Alita: Battle Angel

Directed By Robert Rodriguez

Starring – Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly

The Plot – Alita (Salazar) is a creation from an age of despair. Found by the mysterious Dr. Ido (Waltz) while trolling for cyborg parts, Alita becomes a lethal, dangerous being. She cannot remember who she is, or where she came from. But to Dr. Ido, the truth is all too clear. She is the one being who can break the cycle of death and destruction left behind from Tiphares. But to accomplish her true purpose, she must fight and kill. And that is where Alita’s true significance comes to bear. She is an angel from heaven. She is an angel of death.

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

POSITIVES

– Flawless special effects pallet. Everything from the seamless stop motion capture used to inspire the movements of the title character, to the barrage of computer generated backdrops and character pixelation, especially that of Alita’s huge eyes that authenticate that Japanese Manga design fluently, screams evolution in the art of film, and just as “Avatar” was for the previous decade, James Cameron once again has his finger in the cookie jar of this evolution, this time as a producer to “Alita”. While we know that what we’re seeing before us is purely illustration, the movements and impacts combine enough weight with impact, as well as exceptional color texture in design, to allow yourself to feel immersed into this far away land of dangerous fantasy.

– The dynamic between Alita and Dr. Ido. Aside from the performances of Salazar and Waltz completely carrying the movie for me, the chemistry and bond between these two characters speaks volumes to the concepts of the father and daughter relationship without the link in DNA to prove it. From the very beginning of the movie, Ido is there every step of the way for Alita’s re-introduction of sorts to the world, and it’s in his most obvious traits of worrying and protecting where we feel a missing desire within himself and his past to be fulfilled by this angel who has given his life purpose again. It’s without question my favorite arc of the screenplay, and etches out a lot of heart and concern for the movie to balance these scenes of terrifying devastation.

– Solid structure in world building. While 2553 looks like anything but a place that I would want to live in for the unpredictable mayhem that floods the streets on the daily, the economical push for a world that lives and breathes around a sporting event, as well a place still on the brink of recovery after a paralyzing war, was something that I found great relatability in with our current social climate, and really made the distance in years feel that much more conjoined when you think about what could be if a couple of wrong decisions were made from our own current day. What’s important too, is that wealth still play a very pivotal role in this economy, and the idea with there being nowhere else but the sky to go for this minimal one percent is touched on more than a few times. This is science fiction at its best because everything feels easy to comprehend, the world is anything but a hopeless one, and the ideas associated with the gadgets inside will give unlimited potential in replay value with the more time that passes after this movie.

– An experienced master behind the lens. If I give Robert Rodriguez credit for doing just one thing effectively in the film, it’s in his caption of action sequences that rumble and rip apart the screen. I can imagine that seeing this film in 3D is probably the one rare chance that you want to take in paying extra money for a theater occasion, because the combination of limbs and velocity that rushes towards the screen fires on every cylinder of adrenaline that you can imagine, and spares no expense in doing so. What’s vitally important is that no sequence’s editing feels choppy, nor does the camera movement ever use the shaky-cam gimmick in translating itself to the audience, allowing us enough focus and detection to stay with these overwhelmingly-fast scenes every step of the way.

– One big surprise. I have my displeasures with the entirety of the supporting cast that I will get into later, but the last second reveal of the film’s REAL antagonist was something that really cements the legacy of what it means to work with someone like James Cameron or Robert Rodriguez. This person is nearly unrecognizable, which is a compliment to the practical make-up, not C.G, that adorn this person, and left me literally scratching my head until I looked it up online as to who this character was played by. I am someone who sees over 200 films a year, and when a movie’s production can conceal and hide away the familiar face of one of my favorite actors going today, I have to commend the designs on a completely different level.

NEGATIVES

– Sequel shielding. This is another example of a film that feels far too confined in what satisfaction narratively that it can give us in this introductory chapter. While I’m all for leaving audiences on a cliffhanger, the ending of this movie feels downright insulting, ending it during a time when so little has been established or confirmed for the progression of our title character, and it makes me wish that the studio could just make a great movie with the thought process that we might not get another shot at a second one. Because of such limitations, “Alita” loses so much momentum on its way to the finish line, and the film’s final moments are every bit predictable as they are anti-climatic. If you want to hone a ten hour narrative, shop it to Netflix and tell the whole story. Don’t waste the first hour by hinting at the following nine hours to follow.

– Dream team wasted. Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Casper Van Dien, and I haven’t even listed all of the big name actors who fill these roles. All of these faces come and go without even the slightest lasting impression of personality or impact upon this jumbled screenplay, and it gives them a flashback presence to a time when none of them could get anything better than a cameo appearance in a movie that was anything but them. With so much talent hanging in the balance, how could Rodriguez not take advantage of these once in a lifetime pairings? Their names are used for nothing more than to draw audiences in, and unfortunately those very same audiences will feel betrayed when they realize that only one of them is in the movie for more than ten combined minutes.

– Huge third act action set piece that is entirely inconsequential. This is one that bothers me from a logic standpoint. Towards the end of the film, there is a sort of alliance to finish of Alita once and for all, complete with thousands in attendance and a broadcast equal to that of the Super Bowl, and the way it ends unceremoniously is astounding when you consider the many in attendance who are going home without a defined conclusion. I can’t say a lot because of spoilers, but imagine if Tom Brady left during the third quarter when the Patriots had the ball, and he never comes back again. It’s baffling that anyone with a pen would write such an expensive and pointless sequence, and it only highlights the many faults of a screenplay riddled with chaos.

– Subplots introduced and never followed through. Dr. Ido’s previous daughter, Alita’s past before she was an android, the decaying relationship of Dr. Ido and his ex-wife, what led to said ex-wife taking a vicious personality change towards shallow lifestyles. These are just a couple of the arcs attached to the film that are never fully elaborated on, and stand as the biggest hurdle to getting any of these characters over for the audience to embrace. This screenplay has Attention Deficit Disorder, in that it can’t stop throwing a handful of subplots at us the audience without addressing and resolving what is front-and-center before us, and it overall gave the movie a very jumbled kind of circumstance that shreaded the pacing in ways that never quite got off of the ground.

– Undercooked romantic subplot. If there’s ever a single instance of this movie slipping away from the grip of the three writers who penned it, it’s in the unraveling of Alita’s romantic interest that burned the kind of kinetic energy below similar to the kind you get eating bad Thai food. The two actors lack even the slightest form of chemistry in capturing the kind of spark that the movie so desperately wants to establish, and the brief stint of time that this film takes place across only further muddles it. I get that Alita is essentially living for the first time, so all experiences are brand new to her, but she has known this kid for days and is quite literally willing to give her heart to him. It makes for some sappy, albeit unintentionally hilarious deliveries of dialogue that will have you either laughing or barfing, depending on how you react to artificial sugar.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

The Prodigy

Directed By Nicholas McCarthy

Starring – Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Colm Feore

The Plot – Sarah (Schilling), a mother whose young son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott)’ disturbing behavior signals that an evil, possibly supernatural force has overtaken him. Fearing for her family’s safety, Sarah must choose between her maternal instinct to love and protect Miles and a desperate need to investigate what or who is causing his dark turn. She is forced to look for answers in the past, taking the audience on a wild ride; one where the line between perception and reality becomes frighteningly blurry.

Rated R for violence, disturbing and bloody images, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– A vehicle for Jackson Robert Scott. I was captivated with the sheer look of this kid from the moment I saw him in Stephen King’s “It”, and I’m happy that someone took a chance on him with his own movie, that does pay off in spades. At frequently throughout, Scott is every bit as sinister as he is professional, never stalling or lacking believability in the complexion of the dual characters that he is portraying. This kid says as much in a single unnerving look as an actor who will usually require five lines of dialogue for, and his presence on the events that take place leave a stirring uneasiness within you long after they’ve come and went.

