Dark Skies (2013) – Film Review

As much a science fiction as it is a horror, Dark Skies, released in 2013, has a solid cast, a fascinating premise and some admirable ambitions, attempting to break away from the familiar tropes of alien abduction stories in favour of delivering its own take on the common phobia of extraterrestrials discreetly arriving on Earth. Unfortunately, however, writer and director Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest, Holidays – Segment: Christmas) doesn’t seem to know how to utilise any of these elements, and as such, Dark Skies ends up being an extremely underwhelming film in more ways than one, even if it is a slight improvement over Blumhouse Productions’ usual jump-scare-filled endeavours.

Plot Summary: Suffering from financial troubles and the slow decline of their marriage, middle-aged couple, Lacy and Daniel Barrett, soon find their suburban life even further disrupted when an escalating series of unexplainable events leads them to discover that a terrifying force is monitoring them, a force which may have arrived from beyond the stars…

Originally pitched as a found-footage film with a screenplay written in only six weeks. Dark Skies curiously borrows more from supernatural horrors than it does from other extraterrestrial stories like SignsSkinwalker Ranch and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the film somewhat follows the structure of a conventional haunted house/possessed child storyline. And, as a result, suffers from many of the same issues that those films do. Appearing overly formulaic and frequently missing the opportunity to shift into full-on genre mode by the time its final act arrives. Furthermore, this structure results in many of the daytime sequences feeling quite tiresome as almost all of the extraterrestrial-related events don’t transpire until nightfall, leaving the daytime scenes to solely be used for kindred drama than foreboding moments of sci-fi dread.

The central cast of Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett and J.K. Simmons all do a serviceable job throughout the film, portraying members of a family that is slowly growing apart as time goes on. A situation that is only made more difficult by the family’s mounting bills and Daniel’s numerous attempts to find a replacement job falling flat at every turn. And whilst all of this is interesting for a family-centred plot, the problem here is that outside of the family’s general struggles, all of the characters are given very little development, an issue that is only exacerbated by the film’s many altering subplots, which cover everything from Lacy and Daniel’s declining sex life to their teenage son’s developing hormones and subsequent teenage crush.

Moving onto the visuals, with the exception of a couple of bewitching shots, the film’s cinematography by David Boyd is rather bland, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups. The film also continuously employs dim lighting for the majority of its runtime, meaning that nearly every shot at night is almost pitch-black with only a few small beams of moonlight to illuminate each room in the family’s house. Additionally, the film’s setting is, again, rather bland. As even though the location of a pleasant, everyday American suburb was chosen by Scott Stewart to help ground the story in reality, the setting itself is exceedingly dull, particularly for the horror genre.

Luckily, the original score fares a little better as composer, Joseph Bishara, best known for his fear-evoking score on 2010’s Insidious, once again uses his musical skills to craft a chilling soundtrack stocked with eerie futuristic noises and unsettling sound cues most present in the tracks: Two PosibitliesNight RideNot in Control and The Disturbances. Showcasing the true terror that these extraterrestrials are capable of purely through a distorted soundscape.

When it comes to the concept of creatures from another world studying our planet, it isn’t often that this idea drifts into the realm of horror, especially with the cliché image of a small, grey-skinned alien with an oversized head and black eyes, commonly referred to as a Gray, being any but frightening. However, in Dark Skies, the Grays are genuinely unnerving beings, appearing as lanky, shadow-like figures that tower over the Barrett family. In addition to the Grays, the film establishes two other extraterrestrial races known as the Reptilians and the Insectoids. Interestingly, all three of these races are actually based on real-life abduction reports where abductees described their encounters, with Reptilians being described as green-skinned humanoids with attributes of reptiles such as hairless scaled-skin, concave-vertical pupils and the ability to shapeshift, changing from reptilian to human at will, while Insectoids are described as large beings with a close resemblance to grasshoppers/praying mantises. Playing into the various conspiracies that surround life on other planets.

