Lowriders

In southern Los Angeles, the lower you go the better in the competition that has the Mexican-American community battling for prestigious rights. In “Lowriders”, Set against the vibrant backdrop of East LA’s near-spiritual car culture, Danny (Gabriel Chavarria) is a talented young street artist who is caught between the lowrider underworld inhabited by his old-school father (Demián Bichir) and ex-con brother Ghost (Theo Rossi), and the adrenaline-fueled outlet of graffiti art that defines his self-expression. When Danny’s life comes to a crossroads, he must make the decision between family and family to steer him on the right path towards an ambitious future. “Lowriders” is directed by Ricardo de Montreuil in his first feature film, and is rated PG-13 for adult language, some violence, sensuality, thematic elements and brief drug use.

“Lowriders” approaches the concepts and the histories of one of automobile’s most prolific models and spins it into a family drama that is equally as compelling as it is informative. For the first half hour of this movie, I really didn’t know what to expect, but was slightly worried that this movie would serve more as a biopic for its automotive title character, and less about the spinning web of family tangling going on within the picture. Thankfully, my worries were put to rest, as de Montreuil’s film is a portrait on the struggles of family grief, as well as a front-and-center love-letter to the kind of arts and concepts that go into the car. From Ricardo’s point-of-view, the car is really just the table dressing to the main course that simmers underneath the hood. The real story is in the trio of family characters here whose pasts have set them on different sides of the tracks respectively. There’s a real understanding of the essence not only in the Mexican-American community and its families, but also in that of Southern Los Angeles for the visual spectre and feels of this melting pot that constantly keeps on boiling for its many of stories under one roof. This is just one of those stories, and it brought me enough suitable entertainment for 93 minutes that it’s really difficult to ever begrudge it for the few things it does misfire on.

What I enjoy about the narrative is that we as an audience are coming into this story with the past already playing a pivotal meaning in the relationships between each of the sons with his Father. Danny as a protagonist is kind of that young adult who is at a crossroads within his own life, so when the return of his absent Brother comes into play, we immediately see the effects of such an influence in his own life. For me, the most compelling aspect of this movie was between the divided relationship of Ghost and his Father, which took the movie on slightly more serious turns than what the gimmick of lowriders could do for the story. It’s in this subplot where we attain the knowledge of just how important these man-made structures are to the overall enlightenment of the audience watching at home, and for me it was during the brief interaction between these two when the movie prospers the most. The film doesn’t necessarily paint Ghost as this villain character, instead choosing to focus on the positives and negatives within each of the three main characters. After he gets out of prison, his actions dictate the kind of person and influence that he wants to be to Danny, and this is where the film nearly lost me in the shuffle of conventionalism that felt like it was playing desperately to studio needs.

The film does at times feel slightly by-the-numbers, in that you can see the outline of the predictable story, even if it takes some unorthodox methods of attaining this status. The second act of the film is definitely the dullest for me in terms of wiggle room for this outline, and suddenly there are some vast character shifts that kind of alienate the equal moral compass that the film once prescribed for itself. There is also a romantic interest for Danny introduced in the form of Melissa Benoist that felt shoe-horned in, and assured even more of such towards the end of the movie when it’s never brought up again after their “Routine” couple drama that happens in every movie for the sake of it. It’s nothing that I could fault it for too much, but if you’ve seen one of these kind of hard knocks lifestyle movies, you’ve seen them all, and “Lowriders” does very little to distance itself from an overcrowded genre that feels like we’ve seen everything by this point. The final act does pick itself up slightly, and there’s enough mystery and intrigue in the film’s closing minutes to put the story back to where it needs to be first and foremost; the dramatic circumference between this family’s tangled web that desperately needs healing. Without spoiling too much, I think the ending satisfied this craving while adding enough uncertainty between them that feeds into ideals of cleansing, in that not everything is as simple as open and shut.

One aspect to the movie that did fruitfully achieve the Los Angeles color palate was that of the shot composition and overall cinematography by Andres Sanchez that really illuminated this picture. There’s a constant tinge of yellow to the film’s illustration, radiating the always sunny backdrop of Southern L.A that shines on its blacktop streets. The camera work here is carefully depicted in that it has that grainy kind of visual to it, but moves fluently with and around our characters to capture the cheap essence of an independent movie. This is a worthy choice to me because pristine visuals that are too clean will sometimes spoil the feel of the environment that the movie’s creative engine is trying to depict. Because of such, de Montreuil feels like the right man for the job in constructing the right visual tones for the film that depict the city of angels as a character in itself. A place where the streets can make or break you, depending on which one you take.

As for performances, “Lowriders” has a solid Mexican-American dominated cast that more-than gladly took the ball and ran with their meaty characters. Demian Birchir is someone we’re starting to see more of, with recent turns in “The Hateful Eight”, as well as “Alien: Covenant”, but he feels most at home with family drama as gritty as this. Birchir’s pop character has lost a lot in his life, most notably his wife who passed away off-screen, so the values that he tries to store upon Danny feel like the only thing he has left. Birchir is warm and humble as this father figure, but not afraid to raise his tones when he feels threatened, a true Father figure if there ever was one. As for youthful approaches, Chavarria takes his first lead in a major motion picture, and Rossi once again steals the show as a sneaky antagonist we love to hate. On the former, Danny is every bit the kind of typical protagonist you expect to see in these films, often times making the stupid decisions to cater to his youth, but the slow aging of how Chavarria supplants this character is what makes him profitable to this story. Rossi himself can do so much in a look that tells you everything you need to know about his character, and as far as visual traits go, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Hollywood who can stare into the camera emoting such deceit.

THE VERDICT – “Lowriders” does muddle occasionally in predictably shallow waters in overall plot structure, but the film’s warm-hearted peak into an often under-executed Mexican-American setting, and authentic visual presentation more than make up for some of the short-comings that can hinder it from going the full mile. Ricardo de Montreuil’s film doesn’t feel forced to keep the story on the road, instead choosing to focus on the ardent entanglements of forgiveness that has plagued this family’s future.

7/10

Beatriz at Dinner

The least unlikely of guests is pulling up a seat at the upper class table to shake things up, in “Beatriz at Dinner”. Beatriz (Salma Hayek), an immigrant from a poor town in Mexico, has drawn on her innate kindness to build a career as a health practitioner in Southern California among the cultural elite. Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) is a real estate developer whose cutthroat tactics have made him a self-made, self-satisfied billionaire. When these two polar opposites meet at a dinner party, their worlds collide in a battle of classification, and neither will ever be the same. As the night progresses, secrets get exposed, and the two’s differences soon are brought to the table, as money is the one true difference between them. “Beatriz at Dinner” is directed by Miguel Arteta, and is rated R for adult language and a scene of violence.

There are films that often depict the differences and gentrification among our two societies; upper and lower class, but none have rarely ever left the resonating sting that Arteta’s film leaves us with only moments after the final shot. “Beatriz at Dinner” is very much a film about encounters, whether they be once in a lifetime, or that rare occasion that fate has marked your path with a particular person for the rest of time. We consider these engagements as nothing more than coincidence, but this movie tugs at the spiritual reckoning a bit more, provoking a thought from within if such a clash is indeed fate. As a character, Beatriz considers herself meant to heal the people she touches physically and mentally every day, but we slowly learn a little bit more about her past, which makes the shot-in-the-dark chance of seeing a prominent figure from that era all the more breathtaking, considering the population and the immensity of our growing planet. The question of fate feels engaging enough here for the audience, especially considering there’s so much more to this story that makes up where this vital 75 minutes of screen time takes us.

