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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It: Chapter Two (2019) – Film Review

Once again directed by Andy Muschietti, and once again based on the iconic novel by Steven King (only this time the more adult portions of the story). ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unfortunately a downgrade from the first film, as in spite of its excellent cast and continuously impressive visuals, ‘It: Chapter Two’ proves that bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to sequels, as the film’s over-reliance on giant CG monsters along with its inconsistent tone and unreasonably long runtime of two-hours and fifty-minutes, demonstrate how this spinechilling follow-up frequently over-indulges in its source material.

Plot Summary: After being defeated by ‘The Losers Club’ many years ago, the demonic clown: ‘Pennywise’ returns twenty-seven-years later to terrorise the town of: ‘Derry’ once again. And with the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways, ‘Mike Hanlon,’ the only member of the group to remain in ‘Derry,’ calls his friends home for one final stand against the shapeshifting creature…

Jumping from character-to-character and location-to-location, many of: ‘It: Chapter Two’s biggest faults appear within its screenplay, as rather than focusing on a straight-forward narrative like the original film, this time around the film revolves most of its plot around a bootless errand of a story where ‘The Losers’ search all over ‘Derry’ to acquire various artifacts from their younger days in order to perform ‘The Ritual of Chud,’ which will supposedly destroy ‘Pennywise.’ The problem being that much of this set-up is ultimately meaningless, as almost every character receives their own segment in which they simply recall moments from their childhood, which often just recap scenes from the first film or leave the audience bloated as a result of the huge amount of exposition they have to digest.

Yet it has to be said, that James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ranson, and Andy Bean all portray the older versions of their characters remarkably, as despite the characters now being much older, each actor/actress recreates the younger actor’s body moments and manner of speaking flawlessly. ‘It: Chapter Two’ also never forgets to reinforce the character’s trauma, as even though ‘Bill’ is a successful writer and ‘Ben’ has remodelled himself into a muscular architect etc. Each member of the group is still haunted by their past, or at least, what they can remember from it. Of course, Bill Skarsgård also returns as ‘Pennywise,’ and while his performance does occasionally venture into ‘Beetlejuice’ territory due to how over-the-top he gets, Skarsgård is still endlessly entertaining as the malevolent clown.

This time around the cinematography is handled by Checco Varese, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that ‘It: Chapter Two’ had a different cinematographer, as the film is just as visually pleasing as its predecessor, with some elegantly orchestrated transitions between the character’s incarnations thrown in for good measure. The huge increase in budget also comes across through the film’s visuals, as ‘It: Chapter Two’ feels much grander in scale and presentation alike. However, where the sequel stumbles is with its scares, as instead of utilising ‘Pennywise’s mimicking ability to transform into every character’s greatest fear, the film lazily depends on towering CG creatures, which usually have little relation to the characters or the story at large, and although a number of the monsters are interesting design-wise, it doesn’t stop them from feeling out-of-place.

Benjamin Wallfisch’s original score effectively continues on from that of the first film, as tracks such as: ‘Losers Reunited,’ ‘Nothing Lasts Forever,’ and ‘Stan’s Letter’ are calming and beautiful, whereas tracks like ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Very Scary’ are loud and intense to add to the film’s horror. The main issue with the soundtrack is in its lack of distinction from the first film’s score, and while I understand ‘It: Chapter Two’ is essentially just the second part of a larger story, the original score does little to set itself apart from the first, with some tracks even sounding near-identical to others.

Even though it can’t be denied that ‘It: Chapter Two’ is trying to accomplish a great deal within its lengthy runtime, spending a large portion of its story in flashbacks and dream sequences as it attempts to adapt everything not already covered in the first film, the sequel is saddled with an even bigger obstacle. That being its climax, as although by this point its well-known that Steven King has difficulty writing a satisfying ending (a criticism that the film repeatedly mocks), ‘It: Chapter Two’ is faced with this exact task. And while the film doesn’t completely fail, the climax does leave a lot to be desired, particularly when the story begins to veer beyond supernatural elements into the metaphysical surrealism that King enjoys.

