The Final Girls (2015) – Film Review

An affectionate nod and occasionally parody of 1980s slashers and their associated tropes, ‘The Final Girls,’ released in 2015, may not be as inspired or as tonally consistent as the similarly self-mocking likes of: ‘The Cabin in the Woods,’ ‘Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon,’ or the original: ‘Scream.’ But with plenty of humorous moments, some stellar visuals, and a surprisingly strong layer of emotion tying together all of the film’s meta amusement, ‘The Final Girls’ is sure to delight any admirer of the gruesome subgenre, even if the film focuses far more effort towards being a comedy than a horror.

Plot Summary: When ‘Max Cartwright’ and her friends reluctantly attend a tribute screening of the notorious 1980s slasher: ‘Camp Bloodbath,’ a film that starred ‘Max’s late mother, the group are seemingly transported into the cult classic horror. Now reunited with an on-screen version of her mother, ‘Max’ and her friends must join forces with the ill-fated camp counsellors to confront the film’s machete-wielding killer and survive the ninety-two minute runtime…

Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson (Drunks vs. Highs, Zombies and Cheerleaders, Isn’t It Romantic) and co-written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, ‘The Final Girls’ does a fantastic job of capturing all the aspects of 80s slashers in a way that highlights the hilarity of their predictability whilst still respecting the subgenre. From one character losing her virginity and thus instantly condemning herself to a violent death, to each of the camp counsellors fitting into one of several slasher stereotypes e.g. ‘The Jock’ and ‘The Harlot’ etc. The screenplay gets plenty of mileage out of playing with the clichés we all know from the slasher films of old, but it’s undeniable that the main influence for: ‘The Final Girls’ is the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, as the films share many, many similarities in everything from structure to sound design.

The cast for: ‘The Final Girls’ is certainly a large one, but due to many of the characters from ‘Camp Bloodbath’ intentionally being written as walking clichés, the film places most of its attention towards developing ‘Max’ and her mother: ‘Amanda,’ portrayed by Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman respectively. And their relationship is where the majority of the story’s poignant scenes come from, as after losing her mother in a tragic car crash three years earlier, ‘Max’ finally sees her chance to save her, or at least, the on-screen version of her through saving the fictional character of: ‘Nancy,’ a sweet-souled, unaware shadow of actress: ‘Amanda Cartwright.’ However, while the pairs’ performances are superb, along with the rest of the cast of Alexander Ludwig, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev, Thomas Middleditch, Angela Trimbur, and more. Adam Devine is horribly miscast as ‘Kurt,’ the sportsman-type character, as instead of being an athletic, perverted jock, Devine comes across as far more pathetic and obnoxious than he should, almost as if he isn’t fully aware of what slasher archetype he is supposed to be portraying.

Other than some briefly utilised CGI, which has noticeably aged very poorly. A large portion of the visuals throughout ‘The Final Girls’ are impressive yet not always authentic to the 80s time-period, as the cinematography by Elie Smolkin allows the camera to swerve, zoom, and spin around the characters, all the while, the film’s colour palette is either immensely vibrant or exclusively black and white for whenever a flashback to the killer’s origin story is called for. Moreover, the film features a number of creative sequences including a tooling-up montage and a slow-motion chase, both of which not only add to the film’s style but are also terrifically edited.

Though lacking a central theme like many iconic slashers from the 1980s, the original score by Gregory James Jenkins and Eddy Zak is like a musical time-capsule of sounds that are no longer used within the horror genre. As tracks like ‘The Diaphragm Van’ and ‘Puttin’ It Together’ are easy on the ear synth tracks that whilst competent and reminiscent of 80s horror scores, never quite manage to surpass any of their inspirations.

Unfortunately, despite all these positives, ‘The Final Girls’ isn’t an impeccable horror-comedy, as even with its brief runtime, the film does lose a bit of steam during its last third or so, as the story begins to fall into less inventive territory as the body-count rises. Still, the screenwriters do still find ways to integrate a clever surprise or two, such as the cliffhanger ending which alludes towards the prospect of a money-grubbing sequel titled: ‘Camp Bloodbath 2: Cruel Summer.’ The second primary issue ‘The Final Girls’ suffers from is its almost complete absence of violence/gore, as aside from one or two shots of dripping blood, for a slasher, ‘Camp Bloodbath’ seems fairly family-friendly, which, in my opinion, is a huge misstep in light of the slasher subgenre being well-known for its excessive amounts of blood and guts.

