Slender Man (2018) – Film Review

Releasing years after the internet icon had long since passed his popularity, the first mainstream film for the supernatural entity: ‘Slender Man,’ was released to little praise from critics and audiences alike in 2018, not only due to the film’s abysmal quality, but also as a result of the negative publicity surrounding the ‘Creepypasta’ creation following the attempted murder of a twelve-year-old Wisconsin girl in 2014, which was supposedly catalysed by the urban legend. The negative reception to the character got so severe that production companies Sony and Screen Gems were reportedly nervous about releasing the film, sequentially leading the companies to release the occult horror with hardly any promotion and no critic screenings. And yet, despite having all that backstory, the actual film is nothing but forgettable, as ‘Slender Man’ sands away virtually all of the mystery and subtlety that made the character so intriguing, to begin with.

Plot Summary: In a small town in Massachusetts, a group of teenage friends, fascinated by the internet lore of the ‘Slender Man,’ attempt to disprove his existence by summoning him with an online ritual. But, one week later, after a member of their group mysteriously disappears, the teens begin to realise that the urban legend of the ‘Slender Man’ is all too real…

Directed by Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard, The Losers, The Mark of the Angels – Miserere), ‘Slender Man’ himself first appeared on the ‘Something Awful’ forums in 2009, emerging in a series of photographs edited to depict a tall, humanoid entity unnoticed by others but almost always surrounded by, or near, children. Since then, many have speculated regarding the origins of the internet icon, the earliest reference to a similar creature being in ‘Der Großmann,’ a German folk tale written in 1702. But, of course, none of this captivating history was used for the film. Instead, ‘Slender Man’ simply just ignores all of the character’s rich history from the ‘Marble Hornets’ web series, the fan-made video-games, and the bottomless trove of fan-fiction, in favour of telling a formulaic and derivative story surrounding a group of teens watching an ‘ominous’ video online before then vanishing one-by-one.

Naturally, this issue could’ve been concealed with a strong cast, but while Julia Goldani Telles, Joey King, Jaz Sinclair, and Annalise Basso try to make their presence felt, especially King as ‘Wren,’ a soulful waif in a punk choker, and Sinclair as ‘Chloe,’ who beams with life until she watches in unflinching horror as ‘Slender Man’ records himself entering her house. The teens are so poorly defined that they’re practically interchangeable, so when ‘Slender Man’ starts abducting them, you may not even realise that any of them are gone. And even though the teens do try to protect each other, it’s obviously to no avail, and means nothing to the audience as they are entirely disposable protagonists.

The film’s cinematography by Luca Del Puppo, fortunately, fairs a little better, as the camerawork allows for a reasonable amount of attractive shots, particularly in the first act. Nevertheless, this is soon spoilt by the film’s atrocious colour palette, as there isn’t a single shot throughout the film not drenched in drab blues and greys. By that same token, even though I strongly subscribe to the idea that darkness perfectly lends itself to the horror genre, shots in ‘Slender Man’ are often layered with so many coats of black that it becomes almost impossible to tell what’s occurring in some scenes, which is only made worse by the film’s dreadful CG effects, repeatedly uninteresting set-pieces, and collection of deafening jump-scares.

Surprisingly composed by Brandon Campbell and Ramin Djawadi, the original score for: ‘Slender Man’ does manage to be far eerier than the visuals through its heavy use of string instruments, creating as daunting of an atmosphere as it can through tracks like ‘Him’ and ‘Library.’ The sound design also effectively adds to the film’s soundscape with thundering cicada buzzing and woodland ambience, both of which are efficacious even if repetitive.

Considering that ‘Slender Man’ is infamous for tragically invoking an attempted murder, in addition to being blamed for many suicides. It’s almost inconceivable that a high-risk film such as this could also be so inaccurate when it comes to the character it’s based upon, as the mythology for this incarnation of the character almost seems to be fabricated on the fly, as ‘Slender Man’ is given multiple abilities he was never known to have had previously, such as mind control, world manipulation, and more.