– R-Rated material. This is a horror film that doesn’t cater to teenagers or youthful moviegoing audiences, instead it focus more on hammering down the shock factor of the material itself, in the form of gruesome imagery and jaw-dropping lines of dialogue. What’s most important is nothing feels excessive or meandering to the lack of boundaries for the sake of a coveted rating, giving us tasteful-but-affirming methods of mayhem for the dangerous antagonist to poke and prod us with. The thrills in this film feel like my preferred level of physical and psychological scares, and proves that a rating does enhance the integrity of your work if done for sizzle and not oversaturation.

– Not your typical possession movie. It’s a little difficult to comprehend the extent of the plot from the cryptic trailer that has sold the movie, but this is anything but the kind of possession movie we’ve become saddled with over the last twenty years, and instead harvests a lore of spiritual philosophy that I didn’t see coming. The whole movie revolves around reincarnation and the consequences of a life’s mission feeling unfulfilled. This is done without involving religion (Thank God) or offending beliefs in the slightest, and I think it really gives a fresh creativity to an ages old formula that literally and figuratively requires a new face to sell it.

– The real fear. For my money, the thing that is most terrifying about “The Prodigy” is its take on parenting that echoes the rumblings of 2014’s “The Babadook”. While not as successful or enthralling as that movie, this film speaks levels to a mother’s commitment, and how the bond used to protect her child could ultimately be her untimely downfall. It sheds light on the ideas of just how little we truly know about the beings who we love the most in this world, and just when is the line crossed when that parental will is stretched. As if parenting wasn’t already the most difficult job in the world, here comes a film that further complicates everything taking place under a single solitary roof.

– Modern horror’s maestro of music. The tones that play and enhance these scenes are done by none other than Joseph Bishara, the very same man who composed music for franchises like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, but it’s his work here that may be his most compelling and immersive to date. I was utterly transfixed at the evocative accompaniments instilled inside of these scenes, and never once does his music feel forced or meandering in the feelings of atmosphere that they are trying to convey. It was without question my single most favorite aspect of the film, and almost deserves two points for its lack of transparency in the way it amplifies tension.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of originality to go with the gimmick. I mentioned earlier the refreshing take on making this a film about reincarnation, but what’s baffling to me is the overwhelming sense of familiarity tacked on to the opening and ending of this film. Without spoiling much, I will say that the beginning of this movie is as close to “Child’s Play” as you will get without straight up ripping off the movie, and the film’s closing moments touch on more than a few familiar directions to the original “Omen” movie. None of these are spoilers, as there’s enough variety in their borrowings to give them just enough difference, but the screenplay’s biggest problem time and time again is how it doesn’t allow itself the ability to crawl out from under the immense shadows of the genre that have already been there and done that.

– Better direction necessary. This is Nicholas McCarthy’s third big screen directing effort, and it’s clear to see that even with growing experience, he still lacks the kind of control necessary in keeping audiences firmly invested to his stories. Two major problems in this film involve his lack of influence over the rest of the cast minus Jackson Scott, as well as his uninspiring movements with the camera that leave nothing to the imagination of horror thinking. To say that the reactions in this film are underwhelming and cold might just be the understatement of the year, but it negates the film into losing focus, giving Miles actions a lack of weight or urgency in the developing drama. As for the angles, there’s just far too many ugly color pallets, as well as too many revealing depictions that give away the jump scares long before they actually happen.

– Lack of mystery with the screenplay. I despise a movie where I know all of the answers long before the characters do, and that is the case with “The Prodigy”, where everything you want to know is revealed in the opening five minutes of the movie. It is a bit out of context when these dual subplots play side by side, but once you’re focused on it for so long you can start to understand what these visuals are referring to, and then the remaining 85 minutes becomes us waiting for everybody else to catch up. I feel if the movie showed us Miles pregnancy with little emphasis for the other on-going narrative, then we would feel more curious as to what is taking place here, but without that mystery there’s no pull into the ambiguity of what’s taking place here.

– Obvious exposition halts. This movie takes time to try to explain everything in excruciating detail, and it gets to a point where you can almost predict it after something pivotal happens along the way. To say this film has no confidence in its audience’s intelligence is easy enough, but the constant hand-holding as it guides us through Miles’ influencer is something that is unnecessary. The story isn’t as complex as the film would like it to be, and as to where you have a film like “The Bye Bye Man” which explains so little, here you have a movie that wastes its time in explaining far too much.

– Pointless run-on ending. The movie had a final shot that you could almost yell out in the theater “CUT!!!”, but instead it carries on with an additional scene that not only didn’t add anything of substance for its inclusion, it also let out far too much of the energy associated with a meaningful final shot. This was undoubtedly to cross the 90 minute threshold used as the measuring stick for horror movies that has become all the rage, but when trying to convince yourself of creative wisdom always remember that less is more.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Upside

Directed By Neil Burger

Starring – Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman

The Plot – Inspired by a true story, the film is a heartfelt comedy about a recently paroled ex-convict (Hart) who strikes up an unusual and unlikely friendship with a paralyzed billionaire (Cranston).

Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use

POSITIVES

– Hart and Cranston are a constant riot. Aside from the impeccable chemistry that provides endless banter between them, the stage proves that there’s enough room to their performances for this to be eye-opening for both. In Hart, we are still saddled with the same comedian that we’ve come to expect in every film, but his temperament feels much more reserved and timely when he instills a laugh to the picture. He also proves that he has some fine dramatic chops, as Burger takes his character through this redemption arc with a family who are at odds with him, and Kevin obliges by providing enough heart to help develop his moral transformation. Cranston’s physical limitations are consistently authentic through two hours of film, and his personality renders that of a man who has lost everything while struggling for a reason to hang on. Being a rich protagonist is a difficult thing to translate in terms of likeability, but Bryan’s timeless smile and dry reactions to Hart’s shenanigans makes the money a backdrop instead of a defining character trait.

– The less you know about the original film, titled “The Intouchables”, the better. I think “The Upside” will charm audiences of a new generation, who aren’t suffering from inevitable comparisons to the original movie. For one, I feel enough time has passed to give this a modern rendering, as well there’s much to be appreciated about a feel good story that doesn’t sugarcoat the material to manipulate them in one way or another. This film is very much a ball of nerves, that like life, will have you riding the highs and lows of a bonding friendship in which these two men desperately need each other for completely different reasons.

– Tons of personality in the overall photography of the picture. What’s commendable about Burger behind the lens is his ability to switch things up and never allow his presentation to feel conventional or stale, and because of such it adds a lot of energy to offset the weight of the dramatic material. Some examples we are treated to involve unnerving close-up angles to represent the awkwardness of something said or done, as well as following self-still frames to represent the lunacy of two characters getting high together. What’s even more important is that these special takes are reserved for the right time, and do wonders in articulating the atmospheric mood that the material sometimes clashes over.

– Charmed by the material in the script. While some scenes did challenge me morally for laughing at them, I do enjoy a film that takes place in the modern P.C era and doesn’t abide by any particular book on what’s acceptable. Instead, it lets the audience interpret things for themselves, and because of such I was treated to an early 2019 favorite in terms of comedic firepower. As well, I’m glad that it was the dialogue that I was laughing at, and not physical or bodily humor like Hart’s other films are known for. The dialogue is rich with a combination of sarcasm and character personality that allows it to thrive from each perspective, and we simply can’t get enough interaction between Hart and Cranston because of it.

– Informative look at the¬†quadriplegic lifestyle. In taking care of people like Cranston’s character in this movie, I can say that the depictions and treatment given warms my heart with a level of honesty and fact that I wasn’t expecting from this movie. Everything from the way we look at paraplegic’s when we speak to them directly, to the sensitivity needed in feeding them, feels enriched because of the knowledge it passes down, allowing it to succeed as so much more than a piece of entertainment.

NEGATIVES

– Production issues. There is no shortage of color correction used, especially during the first act of the film that made for that inauthentic feel that we all get from Lifetime Television movies. One such instance involves sun shining through the windows, when in reality we see that it is a cloudy day outside, and there’s no possible way that this volume of light could possibly be bleeding through the windows. Likewise, the overall cinematography feels a bit too experimental for something that could’ve thrived with more nuance and less painting of the picture for us.

