Harbinger Down (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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 over-played nowadays, ‘Inception’s original score by Hans Zimmer was nothing short of ground-breaking 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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Pixels (2015) – Film Review

Despite its undeniably promising story and talented supporting cast, 2015’s ‘Pixels’ is sure to greatly disappoint any viewer hoping for a hilarious and nostalgic throwback to 1980s arcade classics. As due to heavy involvement from Adam Sandler and his production company Happy Madison Productions both on and off-screen, ‘Pixels’ massively stumbles in its transition from the low-budget short film it’s originally based on into an explosive blockbuster, losing all of its charm and creative ideas to simply become another Adam Sandler comedy with some inspired visual effects.

Plot Summary: When aliens misinterpret a satellite video feed of 1980s arcade games as a declaration of war, they begin a full-scale invasion of Earth using games like ‘PAC-MAN,’ ‘Donkey Kong,’ ‘Centipede,’ and ‘Space Invaders’ as models for their various assaults. Eventually leading U.S. President: ‘Will Cooper’ to call on his childhood best friend, 80s video-game champion: ‘Sam Brenner,’ to lead a team of old-school arcaders to help defeat the alien invaders and save the planet…

As previously mentioned, ‘Pixels’ is actually based on a 2011 short film of the same name by French director Patrick Jean, which since being uploaded to YouTube has raked in well over two-million views. And whilst I personally believe the short film’s story of video-game characters invading Earth is a superb set-up for sci-fi-comedy, ‘Pixels’ unique plot is quickly butchered by screenwriter Tim Herlihy’s continuous writing fallbacks, as the film is content to stick with the usual Sandler template, using its inventive premise as simply framework to focus on a tired romantic hook-up storyline. Not even director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) manages to elevate the film’s story when the eight-bit antagonists aren’t on-screen, which is all quite frustrating when considering the film’s enormous budget of over £64 million.

Even though the supporting cast of Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox and Sean Bean do feel as if they are trying their best considering the mélange of underwritten characters and awful dialogue they have to work with. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, and surprisingly even Michelle Monaghan are all immensely irritating throughout the film, playing into their standard goofball personas without even a single attempt to lean outside of their comfort zones as actors. Josh Gad certainly suffers the worst in this regard, however, as his character: ‘Ludlow Lamonsoff’ serves as the cliché for video-game enthusiasts, portraying ‘Ludlow’ as a loud yet awkward loner who spends all of his time playing games in his room rather than socialising, a gag which gets old after about a minute.

The cinematography by Amir Mokri does allow for a few pleasant shots here and there, but whenever the film focuses more on dialogue than action, the camerawork seemingly takes a swift dive into drabness. Luckily, this is where ‘Pixels’ many, many visual effects shots come into play, adding a great level of colour and 1980s authenticity into the film just as the many arcade cabinets littering the sets do, even if games such as: ‘Asteroids,’ ‘Battle Zone,’ and ‘Gravitar’ did cause issues on set due to them being vector-class games, meaning the camera couldn’t pick-up their gameplay from certain angles without the use of a special monitor.

When it comes to the original score by Henry Jackman, ‘Pixels’ doesn’t improve much here either, as tracks like ‘The Invasion,’ ‘To the White House,’ and ‘Sweet Spot’ only continue to empathise the true extent of the soundtrack’s bland and forgettable nature, and similar to Jackman’s score for: ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ I couldn’t help but wonder as to why Jackman didn’t go for a more traditional eight-bit approach.

Whilst we never actually see the invader’s true form at any point during the film, ‘Pixel’s CG effects are consistent and by far the film’s finest attribute, as each iconic video-game character is represented exactly as they were in their original game(s), just as colourful and robotic as when they first appeared to gamers during the 80s. And just like the original short film, when destroyed the various characters also explode, bursting into pixels (glowing multi-coloured cubes), before then configuring themselves back together to transform into another instantly recognisable hieroglyph from video gaming’s past, which never fails to look enticing.

