My Friend Dahmer

Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys in the Midwest United States between 1978 and 1991 before being captured and incarcerated. He would become one of America’s most infamous serial killers. This is the story before that story. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is an awkward teenager struggling to make it through high school with a family life in ruins. He collects roadkill, fixates on a neighborhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser), and copes with his unstable mother (Anne Heche) and well-intentioned father (Dallas Roberts). He begins to act out at school, and his goofball antics win over a group of band-nerds who form The Dahmer Fan Club, headed by Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff). But this camaraderie can’t mask his growing depravity. Approaching graduation, Jeff spirals further out of control, inching ever closer to the madness that was destined to overtake him. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is written and directed by Marc Meyers, and is rated R for for disturbing images, adult language, teen drug use, drinking and sexual content, and for brief nudity.

‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a cautionary tale about observation. Through the eyes of those who knew him best, Jeffrey Dahmer was failed, living without the kind of love and acceptance that every single person living needs to survive. He was failed by his friends, family, teachers, school board, and all around community that ignored the signs of something much more powerful lurking beneath the quiet exterior of a kid just looking for attention. The one constant that rang true throughout this film is the cancer of loneliness that seemed to amplify Jeffrey’s metaphorical voice that was ringing in his head to expose what he was born to eventually become. Because of such, Meyers film feels like the most revealing look into the mind of one of America’s most gruesome serial killers, taking us through the many depositions in and around his tortured life that presented an roarschach test of possible answers for where to point the blame. The most responsible answer is everyone, and it’s in that stance where the film commands its audience to live with your eyes open at all times because the next Jeffrey Dahmer might be right under your nose the whole time.

As a narrative, ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a bit of a coming of age story with a twist, in that this isn’t just a teenager maturing into what he was born to become, but also into something that terrified everyone else. To be honest, if you’re expecting a bloodbath of epic levels here, you will sadly be mistaken. ‘My Friend Dahmer’ isn’t fully a horror movie, but instead a psychological spin that puts the scattered pieces together and allows us to see the bigger picture from a step back. There are plenty of examples of broken relationships all around the boy that all collide with him on this demolition course that is lacking of any kind of intimacy for him to crutch the pressure onto. Because of this, I found it to be an entertaining sit in spades even if the entirety of the script is hearsay. Because the writer, Bergdorf, is a central character in the film, we rely on him to faithfully color in the lines of mystery for our own satisfaction. The problem is that Bergdorf himself wasn’t in but maybe forty percent of the scenes that are shown in the film, so there is that level of doubt from his script that makes you wonder just how authentic Dahmer’s solo scenes are to the story. With that said, Bergdorf as a writer feels like a valuable piece to the spectrum not only because he accomplishes the menacing presence of a young Dahmer, but also because he juggles it with this light-hearted atmosphere of teenage hormones humor that fills the air until the cloud of Jeffrey’s alienation overtakes the production whole.

For my enjoyment of being a local who lives only fifteen minutes from where these events took place, Meyers decision to shoot in and around Bath Township is one that pays great dividends to immersing yourself in the proper environment. This presents an extra added glee of being able to point out certain roads and buildings that still stand to this day that out of state audiences won’t fully grasp, giving it a surreal feeling full circle because these are the very same halls and roads that the killer once walked. How many biopics can confidently say that they shot in the exact same house that the original story took place? But because I have visited the former Dahmer house on many occasions and can see it fruitfully displayed on camera, I can appreciate the speculated difficulty that went into crafting such a solid truth to this picture. Most of the names remain untouched in the script, and the only change that I saw was that of the school buses that say Summit Township, instead of Bath Township.

The production does a mostly solid job of keeping out of the television movie-of-the-week category that can sometimes doom the immersion into a true story. The cinematography from Daniel Katz omits a kind of cheap aura to its shot selections, but I think this does wonders in feeding into the very look and fashions of 1978 that are depicted all over this film. On that ground, nothing felt outdated or out of place for the era that the story took place in, and I value a film even more that can paint such a picture without it feeling obvious or forced. What I mean is that sometimes a film can drive home a series of songs repeatedly or throw in a bunch of posters of 70’s pop culture to constantly remind you, but ‘My Friend Dahmer’ feels more confident in establishing these grounds more so in its visual compass instead of its physical properties, and it’s a decision that I feel goes miles in determining the kinds of hands-on decision making from the proper people without the interruption of Hollywood big wigs not willing to take the time to understand the character or the world that envelopes him.

As for performances, the majority are solid, but the overdone line reads of some extras were painfully obvious on a few occasions. These are nothing more than the occasional teacher or popular student characters who are clearly reading lines for the first time in their early careers, and thankfully don’t stick around for the long haul. What I can say positively begins with Ross Lynch giving a stirring revelation as the title character. Lynch commands Dahmer with the kind of patience and transfixing movements that faithfully keep your eyes on him at all times. What is so chilling about his performance is the cold stare from his facial reactions through any kind of atmosphere taking place around him, that hint that he’s got a dirty secret that only he knows. In addition to Lynch, Dallas Roberts was also good as Dahmer’s exhausted father Lionel, who feels like the last chance for Jeffrey in keeping him afloat. Lionel is the character who I reasoned with the most in this broken home kind of family, and the few sensitive scenes that he shares with Jeffrey feel like that warm breath that is needed in getting us through some very haunting chain of events that our young protagonist of sorts deals with on an almost daily basis.

THE VERDICT – ‘My Friend Dahmer’ is a cut above the rest in terms of credible real-life biopics that choose to get a step closer psychologically instead of settling for a Wikipedia summary. Though the film’s speculation can sometimes lead to noticeable patches of dry and direction-less scenes, the majority of Meyers provacative work feels sharp for the dissection. Held tightly by the breakthrough performance of Lynch, as well as the charms of a local familiarity in backdrops, and you have a film that Jeffrey would devilishly eat up.

7/10

Justice League

The biggest of D.C Comics brand of superheroes team together to save the day as the ‘Justice League’. Months after the destruction of events caused in ‘Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes-Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller), it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions at the hands of the deadly Steppenwolf and his army of deciples. ‘Justice League’ is co-directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action.

After the momentum of ‘Wonder Woman’ from earlier this year, the D.C Comics Universe is looking to extend that winning streak a bit more with assemblance of ‘Justice League’, the long-awaited team-up of a dream team of heroes, some of which being portrayed on screen for the first time ever within this realm. Because of these vastly different personalities, ‘Justice League’ feels like a welcoming appreciation of changes from previous efforts that could prove that D.C is starting to find their unique voice with comic storytelling. The inevitable comparisons to Marvel will always be there, but it is up to us as moviegoers to understand that these are two different worlds that divert in everything from tone to visual presentation, and while ‘Justice League’ isn’t the home run collectively that this series so desperately needs, it is a stand-up double that sets the stage fruitfully for the introductions to some vital characters with their own undisputed honor to the D.C calling card. Considering that this is a film that had problems in production both on and off of the silver screen, it’s a major step forward for a finished result that gave me a rousing good time.

Almost immediately, anyone will pick up on the change of atmosphere that has reduced itself from the serious drag that was films like ‘Man of Steel’ or ‘Batman Vs Superman’, and traded it in for an embracing of light-hearted tone that carves out some much needed personalities for these iconic figures. While it doesn’t get as over-the-top in laughs as say ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ did, I can confidently say that this movie guided the balance between serious and humorous more capably, finding a comfortable medium that caters to Snyder’s brand of adult-like settings. Much of my problem with these films up to ‘Wonder Woman’ this year has been the decision to take itself far too seriously, forgetting that this is a fantasy world that is being depicted, so the fun of imagination should definitely be there. Most of the humor fails or succeeds in the hands of the actors who harbor strong timing with their deliveries, but screenwriters Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon as a whole leave plenty of room in the comic kitchen for two chefs who are more than capable of playing off the right moment properly, leaving the garbage can of fails relatively limited in the grand spectrum.

The film’s runtime of nearly two hours definitely feels like it was trimmed down, especially considering so many scenes that were frequent in the trailers are nowhere to be found in the finished product. The pacing is more than remotely uneven, especially considering the exposition-heavy first act breezes by with the speed of The Flash, but the second act builds the process prominently of this team coming together as one and giving us plenty of chances to embrace their personalities bouncing off of one another. Particularly in the opening half hour of the film, it definitely felt like D.C knew that it still had plenty of ground to make up in bridging the gap towards the three characters of Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman, who have only made brief cameos in the series up to this point. But time is of the essence here with Warner Bros limiting this film to the two hour mark, and because of such, those origin stories will have to wait for another day. What’s commendable here is that the film feels like five different movies being welded together for the price of one. Surprisingly, the film seamlessly blends together like one cohesive plot, proving that the ingredients taste the best when they’re working together as one. Overall, I had a great time with the film until about the final half hour, when the expected third act struggles of D.C rear their ugly heads again. Once again it’s too much C.G, too much quick-cut editing, and far too much structural damage instead of dramatic pulse to push its final scenes to the finish line. Because so much of the final fights in these films lack desperation or vulnerability, I never feel any grave danger for what is at stake, and it proves that D.C has plenty to work on to send audiences home electrified instead of antsy.

