“Hellboy” Reboot pictures emerge and why I’m excited

The first pictures from the upcoming Hellboy reboot have emerged showing actor David Harbour in costume as the title character and it looks fantastic.

Another Hellboy movie has been a long time coming. After Hellboy II: The Golden Army underperformed at the box office, it seemed that the future of the Hellboy franchise was in jeopardy. And indeed, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy III quickly entered development hell. And as time went on it seemed the movie would never get made. Del Toro was always too busy. No one wanted to invest. So it came as no surprise that the project was quietly cancelled.

But what did come as a surprise was the announcement of a reboot.

With Neil Marshall in the director’s chair, the Hellboy reboot sees David Harbour of Stranger Things fame take over from Ron Perlman and also casts Ian McShane playing Hellboy’s adopted father Professor Broom and Milla Jovovich as the villain; the Blood Queen.

I was a huge fan of Del Toro’s first two Hellboy movies and have grown to love the character outside the movies via the comics. But my excitement for the movie also stems from a wider, more general perspective.

Hollywood is in a rut right now. There is no denying. Disney rules the day and while every studio may have the odd Wonder Woman or Jurassic World, no one else can seem to find a foothold. And the big problem here is that every major movie is beginning to look the same or just aren’t good.

For instance, the latest The Mummy reboot aped Marvel’s style so much that it forgot to find its own voice along the way, making it an ultimately lifeless venture. Warcraft struggled to figure out who it was for. Batman v Superman massively misunderstood why it’s two title characters are so appealing.

A Hellboy reboot, if done right, could provide the kick that Hollywood needs. It’s a great character and comic to adapt and it’s a weird property. But that’s good. With everyone else beginning to look so bland and lifeless, maybe Hollywood needs a little bit of weird. Something different. The huge success of IT should prove that audiences are craving something a little different and Hellboy could deliver on that.

If the movie doesn’t try to “Marvelise” itself and can forge out its own identity, it could be a massive success.

It has a talented director at the helm, a great cast, the support and writing talents of the characters creator Mike Mingola and has every reason to succeed.

Add in that Harbour looks perfect as the character and Hellboy has quickly shot up my list of most anticipated films of 2018. I just hope it’s able to deliver on the promise.

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“IT” Review

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“Time to float!”. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) prepares to lunge. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Plot: When children begin to disappear in the town of Derry, Maine, a group of young kids are faced with their biggest fears when they square off against an evil clown named Pennywise (Skarsgård), whose history of murder and violence dates back for centuries. 

IT is the film adaptation of author Stephen King’s 1,138 page 1986 novel, helmed by Andy Muschietti, director of 2013’s Mama. IT had already been adapted to great success in a two-part 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry in the title role. While the miniseries itself doesn’t hold up and is spotty in quality at best (with Curry being the miniseries’ only redeeming feature), it holds a fond place in the hearts of those who grew up watching it giving Muschietti’s new take on the story big shoes to fill.

Instead of condensing King’s lengthy tome to one movie, IT (titled as IT: Chapter One in the movie itself) decides to only focus on the segments of the story portraying the Loser’s Club’s encounters with IT as children, with the adult segment of the story being saved for the sequel due in 2019 (however Muschietti has made it clear he intends to release a four to five hour director’s cut merging both films into one). This works in the film’s favour. Not only is the childhood segment the strongest part of the original novel, it allows the film to remain more focused instead of jumping around between multiple time periods.

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Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) encounters “IT”, otherwise known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures.

The film also brings the events of the story forward from 1958 to 1988. While this allows IT: Chapter Two to be set in the present, it also manages to serve the movie brilliantly. By having the movie set in the late 80’s, it manages to make the movie a love letter to Hollywood around that time; with the film ending up as a wonderful mix of The Goonies, Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street. In effect, IT becomes a genre throwback to the coming of age adventure movie and the supernatural horror movie. And it’s a mix that works. Muschietti manages to blend the two genres deftly and manages to create a truly unique horror picture with the end result; an excellent coming of age picture that just so happens to also be a film about a child-eating monster disguised as a clown.

IT strikes gold however with its cast. The seven children who make up the Loser’s Club are all wonderful young actors who will have a long future ahead of them is they chose to stay in the business. Each of them delivers a fantastic performance. The standout of the group however is Sophia Lillis as Beverly. Lillis, looking eerily like a young Jessica Chastain (potential casting for IT: Chapter Two maybe?), delivers perhaps the most rounded and strongest performance of the film. Beverly is perhaps the character that faces the most emotional strife during the film (apart from Bill). With an emotionally abusive (and implied to be sexually abusive) father at home, along with vicious rumours being spread about her by girls from school, Beverly has a lot to deal with without Pennywise coming into play. Lillis manages to make Beverly a truly engaging character, managing to make Beverly the most sympathetic and identifiable member of the Losers. Lillis’s performance shows she has great talent and will have a long and promising career ahead of her.

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Beverly (Sophia Lillis) hides from her tormentors. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures. 

