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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THE PREDATOR

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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

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Movie Review – The Nun

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EXPECTATIONS: And then there were nun.

REVIEW: It seems that every year for the past five years, we have horror projects produced by horror maestro James Wan. One of the major players (alongside Leigh Whannell) who started off the serial killer/torture porn film franchise, Saw; as well as the paranormal haunting film franchise, Insidious; Wan has become a major player in studio horror films today.

Now, he is continuing forward with The Conjuring franchise, which involves the first two Conjuring films (that he directed) as well as producing the two spin-offs involving the demonic doll of Annabelle and its prequel, Annabelle: Creation. With the entire film series grossing more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide, there’s no stopping the milking of the cash cow.

Now, the cash cow gives us The Nun, a spin-off of The Conjuring 2, which involves the demonic character of Valak, a demon nun that haunted Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga) to the depths of her very soul. With her talented younger sister Taissa Farmiga as the lead, along with a talented supporting cast of Demian Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope and Ingrid Bisu and an up-and-rising director Corin Hardy, how could this possibly fail?

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Set in 1952 (19 years before the events of the first Conjuring film), a young nun at a sheltered abbey in Romania takes her own life under mysterious circumstances. A priest with a haunted past (Demian Bichir) and a novitiate who hasn’t taken her final vows (Taissa Farmiga) are sent in by the Vatican to investigate the matter, with the help of a villager with the nickname, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet).

Together, they uncover the order’s unholy secret. Risking not only their lives but their faith and their very souls, they confront a malevolent force in the form of a demonic nun, by the name of Valak (Bonnie Aarons). Spooky events ensue.

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Now where does The Nun rank in terms of the other films in the Conjuring universe? Unfortunately, it ranks near the cesspool that is Annabelle (from the director of Mortal Kombat Annihilation, no less). Let’s begin with the praises that the Lord, I mean, the film earns.

Composer Abel Korzeniowski and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre help make The Nun look like an appealing package, as they both do their best to lend the film an appealingly spooky vibe that hearkens back to critically-acclaimed films with similar subjects like The Devils and Black Narcissus.

The cast do what they can with the material they’re given and they all do an okay job. While Charlotte Hope and Ingrid Bisu are given very little to do with their characters, Taissa Farmiga, who has experience in the horror genre thanks to the anthology series American Horror Story, the horror-comedy The Final Girls and other efforts, does a good job in making her character endearing and sympathetic.

Demian Bichir (A Better Life, The Hateful Eight) is clearly too talented to be in a film like this, but thankfully (like his appearance in Machete Kills), he never gives the impression that he’s above the material and does a good job bring credibility to the part of the haunted priest.

Jonas Bloquet shows the same kind of laid-back attitude he had while appearing in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, but he does bring some welcome levity to the film, coming across as both endearing and cocksure.

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And now we get to the many sins The Nun commits. For a film that is just over 90 minutes, the film is incredibly tedious due to the uninteresting storytelling, with slabs of colourlessly executed exposition about the backstory of the titular character that not only is cliched and derivative of other, better stories, but like all bad prequels of villains like Hannibal Rising and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Beginning, it ruins the alluring and haunting mystique of the character, making it just a one-dimensional scary image ala the painting it really is, nothing more.

Speaking of one-dimensional, the characters are uninteresting and underdeveloped, which wastes the potential of the actors to do better as well as not giving the audience enough for them to care. And if you don’t care about the characters in a horror film, the scares are much harder to come by; even if the scares well-executed.

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But in the case of The Nun, the attempts at scaring the audience are so blatant and calculated, that the jump scares come across as funny, rather than scary. Sticking your hand in something = jump scare. When the soundscape goes silent = jump scare. When an entity moves a fraction of an inch = jump scare. It just goes on and on and on like that ad nauseum; being a film that does nothing entertaining very loudly for a plodding 90 minutes.

Then there’s the forced attempts at humour. While Bloquet does earn some chuckles to his credit, most of the time, the jokes land with a thud, including many jokes about his nationality as well as his attempts to woo Farmiga’s character to no avail.

And on that note, it is with tremendous sorrow to confess that The Nun has broken a sacred vow by committing a sin that films should never, ever commit: the sin of boredom. With boring, cliched attempts of mythology, an underused cast, tedious pacing and hilariously forced attempts at scares and humour, the audience is better off having “nun” of it.

The Nun? More like Nun Like It, Not!

THE NUN

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

Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Demian Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons
Director: Corin Hardy
Screenwriters: James Wan, Gary Dauberman

Movie Review – The Incantation

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EXPECTATIONS: An amiably old-school horror experience.

REVIEW: Another year, another paranormal horror story. Stories about hauntings and the paranormal have been told for thousands of years and of course, we are not going to see less of them any time soon. But it is not how original the story can be that defines whether it is actually good, it is the execution of said story.

In the case of The Incantation, this is writer/director/actor Jude S. Walko‘s directorial debut. Saddled with a low budget, a fresh-faced cast (bar Dean Cain) and sparse (yet beautiful) locations, will the film exceed its meager resources by providing a scary experience?

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The Incantation starts off with Lucy Bellerose (Sam Valentine), a social media socialite arriving in Paris – en route to her recently deceased great uncle’s lavish (and of course, creepy) castle in the French countryside. Apparently, she’s to meet her mother there, attend the funeral services and then she will inherit the entire property.

When she arrives, she’s greeted by a chambermaid named Mary (Beatrice Orro), a local vicar (writer/director Jude S. Walko), a charismatic gravedigger named J.P. (Dylan Kellogg) and an imposing and well-spoken insurance salesman named Abel Baddon (Dean Cain). As Lucy explores the property, she begins to uncover some dark family secrets as well as uncover a few skeletons of her own in the closet.