Overall, with much of the ‘The Final Girls’ essentially being a film-within-a-film, it’s entirely plausible that this horror-comedy could’ve declined into nothing but constant fourth-wall-breaking jokes and pop-culture references. Yet through its engaging story and facetious writing, ‘The Final Girls’ successfully deconstructs the slasher subgenre without the cynicism that could render a comedy into a unsurprising, humourless snore. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Adult Life Skills (2016) – Film Review

Based on the BAFTA-nominated short: ‘Emotional Fusebox,’ which premiered at the London Film Festival in 2014. ‘Adult Life Skills’ is the directorial debut of writer and director Rachel Tunnard, who was primarily an editor before writing and directing the original short film. And whilst Tunnard’s lack of experience in these duel roles is evident, now and then, as this low-budget coming-of-age comedy-drama hardly breaks new ground when it comes to its respective genres. The endearingly quirky story, distinctly British charm, and august performance from Jodie Whittaker all make ‘Adult Life Skills’ well worth a watch.

Plot Summary: Deeply grieving from the death of her twin brother, twenty-nine-year-old: ‘Anna’ spends her days living in her mother’s shed, retreating into herself as she makes videos using homemade props and her thumbs as actors. But on the eve of her 30th birthday, ‘Anna’ meets a troubled little boy going through the same life-altering experience she did, a boy who may be the answer to getting her out of her slump…

Formerly known as ‘How to Live Yours.’ ‘Adult Life Skills’ had its first appearance at a film festival just as its predecessor did, only this time around, it was the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, where Rachel Tunnard quickly won one of the top awards: the Nora Ephron prize for best female director. Yet, in my opinion, much of the allure of: ‘Adult Life Skills’ comes from its screenplay rather than Tunnard’s direction, as the dialogue is continuously both witty and dramatic, balancing moments of laughs and tears without ever feeling disjointed or unnatural, amplifying the film’s feeling of solace and upbeat tone thanks to its homespun, playful aesthetic.

Jodie Whittaker, who reprises her role from ‘Emotional Fusebox,’ portrays ‘Anna’ magnificently, rapidly jumping from one emotion to another as ‘Anna’s method of grieving often manifests in her hiding away from her own life, locking herself inside her mother’s shed as she cherishes her brother’s old clothes and watches videos the pair made together during their younger days. Essentially, ‘Anna’ is a character whose growth has been stunted by grief, and the story explores this concept of a person growing into adulthood with a piece of their identity personified in a lost sibling brilliantly, an idea that is only enhanced by Whittaker’s sublime performance. Needless to say, it takes her mother’s grumbling, her grandmother’s wisdom, and her best friend’s guidance to help bring her back into the real world, restoring her life to what it once was, and the supporting cast of Lorraine Ashbourne, Eileen Davies, and Rachael Deering all do a great job of bringing these characters to life, despite some of the side characters being woefully underdeveloped.

One advantage ‘Adult Life Skills’ has over many other British stories is its setting, as the film truly feels as if it couldn’t be set anyway else. Breaking away from the typical locations where stories within the United Kingdom tend to be set such as London or less-commonly Manchester and Glasgow, in exchange for the remote Yorkshire countryside, a unique location that even helps to redeem the film’s over-reliance on hand-held techniques when it comes to the cinematography by Bet Rourich. As Yorkshire has more than its fair share of natural beauty, even when the weather is gloomy.

Although there is no original score for the film, most likely due to budgetary restrictions. ‘Adult Life Skills’ does feature a number of songs both well-known and obscure. From ‘Jesus Came to My Birthday Party’ to ‘You Lost Sight on Me,’ ‘Champions of the River Nile,’ and ‘Here I Go Again,’ every song that can be heard throughout the runtime fits the tone remarkably well, never once feeling inappropriate or unsuitable to the specific scene they are featured within.

