Brigsby Bear

The happiness of a child lies in the weekly broadcast of his favorite furry animal named ‘Brigsby Bear’. First time filmmaker Dave McCary brings to us his film starring one of the film’s writers, Kyle Mooney as James, a thirty-something man-child who is obsessed with his favorite television show, owning every cassette, and several pieces of memorabilia. After the show’s untimely cancellation, James’s life takes a turn for the extreme, forcing the number one fan to now finish the show himself, for better or worse. Along the way, James must learn to cope with the realities of a new world that he knows nothing about because he has never stepped foot outside of his protective weekly bubble. ‘Brigsby Bear’ is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying, and teams up the acclaimed Saturday Night Live duo once more of Mooney and Beck Bennett.

Now that you’ve read my synopsis for ‘Brigsby Bear’, you should know that everything that you think you know about this movie is only an illusion. This is very much an independent dramedy that is more clever than what meets the eye. The plot and ensuing story surrounding it revolve around this surprising shock twist that takes place within the opening fifteen minutes of this film that completely blew my mind, changing the tone and material alike, and then proceeding on from there as A result of this big bang. This is a touch that is certainly nothing groundbreaking or original, but it does lend itself to the confidence that the duo of McCary and Mooney possess in their film to appeal to the audience that they have practically alienated themselves from, with anyone thinking this was going to be a goofball comedy similar to Mooney’s SNL stick. For Mooney, this is A Chance to breakout from a stereotype that has garnered him minimal time on that show, and to trade it in for a hearty performance that proves he is a force to be reckoned with when compared to the barrage of SNL greats that have and have not gone on to make a name for themselves when they no longer go live at 11:30 PM on Saturday night.

Once that plot twist that I mentioned happens early on during the first act, it feels very much like the film is playing into our nostalgia as an audience for the kinds of television show characters and worlds alike that we immersed ourselves in when we the young adolescent age, and pulled the wool from James eyes in the same manner that all of us ensued when we were forced to grow up. This is of course A story with A bit more devastation to it, and that mood layers itself with A screenplay that I never would’ve expected from the guys in The Lonely Island of all things. The film does stay a bit one note remedially, hinting at a bigger picture in reveal that those few possible subplots never pursue with much more persistence. There were a few aspects with the production of this television show that raised a few good questions in my mind, but it just felt like me making the direction into something that never became. This is a 92 minute brief engagement, so to say that this film sticks close to its three act structure, is putting it firmly. With that said, I can’t say that I was ever bored or disengaged from this film, and my fear of this man-child’s fragile psyche playing into this tight-rope of nerves between past and present that has brought him to this day, always kept me watching closely for the cause-and-effect that a sheltered life can leave on the mind of a dreamer with miles to travel creatively.

McCary’s film embraces the concepts of James past metaphorically through the eyes of the bear, so when the idea pops into his head to continue on with the show, it not only feels like A longing for his sheltered past, but also a halting of progress for his ability to move on, a concept that the film stands firmly at on the crossroads of repetition and influence. On the latter, this film becomes kind of this character study for James and how his interaction with other kids his age can feel can come across as mimicking. He’s only known this one thing for the entirety of his life, so it feels like the typical character from another world who is being taught our way of life for the first time, except here it warrants those concepts because we feel a great empathetic pull for James and the new experiences that he will never ever fully grasp for being late to the fold because of his limited past. That’s why the first half of the film was marginally better than the second half for me; its deranged nature comes across as the factor that gives it wings, and once that’s put away for good, the film’s moral framing hints that it’s OK for James to feel this reliant on Brigsby, A motion that I found difficult to cope with for the well being mentally of this nearly closed book.

The aesthetic touch is perhaps some of my favorite aspects of McCary’s film, as the television show within this movie feels like a callback to 80’s public access productions where the minimal money reaped the bigger monetary reward. Because so much of ‘Brigsby Bear’ feels cheap in design, it caters to the spandex generation of children who grew up knowing and loving shows with this kind of terribly under-utilized effects and dated synth-pop musical score to boost. The Lonely Island are known for this kind of thing, but while we as an audience might giggle from time-to-time, wondering what the appeal is to it, the film very much envelopes itself into every character that it comes into contact with, framing Brigsby as an irresistible hero just waiting to be believed in by all who take on his VHS challenge.

