Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed By Drew Goddard

Starring – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson

The Plot – Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption; before everything goes to hell.

Rated R for strong violence, adult language, some drug content and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– We have to kick this off with the hotel itself. From a design and architecture perspective, this is a beautiful one stage setting for the entirety of this story’s current day narrative. In setting this story in the 1960’s, we are treated to these vibrant auburns and golds, the likes of which aren’t typically used to channel this particular era of American culture, and they do wonder in bringing the styles of Nevada and California together for a marriage of visual eye candy that is out of this world. The hallways and body of the hotel stretches and twists for what feels like miles, bringing with it a sense of a developing character in the script that hears and sees everything that these mysterious characters are doing.

– Goddard’s non-linear manner of storytelling. I’ve heard much to the dismay of many people about this element within the film, and while I do agree that at times it can be unnecessarily convoluted, it never confused or left me limited in understanding what is unfolding. Occasionally, the film will pause in modern day and rewind to the past, in order to better understand these characters and their current predicaments. This gives the film this sort of television element to its exposition, giving us a sense that the present is nothing to these people without the molding of a past that has taken them to this point.

– 136 minutes that are well worth it. One difficult thing for a film to do in 2018 is to craft a script that positively justifies the existence of each and every single minute, and keeps the entertainment factor in pacing firmly gripped at the pulse of its audience. Goddard succeeds at this because he presents these intriguing characters played by a super talented cast, and invests valuable minutes in telling us the whole story from many different perspectives. There is one sequence in the movie that repeats four different times, and it’s maybe not the most synthetic way to keep the audience engaged, but I can say that it worked for me because it illustrates how many layers are added to this one scene that could’ve easily been just another bump in the night at this eventful hotel. Note – This aspect will depend on how big your investment of the characters are.

– Drew Goddard loves his deconstructions. In “Cabin In The Woods”, he broke down the elements of horror in a way that was innovative and genius for hardcore fans of the genre. That theme continues in “El Royale”, although not as evident on the surface. Considering this takes place on the west coast of the 60’s, we are treated to cults, presidential scandals, and hotel wire tapping, and these elements channel a vibe of paranoia that was very prominent on our home soil during the Vietnam War era, and at the heart of it are these four strangers who are influenced by at least one of those things, and are molded together like a science experiment of atoms reacting to one another.

– A toe-tapping eclectic soundtrack of records and performances. The El Royale feels like a place where music is constantly breathing in the atmosphere, and there’s no more evidence of that feeling than the collection of Motown soul and groovy rock that makes up its almost spiritual jukebox that adorns the hotel lobby. To top that off, the leading female of the movie, Cynthia Erivo is herself a singer in real life, and the film takes advantage of this on more than a couple of occasions. Erivo bends notes to the point that they make the entire song feel fresh and debuting for the first time, and proved that this actress is so much more than just a pretty face.

– Speaking of which, the ensemble cast here is absolutely amazing, bringing to life many unique personalities and characters who I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Everyone is bringing their A-games to the screen, but there’s three people for me who stole the movie, and that’s Bridges, Erivo, and even Chris Hemsworth, who plays the leader of this dangerous cult. Chris is only in the film for forty minutes, but he makes the most of his limited minutes by carving out an egotistical antagonist side to his early resume that has me begging for more. Then there’s the magic between Bridges and Erivo that has them feeling like lifelong soul mates who are meeting for the first time. We already know that there’s plenty of secrets between them, but Erivo’s gentle touch when her walls come down casts strong empathy for her character, and Bridges wide range of demands brings us the best acting that he has done in decades.

– Tarrantino channeling. Lets get it out of the way; Drew Goddard is certainly a fan of Quentin Tarrantino and the elements that go into making his films as a one-of-a-kind experience. If he wasn’t, he certainly fooled me by crafting so many dialogue-heavy long scenes read by these very eccentric characters. I may be looking too far into this, but if I didn’t know any better I would think that Drew Goddard is an alias of Quentin Tarrantino, because so much of this film feels like a respectful homage, and not necessarily a theft of the aspects that Tarrantino made famous. Never mind that the El Royale may or may not be a nod to “Pulp Fiction”.

– Crisp editing for its violent turns. I almost missed this aspect of the film, and had it not been for some perfectly tightened transitions during the big blows, I probably would have. Without spoiling much, I will say that the crushing and fatal blows that happen in this film are cut and pasted together so wonderfully that I winced and exerted during the sparse occasions that they would invade the screen. Those for me are the best documentation of action sequences: when you feel the surprise and the detection of the blow equally, and that is something “Bad Times” does exceptionally well.

NEGATIVES

– Light bothers. There’s a bit of a stretching of disbelief for me, in that each of these dangerous people with such important motivations arrive at the hotel at almost literally the exact same time. In addition to this, there is a subplot involving this camera footage that we are reminded of every five minutes during the film, and we never find out who is actually on the film. Likewise, the frequent mention of hotel ownership leading to no reveal feels pointless for me.

– Twists? Trailers of this film promised many twists in the screenplay that never fully materialized for me. For one, these aren’t exactly twists as they are character threads, or even misconceptions. So much of what transpires between these people could be better communicated if they took the to just ask questions instead of jumping to these illogical actions. Much of the screenplay to me was easily telegraphed, and that didn’t ruin the experience for me, it’s just that you shouldn’t go into this film expecting some ground-shaking revelation, because it never comes.

8/10

The Old Man & The Gun

Directed By David Lowery

Starring – Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek

The Plot – Based on the true story of Forrest Tucker (Redford), from his audacious escape from San Quentin at the age of 70 to an unprecedented string of heists that confounded authorities and enchanted the public. Wrapped up in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and a woman (Spacek), who loves him in spite of his chosen profession.

Rated PG-13 for brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Redford’s last stand. If this is the final film of Robert Redford as rumored, then it feels appropriate that his career has begun and ended with a western. In fact, I feel like this film works better as a goodbye to Redford than it does a movie on its own. Especially with clips of Redford’s earlier film “The Chase” being inserted into a montage sequence. The philosophies behind living, growing old, and the constructs of time echo Redford’s career to a tee, and this allows the screenplay to transcend that of a film many times throughout.

– Impeccable chemistry. Speaking of Redford, the work between he and Sissy Spaceck charms and delights our senses in each and every scene. The dynamic between them is rich with charisma and on-point banter that we can never get enough of, making it easier with each scene to fall in love with both of them, especially when Daniel Hart’s jazz-flowing scores narrate such a seduction. Seriously, when they are together, the film flies by so much smoother, but the distance that grows between them does a disservice to a film like this that has a big enough outlet for romance in its live fast lifestyle choices.

– Unique production values. To say that this film feels like something straight out of the 70’s is an understatement. Joe Anderson’s grainy cinematography graphics combined with vintage side pan and slow zoom camera movements succesfully pays homage to the disco age of filmmaking, giving “The Old Man and the Gun” a one of a kind presentation that is totally out of this generation. In fact, it’s jarring to occasionally see newer film stars of this decade on screen, because it feels like they got into a time machine to the 70’s to further convolute their respective filmographies.

– Accurate depiction of the real Forest Tucker. Considering this is based on a true story, it would be expected that the film would take a few liberties with the material, but “The Old Man and The Gun” stays on a narrow path of fact and tastefulness that prove why he was arguably good or bad at his role of a robber. The film highlights Tucker as an intelligent individual whose biggest curse was the inability to live a normal life, and it’s in this curse where we learn the most about the mild manners of the man who charmed many he came into contact with.

– One song broke my replay button. Beyond just the use of this song in my single favorite scene in the movie, Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” is on my limited list of favorite tracks from a film for the 2018 movie season. Frank’s somber repetitve lyrical deliveries echo that of a Dylan-meets-Buckley kind of vibe, and it’s a track that haunted me in the most intoxicating way, long after I left the theater. I suggest you give it a listen and turn it up.

