Malignant (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: James Wan
Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Jacqueline McKenzie, Michole Briana White
Certificate: 18
Run Time: 111 mins

Malignant is a welcome and wholly original return to the horror genre for director James Wan. Wan has had an impressive career to date, establishing himself as a top-tier horror director, launching three very different but highly successful franchises – Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. He has since turned to bigger budget mainstream fare such as Furious 7 and Aquaman. It is always a promising sign when a director chooses to revisit their roots and tackle a lower budget original concept. Wan’s horror films have been key proponents for the genre in the last twenty years, Saw sparking a wave of splatter horror, Insidious tackling the themes of the supernatural and astral projection and The Conjuring also deals with the supernatural but in a true crime setting. Subsequent filmmakers have tried to ape Wan to mixed results, particularly the jump scare which audiences have increasingly grown tired of. Lesser filmmakers rely on this effect without building up tension or setting an unsettling atmosphere and it has become a very mechanical device. Malignant has been marketed very much in the same vein as a supernatural horror film, more in line with Insidious and The Conjuring, but the result is very much not. 

Malignant is Wan’s interpretation of a Giallo horror and this is a fascinating film that embraces a camp tone. The film opens in a psychiatric hospital where we see obscured glimpses of a psychiatric patient named Gabriel who has become uncontrollable and murders and maims many of the hospital staff. The doctors manage to restrain him and vow to ‘cut out the cancer’ before the opening credits roll. 

We then meet our protagonist of the film, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who is well into her pregnancy who lives with her abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel). After an argument, Derek slams Madison’s head is slammed into a wall and the husband is murdered by what we are led to believe is a supernatural serial killer entity. There is a connection between Madison and Gabriel, where she can see the murders unfold in her mind but she cannot do stop them and the police do not take her seriously. 

Malignant is an ambitious risk for James Wan and the story takes unexpected turns. The first act seems fairly generic on the surface, in the vein of Insidious, although Wan does establish an unsettling atmosphere. The film then morphs into a David Fincher-esque serial killer mystery, where it is at its best. A chase scene between the police and the assailant mid-way through is kinetic and heart-pounding. Its last half an hour or so is outrageous with a bonkers plot twist and is a cacophony of gleeful gore, body horror and John Wick-like ultraviolence, with a hint of Sam Raimi camp. 

Wan wildly succeeds in establishing a viable threat with his characterisation of Gabriel, who moves strangely and only wants to inflict pain on his victims. Wan never tries to go for the same type of scare twice, which is refreshing, and the film is devoid of jump scares, which is a bold move considering he pioneered the trope. 

The performances are fitting for the camp tone. Annabelle Wallis has played in some real brainrot such as Annabelle and The Mummy but her performance compliments the camp tone and it’s not a performance to take overly seriously. George Young and Michole Briana White as a pair of detectives are excellent and get some strong and humorous lines, and storywriter Ingrid Bisu makes an impression in a small role as one of the forensics. Contortionist Marina Mazepa, who provides the physical performance of Gabriel (whilst Ray Chase provides the voice), is astonishing in that the backward, inhuman movements of the villain are genuine. She is destined for great things, perhaps she will be utilised in the same vein as Javier Botet, whose Marfan syndrome has allowed him to bring many horror villains to life with his body’s hyperlaxity. 

The film is beautifully shot by Michael Burgess, who knows to hold onto a shot longer than is needed to create an unsettling atmosphere. A birds eye shot of Madison scurrying around her house is electrifying, portraying her like a helpless puppet in a doll house. The score by Joseph Bishara is one of the composer’s best and he crafts some memorable themes, erratically veering between Bernard Herrmann reminiscent melodies, unsettling soundscapes and techno synth. 

Malignant is a swing in the right direction for James Wan and I’m very glad the film exists as it is a wild ride from start to finish, even if he tries to throw a lot at the screen and it doesn’t all stick. Its twist lenses the first half of the film in a new light but I’m not sure quite how well this film will hold up on a repeat viewing. It is refreshing to see Wan back in the genre he works best in, an in-demand director with a large amount of creative clout and he has chosen to make something so wild. Malignant is an excellent addition in the genre and I predict it is destined for a cult classic status.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Candyman (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Nia DaCosta
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 91 mins

Candyman is an accomplished and thought-provoking update in the series and cements director Nia DaCosta as a new talent to watch. This spiritual sequel is a continuation of the story established in Bernard Rose’s original Candyman, an equally stimulating entry that has aged well even today. DaCosta’s film ignores the two sequels, both of which failed to garner critical acclaim, the second of which was one of director Bill Condon’s early works. 