In summary, the inherent creepiness of: ‘Slender Man’ never comes across in this cinematic interpretation, which despite having a runtime of only ninety-one minutes, feels as if it lingers on for over three hours. With that said, it’s not as if more resources would’ve improved the film, as the main fault of: ‘Slender Man’ lies within its portrayal of the titular character, as the story ultimately loses sight of what made the internet icon so unnerving in the first place; the trepidation in what you don’t see him do. And, as a result, the film gives you plenty of reasons to put your hands over your eyes, but almost no incentive to peek through your fingers. Final Rating: high 2/10.

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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’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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The Final Girls (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adult Life Skills (2016) – Film Review

Based on the BAFTA-nominated short: ‘Emotional Fusebox,’ which premiered at the London Film Festival in 2014. ‘Adult Life Skills’ is the directorial debut of writer and director Rachel Tunnard, who was primarily an editor before writing and directing the original short film. And whilst Tunnard’s lack of experience in these duel roles is evident, now and then, as this low-budget coming-of-age comedy-drama hardly breaks new ground when it comes to its respective genres. The endearingly quirky story, distinctly British charm, and august performance from Jodie Whittaker all make ‘Adult Life Skills’ well worth a watch.

Plot Summary: Deeply grieving from the death of her twin brother, twenty-nine-year-old: ‘Anna’ spends her days living in her mother’s shed, retreating into herself as she makes videos using homemade props and her thumbs as actors. But on the eve of her 30th birthday, ‘Anna’ meets a troubled little boy going through the same life-altering experience she did, a boy who may be the answer to getting her out of her slump…

Formerly known as ‘How to Live Yours.’ ‘Adult Life Skills’ had its first appearance at a film festival just as its predecessor did, only this time around, it was the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, where Rachel Tunnard quickly won one of the top awards: the Nora Ephron prize for best female director. Yet, in my opinion, much of the allure of: ‘Adult Life Skills’ comes from its screenplay rather than Tunnard’s direction, as the dialogue is continuously both witty and dramatic, balancing moments of laughs and tears without ever feeling disjointed or unnatural, amplifying the film’s feeling of solace and upbeat tone thanks to its homespun, playful aesthetic.

Jodie Whittaker, who reprises her role from ‘Emotional Fusebox,’ portrays ‘Anna’ magnificently, rapidly jumping from one emotion to another as ‘Anna’s method of grieving often manifests in her hiding away from her own life, locking herself inside her mother’s shed as she cherishes her brother’s old clothes and watches videos the pair made together during their younger days. Essentially, ‘Anna’ is a character whose growth has been stunted by grief, and the story explores this concept of a person growing into adulthood with a piece of their identity personified in a lost sibling brilliantly, an idea that is only enhanced by Whittaker’s sublime performance. Needless to say, it takes her mother’s grumbling, her grandmother’s wisdom, and her best friend’s guidance to help bring her back into the real world, restoring her life to what it once was, and the supporting cast of Lorraine Ashbourne, Eileen Davies, and Rachael Deering all do a great job of bringing these characters to life, despite some of the side characters being woefully underdeveloped.

One advantage ‘Adult Life Skills’ has over many other British stories is its setting, as the film truly feels as if it couldn’t be set anyway else. Breaking away from the typical locations where stories within the United Kingdom tend to be set such as London or less-commonly Manchester and Glasgow, in exchange for the remote Yorkshire countryside, a unique location that even helps to redeem the film’s over-reliance on hand-held techniques when it comes to the cinematography by Bet Rourich. As Yorkshire has more than its fair share of natural beauty, even when the weather is gloomy.

