Friday 22 December 2017

Movie Review - Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars and its modern reboot has been naught but a winner for Disney's newest moneymaking machine; 2015's The Force Awakens becomes the highest grossing film in North America and one of the highest globally, with 2016's Rogue One earning similar accolades on its record breaking debut. Said hype remains intact as The Last Jedi sets more box office records after its first weekend and looks poised to be another global blockbuster that'll outmatch most rivals, and so its a big shame that the film's overall quality doesn't quite match the unparalleled heights of its box office receipts.

Continuing on from The Force Awakens with the First Order reigning over the Rebellion, The Last Jedi weaves together multiple plot threads throughout its beefy 152 minute run time; Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for his assistance in fighting the First Order. At the same time, the Rebellion find themselves cornered by the enemy and forced to take desperate measures to fend off the threats that await - threats in the form of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his own supreme leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). It's sort of hard to explain it all seeing as all these plot threads are interwoven without much care and focus.

Referring to this messy plot brings to mind the film's key issue - Rian Johnson's flimsy script which, despite a decent start and gripping finale, struggles to maintain a coherent structure throughout everything in between. The film switches between largely dull sequences with Rey and Luke as forced morals and bizarre tonal shifts come into play, as well as entertaining if overlong action sequences with protagonists Finn (John Boyega) and several newcomers alongside familiar faces. There's a lot of visual thrills in many of these action scenes, though many also drag and sometimes feel far too excessive and bloated.

Characters? Way too many, and the end result is a generally clumsy mishmash of people trying to hog the limelight. Scenes shared between Rey and Luke have the potential to be far more effective and engaging, but the aforementioned tonal shifts and poor pacing make them come and go with little impact - if anything cutting them down a bit would've made things less dull, despite Hamill's solid performance and some likeable humourous moments. When we zoom back to the struggling Rebellion lead by Princess Leai (Carrie Fisher), and then over to Finn and his sidekick Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), or perhaps the attempted development of abruptly rising villain Snoke, we've sometimes completely forgotten about the stuff seen in other scenes simply because the film asks us to focus on far too much at once.

But this is still a somewhat entertaining movie at its best, no doubt; again, it starts off with a brisk pace and some gripping action, all crafted through some stunning visual effects and helmed by a lineup of brilliant performances; the same and much more can be said for the film's climactic moments. It's here where the action evolves into something much more than noisy chaos without much purpose; it's consistently entertaining, with a number of twists and turns keeping us engaged beyond a bunch of explosions and stylistic lightsaber duels. It's these superbly crafted set pieces that makes the array of flaws surrounding them all the more frustrating. The talented cast and brilliant visuals give The Last Jedi a chance to be one of the better blockbusters of 2017, but these perks are sadly dragged down by a weak script that suffers from a distinct lack of polish.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Best and Worst of 2017 - Worst Five Films

With the year reaching its end, now's of course the time to look over the best and worst of the films I saw throughout 2017. Let's get the stinkers out of the way first...

#5 - Kong: Skull Island

Shared universes are all over the film industry since the MCU took off, and one of the most recent is the...MonsterVerse? Whatever. The series began with 2014's Godzilla, and continues with King Kong's rebooted motion picture debut; while it was welcomed by most, it just often had me bored beyond all measure. I feel Kong: Skull Island is burdened by sluggish pacing and a lack of focus on many of its key characters; instead more effort goes into showing off the admittedly impressive special effects and fairly entertaining if somewhat repetitive set pieces. Kong himself pops up now and again to have scuffles with the hideous creatures that lurk around the eponymous hellhole, and despite his presence always being fairly enjoyable, he's sadly put on the back burner for the most part in favour of our boring human protagonists.

It's not offensively bad, but just ends up being dull, repetitive, and riddled with clichés.

#4 - The Mummy

The Mummy is not just a remake of a beloved (albeit mediocre) fantasy flick, but the start of yet another shared universe intending to combine all sorts of horror characters into some strange, desperate ensemble. Things have certainly got off to a bumpy start to say the least, for while The Mummy starts off quite decent, it quickly sinks into something both boring and contrived. It's grossly obsessed with set pieces that aim to be chilling, yet ends up being unfocused nonsense as the characters confront a number of scary situations with very abrupt shifts in the overall tone. You're never sure what vibe the film is going for, be it genuinely scary or somewhat silly, and thus it ends up being a cheesy and poorly directed mess, only redeemed in areas by some decent performances and special effects.

#3 - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

I've always been a fan of this series, with even the lesser praised Dead Man's Chest and At World's End winning me over despite their many flaws. However, I couldn't quite force my biased love to get me into On Stranger Tides as much, so it was then the series coming to a closure seemed like the best option; though perhaps we must remember that with such larger franchises the interest is purely on profits and not so much on engaging storytelling.

Dead Men Tell No Tales adopts many of the series' common flaws and in some ways worsens them even further; viewers are just bombarded with a flurry of noisy action sequences that string together an underwritten, virtually non existent storyline. Perhaps the film's only compelling factor is the dedicated performance of Javier Bardem, which leads to Salazar being a fairly interesting foe despite his weak characterisation. But what about the iconic Johnny Depp? Once again his wit and charm is long gone, leaving Jack Sparrow naught but an irritating comic relief forced into a lead protagonist role.