Also a young actor of note is Jaeden Lieberher as Bill. As with Lillis with Beverly, Lieberher has the more meaty material to work with out of the other kids. Bill spends most of the movie searching for his younger brother, Georgie (kidnapped by Pennywise in the movie’s opening scene) and being in denial of the fact it’s incredibly likely Georgie is already dead. Lieberher deals with this material incredibly well, showing a lot of talent. It’s not easy to carry a film at 14, but Lieberher handles it with ease, showcasing himself to be an actor of talent.

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Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) hunts for the missing Georgie. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures. 

The rest of the Loser’s Club are made up of fine young actors, even if none of them quite get the amount of material and range that Lillis and Lieberher get. All of them deliver great performances and manage to round out the supporting cast incredibly well. Of particular note is Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame who plays Richie. Wolfhard shows fantastic comedic timing and delivers most of the best lines in the film, with nearly all of them being incredibly hilarious. As for the rest of the group, everyone gets at least a few moments to shine with only Chosen Jacobs getting the short straw as Mike. After a few scenes near the start, Mike is absent until near the end of the second act which makes it difficult for Mike to make much of an impression, enough to make you wonder if several scenes with Mike were left on the cutting room floor. But despite this all of the kids do a fantastic job and you can’t help but wish there was a bit more time spent with them; perhaps this could be incentive for Warner Bros to invest in an extended cut of Chapter One, prior to the merged cut?

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The Loser’s Club. From left to right: Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Bill, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Beverly, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Richie (Finn Wolfhard). Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures.

But of course, the reason everyone wants to see this movie is for IT itself; Pennywise. Bill Skarsgård takes the role of the murderous clown and manages to do an excellent job. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a completely different beast to Tim Curry’s. Portraying the character as more ravenous, more beastly (Pennywise even drools hungrily when talking with Georgie) and ultimately feels more inhuman. Skarsgård doesn’t feel like a man dressed as a clown, he feels like an inhuman monster which is perfect for an interdimensional shape shifter (however IT’s origins are only implied in this movie, presumably being saved for the sequel). There’s just something eerily off-putting about Pennywise and Skarsgård’s movements and performance help create a horror villain that is truly unsettling. A moment where Pennywise uncurls himself from inside a fridge is truly disturbing to watch, especially since only minimal CGI was used meaning that most of it is actually Skarsgård. Pennywise isn’t just creepy though, he also has some humour to him which makes him even more unsettling. I’d rather not describe Pennywise’s sense of humour, if only to preserve some of the film’s more surprising and unsettling moments, but safe to say it’s as twisted as the character itself. Skarsgård is truly unhinged in the role, with this being one of those rare villain performances where the actor is completely unrecognisable. If Skarsgård’s Pennywise is better than Tim Curry’s is down to personal taste. In my opinion, Skarsgård’s is superior due to being more unsettling and closer to Pennywise as he was in the original novel along with a truly unhinged performance by Skarsgård but Curry’s Pennywise was also great. It ultimately depends on what you expect from the character, but for my tastes, Skarsgård’s won out and I can’t wait to see more of him.

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Pennywise on the prowl. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures.

IT is an absolutely gorgeous film to watch. Muschietti clearly has a wonderful directorial eye and it’s showcased magnificently here. The film just comes alive on the screen. From beautiful shots of the town of Derry, to dark and enveloping sewer tunnels, the film has a great vision and look. Muschietti really knows how to direct a horror film. Sets come alive with his directing, Pennywise’s presence envelops the film even when he isn’t present. From darkness and shadows giving the impression he could be anywhere along with the general feeling that something is watching and waiting. Indeed, the only times this feeling isn’t there are when the Losers are together and having fun, but even then there’s a hint of menace; as the kids play in a river, you’re just waiting for something to reach up and grab them. It’s also remarkable how unsettling even the people who aren’t Pennywise feel, with authority figures all feeling unnatural or, to some, worse than Pennywise. It’s this, along with the directing, that aid an air of dread to the entire film; making us really feel that there’s no one these kids can turn to.

What should be mentioned is how surprisingly funny the film is. While the film isn’t exactly a comedy, there’s plenty of humour scattered throughout. But none of it ever feels unnatural, in fact it goes hand in hand with the scares. It really manages to capture the spirit of King’s novel.

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“You’ll float too.” Pennywise stalks his next victim. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures.

But what’s a horror film without its scares? Well I’m glad to report that IT is incredibly scary. Muschietti manages to deliver the scares in a big way, using a mixture of traditional jump scares with more unique moments; playing with audiences expectations as well as managing not to overuse Pennywise, only using him when it’s called for. An excellent touch is how Muschietti drags out the tension; you know the scare is coming, but you’re not quite sure when, or what, is actually going to occur. As a balloon slowly drifts towards one soon to be victim of Pennywise, you’re on edge, waiting. The film’s opening, which shows Pennywise luring in and making off with Georgie, is incredibly disturbing to watch. We the audience know what Pennywise is going to do. What makes this scene so impactful is how he does it and indeed, how much the film is actually able to do in this sequence. It’s impactful, shocking, scary and memorable and really sets the tone for the entire film. But the film’s scariest moment has to come from the projector scene. As the Losers examine slides of old Derry maps, the projector gets a life of its own and images of Pennywise begin to appear. What follows is an incredibly tense sequence of waiting as the film plays with your expectations as what you expect to occur doesn’t quite occur in the way you expect, leading to the film’s most terrifying moment.  That said however, a few too many of the film’s jump scares seem to rely on Pennywise running at the camera and screaming which can get old after a while. Regardless though, IT is a terrifyingly scary experience.

