White Boy Rick

Directed by Yenn Demange

Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richie Merritt

The Plot – Set in 1984 Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, the film is based on the moving true story of a blue-collar father (McConaughey) and his teenage son, Rick Wershe (Merritt), who became an undercover police informant and later a drug dealer, before he was abandoned by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.

Rated R for adult language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Articulate production value in its respective decade setting. Considering I searched far and wide for something in the film to stand out as illegitimate of its 80’s establishment, the film does a solid job of echoing the very fashion trends and automobiles that were prominent in the Ford city. The males don flashy leisure suits of all shapes and color, but it’s in the furry jackets with gang surroundings where we get perhaps our most vivid take on the defining decade. These were very much the members only jackets of their time, long before it was only acceptable for a woman to wear fur.

– Variation in soundtrack that authentically represents the changing of the guard. For the first half of the movie, we’re treated to several tracks of Motown favorites, but as the film persists it’s the overtaking of rhymes and rhythm that distinguishes the change of voice within the streets. What this does is audibly represent Detroit’s transformative period from doo-wop to hip-hop colorfully enough in a way that echoes the very increase of violence and tension that we’re treated to from our character engagements.

– Presence behind the lens. There’s much to credit in Tat Radcliffe’s impeccable cinematography that unintentionally brings to life the beauty of the slums, but it would be nothing without the inclusion of Andrew Amine’s daring movements that really brings us along into this world of drug and weapon trafficking. The long takes are very persistent, studying the ever-changing locations and situations long enough to get a vibe for its danger and elegance alike, and the revolving shots that surround our cast give off the impression of life constantly moving around them with little reluctance.

– Dedication to Rick Junior. It would certainly be easy for this movie to overlook the importance of this being the youth’s story, especially with the big A-list names that more than make-up the celebrated cast inside, but Demange’s desire to see this as Ricky’s coming of age story is one that I greatly commend the movie for, in that he is the line between law and family that influence his every move as the glue between both. Mconaughey gets top billing, but the film’s unshakeable faith in keeping the focus on his kin is a decision that isn’t always easy, but one that pays off in spades for the integrity of the title and the story that never feels distracted.

– Without the family element, all else would fail. Because of the continued desire of Ricky to put his family back together, the film takes on a much more sentimental direction than I was rightfully expecting, proving itself as so much more than just another infiltration or get-rich-quick film that are currently all the rage in the drama category. In particular, it’s the bittersweet finale of a gut-punching third act that proves how much the dramatic pull was earned throughout, so much so that your heart is engaged in seeing this family outrun the live-fast lifestyle and setting that constantly surrounds them.

– Strong performances all around. What a breakthrough for Merritt, who manages roughly 90% of this movie’s story on his own. As Rick Jr, Merritt leaves enough divide in naive adolescence and street-smart hustle to represent how fast this youth is forced to adapt and grow-up to the ever-changing neighborhood around him. On top of that, the casting director couldn’t have chosen a more identical actor to play the real life figure. McConaughey gives another gripping dedicated turn as this father of two, who is trying to change himself for the better during a time when his kids are changing for the worst. Matthew emotes so much love and torture for the way he looks at his blood, and you start to really understand how vulnerable a parent’s responsibility really is, especially when their voice only goes as a far as the door their children go out to enter the world. Bel Powley was also a scene-stealer as Rick’s daughter, who herself has her own personal demons that she’s running from. This girl commands attention every time she enters the screen, and my heart ached for the decisions she made that cost her so much time along the way.

– Seedy setting. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for films that are set in the Motor City, and thankfully ‘White Boy Rick’ doesn’t squander the opportunity at some layered atmosphere that fill in the blanks of the imagery that surround it. Rick’s Detroit stage in the 80’s is one that still feels optimistic enough in the lurid seduction of neon lights and post-disco skating rinks, but it’s in the arrival of a cold, despairing Winter where the air of optimism quickly fades to grey, giving way to a chillingly numbing dose of reality that the characters simply can’t run from.

NEGATIVES

– Treads, but never fully walks through the poignant debate of guns versus drugs, as well as the corruption of the American judicial system. On the former, there’s a brief scene in the film where the father and son discuss their mutual poisons being unleashed onto the community, and what the real difference is between either. Unfortunately, the scene quickly and unfortunately evolves into something of bigger physical magnitude, and we’re left without a conscience for a movie that so desperately needed one. As for the law itself, it never feels like a big enough presence on the screenplay, disappearing halfway through the movie for a long period of time.

– Feels like scenes are missing. Rick moves in with his grandpa immediately after doing something terribly wrong to him? The mentioning of dad’s roommate girlfriend, despite us never seeing or meeting her? The formation of Rick’s gang and how he even met them? These are just a couple of examples of scenes during the movie that came out of nowhere, and feel like they constantly did a disservice to editing that was otherwise on-point for holding down the consistency of storytelling. These examples give off the feeling that this 106 minute movie could easily have a two-and-a-half hour director’s cut lying around somewhere.

– Questionable time transformations. While I mentioned earlier that the music, wardrobe, and production are spot-on for their respective era, the lack of attention to physical character progression is something that deeply troubled me. This film goes through four years of story, and in that time father, son, daughter, nor anyone ever change hairstyles or facial growth, or really anything to articulately translate the many lapses in time. It’s this kind of thing that constantly takes me out of a story, and is the easiest thing to clear up in terms of continuity.

7/10

Juliet, Naked

Directed by Jesse Peretz

Starring – Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’ Dowd

The Plot – Annie (Byrne) is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan (O’Dowd), an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe (Hawke). When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces, its release leads to a life-changing encounter with the elusive rocker himself. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, the film is a comic account of life’s second chances.

Rated R for Adult language

POSITIVES

– Surprisingly funny dialogue. Hornby as a writer has always been one of my favorites, but what this trio of writers does is add a much needed layer of humility to compliment the feel good side of this story. I did not expect to laugh as much as I did throughout this film, but it’s a testament to these flawed characters, in that the film puts up zero walls in making them feel relatable.

– If a movie that revolves around music can’t conjure up an eclectically rich ensemble soundtrack, then it will fail before it ever lifts off the ground. Thankfully this isn’t a problem for ‘Juliet, Naked’, as we are entranced by offerings from Indie gods like Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, and M Ward. But the question remains, can Hawke sing? That answer is a resounding yes. Covering a song as revolutionary as The Kinks ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is no small task, but Hawke vibrates with an electric piano, giving the song the raspy rhythm in vocals that brings new life to the decades old classic.

– Strong performances all around from this trio of magnetic actors. Hawke portrays Tucker as this sort of bumbling everyman that eclipses his fame to those who come into contact with him, never allowing him to feel self-pitying or overly depressive for the wrong decisions he’s made. Chris O’Dowd is also warmly annoying as this obsessed fan of Crowe’s. He commits himself in the way he looks at and tenderly tap-dances around the way he speaks to his idol, and there’s something rich with authenticity in his performance. Byrne takes the cake however, as her withered heart makes her someone we as an audience can engage in. Annie’s the kind of woman who wants the same things that every woman should be entitled to, so when the movie depicts the cruelty in her wishes being overlooked, we can empathize with her situation, and Byrne was made for the Romantic Comedy stage, as she glows with immense wit.