With $794 million in global earnings, it was nowhere near as much of a success as On Stranger Tides, and it's apparent the series isn't the highlight it once was. Sadly, it seems more sequels are inevitable at this stage.

#2 - Transformers: The Last Knight

A decade ago Michael Bay's infamous Transformers series began with a decent albeit forgettable action flick, and from there became a shitty film making machine of sorts. As each sequel arrived, things got worse and worse, to the point where we could only wonder how such garbage was earning such promising profits for the studio. It seems this tradition, however, may now finally be coming to an end; with just $605 million in global earnings, The Last Knight is by far the lowest grossing of the franchise and was considered a big commercial disappointment. A sequel and a Bumblebee spinoff are still planned, so one can only hope that is where it will finally come to a close. At least until an inevitable reboot.

Oh yeah, this film. Well, of course it sucks, and of course it contains all of Bay's iconic trademarks: repetitive, bloated action scenes, narrow minded and rude humour, stereotyped characters, and a thinly written story. Yeah, the effects are very good, but that's not enough make it worth your time.

#1 - The Emoji Movie

Perhaps many saw this coming, and I reckon many of you will agree with my thoughts on this garbage. The Emoji Movie was met with naught but contempt and confusion from the minute it was announced, with backlash largely aimed, of course, at the incredibly daft premise. Said premise really doesn't have much potential outside of an amusing few jokes, so developing it into a good 90 minute animated feature is a task that perhaps not even the greatest of filmmakers could succeed with.

Sure enough, the result is a film that has little to no story behind it, and one that just ends up being a ridiculous array of unfunny pop culture jokes spat out by consistently irritating characters. Colourful visuals and rare laughs aside, The Emoji Movie simply becomes the prime example of what goes wrong when film studios go a little overboard with milking pop culture trends.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday 10 December 2017

Movie Review - The Disaster Artist

Helmed by wannabe filmmaking genius Tommy Wiseau, 2003's The Room has now found itself widely considered the greatest bad movie of all time. Its nonsensical storytelling, atrocious script, and terrible acting have garnered widespread recognition; recognition that Wiseau perhaps may have wanted, but not quite for such reasons. The film's infamy even lead to co-star Gregg Sestero penning the widely acclaimed memoir in 2013, known as The Disaster Artist. He reminisced on his experience on the project, which now finds itself on the big screen thanks to director/star James Franco.

The Disaster Artist revisits the making of Wiseau's (James Franco) personal masterpiece whilst also exploring the relationship between him and Sestero (Dave Franco) during its development and production. From the moment they met to the premiere of the end product itself, the film takes us into one of the strangest filmmaking journeys of all time, with a solid combination of emotional warmth and likeable humour. Fans of The Room will find themselves particularly impressed by the care and attention used to recreate some of its most iconic moments.

Perhaps the most notable pro at first glance is the performance of both the leading brothers; while James Franco as Wiseau may annoy some people, this trait is actually because of how accurate his performance ends up being. Wiseau is a mysterious and very odd man, and Franco captures this perfectly with a performance that offers plenty of laughs and charm. Wiseau's inept social and painfully bad directing skills are well captured, as are his bizarre interactions with many of the supporting characters; it makes for some hilariously tense moments without a doubt. Dave Franco's performance as Gregg of course mustn't go unnoticed either; there's depth to his character for sure, and the bond between him and Wiseau as their friendship is damaged during the film's troubled production makes for some very heartfelt moments. We're certainly treated to much more than a comedic tribute to a superbly bad piece of cinema.

While Seth Rogen's role as script supervisor Sandy Schklair may not be as memorable, he still superbly depicts the immense frustration these people obviously must've felt due to Wiseau's clueless direction. A lineup of other fine supporting actors also aid in recreating many of The Room's most infamous scenes, and their interactions with Wiseau as he continues to screw up his own ambitions are an unexpected joy to watch. It's this attention to detail that is beyond impressive, particularly when it comes to the overall accuracy of the set design, camera angles, the works; it's all handled perfectly to tribute an atrocious masterpiece. Perhaps Franco's portrayal of some scenes is a little rusty, and the humour certainly gets repetitive now and then, but overall The Disaster Artist finds itself as a film that offers audiences plenty to admire: laughs, tears, surprises, and lots of interesting trivia to boot. Even if you're unfamiliar with the premise, it's certainly worth your time.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Movie Review - Justice League

With the MCU breaking numerous records with each release, many other studios are inevitably determined to try and clone its success with similar attempts at crafting shared franchises. Perhaps the most notable rival is of course DC Comics, who also home some of the most iconic superheroes in the modern world. Though its critical and financial success is yet to replicate that of its Marvel opponent, the DC Universe now finds itself with perhaps its largest release yet, bringing together some of the most iconic heroes in an Avengers-esque adventure that's been met with mixed results by many. Justice League is certainly an enjoyable modern blockbuster, but as with most films in this evergrowing franchise, it often finds itself hindered by frustrating narrative hiccups.

Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) seeks out a number of newly rising heroes to form a team dedicated to protecting the world from crime and injustice. His actions are further influenced by the sudden return of the sinister Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), leader of the extraterrestrial Parademons, who is hellbent on conquering all that surrounds him.