I was very taken aback by just how layered the team-up of Arteta and screenwriter Mike White focus in on this elegant dinner party that never runs low on awkward exchanges. Because of such, the tense atmospheric vibes in the air always ring the loudest, even so much as to override the prestigious occasion of what the characters are all here to celebrate. Despite me being leaps-and-bounds away from these people in classification, I found myself commending the film’s plotting for how its conversations and reactions felt so authentic with that of the upper class and what they deem important to the consequences of those suffering from their wealth. Whether White intended for this to be a comedy or not, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with how much I delighted in the snobbery that overtook these scenes repeatedly, and the reaction of Hayek’s Beatriz, who feels like the only human element between them all. So often was the ignorance of this brigade brought out in the way they ignored, and even talked over that of Beatriz every time she had a thought to bring to the table.

From a screenplay perspective, the film feels like a stage play to me, in that the conversations and story rarely ever move away from the group, choosing instead to document all of the interaction for its importance later on in the closing minutes. Everything that we hear from the pasts of these polar opposite characters, is shaping everything that you need to know about their respectively contrasting perspectives. This effect in sequencing does wonders for the performances, particularly in that of Lithgow and Hayek who radiate everything combative in a current-Trump Americana, but there is a kind of unfortunate compromise within this direction that comes with how everything flows through the three acts. The film has three different encounters that surround this dinner, and the routine of each becomes clearly transparent with each passing scene, operating on a wash, rinse, repeat cycle that couldn’t be more evident. Because Beatriz will sometimes get up and leave the group, it feels like the tension must start over before the next sequence, instead of flowing naturally for one huge ball of fire explosion at the end.

This of course brings me to the biggest negative within the film; the ending itself. Considering this is a film that barely reaches over an hour, the finale itself will definitely be the most memorable aspect to the movie, and unfortunately it finished with a bad taste in my mouth that is still digesting. Without spoiling it, the inevitable confrontation between Lithgow and Hayek becomes apparent, but the movie would rather throw a shock factor twist in the screenplay, instead of approaching this with the honesty and earnestness needed to hammer its importance home. Because of such, there are kind of two endings to this film. The first one, I was honestly fine with, despite its juxtaposition stance on tonal shifting that didn’t feel cohesive with the rest of the script. The second ending is dreadful on nearly every position, and won’t do anything for any of the audience expecting redemption. It just kind of fizzles out unfortunately and does very little for the previous 65 minutes that really held my attention firmly in its grasp.

Thankfully, the performances picked up my final grade of the movie, and conjured up some top-notch casting that didn’t disappoint. While the performances of Lithgow and Hayek dominate the movie, the entire group here involving names like Connie Britton and Chloe Sevingly each adding a meaty repertoire to their characters that certainly shape every upper class nightmare that we’ve ever imagined. Salma Hayek kills it here. Her Beatriz is a woman who has lived her life constantly around the greed and gluttony that has shaped her fire burning calmly underneath. When it spreads, we see a force beneath her smiling exterior, and it soon becomes apparent that she doesn’t care who she offends. John Lithgow is also a delight, despite being possibly the biggest asshole you will ever encounter. Lithgow plays this role soundly, despite the fact that I’ve never seen him as an antagonist in anything else. His timing and ignorance seemed to perk up at just the right times, and his snob never feels like a stereotype that is often depicted in these roles. Lithgow is the real deal, and fills in the shadow outlines accordingly for the antagonist that Beatriz deserves and relishes in pointing out the harm that his greed has caused.

THE VERDICT – “Beatriz at Dinner” has plenty to feast upon, but it’s mostly in the performances of its two leads, as well as an intoxicating atmosphere played out to an awkward sizzle that successfully cleanses our demanding palate. The ending feels like a missed opportunity of sorts, but the appropriately timed melodrama from Miguel Arteta is a provocative little independent movie that spreads awareness of the two ideals of the American dream, and how one feels slightly more important because of its over-indulgence on the color of green.

7/10

Megan Leavey

The relationship that one U.S soldier has with her dog eases her removal from family and friends who are now thousands of miles away. “Megan Leavey” is based on the true life story of a young marine corporal in question (Kate Mara) whose unique discipline and bond with her military combat dog saved many lives during their deployment in Iraq. When she is assigned to clean up the K9 unit after a disciplinary hearing, Leavey identifies with a particularly aggressive dog named Rex, and is given the chance to train him. Over the course of their service, Megan and Rex completed more than 100 missions until an IED explosion injures them, putting their fate in jeopardy. After returning home, Megan spends her days fighting for the removal of Rex from the war scene, while hoping to adopt her canine best friend. She finds out that the obstacles at home are just as difficult to overcome as the ones she once faced while dodging gunfire. “Megan Leavey” is directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite in her first narrative film, and is rated PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements.

I didn’t gather the greatest buzz after seeing the trailer for “Megan Leavey” over and over again, throughout nearly every movie that I’ve seen over the last four months. My biggest fear with these movies involving animals is that the film will feel meandering and slightly corny for the magical superpowers that the canine will have. Thankfully, those concerns can be put to bed, as “Megan Leavey” is a capable enough biopic that stays firmly grounded in the events surrounding the movie’s two best friends. The film works efficiently enough as two different kinds of movies; one about the PTSD that many soldiers human and non deal with when they return to homeland soil, and a melodrama about the values of friendship in the strangest of places. There are very few limitations in Cowperthwaite’s first big budget presentation, and what speed bumps that it does hit come too late to spoil the creative directions that Gabriella hits on time-and-time-again. Either way, this movie will warm your heart and even steal quite a few tears on the way to telling this moving true story that competently pushes near the two hour barrier.

What impresses me greatly about the detailed screenplay by the trio of writers is not only the fluidity that the tone of the movie continues to move in, despite having more than one cook in the kitchen, but also how in-depth the film takes its responsibility to showcasing Megan’s long road overseas. For the first act of this film, there’s a solid circumference of Megan’s troubled past, some of which involve the passing of a best friend that leaves her at a crossroads with her own life, and also the training that goes into being a marine and one that becomes a canine carrier. The film’s informative approach to building a bond with these animals is one that I greatly appreciated, and proves that animals (like humans) take a long time to earn their trust. How this plays into Megan’s past is that Rex becomes this sort of life-changing miracle that removes her from her shell and inspires her to live again, despite their dangerous re-location of Iraq that plays such a pivotal catch-22 in their blossoming trust.

The second act continues this trend, vitalizing the growth between both of them, in the field of battle where every decision comes with such grave risk. The action during this section of the film is shot exceptionally, even if one particular C.G.I explosion scene stood out like a sore thumb. Regardless, the pacing keeps chugging along, and I was surprised at just how little was left in the film considering what we know from the trailers hasn’t even happened yet. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything since anyone going into this film should already know from the trailers, but there’s a dangerous attack that takes Megan out of action, and leaves Rex alone in this dangerous place without the human who knows him best. This is where the film’s weakness appears, as the final act of this movie withers away any possibilities to further dive into the effects that war has had on Megan’s psyche. The movie does hint at some glaring issues periodically, but it feels greatly avoiding what could impact her loneliness even more. Rex should be the key transition in Megan’s return home, but instead the final minutes of this movie ignore what has already been proven there for the inevitability that didn’t feel even remotely rewarding for how predictable it came across. Bluntly put, there were more articulate avenues that this film could’ve crossed, but it ends on such a conventional note whose plain taste is unavoidable as a kind of disappointment when stood up against the acts that came before it.

The visuals of the film command the camera with handheld work that has been known to annoy me from time-to-time, but it works elusively here because of the dangers that surround war, and how much of a benefit a camera that moves with our soldiers is to relaying the think-fast concepts of the profession of dog carriers. The editing never goes overboard in the heap of battle, and the sound editing/mixing lines up perfectly with the firepower that is depicted. Despite the fact that their use of range is limited exclusively to the second act of this film, the technical side of this film always held up, and did a hell of a job immersing us into this world that is certainly hard enough to see humans go through, let alone man’s best friend.