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Pennywise lurks in the darkness. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Another are where IT excels is its score. Benjamin Wallfisch takes scoring duties here and does a magnificent job. Alongside the more traditional Insidious-esque score for the scary parts, Wallfisch delivers an almost John Williams style score for some parts of the score. This is also blended with perhaps the creepiest version of “Oranges and Lemons” you’ll ever hear, serving as Pennywise’s theme. All together this creates an excellent soundtrack, emerging as one of the more memorable in the horror genre in quite a while. With many identifiable themes at play, I hope Wallfisch is able to return for the sequel to further develop them.

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Pennywise advances on the Losers. Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures.

IT is a stellar adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Muschietti has managed to craft a stellar horror film that manages to be true to the spirit of King’s text while putting his own identifiable spin on it. Bolstered by excellent performances from its child cast and an utterly unhinged performance by Bill Skarsgård along with fantastic visuals, some truly chilling scares and some surprisingly hilarious humour; IT is a must see horror film that emerges as not just the best horror of 2017, but perhaps the best horror film in years. Utterly terrifying, this film needs to be seen.

9/10

“Annabelle: Creation” Review

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Linda (Lulu Wilson) clutches onto the demonic doll Annabelle. Copyright: Warner Bros. 

Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto
Plot: Twelve years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker’s possessed creation, Annabelle.

The Conjuring Universe continues to grow, with its latest entry; Annabelle: Creation. The prequel to 2014’s Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation provides another take on the origins of the malevolent doll; this time with Lights Out director David F. Sandberg at the helm, taking over from John R. Leonetti.

Annabelle: Creation suffers in the story department from having to work around established mythology. The revelation in 2014’s Annabelle that the doll itself is not possessed but is in fact just a conduit for a demon has to be stuck with. This leads to the movie’s second half not being as strong story wise as it’s first, due to the film having to move elements around in order to have things in place for the first film. Perhaps this is the problem that the shared universe trend will continue to suffer from; it makes it incredibly difficult to make good standalone films. Annabelle: Creation suffers from it’s attachment to the previous film. Perhaps it would have been easier for WB to drop the first Annabelle from the continuity? But for the most part, the plot is fairly well done. There’s not much that hasn’t been seen or done before in other horror films but the film handles these elements well and tells a finely crafted tale for the most part, apart from the afore-mentioned issues. Either way, it means Annabelle: Creation struggles to wrap up it’s excellent plot for the sake of setting up the original film.

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Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and the girls look on in horror as terrifying events unfold. Copyright: Warner Bros. 

Another problem with the film is that, due to the afore-mentioned tying in of elements from the first film, it means the film can’t really focus on what it does well. The demon that uses the doll is terrifying and manages to deliver some truly scary moments. An early moment where Janice attempts to escape it, only for the demon to slowly advance on her by seemingly devouring all the light around her and leaving her in complete darkness. This aspect of the creature is fantastic and is used to great effect in multiple sequences. But however, this leaves the doll itself to be somewhat sidelined. While this makes sense as the doll itself is not cursed, it’s a bit disappointing for it to be fairly unused after some effective early sequences.

Annabelle: Creation has a fairly decent cast. Most of the film falls on the shoulders of Talitha Bateman as Janice who does an excellent job. Carrying a film mostly on your own and Bateman does a fantastic job of it. She manages to brilliantly portray a terrified yoing girl who has no way of escape. In the latter half of the film however, Bateman takes more of a backseat and this is where the film struggles. There’s no clearly defined protagonist for the film to follow after this. Stephanie Sigman does a good job as Sister Charlotte, but is likewise taken out of action early in the film’s third act meaning she struggles to be a protagonist the audience can root for. Lulu Wilson then is left to carry the film in the last third but again, she spends it mostly off screen leaving it difficult for audiences to connect with her. This isn’t a fault of the ability of the actors, but more a fault of the editing during the climax.

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Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda encounter things that go bump in the night. Copyright: Warner Bros. 

The supporting cast meanwhile do fine jobs. Anthony LaPaglia does a fine job as Mr Mullins; perfectly capturing the tragedy of the character and being an incredibly likeable presence on screen. Miranda Otto as Mrs Mullins makes a great impression and manages to make the most of the incredibly limited screen time that the film gives her. Both of these actors manage to create incredibly complex characters and I couldn’t help but feel that I wanted to see more of them than of the other characters.

The scares meanwhile are delivered brilliantly. Sandberg proved himself a master of horror with Lights Out, especially when it comes to playing with darkness. Sandberg manages to do the impossible and makes the audience scared of the dark once again. As the demon using Annabelle as a conduit loves the dark, it leaves a lot to the imagination as shadows can be hiding anything. With some scenes showing the demon emerging from pure darkness, it creates a lot of paranoia in any scene set at night. This is where the film works the best, be it Janice being slowly surrounded by approaching darkness, Linda firing a ball on a string into pure darkness or another character being trapped in a barn as the demon slowly turns out all the lights. It seems Sandberg took the best lessons from Lights Out and from the first Annabelle (namely the now infamous basement scene) to create some truly terrifying moments.

