Harbinger Down (2015) – Film Review

In 2010, practical effects company Amalgamated Dynamics (or ADI for short) was hired by Universal Pictures to create effects for their upcoming prequel to the 1984 classic: ‘The Thing,’ but just before the film was released, the majority of ADI’s work was digitally replaced by CGI. This decision greatly upset the Amalgamated Dynamics team, especially since ‘The Thing’ wasn’t the first film they had worked on only to later discover their effects had been replaced. So, in response to queries about what became of their effects, the founders of Amalgamated Dynamics uploaded a behind-the-scenes video to YouTube which showcased their original effects, and the overwhelmingly positive response they received began a new phase for the company, as soon after, ADI began a Kickstarter with the intention of creating their own sci-fi-horror titled: ‘Harbinger Down,’ a film that would exclusively employ practical techniques.

Plot Summary: While studying the effects of global warming on a pod of Belugas in the Bering Sea, grad students on a crabbing vessel fortuitously uncover a Soviet space shuttle buried within layers of ice. But when the ship’s crew bring the Soviet wreckage aboard, they unintentionally release a long-dormant extraterrestrial parasite that relies on the warmth of the human body to survive…

Commonly known by its alternate title: ‘Inanimate.’ ‘Harbinger Down’ was written, directed, and produced by Amalgamated Dynamics co-founder Alec Gillis. And although I have a huge admiration for Gillis and his partner Tom Woodruff, Jr. as the duo courageously opposed the mammoth production companies that no longer respected the art of practical effects, ‘Harbinger Down’ frequently suffers as a result of the pair’s lack of experience when it comes to filmmaking, as is it’s not uncommon to see exaggerated performances, cliché dialogue, and messy editing. Furthermore, ‘Harbinger Down’ like many sci-fi-horrors takes plenty of inspiration from ‘The Thing,’ though in this case, this inspiration is a little too evident in the final film, as many story-beats are either extremely similar or a stark contrast in an attempt to avoid comparisons, such as the creature being maimed by liquid nitrogen rather than fire.

Eminent ‘Aliens’ and ‘Pumpkinhead’ actor Lance Henriksen headlines the film, being by far the most prominent performer present, and suitably gives a stand-out performance due to his raspy authority and effortless professionalism. However, just like the rest of the cast of forgettable stock characters, Henriksen is given very little to work with, only being able to portray his character: ‘Graff’ as an adept ship captain who cares deeply for his astute granddaughter: ‘Sadie,’ sufficiently portrayed by Camille Balsamo.

The film’s cinematography by Benjamin L. Brown does allow for one or two attractive shots, yet because of its over-reliance on hand-held techniques, often feels frantic, again playing into the idea of Gillis’ deficiency of filmmaking experience, as whilst Alec Gillis may know how to fabricate outstanding effects, he doesn’t seem sure how to capture them on film or hide them when necessary. As such, the effects on-screen soon become gluttonous, holding on certain shots until the point when the effects begin to appear fake and rubbery. That being said, the film’s setting and production design are brilliant without fault, as the film manages to craft the convincing illusion that the characters are all confined to ‘The Harbinger,’ a vessel that has indeed been set adrift on frigid waters.

Nowhere close to memorable, Christopher Drake’s intense original score does at least add to the film’s atmosphere, but where the score succeeds, the sound design utterly fails. As in addition to numerous areas of the ship utilising time-worn sound effects, the story’s shapeshifting creature rarely makes any sound beyond generic grunts and growls, none of which are menacing nor daunting, and considering the film had a budget of over £250.000, refining the sound design couldn’t have been that arduous of a task.

Needless to say, all the traction that ‘Harbinger Down’ gained was likely on account of its practical effects, which make use of everything from animatronics to prosthetic makeup to stop-motion and even miniatures, all of which are marvellous to see, particularly for those who enjoy films with little reliance on CG effects, as the film’s creature relies on no digital animation whatsoever outside of rod/rig removal. As mentioned previously, however, the way some of these effects are presented occasionally takes away their impact. Another issue arises with the creature design itself, as every form the creature takes is entirely different from its prior appearance, so the creature never has the chance to fully borrow into the audience’s mind as a recognisable extraterrestrial antagonist.

