films like ‘Red Eye’ and ‘Flightplan’ have taken the enclosed setting of an airplane and made it work before, I still believe ‘Non-Stop’ has slightly more entertainment value. As whilst some viewers may find the story’s absence of realism quite frustrating at points, the film distracts from its over-the-top ideas and bland side characters through its tense and fast-paced narrative, making for a thrilling mystery for those that can suspend their disbelief for a few elements. And with Liam Neeson and the rest of the cast helping ‘Non-Stop’ to collect plenty of air-miles for enjoyability, I’d say the film is worth a watch. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Now You See Me (2013) – Film Review

Quite a unique film within the crime genre, ‘Now You See Me’ is seemingly a magician’s rendition of: ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ as director Louis Leterrier crafts an entertaining film following the story of a group of four illusionists, all with different skillsets, robbing establishments across the globe before then vanishing without a trace. And although some viewers may have to suspend their disbelief for a few elements regarding the film’s plot, the film still manages to remain a mostly enjoyable affair throughout its two-hour runtime.

Plot Summary: After four small-time magicians are anonymously invited to attend a meeting in a run-down apartment. They reappear one year later as ‘The Four Horsemen,’ performing a live-show in Las Vegas in which they claim they are going to rob a bank in Paris from the stage and distribute the money to the audience. But after the French bank is found empty following the show, F.B.I. Agent: ‘Dylan Rhodes’ is assigned to the case with his partner: ‘Alma Day,’ where the two begin to suspect that the heist was just a distraction for a bigger scheme…

Even though ‘Now You See Me’ prioritises its story over anything else, the film does still feature a couple of exciting action sequences including a car-chase and a fist-fight respectively. Both of which stick with the idea of the magicians performing magic-tricks, utilising many of the age-old illusions we know in creative ways, yet this shouldn’t be too surprising, considering director Louis Leterrier has worked on action flicks like ‘The Transporter’ in the past. However, ‘Now You See Me’ does miss a big opportunity to say anything interesting about the actual profession of magic, as with very few films focusing on characters with this skillset, it would make sense to delve further into figures with this expertise.

‘The Four Horseman,’ portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are all splendid in their roles as the signature group of magicians. As despite Dave Franco’s ‘Jack Wilder’ feeling a little neglected at points as the forth member of the group, all of the cast give very charismatic performances to where you could believe they perform live-shows most evenings. The group also spends most of the film being hunted by a F.B.I. detective duo portrayed by Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent, and although both actors are great within their roles, the film does attempt to build-up a romantic relationship between the two, which comes-off as nothing other than forced and underdeveloped.

Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong’s cinematography is competent overall, having an overeliance on mid-shots to focus on the actor’s performances first and foremost. But when taking-into account the film’s constant emphasis on eye-contact and slight of hand, I did feel the camerawork wasn’t used very effectively to display that trickery, which would’ve surely placed the film’s audience in the same position as ‘The Four Horseman’s live-audience. The cinematography does still allow for plenty of stunning wide-shots during each live-show however, as the camera glides over the huge crowd giving an impressive view of the massive audiences that attend each night.

The original score by Brian Tyler is a jazz-style soundtrack in the same-vein as other crime/heist films such as the previously mentioned: ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’ In particular, the tracks: ‘Now You See Me,’ ‘The Four Horseman’ and ‘Welcome to the Eye’ are all deeply-rooted in jazz, fitting a familiar tone to many real illusionist shows. So much so, that it soon becomes quite evident that Tyler has done his research as his score fully embraces its funky percussion and snappy brass motifs.

Throughout the film, there are also a number of magnificent effects, CG and practical alike. In fact, near the beginning of the film when ‘Daniel Atlas’ is performing an extraordinary card-trick, we see the hands of Dan or Dave Buck digitally composited with Jesse Eisenberg’s face. These twin brothers are actually acclaimed sleight of hand artists, as well as pioneers in the art of cardistry. Their skills have also been seen in the film: ‘Smokin’ Aces’ from 2006, performing tricks for Jeremy Piven. Cardistry is an open display of skill with cards, similar to juggling, and the sequence of moves performed in ‘Now You See Me’ is called a ‘Pandora,’ which at the time of filming, was considered one of the hardest moves to perform in cardistry.