From a production standpoint, ‘Justice League’ also raises the bar, proving that aesthetics do matter just as much to this coveted team behind the camera. Thankfully, the cinematography by Fabian Wagner lightens things up visually to present us with some eye-catching landscapes to pop that comic vibe of authenticity. Snyder is a sucker for dreamy comic illustrations, and no one does it better than him in bringing these pages of vibrancy to life with such pulse. Sure, the C.G still oversteps its boundaries as a whole against physical properties, but Gotham honestly never looked so beautifully toxic as it did here. One point that I couldn’t ignore was the removal of Henry Cavill’s mustache which looked terrible in post production. I can’t imagine how anyone can’t see that his lip and mouth movements look about as authentic as Cyborg’s bodily property, leaving a stain on the film any time that his character decided to open his mouth. The lighting aspects here are much improved when compared to ‘Batman Vs Superman’ that looked like it was filmed in a dark, damp basement. I think this step creatively feeds to the concept that this isn’t just one or two characters movie, this is now an entire team, and it’s a great time for such a change when we’re trying to represent a magnitude of artistic integrities equally.

As for performances, the positives far outweighed the negatives for me, and even offered some surprises that silenced this critic. To that regard, I apologize to Ezra Miller for thinking his humor would overshadow the character of Barry Allen. He doesn’t always land the gut-busting punch that he’s pulling for because of his awkwardness, but that alone in itself feeds into the youth who is at an awe with the personalities who now surround him, leaving him starstruck. Affleck and Gadot continue to breathe the very essence of their characters, providing a satisfying blend of humanity with a dash of hinted romance to mend their respective aching hearts. Jason Momoa is also outstanding in depicting this new side of Aquaman that I didn’t think was possible. At first, I kind of worried that Momoa would portray this Thor-like musclehead with very little reasoning or logic to his character, but as the film goes on, you start to understand that he offers the most eclectic striking when it comes to the versatility of his offense. I can’t wait till next December to see him reap the benefits of an entire script. My negatives start sadly with Ray Parker as Cyborg. Parker himself isn’t terrible, just what the script has for him is. His very first scene sets the stage for some dramatic pulse of being stuck in a situation that he had no choice over, but the script doesn’t add anything to this. I was waiting for Parker to get a scene of clarity for himself, but he’s sadly ignored as the film goes on, handing in an incomplete that did nothing for the weight of his character. Ciaran Hinds is arguably the worst kind of Warcraft villain that a movie like this can find. Comic book genre films haven’t quite figured out the emphasis on a good villain yet, and Hinds might be the worst to date, equipping Steppenwolf with no proper motive or valued screen time in getting his character across. Again, it’s another villain that a film forgets about for a half hour, and I never felt like we were any less for his absence.

THE VERDICT – If you compare this to Marvel, you’ve missed the point immediately. ‘Justice League’ finds its own original voice of impulse, despite its sometimes rushed script that diminishes the capability of its talented cast. Snyder’s latest chapter adds a much-needed dose of atmospheric humor that relays this being a COMIC book movie first, leaving its colorless drag in the past for good where it belongs. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but the future is finally bright for these heroes in individual efforts, with the possibility that justice might come to all of them with valued patience.

7/10

Murder on the Orient Express

The search for a murderer on board has a group of strangers on the edge of their seats, in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, the film takes place in 1930s Europe, with famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) boarding the legendary Orient Express for a small break in between cases. While on board, he meets an interesting assortment of characters. One fellow passenger, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), implores Mr. Poirot to assist him while on the train as he fears for his well-being, though Poirot respectfully declines. The next morning, Ratchett is found stabbed to death. With the train halted due to snow build up on the tracks, and with the evidence and suspects piling up, Poirot finds himself diving into a case that could be his biggest and most mind-bending yet. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is directed by Kennth Branagh, and is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

Kenneth Branagh’s modern day adaptation of this legendary crime detective novel offers a dual respect of the past and present that brings to life a special hybrid of sorts for ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. While this was a story that was written over eighty years ago, there’s plenty of artistic merit and expression of modern mastery that instills life into this third live action adaptation, holding its place amongst the vast collection of today’s whodunnits? that establish little in the way of detective procedurals. This film to me was not only a character piece in the eyes of a world renowned detective, but also a thought-provoking narrative that does beg the question if murder is ever acceptable in the most avenging of ways possible. It certainly isn’t an easy thing to cast a near two hour plot in one claustrophobic train-car, but Branagh and his talented cast spin the gears of the wheels , opening up this one setting play in the most elaborate of ways that constantly elevates the tension with each passing clue of development that poisons the air like the swanky soap operas of yesterday that we just can’t get enough of.

This is first and foremost an ensemble piece, garnering with it a collection of top name billers to add prestige to its ages old formula. Branagh pulls double duty here like the few times that he has before, and his command and essence over the character of Poirot proves that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. As this experienced detective, Branagh breathes in a quirky, yet distinguished operational aspect to his madness, establishing why he is the name that everyone turns to in the longest of longshots. Aside from Branagh, I also enjoyed the performances of Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and Willam Dafoe as suspects aboard this train. There is a big chance that the screenwriters take in the choice to not approaching these characters as anything more than one-dimensional suspects with very little exposition or screen time dedicated to their presence, but I feel that it pays off in spades because we are meeting these characters in the same way Poirot is; as questionable suspects, so I feel that to know too much would render their mysteries silent. Nobody is ever out of place or underwhelming in their displays, and even the brief work of Johnny Depp and Judy Dench prove that no role is too small in getting across the bigger point.

While this isn’t the widest example of free-range storytelling, the film’s investigation into this mystery offers plenty of meat to chew on in keeping the audience at bay. To me, this is a film that definitely has a better second half than first, and I say that because the opening minutes are at times a bit of a chore to get through, with forced humor of the Inspector Clouseau kind being inserted. It isn’t until about twenty minutes into the movie when we’re finally aboard this elegant train that is only one day from spinning out of control. Thankfully, the film does mature along with the subject matter that it encounters, leading to second and third acts in the film that strap on gloves to get ready for to get the hands dirty. One of my only problems with this story that dates back to its literary origin, is that once we find out the one coincidence that links these people together, the answer becomes apparently obvious in where the answer is heading. This to me happens a little bit early, leaving the remaining twenty minutes of film to soak in that question of murder that I asked in this writing earlier. The ending is satisfying, but it does so in a way that could’ve twisted the set-ups differently to present this as something different for the people who have already read or seen any of the two other movie adaptations.

The ending is something that I feel will be divisive amongst audiences, but I myself felt that it was just fine considering this is my fourth engagement with these characters and plot. Knowing this story once will kind of diminish in cliffhanging circumstance what kind of returns that you will get from something that offers very few changes. If you’re seeing this story for the first time in your life, then ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ version 2017 should steer you in the right direction for thrills and seedy developments that will constantly keep you guessing. To that degree, I share an air of jealousy for this being someone’s first dive into this plot, as I feel Branagh’s touch is no doubt the quit-essential precedent for a film in this series before or after this newest chapter. Like any human detective plot with honesty, the film ends without answering all of the questions, but as is life for motives that constantly keep us guessing.

One aspect that definitely should not be understated is in the gorgeous overall cinematography that Haris Zambarloukos displays with prestige in class. This is the Titanic of rolling trains, so everything from the elegant displays of crystal silverware and cozy surroundings does wonder in setting the stage fruitfully for this limited opportunity to tag along. In addition to this, Haris and Kenneth wow us with some intoxicating establishing shots of the many parallel weather patterns and scenery that always gives us something jaw-dropping to gaze at. But to prove that he isn’t just an actor, Branagh knows precisely where to point the camera, guiding us through the many train-cars effortlessly in manipulated one take long-shots that are meant to display the immensity of this setting and mystery that at the start feel completely wide open, but are later chopped down ruthlessly, relaying that the answer is getting closer and closer to the culprit. These aspects alone remind us the rare gifts that remakes can grant us; breathtaking views, luxurious tastes, and puppeteering behind the camera that can do so much with only so little.

THE VERDICT – Kenneth Branagh offers an entertaining upgrade on nearly every aspect of this old-fashioned murder mystery, with enough bends and curves to keep this a bumpy ride frequently. While the overall mystery becomes surrounded with a cloud of convolution, the touch of craft filmmaking involving scene-stealing camera work, overrides those problems, offering a pleasant taste of a golden age of Hollywood production where this train departed from. In lesser hands, this film collapses on its tracks, but the double duty of Branagh as the captain provides enough coal in the engine to power us through.