Kyle Mooney can rest assured that his performance as James will be the memorable role for him that turned the tide in his once one-dimensional career into A remarkable transformation as an acting darling. In James, we embrace a delivery from Mooney that is soft and gentle like a child, but rebellious and crass in the defiance of an expanding teen. With a lesser actor, this would come across as A condescending lead, playing more into a gimmick rather than an immersing, but Mooney’s shy and bashful delivery prove that he is the right man for the job, being not fully aware of the terrible things that have transpired in his early career. This makes him A character who is easy to get behind and embrace because we never like to see bad things happen to children, A thought that is ludicrous considering Mooney is 32 years old, but it’s A testament to how committed he embraced this cryptic adolescent. Handing in supporting turns are Clare Danes , Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, and Matt Walsh, A usual one line cameo artist who finally gets A major helping in this script. Everyone plays a pivotal role in James life, but it’s great to see so many memorable faces committing to something off-screen as different for A supposed comedy like this.

THE VERDICT – Make no mistakes about it, this bear isn’t soft or cuddly, it’s an earnestly eye-opening look at the dangers of addiction that never needs drugs or alcohol to roar with other cautionary tales. Mooney’s performance is right on cue, balancing the sentimental with the synthetic, and McCary takes a huge leap in the director’s race in only his first feature film. The lack of comedy might alienate some of its audience, but if you stay patient, this unusually poignant melancholic plot will steal your heart and your respect. Everything you want with nothing you are expecting. The less you know going in, the better.

7/10

Logan Lucky

The down-and-out luck of two loser brothers hinge on the theft of millions that will earn them the tag ‘Logan Lucky’. Trying to reverse a family curse, brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum), who is recently unemployed, and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), who is forever with one arm, set out to execute an elaborate robbery during the legendary Coca-Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To do so, they will need the help of a crime mastermind Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) who himself is behind bars. The brothers ban together to construct a plan to get Joe out of the hole, as well as construct the step-by-step procedure in ripping off the Nascar circuit without getting caught or even losing their lives. ‘Logan Lucky’ is the comeback movie from critically acclaimed retired director Steven Soderbergh, and is rated PG-13 for adult language and some crude comments.

Thank the movie cinema lord above that Steven Soderbergh is back behind the camera where he belongs. Following an impressive career with box office hits like ‘Traffic’, ‘Contagion’, and of course the ‘Oceans’ trilogy, Steven opted to take a break from the silver screen to front success in the television market, and while I wish him all of the luck in any kind of media that he attempts, it is clear that the man has not lost his touch with visual storytelling that fronts arguably the best narrative in a Soderbergh film that I have ever seen. ‘Logan Lucky’ is definitely not without its problems. At nearly two hours long, the film does start to overstay its welcome with a third act that presents some unnecessary tension and dramatic pull during a time when it feels like the movie should be wrapping up. But on the overall spectrum, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a fun time with the wacky hijinks surrounding this historically unlucky family, and their quest to restore their good name amongst a town that has practically written them off a long time ago. To that degree, Steven too feels like the right man for the job, and his latest is proof that this critically heralded director still has some strong days ahead, even if he is venturing back to familiar territory.

With four heist movies now under his belt, it’s difficult not to credit Soderbergh with being the best heist movie director of all time, if such an award truly exists. For ‘Logan Lucky’, I will credit him as a director and writer because we all know Steven plays with pseudonyms in his cast when he chooses to do things incognito. With helming this script, he manages to add some original flares in narration to keep it fresh along the way, pointing to the belief that he has in his audience to be patient with this developing plot and characters. There are aspects to the story that immediately will feel like throwaway dialogue or one-off scenes to pad time, but what I found astonishing was that each and every little piece connects to a bigger picture, and once you start to understand how the grinds turn in this giant machine, you start to truly appreciate what the movie is trying to communicate in if you’re still paying attention. Like most heist films, it does take a degree or two of sustaining disbelief, being that some of these methods to get the cash rely on faith at best, so it’s in those aspects of the film that I feel people will either be on board or not when it finishes their overall dissection on the picture.