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Janice is cornered by the Demon. Copyright: Warner Bros.

For this is ultimately where Annabelle: Creation excels. It may have problems in terms of story and characters, but the film really manages to deliver when it comes to the scares which makes the film’s other flaws forgiveable. This is horror. Pure, refined and perfected. It’s very hard to describe just how scary Annabelle: Creation is. It’s something to be experienced for yourself.

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Mrs. Mullins (Miranda Otto) attempts to fend off the dark forces in her home. Copyright: Warner Bros. 

While it may not be as strong a film as The Conjuring and its sequel and certainly lacks a strong central protagonist like the first Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation is still another excellent entry in the Conjuring universe. It seems ironic that after Universal’s failed attempt at forcing a horror cinematic universe with The Mummy, that Warner Bros should stumble on one entirely by accident. By creating well-made and scary horror films, Warner Bros has made a horror universe I want to see more of and with a post-credits scene teasing The Nun, a film focused on the demonic nun Valak from The Conjuring 2, it seems plenty more are on the way. Sandberg has crafted a finely made horror film that may fall apart somewhat in character and story, but more than excels in the scares making these stumbles forgivable. Annabelle: Creation is certainly one of the year’s better horror films and is a must see. Just remember to sleep with the lights on afterwards.

8/10

 

“The Mummy” Review

the-mummy-2017-after-credits-hqDirected by: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson
Plot: Thought safely entombed in a crypt deep beneath the unforgiving desert, an ancient princess, whose destiny was unjustly taken from her, is awakened in our current day bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension.

It seems everyone and their mother wants a cinematic universe these days. With Marvel’s cinematic universe breaking box office records with every entry, all the studio wants a piece of that box office pie. And that means making a cinematic universe out of anything and everything. Disney has Star Wars alongside Marvel, Warner Bros have their DC Universe, The Conjuring universe and their upcoming Hanna-Barbera Universe, Paramount is desperately trying to make a Transformers universe a thing while Sony tries to make a Spider-Man universe… without Spider-Man.

Universal meanwhile are planning their own universe. Titled Dark Universe, this universe will bring together all of the classic Universal Monsters from Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and even The Phantom of the Opera. The Dark Universe kicks off with The Mummy, hoping to get us all excited for this ultimate monster mash. So how does it fare?

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Well, as the launching pad to a new cinematic universe, The Mummy certainly hits all the right beats. It introduces the universe, introduces several key characters and sets up the franchise going forward. However, it never exactly quite comes together.

It’s hard to pin exactly what went wrong. Was it the script? Was it director Alex Kurtzman? There’s just something about The Mummy that stops it from stepping out of the “passable entertainment” barrier. It’s a shame, as there’s plenty of good ideas on show but none of it ever really connects in the way the filmmakers seem to want it to. In fact most of the film’s second act, which is where most of the world building for the Dark Universe takes place, feels oddly out of place and seems to be at odds with the first and third acts. Having the film completely stop so Russell Crowe’s Dr Jekyll can give us a guided tour of what we can expect in future movies just doesn’t seem to fit naturally into the film. It’s a longer equivalent of Batman sending Wonder Woman an email filled with teaser trailers for future movies in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It just doesn’t fit naturally into the current narrative. An Easter egg during this segment, implying this film is also set in the same continuity as the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies, only complicates matters further.

Tonally the movie is all over the place, suffering from apparently not knowing what sort of movie it wants to be.  Is it a horror movie, an action movie, a tongue in cheek adventure movie or a direct lead in to a Monster mash up film? The movie can’t seem to decide and jumps between each one on a scene by scene basis. It does each genre well while it’s doing them, but the jumping between them leads to it being very hard for any form of engagement to occur during them. Scary moments are suddenly undercut by a comedic moment, action moments are suddenly waylaid so exposition for future movies can be spouted and so on and so forth. It leads to a very tonally disconnected experience. The movie would have been better served by sticking to just one or two of these elements and doing those well rather than all of them. A slightly tongue in cheek horror-action movie, with slightly more focus on the horror, like the first Brendan Fraser Mummy movie was the perfect tone for this reboot yet the movie seems to show an aversion to having a consistent tone.

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This tonal inconsistency also leads to the film’s lack of scares. While a definite attempt has been made to try and add some scares to the movie, at least those of the jump scare variety, none of it really makes an impact due to comedic moments always undercutting or interrupting scary scenes. Perhaps this was an attempt to lighten the tone by the studio in order to get a 12a rating, an attempt that failed since the film has got a 15, but it raises the question as to why a movie universe theming itself around monsters would be afraid of being scary. Warner Bros’s The Conjuring universe is doing just fine at the box office and those movies are all out horror films so it’s not a matter of Box office.

But there are some good ideas here. The mythology created for the film is particularly well done. The backstory for the Mummy herself Ahmanet is actually pretty great and makes me wonder how good a movie would have been that was more focused on her.