To conclude, ‘Harbinger Down’ ultimately falls somewhere between a cheesy SyFy Channel flick and a better than average direct-to-video product, which is unfortunate. As for myself, as a fan of 80’s creature-features, I truly wanted this low-budget claustrophobic horror to triumph, but as a result of its long list of flaws, many of the film’s practical effects (and the scenes in which they are employed) tend to just be echoes of well-known moments in better films. Be that as it may, ‘Harbinger Down’ does have a captivating backstory when it comes to its creation and the passionate team behind it. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Slow West (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pixels (2015) – Film Review

Despite its undeniably promising story and talented supporting cast, 2015’s ‘Pixels’ is sure to greatly disappoint any viewer hoping for a hilarious and nostalgic throwback to 1980s arcade classics. As due to heavy involvement from Adam Sandler and his production company Happy Madison Productions both on and off-screen, ‘Pixels’ massively stumbles in its transition from the low-budget short film it’s originally based on into an explosive blockbuster, losing all of its charm and creative ideas to simply become another Adam Sandler comedy with some inspired visual effects.

Plot Summary: When aliens misinterpret a satellite video feed of 1980s arcade games as a declaration of war, they begin a full-scale invasion of Earth using games like ‘PAC-MAN,’ ‘Donkey Kong,’ ‘Centipede,’ and ‘Space Invaders’ as models for their various assaults. Eventually leading U.S. President: ‘Will Cooper’ to call on his childhood best friend, 80s video-game champion: ‘Sam Brenner,’ to lead a team of old-school arcaders to help defeat the alien invaders and save the planet…

As previously mentioned, ‘Pixels’ is actually based on a 2011 short film of the same name by French director Patrick Jean, which since being uploaded to YouTube has raked in well over two-million views. And whilst I personally believe the short film’s story of video-game characters invading Earth is a superb set-up for sci-fi-comedy, ‘Pixels’ unique plot is quickly butchered by screenwriter Tim Herlihy’s continuous writing fallbacks, as the film is content to stick with the usual Sandler template, using its inventive premise as simply framework to focus on a tired romantic hook-up storyline. Not even director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) manages to elevate the film’s story when the eight-bit antagonists aren’t on-screen, which is all quite frustrating when considering the film’s enormous budget of over £64 million.

Even though the supporting cast of Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox and Sean Bean do feel as if they are trying their best considering the mélange of underwritten characters and awful dialogue they have to work with. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, and surprisingly even Michelle Monaghan are all immensely irritating throughout the film, playing into their standard goofball personas without even a single attempt to lean outside of their comfort zones as actors. Josh Gad certainly suffers the worst in this regard, however, as his character: ‘Ludlow Lamonsoff’ serves as the cliché for video-game enthusiasts, portraying ‘Ludlow’ as a loud yet awkward loner who spends all of his time playing games in his room rather than socialising, a gag which gets old after about a minute.

The cinematography by Amir Mokri does allow for a few pleasant shots here and there, but whenever the film focuses more on dialogue than action, the camerawork seemingly takes a swift dive into drabness. Luckily, this is where ‘Pixels’ many, many visual effects shots come into play, adding a great level of colour and 1980s authenticity into the film just as the many arcade cabinets littering the sets do, even if games such as: ‘Asteroids,’ ‘Battle Zone,’ and ‘Gravitar’ did cause issues on set due to them being vector-class games, meaning the camera couldn’t pick-up their gameplay from certain angles without the use of a special monitor.

When it comes to the original score by Henry Jackman, ‘Pixels’ doesn’t improve much here either, as tracks like ‘The Invasion,’ ‘To the White House,’ and ‘Sweet Spot’ only continue to empathise the true extent of the soundtrack’s bland and forgettable nature, and similar to Jackman’s score for: ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ I couldn’t help but wonder as to why Jackman didn’t go for a more traditional eight-bit approach.

Whilst we never actually see the invader’s true form at any point during the film, ‘Pixel’s CG effects are consistent and by far the film’s finest attribute, as each iconic video-game character is represented exactly as they were in their original game(s), just as colourful and robotic as when they first appeared to gamers during the 80s. And just like the original short film, when destroyed the various characters also explode, bursting into pixels (glowing multi-coloured cubes), before then configuring themselves back together to transform into another instantly recognisable hieroglyph from video gaming’s past, which never fails to look enticing.