– Jarring musical score. The tones and music incorporated into the film reeked of 90’s romantic comedy, in that its intrusive nature tried to audibly narrate what the audience should be feeling because of its lack of confidence in the clashing of tones in material. There is no precedent for consistency here, and it makes some of these scenes swell up with a lack of subtlety that constantly pulled me out of the dramatic depth in every scene. It simply tries to accomplish too much, in that it can’t decide if it wants to be heartfelt and emotional or bumbling and funny. Each are fine by themselves, but when stitched together as a cohesive unit lack the kind of solid direction needed in mastering these meaningful moments.

– Needs another edit. “The Upside” is two hours even, and the ambition of that run time just doesn’t match the fluidity of the script that begins to feel its weight around the halfway point. For my money, twenty minutes could easily be removed from this script, as there are scenes involving Hart and Kidman’s characters that could easily be trimmed or cut all together because they add nothing to the developing progress or character dynamics established early on. There’s also an early third act introduction involving a romantic subplot that comes and goes only to force a conventional third act distancing that doesn’t feel believable because of everything that has already transpired. This drags the pacing down violently, and especially so with an ending that feels like it happens ten minutes too late, and builds something climatic that is instead neatly tucked away in predictably bland territory.

– Great imbalance in tone. Films that incorporate both comedy and drama to a movie can work. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t have a subgenre titled “Dramedies”. But the occasional slapstick scene, like Hart being overwhelmed by a technologically advanced shower, don’t blend well with those deeper moments where the integrity of the film needs to resonate with the heartbeat of its audience. For much of the first half, the film feels juggled between these two opposite directions, giving it a feel of multiple cooks in the kitchen to the movie’s development, all before settling down in the final act as a sombering drama completely. Much of the film constantly feels like a juxtaposition of itself, and with more control could’ve balanced these directions seamlessly into feeling like one cohesive unit.

– Racially insensitive? Similar to last year’s “Green Book”, we have another story of trade-offs, where a black and white character give each other something that they were lacking before, but unlike that movie the exchange in “The Upside” feels cringing the minority audiences who will see it. Cranston instills class in Hart’s character in the form of opera music, while Hart gives Cranston weed and Aretha Franklin music. You can kind of see where the representations are a little one sided here, and for a business that claims it is becoming more progressive with each passing film, it certainly drops the ball in leveling the playing field with this exceptionally offensive take.

EXTRAS

– One unique take. Considering this film revolves around an ex-con who is looking to redeem himself to the people who judge him for his past, I guess it’s appropriate that Hart is cast in this role, considering the current controversy of the Oscars with Hart once recruited to host. If we learn anything from this film and particularly Hart in general, it’s that people can change, and shouldn’t just be defined by something from their past that was more than enough time ago to believe they may have changed for the better. It’s a reminder to our own world that people make mistakes, and we can either allow ourselves to become saddled with those mistakes and keep them from redeeming themselves, or we give them the chance to make everything right.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

A Dog’s Way Home

Directed By Charles Martin Smith

Starring – Bryce Dallas Howard, Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp

The Plot – Separated from her owner, a dog sets off on an 400-mile journey to get back to the safety and security of the place she calls home. Along the way, she meets a series of new friends and manages to bring a little bit of comfort and joy to their lives.

Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and adult language

POSITIVES

– For a light-hearted family atmospheric film, this one conquers some dark and challenging material. This is the area of the film that I wish had more time devoted to it, as prejudice against the Pitbull breed, canine abuse on the whole, and even human death are all touched upon in these surprisingly revealing ways, giving the film a bit of much-appreciated social commentary. These are the rare instances where the movie feels like it has something to talk about in addition to the cute and cuddly material that it saddles itself with a bit too comfortably, and with more of a push for the PG-13 rating, could’ve separated more widely from the rest of the pact of subgenre films that are easily forgettable because of their similarities.

– The best actor in the film. It feels strange to talk about this, but the kind of physical performance that Smith emits from his canine protagonist is something that gained an air of astonishment from me. In addition to being thrown in the way of constant danger and conflict, the dog limps his way through a third act that really hammers home the length of this impossible journey with a one legged approach of consistency that you’d have to be a cold-heart not to appreciate.

– Smooth and fluent pacing throughout. One accolade that I give the film is the lack of boredom that these kind of films often radiate with, but this exception works because of the decision to keep it limited to 91 meaningful minutes that never lets the story get away from focus. Because this journey is so expansive and ever-changing in its environmental challenges, it frees itself of repetition or redundancy that would test the patience of its younger audiences, making this as easy of a January watch as you’re going to find.

– Nuance to the passage of time. I can’t believe that I am going to give “A Dog’s Way Home” respect for depth in storytelling, but the use of background pictures to fill in the gaps of character separation is something the film does exceptionally well. One such scene near the end of the film has one character in his bedroom, and long before we see anything or anyone else, we focus on this picture that articulates not only how much time has passed, but where certain characters end up. I love a screenplay that doesn’t need to stop to explain these kind of things, especially when you consider that this is the dog’s story first, and everything else, quite literally and figuratively, are backdrops for the main course.

– Fine combination of engaging cinematography and gorgeous backdrops make for eye candy. Even though this film’s dedication to C.G properties often hinder the immersion of each situation in scene, the breathtaking vantage points of some of South California’s most beautiful landscapes made for a rich and ambitious presentation visually that kept the integrity of the big budget feel preserved. Especially when you consider this as a journey film, you would be doing a huge disservice if you didn’t depict the immensity of these jaw-dropping visuals to counteract the ferocity of the wild, and I give great credit to Smith for knowing constantly where to point the camera to get the most out of every shot.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired C.G animal properties. Simply put, in 2019, artificial animal renderings should not be so obvious to where the outline nor the texture of the animal matches the lighting of the environment that it’s put in. Even worse than that, these laughably bad mountain lions and cougars move so sluggishly in their attacks that the camera has to adjust to how fake everything comes across with interaction. This brings forth camera movements that are the worst I’ve seen since 2016’s “Jason Bourne”, echoing as close to a visual seizure as you’re going to find on camera.

– Minimal plot. I should receive an Academy Award for what I typed in the plot section above, as so much of this film instead feels like a series of events, instead of one cohesive narrative that bends and twists to the three act structure. Not only is this movie completely predictable, but it’s predictable in a way that feels content with walking the same path and pissing on the same trees as the films that came before it. Some people think a movie with a title that tells you everything you need to know about a film is a positive, but it also establishes early on just how empty the sum of its jumbled parts really are.

– Speaking of title. To say I hate the confusing title of this film is an understatement. Why is it confusing? “A Dog’s Purpose”, “A Dog’s Life”, “A Dog’s Tale”, “A Dog Year” Catching my drift? All of these movies have boring, unimaginative titles, and yet none of them are related in the slightest. I get that this film was a book before 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”, but couldn’t you have changed the title because of such similarities? So the next time a friend asks if you’ve seen the sequel to any of these films, called “A Dog’s Way Home”, you can remind them that studios have the imagination to include a line like “Snow do your business”, an actual line of dialogue from this tar pit of terrible.

– Familiarity rears its ugly head. When you really think about it, this movie isn’t anything like those other films I just mentioned, it’s instead a dead ringer for a “Homeward Bound” remake. Think about it: dog meets and falls in love with his adolescent owner, is left with a family member during a trying time, escapes said house, and begins a long distance trip to get home. Sniff what I’m conveying to you? Unfortunately this film has about a fifth of the charm of “Homeward Bound”, and not even that in the regards of narration. Oh the shame of this narration…..