Yahya Abdul-Matteen II plays Anthony McCoy, an artist who is suffering from writer’s block who lives with his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Paris) who is an art gallery director. His writer’s block subsides once he learns of the Candyman legend and this suddenly gets his creative juices following until the horror legend starts to come to life and consume his mind. 

Directing from a script which Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele contributed to, Nia DaCosta makes an electric impression behind the screen. Whilst the influences of Peele can be felt in the film’s interrogation of gender, race and sexuality, DaCosta impresses with her cineliteracy, particularly with the exploration of the theme of the double through the use of mirrors and mirrored reflections. Art is explored as a mirrored reality and Anthony is unsettled at his reflection. There are some arresting sequences in the first act of the film where images are inverted and disorienting, setting a foreboding atmosphere. This is complimented by Robert Aubrey Aiki Lowe’s brilliant score and soundscape and it’s refreshing to see him craft his own memorable themes as well as revisit Philip Glass’ original themes, which really elevated the original film. 

As a Candyman film, DaCosta’s entry flourishes. It has connections to the first film for fans of the series but it also works well as a standalone piece. The horror elements of the film aren’t handled quite as confidently as its heady themes. It is true that there are some disturbing moments and ideas and it’s refreshing that DaCosta doesn’t settle for jump scares but what is portrayed on-screen never quite chills under the skin. DaCosta likes to leave a lot for the imagination and often cuts away from moments of gore but this makes the horror a little toothless. Save for its climax, the narrative is also well crafted and there are some interesting character developments. The climax tries to tie in a little too closely to the original film and some of the character choices and motivations felt off.

Overall, Candyman is an excellent addition to the series and save for its climax, is a very solid horror film that interrogates some interesting themes. It is probably as good as the original and as a piece that showcases Nia DaCosta’s talent, is excellent and it will be interesting what projects she will pick next.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Beckett (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Ferdinando Cito Filomarino
Starring: John David Washington, Boyd Holbrook, Vicky Krieps, Alicia Vikander
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 108 mins

Beckett is a Luca Guadagnino-produced Euro-chase thriller that is generic and more than a little implausible in its narrative but it is worth a watch for its flair behind the camera. Directed by Ferdinando Cito Filmomarino, Guadagnino’s ex-boyfriend, the film tells the story of the titular character, Beckett (John David Washington) who is vacationing in Greece with his girlfriend, April (Alicia Vikander). When they are driving, he happens to fall asleep at the wheel and roll the car down a hill into a a house, the accident taking the life of his girlfriend and said house just happening to be associated with an international political scandal that the titular character then finds himself embroiled in. To come out of this film having a meaningful experience requires one to to suspend belief and then some. 

Beckett gets off to a poor start and the relationship between Washington and Vikander is inauthentic. Their lines are stilted and they don’t have much of a chemistry. The film picks up when the inciting incident occurs and what follows is an entertaining albeit by-the-numbers Euro action thriller. Beckett is heavily indebted to 70’s conspiracy films and you’ll likely see the twists coming. The action sequences are sparse but enjoyable and rather silly. Washington makes for a charismatic, fish-out-of-water lead and is worth the price of admission alone. Vicky Krieps makes a commendable effort as a fellow traveller who is campaigning against the political situation who Beckett’s path crosses with, although she is under-utilised. 

There is a moody score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose sparse use of music creates a sense of palpable intrigue for the film. Guadagnino-regular Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography paints a gritty picture of Greece, from its lavish but desolate hill tops to its crowded city centres juxtaposed with images of poverty. 

It feels like the distributor wasn’t quite sure what to do with Beckett, portrayed by the fact it has been released straight onto Netflix. Even the title of the film is rather lacklustre and does nothing to sell it. If you can switch your brain off and look past Beckett‘s flaws, what you have here is an entertaining meat and potatoes thriller with an amiable central performance bolstered by some excellent cinematography and a moody score. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Suicide Squad (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: James Gunn
Starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Alice Braga
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 132 mins

The Suicide Squad is for the most part a giddy, gory and thoroughly adult superhero film. The film is written and directed by James Gunn, whose sensibility for gory horror and dark humour, blend perfectly with the source material, feeling much more akin to his earlier works such as Slither and Super. Gunn originally hit critical acclaim with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, the first film in particular proving a refreshing break from the tired Marvel formula that really allowed his personality to shine through. Despite breaking free of the Marvel formula, Gunn was still constrained to a 12A / PG-13 rating, therefore The Suicide Squad represents him at his most unrestrained. 