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Does The Incantation provide a creepy experience? Unfortunately, it’s quite a mixed bag for all involved. But like all mixed bags, there are positives, so let’s start off with those.

The French locations, whether its the castle, the valleys, the catacombs are all fantastic and add a sense of credibility and authenticity to the film, making it easier for the audience to be immersed into the story.

The same goes for the cinematography by Derek Street, which is well-done overall, as it captures the vistas and settings (particularly in scenes involving the young child running through the valleys of long grass) strikingly. Although, the drone cinematography for the scenic wide shots is quite overused.

Speaking of striking, there is Sam Valentine as Lucy Bellerose. She gives a good performance, balancing charisma and fear convincingly while executing the gradual character arc, which show simmering signs of depravity in her nature, quite well. If she comes across better material, she could go on to better things.

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But unfortunately, this is where the better things end as we delve into the negatives. Director Walko tries to go for a slow-burn, old-fashioned type of storytelling, hearkening back to traditional narrative horror tropes that are rarely done today, like the old-fashioned scares like a door closing involuntarily, a sign of light in a dark area or even the sound of a cuckoo clock.

And while the positives mentioned earlier help the story to become more immersive, the attempts at scares become excessive and the script is quite convoluted to the point of tedium. All the goodwill becomes muted and the flaws begin to irk. And by the time the film reaches its conclusion, it becomes hard to muster any

The supporting cast is also quite uninspired. Dean Cain, who’s best known for the TV series Lois and Clark, has played roles of a dark nature before; mostly scumbag-like characters like in the crime-thriller Out of Time and the farcical comedy Rat Race. In the case of The Incantation, he sleepwalks through the part without lending any sense of verve to the part.

Walko himself is quite hard to take seriously, with his stilted line delivery and the same goes for Beatrice Orro and Dylan Kellogg, who plays the love interest as well as the “Basil Exposition” role. In fact, most of the fault lies now with the actors but the script, because the dialogue is both ridiculous and cringing.

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Some scenes involve shoddy ADR (additional dialogue replacement), especially in one scene where Kellogg’s character (J.P, Jean-Pierre) is talking to a florist and most of the words that the actress delivers, her mouth and the delivery look mismatched.

Overall, The Incantation is a disappointment due to the inconsistent performances, problematic script and distracting production gaffes. But there is potential for something better, thanks to Sam Valentine‘s stellar performance, Derek Street‘s striking cinematography, the beautiful locations and Walko’s impassioned insistence on old-fashioned storytelling. The glass is half-empty or half-full. Pick your poison.

Note: There is a mid-credit scene.

The Incantation will be available OnDemand, DVD and Blu-Ray on 7/31.

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Cast: Sam Valentine, Dean Cain, Dylan Kellogg, Beatrice Orro, Jude S. Walko
Director: Jude S. Walko
Screenwriters: Jude S. Walko

Movie Review – Piercing (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that has storytelling similar to a BDSM session, with sadistically funny results.

REVIEW: Before I start this review, it has to be said that this reviewer has a sick and depraved sense of humour. So stepping in to watch this sadistic horror/comedy film Piercing for Sydney Film Fest 2018, my expectations were sky-high.

Adapted from a novel by acclaimed author Ryu Murakami, who is famous for novels that get into the sinister nature of the human condition in the backdrop of Japan. With novels like Audition (which was later adapted by director Takashi Miike), In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies (adapted in to a South Korean film, Coin Locker Girl, by director Han Jun-hee), we’re venturing into some very dark territory.

And we have the two talented leads. Christopher Abbott, who’s most well-known for his sweet, tame role in the TV series, Girls, and was most recently in the divisive horror film, Trey Edward Shult‘s It Comes At Night, steps into a role that is uncharted territory for him. Whereas fellow Australian actress Mia Wasikowska has played subtly unhinged roles before like in Park Chan-wook‘s Stoker, Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive and Gus Van Sant‘s Restless.

And the film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, who made the strikingly atmospheric monochrome horror film The Eyes of My Mother, and his next project is directing the reboot of The Grudge, starring personal favourite Andrea Riseborough. So with all this talent of riches and great source material to adapt, will Piercing be a worthwhile endeavour or will it be another example of the sophomore slump?

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The film starts off with a startling image of Reed (Christopher Abbott) staring at his newborn son, whilst gripping an ice-pick. With one of the many demented visions Reed has in the film, the newborn son speaks to him, saying “You know what we have to do, right?”

With the support of his unknowing wife, Mona (Laia Costa), he goes on a business trip. Reed checks into a swanky hotel and arranges for a call girl to come over for him to stage the perfect murder, in order to satiate his inner urges.

With the murder all planned out intricately in his mind, complete with miming out the actions with sound effects of limbs being mutilated and so on, it will be an event that is surely to succeed. Assuming that the call girl doesn’t go off the rails. Enter Jackie, played by Mia Wasikowska.

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What begins as a potentially grisly serial killer film becomes an increasingly demented macabre screwball comedy. With a mix of genres and tones, it takes very assured hands from the cast and crew to walk the tightrope with perfect balance and thankfully, they all pull it off with aplomb.

As expected, director Nicolas Pesce brings his stylistic aesthetic to the film and it brings an enjoyably surreal and dream-like atmosphere, reaching towards a neo-retro sensibility. It comes complete with lovingly art-directed interiors (the skyscrapers housing these rooms are miniatures), distinct visuals captured by cinematographer Zack Galler, sharp editing by Sofia Subercaseaux (whose work is on another SFF 2018 entry, Sebastian Silva‘s Tyrel) and great choices in the soundtrack (mostly compositions from past films by Bruno Nicolai and rock band Goblin) and they both add to the audience immersion of what they can handle when the film will comes up with its bonkers details.

