Molly’s Game (2017) – Film Review

Following his many triumphs as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, in 2017 Aaron Sorkin took a seat in the directing chair for the first time in his career. And just like many of his previous writing efforts, his impressive directorial debut: ‘Molly’s Game,’ was based on the exploits of a real-life figure. Adapting the memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom, the self-proclaimed: “Poker Princess,” who became the subject of tabloid infamy in 2007 when she was outed as the brains behind a prestigious underground poker tournament frequented by celebrities, CEOs and mobsters alike.

Plot Summary: When a catastrophic injury robs her of a promising sports career and a long-coveted Olympic medal, former competitive skier, Molly Bloom, moves to Los Angeles to take a year out and avoid attending law school. But, shortly after arriving, Molly discovers that the quickest way to achieve success is through the world of high-stakes poker, building herself up through the ranks of deep-pocketed celebrities and the corporate elite as she hosts weekly poker nights, soon drawing the attention of the Russian mob and The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now, facing a variety of federal charges, Molly’s only hope rests in the capable hands of the criminal defence lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, who learns there is more to Molly Bloom than meets the eye…

Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. ‘Molly’s Game’ was the first film to be both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, as previously mentioned. And although the screenplay itself isn’t as unique as some of Sorkin’s other work, with ‘A Few Good Men,’ ‘The Social Network,’ ‘Moneyball’ and ‘Steve Jobs’ being just some of the immensely well-received and Oscar-nominated/winning biographies Sorkin has written in the past. The screenplay for: ‘Molly’s Game’ still crackles and excites at many points, as the writing is quick-witted and frequently goes into extreme detail whenever Molly recounts her story, subsequently earning Sorkin another Oscar nomination in 2018 for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Real-world entrepreneur and author, Molly Bloom, actually told Aaron Sorkin that she wanted actress Jessica Chastain to portray her should a film adaptation of her story ever be made. And it seems that this was certainly the right call in retrospect, as Chastain perfectly expresses resolve and vulnerability in her role as Molly, portraying a woman who uses her intellect as a weapon. Carving her own path as she leans into her former career as a competitive skier to fuel her drive to succeed, as high achieving doesn’t even come close to the grand ambitions she harbours. Nevertheless, years later, after leaving the world of poker behind, Molly is still far from free as she is arrested by The Federal Bureau of Investigation on tentative crimes, which is where Charlie Jaffey comes into the story, excellently portrayed by Idris Elba. Additionally, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera give superb performances as Molly’s father and ‘Player X,’ respectively, the latter being an adept poker player and professional actor, who despite having their name changed to protect their privacy, is widely believed to be based on Tobey Maguire.

While the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen does tend to over-rely on mid-shots and close-ups now and then, ‘Molly’s Game’ still contains some admirable shots whenever the film decides to fully indulge in its visuals. Particularly, whenever the story brings us back to the poker table, as here the film utilises many on-screen graphics to visually display the fundamentals of poker, in the event that some audience members (such as myself) aren’t familiar with the game’s regulations, sidestepping the need for lengthy scenes of poker-related specification. Furthermore, the editing frequently attempts to keep pace with the dialogue, occasionally even employing archive footage when Molly goes into certain topics, giving the film a terrific sense of style.

On a similar note, the original score by Daniel Pemberton is a fast-paced soundtrack that varies between light synthetic rock and electronic dance, meaning tracks like ‘Staring Down a Mountain,’ ‘Molly’s Journey,’ ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Therapy Session’ make for a dazzling mixture between electronic and more classical compositions. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t slow tracks, as both ‘Molly’s Dream’ and ‘Scars’ are far slower and more melodic in nature, with ‘Molly’s Dream,’ in particular, explicitly featuring a piano, a marked contrast from the bulk of the score.

Interestingly, due to Aaron Sorkin’s constant focus on realism, right down to the way players handled their cards during games, all of the extras seen during the poker games are actually professional poker players. According to Sorkin, the cast could often be seen playing poker between takes with the professional players. This meant that the extras (who are usually paid around £65 for a twelve-hour workday) were usually some of the highest-paid individuals on set.

