Life

A crew of six highly intelligent scientists seek the answer to the question of the existence of another lifeform. In ‘Life’, we get the story of the six-member crew of the International Space Station that is on the cutting edge of one of the most important discoveries in human history: the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. As the crew begins to conduct research, their methods end up having unintended consequences for them and the citizens of Earth, and the life form proves more intelligent than anyone ever expected. ‘Life’ stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, it is directed by Daniel Espinosa, and is rated R for adult language throughout, some sci-fi violence and sequences of terror.

If you’ve seen one isolation in space horror movie, you’ve seen them all. Thankfully, ‘Life’ pushes past a conventional script by offering us artistic merit in the form of gorgeous cinematography, as well as a sound scheme that can at least present some peaking merits in an otherwise typical screenplay. This is a film that was originally slated to debut in May of this year, but got moved up two months to play against a March backdrop that is slightly less intimidating than that of the Summer blockbusters that invade around Memorial Day. It turns out that it pays off brilliantly, as Espinosa’s science fiction space shriek does more than enough to hold its own against previous similar offerings like ‘Alien’, ‘Event Horizon’, and leagues above the mindless ‘Apollo 14’. It’s solid proof that if you cast the big name actors, people will most definitely come, and this is a movie that is every bit as terrifying as it is cerebral. An ambitious float through the terrors of uncertainty that does more than enough to top Espinosa’s previous effort, 2014’s ‘Safe House’, also starring Ryan Reynolds.

What I love about the storytelling of this film is that it puts the characters first, and allows the story itself to follow those characters, meriting more positive returns when you care about their ordeals with this mysterious organism. Solid exposition time is depicted for all of them, and it’s in those introductions when the tragedy of this story and these people really sink into you. Space itself is an immense and unpredictable atmosphere to make a living in, and that lack of knowledge plays hand-in-hand to the kind of misfires that we make in decision making. It’s clear that this screenplay pays homage to those kind of films that adhere to the idea that man will be our society’s greatest downfall, and how sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. I mentioned earlier that the film does play to conventionalism despite a first act death that was a little surprising for the name value expensed. Nothing in this film ever really surprised me, and that could be at the fault of seeing and experiencing all of these films, with all of their similar structures and conclusions. The film keeps its characters at the intellectual mercy of this creature, so the convenience of butterfly effects that render them helpless is a brief suspension of disbelief for minds supposedly as gifted as this crew. Even the conclusion is something that I accurately called once the setup become obvious. Even still, I can never say that the movie bored me. Perhaps a compliment to the performances of a charismatic cast that bring their A-game when acting against a CGI antagonist.

The design and computer generation of this property felt very in-sync with that of multi-cell organisms, and that attention to detail rarely makes this alien anything super extraordinary or cartoonish in terms of its capabilities. One thing is certain, this thing is very intelligent, mimicking and authenticating the responses and actions of the living properties around it. Perhaps my favorite aspect to its design is the growing of its physical stature. I love how this creature will often appear and disappear before our very eyes, and that shock and awe when it returns twice the size of when it left, made for an emphasis on urgency that never stops pumping. If I had one negative for it, I would say it was in the developing face of this thing in the third act, which reverted it to campy alien designs in other big budget space operas. Keeping this thing faceless and non-registering is what made its unpredictable movements so vicious and conniving in plodding, so the additions do occasionally render that originality uninspiring.

The visual backdrops of Earth and the surrounding nebulas captured the immensity in isolation with these characters forced to make their own under-prepared decisions for the fate of what hangs in the balance. With the camera styles in particular, I loved the revolving camera angles that followed our cast through the very tribulations of gravity. It’s no secret that I am not often a fan of flipping the camera upside down, but here it makes sense to put us in the middle of the chase. The tracking shots through many numerous tunnels were outstanding, playing to that vintage trick of associating the camera with that of the antagonist that is chasing the crew. Espinosa plays to the hand of claustrophobia so effortlessly, but then takes it one step further when it feels like such intimate surroundings continue on-and-on with a ship this intimidating.

The musical score by Jon Ekstrand also is weighed on heavily in capturing the very dread and doom that covers each scene like dense fog. So much of what Ekstrand does is dabbling in ear-piercing notes to capture the vulnerability of these characters navigating through a ship, where this creature can pop up at any time. This composition took me back to the days of 80’s horror scores, when music played a pivotal point in teaming with that of the monster that lurks behind every corner. An addition that can take any average or predictable sequence and make it that much more captivating by orchestrating terror in its most audible of forms.

Finally, there’s the cast that brings a collaboration of A-list performers to the overlooked stage of horror for an exceptional union. Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada. A cast this well known for big budget blockbusters was a thrill to watch to see them juggle the very tones of horror, and there are simply no complaints from any of them. Gyllenhaal’s character in particular is probably my favorite because there’s a lot about him that embraces the secluded environments of space and what benefit that holds for him. This is rare for a character to feel this way in movies, but it’s depiction offers a fresh and untold angle to this particular perspective. Sanada also commands vast intelligence and humanity in his grip, juggling the complexities of a newborn baby with that of the frightening discoveries that are constantly changing with him being galaxies away. Sanada’s character feels like the one with the most to lose, so our embrace of his well-being is one that never fades over the course of several different shifts in leverage.

At 95 minutes long, ‘Life’ doesn’t necessarily need to take its time getting to the thrills and chills of a story that exercises the themes of seclusion and claustrophobic tension. With an exceptionally likeable cast, as well as sound achievements in the filming and music departments, Espinosa’s space serial is a tantalizing thriller that orbits through a galaxy of conventionalism trying its best to weigh this story down. Fortunately, the unnerving social commentary on the mission at hand offers a self-reflective view on the kinds of missions that we deem as important.

7/10

Beauty and the Beast

One of Disney’s most infamously cherished classics gets the live action adaptation treatment, in ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Twenty-six years after Belle and Beast warmed our hearts with a romantic tale of song and dance, this re-imagining introduces us to Belle (Emma Watson), a young woman who is taken prisoner by a Beast (Dan Stevens) in his castle in exchange for the freedom of her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Despite her fears, she befriends the castle’s enchanted staff and she learns to look beyond the Beast’s exterior to recognize the true heart and soul of the human Prince within. Meanwhile, a hunter named Gaston (Luke Evans) is on the loose to take Belle for himself and later intends to hunt down the Beast at any cost. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is directed by Bill Condon, and is rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.

The unfortunate aspect with watching any movie is that you can only watch it once to be surprised or in awe at the very majestic aura of one’s material. That is the problem that I find with the 2017 version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It’s not a terrible or even bad film. I found it to be aesthetically pleasing, as well as musically sound for the new variations on timeless classics. When I first heard that they were remaking possibly the most notorious Disney animation movie of all time, my heart did kind of skip a beat. This is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ after all, a movie that was nominated for best picture at that year’s Oscars. The first thing that I look for is how the film stands on its own two feet without relying too heavily on the details of the original offering, a problem that 2015’s ‘Cinderella’ went to the well on one time too many. This movie too is unfortunately cursed to accept the same fate, as there’s very little originality to this script that does at least offer a faithful homage to its predecessor. Sure, there’s an informative scene that relates to Belle’s absent Mother from the original story, but it’s a quick glance into a story that should’ve had more weight on the finished product. These differences are too few and far between, and that lack of fresh perspective unfortunately doesn’t vary much from the 90% of this film that mimics scene-for-scene of the original. The remake feels like it has a lot of respect for that 1991 original. Almost TOO much respect, and because of that, this is one remake that will offer a fruitful trip down nostalgia lane, but won’t provide a lot of sound logic for the concept of breaking the remake spell.

The remake is forty minutes longer than the original animation film. For that very investment in run time, we’re not left with a lot that can pace it along accordingly for the two hour mark. There are some new musical numbers and some longer additions to certain classic scenes that we know and love, but it’s easy to remove this and have it hold no weight against the cherished screenplay. What I did commend the film’s script for is the emphasis on catering not only to its youthful audience, but also to that of the adults who have grown up around these pictures. There’s been a lot of controversy about a certain character’s sexual orientation in the film, but never did I feel the story was threatened or overtaken by pointless exposition in him. Where it does acceptably tiptoe that wink-and-nod response to the mature audiences is in the nature that it spoofs itself on more than one occasion. One such mention is during the snowball fight between Belle and the beast in the courtyard, and beast nails Belle with the biggest snowball that you’ve ever seen, knocking her off of her feet. It’s one of those harmless moments that shows the screenwriters accordingly knew where to command the strings of variation in emotional response from the audience, reminding them of the light-hearted nature of this story in between this story of romantic tragedy.