The film is very funny and responsible with its dialogue and depiction of Southern U.S.A without feeling too truly overbearing on stereotypes or cultural perception to an insulting degree. I feel like Soderbergh understands these small towns and the conversations alike, so much so that he conveys between these colorfully animated characters that he orchestrates with a light-hearted element of focus on family and the importance that it plays into every decision.. I compare it a lot to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, in that so much of their disconnect from the rest of the world isn’t seen so much as something that is lacking, but rather an educational spin on atmosphere that could help everyone outside of the bubble understand their knowledge of the way the world spins tri-fold. Steven’s award winning cinematography behind the lens is also important in said atmosphere, mainly because his exceptional work in editing and pasting keeps the air fresh with movement to feed into these vulnerable angles. Some scenes will have you wondering why they were depicted in such a manner, mainly the crotch shot of Daniel Craig doing push-ups, but it’s to constantly remind audiences that this is a comedy first, and it is one that goes hand-in-hand with juggling such extreme consequences that come with laying it all on the line for one wealthy score.

If there was a weakness to the film for me, it was as I mentioned earlier the spotty third act that feels like it prolongs the dramatic pull long after we as an audience have crossed that bridge, as well as a twist during the third act that frankly doesn’t make sense. A certain A-lister is introduced to the film with only twenty minutes left of it, and it all felt like slightly unnecessary tension that honestly goes nowhere with the film’s ending. Just before the credits roll, it’s kind of left in a hinting way that this story is far from finished, and that feels like a cop-out with how cleverly decisive everything was wrapped up in the closing moments from seeing the whole plan play out in real time. It sticks out more evidently because the first two acts of this movie are so crisp and careful in its planning, choosing to focus more on the build-up to the big day, rather than the heist itself, and it’s incredibly smart in this direction. Once we care about the characters and what is going into every measure of this plan, the impact of it all will connect like falling dominos one clap at a time.

This especially well-rounded cast also does a marvelous and committed job to their characters, sticking to details in personal traits that held up astoundingly through two hours. We can all silence the doubt that Channing Tatum cannot act anymore because this kid can lead a film with such heart and empathy that it makes you almost forget you are watching one of the best looking men in Hollywood, and instead seeing a small town hick with a bad knee spitting tar. Tatum’s accent is consistent throughout the film, and I feel that he has always flourished with wacky comedies like this and anything from the Coen Brothers. Adam Driver for me was the true whirlwind of this picture however. We’ve gotten to the point where Driver is so much more than just delightful with his dry delivery, he’s also gravitating an emotional pull under the surface that channels a side to humanity that very few are able to pull off in 21st century cinema, and I credit him for being so much of the movie’s pulse when sometimes the moral fiber is wearing thin. The reason for a lot of that is Daniel Craig and his unforgettable turn as explosives expert Joe Bang. With a name like that, you know you’re destined for a layered wild card of a character, and Craig certainly doesn’t disappoint, exchanging his English accent and Bond tuxedo for a Southern drawl and bleached blonde hair that truly brings out the hick in him. Craig is possibly the last guy I would expect for a role like this, so it makes it all the more mesmerizing when you see a suave actor like him commit and have fun to a role that couldn’t be any more polar opposite of his demeanor. A true hoot.

THE VERDICT – ‘Logan Lucky’ races to the finish line ahead of most of the pack in the overcrowded heist genre, and does so with one of its master drivers at the helm. Soderbergh’s much anticipated return to the silver screen is a fun thrill ride that does skid at the end of the journey, but the entertainment factor of a big list cast, as well as a carefully mapped out script, gives this one enough traction to pace itself through the slick turns of dramatic digestion that sometimes oversells itself. With a successful comeback, perhaps we are the lucky ones.

7/10

Chuck

The real life story for the inspiration of Rocky Balboa comes to life in this eye-opening sports biopic from director Philippe Falardeau. ‘Chuck’ tells the story of the pride of Bayonne, New Jersey, a man who went fifteen rounds in the ring with the heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, who may or may not have knocked the champ off of his feet. But before all that, Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) was a liquor salesman and father with a modest prizefighting career whose life changed overnight when, in 1975, he was chosen to take on The Greatest in a highly publicized title match. It’s the beginning of a wild ride through the exhilarating highs and humbling lows of sudden fame-but what happens when your fifteen minutes in the spotlight are up? Driven by a committed performance from Liev Schreiber, Chuck is a refreshingly human tale of resilience and redemption. ‘Chuck’ is rated R for adult language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images.

