Breathe

Andy Serkis takes one ambitious step behind the camera, in his debut directing effort ‘Breathe’. In such an effort, his film tells the inspiring true love story between Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy), an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease. When Robin is struck down by polio at the age of 28, he is confined to a hospital bed and given only a few months to live. With the help of Diana’s twin brothers (Tom Hollander) and the groundbreaking ideas of inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana dare to escape the hospital ward to seek out a full and passionate life together; raising their young son, traveling and devoting their lives to helping other polio patients. ‘Breathe’ is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images.

For the first film in Serkis’s promising career in the director’s chair, there’s a lot of proof that he is a valuable asset to telling such remarkable stories. ‘Breathe’, is an overall passing success for Serkis, but does suffer from a lot of growing pains that comes with experience in commanding a presence beyond the screen. This is certainly a story that deserves to be told for just how revolutionary that it was in the benefit of treating bed-ridden patients with the kind of freedom that they rightfully deserve. Behind that freedom is a sufferer of Polio himself, Robin Cavendish, whose own experiences as being locked away like a science experiment by those medical professionals in charge of his daily routine, prompted him to change the game in creating the first ever motorized wheelchair with its own breathing apparatus. This story stays firmly gripped on that thesis, but there’s lots of experimenting from the director himself that displays his experience in being so tightly wrapped in productions that involved his puppeteering for practical and C.G properties that carved out the name of a revolutionary, a lot like Cavendish, and that’s why Serkis feels like the right man for the job here.

From the very beginning, we are treated to a visual presentation that transports us not only on screen, but also off of it for the way it illuminates a taste of yesterday. There’s a feel within ‘Breathe’ that gives off the sense that we’re not only watching a film that takes place over various decades of the past, but also one that was made during those respective eras for the touch in tinsel that you just don’t see anymore. The cinematography is gorgeous in all of its sun-infused depictions. The editing feels patient, letting the audience soak in the most of every establishing environment whether it be inside or out. The musical tones of Nitin Sawhney pay tribute to the age when piano and light orchestral tones filled the air and ears of those immersed in a story, and felt like it establishes many of the moods and themes within the picture without coming off as meandering. Besides all of this, Serkis himself experiments with some very unorthodox methods of camera angles and framing that constantly keeps the pulse of creativity beating with each new sequence of discovery. For me, some of my favorites were those displaying a POV kind of shot for the kinds of feels that Cavendish himself is forced to endure. I also love Serkis’s commitment to supplanting the camera firmly on Garfield here, letting his facials tell the story of the pain and seclusion that he feels from his tragic disposition.

The screenplay is definitely the weakness of the film for me, and that’s because it sets a precedent early on in the first act that leaves very little wiggle room for the obvious paralyzing that’s coming. So much happens between the relationship of Robin and Diana in the opening twenty minutes of this movie that never really grant us that stark contrast of positivity between them before it all flies south. You will take great empathy on characters if you feel like you’ve grown with their relationship, and sadly ‘Breathe’ never allows us this opportunity as the two meet, fall in love, get married, move away together, and have a child within a rushed first act that completely throws off the pacing for the rest of the film. The second and third acts do maintain an air of timely precision to them, and I greatly enjoyed the education lesson that I was being taught here despite knowing nothing about the real life of Robin. This is definitely a must watch for someone who ever wants to learn about the jaded life that he lived, but not one that ever gets cerebral enough to resonate with the audience the psychology of being saddled with such a curse, instilling a mindset within me that kind of reads like a Wikipedia page without ever feeling the heat from the seat.

What did leave a lasting impression on me was the film’s constant theme that hammers home the will to live when all else fails. The script for the film can sometimes get a little heavy handed with the ideas that it hammers home, but I felt that the need to express ones desire for hope played marvelously here, and keeps Robin moving in a way that he not only defies the odds, but also defies those with the face of adversity who scoff at his decision to live with freedom. Early on in the movie, we hear about a group of soldiers in an old wise tale who stood strong until they no longer had the will to live. Once they gave up, their hearts stopped beating, and they became another in the growing statistic. Besides this serving as an obvious foreshadowing of what’s to come for our protagonist, it does communicate what is at stake here for the heart of this young man when the rest of his body has unfortunately already given up on him. His will to live is his strongest muscle, and it provides the air of hope that Robin, as well as us watching beyond the screen need to combat the inevitability of what is coming.

Also adding points to the cause are two valuable lead performances that the movie depends upon repeatedly to get it over the hump of a faulty screenplay. Andrew Garfield continues the role that he has been on with appearances in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘Silence’, but it’s here where he gives perhaps his most physically hindering performance to date. As Robin, Garfield provides enough animated personality in his facial reactions and limited vocal capacity to place this turn right next to those previous two heralded performances. Garfield’s accent also stays committed to detail despite being forced to endure some of the biggest teeth props that I have ever seen in my life. Claire Foy is also a breath of fresh air. Diana defines what a loving wife can and should be, and Foy’s unshakeable perseverance to the love she feels for Robin brings a much-needed soft romantic side to this story that shouldn’t be understated.

THE VERDICT – In more experienced hands, ‘Breathe’ could’ve been an Oscar contender, but because this uneven screenplay does little to benefit Serkis storytelling capabilities, the film just gets by resting on its lazy laurels. The work of Garfield and Foy are among the many highlights, and a refreshing throwback to the golden age of Hollywood romance films gives this director promise for future endeavors, but there’s not enough oxygen in the stuffy atmosphere to ever prolong the life of this familiar true life melodrama.

6/10

Happy Death Day

Blumhouse Pictures is back with another horror story just in time for the Halloween season, with ‘Happy Death Day’. Teenage girl, Tree (Jessica Rothe) requires the simplicities in life around her college existence and her ever-growing number of friends who adore her. While trying to enjoy her birthday, she soon realizes that this will inevitably be her final one. That is, if she can’t figure out who her killer is. For whatever reason, Tree must relive that day, over and over again, dying in a different way each time to place her closer to the killer. Along the way, she will learn more as well about the way her closest friends view her. Can she solve her own murder and live to see another day? ‘Happy Death Day’ is directed by Christopher Landon, and is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, adult language, some drug material and partial nudity.

To anyone longing for the campy 90’s slasher vibes and mysteries within its plot, look no further. ‘Happy Death Day’ is a film that surprisingly has a few lasting positives to take away from it that lifts it from being one of the more dreadful fall films that I wasn’t looking forward to. I compare it to that timeline because this film feels like it could’ve been lifted from that particular era of filmmaking, combining personality and horror together like the kind of humbling marriage that the genre was destined for. This isn’t a film that will win over many faithful fans like myself who are thirsty for frightening atmospheres and bloody gore to boot, but it will keep the masses entertained for a good old fashioned whodunnit? while treating us to a positive message from within that surprisingly comes from the strangest of places. The film does still suffer from a lot of the same tropes and handicaps that keep it from establishing anything new to the overstuffed Blumhouse Productions catalog, but there was never a point in this 91 minute film where I was ever bored, and that should be commended especially for a plot that doesn’t exactly present anything groundbreakingly original.

This is yet again another example of a character living through the events of one day over and over again, similar to ‘Before I Fall’ or ‘Groundhog Day’, and if you’re looking for a reasoning in explanation for how any of this is possible, you’re surely set to be disappointed. ‘Happy Death Day’ has one of those storylines that requires you to shut your brain off just long enough to ignore some of its gaping problems in execution like logical setup or obviousness in mystery, and keep pushing forward with some light-hearted atmosphere that keeps things fun. It’s also great that once again we have a setting of Louisiana, yet no character speaks with a Southern  drawl. I guess the producers or director doesn’t care about those important details of immersion.  One thing that I positively took away was that in this film the pain of previous days carry over into Tree’s next attempt. This gives the protagonist urgency despite there being no chance of permanent removal from the story. As for the mystery itself, it was something that I figured out in the opening twenty minutes of the movie, mainly because the comparisons of character height and setting made it easier to weed out the many list of possible culprits that we are engaged into early on in the film. A major spoiler scene for me involved a cop pulling Tree over after she thinks she has escaped the clutches of the killer. If you’re paying attention closely here, you’ll notice something that the killer has that only one person could possibly have gotten. If you figure it out, you will be waiting for the film to catch up, but thankfully the heartfelt resonance of living for each day is one that kind of takes over for the film midway through, treating us to the empathetic side that holds Tree prisoner in repetition.