And what the film comes up with is brutal violence, psychological mind-games and pitch-black macabre humour; all exceptionally well-executed, pun intended. One of those details include a spider that looks like it comes out of the mind of of 80’s David Cronenberg. And the humour is of the nature that is sure to elicit awkward fits of laughter, reminiscent of David Slade‘s Hard Candy or Mitchell Lichtenstein‘s Teeth, both horror films where women turn the tables on men. Major props must go to Daniel Sheppard and the sound department, as the sound mix adds punch to the violence, as well as the dark sense of humour i.e. the scene where Reed acts out his actions.

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The storytelling is also noteworthy due to how Pesce tries to screw with his audience and their expectations. First of all, Wasikowska’s character is never depicted as a victim, which makes one question who has the real position of power, making the film a fun game of cat-and-mouse. Second of all, the film shows what its intent is from the very opening shot, mixing comedy with grisly details convincingly as well as providing a litmus test as to whether the audience can handle what is to come. And last of all is the ending, which is so off-kilter and yet so well-timed in how abrupt it is, it comes off as surprisingly chippy.

Yet none of these things would work without the talented leads to keep the story grounded. Laia Costa is likable in a small supporting role as Reed’s wife, who’s more supporting of Reed than one would think. Christopher Abbott does a great job with imbuing Reed with much-needed facets of humanity, making him a character that the audience can empathize with, however much that may be. Think Patrick Bateman, but with much lower self-esteem.

And there’s Mia Wasikowska, who is a captivating firecracker of a woman as Jackie. Usually, female characters in a film such as this (or in many film genres, for that matter) are there to make the male leading characters more enlightened; basically supporting them for what they are going through. Or how female characters in horror films are always in peril and never really any sense of agency or autonomy in the story. In the case of Piercing, that never happens, as Jackie not only has the same amount of oddities and quirks, but she may be more unhinged than Reed is. And on that level, Wasikowska delivers in what may be her most fun performance yet.

Overall, Piercing is a sadistically fun time at the movies with its violent proclivities, its macabre sense of humour, its increasingly insane storytelling chops and of course, director Nicolas Pesce and leads Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska guiding the ship. Highly recommended to those with strong stomachs and those with sick and depraved minds, like yours truly.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic lead performances

Pesce’s delightfully vibrant and prodding direction

Cinematography, sound design and score are all well-executed

Balance between the grisly and comedic is well-maintained

CONS

Abrupt ending

SCORE: 8/10

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

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Screenwriters: Nicolas Pesce, based on the novel by Ryu Murakami

Movie Review – Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (Far East Film Festival 20)

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EXPECTATIONS: A sub-par found footage entry from the ever-going underwhelming entries of Korean horror.

REVIEW: Found-footage films is the type of genre that has been around longer than one would think. Going back to the 80’s with cult classics like Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood to 90’s films like Man Bites Dog and then the big milestone in the genre, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. The one that bought the genre into the mainstream and it thoroughly convinced people that the events in the film were real due to its realistic depictions.

And with later entries like Paranormal Activity, REC and Cloverfield, it showed that found-footage is the type of genre that isn’t one to be messed with. But the genre began to die down over the years with mediocre entries and over-saturation of said genre. But most of the time, it was because they did not adhere to the rules of found-footage. Here are the rules to make a good found-footage film:

1. Footage must not be filmed professionally.

2. Actors must not be recognizable nor act like they are in a film.

3. Dialogue must sound realistic and not scripted.

4. There must be no use of a musical score or non-diegetic sound.

5. The footage must end in a tragic manner in order to be “found”.

6. There must be a convincing reason for why the camera is still rolling.

7. Cut to the chase of the story that the footage is made for.

If any of these rules are broken, it takes the audience out of the film and makes it easy for them to pick apart the film to shreds due to the film’s lack of verisimilitude. But the rules can be bent, as with films like Unfriended showing that non-diegetic sound and the use of music can compliment the film.

Now we have South Korea’s entry into the found-footage genre, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Considering the entries of horror from South Korea has been quite inconsistent lately and this is actually the first found-footage film from South Korea ever, expectations are quite high. Does the film do the genre proud?

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In 1979, 42 patients at Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital killed themselves and the hospital director went missing. Rumors and strange stories about the now abandoned Gonjiam Mental Hospital abound.

An internet broadcaster recruits a handful of people for their ‘experience the horror’ show at Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital. They are to explore the haunted asylum and stream it live on their online show. To attract more viewers, the show hosts play tricks on the guests, but things start to get out of control after they sneak into the place.

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Does Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum live up to the high standards of the found-footage genre? No, but it does provide an above-average experience as it adheres to most of the found-footage rules whilst delivering some true, genuine scares.

Let’s see how it goes by the rules. For the first rule, in the story, the film utilizes the latest technology in film gear including digital camera with mounts and the use of drones and it is used quite well in the film, particularly when it shows its flaws like fuzziness and lack of a strong connection. The use of technology also makes the character interactions in the first act feel integral and natural, since the story states that the footage is shown in a livestream.

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As for the actors, most of them are unknown and thankfully, they all give performances that rarely feel jarring and feel natural and genuine. Even when they feel quite jarring, it fits within the scope of the story. Moon Ye-won in particular runs through the gamut of emotions here and she does a good job.

As for the dialogue and character motivations, the script is well-written enough to convey the characters quite well and they rarely make odd decisions that feel scripted, except for one major one that feels quite unbelievable, even if it fit that certain character. The script also provides a good reason as to why the camera is still rolling, relating to social media and the use of the internet for easy fame, satiating greed.

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As for the filmmaking, the jump scares that happen always occur with diegetic sound, whether it would be the sound of a door slam, a noise a person makes or the use of breathing and the gust of a wind, the sound design is quite effective in amplifying up the tension. It also helps that there is no use of a musical score, except for the webcam show segments, which adds to the realism of the storytelling.