In summary, whilst Dark Skies doesn’t earn many points for originality. When the film manages to tap into more low-level, relatable anxieties with its family-focused story, it does come far closer to getting under its audience’s skin than your typical horror film ghost or ghoul. Having said that, Dark Skies also repeatedly devalues the effectiveness of the alien abduction subgenre with its uninspired visuals and fairly predictable plot. And while I do consider Scott Stewart to be a talented writer and director with the right project, his films occasionally do leave something to be desired, Dark Skies simply being another example. Rating: low 5/10.

dark_skies_xxlg

Escape Plan (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

escape_plan-p877555

Beneath (2013) – Film Review

Directed by Larry Fessenden (HabitWendigoDepraved) and distributed by the horror-centric production company, Chiller Films, a now-defunct television network responsible for many low-budget supernatural horrors, including SirenAnimal and Dead SoulsBeneath, released in 2013, may have sounded like an estimable idea during its conception, being pitched as a minimalist creature feature that explores the direful outcomes of human behaviour under the influence of extreme isolation and fear. But as a result of its overemphatic performances, mindless screenplay and frequently mishandled visuals, whatever little tension and intrigue Beneath manages to build up is completely capsized by the time the end credits roll.

Plot Summary: Following their high school graduation, a group of friends decide to spend one last summer outing together at Black Lake before going their separate ways. But when their rowboat is struck by an amphibious creature, subsequently killing a member of the group and destroying their oars, the five remaining friends find themselves trapped in the middle of the reservoir, contemplating whether one of them should be thrown overboard as a distraction…

While the original screenplay for the film had flashbacks that further developed the characters and explored their individual journeys throughout high school, Fessenden ultimately decided to remove them. This allowed the entire film to be shot in a mere eighteen days, which certainly shows as Beneath is a largely dull affair, following the usual formula for a creature feature outside of one or two subversive moments. Given Fessenden’s past work, it would also make sense that the film could go so far as to suggest that the creature in the lake doesn’t actually exist, and is, in reality, just a physical manifestation of the characters’ ulterior motives. Yet, regrettably, this is not the case, and Beneath opts to play things relatively straight, with the characters being devoured one by one in equally idiotic ways.

On a similar note, the title of the film doesn’t just refer to what lurks in the tranquil water, but is also a guide to where Beneath‘s substance lies. With the film’s unbearable roster of characters, compromising of Johnny; a brooding, long-haired loner, Kitty; the rotating object of desire for practically every male character in the film, Matt; the golden-boy jock whose prospects seem to be going downhill since graduating, his younger, less athletic but more intelligent brother, Simon, along with Kitty’s best friend, Deb, and the hyperactive filmmaker, Zeke, each having a respective outburst as simmering high school grudges, rivalries and romantic betrayals factor into the survival stakes. But as a result of the exceptionally awful dialogue, the prospect of any tension within the story soon becomes virtually non-existent, even with the cast of Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jon Orsini, Mackenzie Rosman and Griffin Newman having their brief moments of promise in a film brimming with atrocious performances. Moreover, the friendship between the characters feels so unnatural from the outset considering their vastly different backgrounds and personalities.

Cinematographer, Gordon Arkenberg, tries his best at keeping the solitary setting of a stranded rowboat visually interesting, which beyond some oddly framed shots and sequences that can only be described as ‘visual disarray,’ is a goal he somewhat succeeds in, particularly whenever the camera is pointed towards the beautiful scenery, where the stillness of the lake accentuates the ominous threat of the creature prowling just beneath its surface. Nevertheless, these shots are soon defaced by harsh shadows and a bleached colour palette due to the whole film being shot using natural light. Judging by the editing, you would also be forgiven for thinking that Black Lake is the largest lake in America as the characters spend hours upon hours rowing with their broken oars (and eventually hands) only to make zero progress in a poor attempt of elongating the runtime.

Even though there is next to no emphasis placed on the original score by Will Bates, the score for Beneath is competent if very forgettable, making a fair effort to enhance the supposed tension on-screen. Except for the track: Last Stand, that is, which sounds as if it’s from another soundtrack entirely, mimicking the score from a light-hearted romantic comedy more than anything else.

As for the film’s main feature; the creature itself closely resembles the appearance of a giant anglerfish. And whilst I can respect this decision given the anglerfish is one of the most naturally frighting animals on the planet, this choice also displays a great deal of laziness on behalf of the filmmakers as taking what is already an intimidating-looking animal and simply enlarging it is a rather indolent approach to designing your marketable monstrosity. Having said that, the combination of puppetry and animatronics that brings the creature to life is impressive despite their range of movements.

In summary, while some may get an ironic laugh out of this ninety-minute trainwreck, I feel most will agree that Beneath is above all else just a frustrating experience, with one of the film’s only positives being its commendable reliance on practical effects over CGI. But truthfully, the effects alone don’t even come close to rectifying what are the film’s many, many other shortcomings, distinguishing Beneath from other films within the genre solely on how moronic and tiresome of a horror/thriller it is, paling in comparison to Fessenden’s other low-budget efforts. Rating: low 2/10.

beneath-p823208

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.

captain_phillips-p821611

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.

