Thoroughbreds (2017) – Film Review

Originally written for the stage, 2017’s Thoroughbreds juggles many conflicting tones, but does so with such panache and charm that it’s rare to find deficiencies within its tonal shifts. With a straightforward yet deeply engrossing plot, elegant visuals and a pair of top-notch performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, Thoroughbreds delivers a sharply written and refreshingly unpredictable entry into the black comedy genre. Placing far more emphasis on its characters and their internal issues than anything other black comedy in recent memory. 

Plot Summary: In suburban Connecticut, a pair of childhood friends reconnect after many years when the sharply-witted sociopath, Amanda, arrives at the residence of the wealthy and academically inclined, Lily, for a private tutoring session. After rekindling their friendship, however, Lily soon learns of Amanda’s peculiar philosophy, prompting the pair to hatch a plan to solve both their problems, a plan that begins with the murder of Lily’s detestable stepfather…

Stuck in limbo for almost two years, the production of Thoroughbreds technically ceased in mid-2016, yet the film wasn’t released into cinemas until March 9th, 2018. This was due to several factors, but most notably, this was a result of the film’s lengthy and extensive festival circuit in 2017. During this festival run, Thoroughbreds received many positive reactions, which in a way, surprises me, as even though the plot of Thoroughbreds may sound like a set-up for a compelling thriller, the plot twists and suspenseful moments are never the main attributes of the film. Instead, Thoroughbreds is far more focused on having its characters use their words to eke the darkness out of one another, which ultimately leads to an outcome that, in its theatricality, may feel anticlimactic to some. But, for others, will feel like a unique take on what could’ve been a poorly executed sequence for a lower-budget crime-thriller. 

The two central characters of Amanda and Lily, expertly portrayed by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, are unquestionably the primary focus of Thoroughbreds, with much of the runtime being spent developing the pair and depicting many of the similarities and differences between their respective personalities. For instance, since their early days of horseback riding, Lily has turned into a polished, upper-class teenager with outstanding grades and a coveted internship on her resume. Meanwhile, Amanda has developed a strong sense of perception and a stern attitude, all in the process of becoming a social outcast and unregistered sociopath, which is flawlessly depicted through Cooke’s impassive performance. Sadly, Thoroughbreds was also the final project to feature a terrific performance from actor, Anton Yelchin, as the small-time drug dealer, Tim, before his tragic death on June 19th, 2016, at the age of twenty-seven. As such, the film is dedicated to him.

Despite writer-director Cory Finley (Bad Education) bearing a more extensive background in theatre than filmmaking, Finley displays a natural cinematic instinct right from the opening scene. Depicting the baroque, marble-lined mansion where Lily, her mother and her stepfather reside as more of a prison than a utopia, as the cinematography by Lyle Vincent stalks through the location in lengthy, restless takes. Lingering on specific elements, such as an SUV driving up the gravel driveway or two characters staring at each other from adjacent rooms. Furthermore, the visuals retain a surprisingly vibrant colour palette when considering the grim nature of the story, utilising luminous whites, greens and greys for the majority of the runtime.

For the original score, composer, Erik Friedlander, manipulated various instruments to achieve a number of atonal sounds like boinks and sproings, which all serve as disconcerting counterpoints to the refined visuals. And while there are many excellent tracks throughout the seemingly unstructured score as a result of these unusual sounds, the final track; Win Win, is undoubtedly the best track of the original score, concluding the black comedy on a bittersweet note thanks in part to the optimistic piece.

Bleak yet direct in its underlining commentary on the turmoil of being a teenager in the modern world, Thoroughbreds takes the problems of the young and privileged and explores them through the narrative. With many teenagers (particularly teenage girls) often being told to act or react in specific ways, this story of two girls who are both removed yet acutely aware of their emotions is something to be appreciated in modern character studies. Still, as a consequence of this gradual exploration of the two central characters, I believe many audience members will be turned off by the film on account of its slow pacing and total lack of on-screen violence. However, that’s not to say that I agree with these conceivable criticisms, as even with Thoroughbreds‘ slow pacing, I actually feel that the runtime could’ve been slightly extended, providing more time for characterisation in the first act before the girls reunite.