The Suicide Squad fits into the wider DCEU rather awkwardly in that it is a part-sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad in that it shares a handful of the same characters but it also functions as a part-reboot in that everything about it is completely different to that film. Suicide Squad unfortunately received a critical mauling on its release and whilst it has its bright spots, unfortunately David Ayer’s film was subject to studio interference which is clearly evident in the final picture. 

After her solo outing in Birds of Prey, Margot Robbie returns as the mentally unstable Harley Quinn. Viola Davis’ no-nonsense Amanda Waller also returns, who is tasked with running the Task Force X and she assembles two teams to go to the fictional South American island of Corto Maltese for reasons unknown to the teams. The titular squad are all DC villains who are jailed and Waller picks a roster to undertake a mission, in return for the villains having a length of time knocked off their sentence. They each have a chip implanted in their head which Waller has the ability to explode if they go off course on their mission, and being a James Gunn film, this feature is certainly used. 

Gunn has proven a knack for picking unfamiliar comic-book characters and spinning a gripping yarn from their background. The Guardians of the Galaxy were very much a lesser known Marvel property and Gunn was able to utilise this to his advantage, especially with characters like Groot and Rocket Racoon, one a tree that can only say one sentence and the other an anthropomorphic, wisecracking raccoon. Gunn introduces characters like Ratcatcher, Polka Dot Man and King Shark, all C-grade comic villains but he manages to successfully develop and establish a backstory to them so audiences can invest in them. 

Will Smith’s Deadshot is not a part of the film this time around, rather it is Idris Elba, who is the team leader. He portrays Bloodsport, a skilled marksman who was imprisoned for shooting Superman with a kryptonite bullet. Elba has struggled to cement his career with leading roles and the performance he gives here is refreshingly cynical but humane and makes for a charismatic lead. John Cena is Peacemaker, a vulgar individual who desires to achieve peace through the act of violence. The main core of the team is comprised of returning actor Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, who has a more convincing character arc this time around, Natalie Belchior as Ratcatcher 2, David Dastalmachian as Polka Dot Man and Sylvester Stallone as King Shark. Other memorable characters include regular Gunn collaborator Michael Rooker as Savant and Sean Gunn as the violently strange Weasel. 

Gunn paces The Suicide Squad extremely well and the script is stuffed with quips and wisecracking interplay between the characters. There is violence and gore aplenty – heads are decapitated, blood splatters after characters get shot in the face and King Shark likes to devour people… a lot! This is a film that earns its 15 / R rating and it is all the better for it. Like its predecessor, there isn’t much of a story again this time round, but the characters combined objective acts as a coherent plot and there are some excellent character twists along the way. Gunn does an excellent job in not allowing his audience to get to attached to characters, as life is pretty expendable in this film. 

John Murphy’s guitar-heavy score is memorable and fits really well to the film. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn employs a jukebox roster of 80s hits and for the most part, they fit in well. The 2016 film tried to ape Guardians of the Galaxy in its soundtrack but its track picks were all too on-the-nose and uninspired. Henry Braham’s cinematography is excellent – this is a really colourful and visually punctuated world. A fight scene that is portrayed via a reflection is a genius idea and is beautifully captured by Braham. 

In a wider context, what impressed me most about The Suicide Squad was its progressive characters for the genre, which acts as a revisionist take on the superhero genre. The superhero genre is overpopulated with generic films that are uncomfortable in breaking the mould and Gunn’s film actively tries to defy conventions, even if it’s not always successful, but the ambition is to be admired. 

The Suicide Squad’s main drawback is in its ending, which unfortunately sticks to convention. There is an annoying tendency in superhero films to end the film on a big CGI battle and Gunn was guilty of this in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This is the case again, but the CGI battle is far more coherent and involving but it’s disappointing that unlike the rest of the film, he doesn’t make much of an effort to deviate from the formula. It’s a little anti-climatic when the rest of the film is so entertaining and refreshing. 