For indeed the star here is Tom Cruise. For better or for worse, this is his movie. And that’s ultimately all there is to say here. Cruise is a divisive actor and if Cruise has yet to win you over, then he certainly won’t here. While Cruise does a decent job in the role, you can’t shake the feeling that he’s oddly out of place and very miscast. The role itself feels much more suited to a younger actor (with Chris Pine feeling like a better fit for the character). The Mummy may have been better served by having Tom Cruise take another role in the Dark Universe, one more suited to his talents. Seeing Cruise as Dracula (to harken back to his An Interview with a Vampire days) or as Johnathan Harker or Quincey Morris in the upcoming Dracula movie may have been a better place for his talents. Which isn’t to say Cruise is bad in The Mummy, but he feels incredibly miscast.

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As for the rest of the cast everyone does a fine job with one notable exception. Annabelle Wallis lets the film down by delivering a very flat performance. While this could be an issue with the writing (about 40% or more of the character’s lines are just her shouting the male lead’s name), it’s a crying shame to see that while female characters are getting more and more well written in movies like Wonder Woman, we’re still seeing the decades old “blonde damsel in distress” continue to make appearances.

Sofia Boutella however does an excellent job as the titular Mummy herself. While she doesn’t get a lot of screen time to truly make an impact, she does leave a good impression making me hopeful she’ll return in future instalments to flesh out the character more. Russell Crowe also makes a good impression as Dr Jekyll and his sinister counterpart Mr Hyde, serving very well as the “Nick Fury” of the Dark Universe.

In terms of visuals the movie is… fine I guess. There’s a few nice shots here and there, some cool visual touches but nothing that particularly wows. It all feels very machine like in a way, there’s no real invention here and instead it all feels a little too like Kurtzman is trying to emulate other directors rather than find his own style.

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But there is good points to The Mummy. It’s enjoyable mostly, there’s a few good jokes and a few good scares here and there with enough entertaining aspects for it not to feel like a waste of money. There was never a moment where I felt bored or unentertained so the movie has to be given some credit for that. And the movie certainly succeeded in its job in making me excited for the rest of the universe. But there’s the problem. The Mummy made me want to see other movies more than the movie I was watching, which doesn’t bode well.

The Mummy is just another entry in the finely tuned Hollywood reboot machine. Recognisable actor + Beloved franchise + lots of sequel and spin-off set ups. This leaves the film being an enjoyable way to pass two hours, but ultimately unremarkable on its own. More obsessed with setting up the Dark Universe than standing on its own two feet, The Mummy is fine on the surface but underneath the bandages it’s the hollow and tonally confused corpse of a franchise that once was. But despite that, there’s still fun to be had here.

5.5/10

“Prey” Game Review

Released: Out Now
Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Platform Reviewed On: PS4 Pro

The Prey brand has had a lot of trouble over the years. After the first well received entry, the franchise immediately fell into trouble and it would look like Prey 2 would never arrive. That sadly turned out to be the case. Now, years later, Arkane Studios (behind the incredibly popular Dishonored series) have revived the series. But instead of being a remake/sequel to the original Prey, this game is more a reinvention, bearing very little similarities to the original and, if rumours are to be believed, the game was not originally intended to use the Prey name at all. But ignoring all that, how does the game fare?

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Well ultimately the game is a success. Its fun, it’s thrilling, it’s scary. In short it’s everything a horror game should strive to be. Taking place aboard the space station Talos I, the game finds players waking up as amnesiac Morgan Yu and finding out their entire life as they know it has been a lie. With Talos I currently suffering an outbreak of a strange alien race known as the Typhon, it’s up to the player to figure out what to do, where to go and who to trust. And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. Because the best thing about Prey is the real sense of being at a disadvantage. Due to the player’s amnesia, there’s the overwhelming paranoia that every other character in the game is taking advantage of it. As many you encounter claim they are the only one you can trust, it’s up to the player to decide who is lying and who isn’t. For this is one of the most peculiar things about Prey. It’s sense of total freedom. While the game is ultimately a very linear game, it is still incredibly open for players to do what they like. Feel a certain character could betray you? Go ahead and kill them. There’s no repercussions. While the story itself is ultimately very shallow (much of the depth to the story is found through optional material), it’s still engaging enough that you want to see it through to the end. Especially since it’s probably one of the few times where it’s true that the story is truly your story.

This openness also extends to the game world itself. While some areas are locked away for story purposes, there’s nearly always a way around it. A way to open a door before it should be. This amount of total freedom that Prey offers players is almost unprecedented in today’s gaming world. Even games that promise to let players do what they like often make it impossible for certain characters to be killed or certain areas to be accessed before they can be. So this amount of freedom is a welcome one.

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Prey’s freedom also extends to the gameplay. Arkane are big promoters of the “play your way” style and Prey is no different. Abilities are numerous and varied with one to suit every playstyle. Favour stealth over direct confrontation? You can upgrade your character to move quicker and quieter and hit harder with stealth attacks. Favour going in all guns blazing? Upgrades to health and weapon power are available. Favour using telepathic powers? Yep. Upgrades for that too. There’s enough upgrades to suit every player’s playstyle. I still find myself amazed how many options I have. I ultimately favoured a more balanced playstyle (in order to sample as many of the abilities as I could) and found the game allowed me to explore any ability path I chose that, by game’s end, I felt my Morgan Yu was utterly unique. Depending on playstyle, it’s very likely no two players will have the same experience. One player may find Prey a fun, all guns blazing action game while the other may find it a slow, tense horror thriller. This sort of style also makes Prey an immensely repayable game.