As I mentioned earlier, the aesthetics and artistic merit for the movie are leagues ahead of everything else. The biggest argument for this release is seeing the vibrantly radiant colors splash against the luxurious backdrops in shooting locations, and on that aspect alone this film would be a 10/10. One thing that movie does better than its predecessor in this subject is immersing the audience in the very immensity of the castle, and that cold, isolated feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world around our two protagonists. It’s only in this live action aspect that you can truly soak in the symbolism of how cold and damp that this home is in relation to the beast’s dwindling chances at breaking the spell. The live object CGI achieves and disappoints on many fronts. I did enjoy the designs on the clock and candelabra for their attention to detail in how the facial features of these respective characters felt authentic with the structure of their clock and candlestick design. One such example of not doing this well is with the designs of Chip the tea cup, whom feels like his design was skimmed over quickly, painting a face onto his tea cup. It’s examples like these where the CGI concepts feel like they were trying for something daring, like in ‘The Jungle Book’, but it isn’t sewed up entirely to make it a complete passing grade. Finally, the musical visuals capture the childhood imagination on more than one occasion. It should be no surprise that ‘Be Our Guest’ was my favorite performance, but not so much for the intricately clever lyrics that the song entails, more on the side of entrancing presentation that explodes in your face like an eruption of confetti. I didn’t see this movie in 3D, but I can recommend checking it out in that offering if only for the over abundance of in-your-face objects that fly in your face, nearly captivating you enough to soak in the tastes and smells of this fairytale world.

The costume designs also nail a possible Oscar worthy nomination on grounds of perfectly capturing the transition from animation to live action. Belle’s elegant golden gown shimmers a dazzling glow, and the tuxedo gown for the beast transports us to a bohemian era that really focuses on this French setting. Far beyond the script that plays it safe, it’s clear that the wardrobe department too wanted fans of the film to know that they were determined in bringing such rich fashions to life, emulating upper class fantasy for audiences who invest in these scenes much further than a delightful soundtrack and romantic material.

The overall cast excites and stimulates this fresh chance to try to make their characters their own, with very few negatives along the way. Lets get it out of the way; Josh Gad’s Le Fou steals the show from this decorated cast, because he chooses to add on to the legacy of a character that was nothing more than throwaway in the original. Gad knows who this character is, therefore he chooses not to quiet or hide that fact. He plays Le Fou with memorable flamboyance and debonair that reaches into your gut to pull out laughter each and every time. As for the rest of the cast, none of them ever rise to the occasion to unseat their original casting shadows. Emma Watson proves that she was the only choice for one of Disney’s most cherished princesses. She can sing, act, and most importantly radiate a warm and caring smile that makes it easy to fall under her spell, leaving little doubt that the casting agent hit a home run with this big name steal. As for negatives, I didn’t like anything about the beast, let alone Dan Stevens turn as the heralded figure. The design in concept is terrible, considering the film pulls on more of the human side and less about the beast. He never once treads like a beast, instead walking like a human on hind legs that never cause him to stumble or stutter. There’s a great lack of emphasis on the impact that his movements make that the original capitalized on so much more accordingly, and Stevens range never convinced me once that he BECAME the Beast. Luke Evans as Gaston is the worst though. Evans just doesn’t radiate enough charisma and bravado to channel this macho pig. We are told how great Gaston is, but never given proof of this praise in the form of physical strength or cunning intellect, with the exception of a five second lift of Le Fou. He’s as typical as a jerk antagonist can be, and pales in comparison to an animated counterpart that out-acted and out-charmed him on every capacity.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ is strong enough as a throwaway remake, but does little to convince fans to leave its predecessor in the dust. The lack of character from this lively cast, as well as a screenplay that plays it far too safely in conventional creativity, hinder what breakthrough possibilities that this movie had. Even still, the pagentry is mesmerizing, and the collection of classic musical favorites, as well as a few new additions, give Condon’s presentation a big screen feel. I’d place this one leagues above the ‘Cinderella’ remake, but just below ‘The Jungle Book’ in terms of fresh perspectives. Either way, The enchantment is still there for fans who seek whimsical nostalgia, and Disney is happy to oblige by opening their hearts….and wallets

7/10

Trainspotting 2

Twenty years after a heroin binge sent their lives in spirals, the gang of Edinburgh return to the silver screen, in ‘Trainspotting 2′. After betraying his friends and running off with (almost) all the money from a scam, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is back in Edinburgh. It is his first time back since the events that split him, Spud (Ewen Bremmer) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) apart. He looks up Spud and Simon but their lives are hardly much better than when he last saw them. Spud, after getting his life together, has seen it all unravel, to the point that he is suicidal. Simon is running his father’s loss-making pub, in between bouts of blackmail. Meanwhile, the fourth person in their caper of 20 years’ ago, the psychotically intense Begbie (Robert Carlyle), is in jail. He has no intention of staying incarcerated and revenge is foremost on his mind. Mark quickly finds himself unraveling in the same circular direction that nearly ended his life two decades prior. ‘Trainspotting 2’ is directed by Danny Boyle, and is rated R for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence.

Danny Boyle became notorious after crafting the original ‘Trainspotting’ in 1996, a movie that unapologetically depicted the live fast lifestyles of drug use and the consequences that came with them. Over twenty years later, it’s interesting to see an artistic imitation of life, as just like the protagonist of Mark Renton, Boyle too returns to the spot of his youth to dabble once again in the waters that would inspire him to grow as one of boldest artistic expressionists of our time. ‘Trainspotting 2’ might not prosper to a complete success in the same vain that its predecessor did, but there’s much to indulge in the nostalgic slice of pie that Boyle conjures up for his audience. It was certainly interesting enough to catch up with these characters with so much time removed from one film to the other, and the continuing script by John Hodge gels perfectly to bridge the gap of rust, emulating a story that feels very in-sync with that of the first movie. A difficult thing to do once so much time has passed not only in real time, but also in screen time between character to character.

From Hodge and Boyle’s standpoint, this film packs several impactful messages surrounding the importance of friendship and how the memories that we make as youths shape us to be the people we grow up to be. In regards to this film, it’s clear that so much can happen after two decades, but we can’t change the moral integrity of the heart beating inside, and it’s in that thought process where so very little has changed over time for our four main characters. Where the first film centered around addictions and selfish indulgences, ‘Trainspotting 2’ focuses more on the beauty of life and living with eyes wide open for the very first time. Sure, there is drug use in this film as well, but these feel like characters who are thinking clearly for the first time, and it’s more than satisfying enough to see them prosper, despite the ghosts of Edinburgh past coming back to haunt them occasionally. The difference in age and lifestyles go far beyond that of what’s depicted in story, but also that in pacing of this film versus the 96 original. At nearly two hours, this film feels sauntering when compared to the upbeat pacing and flow of the first movie, channeling the aging process accordingly of the 40-something cast that now deal with maturity. I found this angle in storytelling to be beneficial, even if there is about twenty minutes or so of the movie that flounders in purpose, and would’ve wisely been better left on the cutting room floor.

With Boyle being a magician behind the lens, we are once again treated to a visual fiesta of experimental lighting, editing, and overall camera work that integrates soundly into the picture. The scene-to-scene transitions are beautifully decorated here, characterizing the landscapes not only in Amsterdam to Edinburgh, but also in the coincidences in repetition that Mark realizes from his own past. On the latter, the touches and insertions of child actors being edited into what’s happening on-screen tugs at the heartstrings of anyone watching, highlighting the innocence in every one of us who once had a dream of greatness when we were younger. This film embraces nostalgia with open arms, so it’s beneficial to the creativity and relaying of internal feelings to the audience to include these youthful images, a feature that only someone like Boyle could master, with such similar touches in films like ‘127 Hours’ and ’28 Days Later’.

The character involvement was kind of hit or miss for me, treading a delicate line of material that could only go so far for so much cast. The redeeming friendship of Renton and Sick Boy, as well as Begbie’s escape from prison is a focal point of face value for the movie, but aspects like Spud’s new lease on life, as well as Diane’s one or two throwaway scenes felt very shoe-horned in for the storytelling that was taken place with the trio of main protagonists in the movie. Their performances all consistently reach their designated marks, particularly in that of McGregor who once again balances on a tight rope of personal wants that hinder his growth for the needs in his life, but there are times in this movie where it felt like I was watching two different films that were smashed together, both of which fighting desperately to get out. What I mean by that is it feels like Diane’s scenes in particular should be amounting to more, but they just never happen. I felt no one-on-one confrontation between her and Mark is a dropping of the ball for the ways some of the questions were left unanswered from the previous events, leaving a noticeable gap for the supporting cast of both movies.