Although there is no original score for the film, most likely due to budgetary restrictions. ‘Adult Life Skills’ does feature a number of songs both well-known and obscure. From ‘Jesus Came to My Birthday Party’ to ‘You Lost Sight on Me,’ ‘Champions of the River Nile,’ and ‘Here I Go Again,’ every song that can be heard throughout the runtime fits the tone remarkably well, never once feeling inappropriate or unsuitable to the specific scene they are featured within.

In addition to being a comedy-drama, ‘Adult Life Skills’ makes a few (unsuccessful) attempts towards being a romantic-comedy, as one of: ‘Anna’s close friends, the soft-spoken, estate agent: ‘Brendan’ portrayed by Brett Goldstein, persistently speaks to ‘Anna,’ trying to impress her with his comforting charm and handmade gifts. His efforts are ultimately pointless, however, as ‘Anna’s jading reactions to his kind gestures are on account of: ‘Anna’ believing ‘Brendan’ is gay. And whilst this misunderstanding does result in a winsome relationship, this subplot suffers due to not being given enough attention, as the story instead places far more emphasis on ‘Anna’s relationship with her mother and the young boy: ‘Clint,’ who is surprisingly well portrayed by the then eight-year-old actor Ozzy Myers.

In short, ‘Adult Life Skills’ is a film that wears its oddball eccentricities on its sleeve. Tackling weighty themes of grief, loneliness, and dealing with one’s emotions, while simultaneously never losing its optimistic outlook. In many ways, ‘Adult Life Skills’ is an undemanding film for those in need of something comforting, an easily watchable comedy-drama that is sure to put a smile on most viewers’ faces, even in spite of its overly familiar ideas. Still, there’s no denying that Jodie Whittaker is the best thing about ‘Adult Life Skills,’ as whenever the screenplay is lacking, Whittaker appears on-screen with confidence, fleshing-out ‘Anna’ as a sympathetic character and ensuring the audience remains emotionally invested in what is occurring narratively. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Captain Phillips (2013) – Film Review

The story of Captain Richard Phillips, the Massachusetts seafarer who was kidnapped by four Somali pirates during a routine cargo ship excursion, took the world by storm in 2009, as the then fifty-four-year-old captain was taken hostage, threatened, and beaten for over five days before being rescued by Navy SEALS. So, it was inevitable that a film adaptation would soon be in the works once Phillips returned home, and who better to direct the film than Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, News of the World), a director well-known for turning real-life catastrophes into gripping yet still reverent thrillers.

Plot Summary: Assigned the dangerous task of navigating the unarmed cargo ship: Maersk Alabama, from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. Captain Richard Phillips and his crew soon see their worst fears become reality when an opportunistic gang of armed Somali pirates seize the American vessel, threatening the crew and demanding a ransom of millions…

Based on the book: ‘A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,’ which was written by Richard Phillips shortly after he returned home. Greengrass’ fast-paced and true-to-life treatment of the story fully realises the tense scenario that Richard and his crew once found themselves within, with constant shouting, overlapping dialogue, and threats of violence, no one aboard the Maersk Alabama ever truly feels safe, not too dissimilar to the director’s other delves into real-world tragedies with ‘Bloody Sunday’ and ‘United 93.’ Yet interestingly, Greengrass wasn’t actually the first choice to direct, as Ron Howard was originally supposed to direct the film before he eventually left the project to peruse another 2013 biopic: ‘Rush,’ leaving Greengrass to head ‘Captain Phillips.’

Leading the cast through his resilient performance as Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks does a phenomenal job throughout the film, quickly ensuring the audience emphasises with Richard’s struggle as he internally confronts the idea of never seeing his family again. Upcoming actor Barkhad Abdi is equally remarkable in his role as Abduwali Muse, the captain of the Somali pirates, as despite the actor’s small physique, Abdi is immensely menacing, asserting dominance over the crew in nearly every scene he is in. Even the iconic line: “Look at Me! I’m the Captain Now,” was an ad-lib by Barkhad Abdi. Abdi’s performance is also helped by Paul Greengrass’ strong direction, as Greengrass represents the Somali pirates more as common criminals rather than terrorists, presenting each of them with an element of desperation behind their actions as if they taking part in illegal and violent schemes in the hope of having a better life in Somalia.