– The shame. The narration is so annoying and pointlessly used in this film that I even still fail to understand why its inclusion was depended upon so frequently. Bryce Dallas Howard voices the inner thoughts of this dog, and when she isn’t piercing our eardrums with this screechy, human repellent voice, she’s intruding constantly on our perception of what’s transpiring. For instance, if this dog finds something to eat, we hear her say “I was so hungry”. Or if the dog is cuddling with her owner, we hear “I love you so much”. Really important stuff movie. I could’ve never interpreted that for myself, thank you. This film would’ve been a lot better if it didn’t go the voice route, and just let the heartfelt story play out for itself. So many of these tender scenes would’ve been much more effective if Howard didn’t articulate what Ray Charles could see about a particular scene, and it serves as the single worst aspect of this film.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Mule

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring – Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena

The Plot – Earl Stone (Eastwood), a man in his 80s who is broke, alone, and facing foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive. Easy enough, but, unbeknownst to Earl, he’s just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. He does well, so well, in fact, that his cargo increases exponentially, and Earl is assigned a handler. But he isn’t the only one keeping tabs on Earl; the mysterious new drug mule has also hit the radar of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Cooper). And even as his money problems become a thing of the past, Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on him, and it’s uncertain if he’ll have time to right those wrongs before law enforcement, or the cartel’s enforcers, catch up to him.

Rated R for adult language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Great responsibility towards the outlook of Earl as a person. One of the things that worried me during the trailers was the film trying to cast Earl under this light of heroic happenstance that was easily relatable to anyone watching, and while the film certainly gives its central protagonist a lot of unapologetic personality, he is anything but honorable when you consider the things he puts above those who love him unconditionally, as well as some of his unabashed speech patterns that carve out a borderline racist. Especially is the case with Eastwood serving as the director and star of the movie, it gives him great selflessness to take this character in the direction that mirrors that of his real life counterpart.

– A hidden secret. It’s quite intelligent and even remotely poetic that Clint uses his own real life daughter Alison in the role of his on-screen daughter Iris. While the film somewhat drops the ball on this element of the film creatively (More on that later), there’s no mistaking that the fire and chemistry that harvests between them makes for some truly gut-wrenching scenes of dramatic entanglement. I love when a director isn’t afraid to blend the worlds of life and film accordingly, and this instance gives the movie the kind of subtle creative nuance needed to bring out the best in scenes of importance.

– Poignant approach on the value and appreciation of family. There’s nothing subtle about this element even if you’ve seen the trailers, but the underlying value of what grows beneath the phrasing as the story transpires is something that adds great depth and personal identity far beyond that of words uttered in a trailer. No matter how successful Earl is, he can’t escape the magnitude of what he gave up in life to follow his careers, and there’s strong representation with this feeling in a majority of the film being spent with Earl, alone, staring out a window, being isolated from the surrounding world, with all he has to show for his choices. Hard hitting material indeed.

– Eastwood and Cooper carve out two respectably complex characters for completely different reasons. Aside from the film measuring them as equals in terms of importance to the story, each of them are easy to marvel at for how they remarkably play against type roles than they’re used to. For Clint, it’s being depicted as this weakling of sorts, being pushed around by those of higher rank in the cartel, leaving him often the victim instead of the power player we’re used to. For Cooper, he portrays this no-nonsense FBI type that he only hinted at in “American Hustle”, and manages to grip onto with much more confidence in this film. While the film features other big names like Dianne Wiest, Laurence Fishbourne, Michael Pena, and Andy Garcia, it is the work of Eastwood and Cooper presenting us a fresh side of two reputable careers that really keeps their cat-and-mouse game fresh throughout.

– Exceptional photography of the open road. Some of the wide angle lens shots in the film are breathtaking, proving Eastwood has merit when it comes to establishing a setting and vibe comfortably, all the while visually narrating us through Earl’s many journeys. The winding road shots put us right in the frame of mind of Earl without feeling like too obvious of a gimmick, and the in-depth look at some Midwest American landscapes contains food-for-thought in the film’s valued depiction of an old soul in an ever-changing society.

NEGATIVES

– Strange social commentary. As is the case with all Eastwood directed films, he deems it necessary to take big amounts of minutes out of the film to discuss matters that are on his mind, that mean nothing to the context of the script. For “The Mule”, it’s poking fun at gay relations, certain words being offensive for minorities, and the difficulty associated with using the internet. Each of these aspects literally come out of nowhere when they’re brought to light, and end up feeling like a series of great debates started by your grandfather. Ya know, the one who never admits when he’s wrong and refuses to grow with the progressing world around him. They are all matters that are never required in the film, and only make Clint himself look like a senile spud, whose filter probably should’ve been left on.

– Sloppy editing transitions. You have to look a little more carefully for this one, but late in the first act there are some horrendous editing sequences with Earl interacting with his newfound employers that feel like a first time job opportunity for someone fresh out of film school. I say this because the continuity of characters in frame is every bit as poorly telegraphed as the variety in angles displayed from scene-to-scene of focus on Earl. What I mean by this is that he will be itching his head in one scene, while pointing at his watch in the very next cut. Teleporting in place is an aspect I never imagined with a film like this, but due to some uninspired cuts in the film, we make the impossible possible.

– Strays too far from the family narrative. There’s a period of around forty minutes in the middle of the film where Earl’s family isn’t seen or heard from amidst all of this unraveling chaos, and this has tremendous impact on the dramatic pull of the movie that feels non-existent. Without Earl saving his money for a greater cause, his intentions feel selfish, leaving nothing of focus for the character hanging in the balance for us to understand his motives. Aside from this, it gives us nothing of breather between the fight for power of the dry driving sequences of Earl singing and the pulse-setting thrill of FBI strategy that are the constant back-and-forth of this grounded screenplay.

– Tonally bankrupt. If you watched the deceitful trailers for “The Mule”, you’ll be excited to see an edge-of-the-seat dramatic thriller with all of the possibilities and none of the predictability. Sadly, this film is anything but, as Eastwood’s direction instead chooses to make 80% of this movie a comedy of all things, leaving any kind of intensity for the vulnerability of drug trafficking on the editing room floor. While the comedy is effective at more times than once, I never wanted to watch this movie to laugh, I wanted to see a cross-country chase with the elements of a western subtly nuanced beneath, but unfortunately Eastwood’s fumbling focus leaves this story feeling miles from its destination. Likewise, the trailer also gives away what few moments of tension the film artfully crafts for itself, showing us the steak before the sizzle that easily goes cold because of the familiarity we are patiently expecting.

– Anti-climatic ending. The most important scene in any film is the closing moments that remind you of the greatness you just experienced, and leaves us with the extra emphasis of driving the intention of its material home. “The Mule” doesn’t have this, in fact its final moments are so remarkably underwhelming and ineffective that the music doesn’t start for five seconds after the credits show, so as to say that even the film crew were expecting more. The only emphasis this ending provided me was an outline for the single biggest disappointment of the Winter movie season, as I was anticipating this film almost more than any other, but was left feeling the wear and tear of a film that felt like a million miles.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Mortal Engines

Directed By Christian Rivers

Starring – Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Jihae

The Plot – A mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop a giant, predator city on wheels devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang, a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action

POSITIVES

– Poignancy in politics. One thing that I wasn’t expecting in a movie that takes place decades ahead of our own, is the similarities in government that truly transcends the screen. Aside from Weaving’s power hungry antagonist being one who believes in a wall separating kind, the very ideal of this bigger, more advanced vehicle being a bully of sorts to its contemporaries is something that certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. There are these kind of a tiny sprinkles of thought throughout the film, and prove that “Mortal Engines” never settles for being another Young Adult conventional offering, instead going the route of thought-provoking social commentary that certainly gave me something to hand my interest on.

– A duo of delight. Weaving continues to demand bigger roles in movies, carving out an antagonist who is every bit deceitful as he is narcistic. When Weaving isn’t chewing up the scenery in every scene, his presence feels the most valuable, detaching us from this character who you hate to love and vice versa. The real surprise however, might come from Hilmar as the story’s lead. Like the fragile character she plays, the narrative takes its time in getting to know Hilmar, starting off as another dry female badass who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But as the film progressed, I started to notice the layers and nuance that this young actress gave to her character, competently juggling enough tearful remorse and growth in reflection to make you buy into her investment into the character.

