Movie Review – The Girl in the Spider’s Web

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EXPECTATIONS: A change in execution of the crime procedural storytelling of the prior films.

REVIEW: Lisbeth Salander is back! In another reiteration! Over the years, we have had four films revolving around characters created by acclaimed Swedish author Stieg Larsson, and they have all been hits in their home territory as well as received rave reviews from many critics.

Many people have complimented the Scandinavian cinematic thriller tropes (i.e. winter settings, moments of contemplation, downbeat tone, social commentary), the stellar performances from its two leads (Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander; Michael Nyqvist and Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist) and the gripping crime procedural storytelling.

After the long development stage that involved discontinuing the stages that director David Fincher had started, Sony Pictures have created a soft reboot of the story by adapting The Girl in the Spider’s Web, written by David Lagercrantz. With director Fede Alvarez (who specializes in horror films) and talented actors Claire Foy and Sverrir Gudnason as both Salander and Blomkvist respectively, will the new Millennium film live up to the prior entries as well as stand on its own eight legs?

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Set after the events of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is recruited by fired NSA computer scientist Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) to steal FireWall, a computer program that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide.

The download soon draws attention from Alona Casales (Lakeith Stanfield), an NSA agent who traces the activity to Stockholm. Further problems arise when Russian thugs (led by Claes Bang) take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work.
Now, Lisbeth must reunite with Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrin Gudnason), who is stuck between writing jobs since Salander’s absence, to race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert worldwide disaster.

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It feels quite necessary to point out the elephant in the room and get it out of the way before this review can continue. Much like the book it is based on, the film version of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is very little like the prior films over the past decade, which is bound to upset those who are familiar with the stories.

In interviews, director Fede Alvarez had said that his film takes on more of a James Bond approach, as opposed to an Agatha Christie approach. And it is on those terms that The Girl in the Spider’s Web succeeds as a thriller, as opposed as a crime procedural like the earlier films.

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Alvarez compensates the lack of characterizations and psychological depth with thrills, tension and overall fun. He stages the action scenes with flair and swift pacing. He often litters the action scenes with oddly amusing details that make them more memorable than they are on paper, such as corpses in cars or debilitating drugs and others are littered throughout.

But what is most important is that Alvarez rarely turns Lisbeth Salander into a prototypical action hero. Since the story takes place after the prior films, the character has since become kind of a legendary figure and her rage towards patriarchy, a misogynistic society and injustice is under control.

Claire Foy clearly revels in roles with plenty of facets of rage and frustration and she does a fantastic job here. She may not have the understated menace of Noomi Rapace‘s portrayal, nor does she have the laser-focused determination of Rooney Mara‘s portrayal, but she succeeds with her own interpretation by portraying Lisbeth as a woman who survives through sheer resilience as well as a woman who is in complete control of her own emotional baggage. She gets into the physicality of the part just right as well as out-acting her co-stars with her wonderfully expressive eyes.

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The supporting cast do what they can with their variable amounts of screen-time and thankfully, the majority do make the most out of it. Sylvia Hoeks shows the same magnetic presence here as she did in Blade Runner 2049, and she is still quite effective as the antagonist, Camilla Salander. Lakeith Stanfield adds a little idiosyncratic flair to the underwritten part of NSA agent Alona Casales while established talents like Stephen Merchant, Vicky Kripes, Claes Bang, Andrea Pejic, Synnøve Macody Lund and Mikael Persbrandt all lend credibility to their parts. The lone weak link is Sverrir Gudnason, who makes very little impression as Mikael Blomkvist, although it isn’t entirely his fault since the character is given little to do except dispense plot exposition.

There are some moments of ridiculousness like how Lisbeth’s hacking skills are almost honed to a superhuman level, how characters manage to move at incredible speeds and you do end up wishing for more character depth, as we only ever really care about the turmoils of the characters at face value. And these flaws really stick out when you compare them to Foy’s presence.

Overall, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an entertaining action thriller. It may not be what the Millennium faithfuls would expect, nor is it an entry that would fit in Scandinavian Noir, but the film does well for itself; succeeding due to stylistic flair, thrills and a committed performance by Claire Foy.

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This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Christopher Convery, Vicki Krieps, Cameron Britton, Synnøve Macody Lund, Beau Gadsdon, Carlotta von Falkenhayn, Hendrik Heutmann, Sonja Chan
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenwriters: Jay Basu, Fede Alvarez, Steven Knight, based on the novel by David Lagercrantz, with characters introduced by Stieg Larsson

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Movie Review – Suspiria (2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A polarizing piece of work that will fascinate as well as confound.

REVIEW: There are over 100 remakes being planned that are being planned at the moment but few of them have stirred up filmgoers as much as the long-planned remake of Dario Argento‘s 1977 classic horror film, Suspiria. With its brilliantly kaleidoscopic cinematography, the out-of-this-world musical score, the outrageously portrayed violence and the rough English dubbing had given Suspiria the edge to become one of the best slasher/occult films of all time. How is it that a remake is going to capture lightning in a bottle such as this?

After years of many false starts, with talents like director David Gordon Green, actresses Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert, Janet McTeer and Isabelle Fuhrman, we finally have a remake from the team that made the wonderfully sensual comedy/drama A Bigger Splash, consisting of director Luca Guadagnino, writer David Kajganich, editor Walter Fasano and actresses Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton.

Not only that, we also have established contributors like cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and acclaimed musician Thom Yorke. With such a vast array of talents, the remake is not going to go down without a fight. Does the film succeed on its own terms and become a worthy remake?

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Set in 1977 during post-war Berlin, young American Mennonite dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives to audition for the world-renowned Helena Markos Dance Co. When she vaults to the role of lead dancer in such a meteoric fashion, the woman, Patricia Hingle (Chloe Moretz), she replaces becomes hostile and accuses the company’s female directors (consisting of Tilda Swinton, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Craven, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendjik, Christine LeBoutte and others) of witchcraft.

Meanwhile, Josef Klemperer, an inquisitive psychotherapist with a tragic past and Sara Simms (Mia Goth) a member of the dance company uncover dark and sinister secrets as they probe the depths of the studio’s hidden underground chambers.

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When one reviews a remake, is it possible to do so without talking about the original assuming if one knows about the original in the first place? Absolutely not. When the remake has the same story and the same name, how can one not talk about it?

