The Forest (2016) – Film Review

The Aokigahara forest, more commonly known as “The Suicide Forest” or “The Sea of Trees,” is a thirty-five-square-kilometre grove lying at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan. The forest is often cited as the most widespread site for suicide in the country, given that in 2003, over a hundred bodies were discovered in the forest, exceeding the previous record of seventy-eight in 2002. The site became so heavily associated with suicide that a sign at the start of the main trail was later installed to urge suicidal visitors to contact a suicide prevention helpline. So, with all of this notoriety, it was merely a matter of time until a film would utilise the infamous location. Enter, 2016’s The Forest, a supernatural horror flick that sacrifices all of its compelling ideas and despairing real-world setting for cheap, predictable scares and an immensely uninteresting story.

Plot Summary: When orphan, Sara Price, receives a phone call from the Japanese authorities informing her that her twin sister, Jess Price, has disappeared and was last seen heading into the Aokigahara forest, Sara decides to travel to Japan to investigate her sister’s disappearance. But, after entering the notorious forest, accompanied by her Japanese guide, Michi, and American reporter, Aiden, Sara’s investigation begins to send her down a dark path of tormented souls and supernatural occurrences…

Whilst two other films were released before The Forest inspired by Aokigahara, those being; Shawn4Ever in 2012 and The Sea of Trees in 2015, neither film could be considered a horror. And this is what ultimately attracted director Jason Zada (Project Dead Zone) to the project, as Zada was surprised to learn that there had never been a horror film based on the ill-famed site. After discovering that the Aokigahara forest also has a strong association with demons in Japanese mythology, Zada’s interest in the project grew as this information opened the door for a more supernatural narrative. However, the story eventually selected for The Forest is hardly what I’d call engrossing, as while the first act sufficiently sets the story in motion, the narrative quickly devolves into Sara simply meandering through the forest getting sporadically interrupted by blaring jump-scares, many of which are easily foreseen.

Portraying twin sisters; Sara and Jess Price, Natalie Dormer delivers a compelling performance throughout The Forest by lending her acting talents to dual characters. Yet, she is frequently burdened by the screenplay’s lack of characterisation and stale dialogue, which is often as wooden as the trees in the forest. Moreover, the supporting cast of Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa and Eoin Macken give understandably bland performances as their characters are given next-to-no development and little urgency when it comes to their decisions within the plot.

Since the Japanese government would not allow the filmmakers access to the Aokigahara forest for filming, the Tara National Forest in Serbia served as a suitable stand-in for the location. Aside from the forest itself, however, all of the scenes in Japan were shot on location, and this authenticity does come across on camera. Speaking of the camerawork, the cinematography by Mattias Troelstrup is serviceable, for the most part, as the film makes adequate use of the eerie forest backdrop by implementing a large number of environmental shots, lingering on the calming beauty of the forest in contrast to the tragedies that repeatedly occur within it.

Ominous yet forgettable, the original score by Bear McCreary fits the dreary tone of The Forest appropriately yet lacks anything to make itself distinguishable from other horror scores. Furthermore, whilst there are multiple fast-paced tracks, there is a surprising shortage of slow and moody pieces for a film set in a location like the Aokigahara forest. Nevertheless, I will give McCreary credit for integrating a children’s choir into the score, effectively blending the ghostly juvenile vocals with the rest of the instruments (most notably in the track; Into the Forest), almost as if the choir represents the siren call of the forest.

Interestingly, one of the promotional posters for The Forest features the top half of Natalie Dormer’s face with the bottom half removed, the dividing line between them forming a silhouette of treetops and dangling nooses. This imagery carries a clear resemblance to a photograph of an actual suicide victim once found within the Aokigahara forest; a bald man in such a decomposed state that his jaw had fallen off and strips of flesh were hanging from where it had once been. This photograph is also recreated in the film, albeit in a less grotesque form. Fortunately, outside of this scene, The Forest doesn’t contain much blood/gore, which I’d argue was a good decision on behalf of the filmmakers to remain respectful of the families who have lost loved ones to Aokigahara.