In conclusion, ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unquestionably an ambitious horror sequel. With a renowned cast, spectacular set-pieces, and numerous exciting moments, the film truly goes all out. But does it work? Well, not entirely, but it’s a diverting horror blockbuster, nonetheless. And whilst I feel that by splitting the story of: ‘It’ into two separate films, Muschietti has done a gratifying job of commanding the massive machine that is King’s extensive novel, most of the issues with ‘It: Chapter Two’ do boil down to its story and structure, which end-up leaving the film a pleasurable romp, but not quite the ghoulish denouement it could’ve been. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Into the Storm (2014) – Film Review

Clumsily written and populated with forgettable characters, ‘Into the Storm,’ released in 2014, has little to offer beyond its admittedly prodigious CG effects. Taking heavy inspiration from the exemplary tornado blockbuster: ‘Twister’ from 1996, ‘Into the Storm’ plays it fast and loose with its story, jumping from scene-to-scene without much thought as to how well everything connects or even functions, this is especially clear when looking at the film’s visuals, which rarely stick to the found-footage style its camerawork is trying to emulate.

Plot Summary: In the span of a single day, the small town of Silverton, Oklahoma is ravaged by an unprecedented onslaught of tornadoes, forcing residents to abandon their daily duties and seek shelter as fast as they possibly can. But as the entire town is at the mercy of the destructive cyclones, one group of storm-chasers ride directly into the storm, risking their lives to study the phenomenon and procure that perfect shot…

Directed by Steven Quale (Starfire, Final Destination 5, American Renegades), ‘Into the Storm’ not only takes (perhaps a little too much) inspiration from ‘Twister’ for its plot, but also many real-world events. Specifically, a catastrophe that occurred in Dallas County in 1986, where there were several reported occurrences of multiple tornadoes striking the same county over a roughly one-hour time-period. And whilst the image of a tornado of fire may sound like a creation ripped straight out of a campy 80s action flick, the cyclone of flames is in reality, just one of the many seemingly absurd moments in the film that were actually based on real life events, at least, according to screenwriter John Swetnam.

While disaster films have always valued spectacle over character, ‘Into the Storm’ is on another level, as the entire cast of Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Arlen Escarpeta, and Alycia Jasmin Debnam-Carey are all immensely dull to watch, not necessarily because of their performances, but because of the screenplay. As aside from the single-minded storm-chaser: ‘Pete’ portrayed by Matt Walsh, who has at least something resembling a personality, most of the characters feel as if they are made out of wood, exclaiming cringy jokes and unnatural lines of dialogue that come across as nothing but forced. It seems many of the actors even tried to make their characters more interesting where they could, as supposedly there was a fair amount of improvisation on set.

Despite ‘Into the Storm’ apparently also being a found-footage flick, it’s rare that the cinematography by Brian Pearson actually appears like one, from vast wide-shots to intimate close-ups, many shots are completely devoid of harsh movements and always retain flawless quality regardless of which character is filming or what device they are filming on. Moreover, with much of the film’s narrative relying on the idea of the film itself being a documentary, various interviews are featured near the beginning and end of the runtime, yet this potentially stimulating concept is soon spoilt as a result of the film’s structure, which is fairly disorganised. The only aspect of this found-footage approach that comes across effectivity is in the final scene, as the film utilises archive footage from news stations that covered a real EF5 tornado that hit Oklahoma in 2013.

Although the original score by Brian Tyler is expectedly quite bland, there are still a few tracks such as: ‘Into the Storm,’ ‘Fate,’ and ‘We Stay Together’ that back-up many of the film’s exciting moments successfully. But the issue here isn’t within the score itself, it’s the fact that there is a score to begin with, as every second ‘Into the Storm’ attempts to be an intense and realistic disaster epic, its simultaneously sabotaging itself by bombarding the audience with a loud, non-diegetic soundtrack, often distracting from the destructive chaos on-screen with its whirling violins and blaring brass horns.