Overall, while I, like many others am not a Sandler fanatic, ‘Pixels’ is a film that truly baffles me as to just how far it is from its original inspiration. As even in spite of its annoying cast, childish characters and forced romantic subplot, there could still be a fairly enjoyable throwback to alien invasion flicks and 1980s gaming hidden somewhere within this mess. But when looking at the film head on, I now think it’s just too hard to ignore all its problems, and while most had the common sense to stay clear of this abysmal sci-fi/comedy, I’m still amazed ‘Pixels’ managed to ruin all of its fleeting moments of eight-bit invaders wreaking havoc just to fall into Adam Sandler’s long list of detestable comedies. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Steve Jobs (2015) – Film Review

The third film to be based on the real-life story of tech-designer Steve Jobs following ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’ in 1999 and ‘Jobs’ in 2013. ‘Steve Jobs’ is a gripping drama which interestingly chooses to take-place over the time-span of three iconic product-launches, focusing on much of the backstage drama of Jobs’ life as he attempts to revolutionise the world of technology and eventually become the C.E.O. of Apple Inc. Making for the best cinematic interpretation of Steve Jobs’ life story as of yet, despite the film lacking in memorability in a few areas.

Plot Summary: Steven Paul Jobs has always been known a major player in the digital-revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, his passion and ingenuity being the driving force behind the digital age we currently inhabit. Yet whilst his commitment to revolutionise the technological-landscape was more than commendable, it was also sacrificial, as Jobs’ work often took a toll on his family life…

Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), ‘Steve Jobs’ was actually considered a box-office failure upon its initial release, with the film being pulled from over two-thousand cinemas after just two-weeks. And while I can’t say this is too surprising, as a biography focused around the story of a computer designer does sound dull at a first mention. In execution, ‘Steve Jobs’ is anything but boring, as the film’s sharply-written screenplay makes for a very captivating watch, and draws many parallels to ‘The Social Network’ from 2010. Which is no coincidence, as both films were written by Aaron Sorkin. Furthermore, David Fincher was once attached to direct the film following his previous collaboration with Sorkin on ‘The Social Network,’ but Fincher was eventually dropped in favour of Danny Boyle after he demanded a higher-salary.

First and foremost, ‘Steve Jobs’ is definitely an actor’s film, as the performances outweigh nearly every other aspect of the film aside from perhaps the writing, with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg and Jeff Daniels all giving tremendous portrayals of these real-life figures. With Michael Fassbender portraying the titular man himself, and although Fassbender is quite far physically from Jobs’ appearance (with Fassbender going the extra-mile to wear brown eye-contacts to achieve a closer look), Fassbender impresses as usual, presenting Steve Jobs as a brilliant success when it comes to his products, but a significant failure when he tries to communicate with the people in his life. And refreshingly, the film is never afraid to delve into Jobs’ many personality flaws.

Due to the film playing-out over the course of three different product-launches, beginning with the Macintosh in 1984 and ending with the unveiling of the iMac in 1998, the three time-periods are cleverly represented through the cinematography by Alwin H. Küchler, with each segment being shot on 16mm, 35mm, and digital to illustrate the advancement in Apple’s technology across the sixteen-years of Jobs’ depicted life. And with the camera constantly tracking the actors as they walk through ever-changing locations, the camerawork really helps to make the film more engaging. Director Danny Boyle even integrates some of his signature ‘Trainspotting’ style with the film’s editing, displaying flashbacks through snappy quick-cuts and projection-like images which appear stretched over the walls behind those in frame.

From ‘It’s Not Working’ to ‘Child (Father),’ ‘Russian Roulette’ and ‘1998. The New Mac.’ The original score by Daniel Pemberton is a perfect mixture of minimalist electronic and grand orchestral tracks, encapsulating both the technological achievements of Jobs’ career as well as the spectacle of each one of unveilings. Unfortunately, the one moment the film’s soundtrack falters is an important one, as the film’s very last scene is sadly spoilt by the use of the pop-song: ‘Grew Up at Midnight,’ which feels immensely out-of-place when compared to the remainder of the film’s score.

Whilst ‘Steve Jobs’ is well-written on all regards, with much of the film’s dialogue being continuously witty and humorous in addition to playing into Jobs’ God-complex and smug nature. However, with that said, a large amount of the film’s writing also relies on tech-specific dialogue, with everything from circuit boards to graphical interfaces and binary code all being casually mentioned in conversations, which I imagine could be fairly confusing for some viewers depending on how familiar they may be with that terminology.

In conclusion, ‘Steve Jobs’ is certainly one of the better biographies in recent years. Although I’m sure many will still be disinterested in the film purely for its main focus, the film does have a lot to offer, and in my opinion not only excels past the previous films based on the story the late tech-designer, but also the novel: ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’ which the screenplay actually takes heavy inspiration from. And even in spite of several of Jobs’ associates claiming the film doesn’t represent the man they knew, just like Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network,’ this version of Jobs is very much a creation of its writer, and what a sensational creation it is. Final Rating: 8/10.