– As a director and musician, Peretz is gift-wrapped for this diatribe against middle age, nuancing an underbelly of regret that pops up front-and-center to remorse about a lifetime of wasted energy. But instead of mellowing out the material, there’s an inspirational side to his acting that tells us to keep moving through the complicated, and travel miles if you have to in seeking what you deserve. This is overall one of those films that just fill you with its charms and warming side, and it’s impossible not to credit Peretz for how hip he depicts middle age, giving hope to those of us not far from that downhill turn.

– Effective camera work to hide something in particular. As to where most reviews I credit the way a scene captures a person or place for its expressive angles, but the compositions here work their magic in omitting Byrne’s six month pregnancy while filming. There’s plenty of medium to close-up shots that keep the actress’s face in frame, and a lot of carefully placed accessories, like handbags and laptops, to take attention away from her mid-section. I think it’s great because Byrne didn’t have to turn down a role, and the production team glitters their Hollywood tinsel in the thought process that what the audience don’t know won’t hurt them. Well done.

– My problem with romantic comedies in general is they often follow a predictable formula where two leads extraordinary in lifestyles are picture perfect for one another, and we’re supposed to get behind them as protagonists. But with Tucker and Annie there’s certainly a theme of opposites attract that plays out through the growing feelings between them, and the general distinction that these two are anything but polished perfect leads. Tucker, to be frankly honest, has made some seriously shitty decisions in his life, and Annie limits her potential staying with a man who constantly mentally abuses her. So it’s certainly easy to get behind these two, and hope that love finds a way, and there’s little conventional about the road that works its way to their first interactions.

– What I found compelling about Crowe’s involvement in Duncan and Annie’s lives are that each of them view it as a form of cheating deceit towards the other. For Duncan, he must vanish and listen to a new Crowe album in privacy, and for Annie it’s obviously communicating with the rocker on e-mail, far from Duncan’s eyes and ears. This is obviously played out for humor, but it translates the real lack of affection from Duncan and Annie’s relationship that limits their growth for something as miniscule as sharing. If this wasn’t enough, Duncan is a PC guy, and Annie is a Mac girl. Doomed from the start.

NEGATIVES

– Conflict issue. As is the case for every film, there is a third act conflict involving a separation between the two love interests, and for me it just didn’t feel like a big enough obstacle for it to matter as much as it does. This is an example where the novel does it much better, adding depth in miles to the physical distance between them that better articulates the obstacle. It doesn’t feel natural in the slightest with its arrival, and if the two characters would sit down for even a brief moment, they could clear the air with much needed communication.

– For a story that is every bit against the grain of romantic comedies in material, the overall aesthetic for the film feels uninspired and too content in sliding by on average. Nothing is truly compromising to the integrity of the film, but nothing in the cinematography or coloring for the movie ever takes chances with instilling style. Most of the film takes place during daytime sequences, so there’s a missed chance to instill some of that wet streets vibe of England with the neon glow coming from the town bars. Overall, it makes me wish more chances were taken for Peretz to find a vision of his own, but as it stands ‘Juliet, Naked’ is a cover of every other soft lighted romantic comedy that came before it.

– One of the elements in subplot that simply didn’t work for me is the set-up involving a musician who has zero affiliation with music left in his body, somehow manages to come across and read deep into the comments about him. Throughout the film, it’s made evident that Crowe hasn’t performed or even picked up a guitar in decades, so how are we as an audience to believe that this guy randomly surfs fan-made websites to read what people thought about music that he made over twenty years ago? Yet it’s required because how else would he begin to communicate with Annie via e-mail? It’s too sloppy in logic for my taste.

7/10

The Little Stranger

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Starring – Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Josh Dylan

The Plot – Tells the story of Dr. Faraday (Gleeson), the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked. The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. But it is now in decline and its inhabitants – mother, son and daughter – are haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life. When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own.

Rated R for some disturbing bloody images

POSITIVES

– This is a ghost story as advertised, but what will make some people feel manipulated is the kind of ghost story it truly is. Far from the world of flying white apparitions and possessions, ‘The Little Stranger’ instead speaks to the kind of haunting that is psychological, most notably in a location where the stacking of bad things happening haunts the family who still live there, and changes the complexion considerably. I dig this angle because its “Ghosts” feel much more understandable from an audience standpoint, and its material transcends the screen for any family watching it to comprehend.

– What Abrahamson excels at far greater than anything else, is the ability to conjure up a mental fog in the atmosphere that is anything but evident by shape or color. There is such a congested tone in the air of this once prosperous mansion that has decayed and aged alongside the very patrons inside of it, and the time spent inside poisons their mentalities almost like a poisonous gas that rests inside of its sacred walls. As a director, he has such a range in gauging the pulse from within his characters, and that is why he feels like the right man for the job in this respective project.

– Absolutely zero jump scares and cheap thrills. To some, they will shy away from this kind of detail, but for me it is much appreciated, as films often overlook what truly makes a film scary, or in this case haunting. ‘The Little Stranger’ very much rests its weight on this growing claustrophobia inside such a castle of a place. It’s in the inability to escape each other that has this family riveted on the edge, and why we as an audience take great fright in their progressive engagements, instead of what goes bump in the night. I compare this film a lot to this summer’s ‘Hereditary’, in that they are both unconventional horror films that refuse to feel influenced by modern day tropes that water down the effect of the story.

– As for performances, Gleeson again takes center stage as this doctor with his own secret past to the house and family. Because of the great passion that he takes in explaining his every memories on the property, we as an audience understand firmly why this is the last string tied to his past that he grips onto ever so tightly. His interaction with Ruth Wilson, who gives a stirring performance as the daughter of this household, consistently feels very tense and even unnatural for the way each feel like they’re hiding something revealing in each other, and it made for this blossoming of chemistry between them that spins in the most unorthodox of methods.

– Exceptional cinematography from Ole Bratt Birkeland (What a name). What is beneficial from Birkeland’s visuals are the necessity in mirroring the mentality for what is playing out. His close-ups feel naturally illustrated, beginning each frame with blur that slowly turns to focus for the character that moves into it. As for color, there’s a dimming aura that enchants the mansion, giving it that mirrored feeling like it previously rained everyday before shooting.

– Authentic timepiece designs in wardrobe and furniture stylings. This is a story that takes place in the 1948 Europe, so the use of elegant dining attire and long flowing gowns colorfully balance the texture for the time. But for my money, it’s in the colorless drab of the worn down wallpaper and 18th century furniture within the house that sets it apart from anything recently. The outdated surroundings speak volumes in this family’s incapability to change or move on, and it’s always great when you can draw that kind of conclusion from subtle observations.

– Surprisingly effective make-up. This was the last film that I expected to dazzle me with its effects work, most notably in the burning and scarred skin of Will Poulter’s character. The camera never turns away or moves quickly when it is in focus, bringing to life the time and effort that went into making something look so horribly disfiguring for this man who must see it and live with it every single day of his life. It’s truly crippling.

NEGATIVES

– This film is only 102 minutes long, and it drags like a horse’s feet after it refuses to journey any further. ‘The Little Stranger’ is a slow burn stinger of a drama, but that was never the problem for me. It’s more so in the way that scenes are often derivative, hammering home what we already knew a few scenes prior, and making it difficult to stay energetically glued to the unfolding mayhem before it. This will inevitably draw away a lot of its audience, and highlight this as a film that is not for every conventional horror fan.