It’s in that aspect where I feel like the performances of this youthful cast keep the film plugging away at making anything about this memorable. No more finer example of this is made than its main star Jessica Rothe, who sports Tree with the kind of energy and magnetic charm late in the film that totally turns around her character’s likeability. To say that I hated this girl during the first act of the movie, is an understatement. At the beginning of the movie, you almost feel that dread of having to be stuck once again with a character like this, but that helpless element in Rothe’s performance starts to take over early into the second act and introduces us to an actual person who has gone through a lot of suffering long before this day from hell came into her routine. Rothe knows especially how to play up the repetition that coils around her day like an inescapable poison, and we start to see more vulnerability in the way that her other defining traits start to widdle away. Rothe is someone who I will definitely be looking for in future roles, but it’s in her uphill climb of peeling back the layers of an arrogant sorority girl that will always earn her a respectable place in my heart, because without her this film is a complete mess.

Some of the biggest problems that ate away at my surprisingly growing enjoyment of this film is in the very tone that keeps the environment fun, but does eat away at the concepts of what establishes this as a horror film. To me, ‘Happy Death Day’s’ presentation felt a lot like watching an ABC Family show on the same grounds as ‘Pretty Little Liars’. Sure, it’s entertaining and even compelling when it wraps you in its mystery, but it comes up roughly short in the horror element that satisfies us with a condemning payoff. For me, the PG-13 labeling is felt especially tight here, limiting our thirst for blood that kind of should go without saying in this kind of plot. The death scenes themselves thrive mostly on imagination, and if they were able to build the tension of something truly horrendous before that cut to the next day takes place, then we might be able to see something truly devastating in our minds without actually visually witnessing it. The death scenes in set-up aren’t anything that hasn’t been done, so there’s nothing other than the handicap of a rating that explains their absence from the torture that Tree goes through. Certainly the idea is to cater to a wider audience that includes the very teens that will shuffle out the cash to see this movie, but if it comes at the mercy of hindering the impact of said product, wouldn’t it just be better to go with artistic integrity?

To counteract some of the limitations of horror, the film’s presentation is capable enough in carrying the workload between editing and camera work to play soundly into the pleasures of pacing that constantly keep this one moving. The chase scenes, particularly the ones in the hospital, are thankfully given the choice to film in standard instead of handheld. I feel like the merits of this decision gives us the ability to capture more of not just Tree and the antagonist roughing each other up, but also the set pieces in environment that play to everything around them. The editing sticks with quick-cuts that present the rapid fire progression of the next day, and I like that because there’s a tight-rope that the editing team walk during a film like this on when to cut into each death scene. If they cut too early, there won’t be enough indulgence for the audience, but if they cut too late it can give away too much of what is left to imagination. This editing ratio is perfect, and I give much praise to the work of Gregory Plotkin for implementing his stamp of precision.

THE VERDICT – ‘Happy Death Day’ is never really scary, but it is campy enough as a comedy to treat viewers to enough entertaining factors to eat away at the horror limitations by its safe rating. The star making performance of Rothe, as well as its hearty message to live each day like it’s your last is one that comes with great eye-opening value for a film that I originally dismissed as just another cheap Blumhouse offering. It’s a lot like Halloween candy that you get every year; it might not be safe or good for you, but the sweet tooth from within demands that you indulge in it for this time of year.

6/10

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The world’s most intricate group of spies become that much more versatile in ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” introduced the world to Kingsman, an independent, international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion, whose ultimate goal is to keep the world safe. In “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” our heroes face a new challenge. When their headquarters are destroyed and the world is held hostage, their journey leads them to the discovery of an allied spy organization in the US called Statesman, dating back to the day they were both founded. In a new adventure that tests their agents’ strength and wits to the limit, these two elite secret organizations band together to defeat a ruthless common enemy, in order to save the world, something that’s becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy (Taron Egerton). ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ is written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, and is rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, adult language throughout and some sexual material.

Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 surprise hit of the season, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ was everything and more for an action comedy that introduced us to how cool this secret society can really be, in all of its gadgets and gizmos that bring up the rear of a taut shoot-em-up. For all of its positives and negatives, ‘The Golden Circle’ falls into the category that I refer to as ‘Sequelitis’. This refers to a series second chapter that is bigger in budget, overdone in celebrity cameos, and thrives off of the material that made the initial effort original in its depiction. This film definitely does all of this in a manner that feels like Vaughn just can’t help but show off his studio approved budget that is nearly twice of the 81 million that he was approved for in the first film. Kingsman doesn’t need all of this if the fun is still there, which for the most part I can say that ‘The Golden Circle’ is still an infectious good time that combines the pacing of a spy thriller with the fun atmosphere of a modern day comic book. But getting out of the shadow of its original, better structured predecessor is an inescapable trap that Vaughn places himself in and can’t find the secret door out.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours is certainly no easy feat for any film to accomplish, so as a screenwriter Vaughn has an uphill battle to climb with keeping the audience firmly paced while riding on the edge of their seats for some top budget theatrics in fight sequences. We’ll get to the latter in a bit, but the former gives us enough material in subplots and adversity for our fellow Kingsman to fill two movies. This feeling is made even more obvious with hiking across the globe multiple times during the film that doesn’t add up to the Kingsman’s American invasion within this plot. For my thought process, I would’ve left Firth’s return as an integral part of a possible third film, giving it time to breathe and effect the psychological growth of Eggsy for an entire film. It’s easy to find so much of this redundancy in exposition expendable, especially for that of Moore’s antagonist Poppy who overstays her welcome almost immediately. So much so that as the antagonist, the film forgets about her for nearly an hour before returning to these scenes only when it’s mandatory to advance the chase. The pacing feels particularly uneven between the second and third acts when we stick to one landscape mission for extended periods of time, giving us little room to breathe when a scene feels like it has run for far too long. It’s easy to see where you could cut a half hour off of this movie and not lose a thing, mainly because this introduction to the statesman feels like an origin story that the film isn’t fully committed to pursuing. Outside of Pascale’s Whiskey character, there’s very little impact or weight that any of them have to this chapter, making their introductions all the more time filler.

Where the material does work is in the underlying drug epidemic plot that Vaughn springs upon us almost halfway into the movie. I found this not only relatable to the current problems that are bending and breaking our own real world structure, but also responsibly bitter in the thought-provoking stance that Vaughn proposes to the audience watching at home. Matthew’s war on the current drug trade reveals how this problem, no matter how dirty or ineffective that it feels to some of us, is our problem, and it’s ours to deal with by our own compassion. This gives the film something more than just a typical action flick that many of us have come to see, and I always grade with the curve when a film that is supposed to be dumbed down can lean in from time to time with a poignant approach. The mentor approach from Eggsy to Harry is also one that elated me with the kind of heart and chemistry that proves how far these protagonists have grown in two movies. Harry feels like the dad that Eggsy never had, and where ‘The Secret Service’ was Eggsy’s teenage years, ‘The Golden Circle’ feels like our grown man who has finally bloomed into a leader, and oh boy what a transformation it has been.

As for the action sequences, they are still shot eloquently enough in high definition to radiate that of a comic book feel. Where I feel that Vaughn succeeds in his choreography and camera style as opposed to someone like Zack Snyder is that Vaughn can slow things down just enough to where it doesn’t feel like a matrix spoof and gear the audience ready for the blow that is about to be dealt, while bracing for what’s to come next in the background. Because of this, the first scene of the film is a personal highlight for me, echoing to the sounds of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ for enticement. If the action sequences have one problem, particularly later in the film, it’s that their C.G capabilities can sometimes manufacture the scenes to look like one collective take. Where this feels like a problem is some of the illustrations of characters can sometimes come off as jarringly hollow, and the punches feel like they lack detection outside of their quick movements. Thankfully, the camera angles stay consistent and everything is telegraphed precisely from the audience, but some of these scenes could use more of a practical approach to their gain, leaving a lot of the big screen magic to the pros who train for this kind of thing.

On the subject of those pros comes some winners and losers on the grand spectrum of this A-list ensemble that hit the screen. First the positives; Taron Eggerton is again a delicious slice of personality and confidence that highlight how far this troublemaker has come from his early days. Taron is the one performer we have seen transform the most, so we feel beneficial any time his tinsel overtakes center stage in going toe to toe with some very accomplished actors. Colin Firth is also a welcome breath of fresh air, even if I didn’t fully agree with how he was brought back in this film logically. As a performer, Firth’s soft spoken demeanor embody everything that Kingsman stand for, but it’s in his slow-peeling psyche of a man trying to get everything back where we embrace that vulnerability for once and show a slice of a man who is broken and on the way to being fixed. Pedro Pascale as Whiskey is probably the best new addition to the team, mainly because he’s the one that doesn’t feel like just a cameo. There’s a bit of a tortured past with his character, and Pascale’s morale disposition makes his wild card of a character a thrill to watch when comparing actions to that of the Kingsman. Outside of these three, everyone else was quite expendable to me. There’s celebrity singer cameos for the hell of it that very much overstay their welcome, and then there’s celebrity cameos who are supposed to be an integral part of the script, but don’t make enough of an impact due to shoddy screen time dedication. To this degree, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, and especially Julianne Moore are all pointless to this film. Moore is the antagonist, yes, but her character is so poorly written and a bit of a male shovanist infused female that it’s easy to ever engage in her squeaky clean villain with something lurking beneath the eyes. Moore is an amazing actress, but I found her performance here to be unconvincing and forceful to the degree that the film’s momentum stalls every time she’s on screen.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Golden Circle’ is still the same fun and wild ride helmed by Vaughn that made its predecessor one of the most talked about movies of 2014. But this overstuffed and often times over-budgeted production can take something unique for all of its original quirks and transform it into something nearly unrecognizable for its convoluted directions. I do feel that there is enough magic in the performances of the trio listed above, as well as a timely social message, to expell a majority of the negatives, but if there is a third movie, it would be best to not overthink what puts this sassy satire ahead of the bullet.

