Upgrade (2018) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skyline (2010) – Film Review

Spawning multiple direct-to-streaming sequels despite its discouraging box-office return, 2010’s ‘Skyline’ is, at best, a middling sci-fi-action blockbuster. Offering undeniable evidence that impressive visual effects alone can’t overcome a predictable storyline, cliché dialogue and vapid characters, with much of: ‘Skyline’s runtime being dedicated to tedious indoor melodrama rather than the potentially exhilarating extraterrestrial invasion occurring just outside, ultimately making for a science fiction flick with few original ideas and very limited scope.

Plot Summary: In the wake of an unexpected pregnancy, ‘Elaine’ and her boyfriend: ‘Jarrod’ travel to Los Angeles to convene with their old friend, now-successful entrepreneur: ‘Terry,’ for a party-filled weekend getaway. But the morning after their arrival, a cluster of strange lights begin to descend over the city, drawing residents outside like moths to a flame as an extraterrestrial force threatens to wipe the entire human population off the face of the planet…

Predominantly visual effects artists, directors Colin and Greg Strause (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) financed ‘Skyline’ almost entirely by themselves without the assistance of any major production company, with filming only costing around £372,000, while the visual effects cost an additional £742,000. However, whilst it is commendable what The Brothers Strause achieved on such a low-budget for a blockbuster-level film, ‘Skyline’ eschews a creditable screenplay in order to focus purely on boundless CG spectacle. That is when the film doesn’t just consist of the characters hiding away in ‘Terry’s penthouse, peeping through his conveniently installed telescope to observe the chaos transpiring on the streets below, which, while at first, may sound like an interesting way to experience an extraterrestrial incursion, in execution, is rather dull due to a severe lack of tension, an issue that the later sequels: ‘Beyond Skyline’ and ‘Skylines’ did somewhat rectify.

The film’s biggest downfall comes when we are introduced to the characters, as even when ignoring the apathetic performances from Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Donald Faison and David Zayas alike, the main group of individuals are just no different to the characters of any other alien invasion story. Being given the absolute bare minimum of characterisation, every member of the group (including the two protagonists) feel incredibly underwritten and frequently come across as unlikeable, even if the film does attempt to keep its characters grounded in realism by representing them as genuine civilians, as the characters never contemplate sprinting outside and confronting the extraterrestrial force face-to-face. Instead, they simply hunker down and use what little knowledge they obtain to their advantage.

When it comes to visuals, Michael Watson’s cinematography fulfils its purpose in showcasing the scale of the invasion across the world, but beyond that, the camerawork doesn’t get any more imaginative, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups, never attempting the utilise the claustrophobic penthouse setting (which, in reality, was part of co-director Greg Stause’s condo building) to its full effect. Another element that spoils the handful of pleasant visuals ‘Skyline’ has its use of blue lighting, as although the abnormal blue lights seen throughout the film are a crucial plot component (being the source that draws civilians outside before they are abducted), their constant usage does result in the film having a hefty over-reliance on vexing lens flares, an issue that even extends to the captions/credits.

A mix of both electronic and orchestral tracks, the original score by Matthew Margeson, unfortunately, has quite the shortage of memorability, with simplistic tracks like ‘The Escape,’ ‘They’re Not Dead’ and ‘Arrival’ being nothing but unremarkable. With that said, credit has to be given that the computerised segments of the score do produce an eerie alien-like sound. And whilst on the topic of audio, the film’s sound design is serviceable though nothing spectacular, with the aliens having a daunting set of screeches and grunts.

Featuring over one thousand visual effects shots, ‘Skyline’s main selling point is unmistakably its CG effects and subsequent action sequences, which are actually few and far between due to a large majority of the narrative taking place within one location. Luckily, the rare moments of excitement we do receive don’t squander the extraterrestrial force, from the oily, cephalopod-like ‘Harvesters,’ who possess the ability to purloin and utilise the brains of different species to revitalise themselves, to the towering brutes known as ‘Tankers,’ who use their immense size and strength to tear through buildings, the film’s hyper-advanced extraterrestrials are given some much-needed variety between their designs. Most of the spaceships were even designed from the basis of low-altitude clouds ranging from Stratocumulus to Cumulus, and are all brought to life through some solid CGI, especially when they are seen swallowing masses of the population in one of the film’s most striking shots.