But in the case of Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria, the only similarity with the original is the story framework, being that an American dancer enrolls to an dance company and sinister stuff happens. According to interviews, Guadagnino said that his film is not necessarily a remake but more of an adaptation of what he felt when he watched the original film. And it is on that note that he is able to put his own ideas and interpretations into the film and on that note, he succeeds wholeheartedly.

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Instead of going for the simple, grandiose Grand Guignol extravagance that director Dario Argento adopted for the original, Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich are more interested in the power of themes and emotions that are prescient of the story’s setting as well as the present day. Since the story is set during the German Autumn, the German residents are in denial of indirect responsibility of World War II and since the stories about men are disparate from the stories about women, it adds to the perspectives of the characters’ actions in what they do in the story, regardless of however unpredictable their actions are.

Another factor is how the power of human emotion is adopted into the story, in comparison to the original film, which was written with the viewpoint of childlike wonder. In the remake, the female characters strive to work as a single coven(?), which allows their dance choreography to work out successfully. But through their actions and mindsets, they are emotionally driven (particularly by rage when one interferes with the coven or yearning out of the life situation they are in), regardless of the bigger picture around them. To go into more detail, the powers of the witches include mind-control, which gives credence to the themes, especially in the final act.

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Another point to mention is the way of expressionism. In the original film, the majority of expression of mood, atmosphere and style is through extravagant, lavish colours from the cinematography. In the remake, the majority of the expressionism is expressed through the elaborate and surprisingly mechanical dance choreography (by renowned dance choreographer Damien Jalet) and the incongruously off-kilter musical score by Thom Yorke, which conveys feelings of control (or lack of it, during a sequence that involves choreography of the fractured kind), characters being entranced into immersion (the character of Susie even compares it to the act of sexual intercourse) as well as blind faith (as evident in the bonkers climax).

But major props to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who shoots the remake to adopt the 70’s film muted winter aesthetic, which not only lends credibility to the setting of the story, but also lends the film a dream-like quality whenever a primary colour enters the screen i.e. the colour of blood, a shadowy figure, the movement of long cascading hair.

Ditto to the costume designer Giulia Piersanti, who gives the female characters costuming that is reminiscent of Japanese bondage wear (with streams of red), but can be seen as a symbolic way of women proudly wearing their turmoils (red akin to blood of the events of story’s backdrop), in contrast to the male characters (precisely psychoanalyst Klemperer and minor characters) who wash or put their turmoils behind them in the case of logic and fact.

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Credit should also go to the performances from the cast, since they all lend good support to Guadagnino’s singular vision. Dakota Johnson gives a good performance as Susie Bannion, conveying grace and commitment to the part, whether its the dance choreography and the dramatic character arc (which she goes from doe-eyed to entranced and finally steadfast in her position). Tilda Swinton (in multiple roles) is surprisingly restrained and yet somehow alluring in her presence, while Chloe Moretz makes the most out of her small role, as she conveys understated paranoia quite well; and Mia Goth exudes such a sunny disposition to her character that she becomes incredibly easy to relate to.

Speaking of audience relation, the storytelling, the contemplative pacing (thanks to editor Walter Fasano) and thematic power can be very alienating for audiences due to how unfathomable, esoteric and self-serious it is. And for fans of the original film, it can make the remake tedious for those who are just looking for genre thrills, which are ample in the original film. That is not to say that the remake doesn’t have the requisite horror tricks or moments of fun, it clearly does. But it is not executed in the way that an average viewer would think.

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There are many moments of macabre gallows humour that hit their mark due to the timing in which they are presented as well as how outrageous they are, in contrast to the serious tone of the story. One example is how the witches use their mind-control powers on the men, which drew gasps and laughter from yours truly. The humour is also present in the dialogue eg. how Susie compares dancing to sexual intercourse of the lesser known kind.

And the film has all the arterial blood sprays, body horror, disemboweling, anatomy explosions that gorehounds can savour. But what makes them powerful is not well-defined characterizations that make the audience care about the characters or just the stellar production values, but the horror tropes are all grounded in what the female characters are trying to express, which are inherently red. For example, in the bonkers climax, the way the characters act and the settings are all bathed in red. In face value, it can be seen as blood, but for the characters, it can be seen as a metaphor of sensual and horrifying mix of love and anger since a pivotal character shows sympathy to others during an occurrence of brutal violence.

This reviewer is still in utter shock and awe about this film. It is unfathomable as it is uncompromising; it is ambitious as it is audacious; it is overwrought as it is darkly amusing and it is gory as it is expressionistic. It could throw you into the entire gamut of emotions on a massive scale or it could leave you scaling up the cinema steps due to sheer boredom. Either way, there really isn’t a remake like this out there and for that alone, Suspiria (2018) is to be applauded.

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriters: David Kajganich, based on the 1977 film of the same name, by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi

Movie Review – Bohemian Rhapsody

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EXPECTATIONS: An incredibly safe biopic with an incredible performance by Rami Malek.

REVIEW: Biopics are a dime-a-dozen these days. And when one considers the marketable possibilities about them, it’s not hard to see why there are so many of them. Particularly when the subject of the biopic revolves around the entertainment industry. In the case of the music industry, we have had so many biopics revolving around that subject matter, that have had great parodic examples in the process. We have had critically acclaimed films ranging from This Is Spinal Tap, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping to parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

And after many, many years of development, going through numerous lead actors and film directors including actors Sasha Baron Cohen, Ben Whishaw and directors David Fincher and Tom Hooper, we finally have a biopic about the British rock band Queen. Or more specifically, about the lead vocalist, Freddie Mercury. With talents like director Brian Singer, co-screenwriter Peter Morgan, lead actor Rami Malek and the two remaining Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor in the fray, will the film Bohemian Rhapsody succeed like a champion or will it bite the dust?

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The biopic follows the swift rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach high level, unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences and inner turmoils, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career.

Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. While bravely facing a recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music.

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Apart from the numerous changes in the cast and crew, there have been behind-the-scenes stories about conflicts between director Bryan Singer and the cast and crew to the point that he was fired and replaced with second-choice film director Dexter Fletcher; required to film a few weeks of principal photography.