Director Jung Bum-sik relies on the power of suggestion, the sounds of silence and the less-is-more kind of filmmaking to great effect rather than the use of jump scares, blood and gore or even actual violence. He does crib from films like The Blair Witch Project, particularly with scenes set in the dark forest, but they are still quite effective in their own right.

Overall, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is an above-average entry in the found-footage genre. With genuine scares, a fitting cast and a strong adherence to verisimilitude from Bum-sik’s direction, it’s a haunting experience that’s bound to spook a few frights out of the audience.

Quickie Review

PROS

Well-executed scares and sustained tension

Adheres to the found-footage rules quite well

Overall good performances

CONS

Derivative at times

Some overacting

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Wi Ha-joon, Park Ji-hyun, Oh Ah-yeon, Moon Ye-won, Park Sung-hoon, Lee Seung-wook, Yoo Je-yoon, Park Ji-a
Director: Jung Bum-sik
Screenwriters: Jung Bum-sik, Park Sang-min

Movie Review – Guardians of the Tomb

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun B-movie creature feature along the lines of Big-Ass Spider.

REVIEW: It is great to watch films that stimulate the mind and dazzle the eye through fantastic filmmaking chops and directorial skill, but sometimes it’s nice to sit back and watch an unpretentious B-movie that simply exists to entertain. And one of the best genres to provide just that are creature features.

With recent films like Kong: Skull Island and Big-Ass Spider; or classics like Jaws and Alien; or even so-bad-it’s-good efforts like Troll 2 and Zombeavers, these are films that know what they are, achieve what they say on the tin and they do it well, with genuine effort.

But these types of films can go very wrong and it can be narrowed down to two reasons: putting in a bad effort and putting effort to be bad. Putting in a bad effort would result in films like The Swarm, which was ripe with potential, but ended up being boring. Or there are films that are deliberately terrible like Sharknado, which adds a sour taste of post-modernism and self-awareness that excuses bad filmmaking and shoddy skills.

So where does the China/Australian creature feature Guardians of the Tomb fit in? The film is directed by Kimble Rendall, who directed the goofy shark film, Bait 3D and it stars a mix of Chinese, American and Australian talent. So will it be an entertaining film for earned or unearned reasons? Or will it be a costly and incompetent bore?

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A team of scientists who lose a colleague in an ancient labyrinth while trying to make the discovery of a century. The group must battle their way through a swarm of deadly, man-eating funnel web spiders and discover the secret behind the arachnid’s power and intelligence.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Did I just copy that synopsis word-for-word from Wikipedia? Why yes, yes I did. At least in this case, I admitted it and I credited it where it’s from but in the case of Guardians of the Tomb, which steals from many, many films, it just comes off as lazy and stupid. To think that this film was credited to four writers. Four people wrote this thing!

You could make a drinking game out of it, pointing out things like this part is from Jurassic Park (the helicopter landing), this part is from Jurassic World (Kellan Lutz’s character), this part is from Aliens (the introduction of Eva Liu’s character), this part is from Psycho (the jump scare involving a corpse and a revolving chair), it just goes on and on and on. You can just hear the producers of the film high-fiving each other as they came up with this thing. Funnily enough, two of the credited writers are film producers themselves, so I guess it’s quite a fitting analogy.

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But first, let’s start off positively before an aneurysm might start off. The CGI of the spiders themselves is quite well-executed (yet jarring with the practical effects surrounding then) and Li Bingbing treats the film with utmost sincerity, as she seems to be the only actor in the film that’s actually trying to make the film good. Or it could be that her acting efforts (as well as her producing efforts) were made to make China look good due to news that she tried to incite propaganda about medical care in China and Australia. But that’s another story.

And that is it for the positives because Guardians of the Tomb is complete garbage. Known under many titles like 7 Guardians of the Tomb aka Nest 3D aka Funnel-Web aka Nest 3D and the Search for the Venom of Eternity, that alone shows that the filmmakers (or anyone really) had no clue with what they wanted to make.

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Let’s start with the actors. While Li Bingbing is fine, the rest of the cast are all either slumming it or clearly can’t act to save their life. Kellan Lutz, whom I have nothing against as a person, has always been a block of wood in films like The Legend of Hercules and the Twilight series, but in the case of Guardians of the Tomb or whatever the hell it’s called, he is saddled with a character that is clearly Chris Pratt’s character in Jurassic World. The entrance is the same, the costumes are the same and even some of the dialogue is the same, word-for-word. But clearly without the charisma or indeed the talent.

At one point, he introduces himself to Li’s character and he says to her to follow his rules because he’s the man. And it was at this point that I wanted Li’s character to punch him in the face for that chauvinistic, self-entitled attitude. And his character is practically drooled on by Stef Dawson’s character, which is just annoying, despite Dawson’s likable presence.

Shane Jacobson can be a good comedic actor with films like the mockumentary Kenny, but here he’s saddled with terrible lines of dialogue (involving Twitter and Willy Wonka of all things), but what makes it worse is that half of the lines are thrown in the film via ADR (additional dialogue recording) but it’s done so badly, it feels like leftovers from an audio commentary that was meant to disparage the film. And the other half of his lines are variations of “We should leave now.” Boy, did I regret not listening to him.

And then there’s Kelsey Grammer, who has a character that might as well have “I AM EVIL, PAY ME NOW!” tattooed on his forehead. He genuinely looks angry to be in the film and it becomes a waiting game just to see him let loose and when he does, it’s too little, too late. He does however have the best moment in the film where he explains his motives by actually yelling “I’M A BUSINESSMAN!”.

And of course we have Jason Chong, who plays a character that might as well be a cardboard cutout with a tape recorder attached to it, playing lines of plot exposition, because that’s all he spouts out, just in case the people in the back of the cinema can’t hear, understand or even care! And there’s Wu Chun, the pretty boy of the film who clearly can’t have his appearance ruined despite the fact that he has been lost over the course of many days in a nest of spiders.