– Lack of clarity with the ending. I’m pretty sure I know what happened in the film’s closing minutes, but my minimal confidence leaves me with the feelings that this movie required better telegraphing for audiences who require that one evident clue in drawing it all together. Because of this, the film just kind of ends on a question instead of a statement, and the disjointed pieces of this mystery still required the glue of clarity in piecing them back together.

– Touches on the class system of England without ever actually riveting us with a compelling observation. Every time there’s a scene involving the cultural divide between families, it feels like nothing more than a time filler. In particular, it’s the flashback scenes to when Faraday was a child that really have me scratching my head, because there’s never emphasis for their inclusion other than to show why he was so infatuated with the property. I could’ve used a lot more exposition for this backstory, ideally in the Ayers family’s point of view, in how they see themselves against those who adored their lavish lifestyle.

7/10

Searching

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty

Starring – John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee

The Plot – After David Kim’s (Cho) 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a local investigation is opened and a detective (Messing) is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop. In a hyper-modern thriller told via the technology devices we use every day to communicate, David must trace his daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– Cho’s performance is one of calculated measurements. Considering he is adapting to the newest of developments that happen before him, John not only has little time to soak in what has already happened, but does so in a way that grabs ahold of the anxiety that his character is constantly riddled with. This is a father’s worst nightmare come true, and Cho’s embrace of the shame as a result of the twisted reality is one that is every bit as chilling as it is humanistic.

– The gimmick itself. As to where a film like ‘Unfriended’ completely obliterated the logic and capabilities of an entire movie being filmed online, ‘Searching’ dazzles us with what could and should always be. Not only does this film stay faithful to said gimmick, even so much as branching out to other forms of technology far more expansive than that of a desktop, but it knows how to use each program capably enough to where we’re not sitting there screaming at the character. Chaganty as a screenwriter has clearly done his homework here, and I commend him greatly for crafting a protagonist who is every bit as intelligent as the people embracing his film.

– An in-depth opening montage of online videos, pictures, and e-mails that articulately paints the family’s devastating past to this point. There’s something almost tragic about the passage of time through memories that hits us with this sequence long before the vanishing of the film ever takes place, setting the empathetic precedent for what’s to inevitably come. Because a screenplay can take its time and captivate with something as easy as memory highlights, we as an audience feel that much more engaged in this father and daughter, who clearly only have each other in this world.

– What’s appreciated probably more than anything here is we’re not just staring at one continuous screen being played out in real time. The sharp editing is used more as a tool to relay the furthering of time, moving us bluntly along to the next interesting development, instead of the movie lagging for the sake of authenticity. These cuts magnify the consistency in tension while focusing on the doubling down of facial reactions and online text that play so importantly in the detective work that this terrified parent is uncovering.

– Attention to detail. Extra points for the production for going out of its way to duplicate the designs of famous websites like Ebay and Youtube to play opposite of the particular timeline of events playing out before us. It was a nostalgic trip down memory lane, in all of its 360 pixel quality, and just one more example of this film accentuating the details of the gimmick that would otherwise be an obvious negative.

– Responsible commentary on modern parenting. For my money, the film serves as a constant reminder for parents everywhere to continue nagging and searching your kid for answers, no matter how much it bothers them. Most youths live a double life online, and ‘Searching’ is one in a million examples of someone always watching. As for technological advances of the modern age itself, the movie presents an equally riveting take for the advantages and disadvantages of its gifts, depending on what we are using them for.

– Unintentional humor that is true to its word. While there was very little I found about ‘Searching’ humorous in material, I can say that Chaganty’s strongest push in material is his depiction of insensitivity from social media that flock like seagulls whenever tragedy breaks. Through close-ups of comments from the online community, we are treated to the very ideal of shock commenting that trolls thrive on, and despite it feeling like it forces us to laugh or roll our eyes, it hits the mark of honesty for where the world’s heart is at in 2018. Don’t believe me? Go look up any tragedy online right now that has comments allowed at the bottom.

NEGATIVES

– Obnoxious sound mixing. Once again we have an example of mediocre camera equipment with the single greatest Dolby surround sound that money can buy. Even when this film had me falling for its charms and immersing myself in the unfolding drama of its mystery, I was dragged out of it each time with distracting sound quality that shouldn’t be nearly as loud or as clear as it is. There is a desire to pander to audiences, but if it’s authenticity that is the name of the game, then why not replicate the quality bit for bit?

– Problems with the ending twists. Besides the problem of ‘Searching’ redundantly back-peddling constantly on its subplots, it also paints itself into an inevitable corner of dissatisfaction with its sloppy conclusion. On the former, these subplots only persist because of constant Mcguffin misunderstandings that all of which hold no bearing or physical weight on the film’s disappointing climax. On the latter, it does the painful deed that other mystery movies do, where it’s damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If the kidnapper is someone we’ve seen in the film, it doesn’t introduce enough characters to make it that great of a mystery. If it’s someone we haven’t yet seen, it doesn’t mean much to the shock factor of it all. So how could this film possibly satisfy audiences who are constantly paying attention? Especially when the ending itself makes absolutely no sense anyway.

– I did have some lingering feelings about the way every single detail of this case is found online on Margot’s personal pages, as well as the access that her Father gained on getting through passwords. For one, her Apple laptop doesn’t have a password screen? This seems unlikely even for one woman’s lone laptop. Then there’s no password on the desktop that the family share together. This seems even more unlikely considering three different people use this thing, and privacy is a virtue.

Extra Points

– There is an homage to the ‘Unfriended’ franchise early on in the film, where a search bar on Facebook has the name Laura Barn across it. Laura Barnes was of course the antagonist in the original movie.

7/10

Puzzle

Directed by Marc Turtletaub

Starring – Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman

The Plot – A closely observed portrait of Agnes (Macdonald), who has reached her early 40s without ever venturing far from home, family or the tight-knit immigrant community in which she was raised by her widowed father. That begins to change in a quietly dramatic fashion when Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift and experiences the heady thrill of not only doing something she enjoys, but being very, very good at it, thanks to the assistance of Robert (Khan), a heralded expert with jigsaw puzzles.

Rated R for adult language

POSITIVES

– Macdonald’s layered performance. I have always been a fan of Kelly’s, and it’s nice to see her finally getting the kind of starring roles she deserves. As Agnes, Macdonald’s greatest touch is her subtlety to the chaos that unfolds around her daily, repetitive life, bringing nuance to the change that is boiling from within her. Kelly is also someone who says so much without saying anything. It’s in her depleted, even shy reactionary painting on her face where we understand her need to want to live again, and feel inspired even if only for a child’s game. Kelly proved that she can be depended on to steal the stage, and I hope this is the first of many more lead roles for her.

– Oren Moverman’s metaphorical script. Like the game that Macdonald and Khan excel at, the screenplay itself introduces these pivotal pieces, that we at first dismiss them as these minimal drops of exposition, but soon are reminded of their necessity when their pieces rightfully fit into the unfolding drama at the right times. Such an example is a tiny piece of glass that comes from a plate breaking in the film’s opening scene. It is forgotten and never mentioned again until late in the third act, when its deposit brings new life to its purpose.