Prey’s enemies, the Typhon, are just as varied. While there are only a limited amount of enemies (there are only about 10 different enemy types from memory), the game mixes them up enough that no two encounters ever feel quite the same. From smaller enemies, Mimics, that can take the appearance of everyday objects to hide and to larger enemies who will actively seek you out, there’s enough variety that the game never feels unbalanced. Perhaps the best enemy type is the “Nightmare”, introduced once the player either reaches a certain point in the story or purchases too many upgrades. The Nightmare actively hunts players down for a limited period of 2-3 minutes. The player must then make a decision; kill it or run. Neither option is a permanent solution, because it will always be back. The sense of paranoia created here is amazing for the Nightmare’s appearances are truly unpredictable. Recalling memories of Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, the fear of always being hunted is amazing.

The game’s soundtrack is amazing as well. Apart from a few niggles (some sound effects are a little too loud, making for quite an uneven mix at times) everything sounds great. Mick Gordon (who did the score for the Doom reboot last year) does an excellent job here with a very electronic sounding score that, at times, manages to be more unsettling at times than the game itself.

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Plus something has to be said about the scares. While the game does overdo “jump scares” at first, when an object you think is safe suddenly turns out to be Mimic accompanied by a loud musical sting, the game levels out after a while and while such sequences are still scary, the mix is a lot better. Likewise this adds to a lot of paranoia throughout the game; did that chair just move?

Combat is fast, fun and fluid. With a host of weapons and abilities on offer, there’s enough to suit every playstyle. A great mixture of guns, powers and other weapons gives you a large armament to face off against your foes with. While ammo can be limited at first which is frustrating, you can quickly find fabrication plans allowing you to craft as much ammo as you need. Requiring you have enough material that is. Being able to craft ammo is a bonus as some enemies are bullet sponges and will take a lot to put down.

The game also mixes things up by introducing Zero-Gravity. The outside of the station is free to explore, acting as a “fast-travel” system of sorts. The Zero-Gravity is a fun addition that is frustrating and awkward to use at first, but after a while it quickly becomes second nature and is preferable to trekking through the entire station (and all the enemies within) just to reach a certain area.

Perhaps the game owes more to System Shock than the original Prey, indeed the developers themselves have called the game a love letter to System Shock. Prey then, feels like a successful successor to the series. To sum up Prey, it’s a successful blend of System Shock, Bioshock and Alien: Isolation.

In a year that has already provided strong competition in the horror genre with Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, it’s hard to believe that a game has already come along that is better. Offering a longer story (if one chooses to seek out optional objectives like I did, the game can take over 18 hours to beat), addictive gameplay, lots of freedom and endless replayability; the Prey reboot more than lives up to its name and emerges as, not just a great game in its own right, but one of the best games, if not the best, of 2017 overall so far. An early Game of the Year contender? I’d argue that is very possible.

9/10

 

“Alien: Covenant” Review

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Cudrup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz
Plot: The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it’s actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their imagination, they must attempt a harrowing escape. The crew encounter the planet’s lone inhabitant, the android David (Fassbender) sole survivor of the Prometheus expedition. But is he a friend? Or could he be worse than the horrors they are escaping?

Alien: Covenant is a strangely titled film. Its title seems to suggest this film will adhere closer to the franchise roots yet in practice the film is more a sequel to prequel/spin-off Prometheus than anything else. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it might be best for one to temper their expectations when embarking on this entry. Not to say there isn’t lots of Xenomorph action, there’s plenty, but the film does also continue the story Ridley Scott began back in 2012.

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But that doesn’t mean to say the film answers all of Prometheus’s lingering questions. The true motives of the Engineers are, for now, still a mystery. The answer of what happened to Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is shocking and horrific, yet also serves as a way to close the book on that story. For now at least, the mystery of the Engineers will remain just that. Instead, Covenant feels more like a course alteration; for the first time in decades, it feels there’s a definite plan for the future of the franchise. With Scott planning at least two more films (with Scott confirming one of them will lead directly into Alien), perhaps it’s a good thing the answers aren’t coming now. For only an unskilled storyteller would reveal all their mysteries in one go. This film is content with peeling back the layer of mystery just a little, to give us a glimpse of how horror’s most iconic intergalactic killers came to be.

Various Alien sequels all attempted to do various things with the creatures, yet if Covenant proves one thing it’s that no one tops the master. The Xenomorphs, here with several new variants such as Neomorphs, are once again frightening. Teaching a lesson to all the Alien wannabes out there (such as Life released a few months back), Scott takes a masterful touch to the body horror we all know and love. For without a doubt this is the goriest of the Alien films. From a scene early one where one of the creatures decides to burst from the host’s back rather than the chest, you know this is going to be something different.