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If you know your creature features and especially the working of the China-market, you can easily guess who is going to survive or die in the film. But honestly, all of these faults can be excused or even glossed over if the film actually had a sense of fun, but it never elicits any sense of thrill, suspense, tension or even unintentional laughter. It’s an absolute bore that believes that it’s delivering entertainment and characters worth caring for.

There are scenes that are meant to be dramatically involving, but they end up being incredibly tedious and overbearing with the point it is trying to make (Li’s brother, Wu Chun is lost out in the desert and it’s conveyed as a metaphor as their younger selves being trapped in a maze. Really?!). And the filmmakers are so intent on thinking that this would make us care for the characters that they repeat the same flashbacks over and over, that I’m sure that they take 20% of the total runtime. They even include dramatic flashbacks for Lutz’s character and integrate real footage of people dying in earthquakes. So not only does it make the film tedious, but it also make it tasteless as well.

The spiders themselves are just that: spiders. There’s no ingenuity or inspiration in the portrayal of them and the big spider of them all is as big as a turkey platter, meaning that it has no menace whatsoever. And the climax of the film, which is clearly meant to be some big battle, is so anti-climactic that people in the audience would demand refunds. There was no battle, there was no conflict, the film just stops, with a stupid jump scare that if you didn’t see it coming, you clearly fell asleep.

With films like this, The Dragon Pearl and Bleeding Steel, if this is the best the Chinese and Australians can do with their collaborations, then they should just cut ties because films like this shouldn’t be in the cinema. Guardians of the Tomb is a terrible, incompetent, cynical cash-grab that everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Li Bingbing’s performance

CONS

Everything else!

SCORE: 2/10

Cast: Li Bingbing, Kellan Lutz, Kelsey Grammer, Wu Chun, Stef Dawson, Shane Jacobson, Ryan Johnson, Jason Chong
Director: Kimble Rendall
Screenwriters: Kimble Rendall, Gary Hamilton, Jonathan Scanlon, Paul Staheli

Movie Review – Snow Woman (Japan Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something appealingly surreal, beautiful and thematically powerful.

REVIEW: Kwaidan films (literally translated as “ghost stories”) are films I was always fascinated with ever since I saw films like Ringu. Now I know that this isn’t a prime example, but it got me exploring the classic genre entries like Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Ghost of Yotsuya, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and others.

The incredibly mannered feel, the beautiful artifice of the production design, the meditative pacing and the lifeless yet brimming acting; those are just some of the many things of a Kwaidan film that draws me in.

So when I heard that director/actress Kiki Sugino, whom I’ve only seen in an acting capacity in films like Kim Ki-duk’s Time and Koji Fukada’s Au Revoir L’Ete, was making a modernization of Japanese Kwaidan folklore, I was intrigued. It also helped that the trailer for the film had me sold on the tone of the film. So does Snow Woman succeed as a throwback to the Japanese ghost stories of yore?

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The film starts off in black-and-white, in a medieval setting (or maybe it doesn’t?) and we see Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and his aging mentor Mosaku get caught in a snowstorm. When Mosaku is too exhausted to carry on, they seek shelter in a dilapidated hut in the woods.

While they sleep, a ghostly Snow Woman (known as a yuki-onna) sneaks into the hut and gently breathes her frostbite-inducing breath on Mosaku’s face, gradually killing him. Minokichi wakes and witnesses this, but the Snow Woman (Kiki Sugino) spares him, on condition he never tells anyone what he has seen.

After an unspecified amount of time, he meets the beautiful Yuki (also Kiki Sugino) in the woods and falls in love with her. She kind of resembles the Snow Woman, but she has no background, no family, no previous life. If Minokichi knows who she is (and there might be an inkling to this), he isn’t going to talk about it to anyone. Especially her.

The two marry and have a daughter, Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi), who blossoms into a lovely teenager. But over time, unexplained deaths begin occurring in the woods in the presence of Yuki and/or Ume. And much to Minokichi’s horror, the victims are found scarred with the unmistakable look of frostbite.

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Does the film stack up as a modernization of the famous ghost tale as well as being a good film in of itself? Thankfully, yes. While the script (co-written by Kiki Sugino) is faithful to the source material, Sugino adds enough flourishes and amps up the character dynamics to get her directorial stamp into the mix.

The first ten minutes of the film are absolutely stunning. The black-and-white cinematography and the swell musical score all feel like they were swiped from classic Kwaidan films and Sugino is dead-on as the titular character. All of these elements are combined to make a promising intro that foreshadows many promising elements as well as feeling like a great short film in of itself.

After the title card shows up, director Sugino starts to modernize the source material by playfully subverting audience expectations of the genre. For example, the time period the film is set. With the forest setting and houses, we are led to believe that the film is set in the Medieval era, but later in the film, we see other settings like factories and we’re now led to believe that the film is set in a war era.

Another example is how the characters interact with one another. In cases of Kwaidan films, when a person encounters a ghost, it’s usually that they are scarred for life and if they ever witness anything that would bring back memories of that encounter, they would cower in fear. But in the case of Snow Woman, when Minokichi encounters Yuki (who is a dead ringer of the Snow Woman), he recognizes the resemblance, but he doesn’t hesitate and continues to keep her accompanied to the point that the two get married and start a family.

The input of modern relationship social-isms as well as deep, seething curiosities add a certain refreshing outlook to what could have been seen as old-fashioned or esoteric to today’s audiences. Even the sex scene between the two characters (set in a onsen) is surprisingly racy in comparison to the typical Kwaidan film.

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The cinematography by Shogo Ueno becomes more crisp after the title card ends, as well as the musical score by Sow Jow becomes more electronic, rather than the usual woodwind sounds that accompany the usual Kwaidan film, lending a sense of realism rather than the artifice the genre is known for.