As for performances, there’s nothing that’s ever terrible, but this is kind of a missed opportunity in particular for Kate Mara, as her filmography up to this point has limited her on the kind of talents as a versatile actress that she possesses. I say missed opportunity because Gabriela’s character direction as opposed to her narrative approach feels at times non-existent, removing the possibility of an emotional release that could open a lot of eyes to her leading lady. For what she’s given here, Kate is solid enough, radiating a charm in Megan that makes it easy to invest in her despite her moral flaws early on, but we’re rarely given a chance to sell the troubles of her rehab, despite the entirety of the third act in which she’s alone and sole focus for the taking of the audience hearts. Besides Mara, there are solid turns by Bradley Whitford as Megan’s father, being the lone positive influence in her life, as well as another outside of the box turn for Tom Felton as a hard-headed drill sergeant who sees potential in Leavey. In Felton in particular, it’s still a little difficult to not see him as a villain, but his hearty turn here speaks levels to the very spirit of the American soldier that leaves everything on the field of battle.

THE VERDICT – While “Megan Leavey” does leave slightly more to be desired with the dramatic pull of a lackluster final act, the first hour of the film makes up for it by building on a duo in which the other person is greatly important to the future well-being of the other. Cowperthwaite’s character direction could afford to get a little more hands-on with the developments of performance, but what she lacks in exposition she more than makes up for in versatility of where this story takes us. “Megan Leavey” isn’t flawless in its uneven structure, but its sentimental stirring about the values of loyalty, sacrifice, and purpose flesh-out this critic’s soft spot for a love story of the canine kind.

7/10

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Lifted from the pages of the best-selling children’s graphic novel, a new superhero has come to town, and he doesn’t even require pants. “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” boasts a terrific A-list cast like comic heavyweights Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, and Nick Kroll. DreamWorks Animation brings audiences the long-awaited global movie event, That revolves around George and Harold, two child pranksters living in Piqua, Ohio, who hypnotize their over-controlling principal Benny Krupp into thinking he’s a ridiculously enthusiastic, yet incredibly dimwitted superhero named Captain Underpants, whom the duo have illustrated in their own personal free time. After donning the cape and tighty-whities, Krupp must deal with the arrival of the evil German scientist known as Professor Poopypants who is out to end world-wide laughter. “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” is directed by David Soren, and is rated PG for mild rude humor throughout.

Growing up, I remember reading the Captain Underpants novels as an early teenager, and I found their brand of toilet bowl humor, combined with practicality when it comes to animation style, to be a cut above the rest in bridging the gap from one age group to the next. The movie catches wind on a lot of the same sails creatively, bringing to life perhaps the craziest superhero that the graphic world has ever encountered. For a limited run time of 80 brief minutes, “The First Epic Movie” conjures up a thoughtful side to the superhero genre that the entirety of live action offerings just can’t capture. Comics first and foremost should be for kids, and a world of imagination that peels back the layers of fantasy and making them reality. David Soren’s film certainly captures that aspect in spades, providing a satirical commentary on childhood imagination that encourages its story to tell it from their point-of-view. In doing so, this movie finds a comfortable medium in tone that proves time-and-time-again that nothing is off limits when it comes to the bizarre and unorthodox, and it’s that unchained response that offers something for the whole family.

From an animation perspective, this is a gorgeous movie, offering throughout a breaking of the fourth wall that doesn’t limit the artistic integrity to just one kind of style. What I mean by this is that in addition to the breathtaking rendering here of the town and its inhabitants, there’s also cut away scenes that colorfully narrate what each boy is discussing for that sequence. I compare its style in illustration to that of the 2015 “The Peanuts Movie”. Where the alteration comes in is that these textures radiate more to the amateur drawer in all of us when we were kids, presenting a style that swims in a Crayola current of free-flowing streams. In addition to this, there’s also a lot of scenes in which the colors splash across and overtake the look and feel of each character to emote whenever they are happy, sad, or in grave danger. This gives the movie a kind of comic book authenticity that constantly reminded me that we are indeed in the land where superpowers make anything possible, speaking levels to the chain that bonds this delightful duo of protagonists in their unbreakable link to their favorite hero.

On the subject of that friendship, we get a real candid look at the importance that George and Harold play in the other’s lives, even going so far as to hold its value hand-in-hand with that of the madness developing around them. There is no getting around it, everything that happens in this movie is because of them and their imaginations that never stop, nor slow down, and always feel continuously in-sync with one another. What I commend the film for is not presenting some flimsy subplot that temporarily divides them because of a stupid argument or differing opinion. These two stay together for the entirety of the film, and it really spoke volumes to me that this might be the single best duo of any film in 2017. There is a negative side to that in terms of narration however, as Captain Underpants himself plays such a miniscule role overall in the finished product. Considering the title of this movie, there is a bit of a letdown with the exposition of Underpants, and what makes him tick. He certainly made me laugh, but his urgency in time and inevitability that his existence must end soon, certainly leaves more to be desired with the dramatic itch that went unscratched within the movie. This film stays purely comedic, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.

I’m usually not one for toilet humor because it reminds me constantly of the Adam Sandler B-movie plots that have sunk a once prominent actor, but in “The Epic First Movie”, those moral capacities make sense and never hinder or take away from the fluidly moving pace that rarely ever slowed down. Some jokes do last for a tad bit too long, speaking to the kind of Seth Mcfarlane humor that can sometimes overstay its welcome. It doesn’t do too much harm to the movie, and most of it feels like fluff for how quick of a movie that we are presented with. Overall, I did laugh quite a few times at this movie, and that’s mostly because of its impeccable timing when it came to the bizarre observations that it was saying out loud. I have great faith that this movie will win older audiences over as well because as dumb as it gets, it seems to build itself stronger for a third act that requires you to leave any maturity at the door. The film even pokes fun at this concept, signaling out the ones who balk at toilet humor, and check our age at the door. To this regard, “Captain Underpants” is an infectious little-engine-that-could of a film that constantly reaches for a pulse in its audience, depending on the very wonderment and mayhem of youth that never ends.

Credit to Hart and Middleditch for lending their electric personalities to the vocal work of George and Harold, leading a comedic cast of who’s who in the industry who give to this picture. Hart in particular has always been an off-the-wall personality, so the decision to voice an adventurous child is one that feels like a meant to be marriage. I don’t know much about Middleditch, but his commitment to playing the straight man of the duo and registering the biggest response from his dry demeanor is one that is very valuable to the material here. Together, the two of them make it difficult to focus on anyone else, and certainly give in to the temptation of being bad influences when they are together. Nick Kroll also deserves major praise for voicing the villain known as Professor Poopypants. Kroll is virtually indistinguishable here, delivering a German accent that increases the laughter for how serious his character is trying to pass for. I just spoke about “Wonder Woman” and how comic book movies in general lack intriguing villains. Then a guy named Poopypants comes along and puts them all to shame with a sinister plan to wipe away laughter, and despite how silly it is, it actually works behind a terrifying plan.

THE VERDICT – Animation movies have gotten off to a rocky start thus far in 2017, but “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” puts the horse ahead of the cart by embracing a thirst for silly sight gags, as well as endless pranks and hijinks that transform all of us to a simpler time. Besides a lack of the title character, as well as a brief stretching of the occasional one-liner, Soren’s epic catches wind early on with indulging animation that sets a colorful stage for our pranksters to highlight their craft. With Hart and Middleditch at the helm, there’s no constricting or wedgie in this charming brief(s).