When it comes to realism, some film buffs have questioned whether certain events within the story could occur in real life, such as whether a tornado could actually lift an aircraft off the ground as depicted in one scene. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the CG effects during these scenes are certainly the finest element of: ‘Into the Storm,’ as along with its voluminous set-design, which perfectly displays the incredible force of nature that a tornado is with cars, trees, and billboards thrown in every direction, are magnificent in their sheer scale alone. Even if the film would’ve benefited from the use of a few more practical effects to even out its enormous use of CGI, harkening back in a way to the classic disaster films of the 70s like ‘Airport’ and ‘Earthquake.’

All in all, ‘Into the Storm’ is essentially just a visual effects showreel that lasts over ninety-minutes. As although the film boats some exhilarating yet feasible moments of peril as director Steven Quale crafts plenty of riveting set-pieces ranging from crashing trucks to golf ball-sized hailstorms. Due to the film’s lack of compelling characters, inconsistent filmmaking, and truly awful lines of dialogue, such thrills soon become monotonous, and by the end of its runtime, ‘Into the Storm’ winds-up as either an unimaginative disaster flick, or a near-remake of: ‘Twister’ depending on your perspective. Final Rating: 3/10.

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Winter’s Bone (2010) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is a bleak, haunting, and yet still somehow hopeful story set in rural America, acting as both a captivating drama and a suspenseful crime-thriller. The film is an intense and uncompromising look at the Missouri underclass through the eyes of a diligent teenager, blending its star-making performance from Jennifer Lawrence with skilfully shot sequences and incredible set-dressing to create a stunning and authentic portrait of Missouri life, all under the capable hand of writer and director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, Leave No Trace).

Plot Summary: With an absent father and a mute, mentally ill mother, seventeen-year-old: ‘Ree Dolly’ acts as the primary guardian for her household, caring for her younger siblings with minimal funds. But when the local Sheriff turns up at her door, informing her that their house has been put up as collateral bail by her missing father, ‘Ree’ is forced to use what little knowledge she has of her father’s nefarious activities to find him before its too late, soon discovering that many locals don’t appreciate her poking her nose into their business…

Despite her many previous successes, Debra Granik still had a great deal of difficulty finding funding for: ‘Winter’s Bone,’ as after the screenplay had been written, Granik and her co-writer Anne Rosellini budgeted the film at around £3 million, but every potential group of financiers they approached all said the same thing: “Cast the Film, and Then We’ll Talk.” Thus, casting directors Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden began approaching various actresses and eventually settled on the then-unknown eighteen-year-old actress, Jennifer Lawrence. As although she had never carried a film before, only having taken small roles in the past, both Schnee and Barden felt Lawrence had the perfect tomboyish demeanour for the character, in addition to having strong roots in Kentucky.

Winning an Oscar for her performance in 2011, ‘Winter’s Bone’ greatly benefits from ‘Ree Dolly’ as a character and Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of her. This is mostly due to ‘Ree’ being such a rare female protagonist for a film such as this, as with her errant father’s only bankable skill being his ability to cook methamphetamine, ‘Ree’ is left to care for her family, teaching her younger siblings survival skills to prepare them for when they are older (for which Jennifer Lawrence had to learn how to correctly skin squirrels and chop wood), and after she is informed of the limited time she and her family still have within their house, ‘Ree’ becomes relentlessly determined to save her home, occasionally even risking her life all in pursuit of caring for her loved ones and ensuring her siblings have a future.

Michael McDonough’s stark cinematography captures the essence of what life in the brutal and sparsely populated Ozark, Missouri (a.k.a. the Ozark Mountains) is like, as the camerawork allows for many delectable shots, from the camera peering around corners to lurking over character’s shoulders, the cinematography constantly lends itself to the film’s frostbitten colour palette and beautiful bitterness of the story’s setting, which is all enhanced by the entire film being shot on-location.