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The Invitation (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Krampus (2015) – Film Review

Whilst most Christmas films get across their message about how family is the true meaning of the holiday in a wholesome and light-hearted fashion, ‘Krampus’ takes quite a different approach. As director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) crafts a cynical and amusing horror-comedy based around: ‘Krampus,’ a creature from European folklore with origins stretching back to the days before Christianity, serving as essentially the sinister twin of jolly ‘Saint Nicholas,’ punishing those who misbehave in various odious ways. And while the film is far from perfect, ‘Krampus’ creative ideas and impressive practical effects make the film worth it’s runtime.

Plot Summary: When his dysfunctional family clash over the holidays, young ‘Max’ finally decides to turn his back on Christmas, tearing-up his letter to ‘Santa Clause’ in a fit of rage. Little does he know, his lack of Christmas spirit has unleashed the wrath of: ‘Krampus,’ an ancient demon who punishes those who don’t celebrate the festive season. Forcing ‘Max’ and the rest of his family to fight for one another if they hope to survive…

Although there are plenty of enjoyable films out there to watch over the festive season, I usually always find myself craving something new around the Christmas-period, as the cliché narrative of children helping ‘Santa Claus’ save Christmas gets very old quick. ‘Krampus’ however, does certainly attempt something new, even if it isn’t always successful. As whilst the original outline for the film was closer to a straight-forward horror, focusing mostly on ‘Krampus’ picking people off throughout ‘Max’s town, it was eventually decided to make it more of a dark retelling of a traditional Christmas film. This is why the plot is kicked-off with a letter to ‘Santa.’ and why the film’s first act begins much like a family film would, before then having a drastic turn towards horror and dark fantasy.

The film’s large cast of Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Stefania LaVie Owen, Conchata Ferrell and Krista Stadler are all serviceable in their roles, even though many of their characters aren’t developed nowhere near enough. Additionally, ‘Tom Engel,’ a.k.a. ‘Max’s father, also has many moments where he doesn’t seem to take their life-threating situation that seriously, almost as if he is acknowledging how bizarre the story is, which does diminish the film’s tension at points. But with ‘Krampus’ featuring moments of humour and fright alike, the film obviously has many shifts in tone between scenes.

Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography is nothing amazing altogether, as in spite of the film having quite a few memorable and attractive shots, there are also a large amount of bland shots whenever the camera is focusing on the actors themselves. What is far more admirable though is how the camerawork enhances the film’s set-design, making the audience believe that the film was shot inside a real house and outside on a real wintry street. When in reality, over 95% of the film was shot on a soundstage, with the snow covering the ground being made from a material that’s commonly used for making nappies.

Composer Douglas Pipes handles the film’s original score, and he described his soundtrack as “A Collection of Twisted Christmas Carols with Pagan Thrown in.” As the score incorporates everything from the sounds of chains, bells, bones and animal-skin drums in addition to having choirs chant and whisper in different tongues, making for a foreboding but suitably Christmassy score. The track: ‘A Cold Wind’ also does a phenomenal job of reiterating ‘Krampus’ as the ominous shadow of: ‘Santa Clause’ through its use of sleigh bells. However, the film’s actual sound design features some incredibly strange choices for a horror, as many goofy/cartoonish sound effects can be heard within the film, feeling immensely out-of-place every-time they are.

One of the finest aspects of: ‘Krampus’ as a film has to be its effects, as rather than having an overeliance on CG visuals, ‘Krampus’ brings all of its uniquely creepy creatures to-life through detailed costumes and animatronics, harkening back to classic 80s horror-comedies like ‘Gremlins.’ Many of the film’s terrifying monsters also share wonderfully horrific designs, with the final design for: ‘Krampus’ and his elves being distilled from various postcards and illustrations seen over-time. Or in the case of the malevolent toys, taking inspiration from the 1992 low-budget horror: ‘Demonic Toys,’ with the angel ornament, teddy bear, robot and Jack-in-a-box that attack the family sharing many similarities to the toys seen in that obscure horror flick.