6/10

The Lego Ninjago Movie

The world of childhood imagination comes to life once again, this time in the art of the ninja underworld in ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’. the battle for NINJAGO City calls to action young Master Builder Lloyd, aka the Green Ninja (Dave Franco), along with his friends, who are all secret ninja warriors. Led by Master Wu (Jackie Chan), as wise-cracking as he is wise, they must defeat evil warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), the Worst Guy Ever, who also happens to be Lloyd’s dad. Pitting mech against mech and father against son, the epic showdown will test this fierce but undisciplined team of modern-day ninjas who must learn to check their egos and pull together to unleash their inner power of Spinjitzu respectfully. ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is directed by first-timer Charlie Bean, and is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.

The lively innocence of the lego world is back for a third helping of childlike storytelling and imagination like only they can provide. Over the last couple of years, the lego property has given us not just exciting kids pictures, but also something that even the oldest of family members can enjoy with timely humor and visual spectrums that are second to none. This time the property takes advantage of one of their most popular toy lines, in the Lego Ninjago Force. The line itself has a television show that currently airs, and while I don’t think it is imperative that you must watch that show to get the references here, the film more than feeds into the aspects of that show, offering plenty of winks and nods to the source material. The biggest problem that this film faces is not competition from a lackluster Summer of underwhelming kids movies, but within itself and how it fares to 2014’s ‘The Lego Movie’ and 2017’s ‘The Lego Batman Movie’. To have two of these films in the same year will offer likely comparisons, and while ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is still a fun dip in immersive waters, it fails to hold the consistency of its predecessors, making this the Iron Fist of the Lego film world.

Lets get the positives out of the way first, and focus on the visual presentations which once again thrill and awe us with flawless animation. A majority of this film is again used with the lego toy line, and it really never fails to amaze me just how detailed the backdrops and landscapes detail even the most minute of properties to get it all correct. What’s impressive to me here isn’t so much the visual features, which are oscar-worthy, but more in the camera work that feels like it is at its most experimental peak with the series. Considering there is so much going on with so many monsters and gigantic robots flying through the air, the camera work follows along cohesively without too much shaking camera effects to throw us off. Throughout the weaving of building and towers, you really get a sense of the urgency that carries itself in the atmospheres, and it all really just makes you wish these tiers in effects were able to be used more effectively in live action genre flicks. The color palate is also jaw-dropping, especially with the wardrobes of the characters who come across as a Power Rangers of sorts with their varying colors to represent their inner gifts.

With the setting, the setup is the same as ‘The Lego Movie’, and for anyone who saw that film you will understand the deeper intention of what is really going on here. My problem with it however, is that once you understand the real life setting of where this is all taking place and between what characters in the movie, it starts to add up how this wouldn’t be possible in such a limited amount of space. Even the widest suspension of disbelief doesn’t sync accordingly to the kind of pulled back practicality that the first film in this series showed us, and I would’ve been fine with this just being a stand alone animation film that doesn’t depend on human architects to tell its story. Aside from this, I never had a problem with anything included within this stage. Even the C.G additional work is used in such a practicality that it never overrides or feels jarringly artificial when compared to the practical properties of these toys. It proves once again that Lego is doing things with animation that serves them as the only consistent competition to Pixar at this point.

Where the film does go wrong for me is during the second act, in which we feel the sacrifice of humor for a more enveloping dramatic swing on the forefront. Up until this point, the first act was the very best intro in the series for my money, complete with smooth pacing and articulate exposition. But the second act makes us all feel the sharp turns that seven different screenwriters on the same set can push it. Too many cooks in the kitchen is one expression, but these cooks jerk this story harshly to a setting and direction in plot that make it feel like two opposing properties are being conjoined together. I certainly have no problem with a film giving us a heartfelt center, and the material for father and son is as real as anything could possibly get, but too much reliance upon that sentimentality spoils the atmosphere in which it once felt like anything could be discussed and dissected even in the name of harsh consequences. This period of the film feels so sharply dry and opposing that of whoever wrote the first forty minutes of the movie, and I wish it hadn’t tried to override so much of what made it a delightful sit early on. Does it get any better in the finale? Kind of. It’s at least back to the kind of tone that we felt in the first half of the movie, but this too makes the second act stick out even more for its jarringly compromising disposition towards the rest of the film.

On some of that comedy, there are some quick-cuts that burned deep within my enjoyment early on, but the handicaps of repetition can sometimes make this feel like a Seth Macfarlane production. If one thing is clear, it’s that this film doesn’t have the kind of endless material in satirical firepower that ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ did, but the decision to slow the jokes down to grant the viewer more time to soak everything in is much appreciated in not being rushed to the next scene. This is vital not only to the pacing of the overall storytelling, but also to the joke’s release, for when you have more time to omit the laughter that those jokes deserve, you don’t have to worry about missing the start of the next one. If you did miss a particular joke, fear not, the film will say it at least one or two more times to remind you how good it hit the first time. It feels like a friend who launched a zinger, but then burned it into the atmosphere of redundancy, each time it’s being told losing a little bit more of its offensive sting.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ might be the current black sheep in the trilogy of Lego offerings, but it’s only because the precedent set by the first two films was exceptionally high in bringing together the universes of kids and adults in the theater. The film’s biggest obstacle is overcoming too many minds coming together under the same script that can derive and contradict the film’s smooth beginning and ending, making a middle that is every bit as sentimental as it is comically dry. Even still, the artistic expression is still there, and the film’s scope in presentation snaps together like its miniature counterparts. Two films in one year might be too much for this property, and unfortunately this one takes the bite in head-to-head competition.

6/10

Leatherface

The saw is family, and the origin of that family is given a feature length film depiction in ‘Leatherface’. Set prior to the events in the 1974 classic ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, the film takes place in the endless out-backs of Texas during the early days of the infamous Sawyer family. The youngest child, Jed, is sentenced to a mental hospital after a suspicious incident leaves the vengeful sheriff’s (Stephen Dorff) daughter dead. Ten years later, while still institutionalized, the Sawyer teen kidnaps a young nurse and escapes with three other inmates. Pursued by authorities including the deranged sheriff out to avenge his daughter’s death, Sawyer goes on a violent road trip from hell, molding him into the monster now known as Leatherface, a psychopathic chainsaw-wielding killer who dons the faces of his tortured victims for keeping. ‘Leatherface’ is co-directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, and is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, adult language and some sexuality/nudity.

There’s certainly no shortage of Leatherface material for cinephiles to debate for the next several decades, so why not one more? ‘Leatherface’ feels like the peaceful proposal between the worlds of the original four films, the two Michael Bay remakes, and that AWFUL 2014 3D film, and for the majority of it, I can say that this film packed enough of a punch to make me believe that there is still plenty of fuel in the Texas Chainsaw fire as long as the right creative force is backing it. Here, we have the duo who helmed ‘Inside’, one of the most deranged and violent films of its respective year, and their presence is definitely felt in this R-rated gore fest that restores some (for lack of a better word) guts to the franchise. Sure, there’s no necessity in telling the origin of the man behind the mask, and the best mysteries should be left as just that, but the film takes some surprisingly original stances in crafting a completely new Texas Chainsaw Massacre film, something that hasn’t seemed possible in the last twenty years. Is it great? No, but with incredibly low standards, this straight to Video on Demand offering has plenty to satisfy the cravings of its carnivores.

This plot is crafted as a bit of a whodunnit? mystery as to the identity of Jed, and which of these escaped kids from the mental asylum he really is. They’ve all been given new names to avoid their tragic pasts, so what I really dug about this intention is that we approach the most dangerous among them in the same way that his mother does in the film when she tries to see him ten years after he was taken from her. So in a sense, we too are put in the shoes of the head of this sadistic family, and what I appreciate about that aspect is that it immediately pulls you in to pay attention to the grizzly details, something that I have no qualms about saying that worked. Another surprising direction is that this is the first film in the franchise that follows along with our antagonist for the entirety of the film, an aspect that many of these big horror franchises have been fearful of to give away the mystique. In this aspect, we should learn more about him than we actually do in the film, but sadly one way that this film drops the ball is in learning how much we actually do learn once the mystery of his identity is solved. I won’t give away much, but it’s clear that he does have perhaps the least amount of exposition when locked up, but I was still surprisingly wrong with my choice of who it was, so maybe the plot twists alone will be enough to overcome the minimals.