7/10

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Visionary director Yorgos Lathimos offers us another dive into the deep end of cinematic immersion, in his newest provocative piece ‘The Killing of A Sacred Deer’. Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a world renowned cardiovascular surgeon presiding over a spotless household with his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two exemplary children, 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic) and 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Lurking at the margins of his idyllic suburban existence is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a fatherless teen who Steven has covertly taken under his wing. As Martin begins insinuating himself into the family’s life in ever-more unsettling displays, the full scope of his intent becomes menacingly clear when he confronts Steven with a long-forgotten transgression that will shatter the Murphy family’s domestic bliss in a sinister game of revenge. ‘The Killing of A Sacred Deer’ is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and adult language.

Lathimos as a director is someone who has no qualms about pushing the envelope into provocative material. In ‘The Lobster’, we received an honestly unapologetic depiction of the modern dating scene, and in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ it appears that his focus this time shifts to the depiction of the medical profession and all of its loose ends that come with being the final step for many on their one way trips with death. Perhaps the one singularity that both of these films equally match is in the way they’re shaped as a genre in the attitudes that both movies possess. This is an area where Yorgos succeeds in ways that so many other directors just can’t even comprehend; the emphasis and articulation in tone that faithfully interpret the volume of emotional mass that this director values in teaching us. While the film certainly allows us many moments of intense laughter from the sheer absurdity of character responses, the film never strays far from being a fright first kind of deal. Because of such, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ and Lathimos alike, does things with horror genre temperament and brash twisted humor that other more obvious students of the genre can’t accomplish, taking us through a dream-like environment where your worst nightmare can and often will come true. This film feels like a melting pot of ingredients that blend together to attain that intended taste, and when it comes to the chef that is stirring the pot, Lathimos highlights where each aspect blends well into accomplishing this feat.

Almost immediately, we are treated to some exceptional overall camera work that explores the unorthodox dissection of how we approach a scene. Lathimos continues his traditional signature shots that include continuous takes down the long corridors of a hospital, wide angle framing that colorfully illustrates the ideas and concepts that are being played over the heads of these characters, as well as depicting just how small they as people are to the everyday bigger picture, and of course the introduction to establishing shots that are done with such gentle precision. On the latter, I love how the camera softly takes the hand of the audience and guides it through each new environment that the screenplay takes us through. It constantly feels like we as guests are trying to sneak into what is going on without much disruption, and the bending around objects and walls to represent such a point treated me to a kind of theatrical engagement that was anything but bare, and proved that Lathimos sets the stage each time appropriately with a canvas that never lacks versatility in getting his points across for the mass volume of themes that the film takes on.

To that degree, the screenplay was one that does have some entertaining deficiencies, but overall strums through nearly two heart-pounding hours that constantly kept my attention. It’s clear that there is something much bigger being displayed at heart here, but to only summarize what I saw in one sitting is sheer madness. This is a film that does cast a lot of emphasis in its premise, but follows up with some exceptional storytelling that slowly unfurls each petal of valuable exposition carefully instead of it feeling like a free-falling storm. As screenwriters, Lathimos and partner Efthimis Filippou let you sample the environment before you revel in the details, and it’s a process that kept me engaged for the ridiculous actions and speech patterns that the film uses to relay that something truly terrible is at play within these friendly confines of characters. What problems that I did have might clear up with future re-watches, but do deserve to be mentioned for taking my grade down a couple of points. The first is that the film never truly explains how any of this threat is truly taking place. I’m sure there’s a bigger picture being hinted at here, but the film kind of requires you to take an illogical leap in logic to believing what is unraveling here, and I was never fully on board with it. Besides this, the third act is prolonged to frustrating levels. While it’s true that Lathimos is getting better about where to end his film, it still stands the case that his editing could still use some work, as many sequences are so needless and redundant that they often oversell the point that has already been driven home. While this doesn’t hurt the overall pacing for the film, I feel like the third act could’ve easily been the quickest in terms of minutes devoted to it, but it is the only true weakness against the first two acts that proved the value of strength in momentum that the film consistently built.

The musical score from composer Sofia Gubaidulina is riveting, strumming along some of the most entrancing notes that I have heard in the entire year of 180 films thus far. Not since 2014’s ‘It Follows’ has a musical score been so effective in not only setting the precedent of terror within each scene, but also in the volume of piercing release that constantly moved me. One negative to the latter is that it can sometimes intrude a little too much on the actors trying to play out each scene without that added manipulation, leading some dialogue exchanges to be rendered deaf because of such. The good news is that those scenes are only few and far between, as a majority of Sofia’s increasing beat of disturbia cashes in often on the true value of an unnerving musical score to not only the layering of chilling circumference that dominates each scene, but also feeding into the dream-like state of being that I mentioned earlier. Because of such, this feels like a world far from our own while monitoring the discontent with the medical practices that are every bit as prevalent in today’s rivalry between patient and practice.

This ensemble cast is mesmerizing, being led by Farrell and Kidman in their second collaboration of the year after ‘The Beguiled’. Lathimos definitely brings them along better than Coppola did, and because of such we are treated to the most versatile of monotonous deliveries that I have ever seen. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but the approach to emoting these characters at underwhelming and almost un-human-like stances pays off in spades later on in the film when the stakes are the highest, forcing them to finally act logically like any of us rightfully would. Farrell talks fast, often diving into Murphy like an overly-confident routine that brings a life of no surprises. In Kidman, we get almost the total opposite. Because she is the first person to really see the severity of the situation, she attacks first and levels her respective screen time with a juggling of motherly instinct and cunning mental prowess to support her claim as the only logical protagonist to the film. Without a doubt though, the show-stealer for me was Barry Keoghan fresh off of the heels of ‘Dunkirk’ earlier this Summer. His grip on the pulse of a film is felt with much more impact here, as Keoghan transfixes the audience with a calm kind of madness that can only be compared to Anton Chigurh. You believe what Barry says because he drops it with such conviction, and as the gears start to turn to reveal his tortured past, you start to reason more with the method to his mayhem, playing Farrell and family like a game of chess that he’s already won seven moves prior.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ continues the hot streak of thought-provoking magnitude that often offers a modern day homage to the kinds of films Kubrick may have continued with. The third act is slightly faulty, often taking the sting out of the punch long after the most powerful connection, but with more attention to trimming the fat, I believe that Lathimos best film is still to come. For now, this film exerts a chilling grip that hypnotizes and tantalizes with a presentation that is second to none.

7/10

LBJ

Woody Harrelson takes the oath of office after a devastatingly dark day, in Rob Reiner’s latest political drama ‘LBJ’. After powerful Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (Harrelson) loses the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to Senator John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), he agrees to be his young rival’s running mate. But once they win the election, despite his extensive legislative experience and shrewd political instincts, Johnson finds himself sidelined in the role of vice president. That all changes on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy is assassinated and Johnson, with his devoted wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by his side, is suddenly thrust into the presidency. As the nation mourns, Johnson must contend with longtime adversary Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) and one time mentor Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) as he seeks to honor JFK’s legacy by championing the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. ‘LBJ’ is rated R for adult language.

One of the things with a story is that if it has even an ounce of truth in its range, it is that much easier to believe and engage in. Along comes ‘LBJ’ (and I don’t mean Lebron James), a political comedy depicting President Johnson’s brief time in and around the White House. Reiner’s film might not have most genuine of accuracies in terms of tone or historical fact, but it does make for one entertainingly educational depiction towards arguably one of the most misunderstood presidents in United States history. Coming off of the heels of a film like ‘Jackie’ from last year, ‘LBJ’ casts the story on the other end of the political shoe with President Kennedy’s untimely death, and how it effected the way that Johnson’s constituents and his country viewed him as a successor. It’s clear that Reiner knows the place and value of each president respectfully, and because of such this feels like the first time when a film has delved into the man behind the desk with the kind of appreciation that sets the story straight.

The narrative spins back and forth between the past and that fateful day in Dallas where the lives of many involved in this campaign changed for better or worse. Films these days are spinning these dual narratives often, adding a layer of complexity to its story that doesn’t feel necessary, nor does it add any kind of unfolding complexion to what is at stake. But in ‘LBJ’ it feels like a requirement in building up the kind of movements in pivotal chess pieces that led us to the finish line in the race that casts extra emphasis in what can be leveraged at any moment. It’s also a prime opposition in production against the limited runtime of the film that causes more problems than benefits. More on that in a minute. The transitions can be slightly rough, mainly because there are times later on in the hospital when these sequences tend to rub together with that of what is going on with the past chapters. The background exposition also stops in the most random of spots without much declaration, and we suddenly find that the remainder of the 35 minute runtime left will be spent in the present day of 1963, missing out on bridging the gap between landmark bills being passed that paved the way for some issues that pop up later on.