How this effected the final outcome of the film remains to be seen, but deep down, it does not matter how eventful the stories of the filmmaking process came about, what matters is what is on screen. And what we have on screen is a biopic that is so sterilized, sanitized and purified that the story that purports to be true or contain the essence of the spirit of the subject matter comes off as annoyingly hagiographical. Some of the rose-tinted effects are to be expected since Brian May and Roger Taylor are involved in the production process, but unfortunately, the balance between honesty and commemoration is way off.

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Story points in the film play out as if Singer and screenwriters Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan are ticking off a checklist of biopic cliches. Band getting together? Check. Love interest? Check. Band on the rise? Check. Drugs and bad choices? Check. Band and love interest break up? Check. Public outburst? Check. Band get back together? Check. And it goes on and on. When scenes play out in a similar fashion to a parody of musical biopics like the aforementioned Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, that’s definitely not a good sign.

And the characters are underwritten to the point that they come off more like plot and thematic devices rather than real people with personalities, which does not help the actors, giving them very little to chew on. In the case of Allen Leech‘s character, Paul Prenter is an example that could have been great for dramatic potential, as he is meant to be a manipulator of Freddie Mercury as well as a lover of his, but thanks to the anemic script, Prenter’s actions just come off as laughable and unconvincing.

Even the motivations for the music itself lacks any conviction as to how it gets created and how it became as influential as it is. With lines of dialogue like “doing things out of the norm” or “outside the box” or “not following the set trends”, it comes off as blatantly didactic and yet somehow frustratingly vague. Good musical biopics (like Walk The Line and Amadeus) are ones that invite those who are new or had no interest in the particular music and yet, they lend a true understanding as to why the subject matter was so into creating their music in the first place, and Bohemian Rhapsody fails to convey that understanding.

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Speaking of blatantly didactic, there are many unintentionally hilarious moments in the film that signal to the audience as if they are visually-impaired or crash-land towards cliche. Examples include a scene where Mercury is showing signs of attraction towards men, and it happens when he sees a man walking into the toilet stalls, with a closing door that has the word “Men” in huge block letters; or another scene towards the end where phones are off the hook in preparation for calls of Live Aid.

And there is one incredibly cringeworthy moment involving Mike Myers (whose role consists of him sitting on a desk that if he were to move two feet away from it, his makeup would fall off) making a cheesy reference to his beloved Wayne’s World.

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The film’s shortcomings are such a shame because the music of Queen is still fantastic in of itself, being it is the solid foundation that the film revolves around (particularly during the Live Aid concert climax); and there is of course Malek’s performance as Freddie. While the motivations of the character play out exactly the way one would expect, the Mr Robot actor still manages to play Freddy with heart, nuance that he (along with Lucy Boynton‘s understated performance as Mary Austin and their shared chemistry) and the songs are what prevents Bohemian Rhapsody from being a bad film.

Unfortunately, the film plays out more like Bohemian Parody. The film is formulaic to a tectonic fault and the storytelling is incredibly sterile and clinical to the point that there’s no risk of biting any dust, but Bohemian Rhapsody just inches by with Malek’s Mercurial performance, true bouts of sheer energy and one hell of an ending. Just don’t expect any depth, nuance or have an impression of learning more about the band, especially not Freddie Mercury.

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This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
Director: Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher (uncredited)
Screenwriters: Anthony McCarten, Peter Morgan

Movie Review – Halloween (2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: An above-average slasher that slavishly pays homage to its roots while mildly satirizes them.

REVIEW: What is the true example of the perfect slasher film? If you were to ask many people this question, chances are that most of the replies will be the 1978 film, Halloween. Brilliant in its simplicity and incredibly influential, the film has inspired many imitations over its 40-year franchise run.

But following on the expectations of sequels, the continuations of the franchise paid off in diminishing returns to the point that the franchise became a bit of a joke i.e. seeing Busta Rhymes throw a spin-kick to Michael Myers’ head. So after six sequels, one deviation and one remake (with its own sequel), we now have a reiteration that basically goes through the retroactive continuity route as a sequel to the 1978 original, ignoring all the other films in the process.

With an acclaimed director, most of the major players of the original film (barring producer/co-writer Debra Hill, who sadly passed away over a decade ago) and an established cast of veterans and rising talent, will the 2018 film wash out the sour aftertaste of the prior films, appeal to fans of the original film as well as succeed as an efficient slasher in its own right?

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Set 40 years after the events of the original film, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has lived in a life of self-imposed solitude, suffering from PTSD and preparing for inevitable return of Michael Myers (Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) aka The Boogeyman aka The Shape to Haddonfield, Illinois.

He is currently locked up in an institution, overseen by Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who takes over supervision duties of Doctor Loomis. But when Myers manages to escape after a bus transfer goes horribly wrong, Strode will have to protect her family, including her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and her sheltered granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) from the impending wrath.

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Does the 2018 film succeed in its own right in appealing to fans of the original as well as attaining newcomers into the franchise? Thankfully, it does, as it hearkens back well enough to what made the original film great, while also adding some welcome levity, self-aware mirth, stronger-than-usual characterizations for the slasher genre as well as the major players giving their full commitment to the film.

One of the factors that makes the film more compelling than the sequels is that the film deals with how much of an effect that Michael has had on the people of Haddonfield over time, which includes trauma, obsession, denial, seclusion and even apathy. All of these themes are examined efficiently and adds a much-needed punch to the characterizations that are much needed for the audience to care for the characters, which amplifies the scares and tension.

For example, there is an interesting outlook on the Strode women as how Michael affects them ever since the events of 1978. In the present day, Laurie is figuratively drowning in her own fear and fighting for air, while her daughter Karen is in a state of denial due to her childhood experiences with her mother; while her granddaughter is living in a sheltered existence provided for by Karen, that in an amusingly meta way, hearkens back to the life of Laurie before the traumatic 1978 event. When Michael encounters all three, they react in interesting ways that are more intriguing than the normal cannon fodder in slasher films.

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And as for the slasher parts of the film, director David Gordon Green has always made films that look immaculate, from his indie films like George Washington and Joe to his studio comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness, and Halloween (2018) is no exception. Green manages to keep the simplicity of the kills and tension of the first film intact (the long takes, obscuring some of the violence off-screen) while amplifying the gore that adds punch to the proceedings and not call attention to itself, as well as providing visually stimulating compositions and beautiful camerawork (thanks to cinematographer Michael Simmonds) that contribute a haunting vibe to the proceedings, particularly during a scene involving an investigation of a bus crash. Not to mention the contributions of the stirring score by John Carpenter, his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies, which is both nostalgically rousing and eerie.