In short, whilst the broad premise of: ‘Skyline’ has promise, the resulting film is fairly predictable. Not only because of its numerous faults, but because the film was fighting a losing battle right from its inception, with nearly every possible idea relating to the concept of an extraterrestrial invasion already being seen. From the original: ‘War of the Worlds’ in 1953, all the way up to the patriotic all-American blockbuster: ‘Independence Day’ in 1996, it’s an onerous task to fabricate new ways of writing an alien intrusion, further proved by the countless other extraterrestrial occupation stories that have freshly emerged. Final Rating: 4/10.

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Dredd (2012) – Film Review

A considerably overlooked film when it comes to the sci-fi genre, ‘Dredd,’ written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame, City of Tiny Lights), focuses on said character, whose comic strip in the science fiction anthology series: ‘2000 AD’ was one of the longest-running in the magazine’s history, being featured since it’s second issue in 1977. Merging futurism with law enforcement, ‘Dredd’ and his fellow ‘Judges’ are empowered to arrest, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot, and this modern film adaptation, fuelled by much of the same bombastic violence and sci-fi imagery, does a remarkable job of capturing its source material’s gritty spirit.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future on the American East Coast, lies the overpopulated and crime-ridden metropolis known as ‘Mega-City One,’ where police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner. Within this city, one of these officers, the resolute: ‘Judge Dredd,’ is assigned to assess rookie: ‘Cassandra Anderson’ as the two are ordered to reach the top of an apartment complex and stop ‘Ma-Ma’ and her clan from manufacturing and distributing narcotics. But when the pair enter the complex, they find themselves ensnared as ‘Ma-Ma’ locks down the building, forcing ‘Dredd’ and his newfangled partner to fight their way out, one level at a time…

Technically a reboot following the character’s first cinematic interpretation with 1995’s ‘Judge Dredd,’ which featured Sylvester Stallone as the titular character. ‘Dredd’ is a far more faithful adaption, as while Stallone may have looked the part, it was clear that the film itself thoroughly misunderstood the source material. ‘Dredd,’ however, immediately thrusts its audience into a riveting and intense story, which considering how self-contained it is, also manages to fit a surprising amount of world-building in-between, hinting towards the many other districts of: ‘Mega-City One’ we could’ve seen should ‘Dredd’ have been a box-office success rather than the commercial disappointment it sadly was, earning a little over £41 million on a budget of £45 million.

Speaking only when necessary and never giving even the slightest hint of emotion, Karl Urban portrays the film’s protagonist: ‘Judge Dredd’ with extreme accuracy. Displaying Urban’s clear understanding of the role as ‘Dredd,’ just as he does in the comic strips, never breaks or goes through a character-arc, but instead, is just an incorruptible officer with no time for low-life criminals, and Urban nails this portrayal, even with half his head being obscured by a helmet for the entirety of the runtime. ‘Dredd’s partner: ‘Cassandra Anderson,’ portrayed by Olivia Thirlby, is also a compelling character, demonstrating a level of skill far below her superior, yet possessing psychic abilities which make her too valuable to dismiss. Lastly, there is ‘Ma-Ma,’ the film’s antagonist who was originally written as an elderly woman before Lena Headey convinced Alex Garland to make her a middle-aged misandrist. And although there isn’t the same depth to her character as ‘Dredd’ or his rookie partner, ‘Ma-Ma’ is still a convincing felon, as Headey portrays a ruthless individual living in an equally ruthless world.

Playing into the idea of this post-apocalyptic world being in constant disarray, the ‘Dredd’s grimy set-design along with its murky brown colour palette present ‘Mega-City One’ (a.k.a. Johannesburg with some CG enhancements) as a rundown metropolis with similarly rundown technology, as the filthy hallways of the apartment complex: ‘Peach Trees’ are continuously permeated with litter and spraypainted walls. Moreover, the film is given a great sense of style through the energetic camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle and smooth integration of CG effects, which outside of a few scenes where the film fully indulges in graphic violence by having blood flung towards the camera, have aged admirably.

