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

Hell Fest

Directed by Gregory Plotkin

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

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

Johnny English Strikes Again

Directed by David Kerr

Starring – Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson

The Plot – The third installment of the Johnny English comedy series, with Rowan Atkinson returning as the much loved accidental secret agent. The new adventure begins when a cyber-attack reveals the identity of all active undercover agents in Britain, leaving Johnny English as the Secret Service’s last hope. Called out of retirement, English dives head first into action with the mission to find the mastermind hacker. As a man with few skills and analog methods, Johnny English must overcome the challenges of modern technology to make this mission a success.

Rated PG for some action violence, rude humor, adult language and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Late but purposeful. It has been eight years since the previous Johnny English installment, and fifteen since the original that went on to be a box office smash, bringing 320 million dollars between them. So it’s certainly easy to understand why a third chapter exists, and with the addition of technological nemesis like Cyber-Hacking, Identity Theft, and such, it allows English to explore avenues of antagonists that he hasn’t yet tackled. But it also provides the opportunity in valuing these new toys that help him crack the case a little easier. This gives the third movie proper motivation and deters it from the previous movies, whose environments were a product of their time.

– Stylish, spy thriller cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister. ‘Strikes Again’ is fill of slick car chase sequences through the bending mountainside, as well as never-ending portraits of English countryside that competently articulates the genre’s predecessors in visual likeness. These examples are a constant reminder of how faithful this film sticks with its intended genre purpose, and perfectly sets its audience in the mood for what’s to come.

– Quick run time. The film clocks in at a measly 84 minutes, and this may perhaps be its greatest benefit against a plot that isn’t necessarily substantive or even imaginative. Much of the pacing remained persistent, and never felt like it was sagging or dulling me to the point of checking my watch, particularly with the carefully spread out sight gags that bring enticement to each act.

– Doesn’t require allegiance to the previous films. As a critic, I am a bit ashamed to say that I never saw either of the first two films in this series, but thankfully Kerr’s sequel doesn’t rely at all on Johnny’s past work, just on the very legend of the character that sets him apart from the other spies. In this regard, the movie stands on its own independent feet, catering to a new generation of youthful moviegoers without ever alienating fans of the series, who are now grown-ups.

– Hit or miss performances. Atkinson still gives his all to this character, portraying English with a sort of unaware cool smug about his asinine decisions that make him the proper outcast for any spy character. His best attribute is in his bodily movements that dare you not to laugh each time he dedicates a thorough amount of time to the gag. Likewise, his chemistry with sidekick Bough (Played by Ben Miller) is impeccable, and allows the two cherished English actors great importance to the story’s progression. Unfortunately, the female cast is less opportunistic. Thompson is virtually wasted as the Prime Minister, sprouting her sparse ten total minutes on camera as being the subplot to Johnny’s mayhem. It is unfortunate that the two have such little screen time together to bounce off of one another, as the inclusion of a prestigious actress like Thomposon could’ve added much-needed female dynamic to the film that it just doesn’t master. Kurylenko is also phoning it in, playing Bond girl 27. The film just kind of forgets about her the longer it goes, proving her intention was nothing more than eye-candy that feels dated for the kind of equality we have mastered most recently in films.

NEGATIVES

– Cheap budget for virtually non-existent action sequences. What this film needs is an element of devastation in adding weight or memorability to the movie. One example of this limited perspective is a fire sequence in the opening twenty minutes that not only shies away from depicting the start of the fire, but also only acknowledges it through the facial reactions of our two male leads, with a flicker of light reflecting from their faces. Sadly, this is the highlight for the film in the set pieces department, removing any kind of consequential weight from the irresponsibility of clumsy characters.

– Ineffective humor. This film, perhaps more than anything else, is a blueprint for the differences in English and American comedy that have divided them for decades in terms of intended marks. With the exception of one sequence that stretches the boundaries and believability of virtual reality, I didn’t laugh once in this entire film, and that’s a huge disappointment for someone like Atkinson, whom I’ve adored for decades on the Mr. Bean program. Part of the blame is the juvenile atmosphere created, but I put so much more on punchlines that are skimmed over like just another line read.

– No surprises. Considering this is a spoof on spy thrillers, the lack of overall mystery and motivations within the characters feels like a pivotal misfire against a predictable screenplay full of genre cliches. Pretty much from the opening ten minutes of the movie you can piece it all together where the film’s antagonist, conflict, and resolution will fall, proving that the film’s lack of intelligence within itself stems from so much more than a bumbling protagonist who has never used a cell phone in 2018.

– An idea within. Instead of a plot that more than rubs together with previous films in the series, I preferred an angle that the screenplay only hints at. English is now an espionage teacher of sorts for a school of youths, and I think this original direction could’ve done with its youthful cast the same things that ‘Kingsman’ did for troubled adolescents. Is there any guarantee it would’ve been a better film? Absolutely not, but the desire in crafting a chapter of originality is something I commend any series for, but unfortunately it’s a sequel in plot that never strays far from familiarity.