Taking all this into account, I feel ‘Now You See Me’ serves its purpose as a crime/mystery thriller, telling an engaging and mostly well-written story that doesn’t take itself all too seriously. While the film does disguise many of its obvious flaws through smoke and mirrors, I believe the vast majority of viewers will enjoy this film for what it is. And if you have already seen this flick and relished it, then I’d strongly recommend you watch ‘The Prestige,’ another magician-related film which I personally think surpasses ‘Now You See Me’ (and its uninspired sequel) in many ways. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Happy Death Day (2017) – Film Review

Another horror flick from production company Blumhouse Pictures, ‘Happy Death Day’ released in 2017, does at least extend-out of the usual range of Blumhouse horrors to become more of a horror-comedy than just a straight-forward teen slasher. But similar to the rest of their associated franchises e.g. ‘Insidious,’ ‘The Purge’ and ‘Paranormal Activity,’ both ‘Happy Death Day’ and it’s sequel definitely have their fair share of issues, with some being far more severe than others.

Plot Summary: Waking-up in the dorm room of a boy whose name she can’t remember after a night of heavy drinking, self-centered college student: ‘Tree Gelbman’ intends to continue her trend of avoiding her birthday, but little does she know that later that night on her way to another party, someone is waiting to murder her. Only after being killed, ‘Tree’ awakens in the same dorm room, soon realising she is being forced to relive her brutal night of murder over-and-over again until she discovers her killer’s identity…

‘Happy Death Day’ similar to many other day-repeating stories in the past, takes most of its inspiration from the comedy classic: ‘Groundhog Day’ from 1993. Yet unlike many of the other films that are inspired by this beloved comedy flick, it becomes clear over-time that ‘Happy Death Day’ is quite derivative of: ‘Groundhog Day.’ As the film’s story not only utilises the comedy’s plot without much innovation (only throwing a killer into the mix). But the film even steals the main point of the narrative, that being its main character and their correlating character-arc, using the time-looping concept to in a way punish the protagonist for their cruel behaviour towards others.

In spite of this however, the protagonist: ‘Tree’ portrayed by Jessica Rothe, is by far the best element of the film. As while ‘Tree’ does go through a character-arc that is all-too-familiar as previously mentioned, Rothe makes a fantastic first-outing as an actress through her very enjoyable performance. Then of course, there is the killer, whose identity remains a mystery throughout most of the runtime. Known as ‘The Babyface Killer,’ the killer’s outfit is actually the mascot of: ‘Bayfield University’ where the film takes-place, and although the costume itself is far more goofy then intimidating, the mask/costume was actually designed by Tony Gardner. The costume designer behind the now-iconic: ‘Ghostface’ costume from the ‘Scream’ series, which does help redeem to the killer’s undoubtedly petty motivation.

The film’s cinematography by Toby Oliver isn’t anything amazing overall, but does still back-up the story effectively in a variety of scenes. Whether that’s through its use of wide sweeping-shots when the characters are in an intense chase, or when more shaky hand-held camerawork is used to reflect ‘Tree’s break-down when she first realises she is stuck in her current crisis. Yet similar to much of its story, the film never leans enough into a more outlandish/experimental nature when considering what the film could accomplish with its cinematography.

Talented composer Bear McCreary handles the film’s original score, which isn’t very distinctive from most of his other work within the horror genre. But despite the score’s lack of memorability, it still does feel as if there is a decent amount of effort put into it, as the soundtrack actually has quite a lot of range even if some of the tracks don’t always fit with the tone of the film. This also goes for many of the songs used throughout ‘Happy Death Day,’ as nearly all of the film’s song choices massively differ in both genre and general popularity.

But still, the biggest problem ‘Happy Death Day’ suffers from is the inconsistency of its tone. As although the film does attempt to have scenes featuring both scares and humour alike, many of the film’s jump-scares and jokes range in quality, and occasionally even cancel each-other out. Additionally, the film also takes an unusual approach to its violence, as while ‘Tree’ dies countless times throughout the film in a number of different ways. The film never allows for any creative or darkly amusing deaths due to its lack of any blood or gore. Yet this wasn’t always the case, as the original screenplay for the film did actually include more violence, so much so in fact that it would have gained the film a higher age-rating, with plenty of scenes having much grislier deaths that were later altered by director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) during pre-production.