In addition to being a comedy-drama, ‘Adult Life Skills’ makes a few (unsuccessful) attempts towards being a romantic-comedy, as one of: ‘Anna’s close friends, the soft-spoken, estate agent: ‘Brendan’ portrayed by Brett Goldstein, persistently speaks to ‘Anna,’ trying to impress her with his comforting charm and handmade gifts. His efforts are ultimately pointless, however, as ‘Anna’s jading reactions to his kind gestures are on account of: ‘Anna’ believing ‘Brendan’ is gay. And whilst this misunderstanding does result in a winsome relationship, this subplot suffers due to not being given enough attention, as the story instead places far more emphasis on ‘Anna’s relationship with her mother and the young boy: ‘Clint,’ who is surprisingly well portrayed by the then eight-year-old actor Ozzy Myers.

In short, ‘Adult Life Skills’ is a film that wears its oddball eccentricities on its sleeve. Tackling weighty themes of grief, loneliness, and dealing with one’s emotions, while simultaneously never losing its optimistic outlook. In many ways, ‘Adult Life Skills’ is an undemanding film for those in need of something comforting, an easily watchable comedy-drama that is sure to put a smile on most viewers’ faces, even in spite of its overly familiar ideas. Still, there’s no denying that Jodie Whittaker is the best thing about ‘Adult Life Skills,’ as whenever the screenplay is lacking, Whittaker appears on-screen with confidence, fleshing-out ‘Anna’ as a sympathetic character and ensuring the audience remains emotionally invested in what is occurring narratively. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Please Stand By (2017) – Film Review

While in years gone by many films surrounding the subject of autism have been seen as overly simplistic or even offensive, with Hollywood often treating characters with ASD like an immeasurable burden upon their entire family, every now and then we receive a film which presents its autistic character (or characters) with respect and authenticity alike, with 2017’s ‘Please Stand By’ being one such example. Directed by Ben Lewin (Georgia, The Sessions, Falling for Figaro) and based on the 2008 play of the same name by Michael Golamco, ‘Please Stand By’ may hit many familiar beats for a coming-of-age comedy-drama, but with an excellent cast and a subtle sci-fi twist thanks to its focus around all things ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Please Stand By’ manages to keep its story diverting throughout its brief runtime.

Plot Summary: When ‘Wendy Welcott,’ a young autistic woman with a gift for writing, learns that Paramount Pictures is holding a screenwriting competition to celebrate ‘Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, she swiftly writes her own screenplay for submission. But on account of her condition and a great deal of ignorance from those around her, ‘Wendy’ is unable to submit her screenplay in time. So, seeing no other option, ‘Wendy’ decides to leave her group home in Oakland and travel to Los Angeles to deliver her screenplay in person…

Although the film’s screenplay (which is actually written by Michael Golamco) rarely breaks the mould of your typical coming-of-age narrative, ‘Please Stand By’ still has more than its fair share of heart-warming moments. And whilst some may argue that the film’s continuously upbeat tone robs the story of any real stakes, ‘Please Stand By’ isn’t really a film that aims to paint an incredibly dramatic tale of self-realisation, family, and belonging, but instead a film that effectively balances all of those themes through a charming and light-hearted story of a woman embarking on a journey across California in dedication of her favourite science fiction franchise.

In what would’ve been the film’s most criticised performance should it have been executed poorly, Dakota Fanning’s performance as ‘Wendy’ is one of the more thoughtful and accurate portrayals of on-screen autism in quite some time. From her social awkwardness to her flailing arm movements and stiff dialogue readings, Fanning successfully captures the functional spectrum of autism in a delightful and intriguing expression of independence and passion, as due to ‘Wendy’ having few experiences outside of her sheltered routine, the road-trip she embarks upon makes her feel truly unconstrained for the first time in her entire life, both for better and for worse. Meanwhile, her caregiver and older sister wonderfully portrayed by Toni Collette and Alice Eve respectively, attempt to track her down and bring her home, fearing for her safety and greatly doubting her abilities.