My biggest gripe with ‘Trainspotting 2’ is that it feels like a commercial for the first movie, without ever selling its own chapter of merit for fans who seek the continuance. There is certainly nothing wrong with reflecting on events that happen in a previous movie, but this film goes to the well far too much, signaling a flimsy offering of original material that ‘Trainspotting 2’ has for itself. It feels like every time that this movie might be heading in search of its own identity, only to be told once again how great the first movie is. These reflections certainly coincide with that of the past playing such a prominent role in this movie, but after the third or fourth time, you can almost set your watch by when it will happen again, expressing a layer of predictability that these films should never have.

‘Trainspotting 2’ is a welcome and appreciative sequel that could do little better about having a twenty year lay-off that would normally doom a sequel with this kind of waiting power. Boyle and Hodge reflect artistically the kind of harsh realities that our pasts play on who we are shaping ourselves to be, and that disillusionment of age that forces us to earn our wisdom. Boyle’s return to Edinburgh is a good film that could be great if it had more faith in its current story, but the dabble into the past ironically enough is the undoing of a movie that centers around it.

7/10

Kong: Skull Island

The king of the jungle makes a roaring comeback, in ‘Kong: Skull Island’. Set In 1973, a secretive organization known as Monarch finds an island that is shrouded in mystery and identified as the origin for new and dangerous species wreaking havoc on the locals. The resulting expedition to the island reveals that a giant monstrous ape named Kong is at the center of a battle for dominion over the island, against the apex predators, nicknamed the “Skull Crawlers”, responsible for wiping out his kind. As the expedition crew makes plans to fight for survival against Kong and the other monsters on the island, some of them begin to see that Kong is worth saving, in the ensuing brawl for the island’s worth. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ stars Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, and Brie Larson. It is directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ is an accurate and intricate depiction of a creature feature set during the Vietnam era, and that setting does nothing but compliment the beautiful presentation in glossy cinematography that goes much further than cosmetic purposes. I found myself very impressed not only with the yellowish color tint, highlighting the screen full of endless sun and smoke, but also that of the superior editing of 70’s stock footage that is placed so sporadically throughout the intro scenes of this picture. The designs in costume and sets mold very faithful homages to the eras of Nixon and Johnson, and no price is spared to immerse the audience visually in this creative time period. Kong himself previously had a movie made during the 70’s, but ‘Skull Island’ feels like it outduels that previous effort, relaying the very socially binding concepts in war and patriotism that were called into question for the first times in U.S history. It’s a movie that has so much going on for it in socialistic commentary that only adds depth and layering to the concepts of setting this film in that age, and all of those issues do not go ignored in the initial plot and introductions of these human characters meeting their 100 foot tall counterpart.

The idea was evident from the opening act of this movie; presentation in ironic comparisons between this invasion with that of the Vietnam war. Upon the introduction of Samuel L Jackson’s character, we are told about Vietnam being a war in which the U.S lost, for its overabundance of lost lives, as well as the permanent stain that it left on the moral fabric of American-foreign relations. The group of soldiers in this film likewise must invade a mysterious island in which they know nothing about, tackle an enemy with all of the advantages of knowing its home, and make their way through an endless landscape of trees full of separate enemies that want them dead. Despite all of this being an obvious comparison, I found myself intrigued to see what Vogt-Roberts could do with this immense budget and ambitious production. The concept in design does wonders not only to the kinds of weapon responses that we unleash upon Kong and the creatures alike, but also in the mental instability of thousands of soldiers coming home to very little of a heroic return. It makes you understand the painfully tough decisions that each of them make, most of which go against protocol for the typical exploration mission.

As for story, the film kicks us off with a boost of adrenaline, supplying a 70’s soundtrack that perfectly captures this place in time. I commend this film for not making the audience wait the usual hour for giving us our initial intakes with its title character, the impact of which sets the stage for anything but your typical survival movie. The second act unfortunately doesn’t continue this pacing, as much of this period feels like it’s held in the air for the riveting conclusion that we’ve all been waiting for. It’s nothing jarring in terms of synthetic pacing or consequential to the material before it, but it just plays things far too safely, including a noticeable gap of about a half hour without Kong, in which we come to learn about some of the other creatures who inhabit the island. The final act resolved mostly everything that I was anticipating, building to a test of wills between man versus monster that will have you re-thinking everything that you’ve come to know to this point. Certainly, this isn’t anything original for a Kong flick, but I commend this film for not being afraid to tell the story that many Americans won’t be too encouraged to hear. When you invade and bomb somebody’s home, there are consequences that come with that feat, and ‘Skull Island’ reflects on a time when our own special forces were at a crossroads after the last of the tolling world wars.

The action sequences and creature designs also live up to par, emoting solid computer generated work to accomplish the mental game of its animated characters. This is by far my favorite Kong design of all time and a lot of that is because more attention to detail is given on his eyes and facial movements that speak to the heart of the animal. For most of the history of Kong, he is portrayed by a man under a rubber suit, and even though I am a sucker for practical stunt work, there is no comparison in monster movies to the kind of cutting-edge work that studios are manufacturing today. The designs of the bone creatures were also very enjoyable. The snap reactions to the way they stalk their prey communicate everything that you need to know about their character, and it’s in their cunning nature where they more-than measure up to the immense Kong, setting up a showdown that will remind you what you came to see. The action sequences impressed me not only as a powder-keg of ammunition riddled quick-cuts, but also in how grizzly and visceral the unapologetic violence kept topping itself. To me, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ feels like the first actual horror movie in the Kong franchise, and most of that can be attributed to its bone-crunching, crimson-colored carnage that pushes the envelope as far as it should rightfully go for PG-13.

The biggest weakness in the film to me was character exposition. Most people won’t watch a Kong movie for its ambitious characters, but an A-list cast this great were simply too big to be disappointing, and with the exception of three characters, they are mostly wasted in one-note designs that don’t do a single one of them a favor. I’ve read that most critics have a problem with the exposition for these characters, but I think the problem lies in the overabundance of characters that continue through the majority of this film. An opening crash scene that is shown in the trailers doesn’t do a lot to increase the body count, so this massive group of civilians bide their time before their number is called. Most notably, Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston are sadly wasted as flimsy one-note characters that stick too closely to their outlines. Larson is the photographer, so she must snap a picture in every cut to her, and Hiddleston is essentially James Bond with a gun or sword, so he must continue to be accurately perfect throughout the film. Thankfully, the trio of Jackson, Goodman, and John C Reilly present hearty and competent characters to give us something to chew on. I was amazed with how important Reilly was to the script as the movie went on, essentially centering around the past of his character that establishes him as something more than just the grizzled veteran. Goodman’s character narration enjoys a solid first act that unfortunately is for nothing, as he disappears late in the second. Up until then, he was probably my favorite character, but he is lost in the sea of faces once their feet land on the island. Jackson is devilishly detestable as an army captain with malicious intent. Early on, we learn why he has such an interest in this mission, but due to Jackson’s gritty performance, you start to see the mask of sanity slowly slip away, giving way to the weapon of mass destruction that earned his character a chest full of honorary medals.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ is certainly an improvement on 2014’s ‘Godzilla’, and does more than enough to even the scales for the massive 2020 showdown between the two. The film’s ambitiously gorgeous presentation, as well as thrilling action sequences does more than enough to push it through some of the weaker aspects, like a dry second act, and an overabundance of patient characters with very little to do. Vogt-Roberts masterful dab in visual tapestry paints an intoxicating canvas for Kong to roar his loudest. The king is finally back on his throne.

7/10

A United Kingdom

A proposal involving two people from completely opposite cultures has their love seeking A United Kingdom against the resistance. Based on extraordinary true events, the film takes place in 1947, with Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the King of Botswana, meeting Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a London office worker. They were a perfect match, yet their proposed marriage was challenged not only by their families but by the British and South African governments. The latter had recently introduced the policy of apartheid and found the notion of a biracial couple ruling a neighboring country intolerable. South Africa threatened the British: either thwart the couple or be denied access to South African uranium and gold and face the risk of South Africa invading Botswana. A United Kingdom is co-directed by Amma Assante and Steven Hall, and is rated PG-13 for some adult language including racial epithets, and a scene involving sensuality.

‘A United Kingdom’ and screenwriter Guy Hibbert take a usually domestic hotbed like racism and push it further by giving us a different telling of history. Led by two more than capable actors giving stirring performances, the film offers a dual telling of racism from the white AND black side of hatred, garnering so much more than the typical one-dimensional flick during this particular era. If this wasn’t enough, the very locations in this film between Britain and South Africa cement the idea that this disease in logic is more of a worldwide epidemic than a Southern American bible belt where this genre of films usually revolves around. This idea, as well as a script that shows a heartfelt side to romance, gives Amma Assante a leg up on recent bi-racial love stories like ‘Loving’ that only flirt with the idea of equally portraying both sides of the racial coin. Hibbert has a clear responsibility to both sides equally in this story, and he dedicates himself to the idea that love is always more important than hate, a credo that envelopes the movie from start to finish, with this bi-racial couple endearing their newfound power.