It’s clear that even early on in the film that Reiner knows how different in upbringing, as well as intelligent as a strategist that Johnson was in getting the things done. The film depicts him as sort of this brains behind the beauty that was Kennedy’s winning campaign of 1960, working as the middle man between the rising tensions of the north and south that were at bay because of the Civil Rights Act that way literally months from being passed. Johnson cleverly works both sides not to any form of deceit, but to smooth out the positions of each stance, and bringing us together to work towards one common goal. The film’s precision in tone as a comedy also does wonders in keeping the very entertaining factor to ‘LBJ’ always at its peak, focusing on Johnson outside of the house as this everyday joe who may have skipped a day or two at etiquette school. This makes our protagonist more of a natural for the silver screen, combing through a combination of political banter and self-empathetic personality in isolation by the Kennedy’s and their staff that makes him ideal for a protagonist of this magnitude.

Credit majorly goes to the ensemble cast who each preserve an air of mountain-like personality to their depictions of these historical figures. Harrelson proves that he hasn’t lost a step with age, commanding Johnson as a lover at home, but a fighter in the ring of gritty politics. His performance is almost mesmerizing as his commitment to detail in walking, as well as speech patterns accurately pumps life back into Lyndon that makes him feel like one with the world again. When I think of Woody Harrelson, I don’t see him as Johnson, but I’ll be damned if the work of enhanced prosthetics to the nose and ears of the actor didn’t completely immerse him in the role as the 36th president of the United States. In addition to Harrelson, the work of Richard Jenkins, Michael Stahl-David, and Jeffrey Donovan round out a respectable group of performances that each add a layer of prestige to the gears that Harrelson is turning. Jenkins is possibly my favorite, as his racist southern governor clashes with Johnson on more than a few occasions, bringing forth two great actors bouncing off of one another with such subtle threat hiding beneath the soft tones that each are conjuring up for our delight in tense negotiation tactics.

Perhaps the biggest issue that weighs the film down in presentation is the minisclue runtime that does little to no favors to the versatility of its material. This feels like a film that should rightfully be a two hour presentation. From it’s dual narrative, to its abrupt ending that crops and frames a short amount of time to LBJ’s presidency that doesn’t exactly show the reasons why he alienated himself towards the end of his term, Reiner’s movie pushes for more right before it ends, leaving us without a biopic that provides the fall for the overly anticipated rise. Another big problem is in some horrendous ADR that I still can’t believe got by post-production. Two scenes in particular stand out to me; the first is a conversation between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy represented by a wide shot angle to hide awful lip movements with its audio, and a speech at the end of the film by Johnson that shows his lips moving with nothing coming out. This gives ‘LBJ’ a kind of polarizing aspect to its production that feels anything other than the Rob Reiner filmography in class that we’re used to.

THE VERDICT – ‘LBJ’ overcomes the complacent biopic drama treatment that other less films become saddled with. Through the sharp performances of the main cast, as well as the educational third dimension in material for one of America’s most forgettable presidencies, Reiner plows through the poignancy thoroughly with supreme entertaining value. With a half hour further, the film could’ve been a possible Oscar contender, but its air-tight finished product just doesn’t have enough pledge to its promise of the entire picture, and because of such, it comes across like satire instead of specifics.

7/10

Goodbye Christopher Robin

The colorful characters inside the mind of critically acclaimed post war writer Alan Milne are brought to life in this biopic that opens eyes to their traumatic origins. In ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’, we get a rare glimpse into the relationship between beloved children’s author A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whose toys inspired the magical world of Winnie the Pooh. Along with his mother Daphne (Margot Robbie), and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), Christopher Robin and his family are swept up in the international success of the books; the enchanting tales bringing hope and comfort to England after the First World War. But with the eyes of the world on Christopher Robin, what will the cost of fame be to the family who are just starting to grow together again? ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ is directed by Simon Curtis, and is rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief adult language.

This isn’t the kind of bear seeking honey kind of story that you’re used to, nor is it a conventional dramatic biopic with all of the positive feelings of a warm and wholesome good time. ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ tugs at the tear ducts of its moviegoers, depicting a family at war with the perils of fame and seclusion from each other, and at the heart of it all is a little boy whose childhood is literally ripped from him unfairly. It is surprisingly in these elements that cast a kind of dark and unorthodox style of a real life story being played out here that is anything but inspirational, warranting the release of the most loved children’s book of all time and the consequences that came with such a gift. To this degree, Winnie and friends kind of have their own Grimm fairytales kind of origin, creating a kind of manufactured degree of happiness that resides within the books considering so much angst and abandonment was taking place behind the scenes. This is a story that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, and that’s the sign of any strong biopic that doesn’t have its own reservations going into the script.

To that degree, the film does embrace the kind of imaginary aspect that is necessary from deep within the developing relationship of this father and son who barely know each other despite living together. The relationship between them isn’t perfect, nor is it ever meant to be, but the film’s rare moments of bliss are when the two are engaged within a forest of delightful wonderment that transforms them to a place where only they can touch. Sadly, these moments are incredibly rare as this dysfunctional family plays a towering adversity to them continuing to persevere and overcome the burden of distance between them that has been present since day one. The setting of this very big house is detailed accordingly, forcing us to feel the cold that resides from inside, leaving very little character or love within its storytelling walls. The film might not elaborate much on the process of the books themselves, but it does focus the error of its ways on the steep price associated with fame, particularly in jealousy, as well as this soiling feeling of innocence that eats away at the origins of this child’s fantasy. In that respect, the valued lesson of family first eats away at the material, carving out a hearty center that has you fighting a war of your own to reach that plateau.

The pacing is very difficult to get through in the opening act particularly, but once you pass the half hour mark, the film opens up its creative engine to the real meat and potatoes of the story. I am usually a sucker for background exposition early on in a film, but the length of time associated with Milne’s post-war trauma and inability to make a living while sounding off on the battlefield, left me bored to tears and begging for some familiarity within the characters or world of Pooh that gave me relief. It happens more frequently during the second act, but it’s never in a way that feels rushed or even overcooked, choosing instead to let the audience piece the inspirations together without ever beating them over the head with hints. The final act of the film ends somberly enough, bringing forth a mystery of sorts that admittedly did suck me in to the way it held this family in its grip and sucked the life from every single one of them. There is a time transition here that feels very rough in sequencing, and could’ve used more emphasis to the audience before jagged force took over. Even still, the profound loss of childhood innocence rings to its truest form here and struck a chord with me for the way we can never get it back once it is gone.

Child actors come and go but Tilston is so valued to this screenplay that his emotional register often represents the very roller-coaster of tone that the film goes through. This is the first time that I have seen Will act, and I must say that he is leagues above most child actors of the same age bracket if only for the way his big glassy eyes burn a hole through your soul that has you fighting back tears of your own. As for the adults, there are some hits and misses. Gleeson gives another heralding performance, performing Milne as a minefield of emotional uncertainty that requires anyone around him to tread lightly. Macdonald also gives a welcoming warm-hearted side to the older age bracket in the film, an aspect especially necessary for the sometimes appalling nature how the Milne’s operate under their roof. The chemistry between Macdonald and Tilston sometimes had me forgetting that they weren’t actually mother and son, despite this being the obvious closest that Christopher ever had to a parental unit. The only performance that I didn’t care for was Margot Robbie as Daphne. I supposed Robbie is doing her job since I couldn’t stand this character for even a minute because of her shallow and insensitive demeanor towards everyone and everything, but my problem with Robbie in this role rests firmly on her commitment to performance that lacked on nearly every turn. Her fake British accent is decent, but it’s so inconsistent that her real life Australian accent often gets in the way, creating a sort of hybrid between two accents that removed me from most scenes she acted in. Her performance is also entirely over the top, creating a lack of believability in her commitment to turn that definitely presented her as the weakest link here.

As for production value, there’s plenty to gush over in radiant fairytale-like qualities. The film has some beautiful photography within its range, depicting England’s finer countryside with a boosting color palate. Some of my personal favorite creative touches with the film’s artistic merit included some transitional sequence illustrations that look like they were lifted directly from the pages of one of Milne’s novels, complete with text below the page that reads like a bedtime story. The editing work could use some improvement, mainly because it feels a bit forceful from time-to-time particularly in the war transitions that occasionally felt inconsistent. Sometimes the transition from life to war blends together smoothly, blurring the similarities in physical properties within them, and then there are other times when the flashback happens for a reason that doesn’t feel synthetic to the movement prior, playing into the gimmick of momentary eclipse that frankly doesn’t ever go anywhere with the film.

THE VERDICT – ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ is a bittersweet brush of sentimentality for many different reasons than its literary counterparts. The film’s poignant approach in the blending of childhood fame and the overall loss of innocence is one that stuck with me strong, mainly because of the timely facials of the great Tilston in this title role. Curtis’s film isn’t perfect by any stretch, mainly suffering at the hands of a weak first act, as well as some rough edits that subdue the immersion of imagination. But this drama is above par for the sweet taste of wistfulness that flowed like honey throughout from the strong-rooted tree that this story stands on.