As far as artistic touch is concerned for visual spectrum, this one caters more to the Michael Bay kind of filter. There’s a yellowish tint to give off the impression of throwback cinema, and to me this did more favors in the day rather than the sequences at night that are often too dark to register fully what is going on. This is especially the case with the final confrontation because it ends the film on kind of an 83 minute low, happening too briefly and poorly lit to ever leave us with that big consequence feeling. One aspect of the presentation stands out like a sore thumb even against the miniscule problems that I just mentioned, and that is the horrendous editing choices. For the majority, it stays safe and conventional, but every once in a while a scene will do a double take quick cut that will show the same person to a cut that feels like a noteable amount of time has passed. This became annoying because I started to look for it and seek it out in these scenes, and like a bootleg copy of a DVD that was recorded with a blocker on the box, the film skipped to this poor judgement almost to a timely capacity.

I mentioned earlier that this film is rated R, and what other way could you possibly construct a Leatherface story? If you’re a gore hound like me, you will be very well satisfied with the film’s unapologetic presentation to blood-splattering thrills that constantly seem to elevate and one-up the impact of their volume. The sound pushes these details even further, filling in the blanks in imagination for what you don’t see accordingly. This film gives a gun that crisp feeling so smooth that you can almost hear the oil being burned within it, and for a minimal budget of less than five million dollars, I am greatly impressed with what this film did with its limitations. Each aspect of shock topped the previous, but eventually it did become too much. There’s a sex scene in this film that gets to be a little much, and I could’ve done without the context-less angle of this particular scene that added nothing to the terror, and was just disgusting for the sake of it.

As expected, there’s not a lot to be commended performance-wise for this splatter-fest, but the work of Dorff as this revenge-driven sheriff is a thrill to watch even if you don’t agree with his stance morally. He has a bit of a Sherriff Wydell feel from ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ to him, so this certainly doesn’t feel like new or revolutionary directions, but Stephen is always someone who embraces a character fully to the point where it feels like he has been that person in real life for years. What’s so enticing about his performance is that you can almost see the blurred lines of justice and sloth coming together to form this shell of a man who is still reeling from this devastating loss that plagued him ten years ago. Other than Dorff, there’s not a lot to be pointed out here. I did enjoy Lili Taylor as the virtual commander of this legendary family, but the lack of focus and depth that these directors have for her kind of falls flat when the movie heads her way. Her screen time is quite limited, and that’s a shame because the best parts of the movie for me are when she’s colliding with the rival sheriff, but this film would rather follow the escaped patients mayhem, then the cops reaction. Rinse, wash, repeat.

THE VERDICT – For all of its limited budget and originality constraints, ‘Leatherface’ simply should not work, but the origin story played by way of a 90’s mystery killer component certainly gives way to 83 minutes of blood-soaked surprises that pushes forth with the best Chainsaw film in thirty years. Some production quality aspects should be left in the closet of experimentation, and the repetition overall in the second act is definitely the weakness creatively, but the injection of French style gore with a thirst for splatterpunk, breathes life back into this franchise eight films deep and proves that this saw still has a lot of gas left in it.

6/10

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

The former Vice President of America is back at it again, this time with dire urgency for his cause riding high amongst a new naive president. ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ takes place more than A decade after ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ brought climate change into the heart of popular culture in 2006. In this riveting and educational follow-up that shows just how close we are to a real energy revolution, Vice President Al Gore continues his tireless fight, traveling around the world training an army of climate champions and influencing about international climate policy. With the elected four year incoming of president Donald Trump, Cameras follow him behind the scenes in moments private and public, funny and poignant, as he pursues the empowering notion that while the stakes have never been higher, the perils of climate change can be overcome with human ingenuity and passion. ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ is directed by the team of Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen, and is rated PG for thematic elements and some troubling images.

Whether you like or dislike Al Gore and everything that he stands for politically, you must applaud the man for taking such a general interest in standing up for the well being of our planet when no one else will. In ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power’, Gore continues that march with a 95 minute lecture on where we as a society have advanced or decreased in progress over the last decade when it comes to solar energy, climate change, and overall infrastructure for those countries not as fortunate as the bigger ones when it comes to spending. I myself did enjoy the first film, and found this one to be an equally insightful piece, despite some problems with the structure of the documentary that definitely peaked out some less than honorable intentions creatively with where the film’s material should be firmly planted. For anyone who hasn’t seen the first film, nor knows much about overall climate change, this movie will be A competent enough companion piece to opening your eyes for the first time about the urgency of time running out with each passing year. A fact that Gore himself narrates passionately throughout the picture in an unapologetic front.

As a host, Gore certainly feels like the right man for the job. Since losing the 2000 presidential election, Al has taken a stance in witnessing first-hand the kinds of problems shaping our world that other political figures have turned a blind eye to. Over the course of this picture, his narration, shaped with some exceptional editing work behind the lens, details in full the kind of warning signs that are plaguing our world if we refuse to act quickly, and it certainly feels effective coming from someone who not only spoke at a few conferences over those ten years documented in the film, but also wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in searching out the truths of these problems first hand on land. My only problem with Gore as a figure is that the documentary itself might be better fleshed out if it spoke to the audience through just voice narration, and not so much visual narration because it can at times feel slightly distracting when the film pauses its progress to document several pieces of Gore’s history as a political figure, and current day patron to those with a similar cause. Quite too often, the film kind of becomes The Al Gore Show, and that’s fine from a man with so much passion for the causes, but If I wanted to watch an informative documentary on the 43rd Vice President of the United States, I would seek one out first hand.

I did mention briefly that the technical work of this picture definitely does a service to understanding and captivating the mind-sets of everyone watching at home, and the overall aesthetic work feels very rich for a documentary presentation. The camera angles used in capturing the polar icecaps melting effects, as well as the historical stock footage from landscapes like India, Africa, and even Miami, Florida who have all been ravaged by free-flowing water, serves a greater purpose in supporting fact in a visual capacity, and it couldn’t be put together any more impactful than that. Also, the musical score from composer Jeff Beal certainly adds an element of impending doom to go hand-in-hand with Gore’s lectures, while channeling the ominous tones of an epic disaster flick that really feeds into A ‘life imitating art’ kind of feel. Typically I review around ten documentaries a year, and while this one isn’t the best overall, I can tell you that it is an early favorite for technical mastery of that particular field. For sight and sound, you couldn’t ask for A better experience that (like our own world’s shifting) never stops moving around us.

As an independent voter, one of the jobs that I take seriously as a film reviewer with films like these are if they cater into a political party’s agenda, and with that I give you the single biggest sting that this movie’s final grade will take on its audience. If you’re Democrat, you won’t feel a thing, but for the rest of us there’s the obvious dropping of responsibility method that Gore pokes and prods at with the sensitivity of an electric eel. How do I determine it propaganda? Well, the film has no qualms about singling out presidents Bush Jr and Trump for their roles in ignoring policy that could otherwise save some of these disaster problems, but then completely ignores president Obama entirely for what role he played during these events. Considering the disasters that this film captures are over the last ten years, and Obama was president for eight of those ten, it lacks the responsibility of pushing the envelope further in asking the kinds of questions where that Democratic president was when the Indian people were being rushed from their homes after terrifying tsunamis. To hammer this home, there’s even a message in the closing credits to vote smart, an ideal that doesn’t really need a reminder in this kind of film. Speaking of pushing the envelope, the film doesn’t present a countering side to all of the ground work that Gore is laying out. During the third act, we’re shown a big city in Texas who has gone 100% Renewable energy, but the question remains why other cities haven’t leached onto this method. I feel like the film drops the ball immensely in provocative journalism, leaving us all with only one side of the renewable argument. Even if the answer is as simple as companies lining their pockets with cash, that side deserves to be exposed, but directors Shenk and Cohen are a bit too clean cut to tug at that tempting string, even if it is the best thing for the direction of the film.

THE VERDICT – ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ isn’t inconvenient, it’s just simply ignorant of the entire opposing argument that it only hints at in the shadows. This sequel is effective enough in providing the material through haunting imagery, as well as mind-stirring facts, but lacks the grave urgency of the Academy Award winning first film that sealed up all of the angles without getting its hands dirty in the political spectrum. There’s plenty to enjoy about Shenk and Cohen’s informative piece from an awakening perspective, and if you are part of this cause it is definitely a must see, just expect the material of the planet as well as the political.