– Part of what I love about Lowery as a director that makes him perfect for this particular project is the inclusion of random images that don’t necessarily add anything but atmosphere to the unfolding scene. For example, the editing cuts at random times and cuts to people or objects that were initially out of frame, but are now receiving focus in the most charming out-of-context manner. In this perspective, it feels like David is trying to relay the idea that little things happen are happening all around us, and the matters of random play into fate whether we want them too or not.

– My favorite kind of westerns are the ones that build two sides equally without compromising the other, and the fight for leverage between Redford and Affleck equally provides two sides that you want to come out unharmed. When you have two characters from different sides you care about, your investment in the movie and their well-being doubles, and Lowery as a screenwriter is intelligent enough to understand that the chaser is just as important to the story as the one he’s hunting, giving away the concept of an antagonist for the movie to be anything other than the inevitability of time.

NEGATIVES

– Something’s missing. When I left the theater, I had an overwhelming feeling that something was missing from the movie, and then it finally hit me. This film for the entirety of 88 minutes has little or no danger or urgency to it. My opinion is that it might focus a bit too much on the charms of Tucker to ever make him look truly bad or wrong in his convictions, giving away any remote thrills or tension that a film like this could desperately use.

– Occasionally meaningless scenes or characters. Without spoiling much, I can say one scene in particular featuring Elisabeth Moss as Tucker’s distant daughter did nothing for the complexion or even the sensibility of the film’s unraveling narrative. What confuses me is how this woman who has never met her father once not only knows so much about his traits, but also how she even has pictures of him in the first place. In addition to this, the very existence of Affleck’s character considering where the film ends. This is summarized by an in-person exchange between Redford and Affleck that sounds cool on paper, but only feeds into the lack of energy that I mentioned in the previous negative. It’s sad because I love Lowery as a director, but his writing is faulty at best.

– Lowery has always had a desire to pan out his scenes, testing the pacing time-and-time-again in ways that would paralyze other films. Where that worked in a film like “A Ghost Story”, when Rooney Mara is devouring a pie for five straight minutes, is in how he depicts the isolation and condemning feeling of grief and what it does to the human soul. Here, that same stretching of the pacing hinders the entertainment value of the film without adding anything of substance to what its plodding is trying to convey. More than anything, this is present during the second act, when Affleck’s subplot overstretches its boundaries and domination on screen time over the Redford/Spacek dynamic. It’s nowhere near as testing as eating a pie continuously, but it’s nowhere near as substansive as that take either.

7/10

Colette

Directed By Wash Westmoreland

Starring – Keira Knightley, Eleanor Tomlinson, Dominic West

The Plot – After marrying a successful Parisian writer known commonly as “Willy” (West), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is transplanted from her childhood home in rural France to the intellectual and artistic splendor of Paris. Soon after, Willy convinces Colette to ghostwrite for him. She pens a semi-autobiographical novel about a witty and brazen country girl named Claudine, sparking a bestseller and a cultural sensation. After its success, Colette and Willy become the talk of Paris and their adventures inspire additional Claudine novels. Colette’s fight over creative ownership and gender roles drives her to overcome societal constraints, revolutionizing literature, fashion and sexual expression.

Rated R for some sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Rich and vibrant performances from the film’s leading duo. These are the kind of stirring renditions that lift a so-so screenplay to one that is full of radiant energy and impeccable chemistry between them for all of the wrong reasons. As the film’s title character, Knightley is intelligent, cunning, and especially confrontational. For a woman in the late 1800’s, Colette feels like a revolutionary for her respective gender, decades ahead of her time, and Keira is happy to oblige in giving the character the ambiance in fire that is dutifully required. West also shouldn’t be overlooked for his seedy brand of manipulation that gives the film the constant headache and obstacle that it’s protagonist requires.

– “Colette” is enriched with an overwhelming feeling of stage presence that constantly persists throughout the film. In translating to the screen, it’s nice to see that the meat and conflicts aren’t lost, because it’s in those moments when the dialogue diatribes becomes evidently louder, and the movements of camera remain firmly grounded. There were times during the film when I immersed myself into believing that I was watching a stage play, and it’s a testament to Westmoreland’s grip on the film, to never lose sight of what works from within.

– Vibrant production value in wardrobe and shooting locations. Duplicating Paris during the late 19th century presents many coveted opportunities that other films don’t get the blessing of, and “Colette” never squanders this chance, offering a wide variety of triple stitched dresses and suits to capture the ever-changing essence of our leading lady in a conforming male-dominated society, as well as a fine collection of gorgeous sites that were shot in Budapest to channel the vibe of French cultures.

– The depiction of fame in the 19th century. What I found so cool and unique about this perspective is the comparisons between now and then that highlighted many of the same parallels with being in the public eye. Rarely do we get a chance to see this angle played out in such a reformed and distant era from our own, and the inclusion of one informative montage sequence relates just how groundbreaking the Claudine novels were for escapism literature at their time, giving a vote of confidence to women everywhere whether their male counterparts knew it or not.

– Feels important without catering as Oscar bait. Whether this film receives eventual award consideration remains to be seen, but “Colette” thrives as one of these building blocks to a greater civilization without the necessity of feeling pertentious or callous as an independent film. Because of this, I feel like the film has strong crossover value with 21-40 year-old-males, who would otherwise never consider giving a film like this the time of day. It never loses itself in clunky, outdated dialogue, nor does it feel constrained by its sometimes dry time frame, and I hope many diverse audiences will give it a chance.

– Polished cinematography that was made for the silver screen. It’s so nice to see Giles Nuttgens stealing the show again after the triumph in visual storytelling that was “Hell or High Water”, one of my absolute favorite films of 2016, and his entrancing cruise control into the sights and sounds of Paris is something that certainly can’t be understated. It takes its time with painting us into the vibrant environment, and allowing us a vivid seduction of the landscape that are only surpassed by our leading lady’s impeccable character framing shots.

– Much of the dynamic between Colette and Willy is interesting, if only for the comparisons in infedelity that are labeled one way and ignored on another. What I found so honest and appreciative about their relationship is that these two people, who have fallen out of love, no longer wish to put on a charade to the dismay of their own homely environment. They embrace the arms of many other lovers, and do so without ever straying completely away from one another. One could say this is obviously because of Willy’s lock on Colette, and the fact that he needs her to keep writing, but I think it’s evident that if you are a part of someone’s life long enough, you inevitably will remain that way with or without choice. It’s anything but the conventional romantic rise-and-fall that you’re typically used to.

NEGATIVES

– It’s reach for poignancy far exceeds its grasp on some interesting subject material. Throughout the film, but especially in the ever-changing second act, the movie jumps from many pads to cleanse its pallet for many conversation starters, but unfortunately it never has much to say beyond the initial mentioning. Plagiarism, self-identity, and gay relationships are just some of the topics that move in and out of frame without much satisfaction for material, and I wish the film had more of an evident direction and fleshed out conclusion for why it required these stirring subtexts.

– Sharp time lapses. This is without a doubt my biggest problem with “Colette”, as the film feels like a jagged hack-and-slash that constantly trims the fat of some important time periods in Colette’s life. It’s more noticeable than ever during a first act that not only speeds us through three years of exposition within the opening ten minutes of the movie, but also finds itself fighting to gain any momentum in pacing that will challenge the audience right away. It does eventually payoff, but I can see a lot of people feeling weighed down for all of the wrong reasons before the film ever really gets going.