As you’d expect from a pessimistic sci-fi film, the original score by Paul Leonard-Morgan is both rousing and brooding, with tracks such as: ‘Mega-City One’ and ‘You Look Ready’ all perfectly accompanying what’s on-screen through their heady mix of guitar riffs and thumping electronic beats. Making for a score that even with twenty-two distinct tracks, has no real filler, as every piece flawlessly correlates with the film’s fast-paced action.

Continuing to be true to the original comic strip, ‘Dredd’s primary form of transportation; the ‘Lawmaster’ motorcycle, is faithfully recreated for the film, as the production team created a series of functional bikes for filming. They achieved this by having the chassis of normal bikes extended and then adding custom fairings, as well as fitting the bikes with larger tires so they could remain operable. In a similar sense, ‘Dredd’s iconic outfit is also recreated, only being modified slightly to give the suit a sleeker, more modernised look.

In summary, though many may see this sci-fi action-thriller as pure style-over-substance and nothing else, ‘Dredd’ is a film deeply committed to the genres it’s trying to represent. With thrilling action sequences, substantial world-building and impressive visual effects all rooted in deadpan humour, ‘Dredd’ is a more than entertaining ride. And in a world full of compromised adaptations, this film is something of a triumph, as ‘Dredd’ avoids the common misstep adaptations tend to take where the final product ends-up bearing little resemblance to its source material aside from the title, as self-indulgent screenwriters/directors make whatever changes they desire without much thought or consideration. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Brightburn (2019) – Film Review

An inversion of the iconic ‘Superman’ origin story, ‘Brightburn,’ released in 2019, is a film with an aggressively simple pitch, essentially boiling down to “What if the Man of Steel was Humanity’s Oppressor Rather Than its Saviour?” And even though the film doesn’t fully follow through on that enthralling premise, primarily as a result of its sketchy screenplay and often botched sense of dread, ‘Brightburn’ crossbreeds horror tropes with superhero staples in an effective enough fashion to at least offer something unique for enthusiasts of both genres.

Plot Summary: After a difficult struggle with fertility, ‘Tori Breyer’s dreams of motherhood become a reality when a child from another world crash-lands on her farm. But, years later, as ‘Brandon’ nears puberty, a darkness begins to manifest within him, leading ‘Tori’ and her husband: ‘Kyle’ to become overwhelmed with terrible doubts concerning their son, doubts that soon put them in grave danger…

Directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive, Nightbooks) and written by James Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively, ‘Brightburn’ certainly succeeds in its main goal, setting-up an almost identical scenario to ‘Superman’s origin before then taking the narrative in a far darker direction. And the film clearly has no pretences with what it’s drawing from, as ‘Brightburn’ actually shares many similarities to the ‘Superman’ comics beyond just its story. From ‘Brandon Breyer’s name following the comic book convention of superheroes with alliterative first and last names, such as: ‘Clark Kent,’ ‘Peter Parker’ and ‘Bruce Banner,’ to the story taking place in Kansas, the same state where ‘Kal-El’ touched down and later grew-up to become ‘Superman.’ The film’s connections to the ‘Man of Steel’ are ever-present, even extending to the costume design in certain scenes as ‘Brandon’ wears combinations of blue, red and yellow, the principal colours of: ‘Superman’s classic outfit. Still, all of this association doesn’t fix what is ‘Brightburn’s most predominant problem; its runtime. As the plot is squeezed into a very brief ninety-one-minutes, meaning the film wastes no time in jumping straight into ‘Brandon’ discovering his abilities and embracing his detrimental side, thus, the story allows for little emotional investment, with much of the first act being nothing but scene-after-scene of what seem like trailer-made moments.

When it comes to the cast, Elizabeth Banks and David Denman share most of the film’s character-related scenes as the pair portray concerned parents starting to suspect that their blessing from the stars might, in actuality, be a curse. However, whilst this is an acceptable start for writing your central characters, ‘Tori’ and ‘Kyle’ have little nuance and barely any development outside of the love (and eventual doubt) they share for their son. Then there is ‘Brandon Breyer’ himself portrayed by young actor Jackson A. Dunn, who does a great job not only considering his age, but also a similar lack of characterisation. As once ‘Brandon’s twelfth birthday arrives, his psychopathic behaviour suddenly arises, morphing him from an innocent child to a homicidal supervillain so swiftly it appears forced, even if Dunn’s performance does help to make the transition feel slightly more believable through his complete absence of emotion during the latter half of the film.