7/10

The Babysitter

The crush of an adventurous little boy is not who she seems to be, in McG’s newest horror comedy ‘The Babysitter’. Currently airing on Netflix, the film revolves around Cole (Judah Lewis) who is madly in love with his outrageously beautiful babysitter (Samara Weaving) Bee. She’s hot, funny, and popular. Everything a boy of his age could ever want. However, One night, in a moment of defiance, Cole secretly stays up his bedtime to discover she’s actually a cold-blooded killer who’s in a league with the Devil. He now must spend his night evading Bee’s band of vicious killers who will stop at nothing to prevent Cole from spilling their dark secret. It’s up to Cole to survive the night (and blow up a few people along the way). ‘The Babysitter’ is currently not rated, but does have scenes of violence, bloody gore, and adult language.

Many of teenage boys first loves are those temporary teenage parental units who bridge the transition from child to teenager with ease. In this regard, there’s plenty to take away from personality alone that ‘The Babysitter’ picks away at in the face of the complicities within a coming-of-age plot that adorns the film. If ‘Home Alone’ and ‘The Lost Boys’ made sweet love and were giftwrapped with a blessed child, that child would be McG’s newest film, and for my money, ‘The Babysitter’ works because of its streaming release that smooths out the problems that a simplistic structure like this inevitably deals with on several logical and illogical concepts within its build. If I paid for this movie in a theater, I would probably be a lot harder on my final grade for the movie, but as a Netflix night in, it’s a full-proof evening planner of laughs and solid kills in execution that offer at least one thing for every respective age group looking to have fun. It’s kind of a callback to those 80’s satanic B-films like ‘Fright Night’ that are disposable because of the fire power that resides within one watch, but the more you re-watch and think about it, the bigger the glaring problems start to arise.

The value from within this script weighs heavily within the bond of the title character and her child client that sets the precedent for everything that follows. The Babysitter feels like a quest to Cole in more ways than just a romantic one, and the deeper the film goes, we start to explore their relationship as one that evolves with each twist in the narrative. I love that this is a film with concrete pacing, clocking in at only an 80 minute sit, yet the film doesn’t feel like it rushes or flies through anything in sacrificing its material. The first act of the film is used almost entirely to build the friendship of these two characters who feel like they should be worlds apart to us at home, but are such a dynamic team that it feels like nothing else can touch them within their anything goes time frame together. The second act hammers home the idea that a babysitter can prepare a child for anything, but there will come a time when that kid will break away from the confines of guidance to blaze his own path to adulthood, and that stance comes to fruition throughout this night of madness that has him taking the reigns of man of the house. Fighting for your life is an easy concept to understand for any character, but when you start to see the carving out of adolescence taking place from within, you start to see that the bigger picture is in this evolution that Cole is enveloped in when he must stand on his own two feet for the first time in his life, setting the stage for a third act showdown that didn’t disappoint in anything that this production threw at the screen.

Perhaps the single greatest positive that I took away from the film was the pulse-setting kicks in production that give the film that much needed uproar in attitude that it required. The editing is sound, cutting into a lot of chase and suspense scenes with the standard panning out shot that quickly reveals the kind of environment that Cole is wrapped in. I also thought the use of on-screen colorful text to visually narrate the various weapons and even sounds that came from this nonstop action, gave the film a crisp throwback to the 70’s shootout flicks that always feel like the sounds required text. This is further emphasis on the kind of personality that the film tries to convey for itself, even if the tone can feel terribly juggled at times. More on that later. The sound mixing is crisp, delivering the devastation of every bone-crunching sound with the kind of impact that brings emphasis to the film’s brutality. In the wrong hands, sound can come across as corny or even meandering, but the work done on this production values the importance of such a presence, blessing the marriage of sight and sound beautifully that a campy horror film commands.

On the subject of some of that jumbled tone, I feel like the film worked best in its individual feats, but failed in bringing them together seamlessly. As a comedy, the film succeeds for its high school kind of personality that grants the movie a ‘Scream Queens’ kind of vibe. As a horror film, there’s plenty to love in gory death sequences that really strike a match for pure imagination. Yet interestingly enough, the two together never merge successfully on the same timeshare to craft a solid hybrid that can articulately juggle both. The film knows this too because by the third act, it loses all of its personality in humor to deliver entirely to the audience that will more than likely seek it out; the horror buffs. I blame a lot of this on the extremely immature direction in tone of the comedy versus the very adult surrealism of these brutal bloodbaths. Because they are so extreme in their respective directions, it makes it much more difficult to guide them back to that point in the middle where they both echo off of one another, catering to a law of averages that could’ve done them both a great justice.

Aside from the sometimes jumbled tone, I had a few problems with inconsistencies and logical stances that hurled a beating of my intellectual investment into this picture. For one, it always drives me nuts in horror films when so much noise and destruction is taking place in a neighborhood, yet nobody from any of the houses see this or call the authorities. One such example is a firework that blows up underneath the house and into the front yard, but five minutes later you never even knew this happened because of how quick it disappears. Speaking of vanishing acts, where do some of the antagonists go during these long fight and chase sequences with Cole? It definitely feels obvious that every sequence is structured as such because I find it difficult to believe that they all wouldn’t try to jump him at once, instead of leaving that gap of possibility for him to escape when going against just one of them. Objects too are getting in on the vanishing act as well, as a police car vanishes from the driveway, then re-appears in the end of the movie to provide an antagonist with a useful weapon. It’s parts like these that drive me nuts with the continuity of a story, and it’s something that holds no excuse for how simple it could all be preserved.

Not all is a negative however, as the performances I felt held up respectively for a magnitude of age brackets. Judah Lewis is solid as Cole, channeling a welcoming of adolescence that has felt as natural for a transition as I’ve seen in quite some time. Samara Weaving is also devilishly delightful as the title character who orchestrates this whole night. Weaving is the cousin of Hugo for those unaware, but to me she gave me such Eva Green kind of vibes in a crooked smile and rebellious demeanor that makes it easy to fall in love with her. The chemistry between these two is the single most important benefit for the film because without it, you never comprehend the betrayal and the tragedy that envelopes the spinning road that their friendship takes. Also, the entire group of antagonists each add something clever and defining for their respective character arcs. My personal favorite is Bella Thorne’s annoying cheerleader type who toes the line admiringly with a satirical sting that kept me laughing and rolling my eyes an equal amount.

THE VERDICT – Like its child protagonist, ‘The Babysitter’ grows up before our very eyes the longer it goes, even withstanding the blow of a few logical inconsistencies and constant tone juggling along the way. The film harbors an underlying gentle fable of growing up to counteract its bloody brigades, providing an earning of the coming-of-age tag within its funhouse of horrors that satisfies many crowds. Lewis and Weaving indulge in the teenage fantasy mindset above the clouds of imagination, leaving us anticipating the occasions they come down to transfix us with their bond. As for McG, you’ve finally done something valuable. Don’t screw it up from here.

7/10

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

The foundation of the world’s most popular female superhero is given a real life origin story, in ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’. Angela Robinson writes and directs this melodrama that details the unconventional life of Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans), the Harvard psychologist and inventor who helped invent the modern lie detector test and created Wonder Woman in 1941. Marston was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), a psychologist and inventor in her own right, and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a former student who became an academic. This relationship was key to the creation of Wonder Woman, as Elizabeth and Olive’s feminist ideals were ingrained in the character from her creation. Marston died of skin cancer in 1947, but Elizabeth and Olive remained a couple and raised their and Marston’s children together. The film focuses on how Marston dealt with the controversy surrounding Wonder Woman’s booming creation. The film is rated R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and adult language.

Origin stories are all the craze with superhero films anymore. In just this year alone, ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ is the second helping of its lasso whipping heroine, but it takes an unorthodox approach in the roots of its story when compared to other establishing beginnings. For one, this is a story about Wonder Woman, but never does it feature Diana Prince in a single scene, nor does it include an overcooked antagonist who hunts her down to rid her of her powers. No, this beginning centers around the real life formation for one of D.C’s finest properties at the mind of William Marston, and the biggest battle within its confines is the threat of empowering feminism that has got the world in an uproar for the stances it takes in bridging the gaps of inequality. Because of such, Robinson’s film is inspiring, revealing, and even uncomfortable for the necessary ways it depicts shielded love and desire during a time when anything against the ordinary felt like a slap in the face of conventionalism. It spun a needle of truth and self-reflection within the pages of its comic book, educating us the audience on the traits and physical features of this animated character that are so much more than just cosmetic.

What I dug about the way this story is presented is in its teaching style of method that puts us front-and-center in the desks, with the events playing out before us. As a teacher at a college, Marston educates his students on the importance of feminism, but this is nothing more than table dressing for the real students in this lesson plan; us the audience. The film’s focus hinders on the four traits of Marston’s DISC Theory. This stands for Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance, four angles of feminist silence that overrun family ideals during the 40’s, and it’s in those individual letters that each get a chapter in the film’s screenplay where we piece together the reasons in logic for Wonder Woman’s uproar in repertoire one step at a time. This establishes that her greatest adversary never took place on pages, but instead in the real world where we were doomed more than the citizens that Diana saves each issue. At the heart of it all, is the secrecy between these three protagonists who are living the very same story that is visually narrated to us throughout, presenting us firm examples of the four letters that hammer home the visibility in their truths.