When it comes to visuals, despite the ceaselessly vibrant colour palette, the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson hardly ever veers away from immobile close-ups and/or mid-shots. But where the camerawork truly shines is during the scenes where the film attempts to recreate shots from classic ‘Star Trek’ episodes, as the Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles is quickly swapped-out for the strange alien worlds of: ‘Wendy’s imagination, all the while we hear ‘Wendy’ as she reads excerpts from her ‘Star Trek’ screenplay through calming voiceover.

In a similar sense to the visuals, the original score by Heitor Pereira rarely does anything exceedingly innovative as far as soundtracks go, with the majority of the runtime relying more on the use of lesser-known indie songs such as: ‘Take Me as I Am,’ ‘All or Nothing,’ and ‘Waves.’ Yet the score once again becomes much more interesting once we are transported into ‘Wendy’s screenplay, as the original score morphs into something that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in an actual ‘Star Trek’ film.

Along with recreating shots, ‘Please Stand By’ also pays homage to ‘Stark Trek’ history in nearly every aspect of its production. Firstly, the name tags of: ‘Wendy’s work collogues use the same font as the opening titles of: ‘Star Trek: The Original Series.’ Moreover, the mountain ranges seen in the background of the screenplay sequence are the Vasquez Rocks located in Agua Dulce, California, this area has been an extensively used location for many ‘Star Trek’ films and series, but most notably, for the 1966 episode: ‘Arena.’ Lastly, the suits worn by ‘Captain Kirk’ and ‘Spock’ during this same sequence are similar to suits worn by the characters in the 1968 episode: ‘The Tholian Web,’ visibly proving that the filmmakers did their research when it came to the franchise and its ardent followers.

Overall, whilst Golamco’s admittedly predictable screenplay does place the film more in the mid-range of coming-of-age comedy-dramas, by letting the talented actors simply do what they do best, director Ben Lewin does make ‘Please Stand By’ palatable even in its most commonplace moments. And although I obviously can’t speak for everyone in regard to how well the film truly portrays autism given my position, in my eyes, this low-budget flick handles the potentially challenging concept adroitly, displaying the challenges of a life with ASD without ever devolving into a exaggerated collection of tics and quirks, insulting those who may be on the spectrum. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Guns Akimbo (2019) – Film Review

Frenetic to a fault, 2019’s ‘Guns Akimbo’ relishes in its video-game-like violence, utilising its fluid editing, fast-pacing, and wild visuals to construct a thrilling action-comedy inspired by riveting 1980s blockbusters like ‘The Terminator’ and ‘The Running Man.’ Yet with all this insanity, it’s inevitable that ‘Guns Akimbo’ will alienate some viewers, especially those hoping for plenty of engrossing commentary concerning televised violence and online culture, but for many others, the film’s super-charged, energetic action sequences along with Daniel Radcliffe’s committed performance will surely hit the spot as an explosive jaunt.

Plot Summary: When ‘Miles Lee Harris,’ a spineless video-game programmer, awakens one morning to discover that his hands have been bloodily bolted to a pair of pistols, ‘Miles’ is forced to use the fused-firearms to his advantage to save his ex-girlfriend from a group of kidnappers working for a criminal organisation named: ‘Skizm,’ which pits maniacal criminals against each other in live-streamed deathmatches…

Written and directed by Jason Lei Howden (Deathgasm), ‘Guns Akimbo’ is, in many ways, trying to be a satire of the digital age we currently live in, displaying how apps like Instagram and YouTube have made us cynical, and in some instances, even dehumanised us. The problem here being that the film soon becomes exactly what it’s satirising, constantly mocking the online community of: ‘Skizm’ for watching the grisly livestreams even though the film itself is taking just as much pleasure in displaying them to its audience, but considering ‘Guns Akimbo’ is primarily an action flick over anything else, I feel this muddled message is far from the film’s central focus. An issue the film does actually suffer from, however, is its screenplay, as by the time it’s third act arrives, the film is clearly beginning to run out of steam, devolving into essentially just non-stop action with little charm when compared to the first half of the film.