– The comedy was greatly appreciated, and never felt used as a necessity or gimmick. What I mean by this is that despite this film being billed as a comedy genre film, it never feels forced or strained to make the audience laugh every two minutes, instead choosing to breed the humor naturally in these awkward instances of life that the audience can understand and react to because of their familiarity. In this regard, it’s the initial meetings between Agnes and Robert that succeed the most, taking its time to air out the space between two strangers whose lifestyles couldn’t be anymore opposite by comparison.

– As a director, Turtletaub’s greatest strength is in the ability to let the scenarios play out for themselves for the audience to judge. In this regard, he never feels like he’s forcing a particular narrative or direction down our throats, instead letting the pieces of life play out for themselves to instill that no one is right or wrong in what happens. The concept of randomness is one that is touched upon so frequently throughout the film, and it’s in the strings of such a definition for the word that translates how coincidences often rule fate, no matter how much we pawn for the latter.

– Much of the photography and shot composition on display are also beautiful and move with smooth subtlety. To me, the best kind of filmmaking is the kind that immerse us in the shape and color of a particular scene, allowing our senses to forget about the commander behind the camera, and ‘Puzzle’ accomplishes this feat repeatedly by cherishing the marriage in natural lighting and timid handheld movements. There’s almost a dreamy escapism vibe to some of Agnes’s moments of self-reflection.

– Any film that firmly depicts the importance of a Mother, and how she is the piece of the puzzle that makes any family complete is alright by me. ‘Puzzle’s’ majority audience will no doubt be middle aged women, and Turtletaub’s vision provides an homage to those with the will’s of iron to take what life throws at them, day in and day out. There’s a sturdy bone of female empowerment constantly throughout this movie, and the sting of psychology is one that proves not all decisions by a leader are easy.

– Responsible in its strategy. Any film about a particular subject has a responsibility to teach strategies to the audience about how to prosper in it, and thankfully ‘Puzzle’ is an education lesson for those of us who have always been curious how to attack a 1000 piece mammoth. Through Robert’s teachings, we learn that it’s sometimes best to circle the table to get a look at the shape of pieces from every perspective. Also, my ages old trick came into play, as you should group the similar colors together so the progression within them becomes that much more obvious. It will inspire you to sit down and open up a box, even if your abilities lack that of Agnes’s instant success.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary R-rating. This film receives the coveted rating for the six times that it drops the F-bomb, four of which being in the same line of dialogue together, and its instances prove how unneeded it truly was in this film. There is a desire to depict authentic family conversations, but this rating does nothing to enhance the comedy or the appeal to younger audiences who will not be able to see it because they are not old enough. Bad decision indeed.

– This film does unfortunately make the move between its two stars that anyone could pick out from watching the trailer. When it decides to make this decision in direction about halfway into the movie, the energy between the leads stalls, and the screenplay writes itself into a corner that will undoubtedly have an unsatisfying ending to anyone watching. This continued cliche in films where a man and a woman can’t be just friends is one that greatly disturbs me, and proves how unimportant everything else becomes because of its unfazed attention to it that overtakes everything else.

– The final ten minutes of the movie are sloppy, and feel like a tug-of-war in the mind of Moverman for his inability to make a decision. Agnes’s final shots left me with more questions than answers, and I get this feeling that two pivotal scenes are missing from the movie that would tie some of those shots that come out of nowhere together. One involves the result of the puzzle competition itself, leaving us to hear what happened instead of being there to embrace it with the two characters, the other is an epilogue between husband and wife that could’ve suppressed some of my second half disappointment in Agnes, but instead has it feeling like an afterthought for what’s to come. Adding an additional ten minutes onto the film would’ve done wonders for the emptiness that the closing moments left me with, bringing to light the obvious weakness in an otherwise movie that fits together wonderfully.

7/10

Alpha

Directed by Albert Hughes

Starring – Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Leonor, Varela

The Plot – An epic adventure set in the last Ice Age, the film tells a fascinating, visually stunning story that shines a light on the origins of man’s best friend. While on his first hunt with his tribe’s most elite group, a young man is injured and must learn to survive alone in the wilderness. Reluctantly taming a lone wolf abandoned by its pack, the pair learn to rely on each other and become unlikely allies, enduring countless dangers and overwhelming odds in order to find their way home before winter arrives.

Rated PG-13 for some intense peril

POSITIVES

– Exceptional cinematography continuously on display by Martin Gschlacht. While known mostly to foreign audiences, Martin’s paintbrush-like canvas here is gorgeous in immensity, and beautiful in his rubbing of colors in the sky that illuminate around the colorless drab of character wardrobes. This is a film that was made for the big screen, as much of the framing work takes advantage of the wide angle lens that articulately illustrates the immensity of a land to be alone in.

– Much of the material focuses on the comparison between man and animal, and does so without ever feeling corny or forceful. Instead, Hughes allows the audience to pick up on matters of family, growth, and survival that highlight the similarities in the next evolutional shift. These two grow together because they embrace the same challenges in their respective journey’s, and that chemistry and bond between them grows into an almost telepathic link that unites them.

– Considering he is front-and-center for 90% of this movie, Smit-Mcphee transformation is well balanced and patient with the many adversities that he faces along the way. In the beginning, his movements are very timid, causing great difficulty in his tactics to survive, but as the film goes on, you start to see his character’s intestinal hunger to survive reach limits that can only be tested under the guidance of isolation. This etches out a coming-of-age story unlike those that we’re used to, in that Keda only has his own instinct to survive.

– Hughes greatest measure as a director here is definitely the established environments that constantly shift with the seasons, while filming on location in East Coulee, Alberta. The animals, while plenty in numbers, feel very scattered out and meticulous, making the hunt for food feel very urgent. Without question though, it’s the winter scenes that really stuck out to me, channeling the worst in cold and snow that one can imagine, and immersing us with snow-cluttered camera angles that feel like we can almost reach out and touch it.

– Educational AND entertaining. This definitely felt like a throwback to the days of being in school and watching a history film about tribes and their strategy for survival, but what’s more accredited is that despite its knowledgeable depictions, it never loses focus in its appeal to capture the intrigue of the audience. The film juggles a balance of intensity and tension during scenes of peril that make for some serious moments of uncertainty for the well-being of our protagonist, testing him in ways that break everything except the human spirit.

– Thunderous musical score. What composers Joseph DeBeasi and Michael Stearns do for this film shouldn’t be understated. Through a use of 808 drums that repeat with increasing intensity, the musical score is anything but the Imagine Dragons putrid that we were promised in one of the most eye-rolling trailers of the season, giving us echoing vibes of isolation that haunt Keda throughout, and add life to scenes that would otherwise depreciate without energetic emphasis of the danger that is impending.

– Stays committed to its gimmick. A lesser production would have these human characters speaking in perfect English, but thankfully ‘Alpha’ keeps its characters mostly muted, occasionally reaching for the tribal language that we read in translation for one hundred percent of the movie. This element kept me firmly in the grasp of this A.D setting, and instead relied on body language to progress the relationship between human and dog. Beyond this, four bison were slaughtered for use on a skinning/hide-removal scene, and while I don’t overly support the slaughter of animals, bison are in fact overpopulated in the Alberta territory.