In short, ‘Molly’s Game’ is a film that in the grand scheme of well-acted biopics, won’t demolish the competition, but is a well-crafted and entertaining film, nonetheless. Especially for fans of Sorkin, its one-hundred and forty-minute runtime will fly by, as this delve into a world of glamour, privilege and gambling is just as compelling as Sorkin’s other screenplays, perhaps even more so in some aspects. If you’re a little exasperated with Sorkin’s self-satisfied writing, however, then ‘Molly’s Game’ likely won’t change your mind. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Paddington (2014) – Film Review

Inspired by a lone teddy bear author Michael Bond noticed on a store shelf near Paddington Station on Christmas Eve 1956. The literature debut of the loveable little bear known as ‘Paddington,’ came in the children’s book: ‘A Bear Called Paddington’ in 1958, and has since been featured in more than twenty books written by Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, among other artists. In 2014, writer and director Paul King (Under One Roof, Bunny and the Bull, Paddington 2) brought the darling bear to the silver screen in a film that affectionately honours its source material while simultaneously delivering a family-friendly fable that is just as heart-warming and amusing as its marmalade-munching protagonist.

Plot Summary: After a devastating earthquake destroys his home in the Peruvian rainforest, a young bear with an affection for all things British travels to London in search of a new home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he begins to realise that city life is not all he had imagined it to be, until he encounters the ‘Brown Family,’ who after reading the label around his neck, offer him a temporary haven. But just as things seem to be looking-up for the Peruvian bear, he soon catches the eye of a fiendish museum taxidermist…

With the story itself sharing many similarities to the creation of the ‘Paddington’ character; as the idea of a lonely bear sitting in Paddington Station can be linked back to old newsreels depicting child evacuees leaving London during World War II, with labels around their necks and their possessions packed in small suitcases, its clear that King understands the importance of this character in pop-culture. Yet suitably, the film also doesn’t play things too safe and updates the character to stay relevant within modern times. Additionally, as a family comedy, ‘Paddington’ hits all the right notes, as the film’s gags range from laugh-out-loud observations regarding the transformative effects of fatherhood to slapstick bathroom antics, satisfying any audience member regardless of their age.

The voice of: ‘Paddington’ is provided by Ben Whishaw, who it turns out is the perfect voice for the beloved bear, as his line delivery is naive yet charming, depicting ‘Paddington’ as an innocent character who always sees the positive in any given situation. Moreover, the supporting cast of Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Nicole Kidman are all delightful and are given an unexpected amount of characterisation, with ‘Henry Brown’ being an uptight, risk analyst who is reluctant to take ‘Paddington’ in, whilst his kind, artistic wife: ‘Mary,’ treats ‘Paddington’ almost as if he is their own child. But it’s Kidman who truly steals the show as the film’s antagonist: ‘Millicent,’ riding the line between sinister and playfully over-the-top in her portrayal of a museum taxidermist who catches and stuffs exotic animals in her spare time.

Continuously imaginative and vibrant, the cinematography by Erik Wilson is ceaselessly innovative, assembling many visually pleasing shots with equally pleasant bursts of colour, especially when snow begins to fall over London during the final act. It also becomes apparent when examining the camerawork that ‘Paddington’ is just as much a love letter to the city of London as it is an adaptation of a classic child-friendly character. So, of course, there’s the usual display of postcard locations, from the London Eye to Buckingham Palace, along with a stream of light-hearted wisecracks surrounding taxis, the underground and the mundanity of modern life in the British capital.

On a separate note, the original score for the film is by no means a work of art, but composer Nick Urata does manage to craft a score that remains both diverse and playful through tracks like ‘Arrival in London,’ ‘This Will Do Nicely,’ ‘Millicent’s Lab’ and ‘Theif Chase.’ While the more tender tracks such as: ‘Journey from Peru’ and ‘The Letter Home,’ blend austere piano melodies with subtle strings, making for an altogether cheerful if slightly prosaic score.

When it comes to ‘Paddington’ himself, the film brings the character to life via the use of CGI. And whilst this information may worry a few fans of the character, the CG effects used throughout the film are almost faultless, as ‘Paddington’ expresses a range of emotions and seamlessly interacts with the environments/objects around him. Furthermore, ‘Paddington’s outfit is an exact replica of what he wears in the book series, including his iconic blue duffel coat and red Peruvian hat. However, producer David Heyman dismissed his well-known red Wellington boots as they were not actually part of the character’s original design, but were added over the years by toy manufacturers to ensure that the real-life ‘Paddington’ teddy bears were able to stand on their feet.