Shot in an almost documentary-like fashion, the film’s cinematography by Barry Ackroyd is both chaotic and fluid, constantly switching focus from one actor to another without hesitation, truly emphasising the panic and tension we see unfolding on-screen. However, whilst this approach is extremely effective when it comes to sequences of the pirates/crew negotiating or being held at gunpoint, the relentless persistence of the hand-held shots does start to become tiresome the further the runtime continues, and especially during the story’s quieter moments, such as the film’s opening scene where Richard and his wife Andrea drive to the airport. Nevertheless, this style of camerawork is in-character with much of Greengrass’ other work, as there’s no denying the director has a fixation with shaky, intimate close-ups.

Furthermore, the original score by Henry Jackman greatly adds to the film in more ways than one, as tracks like ‘Second Attack,’ ‘End This Peacefully,’ and ‘Two in the Water’ are both foreboding and fast-paced, utilising an endless stream of percussion, sampled strings, occasional ethnic wind solos, and synthetic horn pads that fade in and out, while the film’s final track: ‘Safe Now’ sounds considerably hopeful in comparison. Yet this positive outcome is quite surprising, as, during the film’s production, the soundtrack was a fairly problematic area, with legendary composer Hanz Zimmer initially being attached before backing down from the project after Greengrass continuously bombarded him with demands for rewrites of the score.

Another impressive aspect of: ‘Captain Phillips’ is its set-design and set-dressing, as although a large portion of the film was shot aboard a real cargo ship, all of the interior lifeboat scenes were filmed inside a replica that was on water at all times, which according to Tom Hanks, resulted in him being vomited on by numerous crew members while inside the cramped space. But as disgusting as that may be, it may have been worthwhile, as this enclosed set is where a majority of the film’s third and final act takes place, as the hostage drama transfers to the claustrophobic confines of a hijacked lifeboat floundering toward the Somali coastline, where the story somehow becomes even more nail-biting.

In conclusion, ‘Captain Phillips’ serves as not only a well-executed, edge-of-your-seat thriller, but also a terrifying reminder of the real-world horrors that lie just outside our front door. With a pair of astounding performances, a well-crafted original score, and a plethora of tense moments, ‘Captain Phillips’ prolonged final act and occasionally ill-suited camerawork hardly diminish what is one of the strongest entries into Greengrass’ filmography in addition to an excellent biopic for Captain Richard Phillips and his courageous crew. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Please Stand By (2017) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harbinger Down (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Into the Storm (2014) – Film Review

Clumsily written and populated with forgettable characters, ‘Into the Storm,’ released in 2014, has little to offer beyond its admittedly prodigious CG effects. Taking heavy inspiration from the exemplary tornado blockbuster: ‘Twister’ from 1996, ‘Into the Storm’ plays it fast and loose with its story, jumping from scene-to-scene without much thought as to how well everything connects or even functions, this is especially clear when looking at the film’s visuals, which rarely stick to the found-footage style its camerawork is trying to emulate.

Plot Summary: In the span of a single day, the small town of Silverton, Oklahoma is ravaged by an unprecedented onslaught of tornadoes, forcing residents to abandon their daily duties and seek shelter as fast as they possibly can. But as the entire town is at the mercy of the destructive cyclones, one group of storm-chasers ride directly into the storm, risking their lives to study the phenomenon and procure that perfect shot…

Directed by Steven Quale (Starfire, Final Destination 5, American Renegades), ‘Into the Storm’ not only takes (perhaps a little too much) inspiration from ‘Twister’ for its plot, but also many real-world events. Specifically, a catastrophe that occurred in Dallas County in 1986, where there were several reported occurrences of multiple tornadoes striking the same county over a roughly one hour time-period. And whilst the image of a tornado of fire may sound like a creation ripped straight out of a campy 80s action flick, the cyclone of flames is, in reality, just one of the many seemingly absurd moments in the film that were actually based on real-life events, at least, according to screenwriter John Swetnam.