7/10

Everything, Everything

The well-being of a terminally ill teenage girl could rest in the clutches of a newfound love with her next door neighbor, in ‘Everything, Everything’. Based on the Young Adult novel of the same name, the film centers around A 17 year old girl named Madeline Whittier (Amandla Stenberg), who has a rare disease that causes her to have to stay indoors 24/7 with her filtered air, free from the joys of adolescence . Her whole life is basically books, her mom Pauline (Anika Noni Rose), and her nurse Carla(Ana de la Reguera). One day, a moving truck pulls in next door. There she sees and meets Olly (Nick Robinson). Olly Bright is Maddy’s new neighbor. They get to know each other through emails. The more they get to know each other, the more they fall in love. Olly starts to make Maddy realize that she isn’t really living until she faces her fears and steps outside of the box. This starts the adventures of Maddy’s new life, stretching the stability of her fragile situation. Everything, Everything is directed by first time director Stella Meghie, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality.

When a Young Adult novel is translated from page to screen, there’s usually a big sacrifice involved in the screenplay to chop and edit the lengthy exposition that favored the unlimited amount of time in pages. Everything, Everything doesn’t necessarily suffer from these kind of problems, but there is a certain feeling of description and pulse from the pages that I took away from this movie. Considering we get a Young Adult romance movie every year now since The Fault In Our Stars stole our hearts in the Summer of 2014, the imitators often feel exactly that; imitation. But Everything, Everything has a heart that beats efficiently well because of the chemistry that is harvested by its two youthful leads, as well as a script that amazes within the first two acts for its simplistic touch in transpiring screenplay. There is the case for usual laughably executed cliches that reside fondly in these kind of movies, but they all echo to that place in teenage romance that burn on the plateaus of awkwardness and embarrassment that we’ve all been through at one time or another during our first loves.

What I commend Stella Meghie for in sense of direction, especially considering this is her debut film, is that she captures the purity within this interracial relationship, and never uses it as a gimmick or a balancing act in the adversity between the two. Their love is very organic and radiant because of an element of innocence that resides within Maddie’s personality in particular. As the film continues on, you begin to see the transformation within her in terms of her living for the first time because of this slice of the outside that has so fondly tightened his grip around her daily routine. Never for a minute does this movie require to bait racial divides as a subplot within its rich exterior, and I can’t say enough great things about what that does for the maturity of the film, as well as the progression of where our still narrow-minded world paints this kind of picture, nearly twenty years into the 21st century. This should be a story first and foremost about the kind of physical obstacles that divide them, and thankfully the film has enough of these to really throw a few kinks into the emotional investments of each-and-every one of the audience watching the screen.

I mentioned before that the script stays quite simplistic, and it accomplishes this by focusing purely on the growing friendship-turned-relationship between Maddie and Olly. The introduction to the film does tell us what we need to know about Maddie’s condition, but the visuals of a secluded house that feels light years away from the outside world does more than enough to tell us about the fragile situation that this girl entails every single day. I found myself finding the first hour of the movie corny but cute, never for a second alienating its teenage audience who will shell out the bucks to see it. The chemistry between this duo intrigued me enough to where I felt that their relationship was the only thing that I needed to be entertained for an hour-and-a-half, even if it lacked complexity or depth with couples like Hazel and Augustus from The Fault In Our Stars. The second act ups the stakes slightly, as the duo take an exotic trip that really stretches the immunity of Maddie’s condition. We’re so glued and invested in their growing bond that we forget that at any moment this whole thing could crumble down around them, and surprisingly, the disease is the least of the problems for them moving forward.

To say that I didn’t fully understand the direction or the pacing of the final act is an understatement. For an hour, the film didn’t need obvious suspenseful tropes to be used to springboard the intrigue for this very film, and then in the last half hour, the whole story kind of gets flipped on its head with a plot twist that does stretch the boundaries of believability quite a bit. Even in the novel sense, this alteration in direction and tone for the movie does feel desperate with needing a dramatic pulse to close out the film. I mentioned the pacing a minute ago, and it feels like so much is crowded into this final half hour that you could’ve easily stretched this film to two hours, creating a fluent flow of sequencing that would at least give respect in time to these serious hurdles that often feels slighted over. It didn’t completely ruin the movie for me, but the flaws of cramming too much in and shattering the conveniences of conventionalism within this young romance, gave off the impression that two contrasting films were being pushed together to craft a Frankenstein monster that only has one leg to stand on.

As for the performances, nobody does a terrible job, but in the case of our two leads, it constantly felt that they were better whenever they were together. Separately, there’s just not enough material for any of them to take control of the screen. Most notably, Stenberg’s Maddie is the most versatile and commanding of the entire cast, and not just because she is in 95% of the scenes, but more so that this young phenom warms our hearts with a smile that could and often does light up a room. Together, Robinson and Stenberg show us what it means to be young and experience the single greatest emotion that elevates the both of them from their empty lives. I wish some more emphasis was used on Olly’s subplot with his abusive Father. I feel like this would’ve given Robinson the opportunity to equal his female counterpart, but as far as male protagonists go, Olly just isn’t given the screen time to make him truly memorable.

THE VERDICT – Everything, Everything has enough soul to go with its overwhelming heart, to make this truly one of the most splendid surprises of the Spring season. Between the dynamic duo of Steinberg and Robinson, as well as the majority of the script that depicts a feel good romance without stooping to levels of Nicholas Sparks, Meghie’s first sit in the directing chair is a rousing success that has the powerful push to steer beyond the sometimes eye-rolling dialogue and shoddy third act. Target audiences will swoon under a weeper that warmed the center of even this cold-hearted critic.

7/10

Risk

How much of your own life are you willing to ‘Risk’? Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning director of CitizenFour, returns with her most personal and intimate film to date. Filmed over six years, Risk is a complex and volatile character study that collides with a high stakes election year and its controversial aftermath. Cornered in a tiny building for half a decade, Julian Assange, the founder of Wiki Leaks, is undeterred even as the legal jeopardy he faces threatens to undermine the organization he leads and fracture the movement he inspired. Capturing this story with unprecedented access, Poitras finds herself caught between the motives and contradictions of Assange and his inner circle. In a new world order where a single keystroke can alter history, Risk is a portrait of power, betrayal, truth, and sacrifice. Risk currently has no rating, but does have scenes of peril against our cast.

Over the last five years, Laura Poitras has quickly become one of my absolute favorite documentary directors, and a lot of that has to do with her unbias sense of direction with who and what details her pictures. She’s someone who is fortunate enough to be there live and in person when the breathtaking events of a government that is supposed to have our best interests fouls up, and often lets those events tell the stories for themselves without steering the audience in one direction or another. Risk is the latest of that momentous roll by Laura, as she depicts an ambitiously wide scope of six years to depict the events that surround the infamous leader of the WikiLeaks. As an entertaining and educational piece of filmmaking, Risk falls just short of its CitizenFour predecessor because of its jumbled narrative that doesn’t just focus on that central figure, but also of Jacob Appelbaum part in espionage intelligence, and at times basic reveals that offer very little in the way of shocking revelations. From a technical standpoint, it’s as good as any documentarian working today, weaving its way in-and-out of a world of great fear and uncertainty, with a mellow-dramatic musical score to follow. But if you’re watching Risk for the same kind of shock value that CitizenFour adorned as the single best documentary of 2014, then you will be left feeling a little empty.