Ultimately, The Suicide Squad is a blast from start to finish and is up there with Gunn’s best works. Gunn’s personality shines through and through in its tone and his knack for establishing convincing and relatable characters and the film is mesmerising and joyfully startling and chaotic at times. It strikes just the right balance in its humour, rather than being boisterous about its adult rating. I can’t wait to see where this storyline is taken next and this film ranks as one of the best efforts in the DCEU and the wider superhero genre. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Old (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, Aaron Pierre, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 108 mins

Old is a new original psychological horror by high concept director M. Night Shyamalan, a director most famous for his signature twists and a figure who has had quite the varied career. After a slump of each film being worse than his last starting with Lady In The Water and The Happening, then resulting in the one-two career suicide of The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan’s career is steadily back on the rise. When he was in director’s jail, Shyamalan teamed with Blumhouse to film a micro-budget horror called The Visit, which opened to good reviews. He has since directed Split and Glass, completing a trilogy that started with Unbreakable. Split received strong reviews whereas the reception to Glass was decidedly mixed, although I regard it to be his best work. 

Inspired by a Swiss graphic novel called Sandcastle, Shyamalan adapts and expands the story to suit his own creative mind. The ever reliable Gael García Bernal plays Guy, who along with his wife, Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and two young children, Trent and Maddox (Alexa Swinton and Nolan River) vacation to a sun-drenched, tropical resort. The children do not know that this is to be their last family holiday as the parents plan on divorcing, as Prisca has been engaged in an affair and is also facing some worrying health problems. The seemingly idyllic haven seems too good to be true from the moment they arrive. The family are welcomed by the hotel manager and his staff with personalised cocktails made to their taste preferences that they specified on their booking form. The resort manager takes a liking to the family and offers them a day on a private, hidden beach to have to themselves. When they embark on the minivan to be transported to the beach, the exclusive nature of the trip is tarnished, as they are joined by another family consisting of an intense British Doctor (Rufus Sewell), his model but hypocalcemic wife (Abbey Lee) his ageing mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalafant) and young daughter, Kara (Kyle Bailey).

The minivan driver (Shyamalan in a cameo role) drops them off near the beach and hands them an exceedingly large hamper of food before departing, informing them to call him when they are ready to leave. Once they step foot on the beach, after negotiating their way through a jungle and canyon to reach their private slice of paradise. However, all is quickly not as it seems once a dead body washes up on the shore and everyone on the beach starts to age at breakneck speed, one of the characters deducing that they are ageing a year every half an hour. 

Old is another bonkers concept by the auteur Shyamalan, and tonally is somewhere between Get Out and The Beach, infused with The Twilight Zone. It is a frequently profound and is an intense, nightmarish exploration into the themes of life and maturation. A scene between two old characters facing worsening eyesight and deafness is beautiful, as their memories are worsening and losing the concept of space and time. Shyamalan deftly balances these profound moments with freakish body horror and violence, one sequence in particular involving a knife is particularly harrowing and well shot. That said, the film could have benefitted from portraying more of these bloody images rather than most of the violence being portrayed off-screen, although the on-screen horror that Shyamalan decides to portray is enough to earn the film a 15 age rating. 

Shyamalan has received a fair amount of flack for his stilted scripts, and although there are awkward moments in the script here and characters conversing unnaturally, it is fitting for the horrific scenario that they are placed in, their brains and actions not able to cope with their rapid ageing. The performances, in turn, are stilted to begin with but once the horrors of the beach unfold, there is considerably more energy. Gael García Bernal and Rufus Sewell make the strongest impression, Bernal’s father initially seeming overly tight-lipped but he instills more emotion as the film progresses and Sewell’s anxious but controlling Doctor has more substance than meets the eye. Ken Leung offers perhaps a career best performance as a calm and logical nurse, who is married to his intelligent but epileptic wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who the two families encounter later on the beach. 

Old is beautifully shot by Mike Gioulakis, who has collaborated with Shyamalan on his last three films. His photography portrays the luscious beach as an imposing figure and a character point-of-view in the film’s second half of worsening eyesight is a genius move. Trevor Gureckis’ score is foreboding and haunting, seemingly offering only despair to the characters situation. Of course, there is a signature, late twist to Old as it wouldn’t be a Shyamalan film without one. The twist is satisfying and as is the case with his best work, forces one to view the film in a different light. 