Aside from some nice visual nods to further associate itself with ‘Superman,’ including a sweeping rural landscape and a farmhouse interchangeable with that of: ‘Clark Kent’s. The cinematography by Michael Dallatorre is fairly unremarkable, often just displaying shots without much thought or creativity put into them. With that said, many of the film’s CG effects are solid, especially when taking into account the film’s budget, which was considerably smaller than most superhero blockbusters.

Moreover, despite being described as a merging of superhero and horror soundtracks, make no mistake that the bulk of the original score for: ‘Brightburn,’ composed by Tim Williams, is firmly entrenched in the horror genre, with tracks usually starting-out slow and composed before warping into something far more nightmarish, likely symbolising ‘Brandon’s gradual corruption from the evil that dwells within him. This idea is further illustrated by the unnerving sound design, as the more ‘Brandon’ falls into the abyss of immorality, the more distorted voices he begins to hear, each speaking a foreign alien language.

Unfortunately, out of the two genres ‘Brightburn’ is attempting to represent, the film undoubtedly appears underbaked on the horror side of things, as ‘Brightburn’ lazily relies on clichéd scares like flickering lights and twitching curtains. Meaning it’s a rarity that the film actually tries to build tension or have any frightening occurrences outside of loud jump-scares or the admittedly gruesome ways ‘Brandon’ disposes of his victims.

In conclusion, between the red cape and blazing heat-vision, ‘Brightburn’ is a film that knows exactly what it is; an immoral retelling of an established superhero’s beginnings complete with plenty of violence and an abundance of horror trickery. Yet all of the film’s spectacle ultimately feels meaningless when compared to its deficiency of strong characterisation and emotional depth. And, as such, a majority of the film’s most entertaining moments come at the expense of understanding any of the characters on a deeper level, consequently leaving ‘Brightburn’ a film that never manages to strive past the subversive elevator pitch it was conceived as. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Harbinger Down (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coherence (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rampage (2018) – Film Review

There has been a debate amongst film buffs for many years now regarding whether it’s possible to make a great film based on a video-game, and whilst I’ve always strongly believed it is, I feel the reason we haven’t received a great film as of yet is that many of the video-games chosen for adaptations were simply not the right choices, nor did the films have talented writers or directors behind them. ‘Rampage,’ released in 2018, is the perfect example of this, as this moronic blockbuster is actually based on the arcade classic of the same name, a video-game which contained no characters and little-to-no story, and the film faces all of the repercussions as a result.

Plot Summary: Sharing a special bond with ‘George,’ an extraordinarily intelligent albino gorilla, ‘Davis Okoye,’ a retired U.S. Army soldier and now a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist, sees his world turned upside-down when his primate companion is accidentally exposed to a gene-mutating pathogen. Morphing ‘George’ along with an unsuspecting wolf and crocodile into ravenous monsters as they grow to gargantuan proportions, thrusting ‘Davis’ and ‘Dr. Kate Caldwell’ into a race against time as they struggle to find an antidote….

Even when ignoring its video-game origins, ‘Rampage’ is merely a predictable and at times fairly dull creature-feature, as director Brad Peyton (Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Incarnate, San Andreas) never attempts to do anything to set the film apart from other action blockbusters. For instance, in the original 1986 arcade game, players controlled one of three giant monsters, playing as either: a wolf, a lizard or a gorilla, as they are tasked with destroying cities before the military can shoot them down and transform them back into the humans they once were. This aspect of the creatures being mutated humans could’ve added a more emotional viewpoint to the film not present in many other action flicks, as the characters deal with the morality of their actions, yet the film just abandons this idea in exchange for oblivious animals simply having their growth and aggression altered, which is a far less engrossing concept.