Right off of the bat, we’re positioned to understand that this is Assange’s story to make or break. What I dug about this particular angle is that Poitras’s film shows an unusually honest side of its supposed protagonist, refusing to hide the sour tastes in bites that we get from being slightly too close to his on-going conversations. This is a man and character that feels very human in that regard, so there’s very little in the way of manipulation to make him into something that he is so clearly and evidently not. It did take me some time to envelope myself into this particular story in the same way that I did Edward Snowden’s in CitizenFour, but if you wait long enough, the second act pays off with an unsettling cloud of paranoia that engulfs Assange like a poison. In this regards, I found the second half of the movie much more intriguing than the first, especially when this particular chapter of the WikiLeaks saga played into last year’s presidential election. Once again, Poitras chooses not to endorse either candidate, and her stance on both being equal devastations to the world’s well-being is one that I commend greatly for her putting her work before her own political admirations.

Props also to the subtle musical accompanyment that feels slightly influenced by composer Trent Reznor during one of his many collaborations in David Fincher movies. The ominous and eerie organ tones used in Risk audibly paint the kind of ambiguous dread and secrecy that hide behind the uncovering of each technological advancement that serves as a positive and a negative to our likeness. The movie also has strong editing, complete with narration from a particular scene to stretch the impact of those lasting words on each and everybody in the room’s reaction being played on camera. This is brilliant because these scenes don’t just play to one general impulse, but rather a dozen because the human feedback to discovering such betrayal doesn’t just rest on a single emotion. The establishing shots of Hong Kong, Egypt, Washington D.C and every other location that the events take place in are also capturing of the global scale impact that Assange’s trysts have taken effect of. Because of this, Laura paints a canvas of uncertainty that will really make the audience question just what kind of swept-under-the-rug details that their leaders are keeping from them.

As for the problems that I alluded to earlier, Poitras juggles two stories that while they are related in business sense, couldn’t be more different in directional pull. Assange is very much dealing with the snowball effects of his whistleblowing antics catching up to him, yet Appelbaum drops in occasionally to distribute the knowledge of countries whose internet usage is being banned by their governments. I certainly see the common link between their stories, but Appelbaum’s subplot often feels like it doesn’t fit into this particular narrative, trimming and cutting down Assange’s arc that definitely serves as the meat and potatoes of the movie. Another aspect that pales in comparison to that of its CitizenFour counterpart is the proof in the pudding, as well as the shocking reveals that will undoubtedly push audiences over the edge in one direction or the other. Poitras has usually never missed her mark as extreme as she has here, but it always feels like the strongest acts to this story are the ones that we hear about in passing. Ones that could certainly be illustrated better in capturing the essence of the development even further. Because of that, things do tend to feel rushed in this brief 86 minute offering that has only so much time to convey the information.

THE VERDICT – Risk manages to be capable enough of telling its own controversial plot with government mingling, but falls just short of capturing the riveting unfolding of events that made CitizenFour a must watch. Even still, the production quality does a solid enough duty in bringing chills and uneasiness to the audience at home, and Assange is the kind of credible protagonist who doesn’t have to be maneuvered one way or the other of the moral spectrum, instead opting for the human side of characteristics. Despite the clever title, this is as informative and as mind-bending of a documentary as you will watch this year. Very few films have this kind of gravitational pull. Check it out.

7/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

The most unlikely of heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe return to save the galaxy again, in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Written and directed by the original film’s James Gunn, the film is set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the adventures of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), and the newly born Mini Groot (Vin Diesel) as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos to stop a new threat. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage involving a mysterious new acquaintance (Kurt Russell). Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand. The movie is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, adult language, and brief suggestive content.

After the surprising smash hit that was Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has decided to strike fast while the iron is hot, churning out an ambitious sequel three years after that original effort. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is very much that first film turned up to eleven, with an unabashedly driving force direction for the best aspects of that original effort, and pushing them into overdrive here. This was a movie that I found very entertaining, with some problems on the side that Marvel still has had trouble with adjusting to. Because of those hiccups, Volume 2 falls just short of the first effort for me, but there’s still more than enough in artistic overdrive to recommend this movie to the faithful fans of the first film. For story in concept, In the same manner that the first movie was about this rag-tag group of misfits becoming a family, Volume 2 focuses on them actually being one, a decision in directional force that caters more to the light-hearted atmosphere of these worlds and characters respectively, and focuses almost entirely on the bond by these protagonists. What follows is over two hours of the most colorfully explosive action that you will see this Summer on the big screen.

Striking a perfect stroke of artistic expression is the color scheme that radiates the contrasting blends of a vintage comic book. Gunn plays so distinctly to color in each and every planet that is depicted here, and it really casts such a gorgeous detail to a setting that is already polar opposite of the one that we live in. Some of my personal favorites were that of the army of gold soldiers that really pop in the dark blue backdrops that illuminate these ships. This use of gold signaled the royalty that was inhabited amongst these people, setting the stage mentally for the kind of character exposition that is to come from us just meeting them. I also enjoyed that very vibrantly breathtaking visuals in explosions and fireworks that is sure to cash in on the most bang for your buck with paying extra for a special screening. I saw this movie in XD, with the wall-to-wall big screen, and I feel like I underpaid for a spectacle that radiated color in comic book movies far greater than anything that I have seen to this point. With Thor: Ragnarok just around the corner, it’s clear that Marvel is moving into an artistic phase to match that of the colorful contrasts in characters that we have come to know and love.

Perhaps that mission in color might’ve cast a shadow slightly too thick however, because the story in Volume 2 pales greatly in comparison to that of the original movie, and that’s mostly because this film is overstuffed with subplots that doesn’t know where to trim. First of all, the positives. I did enjoy the introduction of Peter Quill’s father to the story, and felt that it added a satisfying layer of conflict to that of the family that Peter has come to know with his family in arms. With the introduction of Ego, Peter clings to that last bastion of his past life that still burns inside of him, and the temptation to get closer to a figure that he has only heard about proves to be too intriguing. Another satisfying plot was that of Gamora and her Sister Nebula (Played by Karen Gillian), and the peeling back of their pasts that comes to light. Volume 2 casts Nebula in a different light of sorts with these big reveals, and you tend to feel great empathy for her character and the deadly game of revenge that boils in her fragile state of mind. Unfortunately it’s all downhill from here, as I thought a lot of the film’s tone in scene-to-scene transition felt very jumbled and all over the place. This is a film that rarely ever slows down (Not a good thing) and allow itself time to build to the next big reveal, therefore hurling everything in our direction of narrative too quick to fully register the impact of its reveal. There is a big twist midway through the movie with our intended antagonist, and it just never felt earth-shattering to me or the characters that it impacts. This is mainly because Gunn lacks great restraint in orchestrating sequencing in transition, leaving many scenes of jarring correlation that doesn’t flow together smoothly.

This movie also continues the spell that Marvel has been under since using Loki as a central antagonist in two different films, and that is a great lack of compelling villain to match the protagonists that it so richly devotes time to. Many people will disagree with me here, but this movie uses three different antagonists to make up for its lack of vision with even a single one. When the answer and intended direction finally does appear, it not only feels far too late to make the impact that this character deserves, but this character’s brief appearances on-and-off never give us time to build their importance. This can also be said about the other two groups of antagonists that couldn’t have been more boring during the first two acts. What does work about the characters is that this film feels like an apology to some supporting characters in the first movie that were glanced over. Nebula is given appropriate time in character dissection to finally cast an element of humanity to her tortured soul, Drax the Destroyer carries the comedy with brutish strength and stability that serve as the most dependable aspect in personality that Gunn is trying to convey, and Yondu embraces a road to retribution that has him seeking his own identity. Each of these characters play pivotal roles in the movie’s pacing and entertainment factor, and Volume 2 levels the playing field for their lack of involvement in the first movie that proves it may have been a tragic misstep.