Old is a strong and unapologetic effort from Shyamalan and is further evidence of his career resurrection, if you get on board with the narrative. Reviews for this film have proven polarised but one must always commend a director for being ambitious and not trying to pander to the crowd. Old is one of Shyamalan’s best works and I cannot wait to rewatch it again and pick up on the smaller details that offer breadcrumbs to the film’s twist. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Luca (Review)

luca-1200

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Enrico Casarosa
Starring: (voices of) Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan 
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 95 mins

Luca is the latest from Disney Pixar and like Soul before it, faced delays to its theatrical release before releasing on Disney+, which sparked controversy within the team. Set on the Italian Rivera, Luca is a young sea monster who lives with his over-protective parents, who warn him of the perils of the human world. Luca spends his days supervising a flock of fish (who behave and bleat like sheep) and clearly is longing for more purpose and excitement in his life. The set-up is essentially The Good Dinosaur under the sea. Luca meets a fellow sea monster named Alberto, who is seemingly care-free and adventurous and leads Luca out of the sea, where both assume human form once dry, literally ‘fish out of water’. They work up the courage to discover the port town of Portorosso, where they make friends with a young Italian female misfit named Giulia and attempt to compete in a the town’s traditional triathlon (swimming, cycling and eating pasta of course!), whilst Luca evades his parents who are searching for him.

Luca is a sweet and amiable film that is much smaller in scope and scale compared to some of Pixar’s other offerings. Although decidedly more suitable for children, Luca’s aesthetic cries of Call Me By Your Name combined with The Little Mermaid, director Enrico Casarosa (in his debut feature after assisting as a storyboard artist on previous Pixar films) drawing inspiration from his childhood in his vivid imagining of the sunblushed Italian coast. The central trio of Luca, Alberto and Giulia are very well developed and there are some humorous supporting characters. Luca’s Grandmother does not share the same world view as his parents, knowing from experience that breaking some rules in life is a part of growing up and Sacha Baron Cohen shows up in a very brief role as Luca’s unhygienic Uncle Ugo, who resides in the deep sea, where Luca’s parents threaten to send him to live if he fails to stop rebelling.

Luca is a significantly more gentle film compared to other Pixar entries and tackles less heady and existential themes. There isn’t a standout emotional sequence that reduces the audience to tears, which is customary for many of Pixar’s films. Whilst Luca is engaging and entertaining in the moment, this is not a film that has the lasting and endearing quality that Pixar’s top tier offerings have.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Michael Chaves
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruari O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 112 mins

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the third entry in the mainline series but the eighth entry in its respective cinematic universe. The films have all varied in quality, with highlights such as the two Conjuring films and Annabelle: Creation to complete misfires such as Annabelle and The Nun. The mainline films though are yet to faulter and are generally considered the benchmark in quality for the franchise and follow paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren’s cases. This entry is set in 1981 in Connecticut, following the murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson who murdered his landlord and defended his innocence on the grounds of demonic possession.

This sequel is the first Conjuring film to not have James Wan in the director’s chair. Wan has cemented himself as one of the leading voices of the genre with his success in establishing this series with his two entries and he is also responsible for other franchises in the horror genre such as Saw and Insidious, as well as recently directing Aquaman. The Conjuring is Wan’s best feature, near perfect in its construction and is one of the best horror films of the century. Naturally, there is trepidation when he is not in the director’s chair (although he does remain in a producer and story capacity) and he has cherry-picked Michael Chaves to direct this entry. Chaves is not new to this franchise, having previously directed The Curse of La Llorona, which is a middle-of-the-road entry. Can Chaves deliver another stellar instalment in the franchise?

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It represents a welcome change of direction compared to the first two films in that it delves from the haunted house formula and is more of a police procedural crime thriller. The story the film is based on is riveting, even if some creative liberties have been taken with it for it to fit the horror genre. The performances are all excellent, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warren’s again are the centrepiece of the franchise and the film expands and revolves around their strong relationship. The rest of the cast are also strong, although they are underused and this is very much Farmiga and Wilson’s film. Ruairi O’Connor is excellent as the murder convict and it was surprising to see John Noble, of Lord of the Rings fame, appear here in a small but pivotal role, who performs sparingly.

Chaves’ direction attempts to ape Wan’s from the use of title cards and a prologue sequence at the beginning to the general tone of the film. However, when it comes to the horror aspect of the film, Chaves just does not craft the scares in as sophisticated a fashion as Wan. Wan’s scares are very creative and he is terrific at the build up. One of the best scares in The Conjuring is when a child can see a figure standing behind a door whilst her sister cannot see the figure but the door is shrouded in darkness so as an audience, we cannot quite make out what is accurate. Every scare Wan crafts is earned and he doesn’t resort to cheap tricks with false moments, which is unfortunately Chaves’ style. Although this is a horror franchise, in some ways, it would have been better if the film were completely bereft of scares as the film doesn’t need it, as its statement of intent is to be a crime thriller. The scares feel tacked on and unearned and there is nothing remotely terrifying about what we witness on screen. Of all the films in the franchise, this is probably the least scary instalment. What the film does do well is wear its graceful homages to other horror films on its sleeve and there is more than a cheeky nod to The Exorcist in the opening prologue and there is a waterbed sequence reminiscent of A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.