In conclusion, ‘Krampus’ is a rollicking ride of a Christmas film even if it isn’t quite as polished as Dougherty’s Halloween flick: ‘Trick ‘r Treat.’ As the film’s excellent practical effects, menacing creature designs and great original score all lend themselves very well to the distinctive story, despite the narrative itself often feeling like wasted potential considering ‘Krampus’ doesn’t fully appear until near the end of the runtime. Regardless, this horror-comedy is still the best on-screen interpretation of: ‘Krampus’ and his minions as of yet. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Southpaw (2015) – Film Review

Raw, dramatic and gripping, ‘Southpaw,’ released in 2015, may suffer from feeling a little too familiar at points, following an almost identical structure to many other boxing flicks like ‘Rocky,’ ‘Warrior’ and ‘The Fighter,’ in addition to featuring some fairly bland filmmaking. But through Jake Gyllenhaal’s powerhouse performance alongside the story’s strong grasp on realism, ‘Southpaw’ rolls with the punches to become a mostly enthralling watch throughout its typical rags-to-riches narrative.

Plot Summary: Professional boxer: ‘Billy Hope’ lives a life of luxury with his supportive wife: ‘Maureen’ and their daughter: ‘Leila’ after winning forty-three consecutive fights in a row, becoming a world-famous champion in light-heavyweight boxing. But after the zealous contender: ‘Miguel Escobar’ publicly challenges ‘Billy,’ a violent confrontation breaks-out between the two, during which, ‘Maureen’ is fatally shot, sending ‘Billy’ down a rampant-path of self-destruction. Months later, ‘Billy’ is forced back into the ring, now fighting to revive his career and reclaim his daughter from child protective services…

Directed by Antonie Fuqua (Training Day,  The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven), ‘Southpaw’ is quite a diversion from Fuqua’s usual trend of directing action-heavy blockbusters. However, strangely, ‘Southpaw’ was originally conceived as an unofficial follow-up to the film: ‘8 Mile,’ which was based on the real-life story of iconic rapper: ‘Eminem,’ with the rapper himself also set to return as the film’s protagonist. But as a result of the evolution of the film’s screenplay and ‘Eminem’s music career conflicting with ‘Southpaw’s production schedule, the idea was eventually scrapped. Yet ‘Eminem’ still has an appearance within the film having worked on the soundtrack, performing the songs: ‘Phenomenal’ and ‘Kings Never Die’ alongside being an executive producer for the rest of the film’s music.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is for most, the best element of: ‘Southpaw’ as a whole, and it’s clear to see why, as Gyllenhaal makes the film far more engaging through his portrayal of: ‘Billy Hope,’ displaying a huge range of emotions for the boxer from intense rage to devastating loneliness. Gyllenhaal’s performance even hints to the idea his character may be suffering from a traumatic brain injury, as early on in the film, after ‘Billy’ is brutally beaten during a fight, he struggles to have a simple conversation with his wife or answer questions from the press. Gyllenhaal has stated that he was inspired by real-world boxer Miguel Cotto, which might explain why his portrayal is so accurate. Forrest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams and Oona Laurence are all also excellent within the film, with each character undertaking an important role within the story.

When it comes to ‘Southpaw’s editing or it’s cinematography by Mauro Fiore, the film doesn’t really allow for anything overly creative or surprising. As while many close-ups are effectively utilised for when ‘Billy’ fights his opponents within the ring, with the camera paying close attention to the sheer amount of sweat, spit and blood that protrudes from the pugilists. Most of the film’s camerawork consists of standard close-ups of character’s reactions or mid-shots of dimly lit rooms. That is, before the story travels to the Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden stadiums, which are both much larger in scale and therefore, also spectacle.

Sadly, the second to last film to be composed by James Horner. ‘Southpaw’s original score doesn’t receive too much focus during the runtime, despite being a decently emotional and impactful score even if it isn’t all that memorable. Interestingly, director Antonie Fuqua actually had no money to pay James Horner to compose the film as a result of: ‘Southpaw’s budget running short. However, Horner didn’t care as he adored the film’s screenplay, and eventually (and generously) decided he’d compose the film for free.

In spite of the film pummelling it’s audience with genre clichés, I admittedly did find a few of: ‘Southpaw’s story-beats engrossing. Most notably, the notion of: ‘Billy’ dealing with his emotions, as the boxer faces everything from severe grief to bitter rage throughout the film, ultimately leading him to drug abuse and the eventual lose of his daughter, as I felt these personality flaws made ‘Billy’ a more realistic (and in some ways relatable) character, appearing as a struggling father rather than just a boxing champion who fails to beat an opponent due to his pride. The screenplay also gives the impression that writer Kurt Sutter did his research into the world of professional boxing, as the film continuously displays how unforgiving the sport can be, with ‘Billy’ receiving serious bruises/wounds after each fight, and when training, has to perform an abundance of techniques beyond just hitting a punching-bag.