– Style eeks out substance. I mentioned earlier that there are some thinking points for the film, but for my money the allure of artistic integrity in the film is too valuable to be topped. During a season when films like “Venom” and “The Possession of Hannah Grace” make the nighttime look like a collection of colorless blobs, here comes a film that completely restores fate to what can be done in the shadows. The airtime battles are vibrant with moonlight ecstasy that radiates ever so smoothly against the fireworks of firepower that play in front of it, and the lighting scheme indoors takes on enough filters and dimensions to truly keep you guessing. If I recommend this film for anything, it’s the third act conflict that features a gala affair of everything I mentioned here.

– Effective camera work. I did have some problems with the concepts inside of the ships themselves, but Rivers as a first time filmmaker showed a lot of tinsel in movie magic in making me believe the immensity of its size. The revolving shots around this moving setting are luxurious and move at just the right speed to never slug down the movie and give the audience ample time to see what is transpiring behind every corner. Likewise, the action sequences are shot with enough urgency and articulate detection that you never struggle in hanging on to the many angles and characters inside.

– There’s certainly enough comparisons with popular films of the genre like “Star Wars” or “Mad Max” that the film evidently borrows from, but there’s also enough variation in the ideas to cement a name of its own. The concept of cities eating smaller towns (a process called Municipal Darwinism that provides an obvious metaphor for capitalism) is stunningly brought to life on screen, thanks to some truly extraordinary production design work never limited by its inflatable budget. The dynamic of land and air is also a unique take, allowing the film to press on through the ever-changing circumstances of the meaty two hour run time that would challenge the audience inside of a lesser quality science fiction film for all of the wrong reasons.

NEGATIVES

– Clumsy subplot juggling. This movie has no fewer than six on-going subplots from what I counted, and not only does this make for a challenging interpretation of who our intended protagonist is supposed to be during the first act, but it also limits certain narratives that easily could’ve used more time in development. My favorite subplot in the film deals with a male android and the relationship he has with Hester, and it just never felt fleshed out enough to warrant the sharp direction change that it takes midway through the film, and how it left this character feeling directionless. When you’re still introducing characters and subplots to the audience more than 80 minutes into the movie, you’ve certainly got problems, and I constantly felt suffocated by how bloated this screenplay truly is. Likewise to “Fantastic Beasts 2”, this film is overflowing with flashback exposition, giving way to many instances where this inevitable one-off film is compressing as much from the source material as humanly possible.

– A predictably convenient macguffin. Early in the film we learn about an object needed to suppress England’s power, and evening out the balance of the ensuing war, and to anyone paying even remote attention, the obviousness of the mystery that the film wanted so badly to present falls flat. It’s clear where this is going from the start, and it didn’t differ even remotely from where someone as inexperienced as I to these books predicted. I hate macguffins in movies enough, but when the movie tries to dumb down the material to cater to the audience, it shows its hand more often than not.

– Poorly rendered C.G effects work. There are instances in up tight camera angles where the computer generated effects feel passable enough, take for instance the visually descriptive depictions of England that I mentioned earlier, but as soon as they’re presented with a dominant live action opposition, you start to see the money was spent in less luxurious places. Take for instance the character of Shrike (live captured by the legendary Stephen Lang), who constantly looks phony with an illuminous green glow. I get that he’s an android character, but the design of his property is something out of an early 2000’s Tim Burton animation, and feels so out of place with everyone and everything he crosses paths with.

– Speaking of editing… It’s easy for Ray Charles to see what could’ve been left on the cutting room floor of this film. Often it’s the scenes and lines of dialogue that add nothing to the unfurling narrative, and stand out as an obvious cater to teenage audiences. One such instance involves our lead male protagonist, who has enough time in the face of life-threatening danger to stop and decide which jacket looks cool enough for him to sport. Keep in mind that this character isn’t self-serving or in love with himself by any stretch of the imagination. What makes it truly aggravating is that it’s instances like this one that makes it difficult to ever truly buy in to the supposedly overwhelming cost of what’s at stake, and twenty minutes less of these worst kind of Blu-Ray deleted scenes would serve the pacing of the movie well enough to not need the artistic merit to keep saving the day.

– Man did this movie want a shoe-horned love triangle like other Young Adult movies. There’s awfully sappy dialogue like “I will take away your pain”, a total lack of chemistry between Hilmar and Sheehan, and not a single scene between them that translates that growth in closeness that is present as the film persists. Maybe it’s the total lack of character build, or the one kissing scene between them feature an obvious stall by Hilmar, but I was never fully convinced, and the necessity to even include this sort of thing feels every bit as unnecessary to the film as it does diminishing to the strength of Hester as the female heroine that so many teenage girls need.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The House That Jack Built

Directed By Lars Von Trier

Starring – Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman

The Plot – USA in the 1970s. We follow the highly intelligent Jack (Dillon) over a span of 12 years and are introduced to the murders that define Jack’s development as a serial killer. We experience the story from Jack’s point of view, while he postulates each murder is an artwork in itself. As the inevitable police intervention is drawing nearer, he is taking greater and greater risks in his attempt to create the ultimate artwork. Along the way we experience Jack’s descriptions of his personal condition, problems and thoughts through a recurring conversation with the unknown Verge, a grotesque mixture of sophistry mixed with an almost childlike self-pity and psychopathic explanations.

Rated R for strong disturbing violence/sadistic behavior, grisly images, adult language, and nudity

POSITIVES

– While I certainly have my displeasures from Von Trier as a director, there’s no mistaking the artistic merits that he brings to an otherwise 70’s B-movie homage that the film is enveloped in. Aside from Lars variety of scene-appropriate lenses that gives the film a constant air of unnerving nature, he brings with along an artistic side of brutality that many directors are afraid to glorify for fear of backlash. This makes Von Trier certainly someone who always fully commits to his projects, and no matter how you feel about the final cut of his films, you have to admire his maverick method of filmmaking that garners with it an indulgence of the unorthodox.

– Role of a lifetime for Dillon. This is certainly a one man show, and Matt keeps the focus on him by emitting this calm-yet-deranged serial killer who is unlike anyone he has portrayed before. Jack’s bone-chilling blank stare is only surpassed by the ferociously calculated measures he takes in subduing his prey. Likewise, I also enjoyed seeing a killer who suffers from O.C.D, and it certainly made for some poignant predicaments that only add to the unfurling tension in every scene. Dillon puts an unmistakable stamp of personality on the title character, balancing this dynamic of menace and intrigue for the character that never falters throughout nearly two-and-a-half hours of screen time.

– Violence turns to symbolism. Aside from these graphically violent scenes, that were incredibly blunt and closely shot to keep you from ever looking away, there is an underlying narrative from history that the film does play off appropriately, to those paying attention. Jack clearly represents Dante, the infamous Italian poet, and the film serves as a representation from arguably his most important poem “The Divine Comedy”. Through the many steps of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, this intended direction finally became evident to me, and being that I was the lone person in my theater who enjoyed the hell out of “Mother”, I too took great pleasure in another modern day narrative of a popular religious fable.

– Many people in my theater were complaining about the tonal inconsistencies in the film, but I found the humorous side to the violence and on-going narrative to be more than appropriate in mirroring the material. Jack has this uncanny interaction with people that truly shows the stupidity associated with the human race, and it allows us these welcome moments of release in laughter, after these devastating scenes of impactful macabre. Because of this, I think the film has more appeal when you’re watching it with a large group of friends who can bounce reactions off of one another, instead of sitting down alone for a film that limits the ability for the lunacy of the material to carry over. This showed me that even as pretentious of a director as Lars often is, he’s not afraid to poke fun when it’s required.

– From a serial killer perspective, very few films even rattle the surface of this one, in terms of depth for the psychological stance of the character. Broken up in five meaningful chapters to fruitfully fill in the gaps of how his killing has evolved, the film invests time and layers to cracking the very ambiguity of killers that deserves more conclusions than just saying “They were born that way”. This aspect is without a doubt my favorite of the film, and even with all of the food-for-thought provided, we feel like the complexity of Jack never suffers because of it, leaving plenty of poignancy in the his past BEFORE the film that could use a prequel of its own.