Primarily being 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.

Shot chronologically to further 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’ uses 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.

coherence-p882722

Gravity (2013) – Film Review

A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable abyss of outer-space, 2013’s ‘Gravity’ is equal parts tense and beautiful. Taking over four years to produce and winning numerous Oscars back in 2014 for everything from its effects to its cinematography to its sound editing, ‘Gravity’ serves as not only the long-awaited follow-up to director Alfonso Cuarón’s previous sci-fi film: ‘Children of Men,’ but also as one of the most immersive films to ever take place in the inhospitable vacuum of space.

Plot Summary: On her very first mission aboard the NASA space shuttle: ‘Explorer,’ novice biomedical engineer: ‘Dr. Ryan Stone’ and her accompanying seasoned astronaut: ‘Matt Kowalski’ come face-to-face with an irrevocable disaster during a routine spacewalk when a barrage of debris from a crippled Russian satellite inflicts devastating damage to their shuttle, leaving them both stranded in orbit…

Co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón, ‘Gravity’ is many ways less of a science fiction flick than it is a film grounded in real-world science, as it quickly becomes clear whilst watching ‘Gravity’ that the pair did their research into the fundamentals of space, presenting the narrative almost as if it’s based on a true story oppose to relying on flashy explosions to morph the film into a generic sci-fi blockbuster. Yet interestingly, author Tess Gerritsen actually filed suit against Warner Bros. Pictures following ‘Gravity’s release, claiming the film was unofficially based on her novel and that she was entitled to a screen credit and a fair percentage of the film’s profits, but this was never proven to be true, even if both stories do share many similarities.

With around 80% of the film being shot on a green-screen or consisting of CGI, there were plenty of opportunities for the performances throughout ‘Gravity’ to be underwhelming. And yet, this is not the case, as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney both give brilliant performances here, with Bullock in particular impressing not only due her acting chops, but also her memorisation skills. As with Alfonso Cuarón bringing his signature lengthy takes into ‘Gravity,’ Bullock had to memorise long combinations of precise movements in order to hit her marks for each shot, often even having to coordinate her movements with those of the wire-rig and the camera, which is no easy task.

Brimming with many, many stunning shots in addition to the previously mentioned one takes. ‘Gravity’s cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki rarely ceases to amaze, as the film wastes no time in capturing the audience’s attention by jumping straight into the story with its opening scene, which begins with the camera traveling from an establishing shot of Earth over to ‘Dr. Stone’ detaching from a structure all without a single cut, which in total, lasts around twelve and a half minutes. That being only one aspect of the impressive camerawork ‘Gravity’ displays, another being the film’s excellent use of P.O.V. shots which place the audience directly into ‘Dr. Stone’s space suit, further adding to the film’s tense atmosphere. Furthermore, all of the film’s cinematography is greatly elevated by the magnificent lighting, editing, and CG effects which back it up.

As a result of: ‘Gravity’s realistic approach, for a large majority of the film’s nighty-nine-minute runtime there is little sound heard aside from dialogue, this places a lot of pressure onto the film’s original score by Steven Price, which luckily, manages to strike the perfect balance between terror and wonder. As tracks like ‘Above Earth,’ ‘Debris,’ and ‘Don’t Let Go’ push the score into becoming a remarkable exploration of the absolute isolationism of outer-space. Gradually building-up with pulsing electronic beats and gloomy vocals, until it eventually expands in intensity and volume alike, capturing the fear of what lies beyond the stars just as it does with the beauty.

The most common criticism ‘Gravity’ has faced since its release is that the film is focused more on spectacle than anything else, as while all of: ‘Gravity’s large-scale set-pieces are usually beyond-thrilling, some shots do feel as if they were implemented purely for the sake of 3D and IMAX screenings, which is difficult to ignore. This alongside the film’s lack of development in some areas does leave ‘Gravity’ a little devoid of memorability when compared to some other iconic films set within the vast emptiness of space, e.g. ‘Ad Astra,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and ‘Moon.’