In summary, Thoroughbreds is a quirky, darkly comedic and entertaining crime-thriller anchored by some exceptional performances and praiseworthy filmmaking. Although the film may not be for everyone given its harsh perspective on teenage life, shortage of blood/gore and frequently slow pacing, Thoroughbreds lavish presentation and snappy dialogue are immensely effective. To the point that the screenplay even manages to make the audience empathise with a character that is completely incapable of empathy, which is a rather impressive feat. Rating: 8/10.

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Loving Vincent (2017) – Film Review

An arduous labour of love by a team of over one hundred professional artists, Loving Vincent, released in 2017, turns the renowned artwork and tragic life story of the celebrated post-impressionist artist, Vincent van Gogh, into an extraordinary biopic. Initially filmed in live-action before every frame was then hand-painted over in the distinct style of van Gogh’s artwork, Loving Vincent impressively employs hundreds upon hundreds of oil paintings and transforms them into a hypnotic and ambitious animated biography, even if its story and characters are less effectively crafted than its dazzling visuals.

Plot Summary: In the summer of 1891, one year after the presumed suicide of unwonted artist, Vincent van Gogh. Postman, Joseph Roulin, tasks his reluctant son, Armand Roulin, with delivering one of the artist’s final letters to his brother, Theo van Gogh, in Paris. But, when Armand arrives in the French capital, learning that Theo has, too, met his demise, he pledges to investigate van Gogh’s untimely death by venturing to the scenic town of Auvers-sur-Oise…

Obtaining a large amount of attention after its nomination for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture in 2018. Loving Vincent is one of the most unique films to emerge from the animation genre in recent years as immediately from the hand-painted opening title sequence, preceded by van Gogh’s quote; “We Cannot Speak Other Than by Our Paintings.” The audience is pulled into van Gogh’s hyper-sensual worldview through the film’s striking aesthetic. Aside from the astonishing visuals, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman also provide an alternative take on the historic biopic by having the life of Vincent van Gogh viewed from the perspective of a young man, via the stories he is told by those who knew him. And even though this investigative storyline doesn’t quite match up to the amazing visuals on display, it’s an engaging story, nonetheless.

While the main cast of Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Saoirse Ronan, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, the late Helen McCrory and Chris O’Dowd, are all terrific in their performances, none of the characters retain a French accent. And considering that the story takes place in 1800s France, I feel the immersion of the time period/setting could’ve been greatly increased should the filmmakers have chosen to cast English-speaking French actors/actresses. Moreover, similar to the narrative, the characters of Loving Vincent are one of the film’s lesser impressive aspects. Whilst Armand Roulin is serviceable as a headstrong protagonist, eager to fight and drink before he is pulled out of his slump and instructed to deliver van Gogh’s final letter, subsequently becoming more and more invested in the alleged suicide of the gifted yet largely detested artist. The majority of the characters are given little characterisation and merely serve as plot devices to edge Armand towards his next acquaintance/eyewitness.

Moving onto the visuals, Loving Vincent was predominantly animated through the rotoscope technique; an animation process that consists of tracing over live-action footage frame-by-frame. This technique allowed the filmmakers to implement the characters into a number of visually stunning environments, along with numerous recreations of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. However, only the sequences set in 1891 are animated in the style of van Gogh’s artwork, as flashback sequences are animated in the style of black and white photographs of the time period, providing a clear visual distinction. Additionally, details such as cigarette smoke, clouds or flowing rivers make for fantastic transitions between scenes. On the whole, the visuals of Loving Vincent almost appear like purified echoes of Vincent van Gogh’s artwork, as the cinematography by Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal, combined with the vibrant colour palette and beguiling art style, results in countless enchanting shots.

From the outset, the original score by Clint Mansell backs up the stylistic visuals with a sombre and atmospheric soundscape. Through tracks like The Night CaféThe Yellow HouseMarguerite Gachet at the Piano and Five Sunflowers in a Vase, the score creates a sense of sadness that parallels the difficult life Vincent van Gogh led. Furthermore, despite having a noticeable lack of movement in the background of certain scenes, the sound design goes a long way in fleshing out the environment around the characters, whether that be the bustling streets of Paris or a quaint farm in Auvers-sur-Oise.