The film also feels rather short, for its sprawling narrative. The film could easily have been another half an hour longer to really develop its characters so that we could better connect with them and it would have been really interesting to see Chaves tap more into the legal aspect of the case, which he hints at early on in the film but then chooses to abandon it. The story is that riveting to warrant the extra time.

Ultimately, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is another strong entry in the franchise, but its success lies on its performances and shake-up of the haunted house formula into a crime thriller. I was riveted from start to finish but there is always the question of what if this film had been directed by James Wan and I think if had, the result here would have been extraordinary. If the film doubled down on its scares or chose to eliminate them completely and spent longer developing its characters and establishing the stakes, this could have been a masterpiece. As it stands, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is very strong in some areas but flawed in others.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Army Of The Dead (Review)

ARMY OF THE DEAD

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Anezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Huma Qureshi, Garret Dillahunt 
Certificate: 18
Run Time: 148 mins

Army of the Dead, visionary director Zack Snyder’s first film post-DC, is a total blast from start to finish. Snyder is no stranger to the zombie thriller genre as his first film was Dawn of the Dead, a very solid remake of George A. Romero’s original. This is not connected to Dawn but does take some inspiration from other Romero works. Army of the Dead follows a group of ragtag soldiers, led by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward, into the quarantine zone of Las Vegas to retrieve $200 million dollars from a casino vault. The catch is that Las Vegas is swarming with zombies and the government are planning on blowing the city up to eradicate the zombie population. There are two different types of zombies – ‘Alphas’ and ‘Shamblers’. ‘Alphas’ are a more intelligent breed of zombie whereas ‘Shamblers’ are your run-of-the-mill classic zombies.

Snyder crafts a fascinating world here and there is some interesting political sub-text. Ethical questions are posed that draw parallels to the current American political climate and treatment of migrants. We are introduced to a diverse set of characters that are going to carry out the heist operation. Whilst the character tropes are fairly conventional and some characters aren’t really fleshed out, this is a zombie film after all and it’s inevitable that some of the cast are only introduced to die.

Dave Bautista makes for an excellent lead as an ex-mercenary who is now a chef, who is pulled back into action when Hiroyuki Sanada’s rather shady billionaire show up at his work to entice him into the job. Of the sizeable team, Ana de la Regruera, Nora Arnezeder and Matthias Schweighöfer make the best impression. Regruera plays a friend of Scott who is a mechanic, who helps to put a team together and Arnezeder plays Lily, a Frenchwoman who acts as the group’s guide into Las Vegas and who has learnt to understand the mentality of the zombies. Schweighöfer plays Ludwig Dieter, a German safecracker, who gets some of the film’s best lines but also has a lot of heart. A prequel, Army of Thieves, is in production that is to be a follow-up to the film which will follow his character and will be directed by the actor.

The film is a visual treat and Snyder, who acts his own cinematographer for the first time, does a commendable job in building a convincing post-apolocalyptic world that doesn’t feel too far removed from how it is currently. The film is bursting with colour and Snyder leans into the creative kills and gore that earn the film its 18-rating with joyful glee, the opening credits to the film being particularly memorable. He balances this with some suitably dour darker lit sequences that highlight the origins of the Alphas and their leader Zeus, who is particularly well developed as a villain, and fits in perfectly with Snyder’s horror roots.

Army of the Dead is further proof that Snyder works best when he is not restrained by a film studio. We saw proof of that earlier in the year with his director’s cut of Justice League and this unrestrained and giddy experience further cements that he is a talented director. Snyder has received rightly deserved some flack in the past where his stories and characters aren’t always suitably developed and it would be fair to say that as a filmmaker, he struggles to stick to convention. But Army of the Dead isn’t overlong or self-indulgent – this is the perfect length for the story that Snyder has crafted and the film takes its time to create a strong verisimilitude. I cannot wait to see where this material is taken next in a prequel and the film certainly leaves an enticing door open for a sequel. Army of the Dead is one of the best films of the year.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Samuel L. Jackson 
Certificate: 18
Run Time: 93 mins