Overall, even though ‘Paddington’ follows a formula seen in numerous other family flicks, the film is understandably more concerned with making its audience laugh and cry than it is reinventing the genre (something it achieves with aplomb). And with a heart as big as its protagonist’s appetite for marmalade, I feel ‘Paddington’ deserved the successful franchise it later received, with its superb humour, pitch-perfect performances and incidental details proudly cementing the film as an adaption that could go hand-to-hand with some of the finest adaptions of children’s literature. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Gone Girl (2014) – Film Review

An intricate and satisfying adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, which went on to be a New York Times bestseller following its release in 2012, being hailed by many publications as a literary masterpiece. ‘Gone Girl,’ released in 2014, flawlessly combines its maze-like plot with the distinct style of director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network) and a duet of astonishing performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Promptly resulting in an unmissable mystery-thriller that represents an exceptional pairing of filmmaker and source material, fully expressing Fincher’s cynicism regarding the current age of televised media and the darkness lurking just beneath the surface of contemporary life.

Plot Summary: On the occasion of his 5th wedding anniversary, former New York-based writer: ‘Nick Dunne,’ returns home to find that his wife: ‘Amy’ has vanished. After reporting her disappearance to the authorities, the couples’ public portrait of a blissful marriage soon begins to crumble as the cases’ ever-growing media attention places ‘Nick’ as the prime suspect, ultimately leading everyone to ask the same question: did ‘Nick Dunne’ murder his wife?

Making her screenwriting debut, Gillian Flynn does an extraordinarily efficient job of streamlining her four hundred and thirty-two-page novel, retaining its bifurcated structure and elaborate twists without significantly altering the story as a whole. Certainly not an easy task, as the very nature of: ‘Gone Girl’s story requires the film to be constantly jumping through time, depicting the entire timeline of: ‘Nick’ and ‘Amy’s marriage from their first encounter through to the total collapse of their love life, giving the audience a clear understanding of their individual personalities and relationship. And through it all, ‘Amy’ remains a consistent screen-presence, frequently popping-up in flashbacks to her earlier, happier days living in New York City, where she led a life of luxury as a thriving children’s author. That is, until her relationship with ‘Nick,’ a working-class Midwesterner, comes into focus, gradually draining ‘Amy’ of her individuality, which is only worsened by the pairs’ eventual layoffs and relocation to ‘Nick’s hometown. Quickly spawning whispers of spousal neglect, infidelity and domestic violence, all of which is condensed for the sake of the film’s runtime, yet never feels rushed.

Both Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are phenomenal throughout the film with not a single weak moment between them, as Affleck, who has never been more ideally cast, delivers a captivating balancing act of a performance, fostering sympathy and the suspicion that his true self lies somewhere between shallow husband and heartless murderer. While Pike, who has actually had very few lead roles despite her extensive filmography, is continuously emphatic and commanding. What’s more, is that ‘Gone Girl’ is a film that doesn’t aim to paint either of these two characters in a purely positive or negative light, instead, Flynn often leaves it to the audience to decide which character (if any) they should be rooting for, as the couple copes with the rapid decline of their marriage in dissimilar ways. The outstanding leads aside, ‘Gone Girl’ also features a terrific supporting cast of Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, all of whom serve crucial roles within the story.

As ever, Fincher’s regular collaborators turn in work of an exceedingly high standard, as Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography is unerringly well-placed in nearly every scene, bringing a drab, underlit look to ’Nick’ and ‘Amy’s home, the police station and other North Carthage locations. And although ‘Gone Girl’ does admittedly have quite the over-reliance on mid-shots, Cronenweth’s intentionally controlled approach does lend itself well to creating many memorable shots, speaking less to visual flair and more to Fincher’s adroit style.

Along these same lines, the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a gloomy composition, invoking feelings of anxiety in the audience with subtle electronic pulses. Allegedly, Fincher’s musical brief to Reznor and Ross was based on a visit he took to a spa in which the accompanying melody was supposed to be relaxing, yet Fincher perceived it as unsettling. And this undoubtedly comes across in ‘Gone Girl’s score, with tracks like ‘What Have We Done to Each Other?,’ ‘With Suspicion’ and ‘Technically, Missing’ perfectly capturing this idea of a supposedly comforting soundtrack which, in actuality, instils a sense of dread.