By far one of the film’s best aspects, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as asthmatic protagonist: ‘Miles Lee Harris’ is both hilarious and manic, as ‘Miles’ is forced to leave his boring life as a programmer for a company whose games are designed to exploit children for micro-transactions, to undertake a whole new identity after unwillingly entering: ‘Skizm’ and their city-wide game of death. And whilst ‘Miles’ continuous moments of cowardice and constant wheedling over his ex-girlfriend could’ve been annoying if they were over-played, Radcliffe portrays the character in such a way where it’s easy for the audience to root for him similar to how ‘Skizm’s online audience do. On the flip side of this matchup there is ‘Nix,’ a cocaine-fuelled killer who relishes in profane one-liners and is brilliantly portrayed by Samara Weaving, being the current reigning champion of: ‘Skizm,’ ‘Nix’ serves her purpose as a baleful adversary to ‘Miles’ in addition to having a surprisingly dramatic backstory.

An utterly merciless blend of: ‘Crank,’ ‘Shoot ‘Em Up,’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,’ the cinematography throughout ‘Guns Akimbo’ never fails to be visually dynamic, as cinematographer Stefan Ciupek aims to make the camera feel completely unrestricted, having it flow freely through a variety of techniques including making superb use of body-rigs and car-mounts alike, which does help to redeem some of the uninspired firefight choreography. Moreover, as ‘Guns Akimbo’ frequently has the appeal of a vibrant graphic novel, the on-screen graphics and highly saturated lighting lend themselves remarkably well, with many of the lighting rigs used also being controlled via an iPad, so they could easily be adjusted to fit with the mood and colour of any scene.

Enis Rotthoff’s original score is just as hyperactive as the rest of the film, as any scenes that aren’t filled with iconic songs such as: ‘We’ll Be Good Friends,’ ‘Super Freak,’ or ‘You Spin Me Round’ are amplified by Rotthoff’s thumping techno soundtrack, with tracks like ‘Neon Grey’ and ‘Playcare’ being perfectly in tune with whatever moment of the story they are a part of.

However, even when keeping all these elements in mind, whether you enjoy ‘Guns Akimbo’ or not will ultimately have to do with whether you find the distinctively zany concept endearing, as the film greatly leans into the comedy of its premise, imagining what it would be like to try and use the bathroom or attempt to call someone when you literally have pistols for hands, which has always been the film’s most notable distinction. In fact, during the film’s pre-production, an image of Daniel Radcliffe panicking and holding a pair of pistols whilst wearing a robe went viral as soon as it surfaced online, creating an aura of awareness for the film before it even had an official trailer.

Overall, ‘Guns Akimbo’ is bloody, brutal, and ballistic, colourful and stylish yet admittedly fairly empty-minded. But for a film like this, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, as while some may argue the film starts to lose its desirability once you realise it doesn’t have much to offer beyond its high-octane action sequences, ‘Guns Akimbo’ never lies to you about what it is, as the action is every bit as ludicrously over-the-top as it would be in the fictional reality of violent video-games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Doom.’ Final Rating: 7/10.

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Coherence (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slow West (2015) – Film Review

Musicians have long been drawn to the cinematic tales of the Old West, whether that’s the singing cowboys of early sound cinema with big-screen Elvis vehicles such as: ‘Flaming Star’ and ‘Charro!’ or Glen Campbell’s first step into the scorching deserts of New Mexico for the 1969 classic: ‘True Grit,’ the western genre has always seemed like a second home for musicians regardless of their stature. So, its no surprise that in 2015, part-time musician and part-time music video director John Maclean brought his own vision to the genre with ‘Slow West,’ a subversive story of death and devotion brimming with natural beauty, unsettling violence and a distinctly Coen-esque flavour of bleak, deadpan humour.

Plot Summary: In 1870, a naive Scottish teenager travels to Colorado in pursuit of the woman he loves, whilst there, he attracts the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as his guide across the county. Little does he know, not only does his beloved have a sizeable bounty on her head, but his seemingly helpful guide is actually hiding his true motive…

Described as “An Unconventional Western” by most, ‘Slow West’ was developed and co-financed by Film4, along with receiving some additional funding from the British Film Institute, Fulcrum Media Finance, the New Zealand Film Commission, and production company A24. However, while all this financial support may leave you thinking that writer and director John Maclean has previously produced a number of incredible films, ‘Slow West’ is actually Maclean’s directorial debut, as first and foremost Maclean is a Scottish musician, which does help explain some of the film’s peculiarities. As according to John Maclean, the original idea for: ‘Slow West’ came from a desire to link the British costume drama of a Merchant Ivory film with that of the American western, which is certainly a very interesting concept, even if this approach doesn’t always result in the smoothest or most emotionally impactful story-beats.