6/10

Batman and Harley Quinn

The Dark Knight of Gotham returns to the animated silver screen, joining forces with one of his greatest nemesis, in ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’. The city of Gotham comes under grave danger yet again, this time under a poisonous spell from Pamela Isley (Paget Brewster), better known to her enemies as ‘Poison Ivy’, that transforms citizens into plants. Faced with a dire urgency to save the day and find out quick about their powerful foe, Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing (Loren Lester) seek help in the most unlikely of sources; the sinisterly dangerous Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch). The trio collide on more than a few occasions, but learn quickly that they must achieve the common goal of taking down the Poison if they are to return to simpler times. ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ is rated PG-13 for scenes of action and peril, and is directed by Sam Liu, the very same man responsible for some classic animated hits from Marvel and D.C.

It’s become a bit of a tradition to get a new Batman animated feature every year now, with Fathom Events, and ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ continues that tradition with arguably the most clashing of ideals team-up that comes to mind. I was a bit disappointed with last year’s ‘The Killing Joke’, but If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve come to appreciate that film a bit more. That’s not to say that this newest chapter is anything terrible, it just feels so contradictive to what we have come to expect from the legendary D.C Animated Films productions that seem to get things correct when the live action movies do not. This film truly felt like one of those experiences where I myself had a lot of fun with what was transpiring on-screen, it just came at a steep price for those characters and concepts that I grew up, and how some less than stellar liberties were taken with their source materials. There’s some nice Easter Eggs in dialogue with past editions of Batman comics like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, or even the original live action television show, complete with BAM!!! and KAPOWS!!! hitting the screen. But this (like other straight to video releases from D.C) feels like a chapter in itself, and that will undoubtedly divide audiences looking for more of a callback from the 90’s animated series that might just be the single greatest Batman offering that has ever graced a screen.

At least the animation is still carefully detailed, depicting the Gotham skyline with that same crimson red filtering above that reflects that of the blood spilled in these corrupt streets. This is the one aspect where I feel like fans of all Batman walks will agree that D.C continues to amaze. During an age when other studios have moved onto 3D outlines for their presentations, this company remains faithful to the style and traditions that brought it to the dance, echoing a rich vibrancy in color coordination, while never overdoing it into making Gotham somewhere that it isn’t. This definitely feels like a callback to my childhood days of soaking in the colorful personalities and costume designs within this world, but there’s enough experimentation to commend it for never playing things moot. Some of the fire and smoke illustrations are really attention-grabbing, and continue to move even when it feels like a character is in pause because of the next stenciling in page flips. The finale too, sets the stage appropriately once again for the central antagonist, immersing us into an ever-changing swamp that changes the more the situation does.

One thing that I commend these films for is that even though their visual stylings and plots can be considered for younger audiences, the material is anything but. This film has no problems with earning its coveted PG-13 rating, as there is no shortage of adult language exchanges, mature content in both the violent and sexual nature, and reliance upon comedic stick that does overstay its welcome quite often. I understand that this story relies around the Quinn character, but I feel that the campy vibes that radiate from this film are ones that do a disservice instead of an enhancement in creativity. I did laugh a few times, but there are plenty of examples of material that drowns on for far too long, feeling like a comfortable padding for the barely 75 minute presentation that we got. A fine example is a scene that takes place in a gay bar, complete with Harley musical performance and Batman pick-up lines. Awkward? a bit, but it pales in comparison to yet another unwanted sex scene between two characters that is every bit as unnecessary as it is cringe-worthy. Hinting is fine, but when the film stops to subject us through these sequences, I can’t help but feel bad for the youth in the audience who were as embarrassed as I was when I saw my first sex scene at 9 years old in ‘Heavy Metal’.

The script too has its problems, mostly because once again there’s an uneven distribution of plot progression that hinders our antagonists. Based on the title, it’s obvious where the film is focused on, but without that compelling antagonist plot to combat them, their journey of unlikely teammates doesn’t gel the way it rightfully should. I did enjoy seeing the daily life of Harley in her environment, as I feel it offered us a look at the human side of Quinn that we rarely get to see, especially in the day and age of the ‘Suicide Squad’ further diminishing her character origins. One problem for me that picks up in this film where ‘The Killing Joke’ left off was the notable absence of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, or even Bruce Wayne from the fold. On the latter, I feel like it’s important to offer audiences an equal dose of Wayne versus Batman, and doing so only limits the true capabilities that a force like Conroy can convey. More on that later. A scene or two with these characters could certainly do wonders in keeping up the pacing, which does an alright enough job through the minimal runtime, but something great always beats something good. The ending left me slightly disappointed, mainly because one of the two antagonists is defeated in the most eye-rolling of ways, and the other we don’t get much of visually. The film just kind of ends with more of a hint than an actual result, and if this were a live action movie, I would be wondering if the production ran out of cash for a cheap exit like this one. Even the emergence of a D.C favorite hero felt completely unnecessary, especially when poked for fun by Harley herself after his brief cameo. It certainly doesn’t leave you with the greatest taste exiting this thing, and that is unfortunate because it feels like some solid performances were virtually wasted.

Upon them, Kevin Conroy is once again putting on a clinic as the defining Batman for all time. Conroy has been playing the caped crusader for over two decades at least, but he never feels redundant in his portrayals. Here, Batman is every bit as cryptic as he’s been, while playing into the intelligence that renders him a step above his competition. Kevin’s brooding release is everything that we have come to define for this character that was alive long before Conroy walked the Earth. Loren Lester adds up to one truly charismatic Nightwing. Not only was it nice to see this seldom used character depicted on screen, but Lester vocalizes him with the young adult side of the spectrum, falling for good looking girls, as well as fart jokes that he at least committedly plays into. The only performance I wasn’t in love with was Rauch as Quinn. The reason I say this is because she only truly channels one side of Harley, the jester, and leaves the menace in the closet for another actress to pull out. As the comedian Quinn, Rauch is well timed and articulately captures the Bensonhurst accent that is essential to the character. But I never felt the truly deranged side of her performance, and that missing link feels like only a half performance for such a complex antihero.

THE VERDICT – The newest Batman animated adaptation has wings, but quickly gets winded with a thin script, as well as an over-dependency of humorous material that frequently lets the air out of the mystic sails. Conroy and Lester make a solid team, and the animation is as good as it’s ever been. But the ambiguous ending leaves much more to be desired from the ambitious set-up that never quite quenches the thirst of the audience it narrates to. Even still, the nostalgic glee of the animated setting is worth the cost of a DVD evening in with your own Harley or Batman.

6/10

The Glass Castle

Author Jeannette Walls best selling memoir is brought to life in the big screen adaptation of ‘The Glass Castle’. A young girl who is the second of four children comes of age in a dysfunctional family of nonconformist nomads with a mother (Naomi Watts) who’s an eccentric artist and an alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson) who would stir the children’s imagination with hope as a distraction to their poverty and crumbling pieces from within. Years later, Jeannette recalls and confronts the past that has shaped the woman who is anything but similar to the ideals that she was raised upon. Now with a loving boyfriend and well paying job, Jeannette looks back with cynicism at a memorable childhood that alluded her. ‘The Glass Castle’ is directed and adapted by Destin Daniel Cretton, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some adult language and smoking.

Very few films feel like they have the kind of personal touch that ‘The Glass Castle’ has on that of its penning author. After all, she experienced these things first-hand, so every kind of experience that the movie takes us through feels dependent upon the cast of characters who soak in the exchange of awkwardness between them, and articulately present and define when that line of wrong has been crossed. As far as family films go, this was a starting, eye-opening experience for the kinds of effects that one person can have on a family, creating a chain reaction that lasts a lifetime. Cretton’s film feels like it speaks volumes to the idea that we only get one chance at this thing, so we better get it straight while we can. Throw in four children on top of it, and the consequences of one man with a load of personal demons inside of him feels even more effective and even valuable because he speaks and acts for all of them. I found this film to be good, but not great, and there’s a few reasons for that final reaction, but most of them deal with the kind of misguided approach that the screenplay takes to adapting the fragile source material.

Attitude is everything in a movie like this, so when a film that has all of these terrible things that these kids have to go through because of their radical parents and their unorthodox style of living, the choice to accommodate them with forced humor feels terribly irresponsible. The whole film isn’t like this of course, but from the very start of this movie I sensed a great danger for these kids and this family even if the family and the movie haven’t figured out that revelation yet. There’s a cheesy musical score by composer Joel P. West that offers these light supple tones that feel so out of place that they couldn’t be any more opposite of what transpires before our eyes. Like i said, this does improve with greater urgency as the film chugs along, but from this intro in the first act early on, too many people could be getting the wrong message about the importance that the right mood plays on this story that if done correctly could send goosebumps into moviegoers and hook them into these problems from the very get-go of this movie.