Justice League certainly puts a gargantuan budget to good use with admittedly impressive results; the costumes, set design, and visual effects are all well crafted, integrating these heroes into the live action world without leaning too much toward unnecessary realism or overly campy and dated depictions. The renowned heroes are then brought to life by a fine lineup of talented actors who all perform brilliantly. Whether it's Affleck as Batman or Gadot as Wonder Woman, or even newcomers Jason Momoa as Aquaman and Ezra Miller as The Flash, this is a well chosen cast that fit their roles nicely and who clearly put a lot of effort into their performances, despite some unfortunate setbacks.

What setbacks? Well, of course this ensemble hasn't been released at the same pace as The Avengers; by the time that film hit cinemas in 2012, each leading MCU hero had their own movie and so were introduced with a lot more depth, which isn't the case with DC's project. As a result, some awkward integration of extensive backstory is shoved in, and a number of plot threads are thus jumbled together with occasionally messy results. Many characters find themselves quite poorly developed, and despite a fairly intimidating performance by Hinds, the villain Steppenwolf ends up somewhat bland and forgettable. It's this lesser attention to storytelling that has made Justice League such a major disappointment for many, with a potentially powerful narrative sacrificed for a stronger focus on visual thrills. While the story we're left with is certainly enjoyable at times, it just isn't as memorable as one would hope. Despite these flaws, the finished product still remains an entertaining (and somewhat underrated, in my eyes) superhero adventure, with a solid blend of humour and genuine thrills, not to mention some superb set pieces. It's just a shame that they didn't go that one step further to truly do the source material justice.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Movie Review - Paddington 2

Since his literary debut in 1958, Paddington Bear has remained one of the most beloved children's characters in British culture, with his fame bolstered even more in 2014 when his first big screen adventure was released to global acclaim. Paddington was both a funny and heartfelt family adventure that ranks as one of my favourite ever films, and considering it was just as commercially successful as it was critically praised, a sequel was anything but inevitable.

Now settled in with the Brown family, Paddington Bear (Ben Wishaw) arranges to get a surprise gift for his aunt Lucy's (Imelda Staunton) upcoming 100th birthday: an expensive antique pop-up book featuring all of London's most iconic landmarks. After working and saving hard, his goals are abruptly shattered when the book is stolen by an unknown thief and the blame then landing on Paddington himself, who is locked up in prison as a result. Determined to clear his name, Paddington seeks aid from all those around him to track down the real culprit and ensure he doesn't spend the remainder of his days behind bars; or leave his loving aunt disappointed on such a special occasion.

Just as before, the most noticeable thing at first glance are the effects: Paddington 2 renders and animates the titular star just as beautifully as the original film did, no questions asked. Realism aside, what really deserves acclaim is how much personality is injected into his every movement; you'll certainly never feel like you're staring at CGI, which is an achievement even many films with much higher budgets struggle to nail. He is as loveable as ever, adopting the same polite and generous persona whilst still finding himself tangled up in a number of goofy antics. The film's humour is enjoyable for a widespread family audience, leaving no viewers alienated, and all these perks are supported by another fantastic vocal performance from Ben Wishaw.

The supporting characters remain just as admiring; Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville flawlessly lead the Brown family as they find themselves involved in many funny yet exciting scenarios alongside Paddington himself. Newcomers Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson (among others) are just consistently fun to watch, not just because of their refined performances but also because of the wit and charm of the characters they portray. They're the source of plenty of laughs yet have genuine substance and narrative importance, and this is what makes Paddington 2 such an entertaining story from start to finish.

But this isn't just a film obsessed with comedy, for there is still plenty of emotional depth within its heartwarming narrative. It's never pretentious or overstuffed, and has many scenes that turn out to be wonderfully touching; ones that may even make you think there's some hidden onions near your face. Things also come to an end with a surprisingly gripping climax, though thankfully not one trying to take itself too seriously or shoehorn in any tired Hollywood clichés; if anything it's another moment where the film's impressive visual effects are most evident. All this equates to what is undeniably an even better experience than the original, and that's one hell of accomplishment.

Saturday 11 November 2017

Movie Review - Murder on the Orient Express

What is arguably Agatha Christie's most famous tale returns to the big screen, helmed by director and star Kenneth Branagh, with some stylish modern production values and an undeniably impressive cast. The core story remains largely unchanged, with ingenious detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) solving the case of an unprecedented killing on the luxurious Orient Express. Suspicion and tension rises between the many anxious passengers, forcing Poirot to locate the true culprit before they can strike again.

This latest adaptation of Christie's renowned novel doesn't take many liberties with the main plot; while such a treasured tale perhaps shouldn't be excessively toyed with, this will undeniably be a slight downside to some viewers as it leaves little room for surprises. A tense atmosphere is captured nicely and the many narrative revelations as things progress are fairly exciting and enjoyable, though perhaps slightly burdened by inconsistent pacing. Some segments are undeniably quite boring, and the runtime such scenes eat up could've been used toward ones that are a tad more engaging and influential to the overall plot.

But now I'm just making the film sound bad; alas, Orient Express is still an entertaining thriller, supported once again by some rich production values and a stellar cast. The cinematography, lighting, and set design is all beautiful to look at and captures the time period as well as the atmosphere perfectly. Some obvious CGI shots of the train racing along the rails during rough terrains do feel a little phoned in, however, and their abruptly epic presentation and thunderous sound design can make them contrast oddly with the rest of the film surrounding them.