In conclusion, although ‘Southpaw’ does have its issues and isn’t likely to become a drama recognised for generations to come, Jake Gyllenhaal’s spectacular performance certainly raises the film higher, and makes for an enjoyable time whether you’re a fanatic of sport-orientated dramas or not, with the film’s grimy realism and commentary on the harsh world of boxing (as underdeveloped as it may be) simply being extra additions to the mixture. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) – Film Review

Both a stylish Guy Ritchie comedy as well as a reimagining of the classic 1960s espionage show of the same name, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ is a mostly successful modern take on the classic spy-caper. Capturing a familiar tone in spite of its unremarkable story, which the film tries to distract from through its charismatic cast and many exciting set-pieces, equalling to a decently entertaining 60s action/comedy even if it may be on the lower-side of Ritchie’s filmography, with ‘Snatch’ and ‘The Gentlemen’ still being far superior films, in my opinion.

Plot Summary: In the early 1960s, CIA agent: ‘Napoleon Solo’ successfully helps ‘Gaby Teller’ escape East Berlin despite the intimidating opposition of KGB agent: ‘Illya Kuryakin.’ Later, all three unexpectedly find themselves working together on a globe-trotting mission to stop a private criminal organisation that is working to proliferate nuclear weapons…

Being co-written and directed by Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes, The Gentlemen), ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ takes-in much of the director’s usual style/humour, having an abundance of witty and amusing dialogue (much of which is brimming with innuendos), in addition to plenty of editing flair. But ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ also serves as the first film interpretation of the 60s espionage show, which Warner Bros. Pictures had actually been trying to adapt for over a decade, director Steven Soderbergh was once even attached to the project with George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Emily Blunt all set to play the three main characters. The film’s story isn’t just a recreation of a specific episode from the show however, as Ritchie and his story team actually decided to create an original narrative based-around the origin of: ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ A backstory that was only hinted at in the show.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer portray the film’s protagonist duo, and while neither of their characters are exactly memorable, they do both give great performances, sharing many comedic moments together and bouncing-off each other very well, the film even gives its characters a sufficient amount of development early on in the story, though it is delivered through mission briefings and expositional dialogue. Yet its the third member of the cast where some issues begin to arise, as Alicia Vikander as ‘Gaby’ is supposed to be the emotional centre of the story, as her father is being forced to make nuclear weapons, but the film makes it quite hard to resonate with her due to her lack of characterisation and inconsistent German accent, which seemingly disappears at random. Elizabeth Debicki also appears in the film as antagonist: ‘Victoria,’ but similar to Hugh Grant’s character: ‘Waverly,’ she has little impact on the viewer as a result of her very limited screen-time.

Aside from the occasional CGI-enhanced shot, the cinematography by John Mathieson is pretty creative throughout the film, having many unique shots alongside plenty of shots which feel like throwbacks to classic espionage flicks. The film also makes excellent use of Ritchie’s signature editing style, cutting between scenes in a variety of visually interesting ways as well as colourfully implementing the film’s Russian/German subtitles, all of which are displayed in a bright yellow text almost as if they are taken from a 1960s spy poster, not too dissimilar to the film’s opening and ending credits, which are reminiscent of the original show’s intro whilst also feeling fresh.

Daniel Pemberton’s original score is in keeping with the film’s tonal integrity, as Pemberton sought to capture a sound that combined the crispness and sophistication of today with a distinctly 1960s flavour. The first-step of which was the venue, as ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s score was actually recorded in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, where even the most casual music fan likely knows that this is where ‘The Beatles’ recorded many of their iconic albums. Yet apart from the tracks: ‘His Name is Napoleon Solo’ and ‘Escape from East Berlin,’ the soundtrack feels well-crafted but still falls short, becoming fairly forgettable in the long-run.

However, the world of: ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ isn’t as forgettable, as the film’s 1960s time-period mixes together the elegant class of the era with more futuristic spy technology/gadgets. One of the reasons the film stayed in the 60s time-period was to allow the film to have its own reality, setting it apart from films like ‘The Bourne’ franchise and other recent spy thrillers, according to director Guy Ritchie. Obviously, this means that the film constantly revels in its period-accurate vehicles, set-design and costumes, a few pieces of which were actually vintage.