NEGATIVES

– Lars “Pretentious” Von Trier. Has there ever been a director who is up his own ass like Lars? That trend continues in “The House That Jack Built”, as the film not only breaks off on these insanely long diatribes for Lars to comment on many of the world’s current day problems, which is interesting considering the film takes place in the 70’s when none of these issues were prominent in the world, but the director even halts progression of the film midway through the second act to show clips from three of his previous movies. This is on a whole other level than being egotistic, and Von Trier’s overindulgence of himself is his own worst enemy when it comes to the stories he tries to convey.

– Horrendous pacing. For the first hour of this movie, I was very much glued to the screen, as the first two incidents of Jack’s story pushes us right along in keeping up the fluidity and entertainment factor for the film. Then in the second act, it feels like the consistency of the pacing reaches sluggish levels, suddenly feeling like the incidents don’t play as much of a role in the conversation piece that Von Trier leaves this movie for. In addition to this, the film’s quest to feel like twelve years over the trail of this movie feels unfulfilled, never showing visual aging or a feeling in the values of storytelling that ever makes it feel like a year, let alone twelve have passed.

– Redundant soundtrack. I love “Fame” from David Bowie as much as anyone else, but Jesus Christ how many times did this song need to be played throughout the film? It’s nice to know that one song was constantly on repeat on Lars Ipod, and what’s even more annoying is that it adds no context outside of being a song from the 70’s. I will give credit to the….well credits, as it may be the most convenient context to “Hit the Road Jack” that I’ve ever heard.

– Convoluted dialogue. When I say I could easily trim thirty minutes of this film from the stuffy atmosphere of the narration alone, I mean it. So often during the film does the same visual show, or the same line of character exposition beaten us over the head until we’re screaming it ourselves. The production team must think pretty low of its audience, because the last time a sentence was repeated this much to me, I was in first grade, and the bladder control I maintained through both sits made them too irresistible not to compare for this negative.

– This is the first film that Von Trier split into two halves, so as to focus more prominently on the editing. And while that may be the intention, the finished product makes for Von Trier’s arguably worst edited movie to date. Abrupt cuts in the middle of important dialogue feels like a distraction, continuity between cuts couldn’t be further from cohesive, and there are sometimes far too many cuts for one particular sequence. In the action genre, this would be considered vertigo, but the over-anxiousness of a finger firmly pressed on the edit button is something that creates enough problems for the progression of this movie; mainly that it’s complicating matters with a screenplay that is otherwise played straight from the hip, in terms of its structure.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

Directed By David Yates

Starring – Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The Plot – At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy and action

POSITIVES

– From a fantasy perspective, this is still the measuring stick, bringing with it a barrage of richly textured computer generated effects and a fine assortment of fictional creatures that we’ve come to expect. Because of this, it is so easy to get lost in this world of pre-Potter hysteria, and the film’s biggest spell is the one that continues to open itself to new audiences, continuing the charms of this franchise feeling like a generation affair.

– Paris in 1927. This element of the film is often so subtle that you have to constantly remind yourself that the film takes place here. This isn’t to say that it’s a fault for the production, but rather the decision not to carve out the cliche elements of Paris that we’ve come to expect in Hollywood. For my money, the authentic vibe of street cafes and Baroque style buildings is simply too sophisticated not to indulge in, and if there was ever a place to properly channel the rebuilding nature of the world, post World War I, it’s the city of lights.

– New additions to the cast. Jude Law as Dumbeldore is without question my favorite, radiating the familiar character with a dual threat of heart and youthful exuberance to properly fill in the gaps of curiosity. Unfortunately, Law isn’t in the movie more than twenty combined minutes, but his sharing gives way to opportunity for others as well. For instance, Depp goes way above the compartmentalized material, making the most maniacal for the mantle for the film’s title character. Depp too suffers from script fatigue, but his big screen presence is something that can’t be ignored, and serves as yet another chance for the acting chameleon to get lost under a range of make-up and contact lenses. Depp’s Grindelwald is cool, cunning, and calculated, in the same manner a cult leader would feel, and his magnetic embrace of the dark side is something that we certainly need to see more of, especially after the magic that was “Black Mass”.

– James Newton Howard, one of the world’s most notorious musical composers, giving us his most entrancingly immersive tones in years. I realized many times that it’s James impeccable touch of his own wand, in the form of an orchestral baton, that gives the film noticeable emphasis, and overall this is a score that I felt equally captured the immensity of the unfolding drama, as well as audibly took us on a journey that couldn’t have been better articulated with words. You feel the intention in every scene with a composer this talented, and Howard’s grip on this series is equally as important as the events that play out in real time.

– As far as world expanding goes, this sequel has everything to up the stakes of the exceptional first film. Yates and Rowling continues to introduce us to creatures, cultures, and locations throughout the wizarding world that will please even the most passionate of fans of nerd euphoria. This element of the script lends more to the idea that the world of magic in the 20’s spans far outside of the school of Hogwarts, giving way to a wide range of possibility and relatability in these clashing characters that we haven’t even grazed the surface of, in two-two hour movies thus far.

NEGATIVES

– “Flash-Back: The Movie”. I say this because this film has no fewer than six flashback sequences to explain exposition, and none of them are the briefest of explanations in the way we would cut to the chase as storytellers. This element wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t frequented so often, and about halfway into the film, it relates this idea that the progression of the current day narrative isn’t as important or as compelling as those details of things that have already happened.

– Does that time honored pain of building the third movie more than making the second film a stand alone classic. If the friendship between Grindelwald and Dumbeldore isn’t enough, the direction of many characters, especially during the confrontational third act, more than cements an outline for where the next chapter may be heading, but it’s one that comes at a price for the weight of the conclusion of this film, that feels anything but heavy. Ultimately, the second movie feels like the first trailer for a much bigger third film, and because of such, this film will easily be the most forgettable of the Wizarding world franchise thus far.

– Newt is a bad protagonist. Bear with me here. This film exposed for me some pretty serious problems for the series central character, all of which are more prominent than ever in this installment. First, he’s selfish. He doesn’t listen to a friend when he’s confiding in him, and is only occupied with figuring out his own conflicts. Second, Redmayne’s performance and direction from Yates lacks the kind of charisma and focus that cement him as the pivotal character throughout. Watch this movie and tell me that Newt MUST be the main character, and I’ll tell you where millions of dollars are buried. There’s nothing to the film’s conclusion that makes us thankful that Scamander was there to save the day. Third and finally, there is no evolution with the character. This is very much the awkward, mumbling tick, who existed in the first film, and never during this movie does he feel any closer to solving the matters that bother him, nor does it ever feel like he truly will. At this point, it will take 27 films for Newt to even properly talk to the object of his affection, and everything I mentioned will still very much be an issue.

– At 124 minutes, it is far too long of a movie. Don’t get it wrong, it’s not the run time that bothers me, but rather how we got there. The first Fantastic Beasts film was 130 minutes long, but I never felt bored or suffocating from a convoluted script. The problem lies in the element of too many characters with too many perspectives. Far too often, this screenplay morphs from character to character, quite often leaving important ones on the waiting path, inevitably making them forgettable until they pop up violently again. This film should’ve taken a page from the first film and just combined some of these subplots, limiting the down time in pacing that does anything but hold your attention.

– Antagonist angles that go nowhere. Considering how vital the elements of magic are to this series, it’s surprising that there isn’t more of it in this film. Take for instance Grindelwald’s capability of body possession that is only used twice, during the first act, and never mentioned again. It’s easy to understand how this gift could’ve played out in allowing him to understand his enemies when they are hot on his trail, but that would expose the obvious problem of this film being over in an hour, and at the risk of this gift being believable in the first place. Believe me when I say this isn’t the only dropped gift throughout the film, and what’s worse is they only highlight why no one, at least in this universe, should be able to remotely compete with Grindelwald’s power.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Directed By Fede Alvarez

Starring – Claire Foy, Sylvia Hooks, Lakeith Stanfield

The Plot – Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits hacker Lisbeth Salander (Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer program that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide. The download soon draws attention from an NSA agent who traces the activity to Stockholm. Further problems arise when Russian thugs take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work. Now, Lisbeth and an unlikely ally must race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster.

