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Open Grave (2013)

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Very rarely do I claim a film to be brilliant, even rarer is said “brilliant” film found in the horror genre, yet stranger things have happened…I mean, every now and again we all need a little extraordinary, right? Now, with that in mind, I’m sad to report that “Open Grave” is not one of these rarities…wait, wait, stay with me here. That being said, it wasn’t a large drop-off, in fact, the film did brush brilliance with its fingertips. Granted, those instances are few and far between, nevertheless, those sparse moments of contact are remarkable. Conversely though, it’s these precise segments of success that alert the audience to the slightly above mediocre scenes in between and the dizzying heights the film should have achieved. There’s no question that “Open Grave” is a step-above the genre’s usually contrived efforts, it’s just not canon material, more minor cult-hit. It’ll appease enthusiasts, like myself, enough for the first watch, but won’t last too long afterwords I’m afraid.

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PLOT:

We join a man, awakening in a mass grave, stiff, dehydrated, and completely vacant of any past recollections, even his own name. After being helped out of the pit by a woman whom he does not recognize, the man stumbles upon a house filled with other survivors who also don’t remember a thing. It’s not long before the group is at each others throats as they all try to get a hold of who they are, where they are, and whom amongst them brought this chaos upon them.

Reading the plot summary beforehand was very misleading, and quite frankly a mistake on my part. Which is why the best advice I can give you going into “Open Grave” is to read as little as possible about the film itself and its story. And I just realized how contradictory that sentence is because you are already reading this article. Don’t worry though, nothing is spoiled, if anything It’ll enhance and enlighten your viewing. Now, the story is much more elaborate and intricate then the summary leads on. When it concluded, I was blown away at how clever and well-thought out the story actually is, to be honest, it knocked me off my feet. Which is probably why upon its finale I was really let-down by its execution and scattered nature. I don’t want to spoil the actual progression of events and what they lead to, but I will let you know that it’s a lot more unique and complex. I can whole-heartedly say that they story is the best thing about “Open Grave.”

This scene was very disturbing...

This scene was very disturbing…

Writers Eddie and Chris Borey aren’t entirely at fault, they share the blame with director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, at least in my opinion anyway. Again, it’s not the story that falters per se, it’s more the length and layout. I mean, there could have been so much more added to explain and broaden the experience. In all fairness, aside from it jumping around too often, there isn’t much wrong with the placement and performance. It’s simply the bouncing from scene to scene that’s just too disconcerting to overcome, in my opinion at least. Now, apart from this grievous error however, the direction is fairly solid. The gloomy, tense, overwhelming atmosphere is engulfing and the sense of cluelessness is heart-wrenchingly abundant. The visuals aren’t as strong as they needed to be for a film with this kind of premise and outcome, but they get the job done. The score is sufficient, much like the rest of “Open Grave’s” facets, it serves its purpose and not much else.

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I need to be fair to myself and to the film for a moment. I need to stress how hard it is to write a review for this film. The plot, its twists and turns are too much of what make “Open Grave” great and I don’t want to spoil them. It feels as if I’m reviewing half a movie and that I’m not giving the film the credit it deserves, so keep that in mind when weighing my opinion, but I digress…

Had the film been deprived of its star Sharlto Copley, it’s a safe bet that I would never have given it a second glance. Nonetheless, “Open Grave” found itself the visceral, invested, significantly talented up-and-comer it desired and locked him in, effectively sinking its hooks into my watch-list, as I’m sure it did to countless others. The film also features performances from the illustrious Thomas Kretschmann and Erin Richards.

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Copley once again dives head first into his role and the audience reaps the benefits. Copley somehow manages to turn his character into this two-sided being who is truly capable of anything, good or evil, which is beyond frightening. It’s quite masterful actually how he channels the motivations and emotions from one of his characters possible paths and then turns right around and utilizes it for the other half’s benefit. Look, I’m probably a little bias and we’d be here all day if I continue singling out every single thing Copley does amazingly. His performance really put the film over-theatop, well, at least enough so that it trickles down the side of cup, so to speak. Kretschmann continues to do what he does best, which is being one of the best and most recognized character actor’s alive today. Apart from Copley and Kretschmann, the acting left a lot to be desired and that just can’t happen, especially in a film that’s so ensemble-driven.

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The truth is, “Open Grave” exceeded my expectations, but that being said, they weren’t that high to begin with. The story is phenomenal and Copley is stunning as usual. They are let down by the choppiness and inexperience surrounding them and the final product radiates this inconsistency. But again, that being said, it’s better than a majority of the genre’s efforts, combine that with an enthralling story and Copley’s fine performance and it’s enough to make “Open Grave” recommended viewing…Seriously, the story is what makes this worth the watch alone…

Open Grave: 8 out of 10.