– The dramatic elements of the film are never fully realized, and it renders much of the consistency deaf in tone. There are parts of this film where I uncontrollably laughed at the mayhem that ensued, yet others when my face was a blank portrait for transpired, and for a movie so wrapped in manipulation and betrayal, I felt that the rendering of the finished product goes by without fully ever grasping what kind of feeling should exist within the atmosphere. This feels like 107 minutes that builds to a climax that just kind of comes-and-goes without much firepower, and it leaves the film’s closing minutes as nothing more than a Wikipedia page navigation.

7/10

First Man

Directed By Damien Chazelle

Starring – Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke

The Plot – A Biopic on the life of the legendary American Astronaut Neil Armstrong (Gosling) from 1961-1969, on his journey to becoming the first human to walk the moon. Exploring the sacrifices and costs on the Nation and Neil himself, during one of the most dangerous missions in the history of space travel.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Masterful sound mixing. One of the most difficult things to channel and articulate about a space movie are those often overlooked aspects of atmosphere that are rarely ever channeled properly in audio capturing. That is until Phil Barrie instills his influence of perfectionist touch upon the presentation. Phil’s consistency constantly overshadows what transpires throughout the many missions in space that the film depicts, and does so in a way that combines them into a chorus line of measurements that continues to magnify the tension associated with every scene.

– Needless to say, this film is much more terrifying than any science fiction horror film can muster up. What Chazelle’s intimate exploration proves is that space never needed a world-ending asteroid or an army of venom spewing aliens to relay the risks that follow, illuminating the uncertainty of timely technology that was anything but a perfect science. You’re almost waiting for something to go bad during each attempt, and this thought process only highlights the desire of the mission that is every bit as urgent as it is delicate.

– Without question, my favorite aspect of this film is the seductive camera work and grainy cinematography. On the latter, it’s incredible that IMAX cameras were used to film a majority of this movie because the film’s intentionally dulled down color pallet is something that moved miles in terms of time period consistency, giving “First Man” a transformative feeling to a time when film quality wasn’t as fortunate. On the former, the decision to shoot the ship scenes with so much intimacy and claustrophobia, in addition to the occasional first person point-of-view, is one that pays off immensely for communicating not only the high stakes of the mission, but also how alone and isolated they feel from those they love. Most space films, especially during the 90’s, got this kind of thing wrong, but Chazelle more than anything wanted to illustrate the fragility associated with space exploration, especially during a time when science was anything but exact.

– In addition to the film’s look channeling its respective time period, the production props and wardrobe also vibrate a sense of authentication in subtlety that are sure to please. We are treated to a lot of short sleeve button up business shirts, with a thin tie to bring it all home. Likewise, the many peeks of classic automobiles and outdated Busch Beer cans were something that was a treat behind every corner, leaving no stone unturned for superb production details.

– Depthful screenplay by Josh Singer. In learning that this was the first film that Chazelle didn’t pen, it did have me remotely fearful for him covering someone else’s vision, but the very man who covered such important topics like child molestation with Catholicism in “Spotlight”, as well as the battle for free press in “The Post”, more than filled my glass of optimism with the amount of versatility he provides in 133 meaningful minutes. More than just another space movie, this film values the battle of what’s going on at home with the wives of these astronauts. It also brings to light the increasing pressure of the United States and NASA to come through with a meaningful triumph, and how those demands fell on the shoulders of one man who bordered obsession in such a mission. All of these subplots continue to play into our thought process as we watch the film, and give us great investment for Neil’s character, if only even for this drained man to finally attain the peace of mind he has worked so hard for.

– While this is Chazelle’s first film that doesn’t revolve around music, it doesn’t mean that the accompanying scores by longtime partner Justin Hurwitz don’t breathe a level of importance for the particular story. What’s appreciative is that they are mostly saved for the moments when their inclusion serves the atmosphere and scenery the loudest, capturing an essence of dramatic wonderment in American achievement that constantly fishes for goosebumps. Strangely enough, there’s one number in the film that repeats twice that I swore was a number from “La La Land”, only slowed down, and that’s quite possible considering the very same man who composed the Oscar winning numbers from that film also perfected the patience and prestige that accommodated “First Man”.

– A touch of the past. I was very surprised and humbled with the film’s decision to include the actual audio transmission of NASA headquarters in Houston, during such a monumental time. Even more pleasing than this however, is the use of 1969 stock footage between American commentary on the failing space program, as well as the influence that arguably the greatest achievement in American history had on the citizens who watched it in droves.

– Surprising assortment of supporting cast. In watching the three different trailers for this movie, I did manage to spot Kyle Chandler and even Jason Clarke, but never did I expect that this film was more of an ensemble piece than I thought. Pablo Schreiber, Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Shea Whigham, and of course the gret Corey Stoll all play important pieces that interact with Neil before his missions, and prove that the big names are beginning to flock to Chazelle as one of the prime directors of our generation, and with films like “Whiplash”, “La La Land” and “Grand Piano” under his grip, it’s easy to see why.

– The big payoff. It’s no secret the event that this film is building to, but after over two hours of build and exposition does it truly payoff in size? You bet your ass it does. My suggestion would be to see this film in the biggest screen possible, because the combination of breathtaking aesthetics, as well as magnitude in scope remind us not only why this story is so fascinating to us, but why American perseverence never quit. There’s one shot in particular that is almost frozen in frame, giving the audience plenty of time to soak in the immensity of it all, and single-handedly solidifying itself as my single favorite shot of 2018.

NEGATIVES

– If there was one thing that I wasn’t worried about, it was the work of Ryan Gosling, but that proved to be my undoing. This opinion might be unpopular with a lot of people, but Gosling’s reserved performance here is remarkably underwhelming for never giving us a single instance of gripping delivery. Beyond Ryan however, the film’s direction never allows us to see inside of Neil, instead choosing to continuously view him from the outside and come to our own conclusions about what’s going on inside. This proves a huge disconnect for the screenplay, and served as the only real negative that I took away from an otherwise flawless movie.

9/10

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Directed By Ari Sandel

Starring – Jack Black, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman

The Plot – In the small town of Wardenclyffe on Halloween Night, two boys named Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam (Caleel Harris) find a manuscript in an abandoned house that was previously owned by R. L. Stine (Black) called “Haunted Halloween.” When they open it, they release Slappy (Also Black) who plans to create the Halloween Apocalypse with the help of his Halloween monster allies. Now, Sonny and Sam, alongside Sonny’s sister, Sarah (Iseman) and Stine himself, must work to thwart Slappy’s plot before all is lost.

Rated PG for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and adult language

POSITIVES

– Once again, Jack Black’s polished routine that is perfect for the young adult center stage. In playing two respective roles in this film for the price of one, Black commands the attention of the audience with two personalities that shine for completely different reasons. As Stine, Black is able to poke fun at exposing the fourth wall of cliches that often ridicule Stine’s real life writing, and as Slappy it’s Black’s vocal capabilities that bring to life my personal favorite character once again in these movies. Black’s sinister laugh as Slappy is one of the few unsettling moments in the film, and serves as a constant reminder of how truly lost this franchise would be without its shining star.

– Surprisingly quite a few laughs. Everything in a film is obviously scripted, but for my money it was those subtle digs at pop culture properties like Stephen King’s IT, or the Universal Monsters that really registered with me, and made this film remarkably easier to sit through. What I love about these deliveries are that they come so subtly that you almost miss them if you’re not glued to the screen, and this aspect will give “Haunted Halloween” great second watch possibilities for people who seek to dig slightly deeper in the charms of this screenplay.

– Constantly keeps moving. At 83 breezy minutes, this film is anything but an obstacle to get through, but its screenplay is one that remains persistent at pushing this story forward without dulling the audience. This does create some obvious problems with character arcs that I will get to later, but Sandel’s direction reigns at rarely giving us a moment of breather, and something usually compromising did wonders for the pacing of this film’s movements.