The first act will undoubtedly be the biggest test for the audience. I myself found the opening half hour to be jarringly abrasive from the remainder of the film, rushing through various plots and character exposition that is only made up later from two performances that constantly meet their mark. The editing is slightly jumpy during this act, breezing us through the finer parts of this relationship that is vital to the audience falling in love with them. Thankfully, the second act smoothly transitions, and one thing is certainly clear; all of this rushing of developments was done to focus not only on the rising of tension between South Africa and the Brits, but also that of this duo taking their love to a new environment. One of great polar opposite to where the two met and fell in love. As the story pushes along, I found myself impressed with how Hibbert and Assante could succeed at the very merits of what their relationship meant to the conflict of the African village and vice versa. Most unrelated subplots in films will usually not tie with one another, but you start to see the impacts that one has on the other, culminating in a gut-wrenching finale that will have you on the edge of your seats if you don’t know the real life story of Ruth and Seretse.

But how does the relationship stack up? If it’s not believable, then surely this story will deflate. Thankfully, that is never an issue, as the chemistry of Pike and Oyelowo not only feels believable, but is also given appropriate time to supplant their characters. What I love about the layering of this story is that this duo not only grows wonderfully as a couple, full of heart and compassion for one another that radiates beautifully, but also as individuals braving their own uphill climbs. Midway through the movie, a startling controversy separates the two, and the battle within their individual character becomes just as important as the strength between them when they are together. It’s kind of brilliant to attack the issue like this, especially considering that this is a romance of sorts that revolves around the concept of two against the world. But to get there, Hibbert forces us to understand that these are two brave people who came together to mold a union that was leaps and bounds ahead of its time, asking their respective sides to change along with them.

I mentioned the on-screen progression of Ruth an Seretse, but they would be nothing without the two experienced actors who harness that positive energy into two hearty performances. Rosamund Pike is thankfully starting to get the kind of roles that she deserves in Hollywood. As Ruth, Pike feels fragile, but caring, wanting the latter to outweigh the former in a place that she is unfamiliar with. That sense of feeling lost could overcome her character at any moment, but Pike pushes on, signaling a caring in her eyes with the numerous dispositions that she sees in the citizens of her new home. Oyelowo continues to be Mr. Dependable in A-list roles. David has always been someone whose childlike eyes do wonders into his extremely likeable personality, and Seretse is the perfect role for someone of that stature. He’s a lover, but as strong of a fighter as it gets, and you really start to take in the kind of isolation that he feels being on opposite sides from the one person who makes everything going on easier to take. Oyelowo gives an Oscar worthy speech midway through the movie that turned my skin into a bumpy sidewalk of goosebumps, full of chilling emotional response that cements this man as one of the finest dramatic faces working today. The chemistry between Pike and Oyelowo transcends even their roles as this couple, making it easier to immerse yourself into this delightful coupling that radiates positive energy frequently. The only performance that felt unnecessary to me was that of Tom Felton. His performance felt very out of place and slightly cartoonish as one of a few villain characters in this movie. Because of this overabundance, his character feels unnecessary, as well as flawed with how little he is really given to impact. His brief scenes felt more like a speedbump to the more meaty issues that didn’t concern him, and Felton’s character feels expendable in the overall scheme of things.

On the technical side of things, this is a beautifully captivating visual piece that really exceeds in the backdrop of these two strong actors putting on a show. The establishing shots of South Africa are breathtaking, and comprehend the idea of just how cut-off and isolated that they appear to be from the rest of the world around them that treats them like outsiders. The editing finds its place after the choppy first act that I mentioned earlier, and a strong musical accompaniment by composer Patrick Doyle plays its way into the immensity of this situation in story. There’s great building tension in the notes that Doyle commands, and the jazz soundtrack that radiates audibly during the first act sets the mood appropriately for the running joke early on that establishes their overnight romance.

‘A United Kingdom’ has some spotty pacing issues early that doesn’t capitalize on the patience of established storytelling, but fortunately the charming duo of Pike and Oyelowo, as well as a refreshing originality in content to race relation genre films, gives Assante the proper pieces to unite audiences of all races. It’s a perfect story for the perfect time, and feels like a constant reminder that in a world of bleak situations, love always trumps hate.

7/10

John Wick: Chapter 2

The streets and our animals are a lot safer with legendary hitman John Wick back on the scene, in John Wick: Chapter 2. After being forced out of retirement by a former associate plotting to seize control of a shadowy international assassins’ guild, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is Bound by a blood oath to help him. John travels to Rome where he squares off against some of the world’s deadliest killers on an ammunition-filled road of rampage. The film also stars Laurence Fishbourne, John Leguizamo, Ian Mcshane, and Common. It is directed by first chapter director Chad Stahelski, and is rated R for strong violence throughout, some adult language, and brief nudity involving sensuality.

Most of my lack of excitement for sequels in general to a hit original movie relies too heavily on their dependency on the first movie. These films usually become watered down parodies of the former, soiling the very fresh originality in concept and progression that a sequel should provide. Thankfully, John Wick: Chapter 2 seems to be a movie that makes its own rules by further progressing the story of this cryptic hitman and the society’s underbelly nightlife that thrives on eye-catching neon set pieces and bullet-piercing rounds that never seem to run out. This is very much a sequel that works because it stands on its own two original feet, and has little relation or reliance on conjuring up the same situations and structure to get it across to its blood-thirsty audience. The second film in this obvious trilogy more-than packs a brutal punch, feeling like a completely fresh offspring all together to the Wick franchise and just how much further it can grow from this point on. Many movies that prepare for the finale in a trilogy will sometimes neglect the presentation of the second film by playing it too safe before all of the chips go on the line. What Stahelski has managed to do is nearly guarantee gold hitting three times in the same spot because the progression of this script from start to finish has me possibly the most excited that I have ever been for the third part in an action movie saga.

The script in question picks up literally days after the events of the first movie, the only connecting link to the carnage candy that we have already been through. I didn’t have a problem with this brief scene of correlation as it perfectly renders the audience motionless with a pulse-setting sequence that is every bit as fast as it is cohesively choreographed. To open a movie with arguably the best sequence in the film is quite the risk that gives the movie a positive and a negative for where it headed with the opening act. The positive is of course enriching us with the kind of gore and brutality that we have come to expect by Reeves donning the suit and classic Mustang. The negative is that the film’s opening forty-five minutes of so slugs through a noticeably long time before the next action sequence. This wouldn’t be a problem if the opening fifteen minutes weren’t so riveting in the endurance of this artfully crafted demolition derby, leaving a long dry spot to anything that follows. We do get some solid exposition during this time, notably in the backstory of Wick’s deceased wife and her impact on the house and car that haunts John’s daily routines. To me, the lone negative is that this film takes slightly too long to set everything up, and subtly lacks the audience investment of the first movie with the passing of Wick’s dog. That’s not to say that I wasn’t riveted by what transpired on-screen, but if this movie lacks anything it’s in the lack of capability to give us a story that we care as much about as the animal vulnerability of its predecessor.

What I did found enlightening was that of the change of scenery from New York to Rome in this picture. My favorite aspect of the first movie was the depiction of this secret society of assassins that lives and breathes at the hands of lucrative contracts and shoot now think later reactions. The cinematography feels like it goes above and beyond here, radiating a sense of taboo surroundings for the audience to immerse themselves into. The script feels like it never stops building. Proof of this comes late in the second act when the game changes up for our central protagonist, as he finds himself on the opposing end of a limitless onslaught of contracted killers who want him dead. The fresh twist into a spy thriller really re-energized me before a finale that subtly pays homage to Bond set pieces of the 70’s. When the film closes, you will realize that the film not only provided everything that a sequel rightfully should, but also promoted a third chapter that will have you screaming at the concepts of all good things coming to those who wait.

The action here is heart-pounding, mainly because of a riveting sound mixing by sound editor Michael Head. It’s a pretty safe bet that an IMAX screening of this film will throttle your ears, but what surprised me was how much jumping that I was doing in a rundown theater with a lack of the best sound technology on the market. The crash scenes in the film felt very personal because the exceptional camera work is choosing to follow, instead of attach to the characters in each shot, and the unpredictability of something else coming just off screen feels like an inevitability of exciting offerings sure to rattle the audience that takes this movie in. The gunshots are as loud and honorable as they rightfully should be, forcing the audience to understand their grave impact each time a round is fired into the frame. One particular fight sequence in the movie between Reeves and Common is choreographed mesmerizingly, and the lack of musical accompany makes the audience feel and hear every devastating blow without diluting the reactions of their fast-moving motions. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road have I felt that sound has played such a visceral part in the dissection of an action movie, but Chapter 2 doesn’t disappoint in placing the audience in the way of the most dangerous atmosphere, while granting them immunity for watching this in the audible peaks of a confined theater.