Furthermore, the original score by Dickon Hinchliffe utilises instruments common to the Ozark region, making use of violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos, in a way that is unique to the film. For example, the way banjos are used throughout the soundtrack, particularly in the tracks: ‘I’ll Find Him,’ ‘Hardscrabble Elegy,’ ‘Down the Road,’ and ‘The Trees,’ deviates from the instrument’s stereotypical image of being associated with hillbillies and rednecks. One of the film’s final tracks: ‘The Lake’ is also worth a quick mention, purely for how unnerving and incredibly atmospheric it is.

For authenticity purposes, most of the supporting cast of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ weren’t actual actors/actresses, but locals from the surrounding area. ‘Ree’s sister for instance, was one of these actresses, and the exterior of her home we see in the film is actually her house in real life. Sticking to this idea of authenticity, nearly all of clothes that the characters wear are clothes provided by the locals, as the production crew gave locals brand new clothes in exchange for their old, frayed items. If I had to guess, I’d also assume many of the houses we set foot within belonged to these same locals, as every room we enter appears genuine, with no area ever seeming as if it was set-dressed regardless of how many items are in one space at a time.

To conclude, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is spectacular in its efforts as a drama and a crime-thriller alike, as it’s intelligent, well-written, and entirely non-patronising story is as tense and as entertaining as these respective genres come. And whilst many Oscar-winning films can often be disappointing beyond whatever aspect is their main talking point, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is also beautifully shot and well-paced, with Jennifer Lawrence’s career-defining performance simply being the icing on top of the cake. So, even if the first act of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ is slightly slow and repetitive, after that initial hump, the film thrives as a rewarding and richly detailed exploration of the strength required when being confronted with unpleasant truths. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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John Wick (2014) – Film Review

Proving he still has what it takes when it comes to more physically challenging films, fifty-year-old Keanu Reeves triumphantly returned to the action genre in late 2014 with ‘John Wick,’ an exceptional neo-noir action-thriller brimming with incredible stunts, thrilling action sequences and an unexpectedly high number of attractive shots. And while few films within the action genre are known for their intricate stories or layered dialogue, this included, there’s no denying the dexterity that went into its filming, certifying ‘John Wick’ as a name that will be heard for years to come.

Plot Summary: After retiring from his career as a deadly hitman to marry the love of his life, legendary assassin: ‘John Wick’ finds himself alone once again when her sudden death leaves him in deep mourning. But when a gang of Russian mobsters led by the arrogant mob-prince: ‘Losef Tarasov,’ break into his house in order to steal his prized 1969 Mustang, killing his newly adopted puppy in the process, the last gift from his wife, ‘John’ decides to come out of retirement to track down those that wronged him…

Despite having a smaller-budget than many other action films, directors Chad Stahelski (a former stuntman from a kick-boxing background) and David Leitch, who actually goes uncredited due to DGA regulations only allowing for only one director to be credited, manage to do a lot with very little. Not only in terms of action, but also world-building, as ‘John Wick’ swiftly establishes a seedy criminal underbelly beneath New York City, complete with assassins, mobsters and a contract killer hotel known as ‘The Continental,’ without ever relying on large dumps of exposition from disposable side characters. This fluidity even continues into the film’s screenplay, as the film tells its simplistic yet entertaining story with total proficiency.

Quickly becoming one of his most iconic roles, Keanu Reeves truly shines as ‘John Wick,’ as despite Reeves having given his fair share of weak performances in the past, ‘John Wick’ is certainly not one of them, as Reeves’ preparation for the role included eight-hours of weapons and martial arts training every day for over four-months, which he put to great use as Reeves performed over 90% of his own stunts. And although ‘John Wick’s characterisation is minimal, it’s enough to make his inclination for revenge understandable, as what remained of: ‘John’s peaceful life following his wife’s death is unjustly ruined. The rest of the cast, including the late Mikael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane, all portray their characters well even if many of them simply feel like cogs in a machine, serving their purpose within the plot before then vanishing.