Reteaming with Peyton after the pair worked together on 2015’s ‘San Andreas,’ Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson flashes the same effortless, self-deprecating appeal that’s always been the hallmark of his work. And although I’m personally rather weary of the ‘muscular action hero’ stereotype, there’s no denying Johnson has a natural charisma as ‘Davis Okoye’ beyond his constant smouldering. Naomi Woods, however, is nowhere near her best here, as her character: ‘Dr. Caldwell’ is nothing more than a sassy female scientist with little to offer aside from exposition dumps and an unnecessary romantic subplot with ‘Davis.’ Then there are the film’s antagonists portrayed by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, who fully embrace the absurdity of the film they are in, overacting in every scene alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a government agent who saunters around the screen like a modern-day cowboy, speaking in painfully forced good-old-boy idioms.

Aside from one rip-roaring sequence where the trio of monsters rage through the streets of Chicago destroying everything in their path, which is supposed to appear as one singular take. The majority of the film’s cinematography by Jaron Presant is fairly standard for a modern blockbuster, primarily utilising mid-shots for conversations between characters, and wide-shots whenever possible to display the huge scale of the creatures, which luckily helps to distract from the film’s innumerable lines of cringy dialogue.

As the creatively named tracks: ‘Gorillas,’ ‘Kate,’ ‘Cornfield,’ ‘Chicago’ and ‘George’ would imply, the original score by Andrew Lockington is a minimal-level effort from the composer at best, as the predominately orchestral score is instantly forgettable but does its job well enough during the film’s few tender moments. But with action dominating a large portion of: ‘Rampage’s runtime, the score mostly has to rely on aggressive string ostinatos and a collection of simplistic motifs, all of which simply enter one ear and fall out of the other.

While I can appreciate that there was a clear level of effort put into ‘Rampage’s visual effects, with a small crew from Weta Digital even traveling out to Chicago to examine the materials and architecture style of each building before creating a virtual model of the Chicago Loop that could be destroyed in the film’s climactic battle. Many of the CG effects throughout ‘Rampage’ range in quality all the same, specifically with the scene: ‘Plane Crash,’ which looks absolutely horrendous during a handful of shots as Johnson and Woods are digitally recreated as they fall out of the sky.

Overall, whilst ‘Rampage’ does feature some entertaining action sequences and the occasional piece of self-aware humour, I mostly just find the film to be an exasperating waste of potential considering the film is a video-game adaptation. As when there are so many video-games with riveting stories, worlds, and characters, with ‘BioShock,’ ‘Portal,’ ‘Mirror’s Edge,’ ‘Gears of War’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption’ being just a few considerable options, it’s insulting that production companies continue to adapt games with barely any plot or characters to speak of, and with so many of them ultimately ending-up as your run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster, is it even worth the effort? Final Rating: high 3/10.

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Inception (2010) – Film Review

After directing the superhero smash-hit: ‘The Dark Knight’ in 2008, established director Christopher Nolan wanted to tackle something far more ambitious, a screenplay that he’d been working on for over nine years focusing on a mind-bending journey through dreams and reality alike. This, of course, was ‘Inception,’ a sci-fi-thriller many now regard as one of the finest films in the science fiction genre, and for good reason, as ‘Inception’ combines striking visuals with an all-star cast and a phenomenal original score by legendary composer Hans Zimmer, all tied together by an enthralling narrative, securing the film as one of Nolan’s most revered efforts.

Plot Summary: When ‘Dominic Cobb,’ a thief who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology is approached by a wealthy business magnate, ‘Cobb’ sees his shot at redemption as he is offered his freedom for accomplishing a seemingly impossible mission: plant an idea inside the mind of a powerful C.E.O. If he succeeds, it will be the perfect crime, but a dangerous enemy anticipates ‘Cobb’s every move…

As its title implies, ‘Inception’ is a film about traveling through dreams, or more accurately, dreams within dreams, which is a very creative concept, yet could leave some viewers confused upon their first viewing, as the characters travel through multiple dreamscapes, each one effecting the others in some way. This complicated style of storytelling may also be why ‘Inception’ took so long to become a reality, as although Christopher Nolan first pitched ‘Inception’ to Warner Bros. Pictures in early 2001, Nolan decided to give himself more time to refine the screenplay, even in spite of the initial interest from Warner Bros. Yet this extra time in the writing room ultimately paid off in the end, as when ‘Inception’ eventually released in 2010, it went to be one of the highest-earning original films in history, grossing over £600 million worldwide.