The film isn’t free from some predictable action movie cliches however, even if these things weren’t a major proponent in my final grade. The first is of course the usual keys in the visor trick that seems to happen in every movie ever made, but never once in real life. How does this keep happening? A simple scene where Wick finds keys in an office can subdue my disbelief and earn some honor in the code of solid screenwriting. The second is in the lack of re-loading by Wick with a handgun that holds no more than twelve rounds. This is particularly evident during the Rome club-shooting sequence whose length in screen time only makes the lack of round exchanges that much more humorous by comparison. The third cliche was in the number of times that Wick eats it at the hands of an automobile. I’m not saying John isn’t tough, but to get up so fast from an overabundance of car interactions is highly unlikely. My final problem was that of a stomach wound that Wick suffers in the second act, only to have it forgotten about completely by the final confrontation. One could say that this wound could’ve been stitched up, but to that I call bullshit on how many times he took forceful hits and kicks to that particular area over the last half hour of the movie. One shot can easily rip stitches open, but several should at the very least have you gushing like a fountain.

The performances were solid, even if they don’t rely entirely on the acting of their respective cast. Reeves has proven that not only is Wick his comeback story, but that he was born to play such a tortured character. If the film does one thing well, it’s in keeping his sentences short and straight to the point. That’s not to say that Keanu can’t act, but more that this character who is described as “The Boogeyman” remaining as cryptic to the positivity of his menace. Reeves noticeable emptiness in the character of Wick is one that is heartbreaking, as well as relatable to the audience in knowing that this is a man with nothing left to lose each time he goes back into the game. Ian McShane was also attention-grabbing once again as the leader of this chilling hotel of contractors. The on-screen interactions between Ian and Keanu make for some of the best scenes of the movie, as their relationship signals a missing friend and family from Wick’s personal life. If McShane does just one thing well it’s in the ability to play both sides of the moral coin without coming off as cartoonish or practical in his delivery. Sadly John Leguizamo is only in two scenes in the movie, and I for one hope he has more of a commanding presence in the third chapter.

Overall, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a justifiably necessary sequel because it packs twice the brutal action and stunt choreography of the first movie. This sequel did lack the full power of immersing myself in the revenge plot of Wick, like the first film did effortlessly, but there’s plenty of other positives to commend Staheleski for that other sequels simply don’t commit to. Most importantly, the newest chapter keeps the pages rolling of not only the best action saga going today, but also one of the very best and most impactful of all time. With a gun, Wick is unstoppable. But with a rollercoaster of thrills and exceptionally shot carnage candy, his sequel is irresistible.

7/10

The Founder

An American revolution starts in the drive-thru lane, in John Lee Hancock’s “The Founder”. The movie features the true story of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc was impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food and saw franchise potential. Writer Robert Siegel details how Kroc maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the clutches of the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire, while maneuvering the legalities of such a move. The film also stars Laura Dern as Ray Kroc’s first wife Ethel; John Carroll Lynch as Mac McDonald and Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald. It is rated PG-13 for brief adult language.

The business of McDonalds goes far beyond hamburgers and shakes. This is very much as American as it gets in terms of business icons, so I was greatly excited to watch Hancock’s story of Kroc and the McDonald brothers play out on the big screen. Ultimately, The Founder was a solid watch that I never wasn’t having a good time with, but its lack of dramatic depth makes very little compelling or memorable in terms of American court cases over an instant money makers. After watching the trailers, I expected this to be a very nasty battle of owner rights to the golden arches, but it never plays out as jaw-dropping as films like The Wolf of Wall Street, or The Social Network. What does work is that screenwriter Robert Siegel’s script is very informative in tracing through the roots of this inevitable success story, while playing against the backdrop of an era that expected results fast. The burgers itself serve as more of a table dressing for the more important main course of a real business story and just how fast everything plays out in the form of stealing. With every great idea comes a businessman just waiting to swoop it up and make it his own, and Hancock’s film is at least a reminder of sorts to tread carefully when revealing your formulas.

From a storytelling point of view, the movie hits all of the right notes in the very presence of what would later be considered fast food, during the 50’s. By giving us an up close and personal look with our central character going through the motions of waiting endlessly for meals, as well as the order being wrong a majority of the time, Hancock illustrates marvelously at the importance of changing the business all together. The concepts of speed vs quality was carefully chosen during this time, but the McDonalds concept itself brought both together in a tasty marriage that served as a license to print money. When you think about how that design has fallen through the cracks in our own modern day models, The Founder feels like a welcoming nostalgia trip to a time when people took pride in their businesses. There’s plenty that this film describes in great detail, like the alternative to milk shakes, the franchising with friends of Kroc’s at each helm, and the concept of realty playing a driving force on building an empire. Pacing isn’t a problem nearly as much as how rushed everything feels over a formulaic digestion. I’m confident that a two-and-a-half hour cut of this movie exists somewhere, and that’s because the movie sometimes feels bloated for its grave lack of respect for some of the central issues of this story. One subplot in particular shows how Kroc met his future wife, but their story is literally dropped and forgotten about until the closing credits. Some matters were clearly sacrificed here instead of brought to the table, and the end result feels like the eyes were bigger than the belly in terms of the material of the film’s register.

What does live up to reputation with this product however, and quite possibly my favorite aspect of the film was in the lighting in terms of cinematography, as well as precision editing that is among some of the very best that I have seen in a long time. On the former, the movie depicts beautifully that golden age when roads and property felt fresh. The neon additions to the restaurants at night give the production designs a futuristic touch while presenting us a throwback to the structure and concepts of the restaurants themselves. This is a very clean looking movie, and its investment in budget (7 million) makes this one of the more extravagant comedy biopics, removing it from ever feeling like a TV movie of the week. As for the editing, the use of quick cuts does so much in terms of the audience understanding the speed of the product, as well as the lightning negotiations that took place between the trio of central characters. A movie’s visual creativity is always at its peak when it can be used as an establishing shot for the scene’s particular tone, and the crisp slices that guide the scene slice-by-slice in all of its many angles is certainly easy to indulge in against some quick-witted personalities.

Michael Keaton extraordinarily channels Kroc with determination and savvy brilliance to accurately depict the savage force that envelopes him. Considering his name is Kroc, it’s a touch or ironic brilliance to figuratively see the slithering of this predator before his victims truly feel the bite of his teeth. One of the things that concerned me early on in the movie was that Keaton might be a tad bit likeable under this role, and while it does take a while to get all of his motivations on the table, Kroc is depicted as every bit the cunning and undeterred business mind that always sees the bigger picture. Keaton’s visual appearance leaves slightly more to be desired in casting, but his devilish grin when narrating to the camera certainly signals that Keaton is the man for the job to display American greed. Lynch and Offerman are also delights despite their binding for time in the near two hour finished product. Their lack of involvement is another signal that a bigger cut exists in some studio library, but thankfully the duo are up to the task of going toe-to-toe with Keaton’s Kroc. It’s kind of interesting to see two different sides to these respective brothers, with Dick being the passionate business mind, and Lynch being the kind-hearted assistant to his little brother. Both channel something vast while still carrying off the chemistry of their relationship effortlessly that always keeps them in-sync. The brief, yet informative introduction to their characters served as my personal favorite scene of the movie because my respect and admiration for these brothers who only have each other felt nearly tragic for what they went through during the film’s climax, a sign of personable protagonists.

The Founder is a happy meal offering without any of the calories or indigestion of regret ten minutes after you leave. The material isn’t quite the most dramatically intriguing material, and something like this would be much more suited for the documentary side of storytelling, but there’s too much charm and poignancy in the performance of Keaton to ever pay fault to this far-too fast documentation of history between the McDonalds and Kroc. A true value meal of meaty proportions.

7/10

Split

M Night Shyamalan’s newest silver screen offering presents 23 different sides of the human psyche, in Split. After a wholesome teen birthday party, three girls are kidnapped in broad daylight: friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and difficult outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). Their captor Kevin (James McAvoy) locks the trio in a windowless room, then proceeds to frighten and baffle them. One minute he’s wearing eyeglasses and obsessive about cleanliness, the next he’s presenting as female, and later he acts like a nine-year-old boy. It is revealed that Kevin exhibits 23 alternate personalities, and in order to escape, his captives must convince one of the personalities within him to set them free, before the arrival of the 24th and final personality, the “beast”. Split is written and directed by Shyamalan, and is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.