The visual spectrum is sound, radiating a distinctive look in production design that gently immersed me into seventy years prior. My favorite examples of time pieces in films are the ones that use style and atmosphere to communicate its jarring differences from our own era, and this one is certainly keen on that perspective. The authentic touch in lighting mostly plays around with soft tones, but does so in a way that doesn’t give them that fake look that sappy melodramas are known for. Everything is kept within reason of distinctive vision, and the film’s clean cut design grant us a perspective of clean air before any of it is compromised with the ugliness that’s right around the corner. The musical score by composer Tom Howe can sometimes play at deafening levels as it overtakes a scene, but his mostly piano infused sounds are moving in the way they audibly translate the emotional response of each scene granted. Interestingly enough, Howe also worked on this year’s ‘Wonder Woman’, so he feels like the right man for the job in the before and after in the evolution of a cultural icon.

What few problems that I did have with the film reside soundly on the film’s running time (103 minutes) that present some glaring holes in narrative approach that hinder the consistency of its pacing. For one, there’s simply too many different eras in the lives of this trio that is being depicted for such a brief amount of time on-screen given to them. Because of such, some aspects in subplots have to be dissected with the painful knife of the editing room. The transitional scenes between years lacks the kind of defining weight that make them believable from scene to scene. Some of them have musical montages to try to feed some exposition into bridging the gaps, but the jumps that lack these informative stances leave us abandoned at random points during the film where you feel like more story deserves to be told. My only other problem resides in the provocative sting of its punch. It’s not that I felt the film gave me too much sexual fuel, but rather not enough. For a film that deals with the scandalous, there’s little drama in the overall subject matter that payoff soundly for moments of dramatic pull. I feel like the film deserved to play up the tension in getting caught slightly more, otherwise it was just biding its time for the inevitable that we know is coming.

Those problems would normally be enough to sour a film to the lower grades, but thankfully our more-than capable trio of actors each give a stirring performance that opens our eyes to two promising careers. Before I get to them, Rebecca Hall is the very pulse of the film’s heart, portraying Elizabeth as a brave freedom fighter years before the term ‘Feminist’ was properly defined. Hall is currently one of my favorite actresses going, and it’s clear to see from the immense versatility in her fiery range to turn on the tears whenever necessary that she is a beneficial firework to any film who continues to stay lit. As to the two actors who really surprised me here; Luke Evans and Bella Heathcote are superb. I’ve only seen Heathcote once before, but this is the kind of role that I can never un-see her warm compassionate touch ever again. Bella’s internal battle as Olive is one that is emoted candidly in her facial depth, paying tribute to a generation of actresses who can say so much with just a look. Evans was born to play Marston, channeling an energetic surge for love and respect that grant him a philosopher’s touch. It’s easy to see Evans become this teach because throughout the screenplay he is teaching us one valuable lesson after another, leaving little doubt the kind of gifts he can bestow if given the proper direction to bring it out of him. If three is company and four is a crowd, I’ll stick with this threesome and the dynamic performances that give the characters life.

THE VERDICT – ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ definitely suffers from some of the glaring problems in structure from turgid time constraints, but it’s a film that deserves to be seen by every woman regardless of superhero feelings for its inspiring stance on feminist retribution. This is one origin story that tells the true origins, and gives way to the lasso of truths that Wonder Woman is actually fighting for. Despite never seeing Diana Prince once, I feel like the trio of Evans, Hall, and Heathcote have taught me more about her than any big budget epic ever could, proving behind every good man is two great women who give him inspiration.

7/10

The Foreigner

Jackie Chan returns to the silver screen, this time to do battle against Pierce Brosnan as a deceitful business head, in ‘The Foreigner’. Quan (Jackie Chan) is a humble London businessman whose long-buried past within the crime underworld erupts in a revenge-fuelled vendetta when his teenage daughter dies in a senseless act of politically motivated terrorism. Quan struggles to find a reason to go on, but the thrill of revenge against those who hurt the one he loved most, motivates him to keep going. His relentless search to find the terrorists leads to a cat-and-mouse conflict with a British government official Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), whose own past may hold the clues to the identities of the elusive killers. ‘The Foreigner’ is directed by longtime action director Martin Campbell, and is rated R for brutal violence, adult language, and some sexual material.

At its heart, ‘The Foreigner’ spends a minority of its screen time as a revenge action flick, and a surprisingly overwhelming majority of it as an espionage political thriller. It attains this satisfying counterbalance between these two parallels well enough by a sharing of screen time between many characters whose twists and bends in storytelling binds them together with many different motives, synching it all together in one free-flowing movement of direction for Campbell at the helm. I had a lot of fun with this film personally, and adored it for putting Chan back on the map after a couple of bombs during the early 2000’s that hindered his status as an action star. In many ways, ‘The Foreigner’ feels like Chan’s ‘John Wick’ moment, re-introducing the world to perhaps the very best on-screen martial artist going today, and leaving very little doubt if the man does indeed still have it. Thankfully, this is a serious adult action flick, and it’s in that perspective where it feels like Chan can benefit the most, offering a compromising blend of heartfelt acting to match his ruthless aggression in fight sequences that still pack a wallop of a punch internally to anyone who is watching.

Over the course of 109 minutes within its clutches, you start to understand the evolution that this story takes in comparing the decisions in one’s past that comes back to haunt each respective character. For Chan’s Quan, it is finding the momentum to get back up after losing the last piece to his ravaged past. We see a man who is rendered visibly emotionless after this terrible tragedy, deciding to take the law into his own hands when the higher-ups decide to keep the investigation from him. There is of course a reason for this, as Brosnan’s Hennessy is a conniving chess player with his own self-centered inspirations for getting things done. His character feels like he’s in too deep with the many movements that he is making to the board from both sides, and it kind of creates a suffocating atmosphere in which the water keeps filling deeper for him and his family, especially now that Quan is knocking on his door and searching for answers. It makes for two incredibly fleshed-out characters who no matter how you feel about them personally, you understand the equal importance in the value of each coming out on top. This doesn’t feel like a world with good guys and bad guys, it’s just a big shade of grey that groups them all together, and it’s in that perspective where the film feels like it doesn’t adhere to the conventional tropes that limit an action screenplay in a particularly predictable method.

As for the entertaining factor, my favorite act of the film was during the second act, in which several pivotal movements are made in setting up some jaw-dropping third act surprises that gives the film longevity. This is also when the intensity in action sequences feels like it picks up dramatically in spades, leveling us with impactful fight choreography that riveted with each concrete blow. Overall, the decision to stitch Quan, Hennessy, and the terrorist’s stories together on one screenplay does become a slightly cluttered in a fight for screen time, but I can say confidently that I was never bored or taken aback enough to jar me out of interest for the film. The second half of the movie is so much more beneficial for me personally, and I could see a lot of other people who see the film who might be conflicted by how difficult it can be to get to this point. The first act was definitely the weakness of the film, mainly because the lack of exposition for Quan is something that I feel was a major disappointment to the overall investment in who is supposed to be our central protagonist. This area of the film noticeably stands still when compared to the cerebral movements that take place later on, but I promise that if you can stay patient this film will pay off beneficially to anyone seeking a gritty, bare-knuckled brawler.

The aesthetics aren’t completely a winning combination here, but there’s enough to be praised from some stand out gripping touches that livens up the destruction action sequences. For one, the musical score from legendary composer Cliff Martinez brings so much riveting urgency in influence to each chase scene, bringing a sort of callback to the same late 90’s heart-stoppers that Chan mostly adorned. The camera work during the fight sequences are also done competently well enough, relying on a lot of handheld artistic directions that tend to follow the actor’s movements faithfully. What does drive me nuts occasionally about some of these scenes is the choppy editing that can get carried away with the complexities of a sequence that is so simple. The unnecessary amount of cuts that take place is something that has driven me crazy for years, and ‘The Foreigner’ certainly isn’t going to change my stance on this anytime soon. It gives the film a feeling of ADHD from its most exciting scenes that humbles the pacing of each sequence in the least flattering of production enhancements.

One thing that I want to talk about candidly is the enjoyment from the dual offering of seeing Chan and Brosnan prove they have plenty to offer in their respective action careers. It is such a delight to watch them collide in the few scenes that they are on screen together, bringing out the prime of two charismatic heavyweights that each offer something vividly different in portrayals. In Chan, we get a surprisingly limited amount of screen time, but he’s up to the task in making a lasting impression from a brief portrayal. He’s older, a little slower, but it’s in his vulnerability where Jackie feels like he finally earns each physical encounter. As a performance, Chan sports Quan with a ruthless, yet human approach to the young man’s game of revenge. This feels like the first time that we are treated to Chan’s acting first, and it shows that he has a lot to offer, emoting an emotionally crippled man with a fire of revenge in his eye that will burn for miles. Brosnan definitely steals the show, and why shouldn’t he? He is given an overwhelming majority of the film’s screen time to portray one of the most versatile villains of the year. It shows that Pierce is having the time of his life here, and that’s always the biggest benefit to individual performances. He proves that the most dangerous men in an action movie are often the ones who never throw a punch.