Rated R for violence, adult language and some sexual content/nudity

POSITIVES

– At attempt to fill in the gaps of Salander’s backstory. One thing that always drove me nuts about the previous four films from this series is the lack of attention paid to Lisbeth’s jaded history, that could explain why her interaction with people comes across as tedious, and “Spider’s Web” feels like the first chance at delving deep below the surface. Through flashback scenes that depict the less-than acceptable nature between Lisbeth and her father, as well as the broken bond between her sister, we not only learn the motivation for her life’s work in protecting women, but also the past life she left behind when she faced her life’s important fork in the road. Because this is very much her movie, it would be foolish not to give us some answers in regards to its title character, and it certainly makes a lot of sense when you know more about what she has endured.

– No shortage of characters to keep the narrative fresh. Besides the usual team-up of Salander and Blomkvist, the film introduces us to the firewall creator and son, which provides great urgency for the abundance of chase sequences, as well as a government official, played by Stanfield, who constantly keeps Lisbeth on her toes in the biggest game of cat and mouse. This allows the film to constantly keep moving where other spy thrillers can sometimes start to lag down, and it helps even more when you’re investment into these characters increases with every scene.

– A new side of Salander. Lisbeth’s guarded wall toward human interaction, as well as cunning intelligence that never stalls, is still very much there, but Foy adds a layer of bravery and physicality to the role that was most noticeably absent in Rooney Mara’s recent portrayal of the character. What I love about this is that it really channels the evolution of Salander, proving that a majority of her cases have been anything but pushing the buttons behind her trusty laptop. Foy envelopes the complete package of what Lisbeth should be, and while the visual transformation isn’t as deep for this actress, the durability of her accent, as well as the way she commits herself to the role, proves that she was the right woman for the job.

– Pedro Luque’s beauty in the darkness that envelopes the world of this character. It would be easy to overlook the advantages in shooting a majority of scenes in these dark, cold backgrounds, but Luque takes advantage of the scenery, using it not only to channel Lisbeth’s physical isolation, but also in capturing the very unforgiving nature of Sweden in this winter wonderland. Lesser quality cinematographers won’t know how to shape it for audiences, often times coming across as a bunch of unidentifiable objects moving around in the darkness, but Pedro provides substance to the overwhelming dampness, using it as the stage that lives and breathes with these characters alike.

– Alvarez’s first time shooting an action movie. Considering this is a director whose passion first and foremost is horror movies, it was great to see what kind of visuals and movements he could give with a bigger scope and budget. Fede’s tapestry takes us through many chase sequences, with a versatility in angles, as well as long hallway pans that kept the attention firmly where it needed to be at all times. If the film does anything for this rising off-screen star, it’s proving that he is much more than a one trick pony, and he more than lives up to the shadow cast by previous director, David Fincher, for carrying the torch of this beloved franchise.

NEGATIVES

– Unsubtly a superhero narrative. Sony’s thirst to make this something its not, hinders the story at nearly every possible angle, further blurring the lines as a supposed sequel that Sony so badly wants you to believe. Salander herself has freakish abilities in her power, there’s an over-the-top villain whose only motive is to take over the world, a child kidnapped midway through who needs saving, pointless white makeup and posing for the camera of its protagonist, and high risk stunts that would kill a lesser person. Sound familiar? It should. Salander is apparently the second coming of Wonder Woman, and this thoughtless direction loses any air of familiarity that the character had for herself.

– Vital miscasting mistake. Blomkvist, for whatever reason, is treated like nothing more than a supporting cast member in this film, and there’s plenty to point to in terms of why this direction was taken. For one, Sverrir Gudnason wipes all forms of energy and personality from the character that Daniel Craig made famous. For two, his distracting lack of chemistry with Salander, that the movie wants so badly to paint, does them no favors in channeling the connection between them as lovers or friends. For a character who is arguably the protagonist of the novels, this demotion renders the character lacking, leaving him with little to do and little answered from where the previous film left off.

– Worst trailer of 2018. Once again, we have an example of a trailer that reveals far too much, and leaves nothing of reveal or excitement for the film to hang its hat on. To anyone who has seen the trailer, you not only find out who the antagonist is to Salander, but also how the final conflict between them ends. It is truly baffling to me how whoever put together this trailer still has a job, and thanks to their neglect and lack of care for audiences, we are given nearly two hours of answers in a two minute clip. Impressive.

– You don’t have to suspend disbelief in this film, you have to run over your brain with a Mack truck. Some of the things that Salander does with a cell phone are ridiculous to say the least, especially when you consider how little of time she is given to complete these tasks. Hacking a car’s electrical panel, an airport security system, and individual cell phones within seconds are just a few of her talents. Should we come to know Lisbeth as God at this point? Surely the authorities would be looking for someone as well known for hacking as she is. If you don’t believe me, look up Snowden, Edward.

– As much as the characters and performances keep the film from falling into boring territory, the film’s undercooked level of human emotion left me with a story with this high of stakes feeling very inconsequential. Because everything is so heavily telegraphed, like I mentioned above, the film’s closing moments won’t leave you as emotionally invested into them as you rightfully should, and the so-called big battle between family feels anti-climatic when it treats the things we already know as this shocking revelation.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Directed By Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

Starring – Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman

The Plot – All Clara (Foy) wants is a key; a one-of-a-kind key that will unlock a box that holds a priceless gift from her late mother. A golden thread, presented to her at godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Freeman) annual holiday party, leads her to the coveted key-which promptly disappears into a strange and mysterious parallel world. It’s there that Clara encounters a soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three Realms: Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, and Land of Sweets. Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and hopefully return harmony to the unstable world.

PG for some mild peril

POSITIVES

– Disney’s choice for a 65 mm Kodak format for the presentation. To anyone who has just seen the trailers, it should come as no surprise that this is a beautifully exceptional looking movie, filled with enchanted glimmer that radiates ever-so-gently off of the colorful wardrobes and dreamy landscapes. The team of Hallstrom and Johnston have moved mountains in bringing to life this ballet-turned-film to audiences, and the tinsel of magic that only Disney can emit, is a constant throughout Clara’s wonderous journey.

– Considering this is a ballet with very little exposition between characters and events, it’s a benefit for the film to keep things tight at 89 minutes, leaving the fluff of downtime on the cutting room floor. This is a film that constantly keeps moving, whether you’re into it or not, and I commend the production’s desire to not reach for the low hanging fruit of turning this into an epic, like other Disney live action properties. As far as the burning of an hour-and-a-half goes, it’s as smooth as silk, and keeps the attention of adult and child audiences alike, without a noticeable test of patience.

– Stylishly decadent wardrobes. In emulating the many differences in world, both fantasy and reality, the great Jenny Beavan has her work cut out for her. But with a faithful homage to the nutcracker and toy soldier tinker toy looks of the early 20th century, she wows us in ways that literally transform actors into the characters. For Clara, it’s a second act unveil that grooms her into becoming the woman she is destined to become, and for such an occasion it’s a transfixing gown that greatly compliments her skin, and lends itself to the finer side of class and sophistication.

– My favorite sequence of the film. It’s strange that possibly the only scene that I remember from this film an hour after is the ballet early on in the second act, that depicts Clara’s mother finding the Four Realms, because I myself am not even close to being a ballet fan. But it was in this exceptionally choreographed and wonderfully serenated play that not only built the most in backstory for the film and characters, but also fed into the concepts of majestic, an angle that much of this movie sadly under-developed. It’s a subtle reminder of why this story works on stage in ways that it can only dream of on film.

– No forced humor or cliche supporting cast. You can see it early on. Disney wants so badly to give Clara two dim-witted soldiers to chime in when the movie feels forced to cater to younger audiences. Thankfully, they hold off on this instinct, keeping the film’s tone grounded in expectation, keeping this from becoming a bumbling occasion that would do this story more harm than good. The lack of risk does catch up later on, as I will get to, but the best measures are always those that differ itself from what’s been proven ineffective, and this decision pays off immensely for me.

