The Invitation (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

invitation_ver2_xxlg

Hotel Artemis (2018) – Film Review

Easily one of the most overlooked and commercially-underwhelming films of 2018, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is one of those rare releases that feels very unsuited to the genre its actually a part of. As whilst this enclosed story set within the walls of an illegal hospital is certainly interesting, ‘Hotel Artemis’ also bizarrely serves as a science fiction flick. Boasting plenty of futuristic technology alongside its snappy dialogue, charismatic performances and gorgeously-designed central location. Its just a shame the film doesn’t always know what to do with any of the above.

Plot Summary: In the riot-torn, near-future of Los Angeles, 2028. Disgruntled thieves and criminals make their way to ‘Hotel Artemis,’ a secret members-only hospital operated by ‘The Nurse,’ a no-nonsense doctor who tends to their injuries under the condition that anyone who enters the hotel sticks to the set-rules. But after ‘The Nurse’ receives word the notorious crime lord: ‘The Wolf King’ is in-bound with a gunshot wound, ‘The Nurse’ is forced to break her own rules as the hotel is thrown into violent chaos.

Written and directed by Drew Pearce, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is actually Pearce’s directorial debut, as before this film Pearce had exclusively worked as a screenwriter, writing blockbusters such as: ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ as well as the ‘Fast and Furious’ spin-off: ‘Hobbs and Shaw’ later down the line. This might explain why ‘Hotel Artemis’ is as compellingly-written as it is, as in spite of its quick-pacing and very limited number of locations, the script manages to squeeze a fair amount into its extremely tight runtime. As the film explores some of world outside of the hotel in addition to developing many of the hotel’s criminal inhabitants, all the while the film remains tense as a result of the interactions between the characters and the impending arrive of: ‘The Wolf King.’

Jodie Foster leads the cast as ‘The Nurse,’ her first acting role since the sci-fi film: ‘Elysium’ in 2013. And her all too-rare screen-presence is a pleasure to see again, as she gives a convincingly mournful performance, portraying ‘The Nurse’ as an elderly women refined to the sanctuary of her work following the tragic death of her son. Then there are also the criminals, assassins and thieves (and hotel security) portrayed by Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Dave Bautista, Charlie Day, Zachary Quinto and Jeff Goldblum, who are all enjoyable to watch as the various scum of the futuristic Los Angles, and all receive a fair amount of development although many characters don’t receive a payoff.

The film’s greatest strength is without a doubt its setting, as the penthouse floor of: ‘The Artemis’ is rich with atmosphere as the hotel’s design is incredibly reminiscent of the Art Deco style of 1930s hotels, almost giving the impression its a building from day’s past. From the velvet cushions to the green slightly-teared wallpaper, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is a very memorable location, its just unfortunate the film attempts to weave-in sci-fi wires and screens etc. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung also greatly adds to the film’s visuals, as the film keeps its shots and colourful lighting as diverse as possible and avoids utilising too-much hand-held camerawork.

Cliff Martinez’s original score is another superb element of the film, as the soundtrack features plenty of noteworthy tracks like ‘It Smells Like Somebody Died in Here,’ ‘Hands Off the Gooch,’ ‘I Only Kill Important People’ and ‘Don’t Cross My Line,’ all of which elevate both the tension and style of the film. ‘Hotel Artemis’ also integrates a few songs from the 1970s such as: ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Helpless,’ which whilst catchy, further adds to the idea of the film seeming out-of-place as a science fiction flick, but then I suppose without the link to that genre we wouldn’t have the rest of this fantastically-computerised score.

As mentioned many times, the biggest flaw of: ‘Hotel Artemis’ for me is its near-future setting, as due to many of the film’s characters feeling like modern-day criminals in their actions and personalities, it soon becomes clear that with just a few small alterations the entire narrative could really be switched to fit within a modern time-period, making the sci-fi aspects ultimately pointless. However, with the idea of a hotel for criminals already being explored with the ‘Continental Hotel’ in the ‘John Wick’ series, its possible that these characteristics were introduced as a way of avoiding too-many similarities with that franchise.