In summary, while The Forest offers Natalie Dormer a few chances to showcase her range through a dual role, it isn’t enough to offset the fact that The Forest is just not all that startling or interesting. Of course, these shortcomings could be attributed to Jason Zada being a music video director by trade, harbouring only one other horror flick in his filmography. But, regardless of the cause, it’s unfortunate, as I feel that given the right attention, the Aokigahara forest could make for a phenomenal setting for a minimalist horror, especially if it’s combined with a tasteful narrative that plays upon the site’s infamy. Rating: low 4/10.

forest_xxlg

Mortal Engines (2018) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, the first entry in a string of young-adult novels, 2018’s Mortal Engines seemed like a blockbuster destined for success and an ensuing franchise upon its initial release, but, evidently, that was not the case. Carrying over much of the same crew behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, Mortal Engines has no shortage of eye-catching visuals and large-scale action set pieces, but the film lacks the interesting characters and engrossing story required to fuel a post-apocalyptic blockbuster of epic proportions.

Plot Summary: Thousands of years after human civilisation was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, mankind has adapted, and a new way of life has evolved. Gigantic roaming cities now wander the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller municipalities to feed their enormous engines. One of these cities; the great traction city of London, is home to Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian, who eventually finds himself stranded and fighting for survival in the barren Outlands after encountering the evasive fugitive, Hester Shaw…

Directed by Christian Rivers, a prior storyboard and visual effects artist for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Mortal Engines shares more than a few similarities with co-writer/producer Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R Tolkien’s high-fantasy novels. For instance, much like the trilogies set within Middle-Earth, Mortal Engines places a heavy focus on world-building, continuously introducing new characters, lore and pieces of futuristic technology to flesh out its post-apocalyptic world. However, the diverse mix of locations throughout the narrative is by far the most fascinating aspect of the fictional world. From the roaming city of the former British capital to Airhaven; a metropolis floating amongst the clouds, to the nefarious Rustwater Marshes; an expansive section of swampland where countless unethical exchanges take place. Every location presented during the runtime is far more memorable than any of the characters that traverse through them. 

Speaking of the characters, whether they derive from one of the monumental roaming cities or the desolate Outlands, the characters of Mortal Engines are exceptionally bland. Harbouring generic traits and obligatory backstories, the characters merely exist to push the story forward. The main cast of Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae Kim, Ronan Raftery, Leila George and Hugo Weaving, don’t elevate the screenplay either, as their exaggerated British accents and equally exaggerated deliveries of corny and exposition-heavy dialogue make it difficult to care for any of them. Furthermore, by the time the third act arrives, we’re told that Hester and Tom have developed feelings for each other, a plot point that seems extremely far-fetched considering that the pair share only a handful of conversations that aren’t directly related to the narrative.

Largely consisting of wide shots to establish the extensive amount of locations visited throughout the story, Simon Raby’s cinematography undoubtedly enriches the film by impressively capturing the scope of the world and the enormous cities that roam within it. Moreover, the steampunk aesthetic supplies a hefty dose of personality to the visualsparticularly whenever it comes to scenes set within the roaming city of London, as the rundown futuristic technology combined with British iconography, forms a striking visual meld. Contrarily, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Outlands is devoid of life and colour, making the industrial levels of the motorised cities almost seem appealing in comparison. 

The original score by Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Junkie XL, is, for the most part, action-dominated, with tracks like The ChaseFirst Strike and No Going Back, all bleeding into one another due to their similarities. And whilst the soundtrack never really drags, the score does become rather repetitive as Holkenborg struggles to innovate on the action-orientated tracks. Meaning that all of the action sequences essentially contain the same selection of interchangeable tracks, each blaring out pounding percussions and string ostinatos.

Although many of the action sequences are relatively uninspired, the visual effects throughout Mortal Engines cannot be faulted. The most blatant example of how remarkable the visual effects are can be seen with the CG character, Shrike, a cyborg assassin, portrayed by Stephen Lang. While the film’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, is well-known for developing exceptional motion-capture characters, such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the most-recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. In Mortal Engines, Shrike was created using alternative techniques to Weta Digital’s usual approach, as visual effects artists disregarded modern motion-capture methods to instead employ traditional keyframe animation and accurately capture Lang’s subtle facial expressions. Nevertheless, much like many of the other characters within Mortal Engines, Shrike and his poignant relationship with protagonist, Hester Shaw, feels greatly under-realised, somewhat dampening the terrific CGI.