In conclusion, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ isn’t a film that will surpass expectations, as while the film delivers on what it sets-out to for the most part, displaying some fantastic action scenes and enjoyable gags. Its hard to ignore the film’s uninteresting story, which simultaneously feels drawn-out and dull, even branching into convoluted at points with the sheer amount of characters and locations mentioned. But for myself and any other classic espionage enthusiasts, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ will suffice, even though it could’ve done with some refinement in certain areas. Final Rating: 6/10.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) – Film Review

Matthew Vaughn, critically acclaimed director of: ‘Layer Cake,’ ‘Kick-Ass’ and ‘X-Men: First Class’ tries his hand at another comic book adaptation with ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service.’ Based on the comic book series of the same name by Mark Millar, and serving as a throwback to (and often parody of) classic spy/espionage films such as the ‘James Bond’ series and ‘The Bourne Saga,’ ‘Kingsman’ very quickly became a beloved franchise after just its first instalment, mostly as a result of its hilarious self-aware moments of humour and exhilarating action set-pieces.

Plot Summary: When the British spy organisation: ‘Kingsman’ recruits an unrefined, but promising London street teen into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program. ‘Eggsy’ begins to follow in his father’s footsteps as he takes-part in the organisation’s many dangerous training exercises. All the while, the twisted tech genius: ‘Valentine,’ begins to execute a master plan which will potentially put the entire world at risk…

Violent, thrilling and fun, the first ‘Kingsman’ film was actually made partly in conjunction with the comic book itself, as director Matthew Vaughn and comic book writer Mark Millar have been good friends for many years since they collaborated previously on ‘Kick-Ass’ in 2010 to great success, prompting them to reunite for: ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service.’ Which aside from a few minor changes, is actually a mostly faithful adaptation of the first entry in the comic book series, alongside also being a superb gateway into the world for any non-fans of the comic series as the film establishes who the ‘Kingsman’ are and what they do, in little time.

Protagonist: ‘Gary Unwin,’ usually going by his nickname: ‘Eggsy,’ is portrayed by Taron Egerton in one of his earliest film roles, who does portray a reckless teenager very well, becoming an instantly likeable character within only a short amount of screen-time. Its Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson who both steal the film with their fantastic characters however, as both actors play completely against their usual type here, with Firth taking on the deadly spy: ‘Harry Hart’ who rarely even smiles (creating quite a contrast from his usual romantic-comedies) and according to second unit director Bradley James Allan, even did 80% of his own stunts during filming. Whilst Jackson also gives one of his most memorable performances to date as the film’s antagonist: ‘Valentine,’ who throughout the film retains an aggressive lisp and occasionally childish demeanour, a big leap from much of his previous work.

Although not as outrageously creative as it could’ve been, in my opinion, the film’s cinematography by George Richmond does serve the story very effectively. As many of the film’s over-the-top and exciting action scenes are displayed proudly and clearly without too much use of hand-held camera or excessive editing. During a few scenes, the camera even begins to spin around the characters as they fight, giving the film a real sense of movement.

The original score by both Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson has quickly become very beloved similar to the film itself, and it’s easy to see why. As the film utilises its trumpet-heavy orchestral score to create a soundtrack which would fit perfectly within a classic espionage series like ‘The Avengers,’ ‘The Ipcress File’ or ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ From ‘Manners Maketh Man’ and ‘To Become a Kingsman’ to especially ‘Valentine’s theme, which is noticeably more electronic to fit with the tech-savvy character. Nearly every track featured in the original score is both memorable, and usually, also cut in sync with the film’s stylish editing to great effect. 

Needless to say, the aspect that ‘Kingsman’ is most known for is certainly its variety of impressive action sequences, which as already mentioned, do away with the usual overly-shaky and chaotic execution of most modern action flicks in favour of more fast-paced and exaggerated fight choreography with plenty of graphic violence to-boot. Resulting in many entertaining action scenes even if they aren’t completely flawless, as the majority of these scenes do unfortunately, still suffer from their overly-heavy usage of CG effects (usually for blood and severed limbs) which I feel does somewhat take away from many of these thrilling moments, even if they are still sure to impress most on their initial viewing.