According to Loving Vincent‘s official website, the collective effort of the many talented artists that worked on the project resulted in a total of eight hundred and fifty-three oil paintings, as each art piece was utilised multiple times, with succeeding frames being painted on top of the original paintings. In the final film, there are around fifty thousand hand-painted frames, which is truly an incredible feat of artsy when taking into account how much time went into just a single scene.

In summary, Loving Vincent is an outstanding achievement, not only in the genre of animation, but also in the world of filmmaking. While the story and characters do leave room for improvement, these minor issues hardly detract from Loving Vincent‘s main attribute; its ravishing visuals. From the phenomenal use of colour to the detailed backdrops and innumerable visual references to van Gogh’s most recognised artwork, Loving Vincent is a captivating tribute to one of history’s most influential artists. And, as such, I’d say Loving Vincent is a biopic well worth seeking out, even if it’s merely for the experience of witnessing the craftsmanship of hundreds of animated oil paintings on-screen. Rating: low 9/10.

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Leatherface (2017) – Film Review

Considering the monumental impact of the original, Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the annals of horror cinema, it’s peculiar that the film’s ensuing franchise has had such an erratic history, bouncing from excessively jokey entries like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986, to absolutely bonkers ones such as Texas Chainsaw: The Next Generation in 1995. 2017’s Leatherface continues this trend by once again attempting something different; aiming to be a prequel that explores the origins of the face-wearing menace himself. Unfortunately, however, even though the film has good intentions, Leatherface only succeeds in replicating the skin of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre flick and non of the guts within as the journey its titular character embarks upon ultimately doesn’t feel worth the eighty-seven-minute runtime.

Plot Summary: In 1955, the young, Jedediah Sawyer, is assigned the task of luring an unsuspecting traveller into his family’s decrepit barn for the sake of blood. But when it turns out that this unfortunate victim was actually the lone daughter of Texas ranger, Hal Hartman, Jedediah is forcibly separated from his family and placed in a mental institution. Ten years later, the now near-adult, Jedediah, along with a handful of criminally insane inmates, manage to escape the asylum during a riot, beginning a journey of murder and turmoil as the group trudge across rural Texas evading the vengeful ranger pursuing them…

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside, Among the Living, The Deep House). Leatherface is, for all its flaws, at least an earnest attempt at franchise course correction, avoiding another reboot of the series to instead tell a story that tries to connect a few dots in the very tangled web of this horror franchise. Needless to say, being a prequel, Leatherface still suffers from the usual problem most prequels do: explaining things that don’t need explanation. As in the original film, Leatherface stands out because he is a complete enigma even in a family of cannibalistic lunatics. We never receive answers to any of the questions we have about him as Leatherface simply exists, which is what makes him so terrifying. So, naturally, exploring his backstory diminishes that aspect. Furthermore, with Leatherface being just one member of a homicidal family, a prequel would be a great opportunity to develop some of the lesser-explored members of the Sawyer family such as the Proprietor, the Hitchhiker and Grandpa Sawyer, yet none of their backstories are even hinted at.

Despite their frequently flat dialogue, the film’s main cast of Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Sam Coleman Jessica Madsen, James Bloor and Stephen Dorff all throw themselves into their respective characters with confidence as once Jedediah finds himself inside the mental institution, he encounters several intriguing patients. From the silent brute, Bud, to the callous couple, Ike and Clarice, all of whom make members of the Sawyer family look sane by comparison. Then there is the idealistic nurse, Lizzy, who essentially serves as the story’s final girl, yet due to a severe lack of development similar to many of the other characters, it does become increasingly difficult to empathise with her outside of just acknowledging her horrific situation. However, the highlight of the cast is undoubtedly Lili Taylor as Verna Sawyer, the family matriarch who is bursting with pride for her boys, but devoted to the point where every outsider is seen as an adversary.

When it comes to the visuals, even though Leatherface wasn’t actually shot in America, but instead in Bulgaria for budgetary reasons. The film does utilise its varied colour palette along with natural lighting to create an effective and convincing backdrop of back-country Texas, giving cinematographer, Antoine Sanier, plenty of opportunities to integrate creative shots, including a shot that references the extreme low-angle dolly shot from the original film.

