The Martian (2015) – Film Review

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which was originally self-published on Weir’s personal blog in a serialised format. The Martian, released in 2015, is a sci-fi drama that combines witty dialogue, stunning cosmic visuals and real-world science to craft a captivating story of survival and innovation. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Matt Damon, The Martian is a cinematic triumph of the science fiction genre, ticking every box that needs to be ticked in this modern era of sci-fi flicks.

Plot Summary: When a fierce storm causes an exploratory mission on Mars to be aborted, astronaut and botanist, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and left behind by his crew. Awakening hours later, injured and alone, Mark is forced to draw upon his wit and scientific ingenuity to endure the hostile surface of the red planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, employees of NASA, alongside a team of international scientists, work around the clock to develop a plan to bring their missing astronaut home… 

Just as much a survival thriller as it is a grandiose sci-fi drama, The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott (Blade RunnerThelma & LouiseGladiator), who, of course, is no stranger to the science fiction genre, with two of the most notable releases of his filmography being Alien in 1979, and Blade Runner in 1982, both renowned as some of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time. And although The Martian likely won’t reach the same level of recognition in ten years, I would say the film has about the same level of directional skill as those well-known flicks. The unsung hero of the film, however, is the screenwriter/executive producer, Drew Goddard, who laces the story with humour and energy, in addition to approaching much of the scientific exposition in a comprehensible yet never overly simplistic fashion. 

The incredible all-star cast of Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover (among others), are all phenomenal in their various roles. And whilst there are a lot of characters, the story juggles them rather efficiently, never taking too much attention away from Mark Watney’s fight for survival, and subsequently, Damon’s terrific performance, which manages to be both humorous and heartfelt. As far as adaptions go, The Martian also solves one of the novel’s biggest issues, that being Mark’s constant internal monologues to provide the reader with commentary on his situation. The film gets around this by having Mark record video logs, in which he explains the science behind what he needs to do to survive, which again, is never dull thanks to Damon’s ceaseless charisma and dry wit.

Primarily filmed in the Middle Eastern desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan. The gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski emphasises the solitariness of Mars throughout the film, illustrating just how alone Mark truly is and making his line: “I Am the First Man to Be Alone on an Entire Planet,” seem all the more impactful. Furthermore, the colour palette of The Martian is surprisingly diverse considering the story takes place on the red planet. While most of the film retains a burnt orange look, many of the shots on Earth or in outer space form a remarkable contrast to the Mars sequences through their use of whites, greys, greens and blues. Much of the set design is also beautifully crafted, riding a careful line between sci-fi futurism and modern comfort. Interestingly, one of the panoramic shots on Mars displays Olympus Mons, the largest volcano discovered in our solar system. Olympus Mons is almost three times larger than Mount Everest and covers an area roughly the size of the U.S. state, Missouri.

Stylistically, the original score for The Martian is an assortment of soothing synth and the orchestral arrangements composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, is best known for. The most notable tracks are Mars, a stark, oppressive track comprised of synth chords and impressionistic processed effects, depicting the planet as a cold, inhospitable place. Making Water, which feels slightly more playful through its use of harps and optimistic strings. And Crossing Mars, the most triumphant-sounding track of the entire score, which ultimately comes across as a little generic as it ditches much of the atmospheric synth in exchange for an orchestral motif.

Amidst its many other qualities, The Martian is also a testament to science being employed rather accurately in a science fiction flick, as despite not every line of the screenplay being scientifically exact due to the story taking place in the near future of 2035, The Martian comes pretty close. In fact, NASA was actually consulted on many aspects of the story, specifically regarding Mars, with the film even being supported in its science by famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

In summary, The Martian isn’t quite a flawless film as the supporting cast occasionally feel under-served and at one-hundred and forty-one minutes, the runtime is admittedly rather excessive. But, with the exception of these few (and frankly, minor) flaws, The Martian is a rousing story and an expertly crafted film in which the protagonist recognises he is going to die, and then willfully refuses to accept it. It’s an ennobling and uplifting story delivered with sass, allure and intelligence, essentially being everything a story from the science fiction genre should be. Rating: high 8/10.