NEGATIVES

– Redundant to a fault. The hardest sell to audiences will definitely be the element of one man and his dog for most of 93 minutes, mainly because there’s only so much variety you can instill on routines that feel this repetitive. In my opinion, the biggest mistake is to get rid of Keda’s father and tribe subplot for easily an hour during the film, relying too much on Keda’s journey without capturing the vulnerability for the tribal leader and the kind of impact this has on his now decaying life. If you include the other side of the story, the former won’t feel as repetitive as it inevitably does.

– Again, we have another movie that doesn’t know when to end on its most impactful visual. This film has three different ending scenes when it fades to black, and each time chooses to prolong the lasting impression, which ultimately forces it to lose a noticeable amount of steam before the credits finally hit. This is becoming a growing trend in Hollywood, and makes me wish they would combine everything they want out of three scenes into one, so as to not feel as tacked-on as this cliche makes good movies feel.

– Teeth for show? The film fails to capture the sheer difficulties and spontaneity of dangerous wild animals thanks to its domestication of wolves that feels slightly laughable even by movie standards. I get that this is the first story of ‘Man’s best friend’, but there is such little struggle in the film with earning the trust of the wolf, that it might as well be a snorting pug with their lovable cross-eyes.

Bonus Points

Props to Sony for not figuring out a way to market their products in a movie that takes place in the Ice Age. I half expected a big SONY to be carved out in the ice, but I commend them for showing great restraint. We might be able to take you seriously sure enough, Sony.

7/10

Crazy Rich Asians

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Starring – Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh

The Plot – The story follows Rachel Chu (Wu), an American-born Chinese economics professor, who travels to her boyfriend Nick’s (Golding) hometown of Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Before long, his secret is out: Nick is from a family that is impossibly wealthy, he’s perhaps the most eligible bachelor in Asia, and every single woman in his ultra-rarefied social class is incredibly jealous of Rachel and wants to bring her down.

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– For a movie that centers around riches, the very production qualities of the movie more than express that rich vibe. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was shot on location in Singapore, so we are treated to the vibrant cultures imbedded in the fashions, as well as luxurious traditions in ceremonies that are second to none in terms of beauty. I swear that this movie had the most imaginative wedding ceremony in a film that I have ever seen, making it impossible to not exhale when you find yourself transfixed in its luring qualities.

– Exceptional camera work. There are some breathtaking eclipse shots involving entrancing architecture and exotic landscapes that paint a gorgeous backdrop of the high stakes being portrayed within this family, and we as an audience are treated to these circling establishing sequences that feel like they’re constantly opening their arms to us. What I appreciate even more, is that these angles take their time before we step inside, allowing us a video postcard look inside of foreign scenery.

– Faithful casting that as a whole delights. This is the first American produced film in 25 years with an exclusive Asian cast, so finding the right pieces in bringing these personalities to life was no small feat. Thankfully, they hit the nail head on here, as Wu and Golden dazzle as these two lovebirds with these very grounded ideals despite the riches they have inherited in this story. They have amazing chemistry together, and never shed one ounce of believability through this two hour feature.

– There’s a lot of flare and poise in the on-screen text that takes us through the many island locations in a storytelling-like delivery. These big, bold letterings are an homage to the golden age of Hollywood, when title screens and location cues were such an important part of the transformation within the story. Aside from the lettering, there is also a map graphic visually depicting the distance traveled by the two leads that relates how far they are from their safe zone of home.

– Immersion even in music. The film features many classic pop favorites performed by an Asian artist with Asian translation of the lyrics, and I commend this because it transports us as an audience to the very sights and sounds that you would hear under these circumstances. It’s a personal touch that is greatly appreciated and nearly perfect, if not for two English translated songs that slipped under the radar.

– If this film doesn’t make you hungry from all of the tight, focused shots on Asian cuisine, then you don’t have a pulse. Not since 2014’s ‘Chef’ has a movie seduced me so effectively with a variety of dishes that truly triggers the care that this family puts into feeding their guests. In many ways, this aspect puts us in the shoes of Rachel, satisfying our pallets with champagne wishes and caviar dreams. It’s all that and dim sum.

– Romantic comedies are probably the hardest sell for me in terms of genres, but ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ earns its heart with a two hour journey that pushes you to see the growth in these characters. During the first act, this film is definitely a comedy, echoing the very awkwardness in first impressions that movies like ‘Meet the Parents’ and ‘Coming to America’ took the ball and ran with so effortlessly. But in the second half of the movie, something different happens. The film puts away its humorous material in favor of these bittersweet developments that test this couple far more than just the typical third act conflicts. We start to understand why there’s such a divide in the upper and lower class tiers, and this growing bump in the road brings the confrontation to such boiling levels in the form of a decision that will alter Nick’s future forever.

NEGATIVES

– Even though the film would be considered “White-Washing” if it took this method, I feel the conflict of Nick dating an American woman would’ve been far greater if he actually dated an American born character. Rachel is every bit as Asian as Nick’s family are, so the disdain doesn’t feel as grand as it would if he legitimately dated someone so different. Especially after you see the first scene of the movie, involving Nick’s family interacting with some borderline racist white folk.

– It’s a little strange to me that the film takes place in Singapore, surrounded by a 95% Asian ensemble, and yet every single one of them speaks perfect English. With the exception of the grandmother, no one even remotely uses their native tongue, and I find that hard to believe from an authenticity standpoint. This is the time when subtitles are appreciated and understood in a film, but the stretch of everyone accommodating American audiences in Asian territory is a bit far fetched.

– In my opinion, there are too many characters for the film that simply don’t offer enough to justify their existence. I get that this is adapted from a trilogy of books, but I would’ve liked to have seen the editing button achieve a greater presence in the film adaptation, as even midway through the movie we are still being introduced to new characters to the story who are never given proper time to develop. This aspect of the film is perhaps the greatest test for Rachel and Nick’s relationship, as there’s a brief period where it feels like the importance of their plot takes a backseat to another couple’s wedding.

7/10

Teen Titans GO!!! To the Movies

Directed by Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail

Starring – Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong

The Plot – It seems to the Teens that all the major superheroes out there are starring in their own movies-everyone but the Teen Titans, that is. But de facto leader Robin is determined to remedy the situation, and be seen as a star instead of a sidekick. If only they could get the hottest Hollywood film director to notice them. With a few madcap ideas and a song in their heart, the Teen Titans head to Tinsel Town, certain to pull off their dream. But when the group is radically misdirected by a seriously super villain and his maniacal plan to take over the Earth, things really go awry. The team finds their friendship and their fighting spirit failing, putting the very fate of the Teen Titans themselves on the line.

Rated PG for action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Instead of instilling an honorable message, ‘Teen Titans’ uses its limited time (82 Minutes) for satirical laughs of the daring kind, that come at the expense of everyone in the superhero genre. Using a spotlight to highlight the oversaturation of superhero movies that never stop, this film uses cutting edge timing to poke fun at the familiar elements that serve as a virtual checklist through every installment. Even better, it spans out these deliveries, allowing audiences much-needed breather in between to wait for the next one. In doing so, DC can finally indulge in a light-hearted atmosphere that superhero movies should be all about.

