The Wretched (2019) – Film Review

When it comes to the horror genre, you may not always desire a film that sets-out to rewrite the rules of spine-tingling storytelling. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself just wanting to dim the lights and ensconce with a low-budget popcorn flick, and 2019’s ‘The Wretched’ falls firmly within this category. With appealing modest ambitions, the film utilises its cast of unknowns, unique creature design, and admirable focus on body-horror as effectively as its thin budget will allow. And even though ‘The Wretched’ is far from a game-changer for the realm of supernatural horror stories, it still overcomes its various flaws to be a mostly engaging if fairly foreseeable tale of witchcraft and body-snatching.

Plot Summary: After being sent to live with his father for the summer on account of his parents’ imminent divorce, defiant teenager: ‘Ben’ begins to suspect there is something wrong with his current next-door neighbour, eventually discovering that there is an execrable entity lurking just beneath her skin…

Originally titled: ‘Hag’ before it was later changed following negative feedback from test audiences. ‘The Wretched’ was certainly a departure for writer-director duo Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce, as the pairs’ prior film: ‘Deadheads,’ released in 2011, was a zombie road-trip comedy. Even so, this leap in tone and genre rarely seems to impair ‘The Wretched’ from a directorial standpoint, as the film leaps head-first into its grim tone and horrifying visuals right from the opening scene. And whilst the film does struggle to balance its plot threads from time-to-time, it quickly becomes clear that the main source of inspiration for the story was the low-budget creature-features of the 1980s, tied together with a desire to create a newfangled interpretation of witchcraft and revitalise hags into terrifying antagonists.

Acting-out since his parents’ separation, seventeen-year-old: ‘Ben’ competently portrayed by John-Paul Howard, is the protagonist of the film. And while it’s always challenging to portray an angsty teenager due to the concern of the character becoming incredibly abrasive, Howard pulls it off successfully, presenting ‘Ben’ as a frustrated and confused adolescent struggling to come to terms with his altering life. Furthermore, ‘The Wretched’ even aims to justify the common horror trope of parents not believing their children once the supernatural occurrences begin, as when ‘Ben’ tries to explain the situation to his father, ‘Ben’s past transgressions of trespassing and stealing medicine come to light, prompting his father to dismiss his claims as either lies or delusions. The supporting cast of Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, and Zarah Mahler are also serviceable in their small roles as members of the lakeside community.

Filmed around Omena and Northport, Michigan, near the Pierce brothers’ hometown, the cinematography for: ‘The Wretched’ by Conor Murphy often ranges in quality. As some scenes are beautifully shot with a strong focus on close-ups, whereas others, usually during conversations between characters, seemingly just rely on dull, hand-held shots. With that said, when working in synch with each other, the camerawork and lighting do a remarkable job of masking the creature early on in the story, only giving the audience brief glimpses of the witch in her contorted, feral state, before later displaying the film’s full range of prosthetic makeup and practical effects.

Excluding the ominous theme for the titular witch heard in the tracks: ‘Woods’ and ‘The Wretched Appears,’ both of which feature avant-garde strings led by a manipulated sarangi, the original score by Devin Burrows admittedly leaves some room for improvement. As tracks like ‘Don’t Let Her In,’ ‘Honey… Beer?’ and ‘Broken Window’ continuously overuse strings and brass horns to the point where the tracks themselves become too disruptive, often mismatching with what’s on-screen.

Of course, the witch herself is unquestionably the main draw of the film, and ‘The Wretched’ presents its central creature with pride, making sure to include all of the most off-putting aspects of the creature’s devilish design and malicious nature. And whilst the witch isn’t grounded into any specific mythology, with the screenplay only giving small hints towards its origins, the witch’s carved symbols, salt fragility, and quasi-religious shrines all give the creature an element of personality when outside of its human disguise. Speaking of which, the way the creature is presented when inside a body is just as disturbing, as we along with ‘Ben’ observe how the witch essentially lives the life of the person whose skin she now inhabits, caring for her decaying body the best she can as she attempts to act human, each day climbing closer to feasting on the unfortunate children of the mother she is impersonating.

All in all, although ‘The Wretched’ isn’t as polished as it could be, I feel this well-paced horror flick will please most genre fans. As even in spite of its occasional continuity issues, corny dialogue, and lack of focus regarding the film’s duel plot lines, ‘The Wretched’ still delivers on its promise of a skin-crawling creature-feature reminiscent of 80s cult classics. The film is also one of the few horror films I’d personally like to see a sequel or prequel to someday, as I feel the concept of a witch that feeds on forgotten children is an intriguing idea that doesn’t reach its full potential here, but undoubtedly could in a more refined film. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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It: Chapter Two (2019) – Film Review

Once again directed by Andy Muschietti, and once again based on the iconic novel by Steven King (only this time the adult portions of the story). ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unfortunately quite a downgrade from chapter one, as in spite of its excellent cast and continuously impressive visuals, ‘It: Chapter Two’ proves that bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to sequels, as the film’s over-reliance on giant CG monsters along with its inconsistent tone and unreasonably long runtime of two-hours and fifty minutes, demonstrate how this spine-chilling follow-up frequently over-indulges in its source material.