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The Lobster (2015) – Film Review

Bleak, eccentric and ambitious, The Lobster, released in 2015, is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but for those with the fortitude to crack through the film’s offbeat sensibilities, it should prove a cinematic treat as co-writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos (DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Favourite) continuously demonstrates his peculiar style throughout this anomalous black comedy. And although the film does admittedly fall short in its final act as the story loses interest in its animal-transformation premise and abandons its fascinating hotel setting in favour of a less interesting location with equally less interesting characters, this does little to diminish the intrigue of The Lobster‘s unique outlook on human relationships.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future where, by law, all citizens must have a life companion, single people are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner within forty-five days. Should they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild where they will hopefully find love with a different species. Inevitably, as the newly divorced architect David enters the luxurious rehabilitation facility, he too must find a suitable partner, or an uncertain future in the wilderness awaits…

Since its initial release, The Lobster has become an intense hub of speculation regarding its true meaning, but the most common theory is that the film is an absurdist look at modern-day coupling, which, if truthful, is similar to the rest of Lanthimos’ filmography which frequently picks apart damaged characters, attempting to expose the raw and volatile relationship between humans and their fragile sensibilities. Immediately from its opening scene, The Lobster also presents an extraordinarily unusual world, a dystopian future that is simultaneously striking, disquieting and darkly comedic without ever appearing overly futuristic. Needless to say, with a world as irregular as this one is, there are still a few lines of dialogue that feel fairly on-the-nose concerning its world-building.

The film’s large cast of Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly are all superb throughout the film, intentionally delivering their lines with a complete lack of emotion. Instead, many of the characters present much of what they are feeling on their faces whilst seemingly concealing everything else. This approach works flawlessly when it comes to the film’s comedy, with the numerous quirky characters David interacts with giving matter-of-fact line readings that are extremely difficult not to find amusing. Yet these constant stabs at dry humour never feel at odds with the story’s more dramatic/romantic moments either as The Lobster tries to gain emotional investment from its audience by making the characters feel distinctly human through the recognisable neuroses that label them despite their emotionless tones.

Visually, The Lobster is rather impressive as the cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis allows nearly every shot to have something poignant to it, with the symmetrical staircases and hallways of The Hotel presenting a world of order in a simplistic yet elegant manner. One hunting scene, in particular, stands out as gorgeous composition, slow-motion and lighting are all used to great effect. This is made even more impressive when considering that the production crew worked without makeup and exclusively utilised natural light. With large-scale lighting set-ups only being employed for a handful of evening scenes.

When it comes to the film’s music, even though The Lobster lacks a traditional original score, the film does feature a tremendous assortment of brittle classical compositions such as String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 and Strauss, R: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Variation: II, both of which give the film a feeling of serenity yet also push much of the story’s tension to the forefront. Quietly damping down the comedic tone that gradually bubbles up through the carefully placed laugh-out-loud one-liners.

Returning to the visuals briefly, The Lobster was primarily filmed in and around the Parknasilla Hotel in Ireland, an ostentatious hotel that is decorated almost entirely with Dutch flower still life from the 1600s. This ageing pattern along with the film’s exceptional use of colour; primarily blues, greens and a few alternate shades of red, including beige-pink, give The Lobster a distinct visual appeal even more so than its cinematography, as these colours can even be seen in many of the costumes or mentioned in lines of dialogue, such as the scene where the Short-Sighted Woman says she should wear blue and green clothes or when David mentions that lobsters are “Blue Blooded,” (lobster’s shells also being red, of course).

In summary, while The Lobster is a droll piece of storytelling lashed with grim humour, it also offers a rich, surreal take on modern relationships that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As for every moment that makes you laugh, there may be another that leaves you with your mouth wide open. In many ways, The Lobster is as much a black comedy as it is a slice of existential horror, glimpsing into an outrageous yet disturbing future, one that is truly a testament to Lanthimos’ brand of filmmaking and storytelling as he’s able to trump even the most outlandish premise and turn it into an accessible and engrossing narrative. Rating: low 8/10.

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Strange Magic (2015) – Film Review

After selling Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company in late 2012, writer and director George Lucas (THX 1138American GraffitiStar Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) turned his attention away from the mega franchises of Star Wars and Indiana Jones to produce many of his long-gestating passion projects. This ambitious new turn began with the war epic; Red Tails, in 2012, and soon after, Strange Magic, in 2015, an animated fantasy musical that Lucas had long wanted to produce for his three daughters, having written an early draft of the story fifteen years earlier. Upon its eventual release, however, Strange Magic was deemed a colossal failure, earning only £9 million at the box office on a budget of approximately £74 million, along with receiving largely negative reviews from critics and audiences alike due to its predictable story, dreadful humour and bizarre song choices. All of which I feel are valid criticisms.