Another factor that adds to the appeal of the film is the affectionate metatextual vibe not only applies to films of the same genre but also to past horror films. Whether it is the small Easter Eggs (like a car radio that plays a song that Laurie sang in the first film), the same use of musical cues and visual cues (like the font in the opening credits as well as the deflated pumpkin), the dialogue (At one point, Laurie refers to Doctor Sartain as the new Loomis), character decisions (the link between Doctor Sartain and Michael shares links to present-day fandom) and even the performances (Haluk Bilginer gives an entertainingly over-the-top performance that brings to mind renowned actor Oliver Reed from the David Cronenberg film, The Brood), they all add to the fun factor of the film. It helps that this reviewer could not resist a hilarious comedic aside involving two cops talking about banh mi (basically a Vietnamese baguette).

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Speaking of performances, everyone provides good performances, regardless of their roles of variable size. Virginia Gardner is extremely likable as Vicky, as is Jibrail Nantambu as Julian, who gets lots of laughs for his incisive observations. Ditto goes to Toby Huss, who also provides some mirth as well (or it could be that he reminds this reviewer of a certain character from the TV show, Seinfeld). But the biggest contributors are the Strode women themselves.

Andi Matichak conveys wholesomeness and down-to-earth likability as the character of Allyson, whilst being very game in the horror hijinks of the film. Judy Greer does very well with her performance, as she has a complicated, yet too conveniently fleshed out arc and backstory that she needs to convey as baggage and Greer pulls it off convincingly. And of course there’s Jamie Lee Curtis, who is absolutely fantastic as Laurie, slipping back to the role like a glove. Sharp as a whip as she handles the physical part of the film capably; proficiently handling the meta humour with incisive comedic chops as well as succeeding dramatically; showing the turmoil that Laurie has gone through the past 40 years, especially during a scene involving a family reunion of sorts.

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As for the negatives of the film, some of the more integral characterizations, particularly in the case of Karen Strode, feel shortchanged due to the execution. In the film, her backstory is told in flashback as well as narration, which undercuts her dramatic arc. The dialogue is also a problem due to scenes with jerky exposition as well as involving the actors saying how they feel, rather than acting how they feel, which again, affects Greer’s character. There is also the implementation of the humour in which some of it does undercut the tension at times, but most of it does occur at the right time; and there are some story ideas that do not get explored enough due to its tight running time of 106 minutes, which can irk those who are looking for something truly different.

But overall, Halloween (2018) is a very entertaining above-average slasher and a love letter to the franchise as well as the horror genre itself, thanks to the great performances, assured direction, welcome metatextual humour and genre observations, stronger-than-usual characterizations and genuine scares. Happy Halloween, everyone!

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Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner, Haluk Bilginer, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, Toby Huss, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, Drew Scheid, Jibrail Nantambu, PJ Soles, Nick Castle
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriters: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green

Movie Review – Night School

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EXPECTATIONS: Very low.

REVIEW: Night School is a film with a very well-worn premise that has been done many times before (Billy Madison and Old School to name a few) but there factors here that could make the film transcend my meager expectations.

One is the paring of Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, who are two of the biggest comedy stars right now. Both have achieved great successes in film, television and other ventures and have been delighting audiences with their great comedic chops. Another is the direction of Malcolm D. Lee, who has just got off his smashing success of the raunchy comedy, Girls Trip.

But there are signs that the film could be a bad one. One is the fact that the film has SIX credited screenwriters including Hart himself, which shows signs of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Another sign is the time of the preview screening, which is the night before the local release date, which is usually a sign to drum up lots of advertising to get people to see a film that is most likely bad or the distributors want to withhold plot details of the story, which is highly doubtful in this case.

Will Night School succeed with flying colours in being a very funny comedy despite the factors that play against it? The exam starts now.

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Kevin Hart plays Teddy Walker, a successful barbecue appliance salesman whose life takes an unexpected and amusing turn when he accidentally blows up his place of employment.

Due to that unfortunate incident and some extenuating circumstances (including working as a restaurant mascot), he is forced to attend night school to get his GED, where he soon finds himself dealing with a group of misfit students, his former high school nemesis who is also the school principal (Taran Killam) and a feisty teacher (Tiffany Haddish) who doesn’t think he’s too bright.

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If I were to attend to a night school such as the one portrayed in the film, I would be down on my knees, pleading until my throat bleeds to be expelled from the class because Night School is one of the most insufferable comedies of the year.

Let’s begin with the positives before the stress starts to overwhelm. Tiffany Haddish is the lone bright light here and she does wring some titters out of the terrible script due to her line deliveries and innate charisma. She’s surprisingly nuanced in the part and is so likable, she should’ve been the lead instead of Hart.

And there is the supporting actors that succeed at some points, including Keith David, of whom there is very little screen-time of; Al Madrigal, who makes the most out of the stereotype that he’s saddled with and Romany Malco; who gets points for going beyond for his character, who misinterprets technology and current terminology like “woke”.

And now come the big red marks on this exam paper because this effort is such a huge failure. The direction from Lee is to just plant the camera and the cast do their improvisations, which is fine if your performers have support from a good script, which they don’t.

It certainly does not help that the improvisations go on forever and it kills the comedic momentum and in one case, kills the suspense. The class introduction scene in particular goes on for ages and ages that any chances of potential mirth become deflated and feelings of claustrophobia would set in.

It also doesn’t help that gags in the film are either so terrible that they it may make you gag (some involving flatulence, vomiting and even pubic hair), stolen from other sources (one joke is stolen from the TV show, Friends) or even repeated; there is one gag, which involves Killam doing an impression of an African-American attitude, is the same exact joke from Girls Trip, made by the same damn director here.

And when the jokes fail, that is when you start noticing other blatant flaws that you would not usually care for, if the jokes were funny. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too with its portrayal of learning disabilities, treating it as a joke and then attempt to take the factor seriously, but it just comes off as infuriatingly duplicitous and disingenuous.