Leading the cast, Michael Fassbender as bounty hunter: ‘Silas Selleck’ and Kodi Smit-McPhee as sixteen-year-old: ‘Jay Cavendish’ both do a phenomenal job of bouncing off each other, as ‘Silas’ is a grizzled recluse with little faith in humanity, believing the west is simply a land of murder and theft, a land where everyone will stab you in the back the moment you turn around, whereas ‘Jay’ is the complete opposite of this, an optimistic young lad from an aristocratic family, woefully unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead yet trusts his enervating journey will be worthwhile just to see his beloved ‘Rose’ once again. And despite these characters being endlessly entertaining to watch, ‘Silas’ character-arc does feel a little rushed in the grand scheme of things, along with Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn barely getting a chance to shine due to their character’s limited screen-time.

Shot on digital when originally planned to be shot on 35mm, the cinematography of: ‘Slow West’ handled by Robbie Ryan breaks many of the conventions we associate with western visuals similar to how the narrative has a wizened grasp of when to embrace or reject a western cliché, as ‘Slow West’ ditches the usual western colour palette of beiges and browns for a much more vibrant look. Furthermore, as opposed to being shot in Colorado where the story takes place, the film was actually shot in the South Island of New Zealand, meaning the film has no shortage of stunning vistas, even if, in reality, the film couldn’t have been shot further away from where the American West was located.

The original score by Jed Kurzel isn’t overly memorable or unique, but does suit the film’s many moments of dark comedy remarkably well, as the score utilises a wide array of different instruments to give the soundtrack a bygone western feel, ensuring the original score stays within its 1800s setting and the confines of slow and drawn-out tracks such as: ‘Jay’s Theme’ and ‘The Trading Post,’ which were very common during the golden age of Hollywood when westerns were at their peak.

Alongside a suitable original score, another crucial element to crafting a great western will always been production design, as any film that can make their audience feel as if they have actually travelled back to the story’s time-period has surely succeeded. And director John Maclean makes it clear early on that he understands this, as even in spite of the budget for: ‘Slow West’ being fairly minimal (especially for a western), the film’s production design is often superb, with Maclean taking influence from classic westerns like ‘Iron Horse’ for the period details of both the film’s costumes and architecture.

On the whole, ‘Slow West’ may pay the price now and then for being helmed by a less-than-experienced writer and director, but for the most part, Maclean triumphs with his first cinematic outing, as ‘Slow West’ reaps the rewards of taking the road less-travelled, relishing in the telling of the tale as much as the tale itself. And whilst perhaps not on the same level as a Coen brother’s western, ‘Slow West’ exudes such confidence with its casual weirdness and abundance of ripping performances, subsequently resulting in an unpredictable yet still wildly compelling modern western. Final Rating: 7/10.

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The Grey (2012) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinister (2012) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fury (2014) – Film Review

Five years after Brad Pitt first entered the realm of fictional war stories with 2009’s ‘Inglorious Bastards,’ Pitt returned to the genre for: ‘Fury,’ a gritty action/drama following the valiant actions of a battle-hardened tank commander and his loyal men as they undertake a treacherous mission. And although the film frequently invites far too many comparisons to the military classic: ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ ‘Fury’ is still a tightly-knit story of brotherhood with some excellent performances and a suitably unflinching depiction of war to carry it through to the end of its two-hour runtime.