In summary, for a blockbuster that revolves around massive roaming cities, soaring airships and steampunk cyborgs, Mortal Engines is strangely forgettable. Whilst the film is visually creative, dynamic and propulsive, emotionally and thematically, it’s hollow and flat, barely giving a reseason for its audience to be engaged. And even though I understand that in the last few years, Peter Jackson seems to have turned his attention towards directing documentaries as opposed to blown-up blockbusters. I believe that Mortal Engines could’ve been improved should Jackson have helmed the project and given the screenplay a few more rewrites and lookovers, potentially capturing some of the magic that made his prior plunges into the mystical world of Middle-Earth so enthralling. Rating: high 4/10.

mortal_engines_ver2_xxlg

Wiener-Dog (2016) – Film Review

A comedy-drama anthology that is far more drama than black comedy, 2016’s Wiener-Dog, written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the DollhouseHappinessLifetime During War), centres on a series of short, personal stories, all connected by the titular sausage-resembling canine. And while Wiener-Dog certainly has its moments as a mordantly witty tour of the human condition, seen from the low-slung position of an ordinary dachshund, Wiener-Dog‘s distinct combination of bleak storytelling and deadpan humour can make for a very inconsistent viewing experience, especially if you aren’t sure what to expect going in.

Plot Summary: An endearing dachshund, nicknamed, Wiener-Dog, finds itself shuffled from one oddball owner to the next, with each owner’s radically dysfunctional life being, in some way, impacted by the small canine…

Winning the Best Film Award at the 2017 Milan LongTake Interactive Film Festival, a festival where the films in competition are selected from titles yet unreleased in Italian cinemas, with the winner being chosen by the number of people attending each screening. Wiener-Dog is certainly not a film for everyone as the stories within are actually much dreary in tone than many would expect given the title and/or poster. Moreover, for those going in expecting four straight-forward, humourous narratives, Wiener-Dog frequently takes an unusual approach with its stories, with much of the writing being awkward and clunky and each story largely differing in terms of structure. And even though I adore the idea of using a dog as a framing device for an anthology, Wiener-Dog rarely makes use of its central dachshund, nor do any of the stories fully delve into the emotional arcs of their characters even when some of their self-examining journeys are particularly interesting.

Throughout all of the stories, one element that never fails to impress, however, is the cast. From a struggling family to a despondent screenwriter-turned-film school lecturer, every member of the cast brings their all in Wiener-Dog. And although many of the characters don’t receive as much development as they probably should, they do all feel very distinct from one another. For example, in the first story, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts portray Danny and Dina, an uptight, miserable couple whose young son, Remi, is recovering from cancer. Danny and Dina soon decide to get their son a dog in an attempt to cheer him up, though, this only ends up causing the family more problems. In the next story, Dawn, a veterinarian’s assistant, hopes the dachshund will help her melt the heart of Brandon, whom she knew in school as a notorious bully. The third story introduces us to Dave Schmerz, portrayed by Danny DeVito, a has-been screenwriter now teaching at a film school where the students despise him. The fourth and final story concentrates on a character only ever referred to as Nana, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, a blind, embittered woman suffering from cancer, who is being visited by her granddaughter, Zoe, and her outrageous abstract artist boyfriend, Fantasy.

For the majority of the runtime, the cinematography by Edward Lachman stands as a model of subtle and elegant compositional skill strained by what are fairly uninteresting locations. And whilst the first two stories have a written transition between them, the latter two stories do not, and instead, we just cut to the dachshund being in a new home, with a new owner, with no explanation given, which is rather jarring. That being said, Wiener-Dog does feature an intermission of sorts halfway through, which becomes a short story in itself; a montage of the dachshund walking through a number of colourful locations brought to life via some less-than-stellar green screen. This amusing sequence somewhat feels inspired by Let’s All Go to the Lobby, officially known as Technicolor Refreshment Trailer No. 1, a 1957 animated musical advertisement that played in American cinemas during intermissions. In which, animated characters that resemble various food items urge the audience to purchase snacks.