Branagh delivers a superb performance as the lead detective Poirot, capturing the character's witty sense of humour and balancing it nicely with his more serious side when delving into the depths of this sinister crime. The rest of the cast, while not always as memorable, still perform very well: Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Penélope Cruz, as well as Johnny Depp as the murder victim himself. Depp's role is of course not very lengthy considering his early sign off, but the performance he delivers is solid enough for what the character is. What weakens much of the effort provided by this fab cast is the lack of development toward the characters they play; even Poirot himself isn't always as interesting as you might've hoped despite Branagh's devoted performance, and this flaw is even more applicable for some of the supporting roles. Murder on the Orient Express delivers tender emotions alongside some engrossing thrills, all presented with some lovely aesthetic design; while its plot development and pacing is not as refined, the end product is still an entertaining adaptation of a renowned classic story.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Movie Review - Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!

It's my honest opinion that none of the Pokémon movies I've seen excel in terms of overall quality. To be fair, they're hardly attempting to earn a spot in the National Film Registry, but even with that in mind the lacklustre animation and dull storylines render them far from memorable. So with that said, it's even more pleasant to see a slight change in form for the series as a whole; this year's I Choose You is far from a masterpiece, but is still a fun animated adventure that can appeal to nostalgic fans as well as young newcomers.

I Choose You finds itself as a retelling of Ash Ketchum's journey from Pallet Town to become the greatest Pokémon trainer ever, joined by his initially hostile sidekick Pikachu. When their journey's rough start leads to them witnessing the legendary Ho-Oh and garnering one of its magical rainbow feathers, Ash finds himself as the chosen one for a renowned mission to uncover more about Ho-Oh and the secrets behind its inception.

You don't go into a film like this with gargantuan expectations, but the film's simplicity is appropriate; it doesn't attempt to be an emotionally powerful, poetic tale, and this certainly benefits its overall quality. The simple if still a bit rusty storytelling leads to a suitably fun and chilled viewing that kids will certainly enjoy, though adults outside of the fanbase may not quite be as engaged. What's pleasant to see at first glance is some fairly impressive animation; while it's not without some awkward integrations of cheap looking CGI, the overall art direction is still pleasant and nicely brought to life. The English cast is largely composed of existing voice actors from the television series, and while the performances are similarly cheesy, there's certainly nothing bad about them.

I Choose You does still have some narrative hiccups despite the largely solid result. As a reboot of the first few episodes of the original series, far too many narrative elements are crammed into the film's near 100 minute runtime, and the end result is a lack of focus during many key scenes and some very rushed moments. Again, you don't expect this film to be an Oscar winning drama of sorts, but it would help if some scenes weren't so blatantly glossed over; if anything, the absence of some may have actually benefited the overall story and pacing. The flaws don't end there: the characters aren't overly memorable and the script enjoys some awkward contrivances and abrupt twists, but as a fun and approachable animated effort, I Choose You generally succeeds in most aspects.

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Movie Review - Blade Runner 2049

Though met with mixed reactions and mediocre box office takings upon release, 1982's Blade Runner now remains an iconic cult hit and that many consider one of Ridley Scott's finest directorial efforts. Now, over thirty years later, an unexpected sequel has arisen; though it's sadly ended up a financial disappointment, Blade Runner 2049 is also one of 2017's very best films, and a sequel that the original film certainly deserves.

In 2049, biorobotic humans dubbed replicants are engineered for a variety of tasks; one such model, K (Ryan Gosling), works within the LAPD to hunt down and retire older replicant models hidden deep in society. His work eventually begins to unveil more and more mysteries about the replicants' history and potential, which in turn triggers questions over his own origins and purpose.

Blade Runner 2049 thankfully creates a story respectful towards the original and is far from a lazy rehash; it cleverly intertwines a number of new ideas within an engrossing premise to further develop this rich fictional world. The film's superb art direction creates an absorbing and equally unique dystopian future, depicted with some stunning visual effects and set design. Such aesthetics are further bolstered by a superb soundtrack; one that pays homage to the original film with similarly iconic themes whilst also offering up some lovely original music of its own.

Audiences will journey through all manner of twists and turns as the plot moves forward; while not without occasional sluggish moments (leading to a huge run time), the complex narrative is still handled with care and attention to detail. It challenges viewers with a number of intriguing questions about what is human and what isn't, and of course leaves it to the audience to deduce a number of interesting twists themselves. Certain plot threads seem to intentionally lack a degree of finality, allowing for more subjective outcomes and inviting debate amongst audiences over what various scenes mean and how they fit in with the original film.

This story prospers even further thanks to a superb cast lead by Gosling, and also featuring talents such Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks in threatening if slightly forgettable villainous roles. Gosling's deadpan protagonist wins merit for an intimidating presence during various set pieces as well the genuine heartfelt persona that comes to fruition during more tender moments; it certainly leads to what is arguably one of Gosling's best roles to date. Harrison Ford also makes a welcome return in the role of Deckett, and it's fair to say his performance is just as spot on as it was in the original. His character blends seamlessly into later portions of the story and is developed even further with great results, making his role far from a lazy cameo.