– Look no further for a film that competently bridges the gap of horror between child and adult. It’s obvious what this film offers for the youthful moviegoer: delicate scares that never infringe on the confidence of parents, as well as wacky slapstick humor that they will eat up like Halloween candy, but it’s in its crossover appeal with adults that is perhaps its single greatest achievement. “Haunted Halloween” never feels immature, nor does it feel too tacky on the side of rich holiday atmosphere, instead it pays homage to that demographic that grew up with these stories, and dares them to indulge themselves one more time to pass on to their own kin, making this a generational affair of sentimental importance.

– Dominic Lewis’s audible gifts to the film that craft a layer of feasting fantasy. I love a musical composer who isn’t afraid to explore emphasis in his eerie tones, and Lewis does this without ever crossing into the kind of ominous territory that would have rendered the atmosphere counterfeit. This is very much a composer who embraces the hokey side of Halloween, and his collection of haunted house favorites can easily serve as the soundtrack to any kind of October get-together that you plan.

NEGATIVES

– Un-rendered C.G effects. Initially, I had zero problems with the designs of the computer generated characters of the film. In appearance, they look every bit as believable as they do intimidating, so it was a bit of a letdown to see their movements with live action characters feel weightless during interaction. This is an example of the little things coming back to bite a production squarely in the ass, as these effects feel so foreign to the immersion that we as an audience require in registering the physical conflicts that unfold.

– Dangerously self-infatuated. It’s always been strange to me that Stine is a character in his own stories on film, but the real problem with this angle became evident in this film. “Haunted Halloween” does that thing where the writer already knows what happens, so therefore he knows what’s to come, and has no problems relating this to the audience. This renders the screenplay predictably telegraphed from a mile away, leaving any kind of surprises on the cutting room floor. The film went to this gimmick too many times for my taste, and left the Stine character as the compromising negative to oppose Black’s brilliance with playing the character.

– Bland underwritten characters. Part of my surprise in enjoying the first Goosebumps movie was the delightful personalities and relatable backstories of many characters, but “Haunted Halloween” is a noticeable regression in this department, sacrificing necessary character subplots to fill in the blanks. It doesn’t help that this young and inexperienced cast is poorly directed by Sandel in emitting what we as an audience can sink our teeth into in terms of charisma. They’re Disney Channel movie characters to a tee, and never once was I able to invest myself in their trials and tribulations.

– Disappointingly for a sequel, this one falls flat on a lot of measurements. For one, the first film is barely mentioned, but worse than this it feels like leap years away from where this story and its antagonist begins. Slappy is locked away in a chest. How he got there I have no idea. This makes no sense with how the first film began. In addition to this, his character motivation of wanting a family to feel whole is completely compromising to his personality during the first film. Then there’s his supernatural powers of telekinesis that come completely out of left field. I wouldn’t have a problem with this inclusion if it made less sense as the film goes on. For example, Slappy moves many objects and characters with his mind in the beginning, but when the conflict comes this gift is never used again. If he had, this film would be and should be fifteen minutes long, with him squashing the protagonists without problem.

– Can we please stop putting Ken Jeong in movies now? I get it, “The Hangover” was funny, and full of toilet humor from its show-stealing Asian centerpiece, but his schtick in 2018 feels about as fresh as a Foghat concert. Even for kids level of humor, Jeong’s scenes feel like a sharp knife to the spine each time the film cuts to him. His character isn’t exactly pointless, just written without a sense of direction, and Jeong’s brand of humor feels like the concrete slab tied to the feet of a character with no essential importance to the film’s creativity.

5/10

A Star Is Born

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Starring – Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott

The Plot – Seasoned musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) discovers and falls in love with-struggling artist Ally (Gaga). She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer, until Jack coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jack fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.

Rated R for adult language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse

POSITIVES

– Bar none, the best soundtrack of 2018. The original content that was written and recorded for this film offers an eclectic vibe in tone that blends the interests of indie folk and blues country together, forming a collection that pleased my ears on roughly 90% of the content. Some of my favorites are the very songs we were treated to in the trailers, like “Shallow” or “Maybe It’s Time”, and the decision by Gaga and Cooper to actually perform the songs in front of the camera moves the film’s creative engine miles for its scope of believability.

– Cooper’s first sit in the director’s chair. On a storytelling level, there are a few things psychologically that I would like to see Bradley improve upon for future projects, but it’s impossible not to feel seduced by this world on the road that he takes us on, painting with it with such vivid strokes of energy for artistic rendering. This is a director who soaks in and studies the very atmospheres that he conjures up, representing it terrifically with many over-the-shoulder pandering shots, as well as the candid intimacy that he unabashedly never shies away from between he and his leading lady. Throw in some splashes of neon reflection to represent the seduction of the stage, and you have an artist who values the canvas every bit as much as he does the material.

– Speaking of said material, what I’ve always appreciated from the four “A Star Is Born” films is their honesty in following the highs and lows associated with stardom. Without this feeling like an over-the-top gimmick front-and-center, this newest chapter shifts through the devil-in-the-details mentality that record companies thrive on when changing an artist for how THEY want them to be, and this never feels more appropriate than the current landscape of manufactured pop stars that adorn the landscape. In this direction, it’s almost cathartic that Gaga was cast, as she almost more than anyone knows what it feels like to be a victim of the personality-over-voice mentality that these companies poison their clients with.

– As for the performances, Cooper and Gaga bring their respective A-games in trying to warrant two Oscar nominated portrayals. Cooper, doing his best Sam Elliott because they play Father and Son in the movie, plays Jackson with an ounce of melancholy hiding just below the surface of this struggling alcoholic, and it makes for some personal conflicts within himself that sets the stage for the film’s peaking second act that it nails wholeheartedly. As for Gaga, it’s no surprise that her voice is easily her best gift to this film, but some will be surprised at how much depth and precision she emotes around these scenes of straight-forward anger. Ally transforms before our very eyes, and Gaga’s delicate touch around these subtle-but-evident changes nets us two performances for the price of one, proving that the title of this feature is anything but a subtle coincidence.

– The film constantly mentions that everyone is talented in their own ways, but it’s those who have something to say who distance themselves from the pact, so the question remains burned in our mind: What does this film have to say? To me, the message is firmly on the confidence to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to change you, but I also couldn’t escape the feeling that Cooper is challenging us to take those chances that will lead you down the path often not taken. It’s a philosophical take that is sprinkled in with some earnest sentimentality, and it’s great that a film that is filled with characters with their own personal demons can transcend the screen to inspire the audience watching with wonderment for the steps they should take in their own lives.

– Does the romance work? You bet your ass it does. While I have a slight problem for how fast the love between Jackson and Ally transpires in real time, I can overlook it because of the vibrant chemistry and spiritual connection that they share that helps balance the anxieties that each of them suffer from. In fact, the film goes out of its way to show just how lonely these two characters are when they aren’t together on-screen, and we as an audience can relate because it’s in the moments of togetherness where the film glides the smoothest, and reminds us of the importance that a duet plays in our lives.

– An army of comedians. It surprised me how many stand-up comedians made up the barrage of supporting cast characters that constantly come in and out of frame. If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know about Dave Chappelle, but the three others that I spotted in this film were great inclusions, if only because they are playing against character types in presenting us something fresh and updated for their resumes. This persuades you to keep your eyes focused for yet another reason other than the escalading tensions between our leads, and props to casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu for having the bravery to commit to these imposing figures who have dominated the mic in a completely different way.

– Wide variety of shooting locations. “A Star Is Born” features landscape locations like Bonnaroo and Saturday Night Live to name a couple, and what I love about these set pieces are the decision to film them in-person and live in front of an audience. This is obviously daring for a lot of reasons, but mainly because of the difficulties associated with shooting an uncertain schedule in front of an immense number of people, but Cooper’s capabilities feel leap years ahead of his experience in this regard. What it gives the film is a reflection of its high stakes, big budget feel, for two singers who are supposed to be greatly popular, and props to Cooper for never cheapening the important details required to immerse ourselves in this setting of stage and story.