Similar to the novel, ‘Gone Girl’s story is also teeming with compelling themes and social commentary covering a range of topics. On a broader level, however, the story is really about public perception and how televised media builds fabulations that quickly get subsumed as truth, as the American populace is willing to swallow whatever narrative is sold to them without question, a thought-provoking theme that the film never forgets to explore and build upon.

In conclusion, ‘Gone Girl’ is a shining example of an adaptation that stays faithful to the source material whilst simultaneously injecting the narrative with its own style, not once letting the story drag nor the suspense settle in its goal of transferring an acclaimed novel to the silver screen. Still, with a plethora of attractive visuals and tremendous performances, along with a handful of darkly comedic moments, I feel ‘Gone Girl’ would’ve been a memorising film even in the absence of its engrossing mystery. Final Rating: high 8/10.

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Upgrade (2018) – Film Review

Recently gaining a large amount of traction through his reinterpretation of the horror classic: ‘The Invisible Man’ in 2020, writer and director Lee Whannell first proved himself a talented filmmaker with ‘Upgrade’ in 2018. A riveting sci-fi-thriller that combined elements of: ‘Black Mirror,’ ‘Minority Report’ and 1990s action flicks to construct a gripping yet dreary tale of revenge, morality and technology through detailed world-building and stimulating action sequences, promptly overcoming its handful of minor glitches.

Plot Summary: In the near future, technology controls almost every aspect of day-to-day life, as the world relies on artificial intelligence to complete even the most basic of tasks. As a result, the old-school, tech-shy mechanic: ‘Grey Trace,’ feels like a fish out of water in an ever-changing world. But after a brutal assault leaves ‘Grey’ paralysed and his beloved wife dead, he’s approached by the reclusive tech mogul: ‘Eron Keen,’ who offers him a solution; a powerful microchip named: ‘STEM’ that will bridge the gap between his mind and unresponsive limbs. Now, able to walk once again, ‘Grey’ decides to seek revenge against the thugs who destroyed his life…

Originally titled: ‘STEM.’ ‘Upgrade’ was Whannell’s first project outside of the horror genre, being best known beforehand for his collaborations with writer-director James Wan, co-writing and starring in both the ‘Saw’ and ‘Insidious’ series. And for being the first time Whannell has truly stepped-out of Wan’s shadow, ‘Upgrade’ immediately proves Whannell to be a more than capable director with a distinct style, a style that certainly wasn’t displayed in his directorial debut: ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ three years prior. ‘Upgrade’ also exhibits Whannell’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, with some scenes feeling as if they’ve been ripped straight from an ’80s buddy-cop comedy as ‘Grey’ humorously argues with the artificial intelligence residing inside his body. This isn’t to say that the film is light-hearted, however, as ‘Upgrade’ is, in reality, quite the opposite, never shying away from bloody, squirm-inducing violence even with it’s surprisingly modest budget.

With regard to the cast, Logan Marshall-Green gives a very ranged performance as protagonist: ‘Grey Trace,’ quickly being established as a technophobe whose main devotions in life are mechanical tinkering and his beautiful wife: ‘Asha Grey.’ That is before the seemingly unprompted assault leaves him crippled, alone and infuriated by his situation to the point of attempted suicide. Then, once receiving ‘STEM,’ ‘Grey’ begins to express far more concern regarding how much bodily control he’s handed over, with Marshall-Green’s performance becoming far more physically demanding as he slowly loses control of his own body. Harrison Gilbertson and Simon Maiden as ‘Eron Keen’ and the voice of: ‘STEM,’ respectively, also portrayal their roles well, with Maiden doing a particularly great job at giving ‘STEM’ a soothing yet simultaneously menacing voice.