So whilst some characters may not quite get the resolution they deserve and a number of concepts do feel undercooked, ‘Hotel Artemis’ is still a tense and engaging story with many exciting moments of action in-between. Although I personally would only recommend the film to audiences who specifically adore sci-fi-thrillers, it is a pity ‘Hotel Artemis’ received lukewarm reviews and was an utter box-office failure, because there is clearly a level of effort put into the film, and I do feel its worth a watch should it seem appealing. Final Rating: low 7/10.

hotel_artemis_xxlg

Escape Room (2019) – Film Review

Divertive yet still quite thrilling in parts, ‘Escape Room’ directed by Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Insidious: The Last Key) fails to unlock much of the potential in its premise, eventually devolving into what is simply scene-after-scene of the film’s characters solving puzzles in a number of themed rooms whilst on a strict time-limit. Yet depending on what you desire to see from a modern thriller, this may be enough to serve a passing diversion, as the film chooses to just ignore its lack of realism and originality in favour of distracting its audience through creative set-design and tense fast-paced sequences.

Plot Summary: When six strangers are each sent a mysterious black puzzle box withholding an invitation to an immersive escape room, they all make their way to the ‘Minos’ facility on the promise of being able to win a fortune should they escape. But after entering what seems to be the building’s waiting area, innocent fun soon turns into a deadly game as the group discover each room is actually an elaborate trap…

From a mere mention of the film’s plot, the ‘Saw’ and ‘Cube’ franchises are understandably the first two things that come to mind. As in many ways, ‘Escape Room’ is effectively just a far-less violent version of those familiar set-ups, with a character heading into a room only to be greeted with a convoluted trap that will result in their death should they not escape it. And while ‘Escape Room’ does contain at least a couple of sparks regarding something original, the film is also far from subtle in both its storytelling and dialogue, with plenty of cheesy lines, implausible events and character’s backstories being shown through literal flashbacks.

Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll and Nik Dodani all give passable performances as the main group of characters forced into a twisted game. Their actual characters however, are possibly the film’s biggest missed opportunity. As whilst a few of the characters do receive development early on in the narrative, its quickly becomes clear as to which characters the film is favouring, making it easy to predict who is going to live, and who is going to die. But if the film would’ve managed to better balance its characterisation, then not only would the story have been more compelling overall, but this would’ve kept the viewer constantly guessing as to who could go next.

Aside from one or two wide-shots when the group first enter a new room, the cinematography by Marc Spicer is mostly uninspired, never really attempting to integrate any incredibly innovative or unique shots. Still, the cinematography does serve its purpose for the most part, backing-up the story without ever relying too-heavily on the use of hand-held camerawork or overly-choppy editing. Additionally, the film’s CG effects (as sparsely used as they may be), are serviceable but not much else beyond that.

Contrarily, the original score by Brian Tyler and John Carey is fairly inventive, as the pulsing and suspenseful electronic score utilises everything from ticking clocks to power tools, representing the time-pressed characters and the constantly changing environments from which they are trying to escape. This means tracks such as: ‘Coaster’ and ‘Testing Your Limits’ massively help to build tension, whereas moody tracks like ‘The King of Trading’ and ‘Let the Games Begin’ feel more sci-fi and atmospheric in nature. The film’s main theme simply titled: ‘Escape Room’, even receives a dubstep-like remix by musicians ‘Madsonik’ and ‘Kill the Noise’, which plays over the film’s stylised end credits.

The film’s set-design is possibly its best aspect, as rather than going for the bog-standard look of libraries and basements for the basis of each room, the film explores an array of diverse environments for its puzzles. From a log cabin complete with a snowy mountain vista to an upside-down billiards bar, the film’s ever-changing locations help keep the story’s signature concept feeling fresh. Many of the rooms also relate to the character’s traumatic backstories, the first room for example, is essentially a giant oven which will burn the group alive should they not escape, this mimics ‘Amanda’s backstory, who was badly burned after she barley survived an IED explosion.

In conclusion, not only is ‘Escape Room’ similar to the ‘Saw’ series in terms of its story and set-up, but unfortunately, also in terms of its franchise potential. As its pretty obvious from the film’s extremely forced ending that Sony Pictures wanted their own low-budget horror/thriller franchise as an easy way to gain profit, and riffing on an already iconic series is a trouble-free way to achieve this. So although it’s set-design and original score are admirable, in addition to a large majority of the filmmaking ‘Escape Room’ has on display being above-average if not better, the film definitely has its share of problems, and in my opinion, isn’t worthy of an entire film series. Final Rating: 5/10.

escape_room_xxlg

This Year in Film (2020) – Film List

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

Soul

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

soul_ver3_xlg

Mank

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

mank_xxlg

Tenet

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

tenet_xxlg

Mulan

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

mulan_ver4_xlg

Scoob!