– The animation is vibrant in color graphing, and detailed in visual sight gags that you almost have to constantly rewind to fully grasp. Part of my favorite elements of the film involved spotting the names of some of the businesses that are expressed in humorous context in advertisement, as well as the overall feel of immersing yourself in a comic book feel kind of presentation. Between dust flying as a reflection of impact, as well as text being displayed visually in a way that pays homage to those comic book properties, this film carves its own path that is everything different from today’s DC properties, thus the reason for its valid success.

– It was great to see a film where Robin is front-and-center for once, and I’m hoping this will open the door for DC to take more chances with this often ridiculed character. Here, Robin articulates and solidifies his status as a leader to this group who they themselves feel like outcasts shunned by their peers, and perhaps that angle is why Robin takes the wheel and steers us into an adventure where he thrives because of endless heart and determination.

– Best cameo ever in a superhero movie. That’s all I’m going to say.

– Impeccable pacing that feels synthetic in the television structure that this show-turned-film has prospered with. Most of the filler in between comes from no shortage of musical numbers, and that’s fine because it doesn’t hinder or dampen the overwhelming feeling of delight that you get from taking it all in. No film this Summer made me laugh more than ‘Teen Titans’, and very few have flowed as smoothly in entertainment value, so it shouldn’t come as no surprise how easy of a sit this film is to waste time on a hot day, when you just want to feel the cool breeze of the theater air and an immersive cotton candy superhero film alike.

– As for the music that I previously mentioned, this is bar-none one of the best soundtracks that I have heard in recent memory. Beyond the music feeling energetic and full of feel-good passion, the lyrics being sung by the various members of this group leave your tummy tickled, with descriptive emphasis that exerts no shortage of personality or the T.M.I kind of too much information that leaves a character the butt of many jokes. So Often in kids movies, I find myself dreading a musical number, but I found myself waiting impatiently for the next one here, and it’s all because of what it does for the characters, as well as how it relishes the opportunity to get the youths moving in their seats.

– Much respect goes to the production team of this picture for bringing back the credited voice actors of the television show, all the while bringing in several A-list names to bounce off of them. Menville as Robin, and Tara Strong as Raven are definitely my favorites, proving that they haven’t missed a single step in the chemistry of their off-fire deliveries. But the chance to finally hear Nicolas Cage voice Clark Kent was one that was nearly 25 years in the making. For those who don’t know, Cage was supposed to play Superman in an early 90’s adaptation of the character, but it fell through. So to see Cage get the chance once again was something that proved cathartic and even affirming for how much command he had over the immense presence.

NEGATIVES

– One surprising aspect of the film that kind of disappointed me was how little there is for the youth of the audience to hang their hats on. Most of the meta-breaks will of course only benefit older audiences who grew up with these properties, but the other material feels like it has a great dependency on the color scheme of the film in luring the kids in and it’s just not enough. As it stands, no kid in my audience laughed, except during the fart gags that (Thankfully) are few and far between. Attaining two different audiences is incredibly difficult, but a film advertised like this should always get the kids first. Without them, you’ve already lost a majority of your audience.

– Despite the bending and breaking of the fourth wall that prospers repeatedly throughout, the enabling strings of redundancy begin to show at the beginning of the third act. All of the familiar tropes are there; the antagonist who gets one-up on the gang, the gang break-up, the moment of reflection for the protagonist, and of course the third act DC action sequence where they throw anything and everything at the screen. For a film that prides itself on being “The epiphany” for the genre, there’s far too much hypocrisy in where it settles to ever be as impactful as something like ‘The Lego Batman Movie’.

– Pointless short before the film. There’s a three minute short attached to ‘Teen Titans’ that serves no point to the forthcoming story, nor does it ever remotely hit its mark in intended direction. Considering Pixar are attaching these breathtakingly beautiful shorts at the beginning of their movies now, this forgettable, bland Batgirl short should’ve just been left on the cutting room floor. I originally thought this was part of the real movie, and was going to lead into the Titans watching this stupidity in a theater, but it didn’t. It was three awkward minutes of unattached material that starts this film off in a deficit before the actual movie even begins.

7/10

To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story

Directed by Derek Dennis Herbert

Starring – Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, Danielle Harris

The Plot – The film is the harrowing story of a stuntman overcoming a dehumanizing childhood filled with torment and bullying in Sparks, Nevada. After surviving a near-death burn accident, he worked his way up through Hollywood, leading to his ultimate rise as Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th series and making countless moviegoers forever terrified of hockey masks and summer camp. Featuring interviews with cinema legends, including Bruce Campbell (Ash vs. Evil Dead), Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), and Cassandra Peterson (Elvira: Mistress of the Dark), To Hell and Back peels off the mask of Kane Hodder, cinema’s most prolific killer, in a gut-wrenching, but inspiring, documentary. After decades of watching Kane Hodder on screen, get ready to meet the man behind the mask in To Hell and Back; a uniquely human story about one of cinema’s most vicious monsters.

The film is currently not rated

POSITIVES

– Most of the time, a backstory in documentaries serve as nothing more than exposition to tell the whole story, but with the first act of Kane’s life, we get a mold for who he eventually became. All of the bullying, the tolerance to pain, and really the overall entertainment that he gave his friends served as stepping stones to becoming the horror icon that he eventually became.

– Kane’s increasing passion for the characters he takes on is evident in multiple aspects of the film. For most actors, particularly stunt men, a role is just a paycheck until the next one, but for Hodder this embodiment is not only on a physical level, but also a mental one, as Kane himself approached the roles from a psychological level, giving Jason Voorhees some of his most menacing of qualities.

– Imaginative backdrop set pieces. Considering the entirety of this film is told in actor interviews, it’s nice to see that the production spent every creative effort in visually enhancing the rooms around the storytellers, with images straight out of a horror film. For Hodder in particular, we’re treated to what looks like a smashed kitchen, complete with broken chairs and turned over coffee cups, giving the picture that on-set kind of feel each time we cut to Kane.

– While Kane cherishes the fact that he never broke a bone in his decades of work, we still get a very detailed and revealing embodiment of just how dangerous this job truly is with these horror stories that are much worse than anything on-screen. In one of his first films alone, Kane describes being engulfed in flames to such vivid detail, all the while none of the actors and crew around him know just how badly he’s suffering because he does it so frequently. Herbert’s film has no problem glorifying the trade, but does so in a way that never relinquishes the responsibility in relaying the dangerous price that comes with the big lights of the Hollywood luster.

– As a storyteller, Kane’s finest moments seem to come when he tears up re-living some of his most torturous moments, both on and off screen. It offers a satisfyingly revealing side to Hodder that many of his biggest admirers have never been granted. In that regard alone, ‘To Hell and Back’ is the kind of valued documentary that provides emphasis in vulnerability that these often thought of invincible presences never receive.

– Important shooting locations. There is no shortage of on-site locations in landscape and hollowed hallways to some of Kane’s greatest tragedies and triumphs, and this rare gift decades later offers plenty on the way to spiritual reflection. Not only is this valuable to the story for visual representation, but it serves as a cathartic moment for Hodder himself, who comes full circle with the places and faces that have shaped him and his never-die spirit.

– A testament to Kane’s undying reputation, comes in the form of a who’s who list of horror genre celebrities who are interviewed for the film. As we all know, honesty in your work is judged upon by your peers, and the guest list on this picture might be the single greatest assembly of my own childhood heroes that any film has ever seen. Aside from Englund and Harris, Bruce Campbell, Bill Mosely, Sid Haig, Felissa Rose, and Cassandra Peterson are just a few of the names who have interacted with Kane, and if you forget any of their names, fear not, because the film goes overboard on repeating their visual name tags more than a few times.