Plot Summary: After being defeated by ‘The Losers Club’ many years ago, the demonic clown: ‘Pennywise’ returns twenty-seven years later to terrorise the town of: ‘Derry’ once again. And with the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways, ‘Mike Hanlon,’ the only member of the group to remain in ‘Derry,’ calls his friends home for one final stand against the shapeshifting creature…

Jumping from character-to-character, location-to-location, many of: ‘It: Chapter Two’s biggest faults appear within its screenplay, as rather than focusing on a straight-forward narrative like the original film, this time around the film revolves most of its plot around a bootless errand of a story where ‘The Losers’ search all over ‘Derry’ to acquire various artifacts from their youth in order to perform ‘The Ritual of Chud,’ which will supposedly destroy ‘Pennywise.’ The problem being that much of this set-up is ultimately meaningless, as almost every character receives their own segment in which they simply recall moments from their childhood, which often just recap scenes from the first film or leave the audience bloated as a result of the huge amount of exposition they have to digest.

Yet it has to be said, that James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ranson, and Andy Bean all portray the older versions of their characters remarkably, as despite the characters now being much older, each actor/actress recreates the younger actors’ body moments and manner of speaking flawlessly. ‘It: Chapter Two’ also never forgets to reinforce the character’s trauma, as even though ‘Bill’ is a successful writer and ‘Ben’ has remodelled himself into a muscular architect etc. Each member of the group is still haunted by their past, or at least, what they can remember from it. Of course, Bill Skarsgård also returns as ‘Pennywise,’ and while his performance does occasionally venture into ‘Beetlejuice’ territory due to how over-the-top he becomes, Skarsgård is still endlessly entertaining as the malevolent clown.

This time around the cinematography is handled by Checco Varese, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that ‘It: Chapter Two’ had a different cinematographer, as the film is just as visually pleasing as its predecessor, with some elegantly orchestrated transitions between the character’s incarnations thrown in for good measure. The huge increase in budget also comes across through the film’s visuals, as ‘It: Chapter Two’ feels much grander in scale and presentation alike. However, where the sequel stumbles is with its scares, as instead of utilising ‘Pennywise’s mimicking ability to transform into every character’s greatest fear, the film lazily depends on towering CG creatures, which usually have little relation to the characters or the story at large, and although a number of the monsters are interesting design-wise, it doesn’t stop them from feeling out-of-place.

Benjamin Wallfisch’s original score effectively continues on from that of the first film, as tracks such as: ‘Losers Reunited,’ ‘Nothing Lasts Forever,’ and ‘Stan’s Letter’ are calming and beautiful, whereas tracks like ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Very Scary’ are loud and intense to add to the film’s horror. The main issue with the soundtrack is in its lack of distinction from the first film’s score, and while I understand ‘It: Chapter Two’ is essentially just the second part of a larger story, the original score does little to set itself apart, with some tracks sounding near-identical to others.

Even though ‘It: Chapter Two’ is trying to accomplish a great deal within its lengthy runtime, spending a large portion of its story in flashbacks and dream sequences as it attempts to adapt everything not already covered in the first film. The sequel is saddled with an even bigger obstacle; constructing a suitable climax for the story. As although its well-known by this point that Steven King often has difficulty writing satisfying endings for his novels (a criticism that the film repeatedly mocks), ‘It: Chapter Two’ is faced with this exact task, and even if the story doesn’t completely collapse under the weight of its disappointing finale, its admittedly still lacklustere, especially when the final act veers into metaphysical surrealism.

In conclusion, ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unquestionably an ambitious horror sequel, with a renowned cast, spectacular set-pieces, and numerous exciting moments, the film truly goes all out. But does it work? Well, not entirely, but it’s a diverting horror blockbuster, nonetheless. And whilst I feel that by splitting the story of: ‘It’ into two films, Muschietti has done a gratifying job of commanding the massive blimp that is King’s extensive novel, most of the issues with ‘It: Chapter Two’ do boil down to its story and structure, which end-up leaving the film a pleasurable romp rather than the ghoulish denouement it could’ve been. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Guns Akimbo (2019) – Film Review

Frenetic to a fault, 2019’s ‘Guns Akimbo’ relishes in its video-game-like violence, utilising its fluid editing, fast-pacing, and wild visuals to construct a thrilling action-comedy inspired by riveting 1980s blockbusters like ‘The Terminator’ and ‘The Running Man.’ Yet with all this insanity, it’s inevitable that ‘Guns Akimbo’ will alienate some viewers, especially those hoping for plenty of engrossing commentary concerning televised violence and online culture, but for many others, the film’s super-charged, energetic action sequences along with Daniel Radcliffe’s committed performance will surely hit the spot as an explosive jaunt.

Plot Summary: When ‘Miles Lee Harris,’ a spineless video-game programmer, awakens one morning to discover that his hands have been bloodily bolted to a pair of pistols, ‘Miles’ is forced to use the fused-firearms to his advantage to save his ex-girlfriend from a group of kidnappers working for a criminal organisation named: ‘Skizm,’ which pits maniacal criminals against each other in live-streamed deathmatches…

Written and directed by Jason Lei Howden (Deathgasm), ‘Guns Akimbo’ is, in many ways, trying to be a satire of the digital age we currently live in, displaying how apps like Instagram and YouTube have made us cynical, and in some instances, even dehumanised us. The problem here being that the film soon becomes exactly what it’s satirising, constantly mocking the online community of: ‘Skizm’ for watching the grisly livestreams even though the film itself is taking just as much pleasure in displaying them to its audience, but considering ‘Guns Akimbo’ is primarily an action flick over anything else, I feel this muddled message is far from the film’s central focus. An issue the film does actually suffer from, however, is its screenplay, as by the time it’s third act arrives, the film is clearly beginning to run out of steam, devolving into essentially just non-stop action with little charm when compared to the first half of the film.