Elysium (2013)

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Following up a revolutionary blockbuster such as “District 9” is no easy task. One that the director and writer of said film Neill Blomkamp was charged with completing. While his follow up “Elysium” might not be as avant-garde as its predecessor, it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. Granted, the story’s themes might feel a tad worn and the plot is occasionally dotted with structural and character cliches. Nonetheless, Blomkamp continues to dream big and it is this very trait which makes him so well respected and important in the filmmaking industry. Even though he still might need time to perfect capturing his immense ideals. The fact that he has continued the trend is a great sign for cinephiles. “Elysium” offers enough sci-fi thrills and ingenuity, in addition to a smart, albeit familiar socio-political message to blow summer audiences away.

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In the year 2154, the wealthy have fled Earth to live on a space station orbiting our planet called Elysium. The rest of the population is left to inhabit what remains of our desolate, disease-ridden planet. Max Da Costa (Damon), an ex-con, lives in the ruins of Los Angeles working for a manufacturing company. After being exposed to a lethal amount of radiation, Max seeks the help of a fellow criminal who is dead-set on transferring Earth’s population to Elysium using any means necessary.  Upon being melded with an exoskeletal device, Max, with the help of a small team sets out to infiltrate Elysium, and hopefully be completely healed by a med-pod.

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Definitely the fortuitous recipient of a keen eye for stunning imagery. Whether it be natural or CGI. Neill Blomkamp exudes both effortlessly and utilizes this seemingly inherited gift to maximum effectiveness in “Elysium.” Although this tremendous talent is miraculous all on its own. The fact that he does not, like most big-budget blockbuster directors, get bogged down in the process of large-scale fabrication is perhaps more respectable and to an even further extent, more remarkable than the skill itself.

Now, this goes without saying, Blomkamp’s logical and moderate use of computer generated images by no means hampers or discredits “Elysium,” or “District 9” for that matter. Not getting caught up in the over-falsification of visuals is a testament to Blomkamp’s direction and unwavering motivation to keep the viewer just as focused on the story and its characters. Between Elysium itself, the droids, and his futuristic flying machines. Blomkamp clearly hasn’t lost his imagination or his capability to transpose his ideals to reality, regardless of how minutely imperfect the adaptation might be. Not to mention the facial reconstruction scene, which is easily the most breathtaking sequence in the film. With “Elysium,” he might not be able to hypnotize the audience as well as he did with “District 9,” but it isn’t that much of a drop off either.

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Speaking of “Elysium’s” story, it might be one you’re familiar with. I mean, a dystopian future where only the rich and powerful thrive isn’t exactly a plot unheard of in cinema. However, make no mistake, Blomkamp has made this common yarn his own with some clever additions, but more importantly, with unflinching violence and pure content.

“Elysium” is what I like to call an adult blockbuster. While many high-budget summer flicks, more specifically the superhero sub-genre dull down their content and violence in order to appeal to a wider audience and simply make more revenue. There is a tradeoff and it is usually a weaker pull to more mature audiences or it is not received well by the general consensus. This is not the case with Blomkamp’s “Elysium.” There is some instances of brutal carnage, gore, and magnified violence, but it is tasteful and relevant to the story. Nor does Blomkamp dilute the more challenging aspects of the story. Now, “Elysium”  might not be the mind-bender we all thought it’d be, but it’s still more intelligent than half of the films released during this season. Nothing in Blomkamp’s fictitious world exists for the sake of excess. Essentially, what you see is what you get, Blomkamp gives the audience credit and respect and receives it in return.

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Perhaps the most consistent and unforgettable aspect of “Elysium” is its tremendous performances. Featuring actors of brilliance such as Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, and Alice Braga. It quickly becomes clear that no matter how typical and cliched “Elysium’s” story and script might be. The cast is undoubtedly capable of carrying a majority of the load. As far as tragically underused actors go, Alice Braga and William Fichtner continue to add fuel to the fire. Both do phenomenal jobs in supporting roles and are a beautiful contrast to one another. I must admit that I’m not a big Jodie Foster fan, but she took me by surprise. She gives an excellent performance as some form of anti-hero and truly teases the audience.

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It has been proven time and time again, whether it be through box office numbers or critical acclaim. That Matt Damon is, without question, able to play the hero. So, with “Elysium,” Damon might not be challenging himself the way we might have hoped. Nonetheless, he does prove that the well hasn’t dried up. He might not be as effectively used as he was in the “Bourne” trilogy. Regardless, he exudes everything that compiles a summer action-hero. As much as I love Sharlto Copley as the protagonist in “District 9” and “Europa Report.” His antagonist portrayal is oozing with villainy. Mixing in comedic elements, sufficient hand-to-hand combat, and an unprecedented ruthlessness. Copley easily gives the best performance of the entire ensemble.