Featuring a prominent cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Marion Cotillard and Michael Caine, ‘Inception’ is never short on entertaining performances. However, whilst every actor is given their chance to shine, many of the film’s characters suffer as a result of the film’s attention being placed almost exclusively on ‘Cobb,’ pushing his inner struggle of coping with his wife’s suicide to the forefront of the narrative. And while ‘Cobb’s character-arc is certainly captivating, its unfortunate that many members of: ‘Cobb’s charismatic crew don’t receive any of their own scenes (unrelated to the plot or exposition dumps that is).

Cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has collaborated with Christopher Nolan for every film of his since ‘Memento’ in 2000, is once again behind the camera for: ‘Inception,’ and although much of the camerawork throughout the film isn’t anything exceptional outside of the film’s stylish visual effects, it is still competent. With that said, much of the cinematography does lend itself effectively to the film’s numerous riveting action sequences, as many of these moments (in particular, the snowbound action sequence in the third dream level) are brimming with wide-shots that display the true scale of each thrilling set-piece. Then there is the film’s colour palette, which subtlety changes as the characters enter each new dream level, almost becoming a guide for the audience, visually informing them of what dream level they are currently in.

In spite of the film’s signature track: ‘Time’ being vastly overplayed nowadays, ‘Inception’s original score by Hans Zimmer was nothing short of groundbreaking at the time of the film’s release, as the score went on to be become incredibly iconic in of itself, with the score’s most recognisable motif: a booming foghorn-like brass, being mimicked thereafter by nearly every action blockbuster. But its easy to see why this is, as ‘Inception’s soundtrack adds to both the tension and drama of the film, focusing less on themes and motifs and more on ambience, blurring the lines between dreams and reality with layers of electronic pulses and grand synthesised chords.

Should ‘Inception’ have been directed by any other filmmaker, I can imagine a large amount of the effects seen during the film would’ve been created entirely through CGI, but in true Nolan fashion, many of the effects in ‘Inception’ including the snowbound avalanche, the Penrose stairs and the zero-gravity sequence were all completed practically. The most well-known of these prodigious effects has to be the rotating hallway, however, an effect that was achieved through an enormous hallway rig which spun around as the actors fought inside, making for one truly unforgettable set-piece. Due to these practical effects, ‘Inception’ only had around five hundred visual effects shots, a tiny number compared to most blockbusters, which can feature well over two thousand.

In conclusion, I feel ‘Inception’ is worthy of its paradigmatic status among Christopher Nolan’s filmography, as even though the film isn’t flawless, often stumbling from its lack of compelling side characters and drawn-out blocks of exposition, ‘Inception’ still remains a multi-layered, self-reflexive sci-fi-thriller that fires on all cylinders, manipulating time through meticulous editing to deliver a hard-hitting cinematic experience. And with production companies usually relying on sequels, prequels, remakes, and franchises these days, ‘Inception’ did a difficult thing, being a wholly original blockbuster that succeeds viscerally as well as intellectually. Final Rating: 8/10.

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The Meg (2018) – Film Review

Following the endless string of horrendous, ultra-low-budget shark films produced for the Syfy Channel, some notable releases of which being: ‘Toxic Shark,’ ‘Ghost Shark,’ ‘Sand Sharks,’ ‘Shark Exorcist,’ ‘6-Headed Shark Attack’ and ‘Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus.’ ‘The Meg,’ released in 2018, attempted to be an explosive and humorous action blockbuster inspired by these risible science fiction flicks, yet due to its less than mediocre writing, predictable story and often dreadful supporting cast, the film noticeably lacks the thrills or overt cheesiness that make cult sci-fi and horror films so enticing.

Plot Summary: Deemed insane for claiming that a failed submarine rescue was doomed due to an enormous creature lurking within the ocean depths, deep-sea rescue diver: ‘Jonas Taylor’ finds himself heading into the Mariana Trench, five years later, as a team of scientists working for an underwater research facility become trapped inside a crippled submersible after sharing a similar encounter. Soon discovering that the colossal creature corning them is one of the largest marine predators to ever exist… the megalodon.