But one of the greatest parts of: ‘Upgrade’ by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio, as after obtaining ‘STEM,’ the camera itself visually reflects ‘Grey’s newly acquired agility/coordination by wildly tilting with every movement ‘Grey’ makes, keeping him in the centre of the frame at all times to provide the audience with a unique perspective without sacrificing visibility as a result. Furthermore, despite the story being set in America, ‘Upgrade’ was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia, this location was chosen in order to take advantage of the city’s gothic architecture, giving the film an expansive backdrop not too dissimilar to that of: ‘Minority Report’ and ‘The Matrix’ sequels. However, unlike those films, ‘Upgrade’ does occasionally run into the issue of its sci-fi world feeling slightly inconsistent between shots, as the city’s slick, looming skyscrapers almost seem out-of-place when compared to the graffitied and dilapidated warehouses on street level.

Managing to be moody, suspenseful and tranquil, occasionally even all at the same time, Jed Palmer’s original score is more than fitting for a film like ‘Upgrade.’ As the electronic score echoes films like ‘Blade Runner’ during its quieter moments through tracks such as: ‘Aftermath’ and ‘A Better Place,’ before the more action-orientated cues kick in with tracks like ‘We Can’t Let Them Win.’ The sound design throughout the film is equally excellent, with every thrust and slash hitting hard during the various action sequences.

On that note, ‘Upgrade’s absurdly well-executed action set-pieces are possibly some of the finest the sci-fi genre has seen in a long time, as not only does the camera ceaselessly track ‘Grey,’ as previously mentioned, but the choreography is almost faultless. It’s also during these scenes that the cutting-edge technology of: ‘Upgrade’s criminal underworld first appears, from bio-mechanically-implanted firearms to memory-retaining contact lenses and even a weaponised nanotech sneeze, ‘The Upgraded’ (as they are nicknamed) are essentially seen as the next stage of human evolution, blatantly showing the audience the true extent to which humanity now relies on technology.

To conclude, even though ‘Upgrade’ is guilty of playing into some overly familiar ideas, with its story being based around the well-trodden concept of artificial intelligence outmatching humanity. There are enough twists and turns within its narrative to ensure that the film will hold-up upon multiple viewings, serving as an exciting and stylish sci-fi-thriller in addition to providing undeniable evidence that exchanging one genre for another is a risky yet rewarding road when it comes to certain filmmakers. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Dredd (2012) – Film Review

A considerably overlooked film when it comes to the sci-fi genre, ‘Dredd,’ written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame, City of Tiny Lights), focuses on said character, whose comic strip in the science fiction anthology series: ‘2000 AD’ was one of the longest-running in the magazine’s history, being featured since it’s second issue in 1977. Merging futurism with law enforcement, ‘Dredd’ and his fellow ‘Judges’ are empowered to arrest, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot, and this modern film adaptation, fuelled by much of the same bombastic violence and sci-fi imagery, does a remarkable job of capturing its source material’s gritty spirit.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future on the American East Coast, lies the overpopulated and crime-ridden metropolis known as ‘Mega-City One,’ where police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner. Within this city, one of these officers, the resolute: ‘Judge Dredd,’ is assigned to assess rookie: ‘Cassandra Anderson’ as the two are ordered to reach the top of an apartment complex and stop ‘Ma-Ma’ and her clan from manufacturing and distributing narcotics. But when the pair enter the complex, they find themselves ensnared as ‘Ma-Ma’ locks down the building, forcing ‘Dredd’ and his newfangled partner to fight their way out, one level at a time…

Technically a reboot following the character’s first cinematic interpretation with 1995’s ‘Judge Dredd,’ which featured Sylvester Stallone as the titular character. ‘Dredd’ is a far more faithful adaption, as while Stallone may have looked the part, it was clear that the film itself thoroughly misunderstood the source material. ‘Dredd,’ however, immediately thrusts its audience into a riveting and intense story, which considering how self-contained it is, also manages to fit a surprising amount of world-building in-between, hinting towards the many other districts of: ‘Mega-City One’ we could’ve seen should ‘Dredd’ have been a box-office success rather than the commercial disappointment it sadly was, earning a little over £41 million on a budget of £45 million.