The story is presented with two running timelines, past and present, that dive into the kind of cause-and-effects that Jeannette’s current attitude towards her Father in particularly has played into. For me, the more well-rounded and complete aspect of the movie definitely deals with the past, as it is in that part of the story where we not only spend 6/8’s of the movie’s two hour runtime, but also where the long term setups in foreshadowing lie. It feels like we are watching this family who are a danger to themselves play out a worst case scenario every time on the screen, but the disposition of being a kid growing up with an alcoholic Father hit a few notes for me that were all too close to home. Because of the uneven nature of how the past and present are depicted in sequencing, the current timeline with Brie Larson can sometimes feel like the speedbump that chimes in anytime the story is beginning to get good. There is a solid layering of dramatic pull and tension in this film, and those aspects in trauma force these children to grow up a lot quicker than they probably had hoped. The past is thought of like a ghost ravaging in the winds of change here, and it supplants more proof that who we are destined to become relies heavily on the ideals and morals of the way we are raised, something that Walls as an author humbles us with time-and-time again throughout the film’s complex psychological resonance within our leading lady.

With the ending, I feel like too much in the material was contradictory towards the previous 90% of the movie that showed us how appalling that Harrelson’s character was as the Father. The film builds up this repertoire that we know will eventually lead to Jeannette’s emancipation from her struggling family, then spins an unexpected left turn in the film’s closing moments by telling us to cherish the man who for all purposes serves as the film’s antagonist. Because of this, there’s a real taste of Nicolas Sparks films that nauseated me to the point of even the most extremist of surrealistic circumstances. That clinging to family ideals that nods and winks and tries to unsubtly narrate to us that family, above everything else, comes first. Not a lot of damage is done on the overall finished grade, but it left me leaving the theater on kind of an unnatural note for a begging of sympathy that the movie simply didn’t earn. With more earnestness comes more rewards, and ‘The Glass Castle’ could use more tough love on the audience, especially if it is reaching for the tears. Aside from that main grievance, the film is also about twenty minutes too long, and could use some shaving around the early part of the third act, where the film transitions more to the current day format.

As for the performances, it is in this aspect where the film earns enough praise from this critic to give to warrant this a must-see for fans of the book. Brie Larson is probably only in the movie for a total of thirty minutes, but there’s so much anger and retribution that is screaming to get out in her now cool-and-collected exterior that hides the feelings of the story deep down inside. As an Oscar winner, Larson knows how to channel grief, and as Jeannette, we meet a woman who grows up long before her parents ever do. Woody Harrelson is spell-binding in this film, and feels like he gives a performance that is maybe just one grade under Oscar worthy as Rex, the alcoholic dictator of this family. Woody begins playing him with the light-hearted lug of a personality that we have come to love from Woody, but he knows when to turn it off at the switch of greying skies. Considering the character’s expositional backstory is almost ignored entirely in the movie, Harrelson adds layers at a time to a man who feels like he is too proud and stubborn to ever admit his wrongdoings. There’s a moment in the film when Harrelson is battling his alcoholism tied down to a bed, and for me it was as striking a scene as Leonardo Dicaprio in ‘The Basketball Diaries’ when he is fighting to stay off of drugs. Definitely Woody’s best work in a decade, and well worth the price of admission.

THE VERDICT – The glass is half full with this adaptation of a best-selling memoir, but it’s lumbering spilling hinders on the little things wrong with the structure and tone that could’ve made it an early contender for Oscar praise. Larson and Harrelson boost two emotionally layered performances that toe the line of past and present accordingly, and the film’s well-realized drama does impact quite a few scenes before it is too late. In the end, it was catharsis instead of comfort that I needed for the ending, and those ill-timed misfires in direction left this castle with a few cracks in its otherwise smooth surface.

6/10

Annabelle: Creation

Everyone’s least favorite doll from The Conjuring series returns, this time to explore the horrors of her origin, in ‘Anabelle: Creation’. Several years after the tragic death of their little girl (Samara Lee), grieving doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony Lapaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the doll maker’s possessed creation, Annabelle, sets her sights on the girls turning their shuttered shelter into a storm of terror. ‘Anabelle: Creation’ is directed by David F. Sandberg, and is rated R for horror violence, terror, and brief adult language.

David F. Sandberg has gotten off to quite the start in the beginning phases of his career, crafting two atmospheric horror films in last year’s ‘Lights Out’, and now being asked to turn around the ‘Annabelle’ sub-franchise. And while I feel that the former is definitely the better film between the two, Sandberg deserves all of the credit in the world for helming a passable entry to the ever-growing Conjuring extended universe that now has four films under its belt. One thing clear to me with this director is that tension is everything, and because of such, we are treated here to a time period piece in which environment is the most important pawn in this game of frights, making the most of every hair-raising moment on the arms of its moviegoers. Does it have problems? Of course. The same horror tropes that often overstay their welcome pop up on more than one occasion here, and prove that even as far as we’ve come from the horribly disappointing first film, we still have a long way to go before it competes with the equally enticing Conjuring chapters in the saga that have played a pivotal role in establishing how greatly anticipated and diverse that this genre can truly be.

Make no mistake about it, this sequel brings out the true technical approach to the many facets of production that went into this movie in supplanting it as something much greater than its predecessor. The sound mixing and editing is precise, echoing very little musical accompaniment, and instead letting the aura and awkwardness of the atmosphere surrounding this terrifying house play into what we’re enveloping. The lighting too is something that feels faithful to the time period, as well as beneficial to setting the mood creatively within the story. Since this is a film that appears to take place during the 50’s, the lighting doesn’t feel as advanced in color or magnifying glare, so even the daytime scenes show off this grainy filter that appropriately timestamps the era that the film had going for it.

The scares are definitely there for the newer and the old school students of the horror game who want to be chilled. Two sequences with grizzly imagery brought a solid wince or two from this longtime horror buff, and that’s saying a lot because I don’t frighten easily. A different approach to nightmare fuel used here is that this film surprisingly doesn’t use a lot of gore or blood in getting across its shocking visual details. Instead, so much of what is used here relies on these long takes that refuse to look away during even the most visceral of circumstances. This is very much a film that earns its coveted R-rating valuably and ethically, doing so without an overabundance of adult language or unnecessary violence that surround these kinds of films. The idea of these helpless children being sucked into something terrifying that they have no idea about is played into over-and-over again, supplanting itself with the kind of vulnerability and uncomfortable nature for our cast of characters that goes a long way in us as an audience seeing what is lurking in the shadows long before these kids ever do. Unfortunately, the jump scares don’t remove themselves from this film, and this movie doubles down on the approach that cheap scares equal lasting scares, a thought process that couldn’t be further from the truth the more that they occur. The movie has terrifying imagery to it, so the involvement of these cheap gags do nothing but cater to the inexperienced audience who know nothing of what it takes to channel true horror.

I greatly enjoyed the entirety of this mostly adolescent dominated cast of characters that carry the load effortlessly throughout. As the two best friends in the story, Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman offered these incredibly layered performances for these two female leads that slowly start to come undone the more that they learn about this doll and spirited presence. Wilson did a great job in last year’s ‘Ouija 2’, but I enjoyed her slightly more here because she is given the ability to show a variety of emotions that she must display over such a brief encounter with evil. In addition, Bateman might just be the stealer of the show here, breathing such helplessness one second and vibrant emptiness the next. As Janice, we meet a girl who is ripe for the picking because of her physical handicap, and it’s certainly not difficult to imagine why this spirit has first dibs on her. Besides the flawless repertoire from the kids, Anthony Lapaglia also does a stellar job as the Father of the deceased Annabelle. In this role, there is only a shadow of a man from the brief opening of the movie that we were growing quite comfortable with, and I felt that the progression of the Annabelle lore only progressed when he was on-screen, relaying the importance of his character for so much of the mystery in this story that had us gripping on.

As for the plot, I found most of the questions from the overly ambiguous original to be answered fruitfully here, but there was the occasional setup that didn’t make sense. For one, why this family who suffered a horrific incident with their daughter would bring a bus full of little girls to their house when they know a secret lurks between them. I found this angle to be very illogical, and its intention is never really answered beyond some momentary commotion that doesn’t amount to anything. What is valuable is that we finally get an answer to the importance of the doll in the scenario. Part of what made me angry during the first film was how this object did nothing to warrant the fear that we’re supposed to give, so in this sequel, the screenwriters addressed this topic wonderfully, giving us answers as to who does the killing when this doll doesn’t move for the entire movie. The pacing is solid, but is a little tough to get into from the opening of the film because a lot is kind of rushed by in the first few scenes instead of given time to properly digest, but the good stuff definitely comes to those who wait. The final thirty minutes is everything that you love about these movies because the confrontation between good and evil is a brutal one that keeps on coming. There are several false finishes to the ending that I thought worked magnificently, even if the ending did drag on for a scene too long, leaving that feeling of satisfaction from a solid scary movie removed a degree or two because it felt like the writers didn’t know how to end it properly.