Overall, while I, like many others am not a Sandler fanatic, ‘Pixels’ is a film that truly baffles me as to just how far it is from its original inspiration. As even in spite of its annoying cast, childish characters and forced romantic subplot, there could still be a fairly enjoyable throwback to alien invasion flicks and 1980s gaming hidden somewhere within this mess. But when looking at the film head on, I now think it’s just too hard to ignore all its problems, and while most had the common sense to stay clear of this abysmal sci-fi/comedy, I’m still amazed ‘Pixels’ managed to ruin all of its fleeting moments of eight-bit invaders wreaking havoc just to fall into Adam Sandler’s long list of detestable comedies. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Gravity (2013) – Film Review

A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable abyss of outer-space, 2013’s ‘Gravity’ is equal parts tense and beautiful. Taking over four-years to produce and winning numerous Oscars back in 2014 for everything from its effects to its cinematography to its sound editing, ‘Gravity’ serves as not only the long-awaited follow-up to director Alfonso Cuarón’s previous sci-fi film: ‘Children of Men,’ but also as one of the most immersive films to ever take place in the inhospitable vacuum of space.

Plot Summary: On her very first mission aboard the NASA space shuttle: ‘Explorer,’ novice biomedical engineer: ‘Dr. Ryan Stone’ and her accompanying seasoned astronaut: ‘Matt Kowalski’ come face-to-face with an irrevocable disaster during a routine spacewalk when a barrage of debris from a crippled Russian satellite inflicts devastating damage to their shuttle, leaving them both stranded in orbit…

Co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón, ‘Gravity’ is many ways less of a science fiction flick than it is a film grounded in real-world science, as it quickly becomes clear whilst watching ‘Gravity’ that the pair did their research into the fundamentals of space, presenting the narrative almost as if it’s based on a true story oppose to relying on flashy explosions to morph the film into a generic sci-fi blockbuster. Yet interestingly, author Tess Gerritsen actually filed suit against Warner Bros. Pictures following ‘Gravity’s release, claiming the film was unofficially based on her novel and that she was entitled to a screen credit and a fair percentage of the film’s profits, but this was never proven to be true, even if both stories do share many similarities.

With around 80% of the film being shot on a green-screen or consisting of CGI, there were plenty of opportunities for the performances throughout ‘Gravity’ to be underwhelming. And yet, this is not the case, as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney both give brilliant performances here, with Bullock in particular impressing not only due her acting chops, but also her memorisation skills. As with Alfonso Cuarón bringing his signature lengthy takes into ‘Gravity,’ Bullock had to memorise long combinations of precise movements in order to hit her marks for each shot, often even having to coordinate her movements with those of the wire-rig and the camera, which is no easy task.

Brimming with many, many stunning shots in addition to the previously mentioned one takes. ‘Gravity’s cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki rarely ceases to amaze, as the film wastes no time in capturing the viewer’s attention by jumping straight into the story with its opening scene, which begins with the camera traveling from an establishing shot of Earth over to ‘Dr. Stone’ detaching from a structure all without a single cut, which in total, lasts around twelve and a half minutes. That being only one aspect of the impressive camerawork ‘Gravity’ displays, another being the film’s excellent use of P.O.V. shots which place the audience directly into ‘Dr. Stone’s space suit, further adding to the film’s tense atmosphere. Furthermore, all of the film’s cinematography is greatly elevated by the magnificent lighting, editing, and CG effects which back it up.

As a result of: ‘Gravity’s realistic approach, for a large majority of the film’s nighty-nine-minute runtime there is little sound heard aside from dialogue, this places a lot of pressure onto the film’s original score by Steven Price, which luckily, manages to strike the perfect balance between terror and wonder. As tracks like ‘Above Earth,’ ‘Debris,’ and ‘Don’t Let Go’ push the score into becoming a remarkable exploration of the absolute isolationism of outer-space. Gradually building-up with pulsing electronic beats and gloomy vocals, until it eventually expands in intensity and volume alike, capturing the fear of what lies beyond the stars just as it does with the beauty.

The most common criticism ‘Gravity’ has faced since its release is that the film is focused more on spectacle than anything else, as while all of: ‘Gravity’s large-scale set-pieces are usually beyond-thrilling, some shots do feel as if they were implemented purely for the sake of 3D and IMAX screenings, which is difficult to ignore. This alongside the film’s lack of development in some areas does leave ‘Gravity’ a little devoid of memorability when compared to some other iconic films set within the vast emptiness of space, e.g. ‘Ad Astra,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and ‘Moon.’