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So it’s in fact surprising the creatures don’t get as much screen time as you’d think. Not to say the creatures feel underused, but they play second fiddle to various other aspects of the film. But when the creatures are the focus, they’re a joy to watch on screen. It’s been so long since we’ve seen the Xenomorphs in action on the big screen (not counting the dismal Alien vs Predator films), that every second they’re on screen is a blast. Hopefully we’ll be seeing plenty more of them to come.

But ultimately, the creatures are surprisingly not the main draw here. The main draw for certain is Michael Fassbender’s David. David was the best thing about Prometheus and the same is true here. David, in his years of isolation, has apparently developed a bit of a god complex and it’s the scenes David shares with fellow android Walter (also played by Fassbender) that emerge as the strongest in the film, including a rather surreal moment where David kisses his counterpart. As David slowly tries to corrupt Walter to his way of thinking, the audience is forced to ask themselves; is David just a robot who’s gone a bit mad or has he actually developed his own being, his own purpose? At what point does David stop being a robot and start being a person? For, like Pinocchio, David no longer has any strings holding him down and is a “real boy”. All these questions and ideas are so interesting, that one almost wishes there were less Xenomorphs and more David.

Katherine Waterston meanwhile shines as Daniels, this film’s Ripley stand-in. Daniels is more emotionally vulnerable than Ripley, leading to a great contrast between the two. Waterston calls to mind Ripley from the original film, inexperienced, scared and fighting for her life. Daniels is a very capable protagonist and one very easy for audiences to root for. If Waterston doesn’t return for Covenant’s sequel, it will be a wasted opportunity.

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Another emboldening aspect is just how gorgeous the film looks. From the New Zealand location shots to the gorgeous sets of a destroyed Engineer settlement to the grungy hallways of the Covenant (which bring to mind the industrial feel of the Nostromo from the original), every set is packed with detail and beauty. While the film doesn’t play on colour all that much (a definite attempt to tone the colours down as much as possible is apparent) it doesn’t stop the film itself from looking beautiful. After seeing the film, I understand why the decision was made to release a horror film in IMAX. Because the film deserves it. Hopefully a HDR colour grade on the UHD Blu-Ray release will make the film pop even more.

Special mention must also go to the film’s sound mix. Like any good horror film, sound is an essential tool of the film. It provides an envelopment experience that can’t help but draw you in. Jed Kurzel’s score is also a high point, especially for nods to Jerry Goldsmith’s original score for Alien.

Alien: Covenant then is not only a worthy entry in the franchise, it’s one of the best. Outshining Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, Covenant takes its rightful place as the true next instalment in the Alien series. Following Prometheus of course. Beautiful, disgusting, terrifying and shocking all at the same time, Alien: Covenant emerges as one of the strongest films of the year so far and, perhaps, of the summer season overall. I look forward to seeing how Scott shepherds the franchise onwards over the next two films.

9/10

“Resident Evil VII: Biohazard” Review

RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD REVIEW

Released: 24/01/17

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, PC

Platform reviewed on: PS4

I’m low on health. There’s no healing items in my inventory. I’m low on ammo. I hesitantly make my way down a hallway. Suddenly Jack Baker (one of the game’s four main antagonists) rounds the corner in front of me, his weapon in hand and a wicked smile on his face as he says “How’re you doing, boy? It’s been a while.” And it certainly has. Not only have I been playing a prolonged but deadlier game of hide and seek with Jack for much of the last hour, it’s also been a long while since Resident Evil felt this scary; succeeding in making me feel completely powerless in a way that hasn’t been done since the earliest entries in the series.

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Because there’s no denying the Resident Evil series had lost its way. In 2004, the series attempted a new direction away from pure horror with Resident Evil 4 which favoured a more action and gunplay oriented approach from the start. This worked as it created a whole new sense of fear – the opening village battle in that game is one of the tensest and pulse racing moments in the entire series. After the success of this approach, Capcom kept it for the next two entries; Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6. However these games began to sacrifice the horror in favour of the action. In 6, the monstrous Ustanak, who was hyped up as the new Nemesis (a monster always chasing after the player) was simply the source of highly scripted explosive set pieces. This was just one of 5 and 6’s many shortcomings including muddled plots, repetitive gameplay, incredibly campy dialogue and scenes and ultimately just not feeling like Resident Evil anymore. Thankfully, Capcom decided to return to the series roots for this new instalment, but with a fresh twist; Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is the first game in the main series (not counting spin-off titles) to have a first person perspective, putting players in the literal shoes of new protagonist Ethan Winters who is just an average guy, a far cry away from the Hollywood action hero types of Chris Redfield and Leon Kennedy.

Picking up four years after the events of Resident Evil 6 (which are thankfully not brought up), Resident Evil 7: Biohazard sees Ethan arrive at the seemingly abandoned Baker plantation in Dulvey Louisiana in search of Mia, his wife who’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. A mysterious email has led Ethan and his search for Mia here, but not all is as it seems. This large and complex house has secrets. Soon Ethan finds himself trapped in the Baker mansion as the Baker family themselves; father Jack, mother Marguerite and son Lucas patrol its halls ready to make Ethan their next victim. Guided over the phone by a mysterious woman named Zoe, Ethan must find a way to escape from the Baker estate and find Mia before it’s too late. But is it love waiting in the darkness? Or something else?