Blade Runner 2049 didn't need to be nearly three hours long; some of its set pieces are also a little excessive, and the plot undeniably gets a little confusing during its deeper moments. Still, what you watch is an enthralling piece of science fiction and a worthy successor to a beloved cult classic. Fans of the original will be just as impressed as those fairly new to the story; it's certainly a shame to see it fail to attract a larger audience, for it deserves one for sure.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Movie Review - Thor: Ragnarok

The MCU continues to grow as each year passes, and now has reached new standards in the eyes of many critics with the God of Thunder's threequel blockbuster (sure to be anyway); Thor: Ragnarok is now the most acclaimed film in the franchise, exceeding the immense praise of even Iron Man and The Avengers, so to say the hype of fans is only escalating would be a gross understatement. Now, sorry to sound like an elderly killjoy, but this is the part where I come in and try to justify my controversial thoughts - Thor: Ragnarok is an enjoyable adventure, but far from the masterpiece most people strangely make it out to be.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to his world protecting duties across the stars following the overthrow of Ultron, but soon finds himself stripped of his ancient hammer Mjolnir and stranded on the planet Sakaar, forced to battle against the also captive (and universally hailed) champion Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to satisfy the gladiatorial desires of the violent natives. He soon leads an effort to escape as his homeworld Asgard comes under threat by Odin's twisted firstborn Hela (Cate Blanchett), reborn to exact her revenge and spearhead the impending Ragnarok - the predicted end of Asgard and all who live there.

To begin with, Thor: Ragnarok simply adopts the same flaw that many recent MCU films have been suffering from - many may disagree with me, and it's all a matter of taste perhaps, but it's simply too goofy. It certainly has a likeable sense of humour, deeply funny at it's very best, but the filmmakers simply can't step back and develop a sensible scene without throwing in an awkwardly timed gag to debunk any buildup of genuine tension or emotional weight. This is a superhero film for a wide audience and not one that has to be dark, gritty, and obsessed with complex themes, but it's also one that does have the potential for some more serious development - sadly said development never quite comes to fruition. Indeed, there are times where you'd think this is a parody of the genre more than anything else.

But Ragnarok is not without charm; as said, when it's funny, it's really funny, and even it's most awkwardly placed jokes are not without their humourous appeal. It's cast perform strongly to ensure said laughs and eventual epic moments are executed wonderfully - particular praise can be handed to Hemsworth himself as a likeable if overly silly Thor and especially Jeff Goldblum as the film's secondary villain Grandmaster, the ruler of Sakaar. His character is fairly flat and role in the narrative somewhat unbalanced, but Goldblum's performance does a sound job of capturing the character's twisted sense of humour to make him an entertaining villain whenever he shows up. In terms of the film's principle antagonist, Blanchett brings Hela to life with suitable sadism, though her strangely long absences and occasional daft antics can make investing consistent interest a tricky task.

Hulk's inclusion holds some significance given that Ragnarok is derived from the Planet Hulk comic storyline, however I can't say his role won me over. Ruffalo's performance is decent, and the effects used to bring his giant green self to life are as refined as ever, but the character's gross idiocy and irritating dialogue frequently reduce him to a cliché moronic comic relief - a real shame considering his former threatening appeal. Thor: Ragnarok still boasts the same visual thrills and stylish set pieces that most MCU films have mastered so well, but these can't fully make up for the unfocused, overly silly humour and generally mediocre story. It's good fun, and another treat for the most loyal of fans, but little else.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Movie Review - The Ritual

Following his closest friends' murder, some bloke named Luke (Rafe Spall) leads the rest of his college pals on a hiking trip as a tribute to their late colleague's memory. Initially evocative and more adventurous than they expected, the journey is soon cut short following a tedious injury. In order to get to safety as quick as possible, a shortcut through the forest is taken, where a sense of unease slowly begins to emerge and a number of dark truths soon come to fruition.

The Ritual is a film very independent at its core, which makes its superb production design and special effects all the more admirable. This same praise also applies when discussing the overall atmosphere; yeah, it occasionally relies on cheap jumps, but isn't without strong moments of eerie chills and many frightening twists, certainly making some of its key set pieces all the more entertaining and intimidating.

The movie's key flaw lies within the story itself; while it begins with some surprising emotional heft, it eventually resorts to following many horror clichés and lacks consistently refined development, particularly when the key antagonists emerge within the climax. The protagonists fare no better in all honesty, which is a great a shame considering how the leading performances are largely superb and deserving of much praise.

It's basically a story that begins strong yet sinks majorly as it approaches the conclusion. While it has its chilling and thrilling moments, the final act itself certainly feels rushed and contrived in many ways, all coming to an end with an unusually abrupt and inadvertently comical conclusion. The Ritual does offer a genuinely scary experience in some of its most unsettling moments, but that makes it even more disappointing to see it lose interest in its narrative and pacing as it goes on.

Friday 13 October 2017

Worst to Best - Super Mario 3D

Super Mario Odyssey is on the way, and to say I'm hyped would be a vast understatement. Since his arcade debut as Jumpman in 1981, Mario has long been Nintendo's iconic mascot and one of the most renowned heroes in the gaming industry; his reputation certainly precedes him with some of the best games on offer to audiences of all ages. Without a doubt his 3D outings remain just as iconic as his famed 2D ones, and it goes without saying that all have maintained a consistent streak of quality over the past two decades.