I mentioned earlier that some aspects of the movie are slightly overdone, and this distinctly speaks to that of the music and comedy that was depicted in the film. What I can say positively about the music is that very few films use it to the level of importance that Guardians of the Galaxy does, and this revival of 70’s and 80’s rock favorites kind of serves as the Glee of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for what it does in reverting interest back to these tracks. But here it is gone to the well a bit too much. At 135 minutes, a lot of the length can be attributed to these scenes that completely stop every story or subplot to show Peter or Rocket listening to their favorite track. It doesn’t feel as smoothly depicted as the first movie because it’s so practically delivered here, and it’s a shame because it really is a smashing collection of toe-tapping struts. The comedy level is also raised much higher here, catering more to the laughs instead of the character in the sake of our actual Guardians. You will definitely laugh more than a few times if your experience is anything like mine, but once again this humor slows the movie’s progression down to work in scenes of improv that feel irritating after the first few times. If it’s a one-off line, I’m all for it. Make them laugh and move on. But there are quite a few scenes in this sequel that overstay their welcome far too much and far too long, giving the audience ample time to use the restroom and not miss anything. I’m not naive to not think that this group doesn’t cater to the feel good mood, but much of these lasting setups should’ve been deleted scenes that pushed the sales of the DVD, instead of testing the patience of humorous flow that took a beating by the stretched third act.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 lacks the patience or practicality to play its greatest go-to hits of the first film that made it such a breakout smash, but Gunn’s return to the scene of his delightful crime does possess enough infectious laughter and visual flair to make this enticing well into the second hour. James sequel is overstuffed, but it’s overstuffed with the kind of joyous, silly, and often heartfelt family elements that makes this latest return to the galaxy one of undeniable pleasure. Good not great.

7/10

Free Fire

The meeting of the minds between two rival gangs takes them to a warehouse the ends in an all out ‘Free Fire’. Set in a colorful yet gritty 1970s Boston, Free Fire opens with Justine (Brie Larson), a mysterious American businesswoman, and her wise-cracking associate Ord (Armie Hammer) arranging a black-market weapons deal in a deserted warehouse between IRA arms buyer Chris (Cillian Murphy) and shifty South African gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley). What starts as a polite if uneasy exchange soon goes south when tensions escalate and shots are fired, quickly leading to a full-on Battle Royale where it’s every man (and woman) for themselves in a heart-stopping game of survival, with enough firepower to take down an army. Free Fire is written and directed by Ben Wheatley, and is rated R for strong violence, pervasive adult language, sexual references and drug use.

What Ben Wheatley does so efficiently is blending two distinct styles of shoot-em-up blends to compliment one another to make the ammunition-riddled Free Fire. From a filmmaking standpoint, Wheatley’s visual stylings and quick-cut edits reminded me so strongly of an early Guy Ritchie kind of offering. From a dialogue perspective, this film hits close to my heart in narrating the kind of personalities and speech patterns of an Elmore Leonard novel. These two effective combinations, in conjunction with the echoes of a John Denver soundtrack makes Free Fire live up to its name in the game of riveting surrealism. What I found so provocative about this plot was just how simplistic the approach to storytelling is. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that the shootout itself is what stands out the most, and that’s because it makes up the heralded second and third acts of this film. Wheatley’s distinct voice of unapologetic response to gun violence is one that speaks volumes to our own current dependency on them, and that killer instinct to always keep pulling the trigger. In that response, you can’t help but laugh at the responses and directions that these hot conversations take. A room full of egos is always one second away from jumping off, and Ben proves to us that jump comes from the least likely of places.

The first act is the most in storyline narration that you are going to receive. While it’s true that these characters aren’t exactly chalk full of depth, it’s more than made up from in the concept of coincidence. To see these two rival gangs who essentially are supposed to be shadows to one another, is quite intriguing when the pasts of each person is brought to life, instilling a backlash of sorts against the opposition. I find it humorous that the reason this hour long shootout happens is because of something that happens entirely off-screen, and therefore it is in the confidence of these actors as storytellers to relay the information to the audience watching at home. Do they succeed? I think so. While this film leaves storytelling behind for the wounds of semi-automatic fire power, these actors each bring something vibrant and delightful about their quirky personalities that gets us over the hump. It all leads to a showdown in the closing minutes that provides some poetic justice and some middle fingers to the kind of movies that treat one room presences like there is nothing waiting outside of this particular room. The last shot gave me a smile of sorts for the coaster of thrills that Wheatley so brilliantly conducts.

The violence is impeccably gory in brutal detailing, richocheting the cause-and-effects that each and every character seem to never run out of. One thing that did make me kind of scratch my head was how many bullets that each character could endure, but I guess it only adds to the setting and sequencing that you can’t help but laugh at. Every character has no problem spouting off at the jaw, so it makes it humorous to see them taken down a step when the reality sets in. Some of the death scenes in this film will satisfy even the most deranged of gore-hounds, like myself. There is a contrasting irony to the basis that the most impactful deaths in the film do not involve the gun, but the human instinct, signaling that the person holding is every bit as cold and calculating as that of the chamber they unload. The third act does kind of pay homage in an indirect sort of way to Tarantino for how cartoonish some of the death scenes become. It does this without really sacrificing the authenticity or the severity of the movie’s creative, and I was often time reminded of 2015’s The Hateful Eight for this one dangerous setting in which these walls have witnessed so much.

The camera angles were a little too jumpy and inconsistent for my taste, often times speeding through too closely or too quickly to truly grasp the consequence of the bullet. This is most notable late in the second act when characters are clearly hit but there were many times when I couldn’t tell you where or by who. Because there are a lot of characters in this particular shootout, the film’s editing team have to walk a very tight line of registering each and every action along the way, and they don’t always succeed. This was a problem that I mentioned in films like Jason Bourne or Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and it seems to be something that is slowly taking over these important action movies. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the lone major problem that this movie has, so it doesn’t cost it too much on my final score, but I would’ve preferred that the audience were given the capability to see all of the pieces on the chessboard interact at the same time, more often.

Props to Wheatley’s dedicated direction and this wide range of character actors for bringing to life some energetic personalities. There’s a respect to be found for a director who doesn’t deem it necessary for one person to stand out above the rest, and because of that we are treated to one of the most balanced ensemble casts in recent memory. Each person knows the kind of gritty traits that they have to get across, and there’s certainly no one who feels like they don’t belong here for the kind of lifestyles that they live. Some of my personal favorites were that of Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and Sharlto Copley, whom all are given ample time to get across the manneurisms of their respective characters. Hammer continues to be Mr. Dependable, and I’m glad that he is getting the scripts that he so rightfully deserves. As Ord, Hammer balances equal parts cocky and cool, making for a side of the young actor we have yet to see. Murphy and Copley are the leaders of their respective clans, so it’s interesting to see the contrasts in their leadership. Copley repeatedly made me laugh for his flamboyance, as well as his interaction with Ex-girlfriend Justine. Murphy is more of the calculated bloke that we’ve come to expect, but never fails at giving us a three-dimensional character that blurs the lines of moral righteousness.

Overall, Free Fire more than lives up to its name by delivering on some thought-provoking social commentary with our own thirst for violence, as well as instilling another chapter in the ever-growing procedural of The Butterfly Effect. An energetic and committed cast is more than enough to get over the hump of some sequence backfires that don’t always reach their marks with shaky camera and overabundance in zoom options. Wheatley empties his creative clip on a bullet-riddled battle royale that never overstays its welcome. Loud, brash, and delightful.

7/10

Gifted

The responsibility of a vastly intelligent little girl falls on the shoulders of an uncle who knows that she is ‘Gifted’. In a small town in central Florida, seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) shows remarkable mathematical talent on her first day of school. She is offered a scholarship to a private school for gifted children but her uncle turns it down. It emerges that Mary’s mother had been a promising mathematician, dedicated to the Navier–Stokes problem , before committing suicide when Mary was six months old. Since then her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) has acted as Mary’s de facto guardian. Believing that his sister would want Mary to experience a “normal” childhood, Frank is adamant that Mary be enrolled in regular public school. However, she somehow has already mastered advanced calculus before first grade. Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) seeks custody in the Florida courts, believing that Mary is a “one-in-a-billion” mathematical prodigy who should be specially tutored in preparation for a life devoted to mathematics. Gifted is directed by Marc Webb, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material.