Bathing many of the film’s early scenes in greys and whites before then implementing more colourful visuals through expressive greens and blues as ‘John’ begins to reimmerse himself in the criminal underworld he’d escaped many years ago. The colour palette of: ‘John Wick’ may be grim, but the film never descends into unattractiveness, as the cinematography by Jonathan Sela in addition to the film’s dramatic lighting further enhance the many car chases, fistfights, and shootouts ‘John’ finds himself within. Additionally, the film continues to play into its neo-noir style through its subtitles, with each line fading on-screen in a slick font with specific words even having their colours altered to increase their impact.

Moreover, Tyler Bates’ original score considerably helps build tension during many scenes throughout the film, as pulse-pounding tracks such as: ‘Assassins,’ ‘Shots Fired’ and ‘Warehouse Smackdown’ are endlessly energetic without ever distracting from the story, along with the titles themselves being a clear indication of the excitement that is to come. Aside from the more action-oriented tracks, the soundtrack also boasts the perfect theme for: ‘John Wick’ himself, as ‘On the Hunt’ captures the relentless nature of the character flawlessly.

Unlike the shaky camerawork and constant quick-cutting that make action flicks like ‘Taken’ and ‘Alex Cross’ nearly unbearable at times, ‘John Wick’ thrives when it comes to its action, as every gunfight and fistfight is fast-paced and kinetic yet never bemusing. This is heavily due to the film’s fight choreography being just as comprehensible as it is exhilarating, with each reverting moment having a clear rhythm as ‘John’ never wastes a bullet nor performs an unnecessary move. Furthermore, ‘John Wick’ even features a good portion of humour within its action sequences, adding small visual gags which amusingly poke fun at ‘John’s brutal efficiency.

In short, ‘John Wick’ delivers on exactly what anyone would expect to see from a film like this, as the action is thrilling and the body-count is excessive, plus most of the filmmaking surprisingly is better than average for the action genre. And although it’s true that later films in the ‘John Wick’ franchise are much flashier, I find that the sequels often get bogged down by their continuous attempts to introduce as many new characters and locations as possible, as well as constantly pushing the limit of what ‘John’ can actually survive. So, in many ways, ‘John Wick’ is a film that proves there really is beauty in simplicity, as the admirably lean screenplay propels the film’s galvanising action forward with only the barest of narrative essentials. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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The Ritual (2017) – Film Review

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Adam Nevill, 2017’s ‘The Ritual’ is possibly one of my favourite horrors from Netflix’s extensive list of original films, as although its story revolves around a scenario that many horror fans will likely be familiar with, ‘The Ritual’ effectively uses its sound design and adept visual obfuscation to create an immensely unsettling atmosphere. All the while, developing its characters and exploring themes of grief and manhood in equal measure, turning what could’ve been a wearisome adaptation into an efficient and discomfiting low-budget British horror.

Plot Summary: Haunted by the death of his best friend who was killed during a liquor store robbery six months prior, ‘Luke’ and a group of his former university housemates reunite to mark his passing, hiking across the Scandinavian mountains as a tribute to their lamented friend. But when one of them sprains their ankle, the group are forced to take a short-cut through a nearby forest in order to arrive at their lodge before nightfall, a forest which undenounced to them, is actually the domain of an ancient evil…

Directed by David Bruckner (The Signal, Southbound – Segment: The Accident, The Night House) and executively produced by well-known motion-capture performer Andy Serkis, ‘The Ritual’ takes a large amount of inspiration for its story from classic 1970s horror films in addition to the obvious influences of: ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Deliverance.’ Yet ‘The Ritual’ helps itself stand-out amongst these other ‘lost in the woods’ films predominantly due to its implementation of Norse mythology, as the film continuously integrates many of the darker, more disturbing elements of Norse folklore into its plot, linking back to the film’s Scandinavian setting.