NEGATIVES

– Where does it stand as a remake? While I do think this version of the decades old story is the best for its artistic merit and impeccable lead performances, the film’s creativity muscle falls a bit flat on a familiarly predictable outline that doesn’t receive enough originality in its modernization to tread new ground. This is a film that will benefit people who are new to the “A Star Is Born” story, while those of us who know where it’s headed will feel slightly disappointed and even a bit tested in a runtime that even at a half hour less than the Judy Garland version, still feels bloated with self-indulgence and subplots that go nowhere (See hearing device introduced during the first act).

– Awkward dialogue and situations. Sometimes the banter between Cooper and Gaga, particularly during the tone-setting first act, is anything but cute and affectionate, it’s downright creepy. If no other critic is going to ask it, I will: do women enjoy having their nose touched and complimented on by a guy they literally just met? How about sticking their finger in your mouth to remove a ring they’re wearing? These are of course brief instances and not the bigger, heartfelt picture, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make for an unintentional hurdle in character enjoyment that got this film off to the strangest of starts. It’s a shame too, because this film needs none of it. The bond between is more than enough.

8/10

Venom

Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Starring – Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed

The Plot – When Eddie Brock (Hardy) acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego “Venom” to save his life.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– One of the few things that this film does right, is Eddie’s juxtaposition for power within himself against this new entity that has overtaken him. My problem with Venom’s depiction in “Spider-Man 3” is that other than Topher Grace’s initial descent into mayhem, there is no balance for power between the two sides, leaving much of the psychosis of the character unsubstantial. Thankfully, “Venom” not only aims for this intriguing angle, but masters it because of Hardy’s physical performance and witty banter with his darker side (Also voiced by Hardy) that is leaps above anyone else in the movie.

– My initial fear going into this film was that we would get two minutes of actual Venom, and the rest would be Tom Hardy moving around, but thankfully I was wrong on this prediction. For fans of the infamous comic character, there’s plenty of destruction and devastation from the symbiote that makes the effort for the film feel warranted, even when the rest of it isn’t as up to par. If you’re looking for a film that presents the character in live action form, then “Venom” might be the bite you’re looking for.

– Whether the audience wants it there or not, the banter between Hardy and Venom offers a surprisingly delightful layer of cheese that will test even the strongest of lock-jaws who want so badly to hate this film. I can say that I myself did get more than a few laughs with this film, harvesting perhaps the most enjoyment that I got from a movie that was otherwise aimlessly conventional by most accounts. If this was JUST a film about a man with voices in his head, then the interaction between the two mentioned above would almost certainly carve out a welcome mat invitation to Hardy for a future comedy, as the man has just the right balance of timing and delivery to make him appealing to anything today that passes for a comic actor.

NEGATIVES

– Offensive dialogue. “Venom” finds this median somewhere between testy mature material involved with a PG-13 rating, yet stilted by the effects of bumbling dialogue that is downright amateur for this level. Much of the conversations never feel synthetic, nor do they withstand the tonal consistency within the film that so much of this comic character is riding on. Simply put, there’s too much humor involved here, and it feels every bit as forced as it does redundantly underwhelming.

– Speaking of PG-13, it does the Venom character, as well as the boundaries of realism zero favors in this particular example. There are no fewer than fifty fatalities in the body count department of this film, but the problem is that not one drop of blood spills, nor is one instant of brutality captured without a quick-cut that renders it emotionless. If you can’t make the movie that the character rightfully deserves, then why even try? “Venom” is a watered down parasite that is constantly in search of an identity to thrive under.

– Part of the problem for me with intrigue and captivation into this movie is that it constantly feels like another film is taking place while this one is front-and-center, and we’re constantly reminded of it. It’s been reported that this movie has been a victim of the hack-and-slash experimentation on the cutting room floor, wiping away more than forty minutes from its presentation that could easily be the answers in exposition that we need. Instead, we are subject to things happening like a little girl coming into contact with the symbiote, and the mention of Eddie climbing a huge tree that never comes into play once during the film, leaving the audience scratching their heads for these moments mentioned that had me debating my memory.

– Easy way out on Venom. This one is difficult to explain without spoilers, so I will just say that there is a twist 80% of the way into this film that levels the playing field between good and evil respectively, and in doing so it feels like a betrayal to the definition of the entity. If you don’t want to craft Venom with a villainous edge, then don’t make the movie. Instead, we get a buddy comedy cut-out that for my money is every bit as offensive as Topher Grace spouting off cheesy one-liners, more than ten years ago.

– Wasted performances from a talented cast. Hardy’s physicality and conversations within himself give him just enough to be passable as Eddie Brock, but his underdeveloped backstory and misdirected vulnerability never fully capture the essence of investment needed from us the audience. Likewise, Riz Ahmed’s antagonist is every mid 90’s superhero villain, before anyone knew how to make one of these movies. He whispers when he speaks, he does his evil deeds behind the walls of an evil corporation, and he gets erect at the thought of world domination. He’s a walking, talking cliche that might be Hardy’s biggest argument for more screen time. Michelle Williams? Don’t get me started. Behind one of the worst wigs I’ve ever seen, as well as being reduced to nothing more than the hero’s eye candy, this Oscar nominated actress feels like she has more than served her community service time, between this and early 2018 sludge “I Feel Pretty”.

– Awful effects work. In the trailers, this aspect stood out like a sore thumb, but when expanded over 91 minutes of screen time, it’s more like a boner in sweat pants. How could computer animation be this bad in 2018? Uninspired facial distorts that feel like Hardy’s character stood in front of a projector, motorcycle chase sequences with Apple 95 cut-and-paste facial renderings, and a clunky design for the symbiote that feels so weightless in movements and vibrations that you could almost see mouse pad used to move it. You may like or hate “Venom” all the same, but you in no way can give a pass to effects that are one step above The Lawnmower Man in terms of artistic layers.

– But wait, there’s a mid-credits scene. Despite the fact that a film this jaded has the balls to market a sequel, we are treated to the idea of who the villain would be for that alarm clock fantasy, and while I love the actor who is playing this character, it is again an homage to the mid 90’s, when big name A-list actors would portray comic characters even if they were terrible for that role. My biggest problem though, is how the big reveal is delivered, with the character revealing their name in a way that hasn’t felt as desperate since Joker wrote his own name in a tattoo in “Suicide Squad”. Without this name drop, this scene would be completely useless, and only highlights once again how poorly developed the characters and their respective backstories were for this movie.

3/10

Hell Fest

Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Starring – Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Tony Todd

The Plot – A masked serial killer turns a horror themed amusement park into his own personal playground, terrorizing a group of friends while the rest of the patrons believe that it is all part of the show.

Rated R for horror violence, and adult language including some sexual references

POSITIVES

– Captivating set designs. In capturing the imagination and detail associated with the haunted house attraction, Michael Perry dazzles us with limitless space opportunity and expressive decoration props to perfectly articulate the hostile surroundings. On top of this, the lighting features everything from a strobing effect to distract, to a variety of coloring to give each scene artistic merit. It’s a reminder that B-grade horror doesn’t always have to settle for limited accentuation within its world building.

– Purposeful jump scares? Anyone who knows me, knows I despise jump scares in horror films, but the ones in this film work because (after all) that is the gimmick associated with the setting. What I love is that the psychology behind the jump scares are more for the characters inside of the movie, and less as a tease for us watching at home. Because of such, the scares never feel timely or predictable to us because they are catering to just the world depicted inside of the screen, and not worrying about constantly breaking the fourth wall. It’s something I commend this film for greatly.