The plot of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is one of its strongest points. So much is kept vague and hidden from the player until the final parts of the game that it makes you want to keep playing just to determine what the hell is going on. Ethan is an easy to root for protagonist and his search for Mia is a fairly easy one for us to get invested in. However, the story does take some surprising twists and turns which I will not spoil here and ends with something that is bound to shock fans and leave them ravenous for the next instalment.

But the true appeal of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard lies in its antagonists; the Bakers. All three members of the family have distinct personalities and each one favours a different approach. Jack, for example, patrols the halls of the mansion and is easily the quickest of the Bakers. If he sees you, your best bet is to run and put as much distance between you and him as possible. Marguerite must be either sneaked past or tricked and led to another part of the house giving you time to head back to where she was patrolling to do what you need to do. Lucas must be outsmarted, as he favours complex death traps and games over physical confrontation. Fighting is an option but is only recommended when you’re cornered and have nowhere to run, because even if you do manage to kill them, none of the Bakers will stay down for long. It’s amazing how distinct the three Bakers are and each one comes with their own challenges and approaches and each of the Bakers has enough great moments that could see them become iconic villains for the series; be it a chainsaw duel with Jack (which is every bit as awesome as it sounds), to Marguerite appearing out of nowhere and sending hordes of insects after you to the complexity of Lucas’s games and traps, with the “Happy Birthday” trap being a particular stand out due to its creepiness.

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But don’t worry, the Bakers are not the only problem you have to deal with; for the Baker mansion is also home to creatures known only as the Moulded. These monstrous creatures are more typical Resident Evil enemies and are who you’ll most of your time fighting. Conserving ammo and going for headshots is a must here as, like classic Resident Evil games, ammo is in short supply so you don’t want to be wasting all your bullets taking down a few Moulded only to be short for a boss fight later. In fact, the trick is knowing when to fight and when to run. The Moulded will often only stick to specific areas and will not venture beyond them (at least at the start of the game) so it’s wise to know when to pick a fight. The Moulded come in several varieties and each one requires a slightly different tactic, especially since later in the game the Moulded will come to infest previously safe areas and will begin to swarm you in cramped areas so you’ll have to think quick to survive. However, while the Moulded are scary the first few times you fight them towards the end they become a bit of an annoyance and you can’t help but wish for a bit more enemy variety. There’s only so many times you can fight a different type of Moulded before it becomes old.

Speaking of combat, it’s fluid, quick and easy to pick up. While your aim may be terrible at first, very soon you’ll be scoring headshots in no time. And most importantly, the combat is fun. It’s not difficult or tiring. The bonus “Nightmare” game mode (available in the Banned Footage, Vol.1 DLC pack) is an excellent place to hone your skills against increasingly difficult waves of Moulded and with the variety of weapons available in the game, combat is at the best it’s ever been in Resident Evil.

But perhaps where the game truly excels is in its call-backs to classic Resident Evil. The Baker mansion seems to have been built by the same architects behind the Spencer Estate from the original game because the mansion is filled with complex locks and puzzles that would be right at home in the original games. Doors require obscure items to unlock, strange keys must be found to open doors and more. Capcom promised this game would be a return to the series roots and they were telling the truth. And most importantly, the game is actually scary. Nothing comes close to the sense of fear created in this game, be it avoiding the Bakers, being swarmed by Moulded or just being terrified of what might happen around the next corner. It may be a different perspective, but this is the first time Resident Evil has felt like Resident Evil in a long, long time.

Perhaps the game’s only major flaw is its length. Skilled players can beat the game in 6 hours or less (there’s even a trophy for beating it in less than four) and with only two endings available, replay value is slim. This is where the Madhouse mode comes in. Madhouse amps up the difficulty of the game, adds more enemies, makes them tougher, mixes up locations of items and removes checkpoints, requiring manual saves (but only if you have a cassette tape in your inventory). Madhouse is an extreme challenge and can easily add several more hours onto the game. After this however there is very little. At the moment. The DLC, Banned Footage (out now) adds more gameplay in the form of six extra modes (Bedroom, Nightmare, Ethan Must Die, Daughters, 21, Jack’s 55th Birthday) that add a lot of replayability. Nightmare and Jack’s 55th Birthday in particular are reminiscent of the Mercenaries mode from 4, 5 and 6. With two story add-ons on the way, it seems Capcom is trying to keep players coming back to the game with a steady drip feed of content that really should have been in the game to begin with.

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But overall, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a massive return to form for the once floundering Horror series. Excellent gameplay, excellent scares, a great story, great antagonists and more make Resident Evil 7: Biohazard one of 2017’s must play games already. My only problem is that I wish my stay with the Bakers was just a bit longer. But ultimately, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a triumph for both the series and the survival horror genre as well. Hopefully this will send a message to other publishers with popular horror franchises languishing (Silent Hill and Alien: Isolation in particular). Welcome home, Resident Evil. We’ve missed you.

8.5/10

  • Great gameplay
  • Great story
  • Frightening antagonists
  • Series is back on form
  • Lack of replayability without DLC
  • Poor enemy variety.