Split marks the return to form for one of Hollywood’s most polarizing directing minds, and it does so without sacrificing its artistic integrity nor disgracing the very fabric of this intriguing disease that plagues the mind and body of this character. Shyamalan’s tone feels right at home here, with the very essence of this suspenseful rarely ever giving way to hearty and mood-ruining laughs that some of his later efforts were known for. To anyone who read my review for The Visit in 2015, you’ll know that I enjoyed the movie, but plenty was ruined for the cringe-worthy acting, as well as completely wrong tone for the movie’s personality. Thankfully, Split prides itself on being first and foremost a thriller, but rarely ever a horror offering. Instead, its brutality and gore is in what your imagination takes from it. This could be a risky or disappointing idea for Shyamalan on his audience, but it works beautifully because the movie asks as much out of our mentalities as it does from its central character. We have to fill in the gaps in the very same methods that Kevin does, and the bridge of clarity is built one brick at a time above the troubled waters that higher budgeted Shyamalan movies have failed miserably.

What I found so refreshing about this direction in terms of story and presentation is the aspect of some fresh perspectives when discussing this particular disease, as well as people with traits that are deemed anything other than “Normal”. Usually the kind of people suffering from these rare occurances are thought of as underneath a typical human-being, in terms of mental capacity and physical strength. But what Shyamalan does is put us the public one step below those given this distinctive ability. The movie mentions several times how our brains might not be strong enough to understand them, and this offers much more than just an original direction in character structure, it also relates at just how disadvantaged our protagonists will be in fighting off his multiple personalities. A movie with a setup in terms of gimmick like this one could fail on so many merits, mostly in the performances feeling unbelievable or the very tone of the movie failing to capture the urgency of these women whose lives change so abruptly when they are out enjoying themselves in their natural habitat. Both of these areas do succeed, but the former deserves a lot more credit when you step back to think about what it took to accomplish something so rare.

James McAvoy has always been an actor with undeniable range in depth and capability, but as Kevin he displays a literal Broadway offering of a one man show that eclipses anything that he has ever done by a mile. Being that this is the same actor portraying these different personalities, McAvoy must commit everything he has in personality and physical stature to fully distinguish each of the many people living inside of this man’s head. This is certainly no easy feat, but I found myself astonished at just how effortlessly James transformations always exceeded the line of believability. The accents are key here because no two of them are ever the same, vibrantly echoing many geographical locations like New York, London, or Southern America to name a few. It’s a treat to hear this, but the visual spectacle by an actor going where no other has gone before is what takes it to a new level. You believe the morphing and distortion in body traits that is being described on-screen because McAvoy always does it in front of our very eyes. To see this, makes for some truly remarkable dedication to the characters, and it’s clear that James doesn’t pick favorites in the value of each one, because each turn is made even more memorable with his undeterred charisma radiating its way through our skin in the form of goosebumps. Anya Taylor Joy is also commendable once more with her haunting facials and mesmerizing eyes that always accurately depict the true trauma and uncertainty that these teenage girls are enduring. Joy herself has a backstory that I will get to later on, and it proves that McAvoy isn’t the only likable character in the film, and the distinction between them grows blurry as the movie moves on.

The movie is basically narrating two stories for us simultaneously. In the foreground, there’s of course the unfolding events of everything going on with this kidnapping. The subplot however is something that I felt was much more tragic in terms of psychological harm. When the movie begins, we learn that there’s something different to Joy’s character, and that these three women are anything but the ideal trio of high school females that grew up as friends. Through one layer at a time of peeled exposition, we learn that there’s a reason why Casey seems more calm than the other two. I felt that this side story was a valuable addition, but there were times when its progression felt jarring and even halting to the lack of time and attention to our first story. Some scenes even fade to black completely before interchanging back and forth. It rarely feels smooth, and could’ve used a little more emphasis on the fluidity of editing. Like any great Shyamalan movie, there is a twist, two actually. Both of which feel necessary without ever truly compromising the story’s integrity similarly to The Village or Lady In the Water. The first twist confirmed perhaps what I already knew about a character, but the second twist turned my world upside down in a possible S.C.U. That’s Shyamalan Cinematic Universe.

The movie does have some ADR problems in voice editing/mixing, but the biggest problem is in the finale when a few appropriate measures either prolong or promote the annoying convenience of illogical stances. The ending itself is something that will undoubtedly divide audiences right down the middle. I enjoyed it personally, but feel like it lacks the kind of satisfaction in an ending that justified accordingly the nearly two hour run time. The third act has some promise however, with history repeating itself in a certain decision that gives Casey another chance at re-writing it, and the jarring similarities in setup certainly served by this critic as poetic justice for an opportunity that sometimes all of us wait for, but rarely ever get.

Split is 23 accounts of McAvoy’s brilliance that never bend under the pressure of a script that depends on him faithfully. Shyamalan is at his best when he’s commanding low budget thrills with a claustrophobic and respectable stance on the very things that make everyone different. With some tighter storytelling and some slight catering to the audience during the final battle, this one nearly missed being extraordinary. As it stands, Split finds its identity through the eyes of a maniac that relates that the different are the powerful.

7/10

Patriots Day

One of the most tragic events in U.S history gets a big-screen telling, in Peter Berg’s Patriots Day. In the aftermath of an unspeakable attack, Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) joins courageous survivors, first responders and investigators in a race against the clock to hunt down the bombers of the Boston Marathon of 2013 before they strike again. Weaving together the stories of Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) and nurse Carol Saunders (Michelle Monaghan) this visceral and unflinching chronicle captures the suspense of one of the most sophisticated manhunts in law enforcement history and celebrates the strength of the people of Boston through four days of unsettling fear. Patriots Day is rated R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use.

Peter Berg’s most revealing and most intimate project takes him on a complete full circle of his career, back to the place where it all started; Boston. Being a product of Beantown itself, means that Peter is the perfect man to depict the acts that transpired in one of the darkest days not only in Boston, but in America as a whole. Through an unapologetic stance in filmmaking, Berg displays the beauty of life, and the desire to fight back. That’s really what this movie entails. It isn’t just a story for the iron will of this heroic city, but one of the American spirit that simply will not be broken. It’s a story of love conquering all, and that love being the last weapon against those who lurk in the shadows. Berg’s passionate response to this story is clearly evident in the way he directs real life drama without ever backing down or sugar coating these events to his audience. It is one of the reasons why he has become arguably the most patriotic director working today, emoting a love for the virtue of great American storytelling, while presenting angles to these tragedies not seen in even the age of 24/7 technology.

Berg’s talents as a director reach far greater levels than pointing and shooting. He goes into the smoke cloud where shock and fear devour these people whole, and steadies us through an uncomfortable viewing to the after from every cause. There is a kind of point-of-view feel to the action that is transpiring, piggy-backing us over the shoulders of Wahlberg running into all of the chaos. Nothing here ever feels like a gimmick or artificial to the story, instead presenting a riveting account from ground zero. To give this movie a kind of 3D style of pulse-setting debris and rubble really relates the uncertainty of a situation that is unfolding before our very eyes in real time. Peter’s style in Patriots Day is mostly handheld, and I think that it is appropriate when you’re shooting a movie of great suspense and tragedy. Nothing is ever missed despite the difficulty in the evolving magnitude of everything going on around our protagonists, and that’s a testament to handheld over shaky-cam any day. There’s also a strong artistic value to what Peter does with such intimate set pieces. One scene in particular is a shoot-out between the terrorists and the law enforcement that rattles the very seat of the audience with heart-pounding grit in sound production that shakes the block. This was my personal favorite scene of the movie, as it encapsulates equally the urgency of each side from their point-of-view against the other. Each explosion feels so impactful for this picture, and it adds to an already visually rewarding experience where Berg once again takes us to the heart of the story.

The story has a couple of problems that took away from my experience, and it’s mostly in the decision to make this an ensemble story that follows as many as ten different characters throughout. There’s so much fluff in a movie like this that barely ever goes anywhere, and more times than not it feels like a desperate attempt in exposition to push this past the two hour barrier, a mark it succeeds at only because each character is given ample time in front of the camera to push an unnecessary narrative. Is it nice to present the tragedy from so many personal angles? Sure, but these story arcs could be removed all the same and nothing would be sacrificed creatively in the story. Those characters involved in big events don’t need a backstory before it, and could instead just be seen on camera for that one particular scene. For this movie to follow just Mark Wahlberg’s character and the terrorists, would make this A much tighter and smooth transition from scene-to-scene, instead of halting the story every few minutes to see the same event from another angle in character. What does work in story is how this trio of screenwriters depict the unfurling of events quickly against A real time backdrop. This movie is very informative with what goes into a mystery this big, and the process of weeding down suspects to the final one. These kind of searching for clues on surveillance tapes and crime scene evidence, is what gives Patriots Day a refreshing creativity from other biopics that sometimes don’t relate enough to the search. What I found startling was just how fast the FBI invades this city and sets up camp in a matter of hours, and it proves further that Berg reveled in studying the first act of this story, and treated it just as important as the two that followed.