The original score by Nathan Larson and James Lavino is serviceable during the few scenes when it’s actually used. As for most of the film, Wiener-Dog chooses to employ excerpts from the classic orchestral piece, Clair de Lune, L. 32, which consistently seems out of place. The previously mentioned intermission is also set to an original tune titled: The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog, which is admittedly quite imaginative despite, once again, seeming misplaced.

With an anthology, some segments are always going to be superior to others. In Wiener-Dog‘s case, it’s the third story that is the best of the bunch, mainly because of DeVito’s terrific world-beaten performance. With that said, the third story does have a shortcoming that plagues many of the segments, that being its ending, which feels rushed and premature. The ending of the final story is also likely to leave many audience members with a bitter taste in their mouths as the ending is unnecessarily mean-spirited, concluding the anthology on a dour note.

In summary, similar to the rest of Todd Solondz’s filmography, Wiener-Dog is a black comedy with much of the comedy removed, leaving just black; a dense residue of callousness as the film rarely dwells on its light-hearted gags or charming moments. Nevertheless, Wiener-Dog is enjoyable in parts, and it’s evident that Solondz had a specific vision for the project when crafting it. Perhaps the film is just a little too bleak for its own good. Rating: 4/10.

wiener_dog_xxlg

Escape Plan (2013) – Film Review

Bringing together two action legends, Escape Plan, released in 2013, was an action-thriller long in the making as the idea of a film co-starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had been discussed between the pair for many years, as far back as the mid-1980s. Over time, many different screenplays were pitched or written for the duo, but Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s schedules were continuously unable to match up. That is until Schwarzenegger landed a cameo appearance in 2010’s The Expendables alongside Stallone, prompting the two to revisit the idea of working together. Yet after all this build-up, Escape Plan is a fairly unremarkable film, simply plodding through its predictable screenplay with little charm or wit outside of the mere sight of seeing these two ’80s action icons share the silver screen.

Plot Summary: Having committed his life to searching for weak spots in the reliability of high-security prisons, Ray Breslin, the leading authority on penitentiary security, goes against his own policies when he accepts an offer from the CIA to infiltrate their new black-site prison facility, The Tomb, where the world’s most dangerous criminals are admitted. But shortly after arriving, Ray discovers that he has been double-crossed, lured into a trap and an inescapable fate. Now, with no alternative, he must put his faith in his fellow cell-block inmate, Emil Rottmayer, to forge a daring escape plan that can save them both…

Even though Escape Plan is a great harken back to 1990s action flicks such as FortressNo Escape and Death Warrant, primarily thanks to the film’s prison setting and total absence of pretensions. The interplay in the screenplay frequently ping-pongs between banal and idiotic, yet this is still preferable to the incoherence of the final act, in which, Ray spends most of his time trapped inside a chamber that seemingly fills and subsequently drains itself of water between shots, all whilst a riot breaks out on a lower floor. The absurdities only continue to mount near the end of the film as director Mikael Håfström (1408, The Rite, Outside the Wire) reveals who’s been in cahoots with who. All of this alongside some of the screenplay’s baffling dialogue does secure Escape Plan‘s place as one of the more half-witted releases into the prison escape subgenre.

Playing into their personas as courageous action heroes, both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger give the exact performances you’d expect from a film like this as Stallone portrays Ray Breslin as a gruff prison expert constantly analysing everything around him. While Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer is the charismatic engine that drives the film, picking up the pace when Stallone’s slow performance threatens to diminish it. And although we do get to see many of Ray’s skills in action through a fast-paced opening sequence that depicts how Ray accomplishes what seems like impossible feats using nothing more than patience, observation and the assistance of his trusty team. Both characters suffer from a lack of development beyond their basic skillsets and amusing quips. The rest of the cast, including Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill and Vincent D’Onofrio are all solid in their respective roles whether big or small.