In a refreshing turn for a modern horror, the four central characters of: ‘The Ritual’ frequently act as if they have actually seen a horror film before, but the film doesn’t use this self-awareness to simply indulge in cheeky one-liners and pop culture references. Instead, the characters use this perspective to make insightful decisions, almost immediately realising there is something trailing them. The group of friends, led by Rafe Spall as ‘Luke,’ are all in fine form when it comes to their performances, even if the other three members of the group portrayed by Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton and Arsher Ali all receive less characterisation when compared to ‘Luke,’ which in a way also makes sense, as ‘Luke’ is the cause of the lingering tension among the quartet, with group seemingly believing if ‘Luke’ would’ve intervened as oppose to being frozen in fear, their friend would still be alive. And this resentment comes boiling to the surface over time, giving Spall the perfect opportunity to convey a real sense of frustration and guilt as the group begins to splinter.

The film’s forest setting is utilised incredibly well throughout the film, as the cinematography by Andrew Shulkind treats the vast wilderness as a formidable presence, crafting a sense of pervasive doom with each step the characters take. From extreme wide-shots to uncomfortable P.O.V. shots, the camerawork remains both inventive and visually appealing until the end of the runtime, almost luring viewers in with its breath-taking locations before putting them on edge through the abnormal emptiness. Additionally, more observant viewers may be able to spot many minor details hidden within the background of certain shots, some being far more frightening than others.

The original score by Ben Lovett expertly and artfully taps into the film’s arboreal vibe of Norse mythology, as aside from a handful of tracks which more on synthwave to add to the story’s various dream sequences, most of the soundtrack makes marvellous use of strings, horns, and a small choir, giving the film an old-world feel in the same spirit of modern horrors like ‘The Witch.’ With tracks such as: ‘Four Tents,’ ‘The Ritual,’ ‘Through the Trees’ and ‘Fear God’ all reflecting the horror elements of the story as well as the fractured relationship between the characters.

As mentioned previously, ‘The Ritual’ heavily leans into many of the dourer aspects of Norse folklore when it comes to its story, as the film explores ritual sacrifices and ever lasting life following the reveal of the film’s antagonist, who is a towering elk-like creature known as ‘Jōtunn,’ one of the children of: ‘Loki,’ the God of mischief and mayhem. And whilst ‘Loki’ is famously known to have fathered a multitude of strange beings, including a giant wolf named: ‘Fenrir’ and the colossal sea serpent: ‘Jörmungandr,’ ‘Jōtunn’ is an ideal pick for the film. Being brought-to-life through some above-average CG effects and an exceptional design by renowned concept artist Keith Thompson, ‘Jōtunn’ is a fascinating and distinctive creature, even having many of its attributes further relate back to other stories within Norse mythology.

To conclude, ‘The Ritual’ is a solid entry into the horror genre for more reasons than one, as despite its story not being anything revolutionary and occasionally falling back into skilfully delivered horror tropes. ‘The Ritual’ still manages to construct a mature and slow-burning narrative, only elevated by its fantastic filmmaking, mythological influences, and strong directing from David Bruckner, playing upon the Scandinavian tales of old to deliver something truly alluring. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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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 Grey (2012) – Film Review

Directed by Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team, Boss Level) and based on the short story: ‘Ghost Walker’ by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, 2012’s ‘The Grey’ is a sombre tale of survival populated with fleshed-out characters and some surprisingly compelling themes. As Liam Neeson throws aside his stereotypical action-hero role in exchange for a far more realistic protagonist, which in turn allows the film to fully indulge in its dreary nature and overcome many of its screenplay-related faults to ensure its perilous journey through the Alaskan mountains remains engaging.