THE VERDICT – Jackie Chan returns to the forefront of action cinema with a complete offering of physical stunts and emotional acting that supplants his most versatile role to date. ‘The Foreigner’ feels a little convoluted in story midway through, and will test your patience early on, but once the smoke clears on some of these important subplots, you’ll start to see the materializing of a much bigger picture at work. Director Martin Campbell fires off more than a round of riveting revenge, hitting his target with unstable force each and every time he re-loads with satisfying shifts in coil.

7/10

Victoria & Abdul

Assistance comes in the least likely of places for an aging queen who seeks the proper inspiration to reclaim her imposing status. ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is the extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) remarkable rule. When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young clerk, travels from India to participate in the Queen’s annual Golden Jubilee, he is surprised to find favor with the Queen herself, striking up an unusual friendship between them. As the Queen questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge a devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to crumble and destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity. ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is directed by Stephen Frears, and is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and adult language.

Victorian era films aren’t the easiest sell in terms of entertainment factor for this critic. Mainly It’s in their stuffy atmospheres and outdated lifestyles that make for something that feels entirely compromising to the continuous pacing of a film. But Stephen Frears feels up to the arduous task by inserting an appreciated light-hearted blend of comedy to parallel some of the meaty subject matter in issues that make up a majority of the film that are still present in today’s society. As far as tone in concerned, this is basically as close to Monty Python movies as you are going to get in the 21st century, resulting in more than just a handful of legitimate laughs that carefully set the tone for what’s to come. This does result in some bending liberties of storytelling with the factual backstory of Queen Victoria’s final days as ruler, but the satirical sizzle of parody to just how utterly ridiculous the daily routines surrounding this queen are, make for some awkward tension in the air that will force the audience to do nothing but giggle in the inane amount of childish traditionalists that adorn the film’s central cast.

What is truly compelling about this story is that you are taking the two title characters and offering an unlikely comparison between them that brings them close in the viewer’s minds before the screenplay ever attempts to. Screenwriter Lee Hall sees a lot of polarization in the decisions and attitudes of each respective character, therefore casting them under a similar light to that of Romeo & Juliet without the romance. It feels like the rest of the world around them is crumbling under the weight of inevitable progression, and that makes the unity of these two polar opposites that much more beneficial in feeding into the very message that the film is trying to convey in bridging the gap of divide that has shunned their territories for hundreds of years. This queen feels untouchable to anyone fortunate enough to come across her, but Abdul sees the human side buried deep beneath her royal exterior, and it’s in the chances that he takes to reach out to her that is mutually beneficial in building a friendship against all odds.

As far as problems go for the screenplay, I think that the second act in particular is the weakness of the script for two compromising reasons that are opposite to that of a first act that flies by in pacing. For one, there’s a lot of subplot set-ups in Victoria’s newfound knowledge and embrace of her Indian territory, but we never see this knowledge put to action for better. There are mentions of her never being to India, nor ever speaking to her Indian citizens, and yet it passes by as an afterthought to the film as a missed opportunity. If there are proven liberties taken within the script, then surely embellishing in showing her compassionate side will do nothing but flourish Victoria’s newfound moral wealth. My other problem comes in the form of too many conflicts being thrown in at the screen at once that omits the very light-hearted personality from the movie. None of these conflicts are as serious and deserving of time as is the borderline racially fueled discrimination that takes place between Abdul and Victoria’s housemates, but is never addressed personally by her. I would’ve rather they used this as the film’s prime conflict, as anything else feels like a grasping of straws that stumble with how little lasting power they each have.

Beyond that, ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is an easy sell, as there’s plenty within the production that garners a faithful design to the foregone era that will make it simple to immerse yourself in. The cinematography is enveloping, complete with some shooting and establishing shots in locations that visually enhance the differences of wealth in worlds between India and England. India always feels like the sun is burning a yellow filter to the coloring of its scenes, while England looks and feels cold, wet, and damp. Three traits that couldn’t be further from the thousand mile journey that Abdul took the day his life changed forever. The wardrobe design by Consolata Boyle picks up right where she left off with Dench in 2006’s ‘The Queen’, and provide solidarity in the ideal that no one is better suited in channeling the elite vibrancy of colorful wardrobe. The stage as well is lavishly set, complete with elaborate set designs and rich furniture that adorn the most of every shot. It all comes together in a genuine kind of assembly that spares no cost in radiating glow from the practical and the cinematically manufactured.

Dench and Fazal also radiate above the pack, channeling two characters who are pivotal to the other. Judy Dench can play this role in her sleep, mainly because she’s done it twice already in her acclaimed career, but there’s a spark of personality and humor in her portrayal of Victoria here that wasn’t present in her previous delve. As the film progresses, we see the spark in her eye come to life again because of Abdul’s eager influence, and it feels like her queen finally has a positive reason to live again and serve her people. This is my first take on Fazal in a film, and I have to say that his cheery Abdul is a triumphed debut against all adversity that sometimes limited his capability in the script. In the second act of the film, he’s kind of pushed to the back of the pack, but Fazal’s persistence and unshakeable confidence prove that he will be a heavy hitter for years to come. The chemistry between these two co-stars is a bit surprising considering their vast age difference, but there’s a kind of romanticism between them despite them not being love interests. It makes for a truly poetic exchange every time they share the screen together, and I couldn’t get enough of how they equally complimented one another’s genuine portrayals.

THE VERDICT – ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is one of the more pleasant surprises of the fall movie season. Through some artistic liberties taken with the biography of Queen Victoria, the film supplants a compassionate point of view about the many colors of the world that keep it spinning. The second act is slightly sluggish in lacking significant weight to the overall plot, but the free-spirited comedy of the first act, as well as the bittersweet tug of it’s finale, make for a well-juggled range of emotional prosperity that will touch anyone with a pulse. Come for the real deal performances of Dench and Fazal, stay for the attention to detail in top-notch production quality.

7/10

Super Dark Times

A gruesome cover-up between two best friends will have them running from the ‘Super Dark Times’ that haunt them. A harrowing but meticulously observed look at teenage lives in the era prior to the Columbine High School massacre, the film marks the feature debut of gifted director Kevin Phillips, and stars Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) as longtime best friends growing up in a leafy Upstate New York suburb in the 1990s, where teenage life revolves around hanging out, looking for kicks, navigating first love and vying for popularity. When a traumatic incident drives a wedge between the previously inseparable pair, their youthful innocence abruptly vanishes. Each young man processes the tragedy in his own way, until circumstances grow increasingly complex and spiral into violence. ‘Super Dark Times’ is currently not rated.

‘Super Dark Times’ feels like one of those films that blew completely over my head, leaving a trail of uncertainty to the film’s critical praise that leaves me mostly stumped. The acclaim that this film is currently getting, including a near 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, proves that it is finding a voice within the horror community that warrants it as a modern day classic. For me however, Phillip’s film successfully harvests with much confidence that feeling of loneliness and dread that comes with the awkwardness of adolescence, yet it is in the conflict of his narrative where the film flounders off the very uncertainty in direction as to where it’s headed. I didn’t hate or even dislike this movie, but the juice of positive returns didn’t grant me equality from the expectation grip that I was expecting for the film. On basic terms, the film’s attention comes in the form of grief and how these young protagonists are expected to deal with the consequences of a terrible accident that has left each stumbling in their own emotional release. To that degree, the film garners a conscience that speaks in depth about the kind of teenage tragedies that are unfortunately all the repetition these days. But it’s what it chooses to do after picking up that narrative that will make or break it for those who get the chance to see it.

For me, a lot of the problems with this storytelling reside in a curveball that comes completely out of right field about halfway through the film. For much of the its first half, there’s a meaty edginess to the screenplay that involves these two best friends keeping their secret from the rest of the town. I found great intrigue and investment during this period of the movie because these characters feel very human in the mistakes and clumsy efforts that they take to not getting caught, leaving the door wide open for their ignorance to eventually come back to bite them. It feels like Phillips has spent a lot of time around modern teenagers, replicating their speech patterns and shy communications impeccably with much success. Unfortunately, the film’s curveball that I mentioned earlier comes at the hands of very little build or clues along the way that it lays at the feet of its audience, and suddenly we have a direction that feeds more into the friendship of these two male protagonists, as opposed to the horrifying realities and consequences of what they did. This film does feel like it takes place in a dream world of sorts with Phillips attention residing on the very pulse of victim’s guilt, but the lack of answers from the film’s original set-ups left this one feeling quite inconsequential to the overall structure of what was crafted from a chilling first act that laid the groundwork for an enticingly horrific coming of age story.