The other star of the show is the prison itself, with its perspex cells and spartan layout converging to give The Tomb a striking appearance that makes superb use of the New Orleans facility where 90% of the film was shot, being a windowless facility previously used by NASA to construct space shuttles. However, this sleek appearance as well as the handful of alluring shots by cinematographer, Brendan Galvin, are soon shattered by a drought of consistency as whilst some areas of the prison share this semi-futuristic feel, other areas often appear rusty and run-down. This issue also carries over to the prison guards that patrol the facility as the guards are kitted out in black jumpers and unadorned black masks which while distinct, continually appear out-of-place and look quite cheap.

Unfortunately, the original score by Alex Heffes is nothing more than a generic action soundtrack with the exception of the foremost track: Bendwater High-Security Prison, which gets the score off to a substantial start, employing electronic beats that flow into the following track: Escaping Bendwater, with high-energy rhythms that trickle excitement just as much as the opening sequence they are both a part of.

On a positive note, despite much of the on-screen action being limited to punches and judo holds with barely any blood to be seen, the fight choreography itself is efficiently constructed. The only distracting aspect of these action-filled sequences is that Ray and Emil somehow turn out to far more accurate shots than the prison’s highly-trained guards as they gun them down one at a time without breaking a sweat.

In summary, although action fanatics will get their fill of violence, thrills and cheesy one-liners, Escape Plan is a relatively uninspired action-thriller when compared to any of the 1980s and 1990s classics that made Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s careers skyrocket. With strange dialogue, inconsistent production design and a forgettable original score, it’s a shame that Escape Plan couldn’t reach the high levels of excitement that combining two action legends brings with it. Even if there is still satisfaction in seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger side-by-side at long last. Rating: high 4/10.

escape_plan-p877555

Last Christmas (2019) – Film Review

While on paper, 2019’s Last Christmas might have seemed like a recipe for success. With two charismatic leads in Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding alongside a soundtrack consisting of innumerable George Michael songs, all wrapped up in a festive London setting under the watchful eye of proficient comedy director Paul Feig (SpyBridesmaidsA Simply Favor). In execution, Last Christmas is never as humorous or affectionate as it thinks it is, with many scenes coming across as incredibly dull and derivative as the film lacks originality to such an extent that audiences will frequently be reminded of romantic comedy classics like Love Actually and The Holiday as they sit through its poorly conceived story and underbaked subplots.

Plot Summary: While working at a year-round Christmas store and sofa-surfing instead of facing her overbearing mother, aspiring singer and frustrated Londoner, Kate, meets, Tom, an alluring young man who charms her with his unusual observations, challenging Kate’s cynical outlook on the world as a result of her dysfunctional relationships and continuously unsuccessful auditions…

Written by actress Emma Thompson, who also appears in the film as Kate’s mother, Petra. Last Christmas evidently takes a lot of inspiration from well-known Christmas rom-coms such as the previously mentioned; Love Actually. Only, in this case, it becomes difficult to tell the two apart after a while as Last Christmas has very few distinctions in terms of both story and visuals, only being set apart by its pivotal plot twist, which some may find absurdly over-the-top and frustrating. Sadly, for a romantic-comedy, Last Christmas also falls short when it comes to humour, with many of the film’s gags seeming either immature or foreseeable, as the film rapidly cuts between the characters trying to make it appear as if their quips are transpiring non-stop.

The characters themselves, however, are one of the better aspects of the film, with Kate’s journey from being a self-hating, narcissistic borderline alcoholic, to a content woman savouring every second of her life is enjoyable to watch even in spite of its predictability. And Clarke portrays the character well, leaning more into her actual personality off-camera as a witty, self-effacing and expressive individual. Henry Golding also breaks away from his usual roles for his performance as Tom, behaving like a handsome goofball as he and Kate wander through the streets of London, never caring what those around him may think. With that said, the main issue with the characters is their absence of backstory as whilst we are told many things about Kate and her sombre past, including when she was severely unwell the previous Christmas, eventually leading her to have a heart transplant. We never see a flashback of this event or anything similar beyond a brief mention, which is a problem that also applies to Kate’s desire to become a West End star as well as the many friends of hers she supposedly screwed over in the past while temporarily living with them.