While disaster films have always valued spectacle over character, ‘Into the Storm’ is on another level, as the entire cast of Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Arlen Escarpeta, and Alycia Jasmin Debnam-Carey are all immensely dull to watch, not necessarily because of their performances, but because of the screenplay. As aside from the single-minded storm-chaser: ‘Pete’ portrayed by Matt Walsh, who has at least something resembling a personality, most of the characters feel as if they are made out of wood, exclaiming cringy jokes and unnatural lines of dialogue that come across as nothing but forced. It seems many of the actors even tried to make their characters more interesting where they could, as supposedly there was a fair amount of improvisation on set.

Despite ‘Into the Storm’ apparently also being a found-footage flick, it’s rare that the cinematography by Brian Pearson actually appears like one, from vast wide-shots to intimate close-ups, many shots are completely devoid of harsh movements and always retain flawless quality regardless of which character is filming or what device they are filming on. Moreover, with much of the film’s narrative relying on the idea of the film itself being a documentary, various interviews are featured near the beginning and end of the runtime, yet this potentially stimulating concept is soon spoilt as a result of the film’s structure, which is fairly disorganised. The only aspect of this found-footage approach that comes across effectivity is in the final scene, as the film utilises archive footage from news stations that covered a real EF5 tornado that hit Oklahoma in 2013.

Although the original score by Brian Tyler is expectedly quite bland, there are still a few tracks such as: ‘Into the Storm,’ ‘Fate,’ and ‘We Stay Together’ that back-up many of the film’s exciting moments successfully. But the issue here isn’t within the score itself, it’s the fact that there is a score to begin with, as every second ‘Into the Storm’ attempts to be an intense and realistic disaster epic, its simultaneously sabotaging itself by bombarding the audience with a loud, non-diegetic soundtrack, often distracting from the destructive chaos on-screen with its whirling violins and blaring brass horns.

When it comes to realism, some film buffs have questioned whether certain events within the story could occur in real-life, such as whether a tornado could actually lift an aircraft off the ground as depicted in one scene. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the CG effects during these scenes are certainly the finest element of: ‘Into the Storm,’ as along with its voluminous set-design, which perfectly displays the incredible force of nature that a tornado is with cars, trees, and billboards thrown in every direction, are magnificent in their sheer scale alone. Even if the film would’ve benefited from the use of a few more practical effects to even out its enormous use of CGI, harkening back in a way to the classic disaster films of the 70s like ‘Airport’ and ‘Earthquake.’

All in all, ‘Into the Storm’ is essentially just a visual effects showreel lasting over ninety minutes, as although the film boats some exhilarating yet feasible moments of peril as director Steven Quale crafts plenty of riveting set-pieces ranging from crashing trucks to golf ball-sized hailstorms. Due to the film’s lack of compelling characters, inconsistent filmmaking, and truly awful lines of dialogue, such thrills soon become monotonous, and by the end of its runtime, ‘Into the Storm’ winds-up as either an unimaginative disaster flick, or a near-remake of: ‘Twister’ depending on your perspective. Final Rating: 3/10.

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Winter’s Bone (2010) – Film Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is a bleak, haunting, and yet still somehow hopeful story set in rural America, acting as both a captivating drama and a suspenseful crime-thriller. The film is an intense and uncompromising look at the Missouri underclass through the eyes of a diligent teenager, blending its star-making performance from Jennifer Lawrence with skilfully shot sequences and incredible set-dressing to create a stunning and authentic portrait of Missouri life, all under the capable hand of writer and director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, Leave No Trace).