Superbly acted, mesmerizingly directed, and visually amazing. Neill Blomkamp and cast create another mildly-budgeted summer triumph that will kick you off your feet.

Elysium: 7.5 out of 10.

District 9 (2009)

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A disheartening, realistic, and utterly original take on humanity’s first encounter with an extraterrestrial species. “District 9” is riveting cinema at its finest and packs quite the emotional wallop. Combining fast-paced action, morality, and a brilliant socio-political influence. This sci-fi drama stings, lingers, and is by no means easy to watch. It is an endless serenade of stunning visuals and superb performances, which brilliantly compliments the endearing story at its core. It is the first full-length feature directed by up-and-comer Neill Blomkamp and is also the cinematic debut for lead actor Sharlto Copley. Both of whom do an absolutely superlative job in their respective roles. While it may not have the traditional large-scale destruction or typical villainous twist. “District 9” is gut-wrenching, cosmically astounding, and incredibly satisfying.

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An alien mothership floats gently above Johannesburg in South Africa. An investigation team enters the ship and discovers a population of sick and malnourished extraterrestrials, soon refereed to as Prawns. This species is confined to District 9 which is a government camp just outside of the city. Not long after, the city grows uneasy with their new neighbours and protests are not far behind. Eventually, the South African government decides to move the Prawns to a new internment camp using the MNU (Multinational United). However, during the routine transfer, things slowly begin to go awry.

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Although “Avatar” may have demolished “District 9” at the box office, predictably. In the long run, the shadow James Cameron’s epic cast over Blomkamp’s modestly-budgeted sci-fi experiment was more of a high-priced mirage. Granted, Cameron’s CGI is striking, atmospheric, and haunting. That being said, for the price, Blomkamp’s achievement is much more impressive, essentially a cinematic stroke of genius. Throw in a more compelling, plausible story, thoroughly outstanding performances, and action sequences that get the viewers heart-racing viewing after viewing. Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” is entirely more entertaining and a much more diverse and rewarding film experience. Which deservedly earns it staying power that will long outlive “Avatar’s” temporarily topnotch graphics. By no means am I discrediting Cameron as a filmmaker, I respect, appreciate, and enjoy all of his films. However, simply put, Blomkamp’s work here is truly mesmerizing and faultless.

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What utterly sets Blomkamp’s “District 9” apart from the bottomless cesspool  of haphazard, drivel sci-fi flicks that do nothing but dilute the genre to a point of irretrievable inaneness is its ability to strike at the viewers jugular. There are many points in which deplorable, inhuman behaviour and acts really make the audience cringe. Yet, Blomkamp is able to simultaneously retain the viewers attention with pure intentions, awe, and merciful innocence. It’s as serious and dark as it is playful and bright. Blomkamp is able to subject his audience to both sides of the coin, making it an unprecedented movie experience. And for this, Blomkamp was rewarded. Garnering 4 Oscar nominations on a mere 30 million dollar budget, compared to Avatar’s 237 million (roughly). “District 9” is truly a triumph and all comparisons aside, is a prime example of what cinema should be: imaginative, emotive , smart, and visually stellar.

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Not to be overlooked in this modern day masterpiece is the performances of its relatively unknown cast, especially Sharlto Copley. While “District 9” is thoroughly appealing to all the cinematic senses and it does owe the majority of its success to creator Neill Blomkamp. Who, by the way, does a magnificent job with control of the camera for a first timer. The cast of this miraculous sci-fi drama does deserve a significant portion of recognition as is it what completes the story and brings it to life.

Amongst the deserving recipients are the scientists, tv crews, etc… In the  faux-documentary aspect of the film, they do a marvellous job authentically creating the hype, fear, and human aspect of the invasion. Not to be left out are the government officials, war criminals, and supporting cast members to the main protagonist. Although occasionally portrayed as heartless, conceded, and villainous, these cast members do convey what we hope doesn’t happen behind closed doors. Nonetheless, no matter how evil, they do a lovely job making the viewer hate them. Finally, Sharlto Copley, who is flawless in the lead role, should earn the most kudos. Never have I witnessed a first-time performer steal the show as Copely did completely throughout “District 9.” If sci-fi thrillers aren’t you’re preference, at least view this film simply for Copely’s performance.

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Original, captivating, and occasionally disturbing. Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” will hopefully kick-start the genre and continue to be irrefutable prof that you don’t need a big budget to make an instant classic.