THE VERDICT – Although still riddled with cheap jump scares and the occasional plot hole to its depreciation, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ should’ve been the only prequel to the two cherished Conjuring films that set forth quite the reputation for modern horror. The surprisingly valuable work from a top-notch child cast, as well as a springboard of technical achievements that shouldn’t be overlooked in a mood over gore direction that impresses, even if some familiarity of horror setups tends to rear its ugly head from time to time. Sandberg is definitely a horror director on the up, but this one does take some time for you to witness his exceptional qualities.

6/10

Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron returns to the silver screen to kick some more ass, this time as an intelligence agent known as ‘Atomic Blonde’. In 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the shifting of superpower alliances, the dangerous Lorraine Broughton (Theron), a top-level spy for MI6, is dispatched to Berlin to take down a ruthless espionage ring that has just killed an undercover agent for reasons unknown. Lorraine is ordered to cooperate with Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), and the two form an uneasy alliance, unleashing their full arsenal of skills in pursuing a threat that jeopardizes the West’s entire intelligence operation. But someone close is revealed to have set Lorraine up, so now she must take down the entourage while finding her mysterious betrayer. ‘Atomic Blonde’ is directed by David Leitch, and is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.

Being that ‘Atomic Blonde’ is set during the late 80’s, at the dawn of a new era in Russia, there’s much to be said about this distinct setting that clutches itself around the look and feel of Leitch’s picture. The movie features a very weathered kind of look behind the lens of cinematography that faithfully paints the picture of the mundane exterior shots, but also the neon interiors that made up eastern Europe during this age. This film definitely casts an easily immersive experience to surrender yourself to the kind of panic and uncertainty that filled the air during the fall of the Berlin Wall, and If this isn’t enough, a vibrantly echoed soundtrack of 80’s new wave hits more than audibly set the stage for some graphic chaos that never relents on its opposition. Despite the music generating more than a healthy dose of toe-tapping from this critic, I was alarmed at the jarring mixing that was being done to the levels of its volume that would jump from time to time. Most of this can be explained by the music feeling like a tool to increase the intensity of a chase or fight sequence, but I refer more to the toll that it took on my ears as it picks and chooses various times during a single sequence when to increase and decrease the decibals. Picture a child manning the control switches in a car; it is that alarming.

From a storytelling perspective, this is basically an inquisition scene to that of Theron’s Broughton for the chaos that has ensued over the last ten days. There are a lot of problems that I have with this perspective, mainly that the editing of present day and past flashbacks are so jumpy that I often had trouble reminding myself where I was at in the script, but more so in the flaws of storytelling that the writers have no better way to cover up. For example, one of my favorite cliches in this particular kind of setup is how a character can explain in such vivid detail everything that went down during a scene and location where she wasn’t at. Then there’s the chronological sequencing which went off of the rails more than once. There were more than a few scenes in the film where there would be a flashback within a flashback, and it left me aghast at just how overcomplicated these simple tasks performed themselves. Thankfully, the jumpy nature does settle down during a second half, which was definitely the movie’s strengths once it has riddled itself of all of the gimmicks from the first act of the movie that handicapped it at nearly every turn.

A lot of the reason for this is the big twist midway through that does add a much needed dose of intrigue into the redundancy that was muddling the progression. This becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse thriller between Theron and her mysterious antagonist who prefers to work in the shadows of betrayal. The mystery itself isn’t that difficult to figure out thanks to a trailer that was more than slightly revealing, but it is the best case scenario for the many directions that this film could’ve taken us. It’s during this welcome mood change early on in the third act where I gained my biggest appreciation for the film because of its urgency that couldn’t have come at a better moment. As for the finale itself, it does have one too many endings that further prolong and test the patience of the audience who were satisfied with the conclusion ten minutes prior. There is a twist too many that never equals the importance of that of the betrayal twist, but I can at least commend a film that always throws a monkey wrench to its audience who thought this one would again take the easy way out, an avenue that this blonde never takes.

What blew me away was the artistic integrity of the film, particularly in that of the fireworks in front of and behind the camera during some gritty fight scenes. If you’re an action junkie like me, this film has got you completely covered in all of the bone-crunching carnage that keeps on kicking. The fight choreography is superb, showcasing the determination that Theron puts in to become this character. Charlize does perform each and every one of her devastating moves, and it pays off especially well during a stairway fight that is articulately timed. The sound mixing too, during this sequence plays a pivotal role in magnifying the true impact of every hit or kick that our characters in view soak in. The camera work here is a marvel of visual decadence, and being a student of that Inarritu style, I appreciate when a sequence isn’t afraid to leave the camera on during long periods of time before cutting. The stairs scene isn’t one entirely unedited sequence, but it is manipulated in such a way that it never gives you time for breath. It, like the endless number of bodies that stack up, never relents on pulse-setting punishment to kick the adrenaline into overdrive.

Of course all of this would fall apart without the work of an impressive collection of Hollywood heavy hitters at the helm in portraying these vibrant personalities, especially that of Theron and McAvoy who are committed to their roles. The film flows the best with charisma when this duo are on-screen together, as it offers a chance to see two method actors who really play into these outlines and make them their own. Theron as Broughton is everything that female ass-kickers in 2017 are all about. Lorraine is of course beautiful and dangerous, but the film takes valuable time to appreciate her cunning intellect along the way, proving that a woman can have beauty AND brains to get the job done. Theron says so much with a cold stare that there is never really any need for the long-winded threats that follow, but we’re of course happy to oblige on such a commanding presence that only Charlize could hone. McAvoy too equals Theron’s leadership as Percival, a flawed womanizer agent with a personality second to none. James is definitely one of my favorite actors, and while Percival isn’t his most memorable role from 2017, it is the one that allows us to marvel at the man who omits so much charm from a single crooked smile. In addition to these two, the great Toby Jones and John Goodman round out the cast, and add prestige to this cult-like graphic novel to please its droves of longtime fans.

THE VERDICT – Though narratively flawed at nearly every turn, there is enough artistic merit in ‘Atomic Blonde’ to indulge in its ass-kicking romp that constantly keeps the charge moving. Theron and McAvoy are two of the modern day greats, and the inclusion of 80’s pop music Americana at their devastating disposal offers a throwback that is equally as visually enticing. The second half is definitely much better than the banal first half, but I’m not quite ready to call this the next Bond or Wick without some much needed consistency.

6/10

The Big Sick

The cultural differences of two smitten lovers gets pushed from-and-center during a trying time known as “The Big Sick”. Based on the real-life courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the movie tells the story of Pakistan-born aspiring comedian Kumail (Nanjiani), who connects with grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) after one of his routine standup sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing after the two find it difficult to be apart from one another, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents. When Emily is beset with a mysterious illness, it forces Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) whom he’s never met, while dealing with the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart. “The Big Sick” is directed by Michael Showalter, and is rated R for adult language, including some vulgar sexual references.

“The Big Sick” is not a Judd Apatow written or directed movie, but it is produced by the critically acclaimed mastermind of movies like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Trainwreck”, and while he holds the minimalist of responsibilities on this production, his stamp is clearly evident in Michael Showalter’s picture. This is the latest in a growing trend of film trailers these days that market a movie one way, only for it to be a totally different animal when you sit down and actually watch it. To say that “The Big Sick” is a comedy, might be completely irresponsible. This is very much a dramedy with a sprinkling of romance thrown in for good measure, and what could be considered a bit of a Frankenstein concoction does have its overall moments of light-hearted warmth and tender compassion that makes this one a worthy date night choice for him and her. Apatow has done this a lot in his career, substituting consistency in comedy for an appreciated level of heart, but Showalter doesn’t seem capable enough of balancing the same elements cohesively, instead opting for one tone at a time in each act. The film for me was decent, But even still, the run time of just over two hours proves to be a comedy’s undoing, and this definitely feels like one of those films where the problems become more evident the longer it rolls on.

Without a doubt, the film’s strongest point for me was during the first act, when we meet and establish the growing chemistry between our two leads that sets up future events. This feels most faithful to the kind of film that we were supposed to get from the trailers, and it definitely serves as a comedy during these peaks, with precision in comedic timing, as well as (thankfully) a minimal offering of improv dialogue. This is clearly a movie in which we know where it’s headed because of the title, as well as it being a real life love story, so I appreciated it so much more when the real life couple who penned this script slowed down and took their time developing the elements that made their union intriguing. The contrast between their traditions and families, with Kumail being from Pakistan, clearly plays an inconvenient entanglement to what he feels he deserves out of life, and the movie is never afraid to back away from our two protagonists to observe and depict what an Indian family considers valuable. Informative, while still being poignantly clever, “The Big Sick” felt like it could only get better from here. Then it happened.