– Hard-R. Many mainstream films don’t receive the coveted R-rating anymore, mainly because they are seeking a wider age range in audience to fill their seats, but ‘Hell Fest’ whets our appetites repeatedly with an overabundance of gore that stems from some exceptionally creative kills. I challenged this film repeatedly to shy away from depicting where each devastating blow was headed, and never once did it succumb to the pressure of the standards of a flawed ratings system. There’s also great teasing and struggle leading up to them that increases the tension and urgency tenfold, and never allows the moment to evaporate with one quick blow. It chews up the scenery with repeated confidence, and this element gave this horror hound lots of satisfaction repeatedly.

– Consistency in pacing. ‘Hell Fest’ certainly isn’t a difficult watch by any stretch of the imagination. It’s an 84 minute movie that constantly keeps breezing through a barrage of ever-changing landscapes and pulse-racing atmosphere to keep the attention firmly planted on the screen. Never during the film was I ever bored or distant from what was transpiring, nor did I feel like the allowed time did a disservice to the story itself. It’s a great way to burn an hour-and-a-half off of your day.

– Bear McCreery’s almost operatic score. McCreery is someone who is quickly becoming one of my favorite composers in film, and his work in this film is more proof for the pudding. Bear’s amplified compositions ignore subtle nuance and instead instill a ranging vibrancy for the variety in environments. Yes, this is all happening under the roof of one location, but the many themes inside the park are given enough respect from Bear to keep their music marginally different, and without them ‘Hell Fest’ wouldn’t earn even a fraction of the elevated tension that it frequently earns.

NEGATIVES

– Convenient plot devices. One aspect that disappointed me and took away from my growing enjoyment of the film was in the many conveniences that Plotkin forces us to endure, which even for a horror film are a bit of a stretch. This is as popular of a park as you can imagine, yet there’s only our ensemble cast who we ever see interacting in these attractions. Yes, we are given exposition in the form of V.I.P passes, but never on any park on this planet would this angle work for a single day. There’s also an angle with the killer’s shoes that makes it conveniently easy throughout to pick him out whenever he is trying to hide or blend in. As well, the killer isn’t exactly as wise as the film paints him out to be. Several times he does himself a disservice by allowing a character an easy escape, or just plain out walks away from them after he strikes.

– Lack of characters/bad acting. The work from this cast is offensive even for a campy, B-grade horror film. Their over-the-top personalities and selfish instincts repeatedly rubbed me the wrong way, and made it easier for me to embrace the film’s antagonist to kill them off one-by-one. Much of this can be blamed on the total ignorance of backstory or exposition from the film, but the fresh-faced cast often make it unpleasant to spend even one moment with them. These are people who I myself would never spend one evening with in my personal life, so being forced to endure them without distraction is a test I often failed.

– As for the killer himself, there’s nothing remotely satisfying about his big reveal that makes the juice worth the squeeze. His arsenal in weaponry is quite bland, his costume is something that could be put together at Costco, and any wave of clarity or logic for his hatred of haunted houses is never further elaborated on. Without spoiling anything, there is a scene near the end of the movie that I think implies to paint that this guy is a regular human being like you or me, but that still doesn’t even attempt to piece together the motivation for such a sporadic hobby, and just kind of sends us home on an emptying wave of air that slowly omits itself from the momentum of this film.

– One and done. Cameos from legendary figures in horror films are certainly nothing new, but the way Tony Todd, A.K.A The Candyman, is shuffled on and off screen during this film is downright insulting. Todd is given relatively high billing for the film, and is reduced to nothing more than a one-off scene that leaves no lasting impact. When you have a name like Todd’s, you go all out, and for my money I could’ve used more background for his role as the host of this terrifying attraction.

– The film’s premise, while nothing original by the genre’s standards, really goes disappointingly unexplored. One could argue that this leaves room for future installments, but much of the creativity associated with dissecting what is real and what isn’t in the park is never further elaborated on, removing many opportunities for fake-out scares and mysticism for the setting that I felt this movie desperately needed. For my money, establishing a one-man killer early on only limits the potential of paranoia within its walls, and leaves a general underwhelming feeling going forward that kept the scares very rudimentary.

5/10

Little Women

Directed by Clare Niederpruem

Starring – Lea Thompson, Ian Bohen, Lucas Grabeel

The Plot – A modern retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, we follow the lives of four sisters: Meg (Melanie Stone), Jo (Sarah Davenport), Beth (Allie Jennings), and Amy March (Taylor Murphy); detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood. Despite harsh times, they cling to optimism, and as they mature, they face blossoming ambitions and relationships, as well as tragedy, while maintaining their unbreakable bond as sisters.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and teen drinking

POSITIVES

– Thankfully, what still works about this story is this bond within the essence of sisterhood that stands tall against anything that the world, fate, and modernization wants to throw at them. It took a while for the dramatic element of this film to come through, but once it finally does we bask in the melancholy surroundings, that even though are familiar to anyone who knows this story, still works magically at lifting a tear or two from us the audience.

– While I had one MAJOR problem in the performance department that I will get to later, the majority of this fresh-faced cast do the job superbly at resonating what stands out about each of their respective differences in character. It’s particularly in the work of Allie Jennings as Beth that resoundingly won me over, giving life and aspiration to a girl who never had the benefit of leaving home. Beyond her, I also enjoyed the work of film veteran Lea Thompson as Marmee, even if her abundance of screen time feels extremely limited. Thompson’s portrayal is still a woman who is very much still growing into herself as a housewife on her own, so it’s easy to see the connection that she as a character share with her daughters, who themselves are carving out a name for themselves in the world.

– Who’s to blame? Much of this film to me felt like a studio obligation that was bending and tweaking an ages old story to accommodate viewers of a new generation to Alcott’s work, but in the direction of Neiderpruem, she is someone who makes the best of a desperate situation, squeezing out the most in a limited budget in the form of beautiful shooting locations to harvest the environment of this Massachusetts setting. She’s also someone who keeps the focus firmly on her young cast, instilling in them a layer of confidence as actors that propels them to push through some of the faults creatively that doomed this one from the start.

NEGATIVES

– I hate calling out one actress in particular, but Sarah Davenport’s portrayal of Jo, the time-honored protagonist of the story, is downright detestable. In Davenport’s often overly-dramatic deliveries and constant prickly personality, we can’t help but laugh or take great disdain with the character. Even in a story about sisterhood, Jo as a character is someone who tests nerves and boundaries repeatedly, and really makes you question what this movie sees in her as a continued protagonist to keep our interests.

– Aging progression. This film is told through a series of disjointed flashbacks, that kind of counts down the passing years in getting us to modern day, and what truly doesn’t work for a second about this gimmick is in the lack of believability associated with aging these characters. Never does their hairstyles, fashion trends, or even body varieties change for a second, and if this isn’t enough, the springing growth of Amy during the film’s final twenty minutes will hammer this glaring problem home. Amy is played by three different actresses, while the other girls are played by two, and this makes the third actress’s introduction in the final few scenes that much more of a distraction when she’s immersing with sisters who haven’t changed a bit in twelve years of story.

– Speaking of flashbacks, the film features these horrendously tacky looking visuals that we are treated to each time we ascend backwards. Because this film has zero confidence in its audience to pick up on time transformations accordingly, we have to be treated like brain-dead slugs throughout the movie, and have to be reminded by what only can be described as a blurred coma, each time we’re ready for another.

– Clumsy, inconsistent photography in camera work. Beyond these clunky walking sequences that feel like the cameraman is treading through a rocky desert, the sloppy framing work and undesirable angles made for quite the uncomfortable sit for 107 testing minutes. Objects constantly get in the way of the focus for what is front-and-center, and the film’s limited production capacity crafts that made-for-TV design pallet that should’ve catered more to the Hallmark Network instead of the big screen.