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The storytelling is also awful to the point of looking incompetent. Scenes would have no smooth transitions to each other and in one particular scene, which involves a daring escape, one person gets severely injured and all of a sudden, the scene is finished and it goes to a different setting. How did the characters escape without getting caught? And of course, to encourage students into studying, you beat the crap out of them in a heptagon ring. Corporal punishment still works! Hooray!

But the worst flaw of the film is that all the characters in the night school itself (aside from Haddish’s character Carey) are all unlikable idiots. Rob Riggle does stupid things without any plausibility nor reason as to why he does the actions that he does, Mary Lynn Rajskub is annoying and she has an awful scene involving ass-shaking and walnuts and Taran Killam does the same joke from Girls Trip, which is the impersonation of black people and yet it feels tired here.

And then there’s Kevin Hart himself, the lead actor, scriptwriter and producer. Hart tries incredibly hard in the role with his motormouth, self-deprecating style, but he only ends up being incredibly trying and frankly, it’s getting old. In Night School, he plays a character that the audience is meant to find endearing and who is constantly told that he’s not dumb because he has a learning disorder (which is not a spoiler because it’s in the trailer).

I’m sorry, I’m gonna take issue with that and say his character is a deceitful, manipulative and selfish fool. He encourages his classmates to steal and risk their lives(?!) for GED exam answers (trial GED exam answers!), he lies to his fiance about his situation when he could have clearly and harmlessly said otherwise, he expects generosity from a person that he bulled; it just goes on and on and on.

Not to mention that the ending is severely anti-climactic thanks to repetition once again and the attempt of unearned and predictable sentimentality, but I’m gonna stop right there before I develop an aneurysm. Night School is an irritating comedy with unlikable characters, unfunny gags, long droning scenes of improvisations and lack of direction that not even bright spots like Haddish can flare up this failure.

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This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Romany Malco, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Yvonne Orji, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Ben Schwartz, Anne Winters, Bresha Webb, Tilda Del Toro, Jeff Rose, Al Madrigal, Fat Joe
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Screenwriters: Kevin Hart, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg, J’Dub, Harry Ratchford, Matthew Kellard

Movie Review – The Predator

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EXPECTATIONS: An acerbic, self-aware action comedy that just so happens to be a Predator film.

REVIEW: Shane Black is back! A brand-spanking new film by renowned action-maestro the man himself. For those who don’t know, Shane Black is responsible for writing cult-classic 80’s/90’s films like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Action Hero and The Monster Squad.

He knows his action films and all of its tropes. He made his directorial debut in 2005 in the neo-noir buddy comedy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, an underrated gem that led Robert Downey Jr. to the role that got him back to stardom, Iron Man. And we got the underseen buddy-comedy The Nice Guys, which showed Ryan Gosling as a comedic force and put Australian actress Angourie Rice into the spotlight.

So when Black announced that he was going to make a new entry in the Predator franchise (in which he starred in the first film) with his collaborator Fred Dekker (whom he worked with on Monster Squad), people started to go ape.

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Then the bad news started. With news reports of drastic reshoots of the third act due to test screenings all the way to the incredibly stupid decision of Black hiring his friend/actor Steven Wilder Striegel to star in his film, without disclosing to anyone that he was a registered sex offender, resulting with Olivia Munn telling 20th Century Fox, who then swiftly cut out his scene with Munn. And Striegel was hired more than once!

So with the up and down expectations, will the hard work from the cast and crew of The Predator shine through despite the bad baggage that it shoulders?

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There are interstellar creatures called the Predators, who are hunters that travel from planet to planet to hunt. In this film, they are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves with DNA from the top species of each planet.

When a boy (Jacob Tremblay) accidentally triggers their return to Earth, only a ragtag motley crew of ex-soldiers (Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Augusto Aguilera, Alfie Allen) and an evolutionary biologist (Olivia Munn) can prevent the end of the human race.

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Wow, I am in total amazement of how this film came out. When it was said at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival that The Predator was a gory R-rated version of Monster Squad, they were not kidding. The Predator is an absolute goof that will probably enrage purists, but thankfully like Monster Squad, it is an entertaining, yet sloppily told goof. But unfortunately like Monster Squad, it has all the same problems.

The story is told incredibly fast and the exposition and drama are all free of fat and trimmed to the bone (thanks to editors Harry B. Miller III and Billy Weber). Which is quite good because it gets to the point which is the Predators kill a huge amount of people and lots of blood, gore and offal spray all over the place. And on that red note, The Predator succeeds.

The action is well-shot, well-lensed (thanks to cinematographer Larry Fong) and is thankfully free of detrimental quick-cutting and shaky cam. And unlike the lighting in the prior entry, Alien VS Predator: Requiem, you can actually see what the hell is going on!

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As for the story itself, the mythology and the story ideas (which will not be described in great detail) are so bonkers, that director Shane Black and co-writer Fred Dekker had to have treated all of it as a joke. There’s a scene in the film where Strahovski’s character provides a motivational speech (by going into detail on Holbrook’s character) for some of the characters due to their reticence. But Black and Dekker (Get it?) subvert the expectations of the audience, that it becomes funny.

And the entire cast and crew are all in on the joke. Even the musical score by Henry Jackman has orchestral cues that convey wonder and childlike joy, as if it was meant for a children’s adventure film. And children is the best way to describe all the characters (except Strahovski’s and Munn’s characters, who ground the film any time they can); in the way that they are all mischievous, rambunctious kids (they even call themselves The Loonies!).

Like all of the films that Black has written/directed, the characters are all acerbic and politically incorrect stereotypes (one’s autistic, one’s religious, one has PTSD, one has Tourette’s etc.) but all the actors gnash their way into their roles and they succeed, for the most part.

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And then we get to the problems of The Predator. There were news reports of third act reshoots earlier this year and seeing the final product, it shows. The CGI/green-screen is quite sloppy, the action is dealt with so swiftly that it ends anti-climatically and some of the resolutions of the characters are left unknown due to the fact that Black never goes back to them. Hell, the swift pacing for the overall film may exhaust some due to the sheer amount of action involved.

The character stereotypes will definitely offend some due to the cartoony and inaccurate portrayals of characters with serious afflictions and some of the jokes do land with a loud thud due to repetition or just come from unlikable character traits (eg. the homophobia). And last but not least, the film is not scary in the slightest, as the stealthy moments like in the earlier Predator films are all gone and replaced with action, which will disappoint purists.