So this list sure wasn't an easy one to form; but now let's rank all of Mario's main 3D adventures, all of which adopt their own innovation and offer some of the best experiences on their respective platforms.

#6 - Super Mario 3D Land (3DS, 2011)

A simple yet strong effort for Mario's main 3DS debut, Mario 3D Land deftly blends the straightforward structure of the 2D classics with the complexity of his 3D efforts; the end result is a game that offers an addictive and well designed platforming experience approachable for loyal fans and newcomers alike. Its first admirable factor are of course the visuals which are certainly some of the best the 3DS has to offer; full of colour and vibrancy, and with the simple yet insanely appealing art direction Mario's finest works are always known for.

Yes, 3D Land isn't quite as memorable as Mario's other 3D efforts, largely due to it being a tad short lived and not full of as much innovation to give it the same impact other titles have boasted. Despite this, there's still no denying that it's one of the best 3DS titles even half a decade on.

#5 - Super Mario 64 (N64, 1996)

Mario 64 being so low on this list may not click with many of you I imagine; however, I must emphasise once more that these games are largely even in terms of quality, and so I still find this to be a great game nonetheless. It already wins points for being such a benchmark in the platforming genre, pioneering and refining conventions such as complex analogue control and a 3D camera system. It's also quite remarkable how well the experience has aged; even two decades later, revisiting 64 never feels like an outdated experience and it remains just as fun as it was way back when.

What makes it such a great experience is the expansive structure most levels boast, promoting exploration without feeling too vague in their design. It's bags of fun to just mess about within each stages' most intricate areas, allowing you to locate more and more secrets in the process. It's also pleasing just how much variety the game offers, with stages ranging from colourful yet chaotic battlefields to soothing harbours to a tall, tall mountain (literally). There's plenty of fun and variety on offer, and the game's influence on the industry alone makes it something that will never get old.

The DS remake, somewhat awkward controls aside, is also a respectable update; being able to play such a masterpiece on the go already makes it worth having.

#4 - Super Mario Sunshine (NGC, 2002)

Mario Sunshine is a title that yields some more mixed reactions within the fanbase. It's a great game, no doubt, but a slightly stronger focus on story didn't quite work in the eyes of many, and the occasionally savage difficulty wasn't always appealing when trying to reach an 100% completion.

Sunshine's story sees Mario on vacation at the gorgeous Isle Delfino resort, yet he quickly finds himself framed for polluting the island's beautiful locales and is forced to clean up the mess whilst also tracking down the real culprit. It's not a poor story, but is perhaps just a bit hard to connect with considering the blatant idiocy of Delfino's native Pianta's and the incredibly cheesy cutscenes. That aside, Sunshine is still one of my favourite GameCube titles; notably impactful as I'd dub it my first true experience with the plumber, considering I was more into the Sega Genesis and PlayStation during past generations.

The new Isle Delfino setting allowed each stage to be fresh in terms of design, and their expansive structure once again promotes a lot of exploration; it's just as fun to put the main quest aside to goof off and locate more and more secrets. The integration of FLUDD, Mario's water backpack, also stirs up the experience. FLUDD's various nozzles allow you to not only take care of foes and hazards with blasts of water, but also navigate large over gaps and zoom up to higher locations. The game's aforementioned difficulty perhaps could've been toned down a little, and you may certainly wish the characters didn't open their mouths during most cutscenes, but Sunshine is still one of my favourite Mario titles to date.

#3 - Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)

Branded one of the best games of all time by critics and audiences alike, Mario's debut on the Wii ten years ago now certainly helped prove Nintendo wasn't just trying to milk the casual market with their latest and most controversial console. Indeed, they were still the same genius game developer that we all knew and love within, capable of making some of the best first party titles across all generations of gaming. Galaxy deserves strong acclaim simply because of how much ingenuity the developers injected into the experience; as the title suggests, Mario is now whizzing into outer space to stop Bowser yet again, and such a setting of course paves the way for some of the most innovative level design to ever grace the series.

The various galaxies Mario explores adopt all kinds of themes: beaches, gardens, volcanoes, you name it. We've seen similar stuff in previous Mario titles, but the fresh design in Galaxy's most notable stages make them far from repetitive. The overall aesthetic helped show the Wii as something very capable of impressive modern graphics, even if it lagged behind its rival consoles. As well as visually stunning, each level is also packed with depth; while the design is arguably more linear than that of 64 and Sunshine, there's still a lot of fun to be had as you explore more and more of each world. The game's a bit too easy at times, but that matters not when Ninty have still crafted a masterpiece that will never lose its appeal.

Oh, and that music...enough said.

#2 - Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii, 2010)

The Wii became such a gargantuan hit and enjoyed such a long lifespan that there was even time for two main 3D Mario games. With so many ideas that they couldn't possibly squeeze into the original, Nintendo came back for the first main sequel in Mario's 3D history, building upon an already stellar formula with some neat little additions and of course an onslaught of new, equally absorbing levels. Of course, the most notable addition at first glance is the return of Yoshi, who makes his first 3D Mario appearance since Sunshine eight years prior. He's a little underused, but the inclusion was still a great design choice, and he's far more enjoyable and less fiddly to play as compared to his Sunshine gameplay. He ultimately paves the way for more and more creativity during his main segments in many levels.