Plot Summary: With an absent father and a mute, mentally ill mother, seventeen-year-old: ‘Ree Dolly’ acts as the primary guardian for her household, caring for her younger siblings with minimal funds. But when the local Sheriff appears at her door, informing her that their house has been put-up as collateral bail by her missing father, ‘Ree’ is forced to use what little knowledge she has of her father’s nefarious activities to find him before its too late, soon discovering that many locals don’t appreciate her poking her nose into their business…

Despite her many previous successes, Debra Granik still had a great deal of difficulty finding funding for: ‘Winter’s Bone,’ as after the screenplay had been written, Granik and her co-writer Anne Rosellini budgeted the film at around £3 million, but every potential group of financiers they approached all said the same thing: “Cast the Film, and Then We’ll Talk.” Thus, casting directors Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden began approaching various actresses and eventually settled on the then-unknown eighteen-year-old actress, Jennifer Lawrence. As although she had never carried a film before, only having taken small roles in the past, both Schnee and Barden felt Lawrence had the perfect tomboyish demeanour for the character, in addition to having strong roots in Kentucky.

Winning an Oscar for her performance in 2011, ‘Winter’s Bone’ greatly benefits from ‘Ree Dolly’ as a character and Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of her. This is mostly due to ‘Ree’ being such a rare female protagonist for a film such as this, as with her errant father’s only bankable skill being his ability to cook methamphetamine, ‘Ree’ is left to care for her family, teaching her younger siblings survival skills to prepare them for when they are older (for which Jennifer Lawrence had to learn how to correctly skin squirrels and chop wood), and after she is informed of the limited time she and her family still have within their house, ‘Ree’ becomes relentlessly determined to save her home, occasionally even risking her life all in pursuit of caring for her loved ones and ensuring her siblings have a future.

Michael McDonough’s stark cinematography captures the essence of what life in the brutal and sparsely populated Ozark, Missouri (a.k.a. the Ozark Mountains) is like, as the camerawork allows for many delectable shots, from the camera peering around corners to lurking over character’s shoulders, the cinematography constantly lends itself to the film’s frostbitten colour palette and beautiful bitterness of the story’s setting, which is all enhanced by the entire film being shot on-location.

Furthermore, the original score by Dickon Hinchliffe utilises instruments common to the Ozark region, making use of violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos, in a way that is unique to the film. For example, the way banjos are used throughout the soundtrack, particularly in the tracks: ‘I’ll Find Him,’ ‘Hardscrabble Elegy,’ ‘Down the Road,’ and ‘The Trees,’ deviates from the instrument’s stereotypical image of being associated with hillbillies and rednecks. One of the film’s final tracks: ‘The Lake’ is also worth a quick mention, purely for how unnerving and incredibly atmospheric it is.

For authenticity purposes, most of the supporting cast of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ weren’t actual actors/actresses, but locals from the surrounding area. ‘Ree’s sister for instance, was one of these actresses, and the exterior of her home we see in the film is actually her house in real life. Sticking to this idea of authenticity, nearly all of clothes that the characters wear are clothes provided by the locals, as the production crew gave locals brand new clothes in exchange for their old, frayed items. If I had to guess, I’d also assume many of the houses we set foot within belonged to these same locals, as every room we enter appears genuine, with no area ever seeming as if it was set-dressed regardless of how many items are in one space at a time.

To conclude, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is spectacular in its efforts as a drama and a crime-thriller alike, as it’s intelligent, well-written, and entirely non-patronising story is as tense and as entertaining as these respective genres come. And whilst many Oscar-winning films can often be disappointing beyond whatever aspect is their main talking point, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is also beautifully shot and well-paced, with Jennifer Lawrence’s career-defining performance simply being the icing on top of the cake. So, even if the first act of: ‘Winter’s Bone’ is slightly slow and repetitive, after that initial hump, the film thrives as a rewarding and richly detailed exploration of the strength required when being confronted with unpleasant truths. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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