Regrettably, the original score by John Frizzell isn’t quite as remarkable as the soundtrack rarely breaks the mould of a typical horror soundscape, being rather forgettable outside of the score’s occasional use of a chainsaw-like rumble. Numerous songs from the 1960s can also be heard throughout the film such as Leave Me Alone, Working on the Line and Don’t Take Me for Granted, which help further ground the story in the ’60s time period alongside the lavish costume and production design.

On another note, for those who desire graphic violence, there is a commendable amount of gore in Leatherface even if the film is more plot-driven than kill-driven. Still, I will always prefer minimal gore over a constant bombardment of blood when it comes to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise as whilst no sequel, prequel or spin-off will ever be able to recapture the ominous tone and documentary-like feel of the 1974 classic, having minimal violence does at least make any later entry in the series seem closer to the original’s deceptive absence of on-screen brutality.

In summary, Leatherface is repulsive and disturbing much like the original film. The only difference is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also relied on intrigue and an eerie atmosphere to back up many of its horrifying concepts, whereas Leatherface does not. And while the film does admittedly deserve some credit for doing something different with the franchise, being the eighth instalment in this ongoing series, it’s apparent that Leatherface and his chainsaw slayings are starting to wear thin, becoming less and less enthralling each time they return to the silver screen. Rating: high 3/10.

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Molly’s Game (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cargo (2017) – Film Review

Based on the short film of the same name, which went on to be an online sensation following its release in 2013, garnering over thirteen million views on YouTube alone. ‘Cargo’ takes a refreshingly character-driven approach to the post-apocalyptic genre, differentiating itself from other films featuring flesh-devouring monstrosities through its secluded setting and Martin Freeman’s terrific lead performance. A combination that will surely satisfy most zombie fanatics even if the genre’s more mainstream crowd could potentially be disappointed at the exclusion of decaying hordes of the undead, a true sense of dread and a lack of extravagant gore.

Plot Summary: After an epidemic spreads across Australia morphing humanity into flesh-eating monsters, ‘Andy,’ along with his wife: ‘Kay’ and infant daughter: ‘Rosie,’ attempt to escape the Outback via the river, making their way to a presumably secure military base. But when the trio stumbles upon an abandoned yacht, ‘Kay’ is bitten while searching for supplies, soon passing the virus onto her husband. Now, with his time running short, ‘Andy’ has one mission: find a new home for his daughter…

Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, ‘Cargo’ is not only Howling and Ramke’s first feature-length film, but is also Australia’s first-ever production to be spotlighted as a Netflix Original, releasing globally on the streaming service in 2017. And although Netflix has ventured into the post-apocalyptic genre before with projects like ‘Ravenous’ and ‘Z Nation,’ both Howling and Ramke wanted ‘Cargo’ to be more than just a straight-forward story of survival, subsequently leading the pair to intertwine social commentary into the story relating to everything from environmental fracking to the exploitation of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. But, in my opinion, the best thing about ‘Cargo’ is its central concept, as the idea of a father having only forty-eight-hours to find a new life for his child is a plot enriched with dramatic potential, with a nocuous outbreak providing the perfect backdrop to juxtapose the qualities one would look for in a guardian during such a crisis.

Speaking of the protagonist, Martin Freeman leads the cast brilliantly as ‘Andy,’ portraying an affectionate father/husband who is determined to protect his family at all costs, an intention which, whilst honourable, often lands him and his loved ones in an even worse spot, as ‘Andy’ refuses to accept when he is out of time. Freeman’s young co-star, Simone Landers, unfortunately, doesn’t fare quite as well, as her frail performance frequently results in poignant scenes feeling less sincere. However, ‘Thoomi’ herself is still an intriguing character, with her subplot, focusing on the demise of her father and the survival of a nearby native tribe, providing a vastly different perspective on the epidemic when compared to ‘Andy’s point of view.