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

scoob_ver2_xlg

Onward

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

onward_xxlg

The Hunt

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

hunt_ver2_xxlg

Possessor

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

possessor_ver3_xxlg

Extraction

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

extraction_netflix_xxlg

His House

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

his_house_xxlg

Underwater

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

underwater_xxlg

The Gentlemen

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

gentlemen_ver8_xxlg

The Midnight Sky

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

midnight_sky_ver2_xxlg

The Invisible Man

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

invisible_man_ver13_xlg

We Can Be Heroes

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

we_can_be_heroes_xxlg

Color Out of Space

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

color_out_of_space_ver3_xxlg

The New Mutants

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

new_mutants_ver3_xxlg

Sonic the Hedgehog

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

sonic_the_hedgehog_ver6_xxlg

The Devil All the Time

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

devil_all_the_time_ver2_xxlg

The King of Staten Island

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

king_of_staten_island_xlg

The Babysitter: Killer Queen

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

babysitter_killer_queen_xxlg

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

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

its_a_wonderful_sponge_ver2_xxlg

Chronicle (2012) – Film Review

Despite its short runtime and novice director, ‘Chronicle’ is both a unique and refreshing take on the found-footage sub-genre. Diverting from the usual teen horror stories that have completely overtaken the found-footage style for a more sci-fi-esque narrative, which overcomes its gimmicky camerawork and occasionally dated CG effects through riveting moments of action, fast-paced direction and charismatic performances from its young cast.

Plot Summary: After three high-school friends venture into a mysterious hole which travels deep beneath the Earth, they reemerge with incredible telekinetic abilities, with introvert: ‘Andrew’ becoming the most powerful of the three. But as ‘Andrew’ struggles to cope with his mother’s terminal illness and his father’s alcoholic abuse towards him, his friends ‘Matt’ and ‘Steve’ soon realise ‘Andrew’s abilities are beginning to consume him.

Directed by the infamous Josh Trank (Fantastic Four, Calpone) and written by Max Landis, most known for his work on Netflix’s ‘Bright’ and ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.’ ‘Chronicle’ takes a lot of inspiration from modern superhero blockbusters, which in a way is ironic, as cast members Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan would later go on to star in big-budget superhero films, with DeHaan portraying ‘Harry Osborn/The Green Goblin’ in ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2,’ and Jordan going on to portray ‘Johnny Storm’ in the ‘Fantastic Four’ remake as well as the antagonist: ‘Killmonger’ in 2018’s ‘Black Panther.’ So for DeHann and Jordan, ‘Chronicle’ essentially served as the jumping-off point for their future careers.

Before filming actually began on ‘Chronicle,’ director Josh Trank had actors Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan live in a house together for fifteen days, and its due to this (in addition to Landis’ teenage-accurate writing) that you do feel a genuine bond between the three. As the group of friends act like real teenagers, reckless and immature yet not totally unlikable, which was an important area to succeed in as a large majority of the story early on leans on their antics as they share banter and test how far their abilities can truly go. However, even with all three characters having quite diverse personalities, it’s ‘Andrew’ who really steals the film as a character. As his descent into hysteria serves as a compelling character-arc within the story, and is well-executed aside from one or two lines nearing the end of the runtime, which are reminiscent of a cheesy supervillain quote from an early 2000s blockbuster.

While the film’s cinematography by Matthew Jensen does begin as your standard affair for a found-footage flick, when it comes to the film’s final act it can be quite difficult to tell where (or what) the camera is actually supposed to be. As its during the final act the characters fully embrace their abilities, allowing them to fly, tear through buildings, make objects float with ease and even throw vehicles, with many of their impowered actions being seen through various CCTV footage or onlooker’s floating phones and tablets, resulting in a fairly chaotic conclusion in spite of its creativity.

Also as a result of its found-footage style, ‘Chronicle’ lacks an original score, yet the film still features many songs through sources within the world of the film itself like radios and phones. And while the film does have a more realistic feel because of this, the film’s constant overreliance on glitchy edits/transitions have the complete opposite effect, as the overuse of glitches soon becomes just as irritating as it is distracting considering ‘Andrew’ is often filming through a contemporary camera.

Sadly, in the years since it’s release, much of the CGI throughout ‘Chronicle’ hasn’t aged well. As while some of the CG effects still hold-up, there is such a huge number of effects seen within the film that it would’ve been difficult for all of them to remain unblemished. These dated CG visuals might also relate to the film’s budget of £8.9 million, which may seem like a large amount, but is actually quite thin when taking into account what is required of it. The film’s budget also played a part in where it was filmed, as ‘Chronicle’ was primarily shot in Cape Town, South Africa, with American-designed vehicles needing to be shipped-over for the production, even though the story takes-place in Seattle.