When it comes to the visuals, the cinematography by John Schwartzman conveys the narrative effectively enough, yet barely experiments outside of standard mid shots or the occasional wide shot/close-up. A tremendous missed opportunity considering the many brightly light and architecturally captivating streets the characters walk down, which are regularly littered with enchanting Christmas decorations and lights, even if they are primarily white, silver or gold rather than multicoloured.

In addition to the music of George Michael and Wham!, which is, of course, weaved into the film in nearly every scene. The original score by Theodore Shapiro fills in the gaps in-between, with tracks like Secret Garden, Self-Pity Party and Take Care serving as relaxing breaks from the film’s relentless use of beloved Christmas songs. Yet this score is worthy of praise in itself, having many tracks that are beautiful and melancholic pieces that encapsulate the festive setting without exaggerating it through the use of chime bells.

Peculiarly, Last Christmas also features a subplot revolving around post-Brexit xenophobia as Kate and her family first came into the United Kingdom as refugees from former Yugoslavia. Now, her mother cowers in her home, watching news reports of right-wing demonstrations. A bizarre choice for a Christmas film to be sure, but even more bizarre considering this idea never goes anywhere and isn’t brought up until the second act. Still, at least one good thing comes out of these moments, as we find out Kate’s full name is Katarina, yet she refuses to be called by it, spending much of the film reasserting her own Britishness. A compelling idea that once again, goes nowhere and only feels as if it was put into the screenplay for the sake of political relevance as opposed to emotional weight or social commentary.

In summary, even though the combination of iconic Christmas music, a cosy, festive aesthetic and picturesque London scenery should outweigh what flaws Last Christmas has, they don’t quite achieve their goal by the runtime’s end as the film’s constant use of clichés, exposition-heavy dialogue and feeble gags soon become far too overbearing. Ultimately leaving Last Christmas a digestible film at best and an irritating one at worst, even if its climactic plot twist is very much in line with the story’s wistful yuletide spirit. Rating: high 4/10.

last_christmas-p1056071

Skyline (2010) – Film Review

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

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

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

The film’s biggest downfall comes when we are introduced to the characters. As even when ignoring the apathetic performances from Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Donald Faison and David Zayas, the main group of individuals are simply no different to the characters of any other alien invasion story. Being given the absolute bare minimum of characterisation, every member of the group (including the two protagonists) feels incredibly underwritten and frequently come across as unlikeable. Even if the film does attempt to keep its characters grounded in realism by representing them as agitated civilians hunkering down and utilising what little knowledge they obtain of the invaders to their advantage rather than foolishly sprinting outside and confronting the extraterrestrial force one-on-one.

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

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

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

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

SKL_CMYK_TSR1SHT_AUG12.indd

Rampage (2018) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, whilst ‘Rampage’ does feature some entertaining action sequences and the occasional piece of self-aware humour, I mostly just find the film to be an exasperating waste of potential considering the film is a video-game adaptation. As when there are so many video-games with riveting stories, worlds, and characters, with ‘BioShock,’ ‘Portal,’ ‘Mirror’s Edge,’ ‘Gears of War’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption’ being just a few considerable options, it’s insulting that production companies continue to adapt games with barely any plot or characters to speak of, and with so many of them ultimately ending-up as your run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster, is it even worth the effort? Final Rating: low 4/10.

rampage_xxlg

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.

meg_ver7_xxlg

Spree (2020) – Film Review

The world of social-media influencers vying for clicks, likes, views, and retweets all to achieve viral fandom is a twisted one, and ‘Spree’ is far from the first film to delve into this subject matter with a satirical lens. What makes the film different is its secondary inspiration, being based on the true story of an Uber driver who went on a killing spree in early 2016, ‘Spree’ has plenty of comically violent scenes to accompany its social-media commentary. Yet even in spite of Joe Keery’s magnetic screen-presence, ‘Spree’ is a film that always feels as if it’s on the verge of being something exceptional, but it’s reach far exceeds its grasp.