Utilising the vegetation-splotched, sun-parched rural land of the Australian Outback flawlessly, the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is both varied and visually interesting. Even if, in reality, the Australian wilderness where ‘Cargo’ was shot threw everything it had at the production crew, with South Australia experiencing what was supposedly its worst weather in a century, with floods, power blackouts, torrential downpours and even a miniature cyclone all occurring over the five weeks of production. Yet miraculously, the crew didn’t lose even a single day’s worth of filming, very fortunate considering that the remote setting is a crucial player in the film’s identity, with its harsh and unforgiving nature hurling countless obstacles at our characters, whilst at the same time, offering them a means to survive.

Managed by four different composers, including Michael Hohnen, Daniel Rankine, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Johnathon Mangarri Yunupingu. The original score for: ‘Cargo’ greatly strengthens each scene’s emotional significance, almost as if the score is applying a proverbial highlighter to certain moments, with sombre, tenuous tracks such as: ‘The Grave’ and ‘Goodbye’ flourishingly pulling at the audience’s heartstrings more times than one.

Taking an alternate route to avoid comparisons to zombie designs of the 1970s, seen in classic horror films like ‘Rabid’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ‘Cargo’ strays away from many of the usual clichés associated with the undead, centring its zombie design around an orange pus-like substance that oozes from the infected’s facial orifices, rather than the bleeding open wounds the living dead are commonly known for. This distinction is further emphasised through what we see of their behaviour, as the infected are presented as mindless animals more than they are man-eating monsters, requiring dark/damp areas to incubate during the daytime, before feasting on whatever wildlife they can find once night falls, reminding the audience that what they are witnessing is a viral infection, hence why the infected are even nicknamed: ‘Virals.’

On the whole, even if ‘Cargo’s story could’ve been executed in a more effective fashion with a motley of improvements, I feel ‘Cargo’ is still a creditable entry into the realm of post-apocalyptic storytelling. Being a zombie film with soul and pathos, which, in turn, makes the living dead formidable once again, not because of jump-scares or excessive bloodshed, but becuase of the film’s biggest drawcard; its sheer humanity. Telling a story that largely revolves around the notion of human determination, seeing how far an individual will go to protect another even in the bleakest of circumstances. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Please Stand By (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mummy (2017) – Film Review

When Universal Pictures first announced their plans to build a cinematic universe based around their gallery of iconic monsters, general audiences seemed to roll their eyes at the idea, seeing the forthcoming franchise as nothing more than a shameless attempt to copy and paste the formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the hopes of making the same box-office returns. Nevertheless, Universal continued with their plan, releasing the first instalment of the series in 2017 with ‘The Mummy,’ a film which even with the star-power of Tom Cruise, failed miserably both critically and commercially, instantly destroying any plans for the future of the franchise and embarrassingly leaving the Dark Universe with a single film to its name.

Plot Summary: Once destined to rule all of Egypt, the beautiful princess: ‘Ahmanet’ sees her birth-right stolen from her when her father begets an heir. Knowing this boy would be the Pharaoh’s new successor, ‘Ahmanet’ turns to a dark deity, selling her soul for an unholy power, for which, she is captured by the Pharaoh’s priests, mummified alive and buried in a tomb far from Egypt. Five thousand years later, opportunistic U.S. Army reconnaissance sergeant: ‘Nick Morton,’ accidentally discovers her tomb during a firefight in the Middle East, and once venturing inside, inadvertently sets her free…

According to a number of reports, Tom Cruise not only starred in ‘The Mummy,’ but also has an excessive amount of control over the film, having creative oversight on nearly every aspect of the production. So much so, that Cruise even had influence on the film’s screenplay, as it’s been stated that Cruise had his personal writing team rewrite certain scenes to give his character more screen-time and a more dramatic character-arc, and even though most Universal executives weren’t thrilled about the rewrite, feeling it was disjointed and insipid, they reluctantly agreed to keep Cruise on-board. Regardless, Universal Pictures soon saw the fallacy in their blind faith towards Cruise, as despite ‘The Mummy’ earning nearly £300 million worldwide, it was still considered a financial flop when taking into account its immense marketing campaign, which promoted the film purely as the franchise-vehicle it is as opposed to a riveting blockbuster.