Even though it’s incredibly rare nowadays to stumble upon a genuinely great shark film, I can appreciate what director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping, National Treasure) and his crew set-out to do with this film. As it’s obvious quite early on that ‘The Meg’ doesn’t take itself that seriously, having numerous jokes and self-aware lines scattered throughout its runtime, a clear departure from the mostly straight-faced novel: ‘MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror’ by Steve Alten, which the film is partly an adaptation of. However, that isn’t to say that the humour within ‘The Meg’ is quality comedy, as a large majority of the film’s comedic lines feel either forced or childish, with any lines that aren’t intended for humour usually being clichéd pieces of dialogue along the lines of: “What Have We Done?” and “There’s Something Out There!”

While there is an argument to be made that all you really need for an enjoyable summer action flick is Jason Statham and something for Jason Statham to kill, I feel ‘The Meg’ is another film that further proves this method of casting for blockbusters isn’t always the right call. As whilst Statham’s actual talent for swimming is put to fantastic use in this film, Statham often just plays himself, rarely even making an effort to make ‘Jonas’ an actual character. The film’s supporting cast are unfortunately, even worse, as whilst Rainn Wilson seems to at least be having fun portraying ‘Jack Morris,’ the smug billionaire funding the underwater research facility, the rest of the cast e.g. Bingbing Li, Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy and Winston Chao, are all saddled with roles that can barely be described as archetypes.

The film’s cinematography by Tom Stern is creative when it wants to be, occasionally dragging the camera in and out of the water almost as if the camera operator is in the middle of the ocean just beside the characters, which is even more impressive as all of the film’s ocean sequences were filmed within two large water-tanks built in Kumeu, New Zealand, with one tank utilising a two-hundred-foot green-screen on one side for shots above the ocean’s surface. Yet where the film falters in terms of visuals is with the meg itself, as although the CGI that brings the gigantic apex-predator to life is more than serviceable, the film’s camerawork rarely displays the creature’s size in full through wide-shots, which is an abysmal waste of potential considering the film’s megalodon is over seventy-five foot-long.

Furthermore, Harry Gregson-Williams’ original score for: ‘The Meg’ has its moments, but is often disappointing, as despite the film’s signature track: ‘Mana One’ being a coruscating way to introduce the underwater research facility. This track is sadly very underused, only making two more appearances from that point onwards, which is frustrating as the rest of the soundtrack, in particular, the tracks: ‘Prehistoric Species,’ ‘Tracker,’ ‘Shark Cage’ and ‘Beach Attack’ merely sound like tracks taken from any generic action score.

When it comes to the film’s titular creature, many of the visual effects artists who worked on ‘The Meg’ did research into how sharks swim, breathe and hunt in real-life in an attempt to understand how a creature of that scale could realistically be presented on-screen. Most of these supposed details are generally unavailing, however, as the film constantly plays fast and loose with the laws of deep-water biology similar to most shark films, in addition having nearly all of the meg’s kills be entirely devoid of blood.

All in all, whilst ‘The Meg’s goal of modernising a creature-feature storyline and then transferring it into an exciting summer blockbuster is certainly commendable. I’d rather stick to ‘Deep Blue Sea’ for my fill of a cheesy shark flick, as when ‘The Meg’ is lacking, it’s truly lacking, becoming nothing more than a trite and stereotypical mess that is often too formulaic for its own good. Still, the film’s flaws didn’t stop it from becoming a worldwide success, as ‘The Meg’ grossed over £383 million, meaning its very likely that we’ll be receiving a sequel (with many of the same problems no doubt) in the near future. Final Rating: low 4/10.

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Logan (2017) – Film Review

Even though many comic book fans weren’t delighted when it was first announced that the then unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman, would be taking on the pivotal role of: ‘Wolverine’ for the first live-action ‘X-Men’ film, nowadays it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, with Jackman appearing in multiple films as the regenerative superhero. But when it finally came time for Jackman to sheathe his claws in 2017 with ‘Logan,’ the foreboding task of bringing this beloved character’s cinematic story to a close fell to director James Mangold (Walk the Line, The Wolverine, Le Mans ’66), who suitably crafted a brutal, bloody and surprisingly thoughtful final-outing for the iconic hero.