Plot Summary: April, 1945. As Allies make their final push towards the European Theatre, grizzled tank commander: ‘Don Collier’ commands a Sherman tank and his devoted five-man crew on a daring mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered, outgunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, ‘Don’ and his men seemingly face overwhelming odds as they attempt to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany…

Rather than being based on a singular veracious story similar to most films set during the second World War, ‘Fury’ is actually based on a collection of true stories from many real life army veterans who spent most of their time during the war inside tanks. But primarily, the film’s storyline parallels the story of American tank commander Staff Sergeant Lafayette G. Pool, who personally destroyed over two-hundred and fifty-eight enemy vehicles before his tank was eventually destroyed in late 1944. According to writer and director David Ayer (End of Watch, Suicide Squad, Bright), it was his family’s heavy association with World War II that drove him to write and direct ‘Fury,’ wanting the film to be as true-to-life as possible to pay respect to his grandparents, who both served as officers during the historical war. Ayer also wanted the film’s characters to exhibit a level of exhaustion, as at that time, when the war was nearing its end in Europe, every remaining solider was left fighting with hardly any supplies.

Before production began, the entire cast of: ‘Fury’ underwent a rigorous month-long training course to further cement them as their respective characters, the final test of which included manning a real tank during a combat exercise. Brad Pitt, who was much older than the rest of the cast, ensured that he participated in all of the same physical training his fellow actors did. Pitt’s dedication to his role is also evident throughout the film, as ‘Don Collier,’ or ‘Wardaddy’ as he is nicknamed by his platoon, continuously remains a burley and resilient character without ever losing too much of Pitt’s natural charisma. However, the other members of: ‘Don’s crew portrayed by Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, and Logan Lerman aren’t quite as noteworthy, though the film does attempt to integrate a number of scenes which humanise the soldiers, a few members of: ‘Don’s crew inevitably feel like less interesting recreations of battle-burned stereotypes.

The set-design, set-dressing, editing, and especially cinematography by Roman Vasyanovn, all greatly amplify ‘Fury’s grim appeal. Having nearly every location the characters visit be represented through either scorched fields, shattered farmhouses, or isolated German towns (which were actually built from scratch by the production crew). Furthermore, ‘Fury’ pulls no punches when it comes to displaying graphic violence, as arms, legs, and heads are all repeatedly severed in pursuit of pushing the film’s primary theme, that being the overplayed yet still impactful: ‘War is Hell,’ which is only enhanced by the film’s dingy, trench-ridden colour palette.

Contrarily, the original score composed by Steven Price is slightly lighter in tone, as tracks such as: ‘Refugees,’ ‘The Apartment,’ ‘Crossroads,’ and ‘Norman’ all create a contrast to the film’s distressing visuals, often riding the line between hope and tragedy as a result of the soundtrack’s electronic pulses and grand orchestra. Still, whilst the score does leave a strong impact on the film, there is a distinct lack of memorability throughout the original score, not too dissimilar to much of Price’s other work, e.g. ‘American Assassin’ and ‘The Aeronauts.’

In addition to filming on-location in Hertfordshire, England whenever possible, ‘Fury’ also strives for realism through its use of genuine tanks from the time-period. Most notably, the Tiger I tank, making it only the second time in history that an actual tank of that make has been used in a feature film production, with the tank itself being borrowed from the Bovington Tank Museum, which is coincidentally also located in the United Kingdom. Additionally, many of the costumes that appear in the film were acquired from real World War II clothing exhibits all over the world, keeping in-line with David Ayer’s admirable fight for total accuracy of the time-period.

In summary, while ‘Fury’ may offer plenty of fantastic performances and visceral action set-pieces, the film’s overly long runtime and absence of any incredibly likeable or unique characters ensures that the film never manages to live-up to its larger ambitions, which in some ways could also be attributed to David Ayer’s lacklustre writing, as Ayer’s screenplays often leave something to be desired, in my opinion, anyway. Nevertheless, ‘Fury’ is unquestionably worth a watch, even though I’ll always stick with ‘Inglorious Bastards’ for my simultaneous fill of Brad Pitt and World War II insight. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Rio (2011) – Film Review

From Blue Sky Studios, the production company behind many light-hearted family animations like ‘Robots,’ ‘Epic,’ ‘Ferdinand,’ ‘Spies in Disguise,’ and most notably, the ‘Ice Age’ series. ‘Rio,’ released in 2011, is a vibrant animated adventure which despite its occasionally childish humour and relatively straight-forward story is sure to keep adults and children alike joyfully content without reinventing the animation wheel, compensating for its lack of originality though its charming voice cast and exuberant chase sequences.