Speaking only when necessary and never giving even the slightest hint of emotion, Karl Urban portrays the film’s protagonist: ‘Judge Dredd’ with extreme accuracy. Displaying Urban’s clear understanding of the role as ‘Dredd,’ just as he does in the comic strips, never breaks or goes through a character-arc, but instead, is just an incorruptible officer with no time for low-life criminals, and Urban nails this portrayal, even with half his head being obscured by a helmet for the entirety of the runtime. ‘Dredd’s partner: ‘Cassandra Anderson,’ portrayed by Olivia Thirlby, is also a compelling character, demonstrating a level of skill far below her superior, yet possessing psychic abilities which make her too valuable to dismiss. Lastly, there is ‘Ma-Ma,’ the film’s antagonist who was originally written as an elderly woman before Lena Headey convinced Alex Garland to make her a middle-aged misandrist. And although there isn’t the same depth to her character as ‘Dredd’ or his rookie partner, ‘Ma-Ma’ is still a convincing felon, as Headey portrays a ruthless individual living in an equally ruthless world.

Playing into the idea of this post-apocalyptic world being in constant disarray, the ‘Dredd’s grimy set-design along with its murky brown colour palette present ‘Mega-City One’ (a.k.a. Johannesburg with some CG enhancements) as a rundown metropolis with similarly rundown technology, as the filthy hallways of the apartment complex: ‘Peach Trees’ are continuously permeated with litter and spraypainted walls. Moreover, the film is given a great sense of style through the energetic camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle and smooth integration of CG effects, which outside of a few scenes where the film fully indulges in graphic violence by having blood flung towards the camera, have aged admirably.

As you’d expect from a pessimistic sci-fi film, the original score by Paul Leonard-Morgan is both rousing and brooding, with tracks such as: ‘Mega-City One’ and ‘You Look Ready’ all perfectly accompanying what’s on-screen through their heady mix of guitar riffs and thumping electronic beats. Making for a score that even with twenty-two distinct tracks, has no real filler, as every piece flawlessly correlates with the film’s fast-paced action.

Continuing to be true to the original comic strip, ‘Dredd’s primary form of transportation; the ‘Lawmaster’ motorcycle, is faithfully recreated for the film, as the production team created a series of functional bikes for filming. They achieved this by having the chassis of normal bikes extended and then adding custom fairings, as well as fitting the bikes with larger tires so they could remain operable. In a similar sense, ‘Dredd’s iconic outfit is also recreated, only being modified slightly to give the suit a sleeker, more modernised look.

In summary, though many may see this sci-fi action-thriller as pure style-over-substance and nothing else, ‘Dredd’ is a film deeply committed to the genres it’s trying to represent. With thrilling action sequences, substantial world-building and impressive visual effects all rooted in deadpan humour, ‘Dredd’ is a more than entertaining ride. And in a world full of compromised adaptations, this film is something of a triumph, as ‘Dredd’ avoids the common misstep adaptations tend to take where the final product ends-up bearing little resemblance to its source material aside from the title, as self-indulgent screenwriters/directors make whatever changes they desire without much thought or consideration. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Hellraiser (1987) – Film Review

Written, directed and based on the novella: ‘The Hellbound Heart’ by Clive Barker (Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions), 1987’s ‘Hellraiser’ is truly a fiendishly unique vision. Offering a discomfiting and sadistically smart alternative to mindless gore, this classic horror rarely has a tiresome moment, utilising its outstanding practical effects and onslaught of intriguing ideas to great effect, up to the point where the film sequentially became a victim of its own success, being so influential that it not only spawned a decades’ worth of poor imitations, but even its own series of continuously disappointing sequels. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that the original: ‘Hellraiser’ is an unforgettable excursion into a netherworld of monsters, murder and disloyalty.

Plot Summary: When ‘Kirsty’s father: ‘Larry’ and stepmother: ‘Julia,’ move into ‘Larry’s childhood home, ‘Julia’ discovers the newly resurrected, partially-formed body of her brother-in-law: ‘Frank,’ a sexual deviant who lost his physical form after solving a supernatural puzzle box which summons a group of multi-dimensional demon sadists known as ‘The Cenobites.’ Now, to reclaim his body, ‘Frank’ convinces ‘Julia,’ his one-time lover, to lure unsuspecting men back to the house so he can use their blood to revitalise himself and escape the clutches of the demonic beings pursuing him…