– In Kerr’s directing, the biggest flaw that I found was his inability in taking chances. Most of the shot compositions, as well as character world-building feels very pedestrian and one-dimensionally confined to the actions of the film. What I mean by this is it doesn’t feel believable in the slightest that this world exists outside of this movie, refusing to explore English when he isn’t donning the three piece suit. This is where screenwriter William Davies takes his share of the blame, because his conflict lacks true complexity in fleshing out the true danger of the profession. These psychological delves could allow us not only to feel more invested in the hollow plot, but also in the range of the character, who hasn’t sprouted much in fifteen years.

5/10

The Nun

Directed by Corin Hardy

Starring – Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet

The Plot – When a young nun (Bonnie Aarons) at a cloistered abbey in Romania takes her own life, a priest (Bichir) with a haunted past and a novitiate (Farmiga) on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate. Together they uncover the order’s unholy secret. Risking not only their lives but their faith and their very souls, they confront a malevolent force in the form of the same demonic nun that first terrorized audiences in ‘The Conjuring 2,’ as the abbey becomes a horrific battleground between the living and the damned.

Rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images

POSITIVES

– Eerily effective musical score from Abel Korzeniowski. If it isn’t enough that the musical composer’s name is Abel in a film surrounding religion, the wise decisions that he takes in crafting that authentic convent feel moves the atmosphere and tone miles in terms of the inevitable doom they channel. Abel combines these richly dark and ominous tones with the inclusion of an all-male choir, to make it sound like echoing hymns throughout the hallowed halls, and its power is greater than most of the supposed scares in the film.

– Detailed production in set pieces that spare zero expense. What transcends the film from being just another watered down sequel is the attention to eye-popping props and on-location (Romania) shooting that sprinkle its vital investment into this story. Beyond this being just a scary place, it’s one that works for the dimming of natural light whose shadow work messes with your mind on several occasions, as well as the time that went into perfecting uses for even the minimalist of scene time. The graveyard full of crosses feels like it stretches miles, speaking volumes not only to the rich tradition of this convent, but also Valek’s menacing powers that have ended many lives.

– Art imitating life? It’s interesting that both Farmiga sisters, Vera and Taissa, have both appeared in this series of films, albeit in respectively different films. For the younger Farmiga, she is every bit as rich in haunting facial reactions as her big sis, but it’s more in her character’s inexperience with true evil that crafts her performance as something entirely different. As Sister Irene, Taissa rarely needs to scream to keep a grip on the attention of the film, instead being the glaring line of conscience between our world and Catholicism that is tested every foot along the way.

– Uneasiness with simply imagery. When this film isn’t trying to be full of unnecessary jump scares, the unsettling depictions of faceless nuns slowly walking in A rhythmic trance gave me constant reminder of what this film could’ve been if the studio just trusted the atmosphere in tension that has been built across five movies. It properly sets the mood for the film you were promised, but unfortunately lives up with much else, because it would rather aim for the same tropes that is all the craze in modern horror.

– Justification among its counterparts. The ending of the film, while a mess creatively for this lone chapter, does fit in perfectly with ‘The Conjuring’ universe, and does instill strong replay value for the films before it. One scene in particular takes us back to a scene in the first Conjuring movie, neatly tying the two sides together without it feeling like a great suspension of disbelief.

NEGATIVES

– Why is this rated R? Push aside the Academy’s grading that I typed above, and you have a lack of emphasis overall with the coveted R-rating that other horror films so desperately require. Because of the often times blurry surroundings, there’s little distinguishable blood, and there’s nothing too disturbing in violence that would otherwise make me think this isn’t a PG-13 film. This feels like a mistake more on the Academy’s part, but the film itself does very little of risk to warrant this designation.

– Terribly bad A.D.R. It’s almost become typical of me to spot instances here and there in a film where lines of dialogue don’t match that of the proper lip movements that come from their actors, but in ‘The Nun’ that game gets taken to a whole other level. I’m not sure if the sound mixer was asleep at the wheel, but there were two scenes where a character is talking aloud without actually speaking in vision. The film thinks if it hides this character in the background it won’t be noticeable, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, and these instances aren’t strong enough to be considered sloppy, they are downright amateur.

– Continued dependency on jump scares. This is beginning to get to the point where it’s every bit as formulaic as it is anti-climatic. While there are bigger offenders of the cliche, ‘The Nun’ goes to the well eight times too many with ineffective jump scares that can easily be telegraphed from a mile away. It’s typically when a scene’s sound goes from seven to zero in a split second, but there’s something additional even more conflicting here. The camera work and shot composition repeat on more than one occasion for these jump scare scenes, and that redundancy speaks volumes of the laziness that comes across in too many jump scares that don’t warrant the sound that comes from them.

– Inconsistencies of the rules. There are too many examples to cite here, so I will just say my favorite. Valek herself fears crosses in her vision, often times disappearing when she comes into contact with one. In this regards, she can be easily compared to the rules of a vampire. So why then are there not only several instances of crosses in plain view that do nothing, as well as how she can touch and even harm these blessed holy characters without something of harm coming to her. You had one rule for your antagonist, and you even messed that up.