For how much fun and expression that resides within the first half of the film, the second half takes a sharp left turn that has it submerged in too serious of waters to keep up its wit and charm factor. When you look at a film like “Trainwreck”, there is a point where it becomes strictly a romantic movie, but it never completely abandons what brought its butts into the seats in the first place; comedy, and sadly “The Big Sick’s” dry closing moments elated the air slowly out of the inflated tires that kept this film chugging along. Most notably, the stark change in Kumail’s character to one of growing mature decision maker feels like a cop-out on how we got there in the first place, especially considering he has all but moved on from Emily before he gets the call that she is in the hospital. The ending itself feels like it should go on for fifteen more minutes, but the run time tells us otherwise. This leads me to believe that some of the best and most fascinating points to this couple’s story is omitted from the film to instead give us a kind of “While You Were Sleeping” direction with her parents. If this wasn’t enough, the stand-up scenes, while important to Kumail’s backstory, offer very little weight in the overall grand picture with the film’s sudden change in direction. To say there is an overabundance of stand-up scenes is putting it lightly. A couple of scenes are fine, but there’s so much out of this direction of the script that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor, and it feels like the film drags the most during these lesser-sporadic drop-in’s. I’m also not sure if it’s a point that real life is dramatically funnier, but like all Apatow movies in a stand-up club, the comedy inside isn’t funny at all. When the comedians in the film miss their mark, how can we expect the regular every day person to meet it?

One aspect that doesn’t disappoint however, is the unabashed chemistry between Kumail and Zoe Kazan, as well as the all-around performances that kept this movie from the waters that were slowly sinking it. Kazan in particular is starting to get more female leads in her resume, and it’s totally deserving. As Emily, we see a down-to-Earth young adult who lives fast, but knows when to turn on the sweetness to her character. We fall in love with her the same way Kumail does, and her presence on the film is definitely noticeable during her absence. It’s crazy to think that Nanjiani has now done over twenty feature length films in his young career, but this is clearly his best performance because he lived through these events that shaped him. It’s rare that we get the real life figure playing his character in the movie, but Kumail proves that there was no choice better, with a dry stick and stone-faced reactions that will bring a hearty chuckle to your responses each time he’s on. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are also a delight, and speak volumes to the actuality of a married couple that have been together for far too long. Hunter is a firecracker, exuding a tough presence outside, while crumbling inside at the world that is coming down around her. Romano kind of plays to the “Good cop” here, opening up to Kumail a lot warmer than his female counterpart. Together, the two feel authentic based on their speech patterns and arguments about something so little that turns into a mountain.

THE VERDICT – “The Big Sick” wasn’t quite the cinematic explosion for me that critics were raving about, but there is enough laughs and romantic delight from Nanjiani and Kazan during the first half to recommend it during a quiet evening in. Had the second half not fallen so flat in personality and trimmed about fifteen minutes off of its final runtime, then Showalter’s film about appreciating the pleasantries that we have when they’re available to us might have been the perfect project to combat those shallow romantic genre offerings that lay it on too thick. Even still, this true story has enough turns to keep its gears constantly grinding through the thick of stand-up distractions.

6/10

Despicable Me 3

The Minions and Gru are back for the third installment in Illumination’s treasured trilogy, simply titled “Despicable Me 3”. After being fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to take down the latest bad guy to threaten humanity, Gru (Steve Carrell) finds himself in the midst of a major identity crisis. But when a mysterious stranger shows up to inform Gru that he has a long-lost twin brother (Also Carrell)-a brother who desperately wishes to follow in his twin’s despicable footsteps-one former super-villain will rediscover just how good it feels to be bad, all the while stopping an incredibly outdated villain named Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), who will stop at nothing to rid the world of its riches. “Despicable Me 3” is directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, and is rated PG for action and rude humor.

I wasn’t much of a fan with 2015’s “Minions”, mainly because it felt like overkill on a one-note joke that doesn’t have enough fuel for an entire motion picture fire. It wasn’t terrible, but felt like a noticeable drop-off from the creative quality of “Despicable Me 1 and 2”, lacking much of the original firepower in energy and comedic timing that we’ve come to know and love from these lovable lugs. And now with “Despicable Me 3” on the horizon, we return front-and-center to the world of Gru, The Minions, Lucy, and the rest of the adorable family, on a mission to re-claim Gru’s name as one of the best villains in the world. This movie does improve itself slightly from that of “Minions”, in that its humor does work better when there are two types of characters to bounce off of; ones that are human and ones that are not, but sadly, this franchise is starting to feel the sting of a series that has overstayed its welcome, especially with the many variety of subplots that this film throws at the screen in hopes that something useful will stick. Very little does, and because of such, we’re left with a picture that is decent for laughs and bubble-gum entertainment, but far from the studio-building features of the first two movies that set a respectable measuring stick for Illimination Pictures.

Over the course of four films, we’ve certainly gathered up no shortage of characters along the way, but the decision to give each of them their own respective subplot comes at quite a creative price for the brief 83 minutes of runtime that adorns this film. I kid you not when I say that there are no fewer than five subplots that make up the bulk of this script, a majority of which don’t go very far in the long term building of conclusions that happen during the final act. What does work is the brother angle here. There’s a real heartfelt center to Coffin and Balda’s material that put family first ahead of anything else going on, and you have to respect that. Because these Brothers are so different in their past upbringings, we as an audience get to indulge in the little quirks and ticks that make each of them different in character traits, but real when it comes to the twin instincts that makes two hearts beat as one. This is where the film worked for me, but everything else was very hollow garbage. The movie feels like a fight for survival amongst the other four subplots in the movie, all with very little progression or screen time to make them anything memorable. The saddest of all for me is in the plot and building of Bratt, the supposed antagonist of the movie who lacks a significant weight in the finished product. Considering most of the trailers are decorated around him, it’s a big letdown to find out that 90% of his material is just that; IN THE TRAILERS.

This movie did create some decent laughs for me, but nothing in terms of a hearty laughter to overtake my audible hearing. The Bratt 80’s cliches are decent, but so overdone in their repetition that it almost becomes one of those things that you wish would just cut to the point. His soundtrack 80’s hits are a great collection of Top 40 favorites though, and it does impress me that Illumination managed to buy the rights to the big name selections that occasionally pop in to play-to these scenes. The Minions do their usual yelling in non-English that people have come to either love or hate, and this movie will do nothing to change your stances on either of those sides. For me, I laughed the most when there are those observations to matters like parenting or the awkward struggle in a reunion with someone whom you have never even met before. Those to me are the kind of things that could set this apart as being just a typical kids movie, but then we would be forgetting what kind of audience partakes in this series.

The animation is probably the single biggest improvement from the past films, lighting a luminous torch for this ambitious company that rivals the masters of Dreamworks and Pixar Films respectively. Everything feels slightly more crisp here, echoing off an artistic integrity that reminds you that you are constantly watching a cartoon, but to never be letdown by such a fact. I made an observation earlier that this was bubble gum entertainment, and that couldn’t be more correct figuratively or literally with the eye-enhancing visuals that overtake the screen. There’s a lot of expression in that of the colorful buildings or the animated personality traits of each character, but for my money the shading and lighting of this film is a delightful improvement from the sometimes plain-Jane backdrops that Illumination hasn’t been able to thrive on. Most won’t notice the extra emphasis on these matters, but shadows and reflections are often a thing that I’m always examining in animated kids movies, and this one passes with flying colors on that perspective.

As for the performances, this talentedly decorated comedic ensemble does do their jobs in bringing to life these large personalities, but the direction falls very flat considering they are all juggling for time in an overcrowded atmosphere, and this stings none more than Bratt. Trey Parker excited me as an addition to this cast, and his overly-hyped deliveries give us an antagonist who we love to hate, but he feels like so much of a supporting character in a film whose events revolve around his actions, a huge mistake for someone as historically triumphant as the animated characters Parker voices on “South Park”. Carrell is probably the one performance that stands out not only because he is voicing two different characters, but because he depicts a clear difference in their speech patterns, despite a similar German accent. This is a difficult thing to do, and often I found myself closing my eyes to hear if I could tell the difference, and it was a success. Carrell’s wide range of emotional releases were made for the animated stage, and in the course of seven short years, Steve has etched his name as one of the very best animated leads going today.

THE VERDICT – “Despicable Me 3” does show its wear-and-tear over the course of its four feature length films that is a rarity for today’s animated sagas. The film’s script is a bit of a scatter-brained mess that feels all over the place in tone and development, but the jaw-dropping visual spectrum, as well as the return of Carrell in one of his most prominent roles, makes this latest chapter just sweet enough to snack on. My suggestion would be to end the series here, or to at least make some supporting characters just that; SUPPORTING. Otherwise, this series will slip on the banana peel that its Minions so viciously chew on.

6/10