Galaxy 2 also streamlines the experience a little more by featuring a much smaller hub world and a simple world map to connect each level. It may seem disappointing to not have as much freedom initially, but this is a minor concern when the game's fluidity is seriously aided by this new, simpler approach. Aside from these tweaks, Galaxy 2 doesn't dramatically alter the experience offered by its predecessor, but this is certainly good thing as of course if something isn't broken, it shouldn't be fixed. The new stages and missions offer plenty of fresh challenge and innovation, yet the game still adopts the same stellar visuals and fluent controls that the original game demonstrated. The outcome? Certainly that rare superior sequel.

#1 - Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, 2013)

Though certainly considered one of the Wii U's best titles, Mario 3D World wouldn't be most people's choice for the best of the plumbers 3D outings. Most still seem to love it, but just not as much as past efforts, considering the resounding influence many of them had on the platforming genre.

But alas, whilst it took me a lot of thought due to the franchise's consistently refined quality, 3D World still has to be my pick for the best of the best. The game adopts the same format as 3D Land, with timed, somewhat linear stages, but builds upon it with a dozen new ideas of its own: a world map more open to some exploration, more and more thoughtful concepts within each level, new power ups, and of course a multiplayer mode that makes the experience over ten times as fun when shared with friends. The multiplayer may make things a bit too overcrowded during later stages, but it remains one of my favourite aspects of 3D World's experience, and it's nice to see some later levels actually designed with it in mind to allow you to unlock new secrets and pathways alongside your teammates.

It also goes without saying that on a visual and audial level, 3D World remains true to the series' high standards, boasting some of the Wii U's most crisp, vibrant graphics and a soundtrack that is without any forgettable tunes. Whilst I look forward to Odyssey returning to the more open world design, 3D World again proves that a more linear structure can still offer plenty of its own depth, and can be just as engrossing throughout.

UPDATE: This post has now been adapted into a video for the gaming channel ProjectFalconPunch! Check it out via the link below!

Click here!

Thanks for reading!

Sunday 17 September 2017

RETROSPECT - Most Anticipated Films of 2017

As the year begins, I of course have my most anticipated cinematic releases, once again all noted in my original list you can find here. Now, after seeing It just last week, I have my opinions on all five films - and so here's my ranking of them not in terms of hype but now overall quality.

#5 - Pirate's of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has always been commercially successful but never the most critically acclaimed; this year's Dead Men Tell No Tales certainly doesn't find itself in any better circumstances, in fact in even worse ones considering it's even weaker box office earnings. I've always been a big fan of the series, perhaps On Stranger Tides less so, but it's this installment that certainly deters my interest for any future sequels and makes it very evident that there's just no real creative potential to keep going.

The key issue is just the story itself. Not only is it weak when you view it altogether, but it's so badly developed that even over an hour into the film it's hard to fully piece together what exactly is going on and why. Javier Bardem performs well as villain Salazar, but the character is so poorly structured that he holds little interest outside of a cool design and Bardem's solid acting. Indeed, outside of the impressive visual effects and occasional charms of Johnny Depp (who clearly isn't interested anymore), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is simply just as bloated and awkwardly structured as it's title.

#4 - Spider-Man: Homecoming

I've made it quite apparent by now that I hated Tom Holland as Spidey in last year's Captain America: Civil War. Hell, the entire film I found fairly average considering it's glowing reviews, but it was both Spidey's forced integration and bloody irritating persona that made my appreciation for the film dwindle even lower as the climax approached. It wasn't so much Holland's acting as it was the weak development and writing the character fell victim to - not a good starting point for a very big moment in the series.

But that didn't detract from my interest in the character's first sole entry in the franchise, and whilst the finished product is far from the best the MCU has to offer, it's a pleasing step forward from the iffy Amazing series with some superb visuals, a strong cast, and an entertaining if somewhat underdeveloped villain. It's also satisfying to see Tony Stark have a genuine significance in the overall narrative - trailers and posters of course made it seem like he was a forced integration of the MCU's biggest icon in order to generate more hype, but thankfully this is not the case. The overall story flows nicely and is backed by some gripping set pieces, making Homecoming the debut Spidey really deserves in this monster of a franchise.

#3 - Beauty and the Beast

With earnings of over $500 million in the US and $1.2 billion globally, Beauty and the Beast ranks as the highest grossing film of the year - such an accolade doesn't go undeserved, even if the film isn't without fault. Disney look set to revisit more and more of their classic animated hits in live action as time goes on, and Beauty and the Beast is largely a decent example of how this can be done right when you're working with some of the most treasured material of all time. The film's overall visual design is a superb live action reimagining of the original's vivid animation, and a strong cast help bring it to life even further - perhaps my only grudge with said cast is Emma Watson who, despite visible effort, doesn't really capture the role of Belle...a problem that evolves into something even uglier when you hear that dreadful electronic singing voice of hers. In fact, whilst many of the songs are nice modern updates of the originals, most of them lack the majesty and charm, feeling too often like actors who really can't sing awkwardly forcing themselves to do so - a sort of Mamma Mia scenario, if not quite that bad.