To conclude, whilst the film has its issues like many other found-footage flicks, ‘Chronicle’ is certainly an under-appreciated entry in the subgenre, excelling in many different ways. And since the film’s initial release, there have been plenty of rumours regarding a sequel, with Max Landis constantly being attached and then unattached as its writer. But I think it’s pretty evident now that we’ll probably never see a sequel to this underrated science fiction story, which I believe is a good thing. As although the film does have some concepts which could be further explored, I feel the story of: ‘Andrew’s psychotic downfall will always be the main focus of: ‘Chronicle,’ and without his character, it would seem incomplete. Final Rating: 7/10.

chronicle-teaser-poster

Non-Stop (2014) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nonstop_xxlg

The Shallows (2016) – Film Review

Ever since the release of the original blockbuster: ‘Jaws’ in 1975, shark films have never quite managed to reach the same heights, with flops such as: ‘Deep Blue Sea,’ ‘Bait,’ ’47 Meters Down’ and ‘Shark Night’ feeling quite distant from reality as they present the animals as nothing but blood-thirsty monsters that devour brain-dead characters. And while ‘The Shallows’ does feel like a slight improvement over many of these other flicks (mostly in regards to its protagonist), the film still falters at many turns.

Plot Summary: After losing her mother in an accident, medical student: ‘Nancy’ dumps her responsibilities in Galveston and travels to Mexico, hitchhiking a ride to a hidden beach that her mother loved when she was young. But following her discovery of a whale carcass whilst surfing, ‘Nancy’ is attacked by a great white shark, leaving her bleeding and stranded on a small rock, with no sign of rescue.

Releasing in 2016 to great success, ‘The Shallows’ was one of the first major shark films released into cinemas in quite some-time, but as well as being a creature-feature, the film also serves as a survival thriller, along the same lines of: ‘127 Hours Later’. As ‘Nancy’ has to face not only the shark, but also hunger, thirst, weather, and of course, the severe leg injury she receives when she first encounters the apex-predator. Yet despite this focus making for a far more engaging experience, the narrative simultaneously tries its hand at character development, with ‘Nancy’ receiving plenty of charactersation in the film’s first act, which is sadly made less interesting as its delivered through some immensely corny dialogue.

Blake Lively, who is by no means a renowned actress, with only two films throughout her career featuring her in the top-billed cast, carries the film solo, and her commitment to this role is certainly admirable, as Lively gives a very intense performance as a result of: ‘Nancy’ being in agonising pain for most of the runtime. Additionally, Lively did most of her own stunts for the film aside from her character’s surfing. In fact, in one particular scene, where ‘Nancy’ crushes a crab and then proceeds to eat it raw, Lively is actually eating a real crab that the production crew found dead on a nearby beach, so her reactions of disgust are genuine even though the crab initially getting crushed was achieved through CGI. This is all made even more impressive by the fact that Lively was pregnant with her second child at the time of filming. 

Flavio Martínez Labiano’s cinematography does provide a handful of attractive and memorable shots when not focusing on the characters, these usually being when the shots revolve more around the shark lurking beneath the water, or when the camerawork effectively uses framing to display how far ‘Nancy’ is from safety. And of course, with the film being shot off the Gold Coast of Australia (excluding a few scenes which were shot in a large water-tank), the film’s signature beach and crystal-clear waves are always an alluring sight, which is a superb visual-clash with the horror that lies within.

The original score by Marco Beltrami serves the story well enough, as the film’s soundtrack drifts from beautiful calming tracks like ‘Paddle In’ and ‘Nancy and Dad Facetime,’ to much more tense tracks such as: ‘Main Title’ and ‘Towards the Dead Whale.’ However, its when the story shifts into full on threat that the score begins to feel extremely generic, most notably, the track: ‘Underwater Attack,’ which is barley distinguishable from any other thriller soundtrack as it doesn’t encapsulate either the beauty or isolation of the ocean as many of the other tracks do.

Unlike ‘Jaws’ or even ‘Deep Blue Sea’ during a few moments, ‘The Shallows’ exclusively uses CGI to bring its shark to-life, which is unfortunate. As while there was clearly a huge level of detail put-into the shark, as director Jaume Collet Serra (Orphan, Unknown, Non-Stop) worked closely with the art department to ensure a sense of realism in the shark’s design, having the team do thousands of hours of research. This all sadly goes to waste due to the demands of the film’s script, as the shark in ‘The Shallows’ rarely acts like a real animal, often feeling like just a hulking murderous monster whose CG effects drastically vary depending on the shot.