– While I didn’t have any problems with setting this story in modern day 2018, I found the gimmick to add nothing of importance or structure to the classic novel that was a product of its time. Some things feel sac-religious, such as the ambiance of rap music played during a school dance, or the family’s non-existent spin with poverty that established a needed layer of empathy to their characters, but the requirements of a time-stamped gimmick are those that treat the designation like a living, breathing character within the film. We can certainly prove that this film does take place in 2018, but what we can’t answer is why, and that’s an overwhelming feeling leaving the movie that I couldn’t escape.

– Underdeveloped story arcs. Whether the case of Meg’s largely ignored subplot with her romantic interest, that goes from eating a cheeseburger on a pick-up truck to getting married within twenty minutes, or the lack of influence from two parents in the film that feel like ghosts, the screenplay can never keep an accurate count of how many characters it involves to keep the story fresh. Basically, this is a film for lovers of Jo, Laurie, and Freddy’s story tier, fleshing out a forced love triangle between them that stinks of studio intrusion. Yes, i know this angle was in the book, but the level of focus given to it here makes it feel like the whole story, doing a disservice to characters outside of the bubble who we’re barely fortunate enough to check-in on from time-to-time.

– Things that bother me. While all of these are included in the original story, the lack of change associated with this film proves it’s more of the same. First of all, with Jo being such an independent and fighter of equality for women’s rights, why does she retort to falling in love with her teacher? It feels like the only way she will ever be signed is to succumb to what a man wants, and it does her zero favors in the morality department. The second is in the blossoming love between Laurie and Amy. If I need to explain what is wrong about this one, then you are part of the problem. I’ll leave it at that.

EXTRAS

– Due in 2019, Greta Gerwig will direct her own version of the Little Women story, rendering this one inevitably forgettable.

3/10

Night School

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

Starring – Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Taran Killiam

The Plot – A group of troublemakers are forced to attend night school in hope that they’ll pass the GED exam to finish high school. One of these is Teddy (Hart), who requires a GED to attain a high paying job. Standing in his way is a brash teacher (Haddish) who will teach him much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, adult language, some drug references and violence

POSITIVES

– An unsung hero? In the battle of Hart versus Haddish, it’s surprisingly Keith David, who plays Hart’s ashamed father in the movie, who comes out on top. David plays easily my favorite character of the film, and he only needed three scenes to showcase why he is a national treasure. David’s brand of humor doesn’t feel desperate or insincere, relying more on earnest, blunt deliveries to get his point across time and time again, and man does it ever work.

– One surprise. Thankfully, the film doesn’t force Hart and Haddish’s characters together, like it feels like the film tries to do repeatedly in the first two acts of the film. In going this route, it allows each of them ample time to showcase their signature styles without one feeling like a prophet for the other. While the material is extremely underwritten, this decision was one that I commend the film greatly for, in keeping the relationship between student and teacher purely platonic.

– Once in a while, a film will come along that sells a fictional brand of food or product to the audience, and it gets me yearning for more, and that’s clearly Christ Chicken in ‘Night School’. Sadly, we only get one look inside of the restaurant itself, but it leaves the door open for brilliance in satirical products that I wish were real. I won’t spoil the names used here for drinks or dishes, but I will say that it’s easy to think how every ounce of creativity was invested in this arc (See what I did there?)

NEGATIVES

– Way too long. 106 minutes might not seem that bad on the surface, but Lee’s film drags to mental subconscious as a result of two things. The first is this film having two third acts. To anyone who knows the basics about scripts, the third act is always the conflict, and with this film there are two such instances for the trials that Hart’s character must endure. In addition to this, the improv level of a Kevin Hart film is once again the angle that terribly weighs the humor level of this film down. Scenes are prolonged and film spent to witness Hart and Haddish bounce off of each other in the most juvenile of offerings, and about thirty minutes into the film you’ve already captured everything that either of them have to offer.

– Amateur A.D.R. Not only is the voice renderings in this film bad, but they serve as a crash course for future sound mixers of what not to do in a major motion picture. Nothing about these dubbings feel remotely believable in their abnormal spikes in volume, nor do they match up visually with the mouth movements that supposedly mirror deliveries. Because this film is PG-13, there is also multiple occasions when a curse word is jarringly removed from the scene, in favor of an adolescent replacement that only proves how watered down this film truly is.

– The most morally shallow movie of 2018. In providing Hart’s character with something as serious as Attention Deficit Disorder, the film has the possibility of covering some pretty deep psychological stingers for people who suffer from the limiting disease, but unfortunately this film would rather remove anything meaningful for more slapstick skids that are every bit offensive as they are unnecessary. So since Hart’s character has A.D.D, what is the way that Haddish gets through to him? Why, by beating the shit out of him repeatedly, that’s how. Teachers are taking notes as we speak.

– Much of the reason the comedy doesn’t work for me is how desperate it feels in trying to cover every end of the tasteless humor spectrum, and striking out every single time. There are some brief laughs, but it’s mostly from Hart and Haddish’s usual schtick that we’ve already seen a hundred times, that never progresses or elevates itself. Then there’s the desire to paint some scenes with some truly gross-out humor that feels beneath even a Kevin Hart movie. For a film revolving around school, this one flunks early and often, conjuring up a grade of incomplete for the lack of effort that went into it.

– What is with the editing? I take back saying that I never laughed in this film, because the editing capabilities in this film are of the B-movie grade variety. How did this happen to a film that is going to be seen by so many eyes? The editing in the film ends scenes prematurely, as well as repeats cuts to make sure the audience is paying attention. There is one scene where Romany Malco repeats the same line three different times in the same scene. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t quite literally the same take played three different times for three different reactions. If lazy had an award, this one would close out the show. Truly jaw-dropping for all the wrong reasons.

– No evidence of effort. Besides the fact that Kevin once again plays his character in high school, stretching the boundaries of believability into submission, there are many more instances of why the production feels so uninspired and problematic. One scene has Hart’s character literally blowing up his workplace in the fakest, most hollow, C.G explosion of all time, yet Kevin doesn’t have a single scratch on him. There’s also the product that this film tries to sell, in which it shows one student failing the test no fewer than six times, yet still is able to graduate with their class when they finally do pass. I guess when you fail night school, you don’t have to take the class over again, just the test.

– Easily the most forgettable of Hart’s movie career. This film isn’t just bad for all of the reasons listed above, but there isn’t a single instance in the script that I can point to where I would ever match and compare it to one of his better films. This proves just how little works with ‘Night School’, in that no single scene is ever reputable enough to con someone into watching it. Even as I wrote this review, I had great difficulty remembering the aspects of the film that I liked and hated.

3/10

Smallfoot

Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig

Starring – Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya

The Plot – A yeti named Migo (Tatum) is convinced that a human known only as “Small Foot” is real and has to prove to his tribe that it does exist with the help of Meechee (Zendaya) and the S.E.S – Smallfoot Evidentiary Society.

Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Infectious vocal work from this talented ensemble cast. Tatum is wonderous as Migo, the perfect childhood protagonist to immerse yourself in. Through a barrage of musical numbers and jolting vocal reactions, his range is as wide and set for the animated stage as ever. Also brilliant is the work of Zendaya and Common as two voices who couldn’t be more perfectly articulated for the visual traits and designs of their character. Common in particular hones his craft with respectable authority, carving out a leader who is every bit intimidating as he is assertive, and Zendaya’s Meechee is the voice of reason for the two sides within this village who seek factual evidence.

– Much of the comedic humor was on and off for me, in that the dialogue material felt very juvenile, while the sight gags reigned supreme at pulling out a laugh or two from me. The editing is crisp in working side-by-side with this shock style of animation, allowing Migo to take bodily harm for our delight in a way that is entertaining above brutally violent.