One of the central concepts of the ‘Hellraiser’ franchise; a seemingly innocuous puzzle box that is, in reality, a gateway to Hell, has its basis in the urban legend of: ‘The Devil’s Toy Box,’ which concerns a six-sided cube constructed of inward-facing mirrors. According to the legend, individuals who enter the structure will undergo disturbing phenomena that will simultaneously grant them a revelatory experience and permanently warp their mind. This story has heavy ties to the idea of insanity, which is certainly prevalent throughout ‘Hellraiser,’ as the film similar to the rest of Clive Barker’s work, is very surreal in nature. However, unlike the rest of Barker’s work, the budget for: ‘Hellraiser’ was astonishingly low at around £730,000. Whilst this was most likely due to Barker’s lack of filmmaking experience (only having directed two short films at the time), ‘Hellrasier’ quickly earned over £14 million, immediately cementing Barker as a promising writer and director in addition to establishing ‘Hellraiser’ as a series we’d still see years down the line.

The superb cast of Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Sean Chapman and Ashley Laurence all effectively serve their purpose within the narrative, as ‘Hellraiser’ admirably values its characters more than many other horror films, developing each of the family members so they feel both genuine and distinct from one another, ensuring the pivotal plot threads of adultery and ‘Julia’s subsequent guilt remain riveting. Then, of course, there is Doug Bradley as the film’s icon: ‘Pinhead,’ who, despite being kept in the background for a majority of the runtime, gives a solid performance, especially considering ‘Pinhead,’ similar to the rest of: ‘The Cenobites,’ has very limited dialogue and screen-time.

Speaking of iconography, while ‘Hellraiser’ no doubt has its fair share of recognisable shots, much of this iconic imagery isn’t due to the cinematography by Robin Vidgeon, but more so because of the film’s masterful creature, costume, and prop design. As the camerawork itself, although dynamic, often just falls back on conventional close-ups and mid-shots with the occasional zoom or tilt thrown in to further magnify the effects on-screen.

For the original score, Clive Barker originally wanted the experimental electronic music group, Coil, to compose music for the film, but when that notion was rejected, the film’s editor Tony Randel suggested composer Christopher Young as a replacement. And truthfully, I feel this was for the better, as Young’s score perfectly lends itself to the dreamlike, otherwordly tone of the film, with the opening theme: ‘Hellraiser’ being a grand orchestral piece with a dark, fairytale-like undertone, whilst tracks like ‘Resurrection’ and ‘The Lament Configuration’ have an unnerving, almost gothic quality to them.

But it’s undoubtedly the artful designs of: ‘Hellrasier’ that make the film so unique, with the grotesque and somewhat sexual designs of: ‘Pinhead’ and the other ‘Cenobites’ being particularly striking, as Clive Barker drew inspiration for their diverse looks from punk fashion, catholicism, and visits he took to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam. Interestingly, in spite of the character’s reputation, in the novella, ‘Pinhead’ is present but is not the lead ‘Cenobite.’ ‘The Female Cenobite,’ ‘The Chatterer’ and ‘The Engineer’ all have more prominent roles, but as a result of the visually impressive yet extremely restrictive prosthetic make-up for the respective characters, ‘Pinhead’ took point on account of Doug Bradley’s prosthetics allowing for the most facial movement, promptly resulting in ‘Pinhead’ becoming the face of the franchise.

To conclude, ‘Hellraiser’ is truly one of the most gruesome, indelible and captivating horror films of the 1980s. And even though it’ll no longer leave audiences chilled to the bone just as it did way back when, ‘Hellraiser’ is still an exceptionally eerie slice of ’80s horror, and its importance in the history of cinema can’t be discredited. As not only did the film force ostentatious critics to accept that the horror genre could have real artistic weight, but it also pushed the boundaries of practical effects, with many of its effects even outshining today’s CG efforts. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Captain Phillips (2013) – Film Review

The story of Captain Richard Phillips, the Massachusetts seafarer who was kidnapped by four Somali pirates during a routine cargo ship excursion, took the world by storm in 2009, as the then fifty-four-year-old captain was taken hostage, threatened and beaten for over five days before being rescued by Navy SEALS. So, it was inevitable that a film adaptation would soon be in the works once Phillips returned home, and who better to direct the film than Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, News of the World), a director well-known for turning real-life catastrophes into gripping yet still reverent thrillers.