In conclusion, whilst ‘Gravity’ may not live-up to the immensely positive reviews its received in recent years, it is still a captivating piece of science fiction and a true marvel of filmmaking. It’s just for me personally, I find the actual filmmaking process and behind-the-scenes material of: ‘Gravity’ far more interesting than the story itself, perhaps that’s due to its underdeveloped characters or another element entirely. Regardless, I feel even with its issues, ‘Gravity’ will remain a testament as to what can truly be achieved with modern technology when it comes to film. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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The Void (2016) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tarantula (1955) – Film Review

Before the horror genre truly began capitalising on the common phobia of creepy crawlies with films like ‘Arachnophobia,’ ‘Itsy Bitsy,’ ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’ and ‘Eight Legged Freaks,’ the 1955 sci-fi-horror classic: ‘Tarantula’ terrified many viewers with its marvellous creature effects and continuously unnerving atmosphere. Ensuring the film would go on to be the exemplary for future monster flicks despite featuring many of the usual problems plaguing creature-features at the time.

Plot Summary: In a remote facility in the Arizona desert, ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ is conducting a series of experiments in the hopes of finding a way to increase the world’s food supply, injecting growth hormones into various animals to greatly increase their size. But when a tarantula escapes from the isolated laboratory, still growing at a exponential rate due to the formula, the giant arachnid begins to wreak havoc on a nearby town…

Directed by the late Jack Arnold (With These Hands, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), ‘Tarantula’ was just one of the many science fiction flicks Arnold undertook throughout his career, and in a similar fashion to many of his other stories revolving around horrifying creatures, ‘Tarantula’ was part of the 1950s wave of sci-fi/horror films crafted around the newfound fear of nuclear radiation following World War II. Yet while we now know ‘Tarantula‘ did greatly help in creating the ‘giant animal’ subgenre, there is an argument to be made that if not for the release of: ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ just a year prior, ‘Tarantula’ may not even exist, as general audiences only gained interest in creature-features on account of that film’s success.

The late John Agar portrays the film’s square-jawed hero: ‘Dr. Matt Hastings,’ and just like a large majority of male protagonists in 50s sci-fi, ‘Dr. Hastings’ is charismatic-enough to carry the film in spite of the actual character receiving very little development over the course of the runtime. And as expected, ‘Tarantula’ also includes a romantic subplot between ‘Dr. Hastings’ and secondary protagonist: ‘Stephanie Clayton’ portrayed by Mara Corday, which although made palatable by Agar and Corday, still feels pretty forced. However, one of the film’s biggest missed-opportunities is certainly ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ portrayed by the late Leo G. Carrol, as whilst Carrol gives a decent performance here, the story sadly pushes his character into the background and nearly entirely ignores the suffering his character later endures after injecting himself with his formula, making his character’s inclusion seem quite superfluous.

Despite the many creature effects throughout ‘Tarantula’ clearly being the film’s main focus, the cinematography by the late George Robinson does have its share of attractive shots even with the film’s lack of colour/camera movement due to the technological restrictions of the time-period. As any wide-shots displaying the vast Arizona desert or the fictional town of: ‘Desert Rock’ are fairly appealing, and occasionally, even add to the film’s tense atmosphere as the uneven rocky landscape alongside the film’s dim lighting allows the giant arachnid to often lurk unseen.

The original score by the late Herman Stein and the late Henry Mancini is a thunderous and sometimes overly-dramatic score, feeling very much like a soundtrack taken from films of the 1950s for better, and for worse. And while both composers are often uncredited for their work on the film, ‘Tarantula’ is far from the first time Herman Stein has collaborated with director Jack Arnold, providing scores (and having much of his music reused) for a number of his films.

But of course, ‘Tarantula’ will always be best known for its effects, which are in all fairness the film’s best attribute. As whilst many fondly remembered science fiction and horror films of the 1950s relied on models, costumes and stop-motion to bring their strange creatures to-life, many of these filmmaking techniques can feel very dated and tacky by today’s standards for films brimming with CGI. This isn’t the case with ‘Tarantula’s effects however, as the way the film brings its signature creature to-life is quite innovative, as the filmmakers actually used a real tarantula shot separately from the rest of the film, before it was then enlarged and composited/projected onto the desert locations. This clever technique allows the spider to move naturally, and was not only state-of-the-art for the era, but is still quite impressive now, as the matte effect is usually impeccable aside from one or two shots where some of the tarantula’s legs seem to phase through the environment.

Overall, just like many other films released around the time of the 1950s/1960s, ‘Tarantula’ does have its entertainment-value, but is also much slower-paced and far more simplistic than many of the sci-fi blockbusters and epic creature-features we’d see released today. Yet whilst its characters are a little uninspired and the film is more about spectacle than anything else, ‘Tarantula’ definitely has its moments, and even if just for the effects alone, I think it deserves its place as a 50s classic, flaws and all. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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