Having both her design and gender altered to avoid any similarities with the titular villain of: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse,’ which released just a year prior, ‘The Mummy/Ahmanet’ herself portrayed by Sofia Boutella, is remarkably forgettable, never developing into a compelling or even threating antagonist, which should be nearly impossible considering ‘The Mummy’ fills over a quarter of its runtime with extensive exposition regarding her backstory and sinister motives. Likewise, the actual protagonist of the film: ‘Nick Morton,’ rarely benefits from Cruise’s natural charisma and wit, as ‘Nick’ is simply an unlikeable character, emerging as a foolish, self-centred adventurer and leaving in the exact same manner, in addition to being miraculously skilled with/in every type of firearm and hand-to-hand combat, of course.

When it comes to visuals, the film’s cinematography by Ben Seresin is generally visually pleasing, resulting in a fair share of alluring wide-shots, yet much of the film’s beauty is consequently hindered by its ghastly colour palette, which hardly ever strays away from greys, blacks and beiges, an issue that is only worsened by the prosaic setting of modern-day London. Furthermore, the film’s action sequences (which are less frequent than most would expect) are fairly unimpressive, with many of the story’s thrilling moments having an over-reliance on apace editing and CG creatures. That is, with the exception of the stunt work, which due to Cruise’s heavy input on the film, is mostly practical and just as awe-inspiring as the stunts in the ‘Mission Impossible’ series, no thanks to director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us).

Built around two central themes with various less significant tracks cropping-up in-between, the film’s original score by Bryan Tyler is serviceable for the most part, balancing its two main tracks of: ‘The Mummy’ and ‘Nick’s Theme’ before then switching to far more dramatic orchestral tracks like ‘Sandstorm,’ ‘Enchantments’ and ‘World of Monsters’ for the film’s larger-scale set-pieces and handful of brief horror/dream sequences.

Interestingly, ‘The Mummy’ wasn’t actually Universal’s first venture into crafting a cinematic universe of monsters, as the company originally envisioned 2014’s reboot of the renowned vampire: ‘Dracula Untold’ as the first instalment in the series. There was even early talk of: ‘Dracula’ appearing in ‘The Mummy,’ but this idea was ultimately scrapped, and the film was eventually cited as non-canon. However, there are still several props alluding to other monsters within the film, as a vampire skull along with the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’s hand can both be seen in ‘Dr. Jekyll’s headquarters.

In all honesty, I feel it’s easy to see why many avoided ‘The Mummy’ when it first released back in 2017, as this film was merely Universal’s first attempt at revitalising the many well-known creatures locked away in their vault by lazily repackaging them for a new generation. The issue being that general audiences had little interest in this concept, and those that did quickly lost their engrossment as the film failed to capture even a fraction of the adventurous spirit present throughout the ’90s reboot. Instead, it seems ‘The Mummy’ will simply be lost to time, unremembered and disregarded. Final Rating: 3/10.

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The Ritual (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Logan (2017) – Film Review

Even though many comic book fans weren’t delighted when it was first announced that the then unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman, would be taking on the pivotal role of: ‘Wolverine’ for the first live-action ‘X-Men’ film, nowadays it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, with Jackman appearing in multiple films as the regenerative superhero. But when it finally came time for Jackman to sheathe his claws in 2017 with ‘Logan,’ the foreboding task of bringing this beloved character’s cinematic story to a close fell to director James Mangold (Walk the Line, The Wolverine, Le Mans ’66), who suitably crafted a brutal, bloody and surprisingly thoughtful final-outing for the iconic hero.

Plot Summary: In a bleak future where mutants are nearly extinct, a weary ‘Logan’ leads a quiet life as an undercover limo driver, caring for an ailing: ‘Charles Xavier’ at a remote outpost on the Mexican border as he awaits his inevitable death, slowly being poisoned by his adamantium skeleton. But ‘Logan’s plans to hide himself away from the outside world are swiftly upended when he meets ‘Laura,’ a mutant child on the run from a sinister organisation…

Very loosely based on the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series, ‘Logan’ is a film free of the baggage that comes with being a part of the ‘X-Men’ franchise, as beyond a couple of nods/references the film essentially ignores much of: ‘Logan’s past, which is definitely a decision made for the better, in my opinion. As the now-discontinued franchise was only ever consistent in its lack of consistency, jumping from entertaining entries such as: ‘X-Men: First Class’ and ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ to greatly disappointing ones like ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse.’ ‘Logan,’ however, takes a very different route, focusing on a straight-forward road-trip narrative that explores ‘Logan’s struggle between his human compassion and animalistic killer instinct.