Altogether, whilst the signature performance from Jessica Rothe does help to make ‘Happy Death Day’ a far more enjoyable viewing, in addition to the film’s idea of a protagonist being repeatedly murdered having plenty of potential for a horror-comedy. The film just doesn’t do enough with its story, feeling almost as if its a little restrictive on-itself, never delving enough into being either funny or freighting respectively. So, if you desire an amusing horror-comedy to stick on one evening, maybe just go back to your more accustomed choices over this mediocre slasher. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Secret Obsession (2019) – Film Review

Other than providing the viewer with plenty of unintentionally comedic moments to laugh at, ‘Secret Obsession’ fails to do much of anything as a thriller, a mystery, or even a drama. Being incredibly predictable and formulaic from start-to-finish, in addition to lacking in both interesting characters and a real sense of dread throughout. ‘Secret Obsession’ remains to this day Netflix’s attempt at an ominous thriller that was quickly swept under-the-rug shortly after its release, only being known now as a poorly-thought-out thriller that would seem more at home on the Lifetime Channel.

Plot Summary: After being brutally attacked by a mysterious stranger at a rest-stop one night, newlywed: ‘Jennifer Williams’ awakens in hospital healing from her injuries. Now unable to recall her past, her husband: ‘Russell Williams’ is simply thankful she’s alive and is eager to get her home. But as he reintroduces her to their secluded mountain estate, ‘Jennifer’ begins to realise she may not be as safe as she initially believed…

Even though ‘Secret Obsession’ received nearly universally-negative reviews upon its initial release, in just twenty-eight days, over forty million viewers watched the thriller, placing it in the top ten most viewed Netflix Original films in the history of the streaming service, (despite the film’s absence of anything truly unique). This is even more surprising considering the film wasn’t the only psychological thriller released on Netflix in 2019, as another entry in the genre titled: ‘Fractured’ appeared on viewer’s accounts months later, sharing many similarities in story and set-up to ‘Secret Obsession.’

Brenda Song and Mike Vogel are both fine within the film, delivering serviceable performances with the exception of the occasional corny line which can feel quite over-acted. Neither one of these performances improve the film much overall however, as ‘Secret Obsession’ is anything but subtle in terms of both its dialogue and its characterisation. A perfect example of this is the character: ‘Detective Frank Page’ portrayed by Dennis Haysbert, as not only is this character very cliché and only in the film to serve as a plot device later down the line. But ‘Detective Frank’ also has a character-arc which receives almost no development and makes little sense, in spite of Haysbert possibly giving the best performance of the film without being anything extraordinary.

The film’s cinematography by Eitan Almagor does manage to be at least somewhat visually interesting for majority of the runtime. However, with that said, much of the film’s visual style doesn’t fit with the actual narrative, as the film’s main setting of the Colorado Mountains feels like a far too beautiful and scenic location for a dark thriller such as this. This also goes for the film’s colour palette and lighting, which are both overly-bright, resulting in the film sharing a similar visual appeal to a modern comedy rather than a suspenseful thriller/mystery.

Just as bland as it is cheesy, the original score by Jim Dooley doesn’t fare much better either, usually landing-on either side of the scale: immensely generic or overly-loud and extravagant. Almost giving the impression it’s taken from the soundtrack of a live-action ‘Scooby-Doo’ flick at points with how aggressively its orchestral score alludes to danger. But considering this composer hasn’t worked on many well-known films throughout his career, I feel Dooly is still yet to create a beloved (or even memorable) original score for a film.

But the film’s main hook is, of course, it’s signature plot twist, as even hinted at by the ‘Secret’ part of it’s title. Yet in my opinion, the story’s ‘twist’ is revealed far too early-on within the runtime as a result of the film’s extremely blunt hints and clues, which leave little to the imagination. As while you could argue the film intends for the audience to know what’s going on so early in the narrative in order to build tension, the lack of any likable or engrossing characters makes this a mostly fruitless effort, and with the film never delving much into the details of its twist, it soon leaves the viewer pondering the believability of its story. Alongside the obvious fact that a continuous and overarching mystery always helps to make a story more compelling, with iconic thrillers such as: ‘Seven’ and ‘Shutter Island’ knowing this full-well.

In summary, ‘Secret Obsession’ is a film no one is likely to obsess over, with its unfitting location/colour palette, dull characters and constant illogical moments throughout its story, the film has little to offer for fans of psychological thrillers. Whilst some may see the film as a ‘so bad it’s good’ flick, similar to other comically awful films like ‘The Room,’ ‘Battlefield Earth’ and ‘Batman and Robin.’ I personally just find the film a very forgettable and occasionally irritating experience. So, unless you’re on the hunt for a thriller that soon evolves into an unintended comedy, definitely give this dreadful Netflix Original a miss. Final Rating: high 2/10.