– The message within. Animation films cannot simply come and go without harboring a greater sense of purpose, and ‘Smallfoot’s’ heart and self-clarity message to challenge the status quo burns through the chilly mountainside that we feel with each passing breath. This allows the film to succeed as a family film, but above all else one that teaches our youths to seek answers for themselves, and never rely on someone else’s narrative to light the way.

– Breaks the fourth wall of animated films by attacking the language barrier between human and species. To be honest, this angle could’ve been explored remotely more in depth, but I commend a movie greatly for pursuing some of the aspects of kids movies that have always bothered me, with the perfectly spoken English by animals at the top of the list. In depiction, it’s refreshing to see two different sides who don’t understand each other, and have to communicate that message of unity with translated body language to bridge the gap.

– No antagonist? Well sort of. ‘Smallfoot’ doesn’t have a character with an evil vendetta, instead using its conflict for the clouded state of judgement that acts as a slow-burn poison through the ignorant, particularly that of Common’s Stonekeeper character. What’s refreshing about this is it only proves that kids movies can branch out and clear the hurdles of conventionalism that render their movies predictable by familiar, overdone movements. The enemy is in what they irresponsibly choose to believe, keeping them on the opposite side of progressive ideals that literally limits their culture.

– Surprising musical genre influence. In watching the few trailers for this film, I never got the sense that song was a major part of the film’s surroundings, but almost right away we’re treated to character spotlights that do a great deed to the unfolding narrative. The songs aren’t anything amazing or of noteworthy praise, but they proceed the plot in much quicker ways than the film’s exposition ever does, giving us the kind of wisdom in lyrics that song writers can only dream of.

– Poignantly progressive third act that perfectly sets the stage for the many battles that future generations will inevitably face. Now more than ever, our relationship with the media, police, and even with our politics feels challenged, and Kirkpatrick’s focused direction unapologetically invites audiences in offering many great conversation starters after the film, that will enhance its lasting power. One image in particular during a stand-off between two sides is literally pulled from our own rising tensions, and offers a subtle reminder at what we demean ourselves from when information becomes taxing.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired animation. While the backdrops worked in what little focus we dedicated to them, the film unfortunately never excels at radiating the beauty of its chilling atmosphere. Even worse, the variety of character appearances and overall designs feel outdated, reminding us of films like ‘Monsters Inc’ or ‘Hotel Transylvania’ that never challenge the tracing eye of a skilled animator. When Pixar is doing great things with water and even body hair movements, there’s simply no excuse for artistic limitations.

– Too many characters, not enough variety. The seeds of repetition are sowed even early on in the film, when different characters begin repeating similar lines to what we’ve already learned in a previous scene. The problem with casting such a recognizable and accomplished cast is that you must give them reasons for their existence, and while the majority of performances exceed in emotional deliveries what the script tries so desperately to diminish, the importance of their inclusion never feels warranted. For my money, I could’ve used a more intimate tribe within this Yeti community, allowing the material to last a little longer.

– Ending twist makes no sense. MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD. There’s a scene involving a character creating a ploy for his friends to get him away from trailing authorities, and this character pulls this massive suit out of nowhere to fool them. Where did he get the suit? Where did he keep the suit? How does the masks movements move so real when it’s a suit? How does he operate the suit, considering it’s easily eight times his size? Who cares though, because it’s a kids movie, right?

7/10

Love, Gilda

Directed by Lisa Dapolito

Starring – Gilda Radner, Lorne Michaels, Melissa McCarthy

The Plot – In her own words, comedienne Gilda Radner looks back and reflects on her life and career. Weaving together recently discovered audiotapes, interviews with her friends, rare home movies and diaries read by modern day comediennes. The film offers a unique window into the honest and whimsical world of a beloved performer whose greatest role was sharing her story

The film is currently not rated

POSITIVES

– Vividly defines Gilda’s dive into comedy, that eventually made her a phenomenon. Comedy was much more than a job to Gilda; it very much serves as the bridging between her often-distant family, serving as a coping mechanism for the cruelties of life. In this regard, she used it to battle depression she suffered from weight gains, lack of friends her own age, and the decaying state of her father when she was only 14.

– Gilda’s influence. In the many varieties of interviewed guests, both in and out of the Saturday Night Live bubble, Dapolito constructs what may be Gilda’s most shining gift to the world, in how she paved the road for a generation of women starved for equality on television. Through Lisa’s absorbing timeline of Gilda’s rise, the film preserves her as an ahead-of-her-time feminist icon who rose much more than she failed, and held her own against a male dominated cast that included some of the biggest names in comedy history.

– Special gift. As to where other documentaries about deceased protagonists base their psychology on assumptions from the people closest to them, ‘Love, Gilda’ has the blessing of collecting a plentiful helping of tape recordings and diary entries from the title character herself, preserving the spirit of Radner for one more day of life. Aside from its use of style in displaying on-screen visuals of her writing, there are plenty of candid reveals from the celebrities who turn the pages on Gilda’s rocky road, allowing us a candid perspective that other documentaries just can’t pertain.

– Visual mastery. Dapolito treats us to many of Gilda’s most legendary moments, with a combination of stock footage and behind-the-scenes photography that perfectly immerse us in the particular time and place that Gilda’s journey passed through, giving it an enriching scrapbook style visual compass to compliment the material. In doing so, we’re reminded of the drug-and-disco 70’s that may or may not have been Gilda’s ultimate undoing, during a time when living free came with a valuable price tag.

– What I commend this film most of all for, is its dedication to its leading lady, that doesn’t wither or squander away, the deeper we get. One such example was my review for ‘Andre The Giant’ earlier this year, that focused for a solid 45 minutes on Hulk Hogan instead of its purpose character, but ‘Love, Gilda’ knows that its story and audience remain with her, so from birth to death we stand beside Gilda through it all, feeling like a cherished best friend who she always confides in.

– Relationship with Gene Wilder. This was the angle in the film that I was looking the most forward to, as most of their marriage together remained hidden from the public eye, and it didn’t disappoint. In understanding the importance of Gene to her at-the-time scattered life, we realize that marriage came across like a fresh take at a second start for Gilda, allowing her to immerse herself in the pleasures of life that up until that time she felt she didn’t deserve. It ultimately provided maturity to a woman who was afraid to grow-up, and proved that at the age of 38 she met the person she was destined to be with.

– Part of what made Gilda so infectious as a performer was her ability to reach inside and pull a smile or fit of laughter out of you regardless of the situation, and this homage to her more than accommodates this notion to the audience watching at home. Even for skits and material that are currently over forty years old, the essence of Radner’s personality remains persistently satisfying, giving us plenty of hearty laughter for a performer that always put her body and soul into everything she did. You might laugh or cry during this film, but one thing is clear: it is an effective watch.

NEGATIVES

– A bit disjointed in its pacing. In covering the entire spectrum of Gilda’s highs and lows, the film feels extremely limited at 81 brief minutes, refusing to allow us much lasting time of the events that move in and out of frame like the wind. Some chapters are given too much time, while others barely scratch the surface of learning exposition, and because of such ‘Love, Gilda’, like its leading lady, could afford to slow down and enjoy the roller-coaster of life.

– Dapolito certainly etches out a love letter, but it’s in her admiration for Gilda that takes away from some of the more compelling character flaws of Radner that the informative audiences will require. Particularly in Gilda’s experimentation with drugs, and her challenging interaction with her public, these angles definitely required more fleshing out and definition that Gilda wasn’t quite the saint that Lisa would like to illuminate her as.

– No epilogue? As you can imagine, this film ends in predictable territory. But it isn’t the formulaic direction that fills me with regret, but rather the lack of fitting conclusions from A-list guests that could’ve provided the underlining on Radner’s decades old lasting memory. It feels like the film just kind of unceremoniously ends because of it, capping off an otherwise interesting watch with the seeds of mediocrity.

7/10