The meditative pacing is still in place and while it does lend a chilling feel at times (especially in scenes set in the nighttime), most of the time, the pacing is utilized to gain a more intimate feel for the characters, as Sugino relies on long-takes during character moments, which allow the actors to shine.

Speaking about the actors, the leads are great in their parts that they imbue life to the characters as well as look like they belong in the period setting, unlike those who have a contemporary look. Kiki Sugino nails the look and the haunting feel as the titular character, while imbuing a sense of sympathy in her ghostly actions (another genre subversion), while making Yuki, her second role, feel more than just the trope of the supportive wife.

Aoki Munetaka is great as Minokichi, as he conveys the inner torment of fear, the contradictions of his role as the patriarch as well as being convincing as a loving father. The scenes they share together have a palpable sense of intimacy that always foreshadow a conflict that is absolutely inevitable and it pays off beautifully in the climax. The supporting cast all do fine in their roles, but Sugino and Munetaka are the most notable.

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As for its flaws, for those expecting a ghost story with actual shocks and scares will be disappointed, since it never really aims for those targets. Aside from that, the most nagging flaw is the film does suffer from its storytelling ellipsis, since it does away with character backstories and motivations. But the editing and the script does make the film feel like we’re witnessing a fever dream at times, relying on what the audience should feel rather than what the audience should know.

Simple scenes of conversation are edited as if they are cut off in mid-question while scenes supposedly set in dreams are rarely ever signaled as dreams unless the score picks up. It may be a bit disorienting, alienating or even quite maddening, but it eventually becomes rewarding emotionally, thematically, and even takes flight.

Overall, Snow Woman is a great modernization of a classical Japanese ghost story, with fine performances, fantastic cinematography and a fitting musical score, but what makes the film stand out is its refreshing details and the attempts of subverting the Kwaidan genre. While the film doesn’t aim for more of a mainstream execution in terms of scares, the film has enough palpable atmosphere and filmmaking chops to make Snow Woman a film not to be examined, but to be experienced.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the leads

Beautiful cinematography and stirring music add to the film

Great touches in refreshing and modernizing the kwaidan genre

CONS

The story is too elliptical for its own good

Those expecting scares will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kiki Sugino, Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi, Shiro Sano, Kumi Mizuno
Director: Kiki Sugino
Screenwriters: Mitsuo Shigeta, Kiki Sugino, Seigan Tominomori based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn

Movie Review – Flatliners (2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A bland, uninspired remake.

REVIEW: When a film isn’t press-screened or has its review embargo lifted on the same day of release, you know that something isn’t up to snuff. And this is what is happening with the latest remake (although, in recent reports, it is claimed to be a sequel) of Flatliners.

But the film has assembled quite a line-up of talent. An good director, a talented cast, an experienced crew and a bonkers premise that could be well-utilized in this day of age. So will the film surprise and actually shows signs of life or will the film be dead on arrival?

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Five medical students, led by Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) embark on a daring and dangerous experiment to discover if there is anything to be experienced beyond death. It is there where the group decides to trigger near-death experiences by stopping their hearts for short periods of time.

As each of them go through their experience, becoming more risky and impulsive, each must confront the sins from their past while facing the paranormal consequences of journeying to the other side.

I’m just gonna lay it down flat on the (operating?) table and say this remake is nothing as bad as the film release may imply, but there really isn’t much of anything to say that is praiseworthy or even worthy of anything.

The original 1990 film, directed by Joel Schumacher, had a goofy tone that varies between sincere and surreal that it becomes quite fun and thankfully for the most part, the remake actually keeps that tone in check, even within the confines of being released in 2017.

There are some scenes that are so out-of-place that you can’t help but laugh, even if in retrospect if the laugh was more out of embarrassment rather than actually being earned. An example is a scene in the film where one character has just been “flatlined” and he (or she) escapes the confines of his (or her) parentage to the point where he (or she) becomes fully committed in a night of prurience.

Although it retains the goofiness of the original, what it lacks is its inspired visuals. Say what you want about director Joel Schumacher but the man never slacks off in making his films look stylish with either characters with big hair, back-lit sets, nipples on suits, overstated colour schemes and energetic camera movement. But in the case of the remake, director Niels Arden Oplev does absolutely nothing to stand out from the crowd as he adopts a sleek, yet bland look that we’ve seen a hundred times over from many other films.

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The cast, like the original, give fine performances and make the most out of the material. Ellen Page lends gravitas to her role and grounds the film; ditto for Diego Luna as Ray, the rational one of the group; Nina Dobrev is quite good as Marlo, who has feelings of inadequacy; Kiersey Clemons (who’s fantastic in Dope) is enjoyably moody as Sophia, who feels suffocated in the confines and expectations of her life and lastly James Norton, who makes his brash character quite likable.

Speaking of likable, there are a few changes in the film that was nice to see. One of them does make the film a bit more unoriginal but it lends a much-needed sense of threat, which lead to a minor shock (keyword: minor) that got me quite a bit. But the filmmaking at hand does its best (or worst?) to alleviate all of that with telegraphed scares and sloppy editing.

There’s one scene in the film where a character is being threatened and is stabbed with a knife in the hand. But in the very next scene, the character is fine and dandy (with a minor bandage on the hand) as if nothing had happened. Where’s the tension and payoff from that?

There really isn’t much more to say about the Flatliners remake except that it is a completely unnecessary, if not terrible piece of work. Nothing to mourn about, but no evidence to witness that would be seen as true signs of life.

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Quickie Review

I can’t be bothered, to be honest.

SCORE: 4/10

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

Cast: Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, Kiersey Clemons, James Norton, Beau Mirchoff, Kiefer Sutherland
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenwriters: Peter Filardi (original story), Ben Ripley

Movie Review – IT (2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that will live up to the vast potential of the novel.