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Prisoners (2013) – Film Review

Combining some incredible performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal with some phenomenal cinematography by the legendary Rodger Deakins alongside an effective original score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. ‘Prisoners’ is truly a masterclass in both filmmaking and storytelling. Although some audience members may be turned-off by the film’s depressing subject matter and few graphic scenes, this story of two family’s lives being turned upside-down is nevertheless an enthralling thriller/drama throughout.

Plot Summary: Shortly after their Thanksgiving dinner, parents: ‘Keller’ and ‘Grace Dover’ discover their six-year-old daughter and her best friend are missing. So after contacting the authorities, the driven: ‘Detective Loki’ is assigned to lead the case. But as hours turn into days, knowing his daughter’s life is at stake, frantic father: ‘Keller’ considers taking matters into his own hands…

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049), Villeneuve further proves here that he is one of the best filmmakers currently working. As every one of his films are always engaging and visually-breathtaking, with ‘Prisoners’ being no exception. As throughout the entirety of its lengthy runtime, ‘Prisoners’ manages to be a compelling, tense and emotional experience that will leave most viewers on the edge of their seats. Making the viewer long for the truth just as much as the film’s characters do, with the film’s main theme of parenthood even exploring the idea of how far a parent would truly go to protect their child, most notably through ‘Keller’s questionable actions later within the story.

The film’s main pairing of Hugh Jackman as ‘Keller Dover’ and Jake Gyllenhaal as ‘Detective Loki’ is the perfect combination of two talented actors, as both give brilliant performances as their respective characters with Hugh Jackman in particular, giving one of the best performances of his entire career. Especially in the scene: ‘The Interrogation’. In which, ‘Keller’ repeatedly tortures the potential kidnapper of his daughter, resulting in the scene soon becoming one of the film’s best moments mostly through Jackman’s incredibly intense performance. In addition to the two leads, the supporting cast of Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Dylan Minnette, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo are all excellent, with each member of the main cast adding to the film’s realistic portrayal of two concerned families, going days without rest as their thoughts dwell purely on their missing children.

From the opening shot through to the very last, the cinematography by Roger Deakins is nothing short of phenomenal. As ‘Prisoners’ elevates its already gripping narrative through its many stunning shots, alongside the film’s absolutely superb lighting, which makes fantastic use of darkness and silhouettes wherever possible (a staple of Roger Deakins’ cinematography) which only backs-up the film’s grim tone and tense atmosphere further. Another element of the film that also adds to its visual aesthetic is its use of weather. Being set in a small town in Pennsylvania, ‘Prisoners’ makes great use of the state’s dreary weather for a number of scenes, meaning many shots are enhanced due to the constant barrage of rain and snow within them.

The late Jóhann Jóhannsson handles the original score for the film, most known for his work on ‘The Theory of Everything’ along with plenty of other films from director Denis Villeneuve. The film’s score really adds to many of its dramatic moments, as the soundtrack mostly focuses on the story’s more emotional and tragic aspects, and while not overly memorable, the tracks: ‘I Can’t Find Them’ and ‘Through Falling Snow’ both fit the bleak tone of the film flawlessly. While the track: ‘The Keeper’ is also worth a quick mention simply due to its impactful feel.

Although it isn’t a major problem, my only real issue with the film is the lack of depth for some of its characters, as ‘Detective Loki’ and ‘Alex Jones’ both have many interesting traits, with ‘Detective Loki’ having a variety of tattoos, rings and facial ticks (many of which were actually Jake Gyllenhaal’s ideas). Whilst ‘Alex’ has the I.Q. of a ten-year-old due to his learning difficulties. Yet even with these unique traits, I never felt like either of these two characters were explored enough, even with the film’s many attempts at subtle characterisation through visual storytelling.

In short, ‘Prisoners’ is not only one of my favourite films from 2013, but one of all my all-time favourite thrillers in general. Through its spectacular cinematography, tense atmosphere and compelling plot among many, many other elements, ‘Prisoners’ is honestly unmissable. Being just another piece of the beyond-excellent filmography of director Denis Villeneuve, this thriller is certainly one I’d recommend to anyone in need of a memorising mystery. If you’ve never seen a film by Villeneuve, I’d say ‘Prisoners’ is a tremendous place to begin, despite the film not quite beating-out my personal favourite film of his, that being: ‘Blade Runner: 2049.’ Final Rating: 9/10.

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