In 2009, director Marc Webb materialized perhaps the most honest and heralding look at love in 500 Days of Summer. After falling off with the two Amazing Spider-Man movies that divided audiences right down the middle and blurred Webb’s hearty attention to detail, he seems to have returned to form with Gifted, a movie that is every bit as heartfelt as it is a study of what we deem as different in the prestigious sense. If Marc is gifted and excels at just one thing, it’s in his ability to take audiences on a bumpy road, full of feel good moments and tear-jerking sobs that will give something for everybody in the audience. Surprisingly, I had a great time with this movie, and I say surprisingly because it wasn’t one that I was necessarily looking forward to after a trailer that felt very meandering and manipulative to what we as a society deem as cutesy funny. Add on top that I saw the trailer half a billion times during every movie that I saw over the last six months, and I worried that Webb’s one hit wonder would further feel like miles away. Thankfully I was wrong. Gifted orchestrates its magic through the eyes of one exceptionally special girl, one whose gifts include but are not limited to carrying the integrity of this movie.

This is one of those rare movies where the youth takes center stage and you’re either on-board or you’re not. As Mary, we come to embrace a protagonist who dominates the equations of advanced mathematics, but her gift is only limited to this one aspect. What I appreciate from this screenplay is that the film feels responsible in leaps-and-bounds by depicting that certain kids excel at different aspects, and while much can be said about the prestige in solving problems before her teacher can, Mary struggles with the concepts and conflicts of friendships and fighting back against the alienation that comes with possessing such a gift. It’s proof that this kind of road has difficult decisions ahead, in that Mary must choose between having a real childhood or having the legacy that comes with being one of the truly great minds. There’s plenty of contrast to the positives and negatives of each possibility, and I really dug that position because it casts the audience to almost make the decision for this little girl, offering a conundrum of ‘What Would You Do?’.

For the first act of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised with how much hearty laughter that I exerted on the very timing and emotional responses of our little girl wonder. I haven’t laughed this much during a movie in quite a while, and I award a lot of that response to real life situational humor that doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, the screenplay does mature as the film moves forward, trucking through a second act that does take a quick step into the dramatic territory. The movie is happy to oblige, taking us through a battle between family for the well-being of this cherished mind. The shift never felt glaringly obvious nor disjointed with the first act of the film, but could’ve used more time accentuate its importance in subplot. More on that later. After 96 minutes, the finale did leave me feeling good, hinting that the truest of gifts don’t come from that of what makes us different, but the heart that makes us one in the same. Webb instills in our visions that maybe one can have it all, a concept that Mary is happy to indulge in.

The pacing definitely could’ve used some slowing down through the court scenes in particular to play to the dramatic effect of the movie. Until the final half hour, there is so very effective conflict or obstruction in the light-hearted of this story. Sometimes the court scenes feel slightly out of place when a scene will take place outside of the courtroom that will all but seal up the very reason for the conflict, then in the next scene were back at it like the scene before never even happened. Also in relation to the speeding is a romantic subplot between Chris Evans and Jenny Slate that not only feels forced because they are two good looking people who we have to hook up, but also never gets the screen time to push the value of its importance with all of the events that are speeding by. Slate could be the solidarity that Evans needs to settle down, but sadly their romance is one in a few aspects to the movie that just never lands its feet on the ground.

As I mentioned before, Mckenna Grace wins the award of the night for show-stealing performance. She gives Mary a maturity in speech patters well above her age, but does it in a way that isn’t cutesy for the camera. Some of her responses early on in the movie I would legitimately rank with some of the better comedic performances for timing, personality, and facial reactions that never hide for a minute what this marvelous mind is thinking. The chemistry between her and Evans is evident in that the film casts them as uncle and niece, instead of the usual Father/Daughter that we’ve been saddled with often. What this does is blaze a layer of friendship to play to their family bond, doing wonders for emotional clarity when the two characters find themselves on opposite sides of the road in conflict. Evans as a D.I.L.F (look it up), is the aspect that is for the ladies in the audience. Chris tightropes a thin line of adult responsibilities while still trying to embrace the rebellious youth that was practically stolen from him overnight. It’s nice to see him in more dramas recently, as I think he’s much more than just another Marvel superhero. Octavia Spencer also shines during the few scenes that she spoils us with. You get a Motherly instinct of sorts from her character in what Mary means to her, and Spencer’s moral stigma is greatly appreciated to often times set in motion the focus of what’s really at stake for Chris’s character.

There’s enough uplift and compassion to keep Marc Webb’s newest gift an unwrapped treat for all of us through some murky waters of hollow exposition. This is a film that feels like it’s in a race to reach the finish line, but the hamster wheel keeps moving along with a trio of solid performances, particularly in the coming out party of 10-year-old Mckenna, as well as the responsible observation telling us to find the gift in all of us. This film does live up to its title, and its film is one that is a safe bet for the entire family.

7/10

The Void

An evil presence known as The Void overtakes a deserted small town, and a night of evil follows a group of townspeople who choose to fight it. Written and directed by the duo of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, this small Canadian horror film tells the story of one terror filled night of unexplained phenomenon. When police officer Carter (Aaron Poole) discovers a blood-soaked man limping down a deserted road, he rushes him to a local hospital with a barebones, night shift staff. As cloaked, cult-like figures surround the building, the patients and staff inside start to turn ravenously insane. Trying to protect the survivors, Carter leads them into the depths of the hospital where they discover a gateway to immense evil and unspeakable intentions that will only make their realities even more sinister by comparison. The Void is rated R for adult language, scenes of brutal blood, gore, and violence, and peril.

80’s horror fans from all around, lend me your ears. The Void is the latest B-movie Canadian horror effort that is quietly taking the nation on a ride of devilish delights while paying homage to a past generation of horror that clearly has influenced more than a few of respective horror directors working today. The creature feature is in full effect with this one, signaling a collection of terror and frights that ring loud call-backs to the days of George Romero or John Carpenter taking the chair, and does it with so very little that results in so much effectively. The best kind of horror is the kind that is cryptic to the people around you, and there were many times during this movie where I was floored not only at the shivering reality of this unknown force that feels unstoppable plaguing this small town, but also in the production of such a movie that simply deems it unnecessary to settle for the computer generation that is currently disintegrating the horror genre. Students of the B-movie scene, Gillespie and Kostanski, earn their shrieks through 90 minutes of nightmare fuel that relies on the methods that we know best from the movies that came before it.

Some of those tricks of the trade come from that of the very visuals that we are embracing, complete with abandoned hospital at night that rings back to the days of Friday the 13th and Halloween. There’s always been something laughable about this concept to me, simply because the idea of a hospital being run by a few people is frankly ridiculous, but I understand the setting for a film of this kind. The lighting serves as a blanket of dark, mysterious fog and doom the envelopes our crew of characters, plaguing them with a fear of the unknown for what surrounds their building. Showing less is the right way to go until the big finale because it constantly builds the tension and suspense within our own minds to see if the monster really does live up to the hype. More on that later. Speaking of less being more, this is a story that constantly stays pretty cryptic in answering questions or providing clarity to unpredictable scenarios. This could potentially alienate some watchers of The Void, but I felt that the more mystery the better with actuality in the story. If you were in this situation, there’s a chance you too would die without many answers being discovered, and that ideal is what led me to further embrace keeping everything as mysterious as possible. In addition to what I mentioned above, I also greatly enjoyed the overall cinematography and setting style that never limits or suspends any ideas for what particular decade the story takes place during. Horror truly is transcending of time, and that emphasis crafts an aura where the vulnerability of the unknown that is in the air and frequent throughout the movie.