Plot Summary: In a bleak future where mutants are nearly extinct, a weary ‘Logan’ leads a quiet life as an undercover limo driver, caring for an ailing: ‘Charles Xavier’ at a remote outpost on the Mexican border as he awaits his inevitable death, slowly being poisoned by his adamantium skeleton. But ‘Logan’s plans to hide himself away from the outside world are swiftly upended when he meets ‘Laura,’ a mutant child on the run from a sinister organisation…

Very loosely based on the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series, ‘Logan’ is a film free of the baggage that comes with being a part of the ‘X-Men’ franchise, as beyond a couple of nods/references the film essentially ignores much of: ‘Logan’s past, which is definitely a decision made for the better, in my opinion. As the now-discontinued franchise was only ever consistent in its lack of consistency, jumping from entertaining entries such as: ‘X-Men: First Class’ and ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ to greatly disappointing ones like ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse.’ ‘Logan,’ however, takes a very different route, focusing on a straight-forward road-trip narrative that explores ‘Logan’s struggle between his human compassion and animalistic killer instinct.

These ideas all massively benefit from the film’s performances, as ‘Logan’ is without a doubt Jackman’s finest performance as the titular character, as when placed alongside Patrick Stewart, who returns as ‘Charles Xavier/Professor X,’ the pair of actors portray far more broken versions of their respective characters, as ‘Logan’ grapples with alcoholism and the immense guilt for all those he has hurt, while ‘Charles’ is now a delusional shell of the man he once was, battling dementia with all the pharmaceuticals that ‘Logan’ can afford. Boyd Holbrook also delivers a praiseworthy performance as ‘Donald Pierce,’ the leader of the merciless security team tasked with capturing ‘Laura’ (portrayed brilliantly by Dafne Keen). And whilst it’s no easy task to stand toe-to-toe with Jackman’s ‘Wolverine’ and seem like a sincere threat, Holbrook does exactly that. For me, the only out-of-place casting choice is Stephen Merchant as ‘Caliban,’ as although Merchant isn’t awful by any means, I never felt his performance quite matched-up to those around him. Though this is somewhat redeemed by the parental relationship between ‘Logan’ and ‘Laura,’ which in many ways, is the true heart of the film.

Taking heavy inspiration from a number of classic westerns, the cinematography for: ‘Logan’ handled by John Mathieson gives the film a vastly different appeal than any of the films the character has previously appeared in. As director James Mangold keeps the film grounded in reality as much as possible, having the story take place primarily in remote towns, barren deserts and wide-reaching woodlands, in addition to filming on-location and utilising a large number of practical effects to avoid becoming too CGI-heavy similar to some of the other entries in the ‘X-Men’ series.

The film’s original score by Marco Beltrami is also incredibly effective at building tension and evoking emotion, as the score combines almost horror-esque tracks with far more dramatic pieces to deliver a varied yet still fitting soundtrack, with tracks such as: ‘The Reavers,’ ‘X-24’ and ‘Farm Aid’ being almost uncomfortable to listen to, while the score’s final track: ‘Don’t Be What They Made You’ is a beautifully sombre piece that will undoubtedly bring a tear to any listener’s eye.

Yet the highlight of: Logan’ for most viewers will surely be its thrilling action sequences, as due to ‘Logan’ being the second ‘X-Men’ film to have a higher age rating behind 2016’s ‘Deadpool,’ the film never shies away from displaying graphic violence, having scene-upon-scene of criminals and security alike being slashed and torn apart by ‘Logan’ and ‘Laura.’ Finally giving in to comic book enthusiast’s demands and allowing ‘Wolverine’ to exhibit his animalistic nature and fully unleash his berserker rage, resulting in innumerable moments of blood-spattering, barbarous fight choreography.

Altogether, I feel ‘Logan’ earns the gut-wrenching reactions it initially received from ‘Wolverine’ fanatics. As despite the ‘X-Men’ franchise as a whole being extremely inconsistent, ‘Logan’ is a film that proves blockbuster franchises should save their best film for last, as Hugh Jackman’s long-running portrayal of the character will no doubt go down in cinematic history. And I truly have pity for whichever Marvel executive will tasked with recasting ‘Wolverine’ when the day eventually arrives for a reboot of the character/franchise, as finding another actor to fill Jackman’s shoes will be no easy task, but for whoever does, I’m sure most fans will need an adjustment period. Final Rating: high 8/10.

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