Overall, while many spy films may be far more focused on delivering more grounded and gritty missions for their audiences these days, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ truly revels in its absurdity. As even in spite of the problems this stirring espionage film faces, it still manages to remain an amusing and exciting experience throughout its runtime. Combing its array of phenomenal action scenes with some outstanding stunts and a now-iconic original score, the first instalment in ‘The Kingsman’ series may have now launched a blockbuster franchise, but for many, I feel it will always remain their favourite part of this continuing story. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Inside Out (2015) – Film Review

From the iconic animation studio Pixar, who brought-us animated classics such as: ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Monsters, Inc.’ ‘Finding Nemo,’ ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’ among many others. Comes another emotional and beautifully animated adventure with some surprisingly deep concepts and ideas to-boot. As ‘Inside Out’ takes-place nearly entirely inside the mind of a young girl, focusing on how her various emotions handle new and unexpected changes within her life.

Plot Summary: After young ‘Riley’ is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions: ‘Joy,’ ‘Sadness,’ ‘Fear,’ ‘Anger’ and ‘Disgust’ all being to conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school. But after a freak accident causes ‘Joy’ and ‘Sadness’ to be flung from ‘Headquarters’ with ‘Riley’s ‘Core Memories,’ the two have to find their way back before its too late and ‘Riley’ loses all emotion…

Even though ‘Inside Out’ usually streamlines many of its story’s concepts and themes to make them more understandable for children, the animated flick also never fails to remain both very imaginative and very colourful throughout its runtime. As with the film’s story taking-place within the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, ‘Inside Out’ doesn’t hold-back from bringing-to-life the world within a child’s head, a world not confined by the barriers of logic and psychics. From ‘Imagination Land’ to ‘The Train of Thought’ and ‘Long Term Memory,’ ‘Inside Out’ constantly explores plenty of amusing locations and is always building on its enchanting ideas.

Despite some characters not receiving quite as much screen-time as others, ‘Riley’s various emotions are portrayed superbly by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, and Mindy Kaling, with Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith as ‘Joy’ and ‘Sadness’ being the true stand-outs of the cast. As their two characters bounce extremely well of each other due to the polarity of their friendship, which also makes for plenty of humorous moments. Richard Kind also makes an appearance within the film as ‘Bing Bong,’ ‘Riley’s imaginary friend from when she was younger, who in many ways is the true heart of the film. As alongside his variety of entertaining quirks (some of which do result in a few immature jokes). ‘Bing Bong’ also ends-up becoming a very likeable and charming character mostly as a result of the scene: ‘The Memory Dump,’ easily one of: ‘Inside Out’s most impactful and heartbreaking moments.

Filled with plenty of inventive shots throughout, the animated cinematography does add to the film’s already incredibly vibrant colour palette and varied locations, with a constant array of attractive shots, the film’s visuals are always appealing to look at when inside ‘Riley’s mind. Yet when the viewer is thrown back into the real-world, the colour palette is far more pale and tame, creating a clear visual contrast between the two.

Featuring a number of memorable tracks such as: ‘Bundle of Joy,’ ‘Team Building,’ ‘Rainbow Flyer’ and even the track that plays over the film’s ending credits: ‘The Joy of Credits,’ the original score by Michael Giacchino is truly one of the best scores Pixar has to offer, even when taking into account their already impressive list of soundtracks. As nearly all of the film’s best moments whether comedic or emotional are elevated by the film’s wonderful score, with many of the tracks throughout ‘Inside Out’ displaying great variety and talent.

Similar to many of the other films from Pixar’s catalogue, the animation throughout ‘Inside Out’ is simply gorgeous. As not only do all of the designs of the different emotions differ drastically depending on which emotion they representing, but the level of detail on every character and location throughout the film is astounding, with the individual particles that make-up each emotion even being visible during many of the film’s close-ups. Interestingly, when ‘Inside Out’ was in the very early stages of its development, many other emotions were also considered as characters (around twenty-seven in total). But after the writer’s decided to just settle on the core five emotions to make the narrative less-complicated, many other potential characters had to be left on the cutting-room floor, e.g. ‘Surprise,’ ‘Pride,’ and ‘Trust.’

Overall, ‘Inside Out’ is definitely worth a watch for any age. Although this animated flick isn’t without its faults, ‘Inside Out’ still remains a delightful experience from start-to-finish, mostly due to its unique story, great voice performances and extraordinary visuals, the film really feels as if there isn’t the slightest ounce of laziness put into crafting it. Whilst there has been plenty of other exceptional animated classics produced by Pixar in the past, their fifteenth animated feature is certainly one of their most experimental yet least discussed to date, which I think is a shame. As while ‘Inside Out’ may be aimed mostly towards children, I feel this film might speak an even deeper volume to adults. Final Rating: 8/10.

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