Being that this is an ensemble piece, there are only brief glimpses of stirring performances. Wahlberg in particular is playing his usual hero in Berg movies such as Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, but there’s not as much emphasis on his character for the dependency of this script. Despite one scene where he gives the speech about love that is heard in the trailers, Wahlberg can relax a little more than he did on the previous two films, and that is because of a strong big name supporting cast. John Goodman and J.K Simmons are enjoyable in their charismatic deliveries. Melissa Benoist steals scenes being in just three of them in the movie, but her character is something different and fresh for the young starlet, and I think it might be her best performance to date. Better than all of those however, is Kevin Bacon proving that he still has the ability to hold the audience in his hands, with long winded dialogue and soft-spoken energy. I was pleading for more time with this character throughout the movie, and that’s a testament to Bacon’s ability to play the every-man, despite being an FBI invader to the Boston P.D and these events that anyone had any time to intake before Bacon and crew showed up.

Patriots Day earns its heartfelt responses from the audience without settling for cringe-worthy American exploitative propaganda or manipulating the audience with emotions not faithful to the scene. Besides some narrative decisions that hinder this movie from ever being great, Peter Berg does once again triumph in shadowing the heroism in another American tragedy, this time on our own vulnerable soil. Peter’s January treat shows us the importance in community, and the heart that it takes to keep running through life’s biggest obstacles.
7/10

Hidden Figures

Three against-type minds are responsible for finding the Hidden Figures in getting to the moon in a race against rivals. As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers”, we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes. Hidden Figures is directed by Ted Melfi, and is rated PG for thematic elements and some adult language.

Hidden Figures is the first feel good hit of the year, balancing a force of positive energy and historical accuracy, and that emphasis on positivity brings something home for the whole family, not just the female and black aspect that the movie caters dearly to. This is very much a story about defying the odds over a situation that our three female protagonists were placed into because of society, and the kinds of burdens and handicaps that they have to overcome to achieve greatness in their career fields. That concept alone has always been one that I have clung so closely to, but it becomes a hell of a lot easier when an old idea is given a fresh take over a different backdrop. One thing that did worry me after seeing the trailers was that this movie would force-feed too much comedy into the script. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest, as this is very much a dramatic and honest presentation to this inspirational story that never settles for desperation to grab and hold its audience.

This is a story that pushes two themes equally. The last word being the key to any story allowed two hours to bridge what could be two evenly distributed and interesting movies during similar times. The first is of course the demeaning fashion of inequality among races. What’s refreshing about this particular example is that we’ve never seen it presented with the NASA foreground, and those lifestyle burdens more-than reared their ugly head in the work force of some of the highest branches of government offices. There’s something highly passionate about the ringing irony of one of America’s biggest institutions communicating aloud that one can be judged by their color, and that salty, bitter taste is what gives the movie a majority of its dramatic pulse. The second story is within the race itself that America had with Russia over the concept of space orbit. This is where the movie gets its urgency because we see the tension and the restlessness over IBM and the positives and negatives that such technology had on achieving their mission. The dawn of the computer pushed many people out of the door, so that essence of inevitability rings true in this gift. Perhaps a devil in the details sort of plot that solidifies how America paid the ultimate price to reign supreme.

Kudos to Ted Melfi for his vibrant, yet controlled style of shooting this movie and bringing back the dreamers age to the silver screen. It’s quite easy for biopics to feel hokey or wooden in their portrayals. A lot goes into performances, but the look is so much tougher to achieve in production. Visually, Hidden Figures is a film that looks like it very well could take place in modern day, and that direction in artistic design is something that is so much easier to relate to and compare it to the very negatives we still face in the race game. The budget is certainly there to communicate that this is the 60’s, but it never overlaps the real importance of the story or the characters, and that’s what gives Ted’s tribute to a high-stakes time a very selfless and honorable one. Melfi lets the developments be the true merit in his vision, without ever sacrificing one for the other with style and substance. I also greatly enjoyed the musical score produced by Pharell Williams that provided a vibrant energy for a movie that could easily be weighed down with such dark and disturbing themes. There’s always the promise of hope in the air, and that crisp air highlighted my experience tenfold because of the fun that transfers marvelously in his soft-spoken delivery in vocal range and musical tones.

The film does have its negatives, but it didn’t weigh too heavily on my final rating. For the first two acts, the movie is soundly paced in presenting its two stories in entertaining and somber lights that never dragged nor depleted. The problem with the final half hour is that the film sacrifices one, tying it up a little too carefully, to focus on the other that never gave us any surprises or elevation to add to the urgency that the first hour of the movie gave so carefully. That actually leads to my second and only other problem with the movie; the inevitability of predictability. Whether you know or don’t know much about these women, there’s never any surprises or kink in their directions to ever throw off the audience. There’s conflict in the movie, but I feel like as a screenwriter Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder don’t let it resonate long enough to feel the immense gravity of its disposition. This could very well be a Disney live action adults film for its heartwarming fashion, but the performances elevates it from being too safe during the climax.

What I love about this movie is that even though Henson is clearly the central protagonist, Spencer and Monae are given ample time to get their characters across, and they offer a triple threat of diverse offerings that engage the audience brilliantly. Taraji P Henson finally gets a film to shine her powerful delivery that builds up behind these foggy glasses. As Katherine, Henson is the brains of the group, omitting a side of confidence and intelligence that outshines the so-called experts in her field. Henson has an Oscar-worthy moment midway through the movie when her voice raises, and everything comes full circle with her rising pressures. This moment shook me in my auditorium seat, and only testified what we already knew about Henson; she’s a leading lady in any decade. Octavia Spencer is the brawns of the group, battling a snob boss in Kirsten Dunst’s character that limits her potential. Spencer’s soft-spoken Dorothy feels like she is the supervising figure for this race of women who are treated differently, and it’s in Octavia’s ability to demean the narrow-minded with such “A-matter-of-fact” retort that we don’t know whether to laugh or scream in solidarity. The biggest surprise of all continues to be Monae, who’s sass and determination made Mary my favorite character of the movie. Janelle’s performance does feel slightly a bit to modern for this age, but it doesn’t mean that her sarcastic delivery didn’t delight me behind every drop. Monae amazed me in last year’s Moonlight, but here she is given more time to hone her craft of witty persona and powerful feminism that make her the strong black woman that she shines on stage during musical performances today.

Hidden Figures adds up to something charming and appealing for all ends of the audience spectrum. Outlasting some biopic predictability and some spotty pacing that could’ve sliced ten minutes or so off of the finished product, Melfi’s entertaining and consistent reveal of this untold side of racism during the space age provides plenty of inspiration for women and African-Americans alike, that makes this drama an early treat in an otherwise usual January wasteland. Henson, Spencer and Monae are too magnetic to ever look away.

7/10

Train To Busan

Busan is about to get the nastiest of deliveries on a two hour “Train To Busan”. The investment manager Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) is a divorced man that lives in Seoul, with his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) and his mother. Seok Woo is a selfish man and neglects Soo-an that misses her mother that lives in Busan. On Soo-an’s birthday, she asks to visit her mother and Seok Woo travels with her with the intention of returning after lunch. They board the fast train KTX and a sick woman also boards another wagon. During the journey, the woman attacks a train staff and soon all the passenger in the wagon are attacked turning into zombies. Soon Seok Woo realizes that there is a zombie outbreak in South Korea and together with the passenger Sang Hwa (Dong-Seok Ma), who is traveling with his pregnant wife Sung Gyeong (Yu-Mi Jung), they isolate the safe front wagons from the infected ones. Along their journey, the non-infected passengers have to fight the zombies and the selfishness of the human being. “Train To Busan” is directed by Sang-Ho Yeon, and is rated R for brief scenes of blood/gore and heightened scenes of peril.

I’m a little late on hopping the “Train To Busan”, but the newest Asian zombie flick is a high-speed thriller that doesn’t have to settle for some of the tireless cliches that has reduced the genre to predictable, re-heated cinema. There are many things that Sang-Ho Yeon does well in the picture that can be appreciated from an original storytelling aspect, but it’s in his artistic direction where he gives us something fresh and admirable to add emphasis on something that would otherwise be taken as another B-grade horror flick that falls between the cracks of American release. Yeon definitely knows how to add dimensions to even the most claustrophobic of situations, and the way he breezes through this train is definitely not something to be underplayed. A real director can do so much with so little, and the setting of a train no matter how long can always be quite a handicap in the versatility of a script. I particularly enjoyed his continuous shots up and down the aisles that constantly followed the action through long storyboards of choreography. His style behind the lens gives us a dual offering of handheld and shaky camera effects that always feel like they are both being used equally at the right place and time. This is a director who is new to me, but someone who I will be looking for in future releases, and I hope his spell under Asian horror isn’t limited to just this initial offering.