NEGATIVES

– Studio stock musical score. No disrespect to composer Jonas Friedman, but the musical tones in ‘To Hell and Back’ strongly lack any kind of versatility or originality to the scenes they accompany, and constantly feel like they intrude upon an emotional rendering that a scene has going for itself.

– For a majority of the second act, the film starts to feel tedious in production team members naming their favorite moments, instead of resting the focus on the title protagonist. People will argue that it does this because Kane is a big part of these films, but I feel like the redundancy sometimes takes far too long to get to its intended finish line, and I would’ve preferred more time donated to Kane off of the screen.

– Much of the production value screams A&E Television style. Aside from the repeat in name tags that I mentioned earlier, that feel like they’re constantly coming back from commercial break, the camera movements and lack of inspirational interview angles diminish the value of creativity that stems from a majority of this project. This greatly leaves the film feeling burdened from transitioning into that big screen presence that so many documentaries this year have already attained.

7/10

Ant Man and The Wasp

Directed by Peyton Reed

Starring – Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena

The Plot – In the aftermath of ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Scott Lang (Rudd) grapples with the consequences of his choices as both a Super Hero and a father. As he struggles to re-balance his home life with his responsibilities as Ant-Man, he’s confronted by Hope van Dyne (Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) with an urgent new mission. Scott must once again put on the suit and learn to fight alongside The Wasp as the team works together to uncover secrets from their past.

Rated PG-13 for some mild profanity, and scenes of sci-fi action and violence

POSITIVES

– Rudd and Lilly, while still leagues away from feeling authentic in a romantic staging, preserve their chemistry with a tag team dynamic that compliments the other one. With Marvel movies, we typically get solo efforts or a group of superheroes, so the elements involved with a man/woman duo can compliment the choreography in action in the same way tag team wrestling does. Along the way, there are plenty of set-ups and knock-downs that each of these characters feed each other, making it difficult for antagonists to look one way without something coming at them in a different direction.

– The visual effects work is leaps and bounds the single greatest aspect of the film, bringing to life childlike imagination and creativity in spades. Ant Man and The Wasp is certainly a film that couldn’t be made ten years ago, and much of that perfection amongst green-screen assistance is something that has come with time, with in-sync color shadowing and precision volume in movements and weight that ease the boundaries of believability. There is one certain problem that I had with a scene involving hot wheels that doesn’t make sense in any way, shape, or form, but it’s just part of the tone set for the film.

– Pacing that literally FLIES by (Get it?). While the run time for the film is nearly two hours, the final conflict wrapped itself up in a way that finished before we as an audience were ever aware that resolution was coming. Not that this happens in a way that is anti-climatic, but rather screenwriters Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari leave us wanting more by exiting at the highest peak of the intensity mountain.

– Perfect timing. The film doesn’t hold much weight with everything else currently going on in the Infinity War and Thanos, and maybe that’s for the best. Considering so many people were depressed coming out of Infinity War, the necessity for something like Ant Man and The Wasp is that much more appreciated, because of its colorful textures and substantial value in light-hearted thrills. So many people just want to laugh anymore, especially in our own real world, and if Rudd avoiding house arrest while watching Animal House doesn’t do it for you, then nothing will.

– Much of the tone for the film stays grounded, leaving very little to even push forth with a PG-13 rating that even I felt was stretching it a bit. This film’s biggest strength is in its adaptability for all members of the family, especially considering it is the first Marvel property to feature a female presence in the title of the movie. With Wonder Woman kicking so much ass for DC, it was certainly time that Marvel engaged the female fans of its inner circle, and the film does a superb job at leveling the playing field for both characters gifts that they bring to the table. Also, some of my favorite scenes harvested that family element beautifully, with Rudd losing the suit to play dad to his adorably precocious child daughter.

– The marriage of C.G and makeup sets back the clock. As we saw with how Marvel made Robert Downey Jr twenty years younger in Civil War, it too brings a more impressive palate in the designs of Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeifer for this picture. Not that either have aged terribly. Pfeifer is still a fox, but the scenes relating to their pasts remind us of the prime for some of Hollywood’s once prosperous A-list hitters, proving how scary realistic these transformations feel without ever coming across as hollow.

– It should be obvious that you stay for the credits for one amazing post credits scene, and one that was an extreme waste of time. However, my post-movie cheers goes to a credit sequence that storyboards the movie’s biggest scenes with action figures. It harvests the energy of what it meant to be a kid, dreaming up these superhero scenarios when anything was possible.

NEGATIVES

– While the humor in dialogue for the film did hit its mark around 80% of the time, there were some examples where this direction did harm for the atmosphere. Considering Reed also directed the first movie, it’s interesting to see how much more he values sitcom comedy in the sequel as compared to the original film. Quite often, there is a desire to supplant a laugh or sight gag in every single scene, making it difficult to feel dramatic tension in the form of urgency . Beyond this, the over-extending use for puns became eye-rolling about midway through the movie.

– The biggest disappointment for me was easily the setting. While the first film entirely took place in the real world, I was hoping that the sequel would establish the rules and atmosphere inside of the Quantum Realm. Sadly, we only invade this outerworld with a mere 30 minutes left in the movie, and even then it is only temporary. I didn’t care for either of the dual antagonists for the movie, and often times it feels like they are created to give each protagonist their own conflict. Instead, I wish the Quantum Realm itself, in all of its mysteries and risks, was the antagonist for the movie. It’s that rare case I feel where a superhero film didn’t require an antagonist, and now makes this series 0 for 3 in terms of compelling villains who offer no kind of depth to their missions.

– When you really think about it, this film is a big game of Hot Potato, and for it to be reduced to something that elementary with as many elements that are boiling around the pot, it’s a bit of a glaring negative that the character development in exposition feels secondary to the prize itself. This is big on the antagonists, but also on someone like Pfeifer’s Motherly character, who with the exception of the opening couple minutes of the movie, goes a long span of time before appearing again. Why even reach for a big name like Pfeifer when the best you have for her is three scenes throughout nearly two hours of film?

7/10

Tag

Directed by Jeff Tomsic

Starring – Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner

The Plot – For one month every year, five highly competitive friends hit the ground running in a no-holds-barred game of tag they’ve been playing since the first grade; risking their necks, their jobs and their relationships to take each other down with the battle cry “You’re It!” This year, the game coincides with the wedding of their only undefeated player, which should finally make him an easy target. But he knows they’re coming… and he’s ready. Based on a true story, Tag shows how far some guys will go to be the last man standing.

Rated R for adult language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Games are supposed to be fun, and Tag lives for this philosophy in spades. With a satisfying compromise of hearty laughter in material from some of the best comic actors going today, as well as some surprisingly detailed shot slapstick action sequences, and you have an early favorite for most fun at a theater for the Summer 2018 movie season.

– Despite the film’s minimal plot revolving around a 30 year old game of tag, the script surprises us with an overwhelming amount of heart that fleshes out the foundation that this friendship was built on. Much of the trailer alludes us to this depth in emotional registry that the film harvests, but seeing the actual film itself adds extra emphasis in context to some bottled issues that lie unresolved beyond this game.