Plot Summary: Desperate for an online following, twenty-three-year-old wannabe influencer and rideshare driver: ‘Kurt Kunkle’ devises a malicious scheme to go viral, installing a series of cameras inside his rideshare car in order to film his unsuspecting victims as they meet a gruesome end…

Co-written and directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko (A Wonderful Cloud, Wobble Palace, We Are), ‘Spree’ was initially envisioned as a claustrophobic horror based around the story of the previously mentioned serial killing Uber driver who claimed a “Devil Figure” inside of the rideshare app was controlling his actions. And although this terrifying true story would have certainly provided enough inspiration for an indie horror, Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh soon began to swerve more into dark comedy after giving the killer an intense craving for attention. This eventually evolved into the film’s central theme of social-media obsession, which while often used to great effect to mock online influencers, does frequently feel underdeveloped and retracts from the film’s tension, pushing ‘Kurt’s killing spree into the background in exchange for awkward character moments, which will inevitably disappoint those hoping to see plenty of grisly kills.

Joe Keery portrays the film’s psychotic protagonist: ‘Kurt Kunkle,’ who is suitably just as upbeat and inappropriate as many real-world influencers. This realism is most likely a result of Eugene Kotlyarenko and Joe Keery’s research, as the pair watched many cringe compilations of people online without a big following to help create the character, and this comes across through Keery’s body movements and relentless optimism, making for an occasionally irritating yet charismatic protagonist as ‘Kurt’ always remains hopeful his night of murder will increase his follower-count after trying (and failing) for the past decade. It’s just unfortunate that ‘Kurt’ doesn’t receive much development over the course of the runtime aside from one or two scenes, with much of: ‘Kurt’s life outside of the internet being left a mystery.

The cinematography by Jeff Leeds Cohn is obviously in the style of found-footage, but rather than simply having ‘Kurt’ film his every move similar to most found-footage flicks, the camera itself takes on numerous forms as the story is seemingly spliced together through iPhone cameras/screens, dash-cams, body-cams, and even CCTV footage. Yet despite this ever-changing camerawork ensuring ‘Spree’s visuals stay varied, there does come a point when it begins to feel as if the film is simply piling on footage, even sometimes having three shots displayed at once through a split-screen effect which does become slightly overwhelming, especially when combined with the film’s rapid-editing.

Whilst there a few found-footage films that have successfully integrated an original score without taking away the sense of realism the subgenre provides, ‘Spree’ is most definitely not one of those films. As although the pulsing electronic score composed by James Ferraro does help to build excitement, the film’s soundtrack often plays over scenes with no clear in-world source, which does greatly dampen the illusion of the film being found-footage.

Of course, with ‘Spree’ having a heavy focus around all things social-media, it would be crucial that the film stays truthful to what the internet is actually like (even through its cynical view). And while the film does have many scenarios that feel as though they lack realism, whether that’s due to incredibly forced dialogue or ‘Kurt’s beyond moronic actions when trying to avoid the Los Angeles police force, anytime the film displays a phone screen there is a certainty that every app/website will be a real brand and will be overflowing with detail. For example, ‘Kurt’s constant livestreaming never shies away from reality, meaning his stream’s comments are always rapidly unfurling with insults, jokes, and questions all from distinct usernames, which according to Eugene Kotlyarenko, took him over forty nights to type out.

In short, Joe Keery’s entertaining performance can’t distract from ‘Spree’s shallow critique of social-media. As whilst some may argue the story’s lack of depth is precisely the point, for me the film feels as if its unsure as to what to do with its concept, which is greatly disappointing. As I personally think a dark comedy revolving around the obsessive culture of social-media is ingenious, and films like ‘Ingrid Goes West’ prove this idea can be executed well. ‘Spree,’ however, fails to deliver on this or its even promise of a violent and comedic thrill ride. So, while I do still believe the film will have a niche appeal, ‘Spree’s apparent flaws are likely to stop most from hitting the subscribe button. Final Rating: high 4/10.

hJUA4wfvw0A6l3niOfxourqpERA

The Shallows (2016) – Film Review

Ever since the release of the original blockbuster: ‘Jaws’ in the summer of 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 bloodthirsty 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 Shallows’ also serves as a survival-thriller along the same lines of: ‘127 Hours Later.’ As ‘Nancy’ has to face not only the great white shark stalking her, 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. Furthermore, 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 that morning, so her reactions of disgust are genuine, even though the crab initially being 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 film’s visual effects artists 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 though due to the demands of the film’s screenplay, 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