One actor not doing an amazing job isn't the end of the world, but of course is a little more serious if it's the lead protagonist. Still, Watson has her moments, and is far from terrible - just miscast if I give my honest opinion. It's the supporting cast of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thomas, and Luke Evans to name a few that adopt their roles perfectly, and of course the same can be said for Dan Stevens as the Beast himself. The effects used to animated many of the side characters, who also have new designs that feel fresh yet loyal to the originals, are just as superb, and thus the finished product is one that can never live up to the original but still an entertaining and heartfelt experience.

#2 - It

Based on Stephen King's acclaimed horror novel, It ranked as my most anticipated film for the entire year - and it sure didn't disappoint. Already the film has won over countless audiences, achieving a record breaking opening weekend for the entire horror genre and rivalling some of the biggest superhero blockbusters in terms of it's ongoing domestic earnings. Arguably the most impressive aspect of the film at first glance is of course one Bill Skarsgard in the role of Pennywise the Dancing Clown; his performance is beastly and extremely frightening in many scenes and this, coupled with an impressive and stylishly dark production design, equates to an absorbing and chilling experience.

But his acting isn't the only merit. The protagonists of several young teens dubbed The Loser's Club perform admirably considering their age - something never easy to master for such young characters with extremely complex development. This, alongside a very engaging story, all helps render It a benchmark in modern horror that proves also how important it is to entertain the audience outside of just decent scares.

#1 - War for the Planet of the Apes

It's a shame to see the latest entry to the rebooted Planet of the Apes series struggling to achieve the success of it's predecessors. With only $370 million in worldwide earnings, as opposed to $710 million from it's predecessor three years ago, the epic nature and element of finality to the narrative clearly wasn't enough to win over similarly large audiences. On the critical side, however, War for the Planet of the Apes has not failed one bit, and it's thoroughly deserving of all the praise it has earned - I could now easily class this one of my favourite trilogies in film history.

War builds upon the high stakes that the ending of Dawn generated, with the apes now battling the humans to determine Earth's dominant species now that all chances for peace are lost. However, whilst there's plenty of action and visual thrills, this is also a film with an intelligent, thoughtful story - so much so that long periods without action never become boring, in fact just as interesting when we see the story advance with all sorts of twists and turns. Andy Serkis also helms a fantastic cast with another masterful motion capture performance as Caesar, who again has the same engaging characterization as before - if you've yet to see this film, or in fact either of it's predecessors, that is a fault you must rectify as soon as possible.

Thanks for reading!

Monday 11 September 2017

Movie Review - It

The name Stephen King is surely not foreign to most audiences. One of the most renowned yet also most challenging authors of all time, King is known for his complex novels of often formidable length, of which over 50 exist, that tackle all sorts of unique themes across all kinds of genres - though of course, King has usually been branded the master of horror, with his 1988 novel It undoubtedly being one of his most famous horror works. Telling the story of an evil entity haunting a small town every three decades, It found itself originally adapted for television in 1988 with an iconic lead performance by Tim Curry, and now enjoys it's first theatrical release with one Bill Skarsgard taking on the lead role of It it...uh, well, itself.

It's plot is simple enough to grasp but still has a lot of depth - the eponymous evil primarily appears in the form of a twisted clown named Pennywise, attracting it's preferred prey of young children, yet it's shapeshifting capabilities allow it to exploit the phobias of it's victims to break them down into more vulnerable states. The central victims eventually become a group of seven children who meet up through their less than renowned social status, dubbing themselves The Losers Club, who soon make it their goal to piece together the exact origins of the monster pursuing them and find a way to put an end to it's malicious actions. This narrative is both complex and heartfelt, capturing the emotions of the numerous characters nicely and developing them all with a refined attention to detail for the most part - the twists and turns we experience also make the story more engaging as it moves along, making this a horror film that relies on more than just scares to entertain the audience.

Undoubtedly the key highlight of It at first glance is Skarsgard as Pennywise - comparing him to the highly acclaimed performance of Tim Curry in the original would be crude considering their vastly different nature, with Skarsgard's interpretation being far more animalistic and monstrous than Curry's well spoken albeit sadistic evildoer. Either way, Skarsgard is a highly frightening foe, and the cruel, dark sense of humour the character adopts when haunting it's victims is nicely captured without loss of the overall fear factor. The design is just as compelling - perhaps a tad too blatantly creepy if Pennywise has a goal of attracting young kids, but still something stylistically dark and unique. This, coupled with some impressive visual effects during some of the film's major scares as well as Skarsgard's superb acting, certainly renders Pennywise a thrilling foe from start to end.

But it's not just Skarsgard who performs well - the Losers Club surely isn't an easy handful of characters to bring to life on the screen considering their age, but It has an impressive lineup of highly talented youngsters in the lead roles, namely Jaeden Lieberher who delivers an emotionally stirring performance absolutely masterful for someone so young. It's this high quality acting, alongside the fab visuals and sound design, that makes It such a chilling experience - yeah, some of it is a wee bit loud (especially in IMAX), but the many scares are thankfully far from cheap jumps. Perhaps a principle flaw does lie within the slightly bloated runtime and occasional jarring tonal shifts, with chills becoming chilled in some abrupt transitions, but an otherwise solid structure, talented cast, and well crafted scares make It a worthy adaptation of an iconic novel, and I'm certainly anticipating the next chapter come 2019.