But considering that the prior films have been doing the same thing many times already with five entries (including the Alien VS Predator films), it makes sense that Black and Dekker would change the formula up a bit, but they only intermittently succeed. It’s quite fun if you can get into the silliness due to the fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously, but unfortunately, the lack of seriousness is its own detriment.

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Strahovski
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Fred Dekker, Shane Black

Movie Review – Teen Titans GO! To the Movies!

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as enjoyable as Captain Underpants.

REVIEW: The Marvel Universe and the DC Comics film extended universe. If one were to think about the incredibly savage conflicts involved in superhero fandom, the battle between these two isn’t a bad place to start.

Ever since the Marvel Universe was king, the DC Universe tried to one-up them in every single opportunity, with mixed results. Only one of their films was critically acclaimed while the rest were either polarizing or just cinematic kryptonite.

But sometimes during conflict, humour can be mined and the jabs between the two universes had started to come into fruition in a major way when Tim Miller‘s Deadpool came out. Ripping the Marvel Universe and DC Universe to shreds as well as subverting action tropes and conventional storytelling, it took Hollywood by storm.

Which leads us to Teen Titans GO! To the Movies, which has the same meta approach towards its superhero peers. With the TV show that it is based on, struggling to be a success in the eyes of television critics as well as the fans of the original Teen Titans cartoon show due to its meta approach to itself and its rambunctious attitude, the Titans finally have the major opportunity to prove themselves with their own feature film. Will they succeed?

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Based on the TV show of the same name, the film shows the adventures of its titular teen heroes, including Robin (Scott Menville), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong) and Starfire (Hynden Walch).

The story revolves around the efforts of the group, who are disappointed over not having starred in a superhero movie of their own. They start attempting to rectify the situation by convincing a famed Hollywood director (Kristen Bell) to develop one for them. Complicating their plans is the dastardly villain Slade (Will Arnett) and his scheme to conquer the world.

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For a family film to succeed, the film is supposed to provide satisfying entertainment for the entire family and not just for the children. Thankfully Teen Titans GO! To the Movies does exactly that, even with the inclusion of fans, and– You know what, I’m gonna go straight to the point here and say that Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is the funniest film of the year. An absolute blast from beginning to end that has a sense of humour that’s even more savage to superhero films than the Deadpool films.

One of the major reasons the film succeeds is that no subject gets away from a good skewering. Superhero films? You betcha. Superhero origins? Of course. The Hollywood industry? Why not. Family films in general? Throw them in there too! The Teen Titans GO! show itself? Bring it in! But even with the plentiful targets on display, the film never feels like it collapses under its own weight and that’s due to the incredibly fast pace and the delivery of the jokes.

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Blink-or-you’ll miss jokes are plentiful like seeing the movie posters like Aquamanatee or Detective Chimp: The Movie). Pop culture references and parodies are executed brilliantly like an inspired sequence involving The Lion King and another sequence involving Back to the Future.

Also, film tropes and conventions are subverted just right with catchy musical numbers like a song where the characters commit many shenanigans called…Shenanigans. Or an upbeat inspirational song about life called…An Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life, sung by a talking tiger voiced by Michael Bolton of all people!

And of course, the Marvel Universe and DC Universe get lampooned to maximum effect like how Slade is made fun of by the Titans for looking exactly like Deadpool, despite the fact that Deadpool is an actual rip-off of Slade. Or how the ‘Martha’ scene in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is parodied to amusing effect when their fathers are brought into the picture.

Even throwaway lines and offbeat casting are factored into the humour like the mentioning of Gene Hackman‘s real estate scheme or how Nicolas Cage is cast as Superman (when he almost played the superhero in a film by Tim Burton) and how his son, Kal-El Cage was cast as Young Bruce Wayne. It is jokes, gags and Easter eggs like that, which gives the film a lot of replay value.

And then there’s the adult-related jokes that will fly over the children’s heads but will startle the parents and fans into absolute hysterics. One joke involves a hit-and run while another involves the use of kryptonite against Superman in such a suggestive manner that I personally was in absolute shock. Other jokes involves time-travel and the way the characters change the origins of various superheroes will provides loads of laughs, mainly due to how dark and abrupt the jokes are delivered.

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But what makes the dark and adult jokes feel earned and non-provocative is the level of childlike innocence and sincerity these characters have when they are portrayed on-screen. The obliviousness, the enthusiasm and the lack of cynicism is what gives the humour the punch it needs.

The voice cast deliver on all fronts, including the original voice cast from the TV show, newcomers who clearly have experience working in animation like Will Arnett (Bojack Horseman, The LEGO Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie), Kristen Bell (Disney’s Frozen) as well as off-kilter casting including Nicolas Cage, Halsey, Lil Yachty and even Stan Lee himself!

As for flaws, and there are very little, there are some moments in the film that could’ve had more development into the story as well as could’ve been mined for more humour i.e. how female directors like Slade Wilson are directing superhero films. And there will be some jokes that will irk parents due to how suggestive the jokes are. One visual joke that involves Superman as a baby will definitely put off some.

Exceeding this reviewer’s expectations, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is an absolute ball of a time with high-spirited animation, lovable characters, infectiously catchy musical numbers and a wonderful sense of humour that is either adorably innocent for its demographic and beyond; savagely meta towards itself and its superhero peers, ingeniously referential towards pop culture references and is hilariously inappropriate, thanks to the gags that will fly over the heads of children but will soar with adults.

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Hynden Walch, Will Arnett, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Halsey, Greg Davies, Jimmy Kimmel, Lil Yachty, Dana Snyder, Kal-El Cage
Director: Peter Rida Michail, Aaron Horvath
Screenwriters: Michael Jelenic, Aaron Horvath

Movie Review – A Simple Favour

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EXPECTATIONS: A vastly different change of pace from comedy director Paul Feig.

REVIEW: If there’s one director that needs a true change of pace out there, it’s comedy director Paul Feig. He started off great making a successful string of comedies, starting from the romantic-comedy hit Bridesmaids to the buddy cop-comedy The Heat and the espionage-action comedy Spy.