Plot Summary: In a mystical woodland realm where primrose flowers mark the border between two regions; the Fairy Kingdom and the Dark Forest. The undesirable, Bog King, rules over his gloomy domain without love, going so far as to imprison the Sugar Plum Fairy, who is capable of mixing love potions through the use of primroses, in a bid to permanently cease adoration across his domain…

Technically the first Lucasfilm production to be distributed by The Walt Disney Company following its acquisition. The story of Strange Magic is predominantly based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as both narratives are romantic comedies that involve misunderstandings and cross-purposes between different races or, in this case, species. The film also takes inspiration from many well-known fairy tales, including The Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast for its central underlining theme, which focuses on the belief that beauty is only skin deep and internal beauty is far more meaningful. An important message for children, to be sure. But as a result of this theme being delivered with zero charm or subtlety, the message itself comes across as incredibly forced and even somewhat contradictory thanks to some of the screenplay’s ill-timed gags.

The main voice cast of Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Sam Palladio and Meredith Anne Bull all do a sufficient job at lending some personality to their respective characters. Especially since Strange Magic supplies very little in the way of characterisation, with a majority of the animated characters only being set apart from one another by what species they are, e.g. a fairy, elf or goblin etc. Quite unfortunate as for many characters, there is a solid foundation alluding to what they could’ve been should they have been further developed. For example, Marianne (the closet thing the story has to a protagonist), becomes distrustful of men once she witnesses her fiancée, Roland, cheating on her on the day of their wedding, quickly vowing to never love again and instead dedicate her life to protecting her family, specifically her sister, Dawn, who supposedly falls in love with every man she meets.

Aside from the flavourless designs of the fairies, which appear as if they’ve been yanked from any generic fantasy flick of the early 2000s. The visuals of Strange Magic are by far the film’s finest component with nearly every shot retaining plenty of colour and ingenuity on account of the animated cinematography and the animation itself, which exhibits even the smallest of details right down to the threads on characters’ clothing or the patches of watery moss on tree branches. Yet this isn’t too surprising considering that Strange Magic was animated by famed visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, standing as their first fully animated feature since 2011’s Rango.

Moving from the visuals to the music, Strange Magic is what’s known as a jukebox musical. This means that rather than creating original songs for the film, all of the songs heard throughout Strange Magic are popular songs from past decades. From Can’t Help Falling in Love to Love is Strange and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), the film’s continuous use of on-the-nose songs is undoubtedly what will make or break Strange Magic for most as older audiences will feel as if they are being pandered to whilst younger audiences will simply be confused as to why none of the songs directly relate to any of the characters/locations within the film. Furthermore, the original score by Marius De Vries is barely distinguishable from any other fantasy score.

On a separate note, although the first entry in the Star Wars saga rarely lacked in world-building when it first introduced audiences to a galaxy far, far away. Strange Magic seems to actively avoid developing its world beyond one or two throwaway lines, establishing the two unimaginatively named regions that reside side-by-side, and not much else as to how this fantastical world functions.

In summary, Strange Magic is a film that feels far too familiar to sing its own tune, with its derivative story coming across as a hodgepodge of well-worn elements from other animated and fantasy films. Most evidently, 2013’s Epic and the everlasting series of animated Tinker Bell flicks. And, as such, there’s virtually nothing about this fractured fairy tale that feels remotely fresh aside from some of its attractive visuals. There are enjoyable moments, of course, but, for the most part, Strange Magic is simply half-hearted and creatively lazy. Rating: high 3/10.

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Legend (2015) – Film Review

Recognised as some of the most notorious gangsters in British history, Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Kray and Reginald ‘Reggie’ Kray were identical twin brothers and the foremost perpetrators of organised crime in the East End of London during the 1960s. With the help of their gang, known as The Firm, the Krays were involved in numerous murders, armed robberies, protection rackets, arsons and assaults. And, in 1965, as West End nightclub owners, the Krays even mingled with politicians and prominent entertainers, subsequently becoming ’60s icons themselves before both brothers were ultimately arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1967. Therefore, even if the twin crimelords were convicted murderers, their rise to power was ripe for a cinematic interpretation, and 2015’s ‘Legend’ more than succeeds in converting the brothers’ riotous downfall into an enthralling biopic, thanks largely to Tom Hardy’s mesmerising dual performance.