REVIEW: In the early ages of youth in a person’s life, there is always that one scary story, whether it’s told in a form of a book, a tale or a film, that will inherently scar a person for life when one witnesses it. And in my case (as well as many), that is the story of Stephen King‘s IT.

There’s just something eerily demonic about the presence of a clown in the eyes of a child. Whether its the surrealism of the world the clown is originated from or the twisted view of how a clown needs the presence of children to technically survive, King twisted that point of view and made it into a wonderfully demented horror story as well as an exploration of fears of the youth.

After the novel, we had the 1990’s mini-series, which was questionably successful (as are most Stephen King film adaptations) as a film, but one thing is for certain. And that was Tim Curry as Pennywise, the dancing clown. His performance and his combination of menace and sadistic humour still haunts people to this day.

So when I heard that Hollywood was planning to adapt the Stephen King novel, I was excited. Especially when Cary Fukanaga (director of Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, Beasts of No Nation and the first season of True Detective) was named as the director of the film(s) and Will Poulter (Son of Rambow and the upcoming Detroit) as Pennywise. But my expectations turned quite sour when the two left the project due to creative differences/scheduling conflicts.

And now we have Andy Muschietti, the director of Mama, a good horror film that was more touching than terrifying. And with a cast of new young talent as the kids of The Losers Club and Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the film kicked into gear. Will the film live up to the source material and scare the wits out of everyone? Or will it fall flat like a low-budget practical effect of a giant spider?

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The film starts off with a kid, who is playing with a paper boat out in rainy weather and then it suddenly falls in a sewer drain. As the kid tries to retrieve the boat, the sinister and demonic clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) appears and allures him with sadistically amusing chit-chat until he lays his jaws on him.

This sets off the events for The Losers Club, a group of young social misfits, who decide to fight the demonic clown to prevent children from being abducted. The club consists of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the leader of the group who has a stutter and has never gotten over the fact that his younger brother had disappeared; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a knowledgeable boy with an inkling for New Kids on the Block and is being bullied for being overweight; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the lone female member of the club who is struggling through poverty as well as harbouring a dark secret involving her father; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), the joker, bigmouth and attention seeker of the club; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), the religious kid of the club, who has problems with being left alone; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), the hypochondriac of the club who could have been kept hermetically sealed in his home if his mother had gotten her way and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the last member to join the club, who is home-schooled and has problems with finding his place in the world.

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The opening scene of the film is basically a litmus test of whether you’ll like the film or not. If violence towards young children on-screen puts you off in a big way, then stay away from this film because the predicaments that they go through are quite harrowing stuff, especially ones that do NOT involve Pennywise. Scenes of bullying, domestic abuse, potential rape are there and the film does not hold back on those elements.

Ironically enough, the scares involving the fantasy and Pennywise are sometimes incredibly overstated that they would scare one into laughter. Whether that is seen as a bad thing is entirely up to one’s perspective, but since Pennywise is a clown, it ends up being incredibly fitting.

If you can stomach the violence, then you will be able to experience the fun, nostalgic, bonkers experience that is IT, which most importantly captures the spirit of the novel. Director Andy Muschietti captures the 90’s setting really well, without resorting to excessive use of period music or fashion, but more on filmmaking techniques thanks to acclaimed Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and composer Benjamin Wallfisch, who both capture the nostalgia, the wholesomeness and the horrific feel of the story. Even the font of the opening credits feels like they would be used in films of the 90’s.

The film is quite faithful to the novel but it does tone down the rough edges as well as the controversial moments i.e. the sex scene involving minors in the climax. Characters are also changed slightly to positive effect i.e. Richie Tozier no longer makes jokes that involve racial epithets and caricatures.

But let’s get down to the real question that needs to be answered. Is the film scary? For the most part, yes. Muschietti executes the scares quite well, as he uses practical effects (including extensive make-up effects by Amalgamated Dynamics) to create some horrific imagery like the leper, the creature from the painting and of course, Pennywise himself. But the scares are sometimes hindered by wobbly CGI, but it can be easily overlooked, since the rest of the production values are ironclad.

The film does resort to jump scares but Muschietti never overuses that technique and the noises are always accompanied by something that would make such noises, unlike inferior horror films which would have scenes where loud noises were obviously put in place during post-production.

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And like most great horror films, the scares only truly work if the audience cares about the characters and the young ensemble cast are all fantastic in their roles. So much so, that this may be the best ensemble cast of 2017. Everyone is just on point that the upcoming chapter would have a lot to live up to in order to cast the adult roles of these characters.

Bill Skarsgard lives up to the family name and provides a great performance as Pennywise, although he is sometimes overshadowed by the effects utilized to create the terrifying effect of the character. But when he makes his physical presence felt, he makes a positive impression. It certainly helps that he stands at 6’4!

Jaeden Lieberher (who resembles a young Ben Foster) is committed as Bill, as he portrays the guilt and determination of the character really well. Sophia Lillis (who resembles a young Amy Adams, *hint hint*) is fantastic as Beverly, as she portrays the allure, the suffering and the determination of the character convincingly. The scenes involving her character and her father are truly intense and she handles it like a pro.

Finn Wolfhard (famous for the Netflix show Stranger Things) is a hoot as Richie, as he handles the profanity, innuendos and quips with class and thankfully, great timing. The rest of the cast are all up to their level like Jack Dylan Grazer as the amusingly panicky Eddie and Jeremy Ray Taylor as the shy yet lovable Ben, who has fantastic interactions with Lillis. Special mention must go to Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton, who plays the bully Henry Bowers, as Hamilton portrays the role with such conviction that it becomes easy to see him as psychotic and not histrionic.