Then he hit a big of a snag with his reboot of Ghostbusters, which did well with critics and audiences, but it flopped in the box office due to the incredibly negative buzz from naysayers ranging from the fandom menace of the franchise to misogynists thinking that it was diabolically wrong to have an all-female cast to take over the franchise.

So when news came of Feig’s latest project, which was adapted from a mystery novel by Darcey Bell, it looked to be the perfect change for Feig. The trailers certainly hinted that way of a sexy, lurid thriller and even credited the film as coming “from the dark side of director Paul Feig“. With a talented cast of stars and newcomers like Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and Henry Golding headlining, will A Simple Favour get Feig out of the rut of his last film?

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Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a video blogger/single mother of Miles; and she is known for his intimidating dedication to her motherhood duties, to the laughter of the neighbourhood. Over time, she comes across Emily (Blake Lively), a freewheeling and enigmatic marketing director, who is the wife of failed author, Sean (Henry Golding).

Stephanie and Emily slowly bond due to Stephanie helping out the latter with Emily’s son, Nicky, and Emily encouraging Stephanie to satiate her wild side. But one day, Emily asks Stephanie for a simple favour, which is to pick her son up from school. But Emily never comes back from work, which leads to Stephanie seeking to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

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A Simple Favour may be a lurid neo-noir thriller but it is first and foremost, a Paul Feig comedy; a factor that does not factor much into the marketing of the film. While that may put off people expecting a straight-faced film in the vein of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, A Simple Favour is an infectiously silly, yet very entertaining trifle.

Never having read the source material by Darcey Bell, it is unknown to this reviewer whether the story was meant to be taken seriously or not. But in the case of the film (and the film’s opening and closing credits, which looks inspired by Saul Bass), director Paul Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer have decided to exploit the luridness and ridiculousness of the plot for comedy. Utilizing improvisations, broad characterizations, plentiful twists, sight gags (involving female nudity, which is quite refreshing) and physical comedy to tell a story such as this, it’s a very narrow tightrope for the cast and crew and thankfully, they pull it off.

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The cinematography by John Schwartzman looks suitably sterile, conveying the sleek exteriors and facades of the sets and characters, implying the darkness within; the editing by Brent White unsurprisingly brings out the maximum impact of all the improvisations (due to his work in prior Paul Feig and Judd Apatow films) and the musical score by Theodore Shapiro amps up the fun factor and serious stakes of the story efficiently. Special props to the choices in the cool soundtrack, including Laisse tomber les filles by France Gall and Bonnie and Clyde by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot.

And the cast are entirely up to the task of following Feig’s vision. Anna Kendrick looks absolutely revitalized after the string of problematic films and underutilized supporting parts like in the action-thriller The Accountant, the dark comedy Table 19 and the critically-reviled sequel, Pitch Perfect 3. She digs into the role with gusto and verve and anti-social adorableness, but she never loses her way to portray the humanity of the character, making Stephanie a likable lead.

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Blake Lively is a gradually improving performer, whose acting chops have improved over the years thanks to roles in the crime-thriller The Town, the drama The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, the fantasy romance Age of Adaline and the shark film, The Shallows. In the case of A Simple Favour, she inhabits the character of Emily with a magnetic, rebellious streak that is fun to watch, thanks to the brash line deliveries, her eye-opening presence and her effortless drinking. Okay, scratch that last one.

And there’s Henry Golding again, so soon after his charismatic acting debut in the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. In A Simple Favour, he’s still charming as ever and he gradually expands his acting range quite well. And special props to the supporting cast including Jean Smart (as an alcoholic mother), Linda Cardellini (as a lesbian painter), Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla (all three as gossiping, judgemental parents), Rupert Friend (amusing as the famous fashion designer), Bashir Salahuddin (acerbic as the police detective) and others.

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As for its flaws, the tone changes can be quite jarring for some moments (eg. implications of possible incest) and the plentiful twists and plot contrivances may not hold up to complete scrutiny (eg. extracting bodies, avoiding authorities etc.) but the biggest problem is not actually the film’s fault, but the marketing. While it does make sense and is actually quite necessary in retrospect to cover up the comedic tone, it does become a bit of a shock for those expecting something truly different from Feig.

But it matters very little considering that the film is just so much fun. With great lead performances, strong assured direction and scriptwriting from Feig and Sharzer, vibrant cinematography and an infectiously cool musical score/soundtrack, A Simple Favour may not be the drastic change of pace people would expect due to the marketing involved, but it is still an extravagantly entertaining trifle.

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This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend
Director: Paul Feig
Screenwriters: Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell

Movie Review – Beast

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling, unpredictable character study, with a great performance from Jessie Buckley.

REVIEW: According to a book by renowned author Christopher Booker, there are seven different plots in stories, which are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

And since we have so many stories that essentially are encapsulated in one of these plots, what would make a story stand out from the large crowd? It would either be the execution of the story; or it could be the combinations of plots; or it could be the attempt to create unique and distinct characterizations. In the case of Michael Pearce‘s psychological crime drama, Beast, it is an attempt combine all three of the above.

Gaining critical buzz as the Toronto International Film Festival 2017 and this year’s Sundance Film Festival due to its intense story, combinations of genres and memorable performances, will it live up to the hype in this writer’s eyes? Or will it unleash the beast of the film critic within?

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Set in the island of Jersey, a troubled young woman, Moll (Jessie Buckley) is in a state of oppression, thanks to the very short leash of her mother (Geraldine James). After leaving her own 27th birthday party, she goes into a nightclub to dance the night away.

The next morning, a man who she was dancing with threatens her with sexual violence until a mysterious outsider, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), helps her out of her predicament. The two eventually share a simmering chemistry, which drives Moll to escape her oppressive family. When Pascal comes under suspicion for a series of murders, she defends him at all costs.

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The story of Beast was partially inspired by Edward Paisnel, the so-called “Beast of Jersey” who carried out a string of sex attacks on the island between 1960 and 1971. And while that plot is in the background, the plot in focus is about the character progression of Moll and her developing relationship with Pascal and thankfully, that is where the film succeeds.

First off, the direction by Michael Pearce overall works effectively in developing a brooding atmosphere and getting into the character’s skin. The cinematography by Benjamin Kracun captures the beauty of the Jersey island setting, lending it a Gothic fairy-tale quality; as well as the simmering passion and darkness within the characters like in a scene where Moll and Pascal embrace in the water.