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw is the latest in the ongoing splatter horror franchise and the second of its recent attempts at a reinvigoration. The Saw series has been a mixed bag. James Wan’s original film is excellent and propelled him and budding screenwriter Leigh Whannell into the talents they are today. When Saw scored big at the box office and had been created on a shoestring budget, a franchise spawned. Sadly, none of the sequels were able to live up to the original. Saw II was dissatisfying in that it removed a lot of the mystery elements of the first film and its characters weren’t likeable. Saw III fared better but disgusted me in parts, although perhaps that means the film did its job? Saw IV, V and VI fared better although having a more episodic quality. Saw VI was perhaps the highpoint of the sequels in how it took aim at the health insurance industry and had a satirical edge to it, even if its execution was rather heavy-handed. The mainline series seemingly ended in 2010 with ‘The Final Chapter’, a laughable and unrealistic film that represented a series low point. However, no film in Hollywood can ever really be a final instalment, if there is the potential to extract more money.

In 2017, directors Michael and Peter Spierig relaunched the franchise with Jigsaw, which made an admirable attempt to shake the formula with a more refined production quality, feeling less episodic and omitting the hyper-speed editing of the torture sequences. The Spierig Brothers were an interesting choice, having directed Daybreakers and Predestination, both thoughtful and layered pieces of work. Whilst nowhere near the quality of the original, Jigsaw was an interesting instalment that somewhat reinvigorated the franchise. 

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw is another attempt at a reinvigoration and is easily the most interesting premise in that it is based on an idea from comedian Chris Rock, an unlikely talent you would associate with this franchise. Rock had been a devotee of the franchise and wanted to renovate his own career. This is not the first time a primarily comedic actor has tried their hand at rejuvenating a horror franchise. Halloween (2018) was pitched by David Gordon Green and comedian Danny McBride and the result made for an exciting and excellent addition to the then-tired franchise. 

Rock’s concept is an interesting one in that the film is more of a police procedural mystery thriller in the vein of David Fincher’s Se7en with torture traps thrown in for good measure. Rock plays Detective Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Banks, an honest policeman who is at a career low point having grassed on a fellow corrupt cop and he is not well liked in the force. He is ridiculed by being partnered with a newbie, Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), but the two form a strong budding relationship before long despite some initial animosity from Zeke. The police force start to get murdered in various Saw traps, many likening to a Jigsaw copycat. This copycat starts taunting Zeke by sending him tapes, messages and body parts neatly gift wrapped and the film follows his investigation in identifying and stopping the serial killer. 

Series veteran Darren Lynn Bousman is in the director’s chair. Bousman is a worrying choice, as his entries (II, III and VI) are not the series’ strongpoint and he failed to understand the components of what James Wan’s original concept so refreshing. The prospect of Samuel L. Jackson,however, makes for a very exciting addition to the cast. Jackson plays Chris Rock’s father, Marcus Banks, who used to be the Chief of Police. 

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw has some fascinating ideas and the return of the franchise to its mystery thriller roots is a strong decision. The fact that it is a spin-off that disassociates itself from the mainline Saw series is also a plus, as the narrative is easier to follow and doesn’t rely on interweaving itself to other instalments. Although the shift in genre is a plus, it is a shame that Spiral gives into almost every cliche in the book. You have the hegemonic ingredients of a policeman who is divorced from his wife and children, the forced buddy cop dynamic, corrupt policeforce and a killer who is always a step ahead of his victims. Despite being cliche-ridden, that’s not to say the film isn’t entertaining and the film is never boring. 

Sticking with the positives, Chris Rock brings a great energy to the material and makes for a strong, world-weary lead, even if the script he is laden with is rather wooden. He is a far more commanding presence than other leads in the series and his wisecracks add another dimension to the film without cheapening the horror and gore. Max Minghella also makes for a likeable presence as Zeke’s partner and the two have a solid chemistry. Samuel L. Jackson essentially plays himself, which is no bad thing and injects more energy into the film, but it is a real shame that he is a limited presence in the film and that the film barely makes an effort to explore the strained relationship between father and son. 

The film is visually impressive and there is a much greater emphasis on art and set design compared to other instalments. Jordan Oram’s cinematography is skilful and the film has an interesting colour palette, particularly the opening sequence of a police chase with its neon hues.  

Unfortunately, in almost every other regard, Spiral disappointing falls short. The film uneasily blends its crime thriller tone with its torture traps. The traps are for the most part unsatisfying in that they go against the series’ ethos. Jigsaw’s traps in the original films can be won by its contenders if they make a sacrifice but this is not really the case here. The traps seem inescapable. It is also disappointing to see the film revert back to the series staple of having hyper-speed edits within the traps, which provide them a music video like quality. That said, at least the traps have some sort of tie to the characters that are being tortured and their actions that they are being judged on. 