In conclusion, whilst ‘Gravity’ may not live-up to the immensely positive reviews its received in recent years, it is still a captivating piece of science fiction and a true marvel of filmmaking. It’s just for me personally, I find the actual filmmaking process and behind-the-scenes material of: ‘Gravity’ far more interesting than the story itself, perhaps that’s due to its underdeveloped characters or another element entirely. Regardless, I feel even with its issues, ‘Gravity’ will remain a testament as to what can truly be achieved with modern technology when it comes to film. Final Rating: high 7/10.

gravity_xxlg

About Time (2013) – Film Review

Written and directed by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Pirate Radio), ‘About Time’ would go on to be the final outing for Curtis as a director, as after this time-travelling drama’s release in 2013, Curtis would return to exclusively being a screenwriter, which I feel is probably for the best. As whilst ‘About Time’ does manage to keep itself afloat thanks to its captivating writing and wonderful performances, the film is often let down by its fairly bland presentation and apparent disinterest in exploring its unique time-travelling concept, ensuring the film’s eventual confusion with many of the other romantic-dramas seen in recent years.

Plot Summary: At the age of twenty-one, the timid: ‘Tim Lake’ is informed by his father that men in their family have the unique ability to travel through time. Although this ability is restricted to the window of their own lives, it can be used to undo any past mistakes, so ‘Tim’ decides to use his newly found ability to escape his current lonely existence, visiting all of his past loves to find the one who could be his future…

Due to Richard Curtis writing a number of iconic rom-coms from ‘Love Actually’ to ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ in the past, it comes as no surprise that ‘About Time’s screenplay is certainly its finest aspect. As in many scenes, the film chooses to push ‘Tim’s time-travelling ability aside in favour of delivering sincere character moments, playing into the story’s theme of life itself being the greatest experience. Yet while I do like both of these ideas, its a shame that the film barley touches upon the great deal of consequence time-travelling can have, as scenes focusing on time paradoxes and the butterfly effect could’ve made for some of the film’s most impactful story-beats. Sadly, they are incredibly sparse and only appear when the story necessitates them.

The main couple of: ‘Tim’ and ‘Mary’ portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams do share a good amount of chemistry and have plenty of charming moments together, as ‘Tim’ tries desperately to impress ‘Mary’ by recalling everything he remembers about her from his past encounters. The supporting cast of Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, and Margot Robbie are all also great, as each member of the cast serve an important purpose within the narrative whether big or small. But its ‘Tim’s father portrayed by Bill Nighy who is the true emotional core of the film outside of: ‘Tim’s love life, with Nighy doing a fantastic job as usual.

Despite visuals never being the main focus of rom-coms, the cinematography by John Guleserian is the film’s worst element. As any even somewhat creative shots are rarely seen throughout the runtime, with the film usually just relying on mid-shots or close-ups to enhance the drama. The film’s colour palette doesn’t help in this regard either, as the pale colours almost present the film as if each scene is an extension of a photo framed in the family’s home, which is ingenious if that was the filmmakers’ attention, yet I’m not entirely sure it was. ‘Tim’s time-traveling ability, however, is a little more visually interesting in spite of its simplicity. As the film makes use of rapid editing to cut between many different events during ‘Tim’s life, a straight-forward but understandable method of displaying how ‘Tim’ is flicking through his memories.

Although ‘About Time’s cinematography is lacking, the original score by Nick Laird-Clowes is far more enthralling, as the film’s soundtrack utilises ticking clocks and heart beating sound effects to relate to the story’s aspect of time-travel. And when focusing more on the story’s characters, the score switches things-up to be piano-focused, depicting a variety of experiences of life such as joy, heartbreak, reflection and confusion. ‘About Time’ also features a number of recognisable songs similar to much of Richard Curtis’ other work, all of which luckily, never distract from the story.

While ‘About Time’ does eventually continue on to cover a fair number of years throughout the character’s lives, much of the early portion of the film leans on ‘Tim’ trying to ignite the spark with ‘Mary,’ and with Rachel McAdams’ previously portraying the titular character in ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ from 2009, this should seem like familiar ground. However, unlike McAdams’ character in that sci-fi flick, ‘Mary’ is never made aware of: ‘Tim’s time-bending secret, which might make some viewers a little uncomfortable regarding the absence of honesty in their relationship.

To conclude, ‘About Time’ is enjoyable overall, it just doesn’t quite live-up to its interesting ideas or nearly two hour runtime. As unfortunately, whilst the film’s many humorous and heartwarming moments do excel, the story’s huge missed opportunities are always ever present, and the mostly dull cinematography and colour palette simply can’t be ignored, and even though I would personally only recommend ‘About Time’ to those who have a sweet-tooth for light-hearted romantic-dramas, I can’t deny that the film is heartfelt, with a fragile sort of sincerity at its centre. Final Rating: 6/10.

about_time_xlg

Now You See Me (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

‘The Four Horseman,’ portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are all splendid in their roles as the signature group of magicians. As despite Dave Franco’s ‘Jack Wilder’ feeling a little neglected at points as the forth member of the group, all of the cast give very charismatic performances to where you could believe they perform live-shows most evenings. The group also spends most of the film being hunted by a F.B.I. detective duo portrayed by Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent, and although both actors are great within their roles, the film does attempt to build-up a romantic relationship between the two, which honestly comes across as forced and underdeveloped.