NEGATIVES

– Terribly miscast ensemble. It’s a disappointment to me, because I love Foy as an actress, and it’s not all on her. Everyone here is recruited for the wrong intentions, feeding into big budget films dreadful 90’s idea of bringing along the biggest name possible, regardless if it works for their personality or not. In this regard, Foy lacks energy as a protagonist we devote ourselves to, Freeman and Helen Mirren are in the film for a matter of minutes, and Knightley brings forth easily her most annoying portrayal to date. To piggyback off of what I said earlier, I enjoy all of these people individually as actors, but their casting here leaves much to be desired in the way they commit to their roles, and even expanding on their range as actors, making this feel like nothing more than a paycheck project.

– Same old same. You’ve seen it every year: a film will come along involving a child being shipped off to a wonderous land, and asked to save it. There’s nothing shocking about “The Nutcracker” taking this ages old troupe, but rather how little it truly does in adding layers of depth to such a tired plot. Because I’ve seen this concept played off in films like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Empire of the Sun”, and most recently “Ready Player One” to name a few, I can telegraph what will happen throughout, leaving little suspense or imagination to a decaying product.

– Considering this is a film with four different realms inside of this adventure, there’s an overall great lack of concern for the world building that goes unnoticed. Attribute this to the minimal runtime if you must, but in films that depict worlds far from our own, I prefer to be brought up to speed on what makes this place so special, and it just isn’t present here. If it’s in the title, you better do a great job of luring the audience inside, and there was never a moment over C.G backdrops where I felt amazed or riveted by what the film presents.

– This is again another example of a movie with so much computer influence that you wonder why it simply isn’t an animated movie. If you’re going to adapt a story into live action, do so in a way that justifies its existence. Instead, we are treated to hollow properties and poorly rendered rodents that make up the majority, and leave much to be desired in terms of reality. It’s no secret that this is the growing trend, especially with Disney remakes, and to me it’s the kind of creativity the production can muster up in bringing to life live action that impresses me. I’m not against C.G, but it should never make up the majority of any single shot in a movie.

– The dad in this film (Played by Matthew Macfadyen) is creepy to say the least. I get that this is a man who is grieving after the untimely death of his wife, and loneliness eventually sets in, but the way he looks at his oldest daughter in her Mother’s dress, as well as obsess over dancing with both of his daughters, made me slightly uncomfortable to say the least. This is the man’s entire story arc, and his intrusion upon these scenes make it stand out even more unnaturally, and if you think I am indeed bluffing on this, I challenge you to take in the movie and see the weirdness of this aspect, live and in living color.

My grade: 5/10 or C-

Hunter Killer

Directed By Donovan Marsh

Starring – Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common

The Plot – Deep under the Arctic Ocean, American submarine Captain Joe Glass (Butler) is on the hunt for a U.S. sub in distress when he discovers a secret Russian coup is in the offing, threatening to dismantle the world order. Captain Glass must now assemble an elite group of Navy SEALs to rescue the kidnapped Russian president and sneak through enemy waters to stop WWIII.

Rated R for violence and some adult language

POSITIVES

– A great sense of life aboard a fighter submarine. If Marsh does just one thing competently enough as a director, it’s in the articulate channeling of claustrophobia and fear behind these walls that encase this increasing pressure. What I love is that the shots in frame feel very tight, and the editing is brunt enough to keep the tension amplified for the on-going developments in this high stakes game of mental chess.

– Speaking of thrills, for a film that borders the two hour mark unnecessarily, this one surprisingly kept me engaged on all cylinders of the combat cycle. This story unfolds from three different perspectives: the war room, the battlefield, and the sea, and while some of the pacing issues between the three sides stilts the progression, I never felt bored or bloated with the details coming at me. Most can be attributed to having triple the chances at engaging the audience, but for me it was very much the intensity of the unfolding drama that brings with it a constant reminder of what’s at stake.

– Much respect to this film for not indulging in getting too silly, and catering instead to early 90’s political thrillers that brought us hits like “Crimson Tide” and “The Hunt For Red October”. While this film doesn’t quite measure up to those in terms of the things it accomplishes, it does keep a persistent eye on the prize of never giving in to the temptation to be one of those so bad it’s good properties. Are there silly things in the film? Yes, I will get to them later, but Marsh is a director who is giving his all to make this something extra, and I think that’s a lot of the reason I couldn’t be too mad once the credits came up.

– Art imitating life. The America Vs Russia rivalry isn’t going anywhere soon, especially with our current day landscape unraveling what could be the biggest chapter between them, and the film is wise enough to capitalize on this awkward relationship on more than a few occasions. In painting Russia the enemy, the philosophy of the film is painted to ask the audience if every single Russian is indeed guilty by association tagging, or is the political hyperbole painting a picture that isn’t completely honest? The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle, as “Hunter Killer” provides plenty of surprises on this front, all the while playing into the paranoia that has divided the two sides into testy counterparts.

– Majestic interiors and set designs for the ships and accompanying government offices. For the former, the lighting in particular repeatedly caught my eye, giving a reflective vibe of the chilly and unforgiving waters that surround our characters, and for the latter, its communication in the form of endless computer screens and in-the-sky droids that serve as a reminder of the big budget investment that goes with this visual Tom Clancy homage of sorts. These perks do more than enough to set the stage and market with them the believability in you to invest yourself into this story where buying Butler as a naval captain might falter.

NEGATIVES

– What were they thinking? I want to get the small things out of the way first, because while they are minimally important to the integrity of the film, their nagging presence stuck with me throughout. First, the decision to cast Alexander Diachenko as the Russian president in the film is one that, while working wonders for his nationality, does zero in terms of believability for a non-existent accent that has him coming across as another American politician. This pales in comparison to the name Joe Glass for Butler’s character. Aside from the fact that this name is as dumb and action cliche as it gets, it’s a glaring problem for 8-bit Nintendo fans like me, who loved the game “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out”, and recall the 1-99 boxer known as Glass Joe. Any one of the twenty-something executive producers on the film could’ve balked at this decision, and easily named him Joe Smith, but a Gerard Butler protagonist has to sound every bit as cool as he looks, and man did they ever fail in this respect.

– No performances to write home about. Butler is his usual bland, Common never elevates in volume when the panic comes, and Oldman, fresh off of his win as Best Leading actor at this year’s Oscars, is relegated to ten minutes of screen time in the entire film. Gary is easily the best part of this ensemble, and that’s when the problem presents itself. Is it a script choice or an actor choice to limit the biggest name to this?

– Terrible On-screen visual effects. This is probably the only thing that I truly hated about the film. The rendering of these artificial properties are every bit as hollow as they are unnervingly unconvincing, and for a film that hits theaters, I can’t understand how this is the finished product. Some examples include a duo of deer so poorly rendered that they make the surrounding property feel fake, the endless amount of explosions that don’t synthetically capture the coloring of an underwater influence, and my favorite: obvious reshoot backdrops that come across as too dark to match the studio lighting of the actors caught in the middle of it. This element alone gives the film a straight-to-DVD look that it sadly never overcomes, and it’s the main reason why I welcome a majority of scenes being under water.

– Attention deficit disorder with storytelling. I never had a problem with the triple-tier element of storytelling that the film encompasses, but rather the telegraphed and conventional method in which it’s presented. In presenting these respective angles one at a time only, it violently hinders momentum of each one, feeling the necessity to start over when the pendulum swings back to its direction. I wish the three of them could’ve connected more frequently, especially during a second act that repeats far too much of the same motions in unfolding drama from three different perspectives.

– Great suspension of disbelief with some intimate details. I can’t dive too deep without reaching spoiler territory, but the ability to stop missiles, the remarkably easy way to break into the equivalent of the Russian White House, and the convenient method of Russian intelligence not using sonar to detect incoming ships, are definitely my favorite instances of shutting my brain off. Considering the book this is based on is written by a U.S Naval captain, I can’t imagine he’s the reason to blame for certain logics of this film that simply don’t float.

My Grade: 5/10 or C-

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