– Without question, the most offensive aspect of the film to me is how it unabashedly rips off scenes and storyboards from other movies without shame. Throughout the film, there are unavoidable instances with films like ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘Silent Hill’, but the biggest offender to me is that of ‘Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight’. The producers of this film must have a lot of faith that no one saw that movie, and they’re probably right, but to completely lift the entire ending from that movie is shameful to say the least, and proves that ‘The Nun’ never comfortably follows its own path.

5/10

Blood Fest

Directed by Owen Egerton

Starring – Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Zachary Levi

The Plot – Fans flock to a festival celebrating the most iconic horror movies, only to discover that the charismatic showman behind the event has a diabolical agenda. As festival attendees start dying off, three teenagers, more schooled in horror-film cliches than practical knowledge about neutralizing psycho killers , must band together and battle through various madmen and monstrosities to survive.

Currently not rated

POSITIVES

– Creative kills. Sadly, the effects work is mostly computer generated, but that doesn’t spoil the creativity involved with a first act setting of the stage that is certainly the five most satisfying minutes that this film has to offer. Chainsaws, road tools, and pools of pig’s blood splash and gash across the screen, giving you a fiesta of carnage that the rest of the film has trouble ever living up to.

– Subtle homages to horror icons. While most of the rules and material of ‘Blood Fest’ felt more insulting than not for my taste, the Easter Eggs pointing to some of the elusive legends of the genre felt satisfying for their familiarity. It’s not so much ripping off popular properties as it is depicting their magnitude on the horror pop culture stratosphere. I won’t spoil much, but Hoddertown as a setting within the park gave me plenty of motivation as to where I want to live next.

– I love the idea of this plot. This feeling of life imitating art is one that thrives with my general interest, even if the movie managed to round up zero legitimate scares along the way. On the surface, the event Blood Fest is this great excuse for gore and body counts of the highest ratio to come together, bringing the torture on a grander scale than were used to in a conventional horror film, with the exception of maybe zombie films. P.S – There are zombies in this movie.

– While none of the acting is worthy of over-the-top praise, the work from this ensemble of mostly inexperienced cast members do a solid enough job as a likeable entity. Particularly the work of Gabriel as the final girl of sorts for this film, served as my single favorite performance for the movie, as someone not afraid of getting dirty when a scene requires it. She tends to give her whole body to a scene involving violence, and her petite stature is one that comes in handy for the many twists and turns that the story, as well as her body, takes.

– Much of the comedy, while juvenile and redundant at times, hits its target for a majority of the time, bringing a few hearty laughs that definitely made the sit a lot easier. My favorite scene of the movie takes place in the opening five minutes, when the trio of leads are talking at the video store. The banter between them is timely in their sarcastic deliveries, and overall it’s this scene that sets the precedent for the personalities, as well as the brand of humor for the entirety of the movie going forward.

NEGATIVES

– While this is a far greater improvement on production designs from Rooster Teeth’s other feature films, the set pieces in particular feel lifeless and artificial. When the film isn’t limiting the most of its horrific looking green-screen effects that obscure and blur anything surrounding human properties, the physical properties feel like they were cut out of a gimmick haunted house, lacking any kind of depth or creativity for their inclusion.

– Bare minimum character exposition. These are people who are limited to one word descriptions like “Blonde” or “Virgin”, and the film’s lack of focus to their proper development leaves them equally with nothing to live up to with these minimal tags. Even for a B-grade horror movie, ‘Blood Fest’ caters more to the familiar tropes of the genre, instead of building on the audience’s investment in a particular character, and the result are weightless deaths that add nothing of urgency or effectiveness to the frights of the film.

– Plagued by predictability. ‘Blood Fest’ feels worn down by the lifespan of its gimmick as a movie that is ahead of the rules it promotes, beating into the ground constant reminders that riddle it full of telegraphed moves before they even happen. A couple has sex, so of course they’re dead, a blonde is naked in the shower, so of course she’s next, and this constant ring of reminder annoyed me because of how saddled it becomes with being another follower of the pack.

– ‘Blood Fest’ is everything wrong with the pop culture appeal that it satirizes so often. The film’s antagonist speaks of the horror genre losing its effect because studios have taken what’s forbidden and made it routine, and this movie does the exact same. It’s insulting to condense horror into a few simple rules, but even more than that it’s damning to the integrity of the film when the tone-deaf range, as well as lack of anything original or compelling for the genre rears its head. This gives Rooster Teeth a double F for eFFort.

– The twist, while anything but predictable, is as far-fetched an idea as anything that this film scares up for us. What’s even more ridiculous is that the film didn’t require it, as the movie’s true antagonist and surprisingly creative plot made for more than enough explanation on the idea of this festival. I guess it’s appropriate that a character involved in the ending spouts the line “I did warn you that Blood Fest was going to suck”. Well played movie, and this twist only further emphasizes how right on the money you truly were.

5/10