The decision to use mostly nothing but practical effects on the monster and gore on the film is one that I take with the highest honor of respect, and proves that the craft of practicality is alive and well in a society that breeds technology. The overall costume and prosthetic makeup on the monsters of the film point to a skinless appearance, complete with gouging muscles that constantly pump blood around them. I compare it very much to John Carpenter’s vision for The Thing in how this creature moves and attacks. There is constantly a ring of unpredictability behind it that leaves this among the more memorable of recent creature features. The method of menace borrows a great deal from that of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in that it invades the womb of women to breed a new monster baby. I’ve always found that this method is the most terrifying because it tenderly pokes at the fears and polarization of rape within our own world. Being taken against your will is a frightening thing, let alone by a species that you are completely clueless about. Its intentions are mostly ambiguous, but I’ve always believed in the fear of the unknown adding a layer of menace to the antagonist before us. When we learn of its look, weakness, and identity, more times than not, the suspense slowly bleeds out, but never for a moment here. It builds to an ending that doesn’t bring us any closer to clarity for what could stop this thing.

The duo could use more time to flesh out mostly all of their cast, as they all lack great exposition in development to make them appealing to the audience. This isn’t a movie with many negatives, but I never found myself caring greatly for the characters will to live, and that lacking causes the increase in bodies dropping by the minute to reach out to the audience, who simply aren’t fully there in character embrace. If I had to pick someone whose work I enjoyed, it was in that of Twin Peaks cast member Kenneth Welsh as the head doctor at this hospital, who has his own shuttered past. Welsh’s performance is so off-the-wall that it easily stands out in a room of otherwise bland deliveries. What our duo of filmmakers do well enough to fix this problem of sorts is to actually offer a killing order that constantly surprised me after each sequence. What we’re left with during the final ten minutes, completely floored me with where I thought this story was headed. This at least offered some reprieve to characters who never even remotely lived up to that of their supernatural opposition.

During a year of noteworthy horror cinema, The Void stakes its claim at being a limb up on the competition by paying tribute to perhaps the golden age of horror effects cinema. Prominent inside of its dark and gloomy walls are top notch practical effects, as well as a visual presentation that doesn’t overthink or overdo its intended purpose. The character backstories are slim, but the capabilities of an ambiguous story will constantly keep the audience intrigued and guessing for every step along the way. Gillespie and Kostanski don’t run from the tag of horror enthusiasts, they embrace it and let it build a seed inside of them that we will remember during both of their inevitably prestigious careers.

7/10

Personal Shopper

A recently recovering woman deals with grief and the afterlife, in CG Cinema’s ‘Personal Shopper’. This ethereal and mysterious ghost story stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen, a high-fashion personal shopper to the stars and celebrity community alike, who is also a spiritual medium. Grieving the recent and sudden death of her twin brother, she inhabits his Paris home, determined to make contact with him and resolve the conflict deep within her own heart. ‘Personal Shopper’ is written and directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, and is rated R for some adult language, sexuality, nudity and a bloody violent image.

Personal Shopper is one of those kinds of movies that plays to a familiar genre narrative, this time a psychological ghost thriller, but tweeks it full of touches that oppose that of the conventional storytelling to present a different take all together. This is very much a movie that channels the long and tedious road of grief, stimulating audiences in relatability for those of us who have lost someone important in our lives. In that aspect, this film sticks its claws into the audience early, communicating the similarities that we go through in trying to pick the pieces back up and assemble some kind of life. For everyone it’s different, and this particular story speaks to those of us still longing to find a therapeutic solution. Assayas is a director who I’m not particularly fond of, especially after 2015’s Clouds of Sils Maria, which I thought was a pretentious disaster, but for Personal Shopper Assayas has found a simple touch that ignites the flames beneath a cerebral slow-burner like this one, and doesn’t need contrivances or convolution to appeal to both the independent cinema audience and mainstream audiences alike. This is a very difficult film to recommend to my readers, not because it isn’t good, but rather it is anything but the conventionalism from these kind of ghost flicks that you are used to seeing. An artistic touch in an otherwise overcrowded subgenre.

For most of the first act of the film, I was very impressed with what this film managed to do with setting the right mood to depict the cold and damp surroundings of this immense empty mansion that Maureen has been hired to mediate. The sound mixing and editing are so crucial here because it constantly feels like we are one step ahead of her in terms of realization and clarity for the pokes and prods that are moving around her. This is very much a movie that doesn’t dispel in one way or the other if ghosts exist, leaving both sides with fuel for the fire, and even offering some frightening blurred visual apparitions that served as the highest expense in terms of visual pizazz. As far as scene editing goes, the film offers a dual compromise of fading out and quick-cut editing that does somewhat compromise the scene integrities. I felt that quick-cut was perfect for this particular style and look of film, but the fading effect was one that hindered the progression of a couple of scenes by cutting far too early and limiting what last bits of dialogue that we were following before the scene abruptly ends. This is my only problem with the visuals of the film, but it shouldn’t be a big deal unless you’re a visual purist like myself.

As for the story, there’s so much that I want to say but can’t because of spoilers, so I will do my best to navigate through the emotional roller-coaster that the movie took me on. As I mentioned before, this isn’t the movie to expect thrills and jump scares, this is very much a slow-paced sizzler that depicts the human confrontation with death and how hollow that process can leave us. There are what I like to call two different narratives going on within the film; reality and desire, and those two are integral parts to Maureen’s psyche in how she embraces the unbelievable around her. During the film, I found myself dreading the latter, but with an ending as brilliantly constructed as this one, everything suddenly comes into focus and manages to achieve one of those rare feats of answering every logic-bending question that I had with a single move. With those two aspects in story, one clearly outweighs the other, and once the big reveal happens, if you’re like me you will find yourself grinning from ear-to-ear with the fact that this movie didn’t take the cliche way out in wrapping up its familiar steps that other films have touched on.

The second act is definitely the weakness of the script, as it’s during this time when we get some temporary tone shifts that are unnecessary to the progression. More particularly, there are a couple scenes of forced humor that not only completely miss their targets, but also feel like a desperate attempt to appeal to moviegoers to keep them moving through some rough pacing. As I said, this is really only during the second act, but the transition from one narrative to the other between the tighter acts, does make the middle portion noticeably shaky when compared to a riveting beginning and end.

Kristen Stewart where have you been all this time? For the record, I’m not someone who despises Stewart’s acting, nor find her insufferable. Stewart (Like any actor) just needs the right kind of tone and script to appeal to her personality, a feat that she has had limited success with in her early career. Stewart here is breathtaking, channeling an exterior of boiling despair that cripples her the closer that she gets to emotional clarity. What is so clever about Maureen’s character is this aspect of being a personal shopper for a rich model, yet possessing a supernatural gift, and how the two play into the coming out of the shell for Kristen as an actress, and yet Maureen as a character. This is quite a transition from start to finish in this movie, and Stewart is happy to oblige with arguably her most versatile performance to date. There are other actors and actresses in the film, but this is very much a one woman show because of this compass of emotional vulnerability that never points in just a single direction.

It’s easy to buy a lot of what Personal Shopper is selling, and a majority of that is because of an arresting performance by Stewart, as well as precision storytelling that constantly keeps the audience guessing. Olivier Assayas’s newest is a spellbinding deconstruction on the perplexing properties of grief, and how sometimes saying goodbye takes years. It’s scary without needing jumps or jigs, and that’s because the strongest fear is that of the battle we constantly engage with on the inside.

7/10

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