By far one of the film’s best aspects, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as asthmatic protagonist: ‘Miles Lee Harris’ is both hilarious and manic, as ‘Miles’ is forced to leave his boring life as a programmer for a company whose games are designed to exploit children for micro-transactions, to undertake a whole new identity after unwillingly entering: ‘Skizm’ and their city-wide game of death. And whilst ‘Miles’ continuous moments of cowardice and constant wheedling over his ex-girlfriend could’ve been annoying if they were over-played, Radcliffe portrays the character in such a way where it’s easy for the audience to root for him similar to how ‘Skizm’s online audience do. On the flip side of this matchup there is ‘Nix,’ a cocaine-fuelled killer who relishes in profane one-liners and is brilliantly portrayed by Samara Weaving, being the current reigning champion of: ‘Skizm,’ ‘Nix’ serves her purpose as a baleful adversary to ‘Miles’ in addition to having a surprisingly dramatic backstory.

An utterly merciless blend of: ‘Crank,’ ‘Shoot ‘Em Up,’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,’ the cinematography throughout ‘Guns Akimbo’ never fails to be visually dynamic, as cinematographer Stefan Ciupek aims to make the camera feel completely unrestricted, having it flow freely through a variety of techniques including making superb use of body-rigs and car-mounts alike, which does help to redeem some of the uninspired firefight choreography. Moreover, as ‘Guns Akimbo’ frequently has the appeal of a vibrant graphic novel, the on-screen graphics and highly saturated lighting lend themselves remarkably well, with many of the lighting rigs used also being controlled via an iPad, so they could easily be adjusted to fit with the mood and colour of any scene.

Enis Rotthoff’s original score is just as hyperactive as the rest of the film, as any scenes that aren’t filled with iconic songs such as: ‘We’ll Be Good Friends,’ ‘Super Freak,’ or ‘You Spin Me Round’ are amplified by Rotthoff’s thumping techno soundtrack, with tracks like ‘Neon Grey’ and ‘Playcare’ being perfectly in tune with whatever moment of the story they are a part of.

However, even when keeping all these elements in mind, whether you enjoy ‘Guns Akimbo’ or not will ultimately have to do with whether you find the distinctively zany concept endearing, as the film greatly leans into the comedy of its premise, imagining what it would be like to try and use the bathroom or attempt to call someone when you literally have pistols for hands, which has always been the film’s most notable distinction. In fact, during the film’s pre-production, an image of Daniel Radcliffe panicking and holding a pair of pistols whilst wearing a robe went viral as soon as it surfaced online, creating an aura of awareness for the film before it even had an official trailer.

Overall, ‘Guns Akimbo’ is bloody, brutal, and ballistic, colourful and stylish yet admittedly fairly empty-minded. But for a film like this, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, as while some may argue the film starts to lose its desirability once you realise it doesn’t have much to offer beyond its high-octane action sequences, ‘Guns Akimbo’ never lies to you about what it is, as the action is every bit as ludicrously over-the-top as it would be in the fictional reality of violent video-games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Doom.’ Final Rating: 7/10.

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Cats (2019) – Film Review

Despite ‘Cats’ being well-known as one of the longest-running stage shows in West End/Broadway history, it is also widely acknowledged that the musical is empty spectacle and not much else. This along with many other reasons, may explain why the adaptation of the musical we received in late 2019 has since gone on to be regarded as one of the worst musicals ever put to film, as director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) utterly squanders an enormous budget and a talented cast in exchange for a paper-thin plot, a constant bombardment of irritating songs and some truly horrendous CG effects that will leave most viewers begging to be put out of their misery.

Plot Summary: A tribe of cats known as ‘The Jellicles’ yearly meet for a ‘Jellicle Ball’ to decide which of their group will ascend to the ‘Heaviside Layer’ and return to a new life. But on this year, the mysterious napoleon of crime: ‘Macavity,’ has other, more sinister plans…

Ever since it was first announced that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper would be adapting the iconic feline-focused musical, the film has become such joke-fodder that it’s hard to see past the countless number of memes mocking the film’s dreadful visuals or comedic moments, which is a shame. Not because the film we received is even remotely entertaining, of course, but because the adaptation we almost received could’ve been fantastic. As originally, animation house Amblimation planned to adapt the musical into an animated film before the project was shelved following the company’s closure. This idea of translating ‘Cats’ into a traditionally animated film remained all the way to Hooper coming on-board to direct, and, in my opinion, also makes considerably more sense considering the original musical is based on the 1939 poetry collection: ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by T. S. Elliot, a book brimming with whimsical sketches of various cats from a variety of backgrounds.

Newcomer Francesca Hayward, stands-out as one of the film’s few redeeming aspects, as her character: ‘Victoria’ serves as an audience surrogate, her empathy occasionally shining through as she is rapidly introduced to character after character until we uncover which ‘Jellicle’ cat will be chosen to ascend. The rest of the film’s prominent cast, however, including Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, James Cordon, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen and many more, range from extraordinarily cringy to subpar at best, although their performances are further hindered by the story’s lack of characterisation and dramatic moments.

Whilst the film’s cinematography by Christopher Ross does a successful job of upgrading the beige setting of the stage show into a vibrant, neon-lit approximation of old London, allowing for an assortment of visually pleasing shots, it’s impossible for: ‘Cats’ to claw itself away from the rest of its distracting visuals. That not only includes the obvious, but also much of the film’s set-design, as several of the large-scale sets the cats enter are supposed to appear overly large in order to display each cast member as cat-sized, yet there is usually no consistency with this scale between shots.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of the original musical, handles the film’s original score/songs in addition to writing a couple of songs exclusively for the film. And while classic songs like ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,’ ‘The Old Gumbie Cat,’ ‘The Rum Tum Tugger,’ and ‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’ may be beloved among fanatics of the stage show, in the film these songs come across as infuriating as they are so repetitive, barely making time for anything aside from one or two atrocious cat puns.

Lastly, there is the appearance of the cats themselves, by far the most discussed/mocked element of the entire film, and for good reason. As the uncanny part-human, part-CG appearances of the furred cats appear extremely unnatural and very under-polished, so much so, that a mere two-days after the film’s initial release, Universal Pictures announced that they would be releasing an updated version of: ‘Cats’ with enhanced CGI. Whilst this is partly a result of Tom Hooper’s broad direction, an article published the following year by The Daily Beast featured multiple visual effects artists who worked on the film, each claiming they had little-to-no time to finish the film’s huge array of effects, with some artists even having to sleep under their desks to get the film completed on time, at least, if said article is truthful.

In short, even though I’m personally not an admirer of Tom Hooper’s filmography, Hooper is not a wholly incompetent director, but ‘Cats’ is undeniably, an absolute catastrophe of a fantasy-musical from beginning-to-end. Quickly being placed amongst the one-hundred worst films of all-time on IMDb and forcing the plans for its sequel (and spinoff TV series) to be immediately scrapped, ‘Cats’ is possibly one of the biggest cinematic failures of the past decade, as its copious number of flaws massively overshadow what few, if any, redeeming factors the film had left, resulting in an insufferable viewing experience that’ll make most film buffs feel remorse for everyone involved in this embarrassing production. Final Rating: high 1/10.

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Hellboy (2019) – Film Review

In mid 2012, actor Ron Perlman once again endured the four hour makeup routine required to transform him into his iconic character: ‘Hellboy’ and fulfil the Make-A-Wish request of a six-year-old boy with leukaemia. Director Guillermo del Toro was so touched by this event that it inspired him to start production on a third: ‘Hellboy’ instalment. But following a dispute between del Toro and producer Mike Mignola, the project was soon cancelled, and instead, Mignola and his team began work on a reboot of the franchise, which finally released in 2019 to truly abysmal results.

Plot Summary: Whilst working side-by-side with his adopted father for the ‘Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence.’ ‘Hellboy,’ a supernatural creature who came into our world in 1944 as a result of a demonic Nazi ritual, struggles to accept which world he belongs to, that being one of monsters or one of men. All the while, an evil sorceress known as ‘The Blood Queen,’ returns to the modern world, eager to take her revenge on humanity for imprisoning her centuries ago…

According to producer Mike Mignola, the intention with this reboot was to replicant a style and tone closer to that of the original source material, as despite del Toro’s version of: ‘Hellboy’ often being light-hearted aside from one or two disturbing moments, the original comic series created by Mike Mignola is in reality, far darker and more gruesome. And whilst this goal of wanting to make a ‘Hellboy’ film more horror/fantasy-oriented rather than just a typical superhero blockbuster is commendable, this reboot of the series continuously stumbles due to this tonal shift, even with talented director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) overseeing the project. Yet this is only one of the film’s many problems, as it’s hard to sit through even a single viewing of: ‘Hellboy’ without noticing the film’s incredibly fast-pacing, awful comedic moments, and beyond messy plot, which for some reason draws from four separate comic book storylines.

‘Hellboy,’ or particularly, David Harbour’s performance as the titular character, is possibly the film’s finest aspect, as rather than just lazily mimicking Perlman’s beloved version of the character, Harbour displays a less mature interpretation of the superhero. Portraying the horned hero as a conflicted character, younger and stronger than Perlman’s version, but unsure as to if he is a real hero, which is an interesting internal conflict to explore and about the only element of the film that is consistent. Then there is Ian McShane as ‘Hellboy’s father figure, who is serviceable in his role alongside Milla Jovovich as the villainous: ‘Blood Queen,’ who unfortunately, gives one of the most over-the-top performances of her entire career here.

Aside from the small detail of the filmmakers ensuring the colour red is never present in the same scenes as ‘Hellboy’ himself (excluding scenes where blood is shed, of course), the cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore is your usual affair for a superhero flick, having a handful of pleasant shots scattered amongst the plethora of bland hand-held camerawork utilised for action scenes and grand moments of destruction. But regardless of how impressive the cinematography may or may not be, there is no distracting from the film’s unappealing CG effects. As in spite of the creature department clearly trying their best with the detailed costumes, prosthetics, and makeup on display, nearly all of the CG effects throughout ‘Hellboy’ appear instantly dated.

The original score by Benjamin Wallfisch is a peculiar concoction, being an odd mish-mash of orchestral and electronic tracks which only succeed in making the soundtrack feel quite dull when it’s not overly loud and irritating. Or at least, that’s the score before mentioning it’s use of electric guitars, which try desperately to present the soundtrack as something ‘awesome,’ but only emerges as annoying at best, with the film’s signature track: ‘Big Red’ being the biggest offender for this.

However, an aspect of the film that is more in line with del Toro’s previous ‘Hellboy’ adaptation is its creatures, as although the effects that bring them to-life aren’t impeccable, the actual creature designs are truly something be admired, with the ‘Hellboy’ comics clearly providing the filmmakers with plenty of visual influence. Even ‘Hellboy’s redesign was inspired by David Harbour’s own features, with the crew adding a larger jaw and a heavier brow to further fit with Harbour’s facial structure.

To conclude, while I can appreciate the effort that went into ‘Hellboy’ in some areas, the film’s flaws are just so evident its near-impossible to ignore them. From its convoluted and overstuffed story to its dreadful CG effects, ‘Hellboy’s thrilling moments of action or amusing dark humour are minor when compared to its faults. Yet by far the most frustrating part of this reboot is that it stripped away our final chance of seeing a third entry in the original: ‘Hellboy’ series, an instalment myself and many other fans of this beloved character had been wanting to see for quite some time. Instead, we’re now stuck with this disappointing reboot, which failed miserably to reignite the spark of excitement in this superhero franchise. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Escape Room (2019) – Film Review

Divertive yet still quite thrilling in parts, ‘Escape Room’ directed by Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Insidious: The Last Key) fails to unlock much of the potential in its premise, eventually devolving into what is simply scene-after-scene of the film’s characters solving puzzles in a number of themed rooms whilst on a strict time-limit. Yet depending on what you desire to see from a modern thriller, this may be enough to serve a passing diversion, as the film chooses to just ignore its lack of realism and originality in favour of distracting its audience through creative set-design and tense fast-paced sequences.

Plot Summary: When six strangers are each sent a mysterious black puzzle box withholding an invitation to an immersive escape room, they all make their way to the ‘Minos’ facility on the promise of being able to win a fortune should they escape. But after entering what seems to be the building’s waiting area, innocent fun soon turns into a deadly game as the group discover that each room thy enter is actually an elaborate trap…

From a mere mention of the film’s plot, the ‘Saw’ and ‘Cube’ franchises are understandably the first two things that come to mind. As in many ways, ‘Escape Room’ is effectively just a far less violent version of those familiar set-ups, with a character heading into a room only to be greeted with a convoluted trap that will result in their death should they not escape it. And while ‘Escape Room’ does contain at least a couple of sparks regarding something original, the film is also far from subtle in both its storytelling and dialogue, with plenty of cheesy lines, implausible events and character’s backstories being shown through literal flashbacks.

Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll and Nik Dodani all give passable performances as the main group of characters forced into a twisted game. Their actual characters however, are possibly the film’s biggest missed opportunity. As whilst a few of the characters do receive development early on in the narrative, its quickly becomes clear as to which characters the film is favouring, making it easy to predict who is going to live, and who is going to die. But if the film would’ve managed to better balance its characterisation, then not only would the story have been more compelling overall, but this would’ve kept the viewer constantly guessing as to who could go next.

Aside from one or two wide-shots when the group first enter a new room, the cinematography by Marc Spicer is mostly uninspired, never really attempting to integrate any incredibly innovative or unique shots. Still, the cinematography does serve its purpose for the most part, backing-up the story without ever relying too heavily on the use of hand-held camerawork or overly-choppy editing. Additionally, the film’s CG effects (as sparsely used as they may be), are serviceable but not much else beyond that.

Contrarily, the original score by Brian Tyler and John Carey is fairly inventive, as the pulsing and suspenseful electronic score utilises everything from ticking clocks to power tools, representing the time-pressed characters and the constantly changing environments from which they are trying to escape. This means tracks such as: ‘Coaster’ and ‘Testing Your Limits’ massively help to build tension, whereas moody tracks like ‘The King of Trading’ and ‘Let the Games Begin’ feel more sci-fi and atmospheric in nature. The film’s main theme simply titled: ‘Escape Room,’ even receives a dubstep-like remix by musicians ‘Madsonik’ and ‘Kill the Noise,’ which plays over the film’s stylised end credits.

The film’s set-design is possibly its best aspect, as rather than going for the bog-standard look of libraries and basements for the basis of each room, the film explores an array of diverse environments for its puzzles. From a log cabin complete with a snowy mountain vista to an upside-down billiards bar, the film’s ever-changing locations help keep the story’s signature concept feeling fresh. Many of the rooms also relate to the character’s traumatic backstories, the first room for example, is essentially a giant oven which will burn the group alive should they not escape, this mimics ‘Amanda’s backstory, who was badly burned after she barley survived an IED explosion while serving her country.

In conclusion, not only is ‘Escape Room’ similar to the ‘Saw’ series in terms of its story and set-up, but unfortunately, also in terms of its franchise potential. As its pretty obvious from the film’s extremely forced ending that Sony Pictures wanted their own low-budget horror/thriller franchise as an easy way to gain profit, and riffing on an already iconic series is a trouble-free way to achieve this. So, although it’s set-design and original score are admirable, in addition to a large majority of the filmmaking ‘Escape Room’ has on display being above-average if not better, the film definitely has its share of problems, and, in my opinion, isn’t worthy of an entire film series. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Jojo Rabbit (2019) – Film Review

From Taika Waititi, the now-esteemed comedy director behind modern comedy classics like ‘What We Do in the Shadows,’ ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ comes a beautifully-crafted war film with a strangely pleasant sense of humour. As ‘Jojo Rabbit’ really stands-out within the war genre for being one of the first films set during World War II to be an anti-hate satire, telling it’s heart-warming and optimistic story in an amusing yet respectful fashion, soon cementing itself as one of the most noteworthy releases of 2019.

Plot Summary: Nearing the end of the Second World War, a lonely German boy named: ‘Jojo’ aspires to be a Nazi, hoping to one day fight on the frontline. But ‘Jojo’ soon finds his worldview turned upside-down when he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend: ‘Adolf Hitler,’ ‘Jojo’ must confront the unexpected guest in his home, and in doing so, confront his blind nationalism…

Originally based on the novel: ‘Caging Skies’ by Christine Leunens, the screenplay for: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ was actually written back in 2011, putting it in-between ‘Boy’ released in 2010, and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ released in 2014 in the chronology of Taika Waititi-penned films. And while ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is certainly one of Waititi’s finest films to date, it is also one of his most controversial. As whilst I personally feel the film goes about its comedy in a tasteful manner, never undercutting the story’s message and mostly just poking-fun at ridiculous Nazi protocols and beliefs. ‘Jojo Rabbit’ did receive plenty of flack from critics as soon as it was even announced the film would contain any kind of humour, which I find quite unfair on behalf of the film.

The young and impressive Roman Griffin Davis leads the cast excellently as ‘Jojo,’ portraying the young boy as simply a regular kid who has a fascination with this ideology the Nazis are fighting for, even though he has little understanding of it nor its horrific consequences. Then there is Thomasin McKenzie, who portrays the opposite side of this, as her character: ‘Elsa’ is a resourceful and intelligent Jewish girl who attempts to open ‘Jojo’s eyes to the real-world, rather than the warped-reality his fellow Nazis have burned into him. Scarlett Johansson is also fantastic in the film as ‘Jojo’s mother: ‘Rosie,’ having the most consistent German accent of the cast by far. But it’s the director himself, Taika Waititi, who takes the short-straw portraying the infamous Adolf Hitler, or at least ‘Jojo’s imaginary interpretation of him. As ‘Hitler’ is always presented in a very discriminating way, with Waititi portraying the dictator like a complete tool, only ever having as much information and maturity as ‘Jojo’ does, and occasionally, even less so.

Oppose to many other war films, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ features a very vibrant colour palette, as Waititi actually discovered through much of his research that Germany during World War II was both colourful and fashionable, and was interested in shying away from war films only ever displaying World War II as dark and dreary. So, through this, as well as the fairly creative cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, ‘Jojo’s small town is presented as a seemingly celebratory place with stylishly dressed citizens. Almost as if the town is trying to ignore the impending threat, only semi-aware that the Third Reich is crumbling beneath them.

The film’s original score by Michael Giacchino is another wonderful effort from the composer, as the score features a number of memorable tracks, from ‘Jojo’s Theme’ to ‘A Butterfly’s Wings’ and ‘Rosie’s Nocturne.’ In many ways, the score for: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ almost sounds as if it’s a military march composed by a group of children, which works perfectly considering the film’s story is told through a child’s perspective. Furthermore, the original score also utilises German vocals to more accurately fit with the story’s setting.

Although the supporting cast of Archie Yates, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Alfie Allen are all brilliant within the film, I really do wish their characters were featured more throughout the narrative. As aside from Sam Rockwell’s ‘Captain Klenzendorf,’ who receives a respectable amount of screen-time, many of the story’s side characters are seemingly only in the film for the sake of a couple of humorous scenes, which is unfortunate, as every member of the cast portrays their Nazi characters as hilariously over-the-top as possible.

Altogether, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ isn’t only another extraordinary entry into Taika Waititi’s catalogue of comedy flicks. But I’d argue it’s his best project thus far, a daring and charming film that simultaneously explores the horrors of war, yet also the compassion in people. And while the film may not be for everyone, with many reviews clearly indicating how divisive the film is with its implementation of comedy, I feel the film juggles its humour and emotional moments immensely well, with its remarkable original score and bright colour palette only helping the film stand further out from the crowd. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) – Film Review

Based on the controversial 1980s children’s book series of the same name, written by Alvin Schwartz and nightmarishly illustrated by Stephen Gammell. The film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ directed by André Øvredal and co-written/produced by Guillermo del Toro, takes a very different approach than what many may expect when considering its source material, as the film ditches the book’s original anthology structure in favour of a more interconnected story to mixed results.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, 1968. A group of childhood friends enter the abandoned home of: ‘The Bellows’ family, whose shadow has loomed over the small town of Mill Valley for generations as a result of the notorious murder: ‘Sarah Bellows,’ who turned her tortured life into a book of scary stories many years ago. But these terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real when the reclusive: ‘Stella’ decides to take-home ‘Sarah’s story-filled journal…

Clearly inspired by Steven King’s classic novel: ‘It,’ ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ takes the now-popular route of focusing on a younger cast, capturing that classic spirit of childhood adventure mixed with plenty of light-horror, but rather than setting the film in the hackneyed time-period of the 1980s, the film actually chooses to set it’s story near the end of the 1960s, which I feel helped the film stand-out amongst the ‘It’ remake and it’s many similar incarnations. However, since its release, ‘Scary Stories’ has received plenty of criticism for its underwhelming horror, despite this being a completely intentional decision on-behalf of the filmmakers, ensuring the film as a first-step into the horror genre for younger viewers, never displaying too much violence or overly-intense scares, not too dissimilar to the book series itself.

Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Gabriel Rush and Austin Abrams portray the main group of friends and all do a decent job overall, as while their individual characters don’t exactly break-new-ground, they are likeable enough and have their inklings of both personality and humour. Contortionist Troy James, who once appeared-on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ also appears in the film as one of the monsters: ‘The Jangly Man.’ Who aside from having some CGI-enhanced facial expressions, actually performed all of his impressively unnatural body movements himself, including walking backwards, twisting his torso and crawling upside-down.

Roman Osin’s cinematography does remain visually interesting for the majority of the runtime, having plenty of creative shots with an effective implementation of colour alongside. But its the film’s monsters that are unquestionably the best aspect of this adaptation, as the film takes the horrifying and abstract illustrations of Stephen Gammell and melds them into live-action flawlessly. So much so, that even in spite of each creature’s very limited screen-time, every monster manages to be quite memorable in its own right, from ‘The Pale Lady’ to ‘The Big Toe’ to the dilapidated poster-child scarecrow: ‘Harold,’ all of which were brought to-life through prosthetic make-up and convincing practical costumes, rather than just CGI.

The original score by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich is a fairly average horror score, yet does still serve the story well for what it has too, even if most of the tracks aren’t worth looking-up afterwards. But its also within the main score that there a small nod towards the original book series, as one of the tracks that plays throughout the film is titled: ‘The Hearse Song,’ which is actually a short song from the book series’ first entry.

As previously mentioned, the main creative decision that seems very peculiar to me is that the film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ is not an anthology film, despite the books the film is based on focusing entirely on different characters/monsters with each new story. Instead, the writers chose to create an original story based-around the depraved spirit of: ‘Sarah Bellows’ bringing the stories within her book to-life, which was apparently done in order to stop one of the stories from overshadowing the rest, according to Guillermo del Toro. Yet I personally feel that this makes the film less entertaining, as many of the story’s concepts and creatures feel under-utilised due to this overarching (and occasionally corny) narrative, even if the main story does borrow some of its ideas from other unused tales within the books series.

For the most part, ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ does triumph in its goal of crafting a horror more accessible for younger viewers, as I could see this film appealing to many young audience members in search of a gateway into the horror genre. If you are already a veteran within the genre however, then I feel ‘Scary Stories’ will more than likely disappoint, as the film’s many cliché story-beats and lack of any gore or truly tense moments does result in this adaptation becoming a mostly forgettable horror flick with the exception of its many unique creature designs. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Secret Obsession (2019) – Film Review

Other than providing the viewer with plenty of unintentionally comedic moments to laugh at, ‘Secret Obsession’ fails to do much of anything as a thriller, a mystery, or even a drama. Being incredibly predictable and formulaic from start-to-finish, in addition to lacking in both interesting characters and a real sense of dread throughout. ‘Secret Obsession’ remains to this day Netflix’s attempt at an ominous thriller that was quickly swept under-the-rug shortly after its release, only being known now as a poorly-thought-out thriller that would seem more at home on the Lifetime Channel.

Plot Summary: After being brutally attacked by a mysterious stranger at a rest-stop one night, newlywed: ‘Jennifer Williams’ awakens in hospital healing from her injuries. Now unable to recall her past, her husband: ‘Russell Williams’ is simply thankful she’s alive and is eager to get her home. But as he reintroduces her to their secluded mountain estate, ‘Jennifer’ begins to realise she may not be as safe as she initially believed…

Even though ‘Secret Obsession’ received nearly universally-negative reviews upon its initial release, in just twenty-eight days, over forty million viewers watched the thriller, placing it in the top ten most viewed Netflix Original films in the history of the streaming service, (despite the film’s absence of anything truly unique). This is even more surprising considering the film wasn’t the only psychological thriller released on Netflix in 2019, as another entry in the genre titled: ‘Fractured’ appeared on viewer’s accounts months later, sharing many similarities in story and set-up to ‘Secret Obsession.’

Brenda Song and Mike Vogel are both fine within the film, delivering serviceable performances with the exception of the occasional corny line which can feel quite over-acted. Neither one of these performances improve the film much overall however, as ‘Secret Obsession’ is anything but subtle in terms of both its dialogue and its characterisation. A perfect example of this is the character: ‘Detective Frank Page’ portrayed by Dennis Haysbert, as not only is this character very cliché and only in the film to serve as a plot device later down the line. But ‘Detective Frank’ also has a character-arc which receives almost no development and makes little sense, in spite of Haysbert possibly giving the best performance of the film without being anything extraordinary.

The film’s cinematography by Eitan Almagor does manage to be at least somewhat visually interesting for majority of the runtime. However, with that said, much of the film’s visual style doesn’t fit with the actual narrative, as the film’s main setting of the Colorado Mountains feels like a far too beautiful and scenic location for a dark thriller such as this. This also goes for the film’s colour palette and lighting, which are both overly-bright, resulting in the film sharing a similar visual appeal to a modern comedy rather than a suspenseful thriller/mystery.

Just as bland as it is cheesy, the original score by Jim Dooley doesn’t fare much better either, usually landing-on either side of the scale: immensely generic or overly-loud and extravagant. Almost giving the impression it’s taken from the soundtrack of a live-action ‘Scooby-Doo’ flick at points with how aggressively its orchestral score alludes to danger. But considering this composer hasn’t worked on many well-known films throughout his career, I feel Dooly is still yet to create a beloved (or even memorable) original score for a film.

But the film’s main hook is, of course, it’s signature plot twist, as even hinted at by the ‘Secret’ part of it’s title. Yet in my opinion, the story’s ‘twist’ is revealed far too early-on within the runtime as a result of the film’s extremely blunt hints and clues, which leave little to the imagination. As while you could argue the film intends for the audience to know what’s going on so early in the narrative in order to build tension, the lack of any likable or engrossing characters makes this a mostly fruitless effort, and with the film never delving much into the details of its twist, it soon leaves the viewer pondering the believability of its story. Alongside the obvious fact that a continuous and overarching mystery always helps to make a story more compelling, with iconic thrillers such as: ‘Seven’ and ‘Shutter Island’ knowing this full-well.

In summary, ‘Secret Obsession’ is a film no one is likely to obsess over, with its unfitting location/colour palette, dull characters and constant illogical moments throughout its story, the film has little to offer for fans of psychological thrillers. Whilst some may see the film as a ‘so bad it’s good’ flick, similar to other comically awful films like ‘The Room,’ ‘Battlefield Earth’ and ‘Batman and Robin.’ I personally just find the film a very forgettable and occasionally irritating experience. So, unless you’re on the hunt for a thriller that soon evolves into an unintended comedy, definitely give this dreadful Netflix Original a miss. Final Rating: high 2/10.

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Joker (2019) – Film Review

Since even the first day of its release, ‘Joker’ has seemingly split audiences straight down the middle, being hit with numerous reviews all with varied ratings. Everything from the film’s violence to its intricate themes to especially its Oscar-nominations, have all been brought-up in recent conversation, as this film’s character-driven narrative focuses on the origins of: ‘The Joker,’ arch-nemesis of the caped-crusader: ‘Batman.’ Yet ultimately, becomes far more of an affecting and compelling drama/thriller rather than your standard superhero affair.

Plot Summary: In ‘Gotham City’ during the 1980s, mentally troubled comedian: ‘Arthur Fleck,’ is disregarded and mistreated by society. Over-time, this leads him to embark on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime, eventually bringing him face-to-face with his chaotic alter-ego: ‘The Joker.’

Being directed by Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover, War Dogs), throughout ‘Joker’ you really get the sense that Phillips truly puts his all into it, pretty much leaving behind the realm of comedy flicks entirely to craft a film which puts more of an emphasis on character and filmmaking. As every aspect of the film from its performances to it’s writing, cinematography and even original score, all feel as if they’ve been thought-over profusely. ‘Joker’ also attempts to back-up its story with plenty of thought-provoking themes of mental health and the cruel nature of modern-day society, which I feel are represented very well throughout the film, giving Phillip’s version of this iconic character more depth beyond him being a mysterious and lawless antagonist.

From ‘Joker’s laugh to his broken mental state, Joaquin Phoenix gives a true powerhouse performance as the classic comic book villain. Making the character sadistic and dangerous yet also sympathetic wherever possible, as even though ‘Arthur’ commits many horrible acts as the runtime continues on. You can’t help but feel sorry for him, being beaten relentlessly by the world he lives within. In my opinion, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of this iconic character truly elevates the film as a whole, and I’d even argue is up-there with Heath Ledger’s beloved performance in ‘The Dark Knight’ many years earlier. The supporting cast of Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen are all also great within the film, with Robert De Niro’s character: ‘Murray Franklin’ being an obvious throwback to his character from the classic Scorsese film: ‘The King of Comedy’ from 1982.

All of the cinematography by Lawrence Sher throughout the film is very impressive, which is actually quite surprising considering ‘Joker’ is shot by the same cinematographer as the rest of Phillip’s work (which all contain mostly bland shots due to their focus on comedic writing). Featuring a variety of both stunning and memorable shots throughout, ‘Joker’s cinematography does serve its narrative and dark tone very well, with the now-iconic scene: ‘Staircase Dance’ since becoming one of the most recognised and celebrated moments of 2019 pop-culture. Additionally, ‘Joker’ continues to steer-away from becoming an average superhero flick through its implementation of bloody violence, never shining away from displaying scenes of visceral murder.

Despite feeling a little unfitting during some scenes, the original score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is both very beautiful and also quite tragic. As the score really enhances the viewer’s journey into ‘Arthur’s depressing and broken state of mind. However, that being said, some of the tracks can begin to feel a little too similar over-time, with the signature track: ‘Bathroom Dance’ almost beginning to feel replicated later within the film, despite the soundtrack’s many attempts to do otherwise.

The main criticism ‘Joker’ has faced since its release has been its overreliance on borrowing elements from other films, most notably classic Martin Scorsese films such as: ‘Taxi Driver’ and the previously mentioned: ‘The King of Comedy.’ As ‘Joker’ utilises a style very reminiscent of: ‘Taxi Driver’ whilst also featuring a protagonist not too dissimilar to the protagonist from: ‘The King of Comedy,’ and while I definitely understand these complaints, I also feel many films throughout history have always borrowed elements from others, and in addition to having Martin Scorsese himself on-board as an executive producer, ‘Joker’ does include some aspects of its own making to help it stand-out.

In conclusion, ‘Joker’ isn’t perfect, but I do feel the film is successful enough, as while its occasional cheesy dialogue and derivative aspects may drag the film down, its stunning cinematography and haunting original score really lend themselves effectively to the already gripping story. Not to mention Joaquin Phoenix’s captivating performance, all of which leave ‘Joker’ an impactful and refreshing origin story for this cherished comic book character. So, if you’re a huge fan of this iconic antagonist or just have a fondness for character studies/intense dramas, I’d recommend you give ‘Joker’ a watch in spite of its mixed perception. Final Rating: 8/10.

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