The film would have benefitted from having a longer run time. Spiral runs for a little over 90 minutes. It would have greatly benefitted with more character building moments in the story that allow the film a chance to breathe and also more sequences of the investigation and pursuit of the killer. The film’s tone is ramped up throughout and it is crying out for some quieter moments.

The execution of the final twist of the film is poorly handled and makes for a sour taste. It is easy to guess who the killer is, due to same gaping plot holes in the narrative and what is and isn’t portrayed to viewers on-screen, which undoes the sense of intrigue the film is trying to conjure.

Spiral’s problems lie with director Darren Lynn Bousman. He is unable to set the correct tone and fails to understand the structure of this type of film. Why he was hired in the first place is baffling and the film really would have benefitted from a director that was hungry to put their stamp on the material, rather than someone who has already worked on the series. 

Spiral is a frustrating entry in the franchise but when you look past its cataclysmic flaws, I appreciated the effort Chris Rock has made and it is easy to see what this film could have been if it had been better directed. The combination of the change in tone and Chris Rock’s input to the franchise make this one of the best entries in the franchise (although the bar isn’t very high) and I would be very interested in seeing more of Rock’s character in a sequel as long as a more competent director is hired. If the film had succeeded in its objectives, Spiral could have been an ambitious and intelligent knock-out that would have injected new life into the series. A real shame that the result is middling.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Those Who Wish Me Dead (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Jon Bernthal 
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 100 mins

Those Who Wish Me Dead is the latest from writer-director Taylor Sheridan and in keeping with his back catalogue, is another film that explores the modern American frontier. Sheridan has had an impressive career to date. He wrote Sicario, its underrated sequel and Hell Or High Water, all of which were excellent and were amongst my favourite films of their respective years. He also wrote and directed Wind River, which was another exemplary effort. More recently, he has turned to television with Yellowstone, which is now heading into its fourth season and he co-wrote Without Remorse earlier this year, which whilst enjoyable, wasn’t up to par with his other work. Here, he adapts a 2014 novel by Michael Koryta of the same name, Koryta also credited as a screenwriter for the film, along with Charles Leavitt.

Those Who Wish Me Dead centres on Angelina Jolie’s Hannah Faber, a smokejumper, who is mentally struggling after feeling as if she failed to prevent the deaths of three individuals in a forest fire and is now stationed in a lookout tower. Her path crosses with a young 12 year old boy, Connor (Finn Little) whose father, Owen (Jake Weber) has been murdered for his knowledge by two relentless assassins (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult), who are now after Connor to silence him.  

Those Who Wish Me Dead is another original and commanding effort from Taylor Sheridan. It is frequently thrilling and as is customary for the writer-director, there are some interesting twists narratively and in its portrayal of gender. The way in which Sheridan introduces the characters allow the audience to be two steps ahead of them, which is thrilling as we can predict how they will likely act when all the pieces fall together later in the film. Sheridan is again able to extract some excellent performances from the cast. Angelina Jolie makes for a commanding screen presence, haunted by what she feels is her mistake, and this is a solid project for her to pick in her acting comeback. Gillen and Hoult make for an unstoppable reckoning as the assassins. 

Visually, the film is interesting in its portrayal of the beauty of the Montana landscape and it captures the ferocity of the forest fires the area can suffer with grandeur. There is even a memorable Brian Tyler score, whose work I have not been impressed with in the past. 

That said, on a first viewing, the film feels more slight than Sheridan’s other work and it lacks an elegiac quality. The film is quite breakneck in its pacing and some further quieter moments to develop its characters further would have been beneficial. This is what propelled Hell Or High Water from a lean and mean modern Western with moments such as an altercation at a petrol station or two characters enjoying lunch in a typically Texan bar. 

On reflection, the more slight nature of the film is perhaps intentional as we don’t know what the Macguffin is. Gillen and Hoult’s assassins are underdeveloped and we don’t know what knowledge Owen had that he has passed onto his son before his assassination. It’s powerful that Jolie is distrusting of Connor originally and then suddenly puts all of her trust in achieving the mission of evading his captors once she reads his note of his father’s findings, elevating the stakes. 

Overall, Those Who Wish Me Dead is another original concept from Sheridan and the film is a thoughtful thrill ride from start to finish with some satisfying twists, even if on a first viewing, it doesn’t appear to have as much staying power as his other work. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)