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

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

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

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

NowYouSeeMePoster2

The Purge (2013) – Film Review

The first instalment in the now-iconic horror franchise, the original entry in ‘The Purge’ series is a fantastic idea quickly ruined by its poor execution. As whilst the film’s main concept of one night a year where all crime is legalised is both a terrifying and intriguing notion, the entire series (in particular the first film) seem to explore the horrific world its story is set within in all the least interesting ways.

Plot Summary: In the near future, America celebrates ‘The Purge’ once a year, a national event in which all crime is legal for twelve hours. On this night of chaos and murder, a wealthy family soon find themselves hostages for harbouring the target of a murderous syndicate after he gains access into their fortified home…

Directed by James DeMonaco, this director has actually taken on every instalment of: ‘The Purge’ series from the original film through to the latest entry: ‘The First Purge’ in 2018. According to DeMonaco, the idea for the film first came about during a moment of road-rage when he and his wife were cut-off in traffic by a drunk driver, resulting in DeMonaco wishing you could have one free murder a year after witnessing the driver’s complete lack of regret. While a creative and disturbing concept by itself, ‘The Purge’ series has also captivated many through its many themes. Although mostly focused on in later films, the various themes of this horror franchise could be interpreted by viewers in a number of different ways, from political to psychological.

Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane portray the main family of the film: ‘The Sandins,’ who unfortunately, with the exception of Ethan Hawke as the father: ‘James Sandin,’ all give relatively weak performances, portraying the family as excessively mundane throughout. However, this is also heavily due to their characters, as nearly every character within the film is written as either very peculiar or very cliché, with the son: ‘Charlie Sandin’ having a medical problem which he takes medication for, in addition to having a strange character quirk for building and driving a remote control car attached to a disfigured baby doll, which ‘Charlie’ uses to navigate his way around the house. But due to how specific the latter is, he (and his sister) end-up seeming like nothing more than plot devices to put the rest of the family in further peril.

Aside from one or two shots, the cinematography by Jacques Jouffreet is unsurprisingly quite bland. Mostly unitising mid-shots and close-ups, ‘The Purge’ never really attempts to do anything overly inventive with its cinematography, usually relying on rough hand-held shots. Alongside this, the lighting throughout the film is immensely dark. As after the murderous syndicate cut the power to the family’s home, the remainder of the film’s runtime is spent in near-total darkness, which can become a little irritating after a point as the constant dark corridors make the characters even harder to follow than they already were, as the cinematography doesn’t allow the viewer any understanding of the house’s convoluted and confusing layout.

Even though many modern horrors lack an ingenious score, the original score by Nathan Whitehead is fairly uninspired. As in spite of the soundtrack helping to build-up a tense atmosphere during a few scenes, the original score simply isn’t memorable in the slightest and is barely distinguishable from any other generic horror/thriller soundtrack, despite the huge list of tracks the film has to offer. However, the excellent costume design of: ‘The Purge’ does help redeem the weak score, as the many different ‘Purge’ masks and costumes make for some memorably creepy visuals.

The most obvious issue ‘The Purge’ has been criticised for is its focus on being more of a home invasion thriller than what most would imagine (and desire) a ‘Purge’ film to be, as the original film is actually extremely contained, being set nearly entirely within the family’s home and relying on only a small group of characters. While director James DeMonaco has stated this was mostly due to the film’s small-budget and lack of filming days, you can’t help but feel the film isn’t exploring its chaotic world as effectively as it could whilst watching. Of course, being a modern horror, ‘The Purge’ is also littered with jump-scares throughout, many of which are very predictable due to the build-up to each one, eventually making them feel nothing but tedious.