As much as good IT is, there are some problems and it is mainly due to the condensing of the source material. Some of the events of the novel are cut down and lose their effect in the process like the character development of Mike, which is quite rushed, as well as the character development of Bowers, who becomes increasingly terrifying a little bit too quick.

Also, the tone of the film does shift haphazardly, whether going for fantasy to reality or going for something lighthearted to sadistic. In one particular scene, there is a scene of bullying at first, then it changes to something more fun due to a certain choice of music and it ends up being quite jarring and off-putting. And at 135 minutes, the film does run a bit too long and it easily could’ve trimmed some scenes to make it an even 120 minute run-time.

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But overall, IT succeeds as an incredibly fun film that provides ample scares, exemplary cinematography and music by Chung Chung-hoon and Benjamin Wallfisch, a genuine love for Stephen King‘s source material and of course, a fantastic cast of young talented performances that surely will go far in their careers. Don’t float! Run to see IT!

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting from the ensemble cast

Stellar cinematography and music that captures the wholesome feel of the 90’s

Ample amount of scares that elicit both fun and terror

Very faithful to the novel

CONS

Overlong running time

Abrupt tone shifts

Condensing of the source material result in story hiccups

SCORE: 8/10

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

Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukanaga and Gary Dauberman

Movie Review – The Forest of Lost Souls (Sydney Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Artistically fulfilling, yet cinematically unrewarding.

REVIEW: Out of all the genres in cinema, horror is, in my opinion, is the best outlet for creativity within storytelling. Whether in a metaphorical sense, a symbolic sense or just nuts-and-bolts mainstream filmmaking, horror can engage, thrill, scare and surprise, regardless of what it looks like on the outside.

Case in point, David Cronenberg‘s The Fly. With a Cronenberg film involving a mutant fly, you expect the body horror and blood and gore. But underneath all of that is a tragic love story and the ramifications that one would face when a loved one is going through terminal sickness and how it affects the relationship. The best horror films tend to be symbolic of great importance and that is the reason they earn their status.

In the case of The Forest of Lost Souls,  it does feels very similar to the other Portuguese horror film, The Eyes of My Mother, due to the same slight running time, the black and white cinematography and the fact that they both combine grindhouse tropes with an arthouse aesthetic. Whereas The Eyes of My Mother deals with themes of loss and loneliness, The Forest of Lost Souls deals with coming-of-age, finding one’s place in the world and differing views of death.

With all of that in mind, will The Forest of Lost Souls succeed in both providing sufficient entertainment for horror fans as well as giving some food for thought for those looking for something different?

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A young woman, Carolina, and an old man, Ricardo, fatefully meet in a forest, which is famous for being a place where people decide to commit suicide. They decide to briefly postpone killing themselves in order to explore the forest and also to continue talking to one another, as Ricardo and Carolina find themselves intrigued by one another.

However as they go further into the forest it becomes clear that one of the pair has other reasons for being in the forest and is not who they would have the other believe them to be and is actually more than meets the eye.

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The Forest of Lost Souls is thankfully a very distinct, brisk, unconventional horror film that delivers a huge impact despite the limited resources and short running time would lead you to believe.

The obvious draw of the film is the black and white cinematography by Francisco Lobo and it is a fantastic complement to the surreal and dreamlike world that director Jose Pedro Lopes was going for. Similar to the black and white sequences in Lars Von Trier‘s Antichrist, it adds a surprising amount of tension and weirdness that it can easily put the audience at unease.

The element of surrealism is also counterbalance by the grounded nature of the story, which is a major factor of what makes the film scary. Based on a real place called Aokigahara (aka The Suicide Forest or Sea of Trees), people venture into the forest to commit suicide. But in the case of The Forest of Lost Souls, it serves as a eerie backdrop for what is essentially an origin story for the antagonist of the film. And it is executed so well that it feels grounded and it could possibly happen in real life. The fact that the film doesn’t cop out in its conclusion makes it linger disturbingly in one’s mind.

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The use of modern technology and social media is also dealt with rather well; especially with how it is incredibly easy to interact (which is a nice way of putting it) with other people as well as how we present ourselves to the world. It is the kind of effort that Lopes commits to his film that makes it more substantial that one would surmise, even with the short running time.

But does the meat-and-potatoes tropes of horror pack a punch? Yes, it certainly does. The violence and kills are sudden, understated and tastefully done; and that is thanks to the tension wrung from the cinematography, the bizarrely retro score by Emanuel Gracio and the assured direction by Lopes. Some of the shots where the antagonist is lurking behind people or in the background is reminiscent of John Carpenter‘s Halloween.

Mafalda Banquart in The Forest of Lost Souls

The acting is also noteworthy with the subtlety and ingenuity of the performances. Daniela Love is great as the impulsive and knowledgeable teen, Carolina, while Jorge Mota is compelling as the conflicted family man, Ricardo. The two share an understated and natural chemistry with one another and it makes the first act of the film very serene. But of course, there’s more lurking beneath the surface when one of them has more than a few demons up their sleeve. The supporting cast are all fine but it is Love that stands out from the rest (no pun intended).

As for its flaws, the first act may be a bit slow and the abrupt change in tone in the second act may turn off viewers, as it almost turns into an entirely different film. But considering the flaws, The Forest of Lost Souls is a worthwhile horror experience thanks to its grounded story, Lopes‘ assured direction, Lobo‘s beautifully surreal cinematography, Gracio‘s retro creepy musical score and Love‘s standout lead performance.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances (especially from Daniella Love)

Assured direction from Lopes

A creepy retro score from Gracio

Beautifully surreal cinematography from Lobos

Grounded storytelling adds to the tension

CONS

Slow pacing in the first act

Abrupt tone change in the second act

SCORE: 8/10

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

Cast: Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, Ligia Roque, Lilia Lopes, Tiago Jacome
Director: Jose Pedro Lopes
Screenwriter: Jose Pedro Lopes