To conclude, ‘The Shallows’ is a step-up from a number of other shark flicks, but even with its above-average filmmaking and solid performance from Blake Lively. The film still falls into many of the common issues shark films do, as the story favours the idea of using its shark as a monster of the ocean and that alone, and this on-top of the film’s occasionally strange stylistic choices, shoddy CG effects and cheesy dialogue, result in the film becoming just another poor attempt at revitalising the great white shark as a cinematically enthralling antagonist. Final Rating: high 4/10.

shallows_xxlg

Now You See Me (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NowYouSeeMePoster2

As Above, So Below (2014) – Film Review

Co-written/directed by John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine, Devil), ‘As Above, So Below’ is certainly an interesting found-footage flick, as while at a first mention the film may just sound like another a stereotypical horror, this claustrophobic delve into the caliginous Paris catacombs does actually have some depth hidden beneath its generic exterior. But unfortunately, even with the story’s intriguing religious imagery/influences, the film soon plummets into clichéd mediocrity, mostly as a result of its bland characters and weak scares.

Plot Summary: When a team of explorers venture into the miles of twisting catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, all in search of the historical: ‘Philosopher’s Stone.’ They encounter far more than they bargained for when they realise they have entered into the first of the nine rings of: ‘Hell,’ where visions of their past sins begin to relentlessly torment them.

From a quick glance at the film’s visuals, its understandable why many would see ‘As Above, So Below’ as just another found-footage horror, only this time capitalising on the daunting real-world location of the Paris catacombs, which hold the remains of more than six-million people in the small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone-quarries. But the film’s setting does heavily-relate to the story of: ‘Inferno,’ a short poem written by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth-century, focusing on the tale of man who journeys through ‘Hell’ guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Even the film’s title plays-into this central idea, as the words: ‘As Above, So Below’ are derived from “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” which is a line from the ‘Christian Lord’s Prayer,’ which begins with “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…”

Although their characters are immensely mundane, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert and Ali Marhyar are all serviceable in their respective roles, delivering the usual screaming, ventilating and panicking performances that occur in most found-footage films. However, while the film’s protagonist: ‘Scarlett’ is portrayed well by Perdita Weeks, the character herself is noticeably very unlikable, mostly due to her constant obsession with the ‘Philosopher’s Stone,’ which she places all of her friend’s lives at risk for without question, and its never made clear whether we should actually be rooting for her to survive or not.

The cinematography by Léo Hinstin is more of the usual for this subgenre, providing the viewer with plenty of shaky and out-of-focus shots as the characters make their way through the almost pitch-black burial-ground. This doesn’t distract from what is easily the film’s most impressive (and most ambitious) filming tip-bit however, which is that the film was actually shot in the Paris catacombs themselves, not in a sound-stage. In fact, this was the first production ever to secure permission from the French government to film within the catacombs, which would have been quite a challenge as the series of narrow, winding tunnels with centuries-old skeletons arranged on the walls would’ve had little room for equipment/crew. Yet this does pay-off as the film utilises it’s location extremely well, always placing its characters in tight areas to insight claustrophobia in the audience.

While the film doesn’t feature a complete original score for obvious reasons, one of the strongest aspects of found-footage flicks, sound design, is actually an area where ‘As Above, So Below’ is lacking. As despite the film’s many attempts to feel impactful when the characters dive into water or are nearly crushed by a collapsing celling, a vast majority of the sound effects don’t sound as if they are coming from within the catacombs, usually sounding quite evident they have been added in post-production on account of the absence of any echo or density.

As a large portion of the film’s narrative is based on Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ the film’s basic structure revolves around the characters heading further and further into ‘Hell,’ with each character facing a vision of a personal sin from their past. These rings (or levels) in order are ‘Limbo,’ ‘Lust,’ ‘Gluttony,’ ‘Greed,’ ‘Anger,’ ‘Heresy,’ ‘Violence,’ ‘Fraud’ and ‘Treachery.’ But outside of the film’s previously mentioned religious symbolism, after the characters leave the initial catacombs, each ring is represented purely through dark empty caverns, which become quite repetitive after a point.

Altogether, despite the Paris catacombs being a very compelling setting for a modern horror film, in addition to much of the film’s religious influences making for quite a unique story. I’d still suggest other claustrophobic horrors like ‘The Descent’ and ‘The Thing’ before ‘As Above, So Below,’ as not only does the film eventually devolve into the standard horror formula without much experimentation, but if you’re unaware of any of the religious-context, then I could definitely see the film being fairly forgettable. In all honesty, I feel this film may have been better-off as non-found-footage, as I think this would’ve allowed the film to better explore its story and themes. Final Rating: 5/10.

as_above_so_below_xxlg

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) – Film Review

Based on the controversial 1980s children’s book series of the same name, written by Alvin Schwartz and nightmarishly illustrated by Stephen Gammell. The film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ directed by André Øvredal and co-written/produced by Guillermo del Toro, takes a very different approach than what many may expect when considering its source material, as the film ditches the book’s original anthology structure in favour of a more interconnected story to mixed results.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, 1968. A group of childhood friends enter the abandoned home of: ‘The Bellows’ family, whose shadow has loomed over the small town of Mill Valley for generations as a result of notorious murder: ‘Sarah Bellows,’ who turned her tortured life into a book of scary stories many years ago. But these terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real when the reclusive: ‘Stella’ decides to take-home ‘Sarah’s story-filled journal.

Clearly inspired by Steven King’s classic novel: ‘It,’ ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ takes the now-popular route of focusing on a younger cast, capturing that classic spirit of childhood adventure mixed with plenty of light-horror, but rather than setting the film in the hackneyed time-period of the 1980s, the film actually chooses to set it’s story near the end of the 1960s, which I feel helped the film stand-out amongst the ‘It’ remake and it’s many similar incarnations. However, since its release, ‘Scary Stories’ has received plenty of criticism for its underwhelming horror, despite this being a completely intentional decision on-behalf of the filmmakers, ensuring the film as a first-step into the horror genre for younger viewers, never displaying too much violence or overly-intense scares, not too dissimilar to the book series itself.

Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Gabriel Rush and Austin Abrams portray the main group of friends and all do a decent job overall, as while their individual characters don’t exactly break-new-ground, they are likeable enough and have their inklings of both personality and humour. Contortionist Troy James, who once appeared-on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ also appears in the film as one of the monsters: ‘The Jangly Man.’ Who aside from having some CGI-enhanced facial expressions, actually performed all of his impressively unnatural body movements himself, including walking backwards and crawling upside-down.

Roman Osin’s cinematography does remain visually interesting for the majority of the runtime, having plenty of creative shots with an effective implementation of colour alongside. But its the film’s monsters that are unquestionably the best aspect of this adaptation, as the film takes the horrifying and abstract illustrations of Stephen Gammell and melds them into live-action flawlessly. So much so, that even in spite of each creature’s very limited screen-time, every monster manages to be quite memorable in its own right, from ‘The Pale Lady’ to ‘The Big Toe’ to the dilapidated poster-child scarecrow: ‘Harold,’ all of which were brought-to-life through prosthetic make-up and convincing practical costumes, rather than just CGI.

The original score by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich is a fairly average horror score, yet does still serve the story well for what it has too, even if most of the tracks aren’t worth looking-up afterwards. But its also within the main score that there a small nod towards the original book series, as one of the tracks that plays throughout the film is titled: ‘The Hearse Song,’ which is actually a short song from the book series’ first entry.

As previously mentioned, the main creative decision that seems very peculiar to me is that the film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ is not an anthology film, despite the books the film is based-on focusing entirely on different characters/monsters with each new story. Instead, the writers chose to create an original story based-around the depraved spirit of: ‘Sarah Bellows’ bringing the stories within her book to-life, which was apparently done in order to stop one of the stories from overshadowing the rest, according to Guillermo del Toro. Yet I personally feel that this makes the film less entertaining, as many of the story’s concepts and creatures feel under-utilised due to this overarching (and occasionally corny) narrative, even if the main story does borrow some of its ideas from other unused tales within the books series.

For the most part, ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ does triumph in its goal of crafting a horror more accessible for younger viewers, as I could see this film appealing to many young audience members in search of a gateway into the horror genre. If you are already a veteran within the genre however, then I feel ‘Scary Stories’ will more than likely disappoint, as the film’s many cliché story-beats and lack of any gore or truly tense moments does result in this adaptation becoming a mostly forgettable horror flick with the exception of its many unique creature designs. Final Rating: high 5/10.

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_dark_xxlg