Whilst I personally don’t feel ‘The Purge’ series improves much even throughout its future entries. There are still some aspects I enjoy within this modern horror, from its interesting ideas and themes to its decently entertaining performance from Ethan Hawke and array of menacing masks and costumes, ‘The Purge’ does have great potential, but I simply feel it was just never fully realised. While this horror series does have a devoted fan-base, I’ve never quite understood its appeal. As for me, ‘The Purge’ franchise will always have its intriguing ideas spoiled by its dull filmmaking. Final Rating: high 3/10.

purge_xxlg

Prisoners (2013) – Film Review

Combining some incredible performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal with some phenomenal cinematography by the legendary Rodger Deakins alongside an effective original score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. ‘Prisoners’ is truly a masterclass in both filmmaking and storytelling. Although some audience members may be turned-off by the film’s depressing subject matter and few graphic scenes, this story of two family’s lives being turned upside-down is nevertheless an enthralling thriller/drama throughout.

Plot Summary: Shortly after their Thanksgiving dinner, parents: ‘Keller’ and ‘Grace Dover’ discover their six-year-old daughter and her best friend are missing. So after contacting the authorities, the driven: ‘Detective Loki’ is assigned to lead the case. But as hours turn into days, knowing his daughter’s life is at stake, frantic father: ‘Keller’ considers taking matters into his own hands…

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049), Villeneuve further proves here that he is one of the best filmmakers currently working. As every one of his films are always engaging and visually-breathtaking, with ‘Prisoners’ being no exception. As throughout the entirety of its lengthy runtime, ‘Prisoners’ manages to be a compelling, tense and emotional experience that will leave most viewers on the edge of their seats. Making the viewer long for the truth just as much as the film’s characters do, with the film’s main theme of parenthood even exploring the idea of how far a parent would truly go to protect their child, most notably through ‘Keller’s questionable actions later within the story.

The film’s main pairing of Hugh Jackman as ‘Keller Dover’ and Jake Gyllenhaal as ‘Detective Loki’ is the perfect combination of two talented actors, as both give brilliant performances as their respective characters with Hugh Jackman in particular, giving one of the best performances of his entire career. Especially in the scene: ‘The Interrogation’. In which, ‘Keller’ repeatedly tortures the potential kidnapper of his daughter, resulting in the scene soon becoming one of the film’s best moments mostly through Jackman’s incredibly intense performance. In addition to the two leads, the supporting cast of Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Dylan Minnette, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo are all excellent, with each member of the main cast adding to the film’s realistic portrayal of two concerned families, going days without rest as their thoughts dwell purely on their missing children.

From the opening shot through to the very last, the cinematography by Roger Deakins is nothing short of phenomenal. As ‘Prisoners’ elevates its already gripping narrative through its many stunning shots, alongside the film’s absolutely superb lighting, which makes fantastic use of darkness and silhouettes wherever possible (a staple of Roger Deakins’ cinematography) which only backs-up the film’s grim tone and tense atmosphere further. Another element of the film that also adds to its visual aesthetic is its use of weather. Being set in a small town in Pennsylvania, ‘Prisoners’ makes great use of the state’s dreary weather for a number of scenes, meaning many shots are enhanced due to the constant barrage of rain and snow within them.

The late Jóhann Jóhannsson handles the original score for the film, most known for his work on ‘The Theory of Everything’ along with plenty of other films from director Denis Villeneuve. The film’s score really adds to many of its dramatic moments, as the soundtrack mostly focuses on the story’s more emotional and tragic aspects, and while not overly memorable, the tracks: ‘I Can’t Find Them’ and ‘Through Falling Snow’ both fit the bleak tone of the film flawlessly. While the track: ‘The Keeper’ is also worth a quick mention simply due to its impactful feel.

Although it isn’t a major problem, my only real issue with the film is the lack of depth for some of its characters, as ‘Detective Loki’ and ‘Alex Jones’ both have many interesting traits, with ‘Detective Loki’ having a variety of tattoos, rings and facial ticks (many of which were actually Jake Gyllenhaal’s ideas). Whilst ‘Alex’ has the I.Q. of a ten-year-old due to his learning difficulties. Yet even with these unique traits, I never felt like either of these two characters were explored enough, even with the film’s many attempts at subtle characterisation through visual storytelling.

In short, ‘Prisoners’ is not only one of my favourite films from 2013, but one of all my all-time favourite thrillers in general. Through its spectacular cinematography, tense atmosphere and compelling plot among many, many other elements, ‘Prisoners’ is honestly unmissable. Being just another piece of the beyond-excellent filmography of director Denis Villeneuve, this thriller is certainly one I’d recommend to anyone in need of a memorising mystery. If you’ve never seen a film by Villeneuve, I’d say ‘Prisoners’ is a tremendous place to begin, despite the film not quite beating-out my personal favourite film of his, that being: ‘Blade Runner: 2049.’ Final Rating: 9/10.

prisoners_ver3_xxlg