District 9: 9 out of 10.

Europa Report (2013)

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Purposely and decidedly more science than fiction. “Europa Report” blends documentary style filmmaking with dramatic flare to spawn a tense, beautiful, and intelligent thriller that is truly beyond this world. Easily one of the most smart, accurate, and awe-inspiring films of the genre. “Europa Report” matches recent sci-fi hits like Danny Boyle’s”Sunshine” and Duncan Jones “Moon” stride for stride. While it may not be as charismatic or cinematic, it more than makes up for it with authenticity, astounding visuals, and futuristic probability. Directed by Sebastian Cordero, who does an amazing job capturing the stillness and immensity of space with a minimal budget. “Europa Report” may not be the taut character study or twisty adventure many expected. Nonetheless, it is a veritable gaze into the act of discovery, the soul of humanity, and the unpredictability of our infinite universe, its past, present and future.

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Six astronauts embark on a privately funded mission to one of Jupiter’s moons called Europa in search of extraterrestrial life. Europa is an ice covered moon who’s surface constantly shifts. It is believed that under it’s surface, Europa is home to vast and deep ocean. After experiencing a terrible technical failure en route and barely making it to Europa in one piece, the crew begins their research. What they discover and what it results in, no one, not even our bests scientists could have predicted.

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Without question, the most impressive aspect of “Europa Report” is its genuine portrayal of space and physics. In addition, the branches of cosmology and astronomy throughout “Europa Report” are equally as fascinating and valid. The film deals more specifically with the plausibility of and search for extraterrestrial life. It doesn’t trifle with the over-the-top, violent way big-budget blockbusters falsely abuse and portray alien life forms.  Whether it is the simplicity of weightlessness, the intricacy of surface textures, the colours of cosmic bodies, and everything in between. “Europa Report’s” material is legitimate and its imagery, credible to say the least.

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Magnify the subtle movements of Europa 1’s crew, or at times, the lack there of, and it becomes apparent that the attention to detail and an honest portrayal  is of great value to the film and its makers. Floating in the blackness of the vacuum or the lack of resistance inside the ship, everything down to the tiniest detail is honed to perfection. Not to mention the attention paid to the consistency, appearance, and forms of Jupiter, Europa, and other celestial bodies. Every facet of our galaxy and its material is showcased with the utmost care and precision. Even more compelling and realistic is the detail in the ship, its travels, and the forces working against it. Its interior, exterior, and experiences are conveyed masterfully.

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Granted, the story of Europa 1, its adventures, and its six astronauts is somewhat simple. Yet, its mission, objectives, and the earnestness of its crew are as enthralling and endearing as they come. The cast does a remarkable job capturing and exuding the wonder of witnessing space and the yearning for its exploration. Admittedly, it would prove difficult for any filmmaker to showcase emotion with cinematic strength while trying to remain authentic, let alone doing so only being able to utilize found-footage tactics. Yes, “Europa Report” is a found-footage film, but trust me, it isn’t what you think, but I digress… Sebastian Cordero’s ability to take this simple story and its characters and make it so stellar and entrancing is outstanding. His work behind the camera is phenomenal. Everything terrific about this film has so much to do with Cordero. This man has a bright future ahead of him.

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Many feel the need to discredit and discontinue found-footage from cinema, and rightfully so. Between the over-saturation and hackneyed attempts slapped together in short amounts of time, who can blame them? Yet, there is still hope. Who’d have thunk that in 2013 a grisly sequel and an indie sci-fi thriller would come along to rescue and revive the sub-genre. Horror anthology “V/H/S 2” and docu-drama “Europa Report” are existing proof that found-footage films are still relevant and utterly effective, when done right. “Europa Report” gives its own unique twist to the sub-genre and takes full advantage of the premise. This is found-footage done right.

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Although thus far I’ve given a lot of the credit to Cordero and crew, and with good reason. “Europa Report’s” cast has just as much to do with the films success and effectiveness. Featuring Sharlto Copley (District 9), Michael Nyqvist (Millennium Series), Karolina Wydra (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Christian Camargo (The Hurt Locker), Anamaria Marinca, and Daniel Wu. “Europa Report’s” characters are ably portrayed by thoroughly competent actors. Each individual bursts with a heartfelt and honest desire to bring the mission to fruition. While it may be for their own cosmological reasons and aspirations. They still perform and sacrifice everything they’ve got for one another. Their eyes gleam with innocence and awe, it is truly bewildering.

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Scientifically accurate, visually resplendent, and utterly inspirational. “Europa Report” is brilliantly put together and performed with on the grandest of scales with great attention, care, and drive by everyone involved.

Europa Report: 8.5 out of 10.