These ideas all massively benefit from the film’s performances, as ‘Logan’ is without a doubt Jackman’s finest performance as the titular character, as when placed alongside Patrick Stewart, who returns as ‘Charles Xavier/Professor X,’ the pair of actors portray far more broken versions of their respective characters, as ‘Logan’ grapples with alcoholism and the immense guilt for all those he has hurt, while ‘Charles’ is now a delusional shell of the man he once was, battling dementia with all the pharmaceuticals that ‘Logan’ can afford. Boyd Holbrook also delivers a praiseworthy performance as ‘Donald Pierce,’ the leader of the merciless security team tasked with capturing ‘Laura’ (portrayed brilliantly by Dafne Keen). And whilst it’s no easy task to stand toe-to-toe with Jackman’s ‘Wolverine’ and seem like a sincere threat, Holbrook does exactly that. For me, the only out-of-place casting choice is Stephen Merchant as ‘Caliban,’ as although Merchant isn’t awful by any means, I never felt his performance quite matched-up to those around him. Though this is somewhat redeemed by the parental relationship between ‘Logan’ and ‘Laura,’ which in many ways, is the true heart of the film.

Taking heavy inspiration from a number of classic westerns, the cinematography for: ‘Logan’ handled by John Mathieson gives the film a vastly different appeal than any of the films the character has previously appeared in. As director James Mangold keeps the film grounded in reality as much as possible, having the story take place primarily in remote towns, barren deserts and wide-reaching woodlands, in addition to filming on-location and utilising a large number of practical effects to avoid becoming too CGI-heavy similar to some of the other entries in the ‘X-Men’ series.

The film’s original score by Marco Beltrami is also incredibly effective at building tension and evoking emotion, as the score combines almost horror-esque tracks with far more dramatic pieces to deliver a varied yet still fitting soundtrack, with tracks such as: ‘The Reavers,’ ‘X-24’ and ‘Farm Aid’ being almost uncomfortable to listen to, while the score’s final track: ‘Don’t Be What They Made You’ is a beautifully sombre piece that will undoubtedly bring a tear to any listener’s eye.

Yet the highlight of: Logan’ for most viewers will surely be its thrilling action sequences, as due to ‘Logan’ being the second ‘X-Men’ film to have a higher age rating behind 2016’s ‘Deadpool,’ the film never shies away from displaying graphic violence, having scene-upon-scene of criminals and security alike being slashed and torn apart by ‘Logan’ and ‘Laura.’ Finally giving in to comic book enthusiast’s demands and allowing ‘Wolverine’ to exhibit his animalistic nature and fully unleash his berserker rage, resulting in innumerable moments of blood-spattering, barbarous fight choreography.

Altogether, I feel ‘Logan’ earns the gut-wrenching reactions it initially received from ‘Wolverine’ fanatics. As despite the ‘X-Men’ franchise as a whole being extremely inconsistent, ‘Logan’ is a film that proves blockbuster franchises should save their best film for last, as Hugh Jackman’s long-running portrayal of the character will no doubt go down in cinematic history. And I truly have pity for whichever Marvel executive will tasked with recasting ‘Wolverine’ when the day eventually arrives for a reboot of the character/franchise, as finding another actor to fill Jackman’s shoes will be no easy task, but for whoever does, I’m sure most fans will need an adjustment period. Final Rating: high 8/10.

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The Babysitter (2017) – Film Review

Originally filmed in 2015 with the intention of playing in cinemas, the horror-comedy: ‘The Babysitter’ wasn’t seen by any horror fanatics until it released late 2017 after Netflix acquired the rights to the film for streaming. And although ‘The Babysitter’ doesn’t exactly break any of the rules we’ve come to expect within the horror genre, this horror-comedy with splatterings of style must’ve been entertaining enough for those who decided to watch it, as the film would eventually spawn a Netflix-exclusive franchise with two later sequels.