One thing that I came to admire was a lot of the differences that this screenplay takes on to distance itself from other zombie films that have become as cold and distasteful as the very flock they are depicting. This is a movie surprisingly without a lot of blood or gore to it, and it proves that while this movie is a very light R-rating, there is enough room in the genre to do things right by PG-13 standards. The angles of the camera play hand-in-hand with what the director wants you to imagine and depict in your own mind, because that is where the terror musters at the most brutal. There’s also a strong undercurrent of emotional subplots here that up the stakes not only on the characters, but the urgency in time that each character has with one another. The main plot entails a distant workaholic Father and his daughter, and their relationship is one we are constantly rooting for despite the world crumbling down around them. This epidemic offers a strong transformation for our main male lead, and gives him a waking up of what is important despite years of playing the opposite. The film also offers a wide range of character exposition for some supporting cast that adds depth and detail to your investment in them, and doesn’t let them settle for being just another body count. What I found quite intriguing is that no character is the same by the end of the film for better or worse, and this quality time spent with each of them adds greater meaning when they survive a tense situation or when they have to finally say goodbye to us and their loved ones.

For nearly a two hour sit, “Train To Busan” leveled me in more strengths than weaknesses. It would certainly be easy for Yeon as a screenwriter to settle for tropes and outcomes that trigger predictability, but his tempo is constantly moving, offering very little downtime for the audience to breathe or rest, similar to our very characters who halt death at every stop. The setup does feel repetitive on a few occasions during the second act, and I could’ve used a sequence or two shaved off to make the impact of the zombie attacks feel that much more meaningful in spreading it out, instead of so often. Thankfully, the final forty minutes of the movie changes up the setting for a pulse-setting finale that is inevitably pleasing. There’s a lot of solid tension building when some surprises happen late in the movie, promoting the uncertainty of what lies behind every corner. What was impressive to me was that even the final frame of the movie is used for tension, a period that would normally be the triumph of our surviving cast. This relayed to me what I already knew; Yeon never stops constructing those scenes of irritation, and for that fact alone Busan never misses its stop.

Gong and Kim are an irresistible charm as the Father and Daughter duo whose rocky relationship is the foreground for what tests them mentally and physically over the next two hours. For a child actress, Kim is well beyond her years, offering a steady display of tears and emotion that triggers the parental instincts in all of us. Gong too relishes in the relatability to a character that doesn’t need the Superman transformation by the end of the movie to make us understand his love and compassion for his little girl. His character feels human, and the emphasis on that fact first helps us understand his thought process and risky behavior one more than one occasion. Gong himself as a character feels reserved and well-maintained despite everything, and it’s clear that his strength lies in his intelligence as opposed to his brute strength. Some of the supporting cast was slightly underwhelming. It’s clear that not much of a casting call was made to cast some of the zombie extras, who on more than one occasion were caught smiling or smirking during random close-ups. That lack of commitment slightly took me out of a couple of the attack sequences, but I didn’t fault much against them as it’s clear they’re all amateur extras.

Coming down the tracks with ferocious force, despite little blood, gore or horror tropes, “Train To Busan” is first class zombie cinema that is purely entertaining on nearly every end of the spectrum. In Yeon, we find a writer and director who feels very hands-on in only his third live action presentation to date. His emotional subtext will tug at your heart while his army of biters is feasting on your limbs. Satisfying thrills in compact settings that never hurls off of the tracks.

7/10

Miss Sloane

The most important issue in politics is in the hands of a lobbyist known to her competition as “Miss Sloane”. When a ruthless and highly successful political strategist, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), exposes the cutthroat world of D.C lobbyists on both sides of the gun control debate, with her ruthless tactics. New legislation requiring more stringent background checks for gun ownership is gaining traction in Congress, and Sloane is approached to spearhead the campaign, pitting her against the formidable power of her political opponents who know her best. Sloane faces an uphill battle to protect what she believes in, and silencing those critical of her brilliance. Deploying her notorious skills, and driven by a desire to win at all costs she jeopardizes those closest to her, and puts her own career at risk. “Miss Sloane” is directed by John Madden, and is rated R for Adult language and some sexuality.

“Miss Sloane” and John Madden accordingly take us into the fast-paced and often times controversial world of lobbyists and the price paid for pursuing such a career. If nothing else, this movie is an informative and poignant piece to get across those very sacrifices that those select few make, and I certainly can’t look at that position in politics the same way ever again. Before seeing this movie, I worried greatly not only for the entertainment value in such a concept, but also the understanding in communicating the strategies and concepts to what goes into every move. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest, as the movie’s personable approach makes for an easily understandable step-by-step procedural that will be easy for all to follow. However, if you’re someone who doesn’t like concept movies for example about chess and strategies of that caliber, then you’re not going to be too entranced by this world. I however have to say that Madden’s portrait of deception in the game of politics, when mixed with a very modern issue that is plaguing our own real world, presents a very alluring and scintillating viewing for one of the most deadly games that I have ever seen portrayed on film. The title character sank her hooks into me, and to describe it all in a single word; Ruthless.

This film is all about the performances, and from a top-notch, A-list cast of veterans and buzzworthy fresh faces, there’s plenty to gush about. Jessica Chastain continues her push as one of the most versatile actresses working in film today with her most lethal character to date. In Elizabeth Sloane, we meet a woman who is thirsty for competition, and will do anything to win at any cost. In that measure, there are times in the movie where she isn’t the most admirable of characters, but you never lose focus by what she is trying to accomplish. Chastain is not only one of my personal favorite actresses, but she is one of those leading ladies who has earned a reputation for being dependable despite the caliber in film. Her work here is magnetic because she exudes a personality that is every bit as intelligent as she is stone cold. Also joining us is film veterans like Sam Waterston and John Lithgow as two dirty Washington officials who oppose Sloane’s stance on anti-gun laws. Waterston offers a stirring performance that I have never seen from him. It’s quite refreshing to see him as an antagonist, and nothing in his delivery ever feels subdued or underwhelming. He is very much on-point with getting under the skin of his audience. Gugu Mbatha-Raw also gives another strong performance as a colleague of Sloane’s who has her own motivations for taking the job. Mbatha-Raw can deliver so much emotion in a singular stare to her opposition, and it’s a real treasure to see her and Chastain bounce off of each other for a majority of the second act, creating several proud moments for feminists who take this movie in.

This is a metaphorical chess game of sorts, with the opposition crafting out every move, and us the audience awaiting that pursuit before our very eyes. Considering most of our time is spent with Sloane and her team, we don’t see a lot of the motivations being brewed up on the other side. I really dug this approach to the surprises that hit us every time, and I was all for keeping the antagonists as shadowy of an entity as possible. Lobbyists have always been considered the slime of Washington, and what’s brilliant about Madden’s picture is he doesn’t try to combat any of that. Instead, he procures enough logic and reasoning to offer even seconds of relatability to the audience watching at home. You don’t have to appreciate what these men and women quite literally sell their souls to, but you do have to understand that A lot more than you think goes into it, and that curtain being pulled back is something that is educational, as well as disturbing as to what is being brewed within the underbelly of our nation’s capital. One curiosity that stirs within me is how this movie will be received considering it’s only marketed towards half of the population. If you support the second amendment strongly, “Miss Sloane” isn’t going to be your cup of tea, and this is a very brave stance when you consider how strongly this could effect the intake at the weekend box office. Madden is clearly a man who would rather preach a strong message before making money, and whether any of us agree or disagree with his politics, you have to respect that he puts his message before his wallet.

That’s not to say that “Miss Sloane” doesn’t have its problems. Most notably, the movie is about twenty minutes too long, clocking in at two-hours-and-twelve minutes, its ending is a little too contrived in the convenience of Hollywood endings, and considering the title of the movie, we learn very little about our central protagonist and why she stands so firmly for the issues she shares prejudice in. On the latter, the movie teases this question several times throughout the film, and it kind of just falls flat, failing to garner the proper answer that those of us have been looking for. Miss Sloane is very much a shadow to her opposition, as well as her audience, and that decision lacks major emphasis for the movie to draw us in closer to the woman who showcases such interpretive moments of loneliness in her world of power. I would’ve enjoyed slightly more vulnerability within the character, as I was left feeling like I learned everything about lobbyists and very little about the person who was the majority in marketing for the movie.

“Miss Sloane” is a powerfully constructed political thriller that rests souly on the shoulders of Chastain’s dependable delivery. What was surprising was just how intrigued the movie keeps its audience, despite an idea that should be anything but exciting on paper. John Madden’s vigorous portrait of determinism to serve the clients is the first step theatrically into the clutches of a post-Trump election, and who better than a ruthless woman to lead the charge?

7/10