Plot Summary: Assigned the dangerous task of navigating the unarmed cargo ship: Maersk Alabama, from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. Captain Richard Phillips and his crew soon see their worst fears become reality when an opportunistic gang of armed Somali pirates seize the American vessel, threatening the crew and demanding a ransom of millions…

Based on the book: ‘A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea,’ which was written by Richard Phillips shortly after he returned home. Greengrass’ fast-paced and true-to-life treatment of the story fully realises the tense scenario that Richard and his crew once found themselves within, with constant shouting, overlapping dialogue and threats of violence, no one aboard the Maersk Alabama ever truly feels safe, not too dissimilar to the director’s other delves into real-world tragedies with ‘Bloody Sunday’ and ‘United 93.’ Yet interestingly, Greengrass wasn’t actually the first choice to direct, as Ron Howard was originally supposed to direct the film before he eventually left the project to peruse another 2013 biopic: ‘Rush,’ leaving Greengrass to head ‘Captain Phillips.’

Leading the cast through his resilient performance as Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks does a phenomenal job throughout the film, quickly ensuring the audience emphasises with Richard’s struggle as he internally confronts the idea of never seeing his family again. Upcoming actor Barkhad Abdi is equally remarkable in his role as Abduwali Muse, the captain of the Somali pirates, as despite the actor’s small physique, Abdi is immensely menacing, asserting dominance over the crew in nearly every scene he is in. Even the iconic line: “Look at Me! I’m the Captain Now,” was an ad-lib by Barkhad Abdi. Abdi’s performance is also helped by Paul Greengrass’ strong direction, as Greengrass represents the Somali pirates more as common criminals rather than terrorists, presenting each of them with an element of desperation behind their actions as if they taking part in illegal and violent schemes in the hope of having a better life in Somalia.

Shot in an almost documentary-like fashion, the cinematography by Barry Ackroyd is both chaotic and fluid, constantly switching focus from one actor to another without hesitation, truly emphasising the panic and tension we see unfolding on-screen. However, whilst this approach is extremely effective when it comes to sequences of the pirates/crew negotiating or being held at gunpoint, the relentless persistence of the hand-held shots does start to become tiresome the further the runtime continues, and especially during the story’s quieter moments, such as the film’s opening scene where Richard and his wife Andrea drive to the airport. Nevertheless, this style of camerawork is in-character with much of Greengrass’ other work, as there’s no denying the director has a fixation with shaky, intimate close-ups.

Furthermore, the original score by Henry Jackman greatly adds to the film in more ways than one, as tracks like ‘Second Attack,’ ‘End This Peacefully’ and ‘Two in the Water’ are both foreboding and fast-paced, utilising an endless stream of percussion, sampled strings, occasional ethnic wind solos, and synthetic horn pads that fade in and out, while the film’s final track: ‘Safe Now’ sounds considerably hopeful in comparison. Yet this positive outcome is quite surprising, as, during the film’s production, the soundtrack was a fairly problematic area, with legendary composer Hanz Zimmer initially being attached before backing down from the project after Greengrass continuously bombarded him with demands for rewrites of the score.

Another impressive aspect of: ‘Captain Phillips’ is its set-design and set-dressing, as although a large portion of the film was shot aboard a real cargo ship, all of the interior lifeboat scenes were filmed inside a replica that was on water at all times, which according to Tom Hanks, resulted in him being vomited on by numerous crew members while inside the cramped space. But as disgusting as that may be, it may have been worthwhile, as this enclosed set is where a majority of the film’s third and final act takes place, as the hostage drama transfers to the claustrophobic confines of a hijacked lifeboat floundering toward the Somali coastline, where the story somehow becomes even more nail-biting.

In conclusion, ‘Captain Phillips’ serves as not only a well-executed, edge-of-your-seat thriller, but also a terrifying reminder of the real-world horrors that lie just outside our front door. With a pair of astounding performances, an intricately crafted original score and a plethora of tense moments, ‘Captain Phillips’ prolonged final act and occasionally ill-suited camerawork hardly diminish what is one of the strongest entries into Greengrass’ filmography in addition to an excellent biopic for Captain Richard Phillips and his courageous crew. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Winter’s Bone (2010) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Wick (2014) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ritual (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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