Plot Summary: Riddled with anxiety, twelve-year-old: ‘Cole’ has always been bullied and picked on due to his constant panicking, only finding comfort around the one person who understands him, his attractive babysitter: ‘Bee.’ That is, until one night, after ‘Cole’ secretly stays up past his bedtime to discover she’s actually part of a satanic cult, forcing ‘Cole’ to spend the rest of his evening evading ‘Bee’s band of killers who will stop at nothing to prevent him from spilling their dark secret…

Directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Salvation, This Means War) or ‘McG’ as he more commonly goes by, ‘The Babysitter’ is a film that has received a number of alterations (both big and small) since even the early stages of its pre-production. For example, in the original screenplay for the film, ‘Sonya’ was actually a cheerleader, ‘Allison’ was a journalist for her high-school newspaper, and ‘Max’ had dreadlocks, but eventually it was decided that ‘Bee’s cult followers should be reimagined to more closely reflect the stereotypical characters seen in classic slasher flicks, only in this film, they’re the antagonists. And this idea is one of the film’s best aspects in terms of its writing, as it gives the film a real sense of self-awareness in addition paying respect to what came before it. Most notably, the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, which ‘Max’ references directly at one point when he chants: “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ah-Ah-Ah” whilst chasing ‘Cole.’

Judah Lewis does manage to leave an impression in his first film role, portraying protagonist: ‘Cole’ as an innocent twelve-year-old with few friends aside from ‘Bee,’ even if a large portion of his anxious characterisation feels far too over-the-top. Then there is also Samara Weaving as the titular babysitter: ‘Bee,’ and her cult followers: ‘Max,’ ‘Allison,’ ‘Sonya’ and ‘John’ portrayed by Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Hana Mae Lee, and Andrew Bachelor. Who are all wonderfully devilish throughout the film, having plenty of dark comedic moments between them making their deaths quite unfortunate, as while I’m sure most could’ve guessed their characters do die at some point within the narrative, we don’t get to spend enough time with any of them to get a strong grasp on their exaggerated personalities or any understanding of their malevolent cult.

In spite of the usually dull cinematography by Shane Hurlbut, ‘The Babysitter’ still manages to be one of the more visually interesting Netflix Originals through its unique style, as the film continuously implements different text, graphics and colours to give it a distinct stylistic appeal, not too dissimilar from (although nowhere near impressive as) ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ from 2010. Many of these editing decisions also help to redeem the film’s humour, which is extremely inconsistent, bouncing from hilarious cut-aways and meta horror jokes to embarrassing lines of dialogue which try far too hard.

Whilst composer Douglas Pipes has crafted some great scores in the past like ‘Monster House’ and ‘Trick ‘r Treat,’ ‘The Babysitter’ is certainly not one of them, as even with the film having many serviceable tracks. The soundtrack in general just lacks anything distinctive, and I believe that if it was ever compared to any other score from Pipes, or even just a handful of random horror scores, I doubt most would be able to tell it apart. The film also throws in the iconic Queen song: ‘We Are the Champions’ nearing the runtime’s end, which feels immensely out-of-place and comes out of nowhere.

For a large duration of its tight runtime (which the film breezes through as a result of its unrelentingly fast-pacing), ‘The Babysitter’s story is predominantly just one long chase sequence, and whilst occasionally tense, I couldn’t help but feel that the film’s screenplay could’ve taken better advantage of its evil babysitter concept or its few supernatural elements, despite the series second entry: ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ delving much further into the latter. Yet the film doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its violence, having plenty of fantastically gruesome gore effects which are all successfully played for comedy.

Overall, I could see ‘The Babysitter’ being an enjoyable experience for some and possibly just a boring viewing for others. As when ignoring the film’s graphic gore and fun stylistic choices, the story leaves a lot to be desired, and can often feel derivative of horror classics even if this was the film’s intention to an extent with its focus on horror tropes/clichés. For me personally, although I do admire the film’s ridiculous tone and dark humour, the disappointing story can often feel sluggish, diminishing the film’s memorability and rewatchability. Final Rating: 5/10.

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