Props should also go to the sparse musical score by Jim Williams, which provides ample tension as well as accentuating the emotional state of the characters succinctly i.e. during a scene involving a funeral.

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The problem with the film is that some of its filmmaking techniques are so blatantly on-the-nose as to what it is metaphorically implying; that it becomes laughable. There is one specific scene that involves a full moon that implies that there’s a bad moon rising. Or in another scene where a police interrogation between a police detective (played excellently by Olwen Fouere) and Moll becomes so intense, a blackout happens, ruining the dramatic tension rather than accentuating it.

And when the film shifts from the relationship between Moll and Pascal to the serial killer plot, it becomes less interesting due to the lack of innovation and going by basic whodunnit tropes like incompetent rookie cops, grizzled veteran detectives, shifty strangers, exposition scenes involving interrogations, it follows them all to a T.

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Thankfully, the performances from the cast just about make up for the film’s shortcomings. Jessie Buckley provides a masterful performance of nuance and absolute control of a woman who is emotionally repressed. The simmering rage, the wide-eyed innocence, the feral and rebellious attitude; Buckley nails every stage of her character perfectly and shoulders the film to the finish line.

Johnny Flynn lends a certain empathy and life to the magnetic, mysterious and enigmatic character of Pascal, who may or may not be the serial killer that the police are looking for. While that ambiguity is present, Flynn has such a charisma that it is easy to buy into the fact that Moll would be attracted to Pascal.

The other standout is Geraldine James as Moll’s mother. She easily convinces in conveying the oppressive, chilling side of her character. But what makes her performance great is that she also hints that she may not be as antagonistic as one might think, thanks to the paternal side that James conveys convincingly.

Overall, Beast is a compelling, if not entirely successful, character study that struggles to reach its goals due to director Michael Pearce‘s overzealous direction and some story contrivances and problems but thanks to Jessie Buckley‘s powerhouse performance, she keeps the film grounded until the perfect moments when it needs to go primal to make a huge impact.

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This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Trystan Gravelle, Geraldine James, Shannon Tarbet, Olwen Fouere
Director: Michael Pearce
Screenwriters: Michael Pearce

Movie Review – Searching

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EXPECTATIONS: A crafty thriller that improves on its similar stylistic predecessors like Unfriended, The Den and Open Windows.

REVIEW: It is quite amusing to think that we have many films released over the years, regardless of genre, that span across many imaginative worlds, planets, fantasy settings and so on. With the vast amount of superhero films and blockbusters, it’s hard not to see why.

But the world that has not been mined more than enough, despite the great films we have made from it, is the world wide web. Such ingenuity can be extracted from such a setting that we can have great films like The Social Network, Catfish, Unfriended, The Den and so on, it is mindboggling to think that this isn’t done more often.

But what’s even more mindboggling is that is that the new upcoming thriller, Searching, is that this is the first Hollywood mainstream thriller to feature an Asian-American in the lead. It’s puzzling enough that we rarely have focus on Asian-American families on-screen but the fact above…wow.

And speaking of a potential wow, we have a new technological cyber-thriller from feature debut director Aneesh Chaganty, which has been gathering some critical buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. With established actors (John Cho, Debra Messing) and rising talent (Michelle La), will Searching hit that wow factor?

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After David Kim (John Cho)’s 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, a local investigation is opened and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop.

Where her social life on the world wide web becomes an illuminating rabbit hole that goes deeper and deeper. And with a limited amount of time, David must trace his daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.

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One of the major positives that makes Searching work is how writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian really attacked the material with a lot of verisimilitude, using the exact sounds and layouts of the programs like Skype, YouTube and Mac programs, and it really adds to the gripping storytelling. Even the video freezes and sound lags are used to great effect, adding to the atmosphere and immersion.

Also adding to the storytelling is the acts of the characters on how they use technology. One example is how a character would start typing a message and then erase it and change it completely. That is a clever bit of storytelling that adds much-needed character development and is realistic within people’s use of technology. There is even some very ingenious foreshadowing for eagle-eyed viewers, if they notice fast enough on side-windows and browsers, which adds to the replay value.

Another example is how these characters think they are invincible behind anonymity, thinking they can get away with their bad deeds, but when their secrets are revealed, we know more about the characters. The progression between their anonymity and clarity is scary since again, it stems from reality. The film even drives the point of internet addiction into the tale (i.e, not resisting opening e-mails, many tabs on the internet browser) and it sells the premise quite well as it alleviates supposed plot holes.

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Next comes the great performances. John Cho, who has always been an understated actor in indie dramas like Columbus, Gemini and even the Harold and Kumar films. But in the case of Searching, he has his first leading role in a Hollywood thriller (To reinstate, any Asian-American actor for that matter) and he does a fantastic job.

Cho makes the character progression from grieving single father to obsessive investigator to a man driven with simmering rage look smooth and effortless. In one particular scene, his character goes from being aggressive to conflicted and eventually collapsing to the fetal position and it is a compelling gut-punch to witness and Cho really nails it.

The other two leads, Debra Messing and newcomer Michelle La also give great performances that are nuanced and convincing in portraying the hidden depths of their characters. La in particular, has the harder task mainly due to her limited screen-time and Chaganty’s attempt to skew one’s perception of her character, but the moments when she’s on-screen (particularly during the live-broadcast moments) is where she positively stands out.

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As for the film’s glitches flaws, Chaganty does veer towards sentimentality at times. It particularly becomes prevalent when he relies on the musical score by Torin Borrowdale, which is quite jarring considering that the film takes place on technological screens, despite having some leeway in showing Cho’s character listening to peaceful music from YouTube.

Some restraint would have also been beneficial as to how much Chaganty and cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron tend to zoom in/out of the screens to telegraph the drama or hint towards revelations, although it is understandable that it is done to cater to those in the audience that are not computer-literate. And there are the plot contrivances that pile up during the third act when the revelations and character reveals come into place (eg. how is it that this specific character was able to accomplish all that in that short amount of time.) that detract the plausibility of the situation.

Overall, with clever and immersive storytelling thanks to its creative use of the technological angle of the internet, great performances, rich characterizations, surprising twists and ample amounts of food for thought, director Aneesh Chaganty has made a great feature debut with Searching, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.

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This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenwriters: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian