Last Christmas (2019) – Film Review

While on paper, 2019’s ‘Last Christmas’ might have seemed like a recipe for success, with two charismatic leads in Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding alongside a soundtrack consisting of innumerable George Michael songs, all wrapped-up in a festive London setting under the watchful eye of proficient comedy director Paul Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids, A Simply Favor). In execution, ‘Last Christmas’ is never as humorous or affectionate as it thinks it is, with many scenes coming across as incredibly dull and derivative as the film lacks originality to such an extent that audiences will frequently be reminded of romantic-comedy classics like ‘Love Actually’ and ‘The Holiday’ as they sit through its poorly conceived story and underbaked subplots.

Plot Summary: While working at a year-round Christmas store and sofa-surfing instead of facing her overbearing mother, aspiring singer and frustrated Londoner: ‘Kate,’ meets ‘Tom,’ an alluring young man who charms her with his unusual observations, challenging ‘Kate’s cynical view of the world as a result of her dysfunctional relationships and continuously unsuccessful auditions…

Written by actress Emma Thompson, who also appears in the film as ‘Kate’s mother: ‘Petra.’ ‘Last Christmas’ evidently takes a lot of inspiration from well-known Christmas rom-coms such as the previously mentioned: ‘Love Actually.’ Only, in this case, it becomes difficult to tell the two apart after a while as ‘Last Christmas’ has very few distinctions in terms of both story and visuals, only being set apart by its pivotal plot twist, which some may find absurdly over-the-top and frustrating. Sadly, for a romantic-comedy, ‘Last Christmas’ also falls short when it comes to humour, with many of the film’s gags seeming either immature or foreseeable, as the film rapidly cuts between the characters trying to make it appear as if their quips are transpiring non-stop.

The characters themselves, however, are one of the better aspects of the film, with ‘Kate’s journey from being a self-hating, narcissistic borderline alcoholic, to a content woman savouring every second of her life is enjoyable to watch even in spite of its predictability. And Clarke portrays the character well, leaning more into her actual personality off-camera as a witty, self-effacing and expressive individual. Henry Golding also breaks away from his usual roles for his performance as ‘Tom,’ behaving like a handsome goofball as he and ‘Kate’ wander through the streets of London, never caring what those around him may think. With that said, the main issue with the characters is their absence of backstory, as whilst we are told many things about ‘Kate’ and her sombre past, including when she was severely unwell the previous Christmas, eventually leading her to have a heart transplant. We never see a flashback of this event or anything similar beyond a brief mention, which is a problem that also applies to ‘Kate’s desire to become a West End star as well as the many friends of hers she supposedly screwed over in the past while temporarily staying with them.

In terms of visuals, the cinematography by John Schwartzman conveys the narrative effectively enough, yet barely experiments outside of standard mid-shots or the occasional wide-shot/close-up. A tremendous missed opportunity considering the many brightly light and architecturally captivating streets the characters walk down, which are regularly littered with enchanting Christmas decorations and lights, even if they are primarily white or gold rather than multicoloured.

In addition to the music of George Michael and Wham!, which is, of course, weaved into the film in nearly every scene. The original score by Theodore Shapiro fills in the gaps in-between, with tracks like ‘Secret Garden,’ ‘Self-Pity Party’ and ‘Take Care’ serving as relaxing breaks from the film’s relentless use of beloved Christmas songs. Yet this score is worthy of praise in itself, having many tracks that are beautiful and melancholic pieces that encapsulate the festive setting without overdoing it through the use of jingling bells etc.

Peculiarly, ‘Last Christmas’ also features a subplot revolving around post-Brexit xenophobia, as ‘Kate’ and her family first came into the United Kingdom as refugees from former Yugoslavia. Now, her mother cowers in her home, watching news reports of right-wing demonstrations. A bizarre choice for a Christmas film to be sure, but even more bizarre considering this idea never goes anywhere and isn’t brought-up until the second act. Still, at least one good thing comes out of these moments, as we find out ‘Kate’s full name is ‘Katarina,’ yet she refuses to be called by it, spending much of the film reasserting her own Britishness. A compelling idea that once again, goes nowhere, and only feels as if it was put into the screenplay for the sake of relevance as opposed to emotional weight or social commentary.

In conclusion, even though the combination of iconic Christmas music, a cosy, festive aesthetic and picturesque London scenery should outweigh what flaws ‘Last Christmas’ has, they don’t quite achieve their goal by the runtime’s end. As the film’s constant use of clichés, exposition-heavy dialogue and feeble gags soon become far too overbearing, leaving ‘Last Christmas’ a digestible film at best and an irritating one at worst, even with its climactic plot twist being very much in line with the story’s wistful yuletide spirit. Final Rating: high 4/10.

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Brightburn (2019) – Film Review

An inversion of the iconic ‘Superman’ origin story, ‘Brightburn,’ released in 2019, is a film with an aggressively simple pitch, essentially boiling down to “What if the Man of Steel was Humanity’s Oppressor Rather Than its Saviour?” And even though the film doesn’t fully follow through on that enthralling premise, primarily as a result of its sketchy screenplay and often botched sense of dread, ‘Brightburn’ crossbreeds horror tropes with superhero staples in an effective enough fashion to at least offer something unique for enthusiasts of both genres.

Plot Summary: After a difficult struggle with fertility, ‘Tori Breyer’s dreams of motherhood become a reality when a child from another world crash-lands on her farm. But, years later, as ‘Brandon’ nears puberty, a darkness begins to manifest within him, leading ‘Tori’ and her husband: ‘Kyle’ to become overwhelmed with terrible doubts concerning their son, doubts that soon put them in grave danger…

Directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive, Nightbooks) and written by James Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively, ‘Brightburn’ certainly succeeds in its main goal, setting-up an almost identical scenario to ‘Superman’s origin before then taking the narrative in a far darker direction. And the film clearly has no pretences with what it’s drawing from, as ‘Brightburn’ actually shares many similarities to the ‘Superman’ comics beyond just its story. From ‘Brandon Breyer’s name following the comic book convention of superheroes with alliterative first and last names, such as: ‘Clark Kent,’ ‘Peter Parker’ and ‘Bruce Banner,’ to the story taking place in Kansas, the same state where ‘Kal-El’ touched down and later grew-up to become ‘Superman.’ The film’s connections to the ‘Man of Steel’ are ever-present, even extending to the costume design in certain scenes as ‘Brandon’ wears combinations of blue, red and yellow, the principal colours of: ‘Superman’s classic outfit. Still, all of this association doesn’t fix what is ‘Brightburn’s most predominant problem; its runtime. As the plot is squeezed into a very brief ninety-one-minutes, meaning the film wastes no time in jumping straight into ‘Brandon’ discovering his abilities and embracing his detrimental side, thus, the story allows for little emotional investment, with much of the first act being nothing but scene-after-scene of what seem like trailer-made moments.

When it comes to the cast, Elizabeth Banks and David Denman share most of the film’s character-related scenes as the pair portray concerned parents starting to suspect that their blessing from the stars might, in actuality, be a curse. However, whilst this is an acceptable start for writing your central characters, ‘Tori’ and ‘Kyle’ have little nuance and barely any development outside of the love (and eventual doubt) they share for their son. Then there is ‘Brandon Breyer’ himself portrayed by young actor Jackson A. Dunn, who does a great job not only considering his age, but also a similar lack of characterisation. As once ‘Brandon’s twelfth birthday arrives, his psychopathic behaviour suddenly arises, morphing him from an innocent child to a homicidal supervillain so swiftly it appears forced, even if Dunn’s performance does help to make the transition feel slightly more believable through his complete absence of emotion during the latter half of the film.

Aside from some nice visual nods to further associate itself with ‘Superman,’ including a sweeping rural landscape and a farmhouse interchangeable with that of: ‘Clark Kent’s. The cinematography by Michael Dallatorre is fairly unremarkable, often just displaying shots without much thought or creativity put into them. With that said, many of the film’s CG effects are solid, especially when taking into account the film’s budget, which was considerably smaller than most superhero blockbusters.

Moreover, despite being described as a merging of superhero and horror soundtracks, make no mistake that the bulk of the original score for: ‘Brightburn,’ composed by Tim Williams, is firmly entrenched in the horror genre, with tracks usually starting-out slow and composed before warping into something far more nightmarish, likely symbolising ‘Brandon’s gradual corruption from the evil that dwells within him. This idea is further illustrated by the unnerving sound design, as the more ‘Brandon’ falls into the abyss of immorality, the more distorted voices he begins to hear, each speaking a foreign alien language.

Unfortunately, out of the two genres ‘Brightburn’ is attempting to represent, the film undoubtedly appears underbaked on the horror side of things, as ‘Brightburn’ lazily relies on clichéd scares like flickering lights and twitching curtains. Meaning it’s a rarity that the film actually tries to build tension or have any frightening occurrences outside of loud jump-scares or the admittedly gruesome ways ‘Brandon’ disposes of his victims.

In conclusion, between the red cape and blazing heat-vision, ‘Brightburn’ is a film that knows exactly what it is; an immoral retelling of an established superhero’s beginnings complete with plenty of violence and an abundance of horror trickery. Yet all of the film’s spectacle ultimately feels meaningless when compared to its deficiency of strong characterisation and emotional depth. And, as such, a majority of the film’s most entertaining moments come at the expense of understanding any of the characters on a deeper level, consequently leaving ‘Brightburn’ a film that never manages to strive past the subversive elevator pitch it was conceived as. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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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 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 appealingly 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 make-up 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 the forgotten 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 overindulges 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…

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,’ in which they 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 locations the cats enter are supposed to appear as if they are far larger than the characters in order to display each cast member as cat-sized, the drawback here being that there is usually no consistency with these scaled-up sets 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 spin-off television 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 and prosthetic make-up 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 effects team 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 nearly 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…

Partly 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, as it’s clear to me that the humour is crucial in what the story is trying to accomplish.

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 darlingly 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 audiences, 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 mentioned previously, 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 underutilised 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 audiences, 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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