– The music as well plays vital importance to the film’s newly-emerging direction that withholds some surprises. I spoke earlier of beautifully shot action sequences, but what pushes this even beyond just a comedy posing as something bigger is the enthralling musical score by Germaine Franco that feels like it could easily be ripped by a Lethal Weapon sequel. Besides this, the soundtrack of assorted 90’s favorites also adds a faithful homage to the perspective youth of these main characters. What I like is that no song choice is too obvious and gimmicky, instead choosing to browse some B-side gems that have sadly dissolved with time.

– Great credit goes to the bold personalities of this cast for committing themselves to their respective roles, although there is one glaring negative that I will get to later. Isla Fischer’s overly anxious rage to be included in the game, as well as Jeremy Renner’s perfectionist are among my very favorites to this impressive crew that never relent from the fun they are omitting on-screen. If Renner was this well developed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then maybe people would be itching for more Hawkeye. It was great to see him return to comedy, as there’s something ridiculous yet believable about the traps he sets up for the game, underlining not just an importance to where this lies in his own blessed life, but also reminding you how he has stayed undefeated for so long.

– Light, breezy pacing that never lags. Considering Tag clocks in at a respectable 95 minutes for its run time, I was surprised during a free-flowing second half of the film when I checked my watch to see only fifteen minutes remained. The third act in this movie snuck up on me like no other film this year has managed to do, a testament to the script’s ability to immerse me in the moments and conversations that you never want to walk away from.

– There were a few times when the comic material feels like it’s about to fall into that trap of unnecessary raunchiness that most modern comedies fall into, but thankfully these few spare instances are played off only to show how much they, as well as the game, has grown around them. Even more appreciative, the best material wasn’t just in the trailer. Some of my favorite quips were those throwaway lines that hang on to the end of each sentence after a big drop in comedy only seconds before. This allows the film great replay value, because like a film like Deadpool, you won’t catch all of the good ones the first time.

– Much of the film revolves around this interview being conducted by Annabelle Wallis’s journalist character, so the film’s creativity sparks many instances where members of the group are being interviewed while giving a confessional. Likewise, we are learning the rules and history of the game like Wallis is, so it all feels like we too are reading her article, one page at a time.

 

NEGATIVES

– Too many instances of telegraphed information that almost immediately come into play. For my money, I could’ve used a little space in between the insert of the exposition and the delivery that happens right after. Have more faith in your audience to remember an important tidbit. This will also prove that you have enough patience to let the tension in gags grow to suffocating heights before the big blow off

– The film’s conflict is of course finally tagging Jeremy Renner’s Jerry, and while it remains faithful to this objective all the way to the final scene, the juice doesn’t feel worth the squeeze with the final result. I have no doubt that people will enjoy the bittersweet conclusion that the film wraps up with, but to me it felt like a copout to everything that Jerry’s opponents have been through up to this point, and trust me this is NOT a spoiler.

– As I mentioned earlier, there is one casting in the film that just doesn’t blend well with the other elements in this cast, and that is Hannibal Burress. I have no disrespect normally for Burress, as his stoner-head gimmick has provided me with plenty of laughs in other films that have most certainly needed it, but here it feels like it intrudes on Jake Johnson’s character, as well as limits the appeal of the comedic material with each chance he gets to speak. Aside from all of this, Burress isn’t even involved in the game all that much, making his inclusion in the screenplay a mystery for why the film even needed him.

7/10

Ghost Stories

Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andrew Nyman

Starring – Martin Freeman, Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse

The Plot – Three spine-tingling tales of terror to haunt your dreams. A debunker of all thing paranormal, Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) has devoted his life to exposing phony psychics and fraudulent supernatural shenanigans on his own television show. His skepticism is put to the test, however, when he receives a file of three chilling, inexplicable cases: a night watchman (Whitehouse) haunted by disturbing visions as he patrols an abandoned asylum; an edgy young man (Alex Lawther) involved in a hellish car accident deep in the woods; and a wealthy former banker (Freeman) visited by the poltergeist spirit of his unborn child. Even scarier: each of these macabre stories seems to have sinister connection to Professor Goodman’s own life. WIll they make a believer of him yet?

Currently not rated

POSITIVES

– This was a nostalgic trip for me, to the days of anthology horror films like Trick R Treat or Creepshow, or even television bedtime stories like Tales From the Crypt. Within Dyson and Nyman’s creepy world, anything beyond supernatural not only feels possible, but also expected.

– The duo of directors have many worthy mentions here, but it’s in their impeccable direction with the three victims where they find their biggest impact. Each of the three men are affected differently from their interactions, with Whitehouse feeling confused, Lawther feeling paranoid, and Freeman feeling haunted. Because of this, we get three different protagonist at respectively different times during this film, and each of the actors polish off emotionally stirring gifts. The directors are also careful to leave enough room to make you question if these unstable characters are actually telling the truth with their testimonials.

– Refusing to settle for repetition amongst shot composition, Ghost Stories harbors a wide range of lens effects that provide much needed versatility. The overall presentation feels like we’re watching a documentary in 1.33 box cut ratio, while the film’s grainy texture within the story unfolding before our eyes pays homage to the Hammer films of the 70’s that provide the perfect feel for this anthology.

– In terms of variety, I felt like each of the three stories were satisfying for completely different reasons, and kept me mentally invested throughout the 93 minute run time. Each are given ample time for audiences to immerse themselves in their respective atmospheres, keeping the flow of the narrative continuously moving without one compromising the fluidity of the other two.

– Confidence amongst the blending of tones. Of course this is a horror movie first and foremost, but the screenwriters are not afraid to include awkward humor and unorthodox line reads in granting audiences that brief moment of release after the build-up of tension.

– Deep hitting message. Beyond the hauntings on a supernatural level, I believe the film is trying to hint that those things that seem to stick with us the longest are the events from our past that we simply cannot change, and don’t necessarily involve an entity or spirit that stalks us and is status quo for movies like this. Because of such, the film hits on such a grounded level with human response that I simply wasn’t expecting.

– There is a twist ending that is anything but original, but I can honestly say that I didn’t see coming. What works about it, is how we’re given all of these out-of-context puzzle pieces throughout the film, and we don’t really see the bigger picture until the movie truly wants us to. In addition to this, I feel like Ghost Stories has great replay value because once you know the name of the game, you can start the film all over again and perhaps catch some more of those subtle clues that originally felt like nothing more than unsettling atmospheric strings.

NEGATIVES

– One of my complaints with the individual stories involves their inept perception on when to leave audiences with the lasting impression. Timing is a bit of an issue with where they decide to end each of these three subplots, leaving much to be desired in terms of lasting presence within me, long after I left the theater.

– Far too much dependency of jump scares that get old about thirty minutes in. Jump scares can be used accordingly if they are spread out and used vitally and honestly enough, but Ghost Stories can’t ever escape this unnecessary concept, leaving it to feel like they don’t have a lot of faith in the nightmare dreamscapes that they have created.

– For my money, I could’ve used more exposition devoted to Nyman’s character involving his obvious troubled past with his father. What is evident from the credit introduction is that the two had a rocky relationship. We know this because a barrage of family movies play during this sequence, but the problem is that we never really return to this angle, leaving much to be desired from the psychological side that the film eventually leans so heavily on.

7/10