Plot Summary: After being captured by smugglers and taken from Brazil when he was just a hatchling, a blue macaw named: ‘Blu,’ never learned to fly and now lives a happily domesticated life in Minnesota with his owner: ‘Linda.’ But when ornithologist: ‘Tulio’ arrives at their door and informs the pair that ‘Blu’ is the last male of his kind, the two decide to travel to Rio de Janeiro to meet ‘Jewel,’ the last female…

Taking inspiration from the true story of a Spix’s macaw named Elvis, whose owner agreed to let him join the captive breeding program to help preserve his species. ‘Rio’ may follow a very familiar formula for a family flick, yet what makes ‘Rio’ stand-out is exactly that, Rio de Janeiro itself. As director Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Robots, Ferdinand) is himself a resident of Rio, and first came-up with the concept in 1995, only at that point in time the story focused on a penguin washing-up on the beaches of the Brazilian city. However, when Saldanha learned two other penguin-related animated features were in production, these being: ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Surf’s Up,’ he was forced to radically rewrite the film’s screenplay. Interestingly, this film is also cited as the reason as to why Pixar cancelled their film: ‘Newt,’ as it was said to have had a very similar plot.

Recording many of his lines while filming for: ‘The Social Network’ was still underway, Jesse Eisenberg agreed to provide his voice for: ‘Blu’ on weekends to compensate for lost time, admitting that it diverted him away from the mindset of his nearly joyless ‘Social Network’ character. And while Eisenberg doesn’t give a ground-breaking performance here, Eisenberg is, in my opinion, the perfect casting choice for this kind of character. As ‘Blu’s awkward and nervous personality shines perfectly through Eisenberg’s whiny vocal performance, which is only amplified after he encounters the feisty female: ‘Jewel’ portrayed by Anne Hathaway, as their shy romance gradually blossoms over the course of the runtime. Furthermore, the supporting cast of George Lopez, Jemaine Clement, Will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, and Tracey Morgan all do a wonderful job, with nearly every member of the cast also stretching their vocal cords for many of the film’s lively songs.

When it comes to the film’s visuals, director Carlos Saldanha uses the exquisitely rendered backdrop of his home city to great advantage, as the film’s animated cinematography is constantly swooping, soaring and spinning high above the sunny beaches and multicoloured parasols of Rio de Janeiro as ‘Blu’ and ‘Jewel’ scamper through the city on trolleys, cable cars, and in one of the film’s most uplifting scenes, atop the wings of a paraglider. In spite of its characters always being on the move, ‘Rio’ also manages to avoid the usual problem animated films tend to run into, as the film’s plot moves along at just the right pace to keep younger viewers entertained.

With ‘Rio’ being Blue Sky Studios’ first attempt at a musical, one or two of the film’s songs are catchy, but inevitably are nowhere near as memorable as many songs from Disney’s vast catalogue of animated classics. Yet I feel this may be due to Will.i.am’s potential influence, as many of the film’s songs such as: ‘Hot Wings’ and ‘Funky Monkey’ sound like nothing more than modern, age-appropriate pop songs forced into the film’s soundtrack. Contrarily, the original score by John Powell slightly elevates itself above your standard family film score through tracks like ‘Morning Routine,’ ‘Paradise Concern,’ and ‘Birdnapped.’

Whilst the actual animation throughout ‘Rio’ is usually just as energetic and colourful as any other modern animation, its undoubtedly at its best when replicating Rio’s many iconic landmarks, with a large majority of them being almost picturesque. This accuracy is more than likely due to the crew’s research, as many of the film’s animators not only visited Rio de Janeiro in order to precisely replicate the city, but also consulted with a macaw expert at the Bronx Zoo for the design and movements of their avian characters.

Overall, although most audience members have always seen Blue Sky Studios as secondary to more well-known production companies like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and even Sony Pictures Animation in recent years, I’ve always enjoyed Blue Sky’s animated endeavours even if many of their stories feel fairly unoriginal from time-to-time. Still, just as ‘Rio’ proves, this issue of unoriginality can be overshadowed with the right methods, as ‘Rio’s titular setting and dazzling colour palette will ensure the film’s place as a love letter to Brazil if nothing else. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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