Plot Summary: Following a gruelling five-week shift at an Alaskan oil refinery, a team of oil workers including skilled huntsman: ‘John Ottway,’ are flying home for a much-needed rest. But when a savage storm causes their plane to crash in the Alaskan wilderness, the group are forced to trek southward toward civilisation, with a pack of ravenous wolves trailing their every step…

Although ‘The Grey’ is very reminiscent of the 1993 survival-thriller: ‘Alive’ in more ways than one, it’s apparent that Carnahan had something more ambitious in mind than just your conventional story of survival when directing ‘The Grey,’ as the film focuses a large amount of its overly long runtime on extensive dialogue scenes which attempt to develop the film’s characters. And while all of this talk could’ve been dull if executed poorly, ‘The Grey’ is never tedious to watch, as the film intercuts many of its moments of characterisation with uncomfortably tense sequences of the wolf pack stalking (or killing) members of the group.

Speaking of the characters, the whole cast of Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie and James Badge Dale all portray men on the brink of defeat extremely well, as the further the story goes on, the more tired and desperate they look, making the viewer feel genuine empathy for every one of them as they remain stuck in their horrific situation with so sign of rescue. However, Liam Neeson especially never fails to impress throughout the film, giving a truly committed performance as he portrays ‘John Ottway,’ a hunter who since the tragic death of his wife suffers from suicidal tendencies and a lack of self-worth, often leading him to become distant from those he still has left.

Masanobu Takayanagi handles the film’s cinematography, which is, in my opinion, the weakest element of the film, as despite ‘The Grey’ featuring a number of attractive shots, I feel this is less to do with the actual camerawork (which is often hand-held) and more to do with the copious number of beautiful locations the story is set within. As despite my initial belief that ‘The Grey’ was primarily filmed in a temperature-controlled studio, according to Liam Nesson, much of the film was shot on-location in Smithers, British Columbia, where temperatures were as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Meaning that all of the snowstorms seen within the film were actual prevailing weather conditions and not visual effects, so whether the characters were next to an snowy cliff or a flowing stream, I couldn’t help but gaze at the natural beauty of each scenic location the film presented. And just as its title would imply the colour palette of: ‘The Grey’ relies heavily on greys, blues, and whites, which only add to the film’s bleak tone.

Throughout the film, the original score by Marc Streitenfeld is dramatic, atmospheric, and fairly minimal, with the final track: ‘Into the Fray’ being without a doubt being my personal favourite (and most iconic) track from the film, as the largely orchestral soundtrack sustains long notes accompanied by the twinkle of a keyboard or the occasional brass stinger. All being elevated through the score’s exceptional use of howling wolves, glacial winds and most disturbingly… complete silence. Ultimately, adding-up to a chilling yet not exceedingly memorable original score.

An aspect of: ‘The Grey’ that I could see some viewers taking issue with may be how the film’s wolves are represented, as while I personally enjoy how the wolves are depicted in ‘The Grey,’ essentially serving as a pack of ruthless, brutal creatures that will stop at nothing to kill our characters, the animals aren’t exactly treated that realistically with the exception from one or two lines from ‘John’ regarding their protective behaviour. Be that as it may, visually the wolves are brought-to-life through CGI, which could’ve been a disaster considering the film’s moderate-budget, but director Joe Carnahan made the clever decision to obscure the wolves whenever they are on-screen through everything from fog to snow to shadows. So, ‘The Grey’ manages to avoid its CG effects becoming dated as a result of this technique.

To conclude, “Grim” is truly the perfect word to describe ‘The Grey,’ as this harrowing and merciless story of survivalism with very little in the way of positivity or hope. Yet for those who can look past its relentlessly depressing outlook, ‘The Grey’ is a captivating story about pushing through melancholy to reach contentment, which is greatly amplified by its strong cast, prepossessing CG effects and visually stunning locations even in spite of its occasionally bland cinematography and frequently chaotic editing whenever the wolves are on-screen. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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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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Sinister (2012) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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