Clocking in at 102 minutes, the film stays appropriately paced until that switch in direction that does make you feel the consequence of every following minute. I can say that the first two acts of the film flew by, pushing us closer to the inevitable confrontation that Zach and Josh parlay for themselves, and constantly kept me firmly immersed into this 90’s setting that served as a trip down nostalgia lane. But the final thirty minutes of the film just kind of stands idly by to wait for when the audience catches up to the obvious foreshadowing that screenwriters Luke Piotrowski and Ben Collins supplant. Along the way, there is the decision to implant some meandering reminders to show you that the clues were there all along, even if this spiraling twist comes with more consequences than rewards for the film’s conclusion. The final scene in particular is one that I am still left bumbling about, wondering if the writers are hinting that this story isn’t necessarily over yet, or if the realities of shock and devastation cater on like a cancer to the next unfortunate soul.

As for the positives, the artistic direction and shot composition for the movie are two hearty centers that constantly kept the blood pumping throughout this project. I enjoyed that the setting of the 90’s only popped into focus at certain aspects in the film if you were paying attention, and didn’t cloud too much of the frame from what was transpiring in narrative. The best kind of ways that you can use a time-stamped gimmick as such is when it doesn’t feel forced and lets the audience come to it instead of vice versa. The overall cinematography submits to a kind of handheld student picture kind of vibe, and this decision alone merits the kind of authenticity that comes within the kind of framing set from teenagers that makes us feel like we’ve come across a video project to fight the cure for boredom amongst them. The overall gloomy coloring for the film is also a nice touch, radiating a vibe of impending darkness for the characters involved. It all feeds into a visual spectrum that never quit on us even when it feels like the story does, and whether you enjoy or hate this film, the production will most definitely be your favorite aspect.

The performances are very hit or miss, but none of that falls on the responsibility of the main cast. Campbell and Tahan trigger their positions superbly, giving off the vibe of best friends Zach and Josh impeccably authentic. From their unabashed speech patterns to their blossoming on-screen chemistry, the duo’s “us against them” mentality shines brightly through the cloudy setting and tone for the film, presenting levels of depth in their depictions that are leap years ahead of this being their first starring roles. Besides this unfortunately, the extras for the film are quite bland in delivery, and lack the kind of persistence to line reading that lacks believability. I won’t call anyone out by name, but whenever our acclaimed duo aren’t on screen together, my immersion into the film stalled, being treated to underwhelming emotional release that is well under that of status quo. There were many points in the film where I wondered if this film was supposed to be satirical because of the very lackluster ensemble that slowly omits the energy presented by its two male leads. Campbell and Tahan are definitely in grasp of what the material needs to channel teenage grief and angst alike, but their co-stars would rather phone this one in.

THE VERDICT – ‘Super Dark Times’ feeds accordingly on the very cerebrum of teenage boys when they come into contact with traumatic experiences that idle them for existence. Phillips debut feature film is a visual centerpiece that keys in firmly on the mood of isolation and despair that communicates this disposition articulately to its outsiders. Where the film could be better suited is in an attention to just one detail in the film’s script that forces it into a terribly obscure direction from what we were once promised. The final twenty minutes are the most intense, and yet the most reprimanding in terms of consistency from what message it is trying to convey. In the end, there’s enough unsettling atmospheric tension from the train-wreck that we see coming from miles away, inviting us on for the departure of an inevitably prominent directing debut.

7/10

American Made

An airline pilot will have to fly above the clouds in order to escape the feds who are hot on his trail, in ‘American Made’. Director Doug Liman and Tom Cruise team together one more time, this time centering around the story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a TWA pilot in 1978 who is recruited by the CIA, specifically a seedy mastermind deep within the department named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to provide reconnaissance on the burgeoning communist threat in Central America. Barry soon finds himself in charge of one of the biggest covert CIA operations in the history of the United States, smuggling in hundreds of pounds of cocaine to the Southern territories. This story spawned the birth of the Medellin cartel and eventually almost brought down the Reagan White House with the Iran Contra scandal that rocked nations across the globe. ‘American Made’ is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.

Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious drug trafficker ever, so there’s certainly no shortage of screenplays based on his controversial life as a smuggler. ‘American Made’ is yet another of those chapters, but with a bit of the twist that supplants the domestic side of its surreal storytelling. The film itself features Escobar for all of about twenty minutes, choosing instead to focus on an original narrative to the story by centering it around one of his pivotal chess pieces when it comes to moving his product in. When you think about the harsh realities of how drugs have shaped and poisoned our society, guys like Barry Seal shouldn’t come to mind, but the green of dollar bills will make even our own citizens do the most irrational of things, and that is what we have here. ‘American Made’ feels like a take on entrepreneurship post ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, and while I do feel like those comparisons in structure and the complementary breaking of the fourth wall are completely justified from Liman’s film, this one does fall remotely short in capturing the same kind of immersive essence that kept me on the edge of my seat for nearly three hours with its predecessor.

Many things do however compliment this as a strongly put together piece of cinema, pushing authentic vibes in cinematography and direction that craft this as something so much more than just an entertaining film. We are treated to some intricate levels of artistic merit throughout the presentation that really establishes the kind of setting in time that showcase just how different and untested the laws were then. Many films anymore include the choices of authentic 70’s grainy footage during that era for its establishing shots and narrative storytelling, but it’s in those same grainy filters and cheap style choices that Liman brings along with us to keep its visual enticement fresh and consistent. From the guerilla style shooting, to the tight-knit camera angles, there were many times during the film when I felt like I was watching government footage that I just happened to stumble across. In addition to this, the beautiful and breathtaking cinematography is aplenty, focusing on the depiction in differences between the landscapes of Arkansas and South America that figuratively and literally fly by with our protagonist’s plot.

On the subject of style alone, this film is a ten, but some of the lasting power of the screenplay by Gary Spinelli does leave slightly more to be desired. This isn’t a boring film at all, and there was never a point when I wasn’t invested in the unfolding series of uphill climbs that Barry faces, but the film takes very little time, especially early on, to get to know the man when he isn’t in the cockpit. To that degree, this feels like a one-sided effort that focuses entirely on his missions and less with what makes him such a protagonist to get behind. What I did enjoy is Barry’s breaking of the fourth wall by narrating to a video camera to us who are watching. Narration is always a slippery slope, but because the career of drug-smuggling is one that requires further elaboration, there’s plenty of chances for Barry to get personal, and it works in furthering the exposition that are skimmed but not scanned in the first act. Besides this, there is also a great overall attitude to the film that does poke fun at the cynicism and mounting tension of this once prosperous pilot being in over his head in a world where he knows very little. This kept the film at a light-hearted atmosphere while playing up plenty of the consequences that shock and level Barry and his surrounding set-up. Because of this, I feel that ‘American Made’ does have solid replay value because it chooses to never weigh to heavily on conscience, instead remaining focused on just having a good time.

The pacing for the film is slightly uneven during the first act, mainly because it feels like it is in a rush to get to the good stuff, but the later acts smooth things out by feeling like it is taking what necessary time it needs to educate. On the subject of that first act, it was flooring to see how quickly this plan all came together, and I do wish that more precious minutes were used to hammer home who Barry was before it all went down. This could give us reasoning to side with Barry and understand his desire to do something that he himself knows is illegal, but pushes forward. The runtime too is valuable in this aspect. At 105 minutes, ‘American Made’ can feel like some angles are being glossed over, but the focus remains firm in supplanting the audience with the kind of insurmountable odds that Barry and crew now have to overcome. This could all of course fall behind with redundancy before the grand finale, but the tempo of this direction always keeps us one step ahead by giving us an easy sit in the face of all of the mayhem.

As for performances, this is all kind of a one man show, but that doesn’t mean that one man doesn’t commit himself to a role that doesn’t cast him in the most admirable of lights. Cruise is of course that guy, and as Barry we see a man who is a bit rude, a bit careless, and even a bit lost in something bigger than him. Through his usual endless energy, Cruise commands Barry to dizzying distress and an unflinching southern accent that grants him a nosedive into this charismatic side. Tom seems to be accepting these roles in the later part of his career that don’t highlight him as the flawless hero, and that embracing of the vulnerability that has garnered him some acclaimed attention over the past few years, has granted him staying power decade after decade. Despite this being a one man show mostly, Gleeson is also sneakily terrific as the boss of sorts for Barry. Domhnall is quickly carving away a reputation for versatility in the jobs he undertakes, and the spin of Schafer here is certainly no different, as Gleeson feels conniving and brash in a race for riches that is unlike anything we’ve seen him in yet in his blossoming career.

THE VERDICT – The success of ‘American Made’ is based solely on its impeccably authentic artistic expression, as well as the fiery wild card performance of its male lead that feels fine on Cruise control. Doug Liman’s cautionary tale about 70’s greed and corruption feels rushed in some spots early on, and overall lacks the kind of permanent, poignant humbling that better films in the genre unleash upon, but there’s enough charm in the air from the familiar off-screen dance partners here to leave it on auto-pilot and just let it fly.

7/10