Plot Summary: Identical twins; Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Kray and Reginald ‘Reggie’ Kray, have risen through the ranks of the criminal underworld in 1960s London, with Ronnie advancing the family business through violence and intimidation, while Reggie struggles to go legitimate with his girlfriend, Frances Shea. But with Detective Superintendent Leonard Read hot on their heels, Ronnie’s unpredictable tendencies along with the slow disintegration of Reggie’s relationship threaten to bring the brothers’ criminal empire tumbling to the ground…

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight’s Tale, Man on Fire), ‘Legend’ is partly an adaptation of the true-crime book: ‘The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Krays Twins’ by John Pearson. I say ‘partly’ as the film (unlike the book) begins well into the Kray’s criminal career, steering clear of the twins’ East End childhood, their early days as boxers, or their time spent behind bars during National Service. Even the pairs’ beloved mum, Violet Lee Kray, is barely glimpsed outside of one or two scenes, seemingly unaware of her boys’ violent actions. And whilst this could be seen as a positive, as ‘Legend’ doesn’t waste any of its runtime on frivolous flashbacks to the twins’ adolescence, it could also be seen as a negative, as I feel witnessing the Kray’s childhood would’ve provided a clear view of their personalities before their rampant path of butchery began.

Taking on dual roles for the film, Tom Hardy had thirty-five filming days in which he had to portray both brothers, this meant that Hardy would have to film scenes as the twin who had the most dialogue first, then return to hair and make-up to be transformed into the opposing twin. Originally, Hardy was only offered the role of Reggie, but Brian Helgeland was persuaded to let Hardy tackle the role of Ronnie as well, and I’d say this was for the best, as Tom Hardy taking on both roles not only adheres to the idea of the Krays being identical twins, but truly allows him to display his full acting range, constantly upstaging himself as he switches from brother-to-brother. The rest of the cast of Emily Browning, Taron Egerton, Paul Anderson, David Thewlis and Christopher Eccleston are also marvellous in their various roles, whether that’s in pursuit or service of the Krays.

Exceedingly lavish in its presentation, ‘Legend’ often possesses the tone of an American gangster epic like ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’ despite being so distinctly British, contrasting its bloodletting and depravity with elegant shots from cinematographer Dick Pope, in addition to plenty of wonderful set-dressing as the film was shot almost entirely on-location, with very few sets being used. The camerawork even allows for a few long-takes, with Reggie and Frances’ first evening out together being one continuous five-minute and forty-second shot.

When it comes to the original score by Carter Burwell, tracks such as: ‘Legend,’ ‘Elegy for Frances’ and ‘Your Race is Run’ all effectively serve their purpose as part of the narrative. The main focus of: ‘Legend’s soundtrack, however, is the film’s long list of recognisable songs, which further help cement the story within the 1960s time-period. And whoever compiled this soundtrack clearly has a great deal of expertise, not only in selecting songs that one would hope to hear from a film set in the swinging sixties like ‘Green Onions’ and ‘Cissy Strut,’ but equally in selecting long-forgotten gems.

From costumes to vehicles to props, the production design throughout ‘Legend’ is also nothing short of exceptional, to the extent where Ronnie and Reggie’s tailored suits are almost indistinguishable from the ones the twins wore in real-life. Additionally, the utilisation of digital compositing and body doubles for whenever two versions of Tom Hardy are required on-screen at one time rarely have a faulty moment, auspiciously tricking the audience at multiple points.

In conclusion, while most will agree that any glorification of real-world criminals is questionable, with ‘Legend’ often having a mythologist and, at times, even romanticised approach to its low-life protagonists, the film is a well-crafted biopic, nonetheless. Through its retro style, brilliant production design and copious comedic moments, ‘Legend’ is a solid crime-drama even in spite of its occasionally overblown scenes or on-the-nose song choices, such as: ‘Chapel of Love’ for Reggie and Frances’ wedding. But the main reason to see ‘Legend’ is unquestionably the spectacular dual performance from Tom Hardy, who confidently steals every scene he’s in. Final Rating: 7/10.

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The Final Girls (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 pairs’ 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. Just like the rest of the cast of forgettable stock characters, however, 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. And, 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 make-up to stop-motion and even miniatures, all of which are marvellous to see, particularly for those who enjoy films with little reliance on CGI, as the film’s creature relies on no digital animation whatsoever outside of rod/rig removal. However, as mentioned previously, 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, a fan of ’80s 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 an aristocratic family, woefully unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead yet trusts his enervating journey will be worthwhile just to see his beloved ‘Rose’ once again. And despite these characters being endlessly entertaining to watch, ‘Silas’ character-arc does feel a little rushed in the grand scheme of things, along with Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn barely getting a chance to shine due to their character’s limited screen-time.

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

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

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

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

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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 mentioned previously, ‘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 biopic 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 audience’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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