‘Chuck’ was never going to be a better film than the 1976 Oscar winner for Best Picture counterpart that it so vibrantly echoes around, but what it does is peel back the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood movie by telling you about the real gritty ugliness that lies within the true story. ‘Chuck’ is thankfully another enlightening dose of reality from the same director who penned 2014’s ‘The Good Lie’, humbling his audience with what feels like one of the more honest depictions not only in the sport of boxing during the dark ages of exposure, but also the troubles associated with temporary celebrity that influence ones irrational decisions. It’s a dramedy that can sometimes feel slightly off with its creative tone, but being that Wepner was never one to shy away from kicking himself, the film feels obliged to run the course carefully. I enjoyed this film enough, despite it only briefly capturing the psyche of one of the 70’s most prominent personalities inside and outside of the ring. This is more of an outside perspective in the way that we as an audience are supposed to see Chuck, and because of that we are only offered temporary glances at trying to get close to this troubled character as an endearing protagonist.

The story takes us on a kind of cause-and-effect train when it comes to what inspired arguably the greatest sports film of all time, and does so in a way that still leaves plenty of room for the one-named title character in this film to tell his side. Chuck, like any of us, is seduced by what little fame he commands. As a local rundown fighter, he’s kind of seen as a joke within his community, so when stardom finally knocks on his door, he is more than happy to answer, and that choice comes with some steep consequences for the hard hitter as to how he handles it. The film has a constant responsibility in observing and contrasting the beat down that Wepner takes in the ring versus the one he takes outside of it, and the one constant is that this character knows how to take a punch and keep on moving forward. It’s certainly easy to pick out which points were lifted from Wepner’s life to compliment the Rocky franchise, but in this example it feels more emphatic than the homage of ‘Rocky’ because this after all is real life, a breaking of the fourth wall by watching a character on-screen who lived through all of these things 42 years ago. The tone to me could’ve used more of a dramatic pull, instead of the dark comedy that sometimes outlines the film’s events. I feel like everyone watching except Wepner is in on the joke, and that aspect feels like a heavily missed opportunity on understanding the epiphany within this character that happens a bit too late in his life.

On that ground, the pacing for me was the film’s biggest weakness, often rushing through the more important peaks of Chuck’s life without feeling much weight for the situation. At 97 minutes, this is a brief film for a biopic, so the movie’s first act speeds by without a single moment of patience to let it all sink in. There is a major change that occurs midway through the film for Chuck, but in the movie’s inappropriate tone combined with rushed plotting, it feels more like a temporary speed bump instead of something much greater, and it becomes slightly difficult to take this story seriously with the kind of attention that it needs when being compared to other true story films. There’s also some sloppy time transitional scenes that jump time without any kind of warning or leading up-to for it to make sense. One scene rushes three years forward after a scene in which a possible new love interest (Played by Schreiber’s real life wife, Naomi Watts) is introduced, looking like it might go somewhere. It doesn’t, and its importance is left without much reasoning. If there’s anything positive that we can say about this aspect, it’s that the film is a rather simple sit, and doesn’t drag or grind to a screeching halt before we hit the credits. The kind of stories that are interesting should be remarked as the ones that you want to see more of, and ‘Chuck’ for me could’ve easily used another half hour to let these events flow with the kind of fluidity that relates their vital importance.

I did however manage to find myself another noteworthy cinematographer, as Nicolas Bolduc’s style for the picture moved me miles into immersing myself within this particular era. The movie’s design caters more to a film that looks and feels like it was shot during the 70’s, instead of a movie that is just spoofing the decade. This accomplishment is tough, especially considering we are more than four decades removed from the setting of the film, but Bolduc’s attention to detail moved me immensely with the insertion of classic footage for the establishing shots, as well as a grainy layer to the coloring palate that makes ‘Chuck’ feel like you’re watching something shot for laser disc. The intro starts the movie off right, communicating to the audience the kind of setting that Bayone, New Jersey plays to in this kind of film, echoing the hippie generation in all of its drugs and devilish pleasures in one visually faded interpretation.

On the subject of performances, I thought that Schreiber put in the necessary time and effort to transform himself into an athlete that looks anything but what Liev does in his physical appearance. He becomes Chuck with a noticeable weight increase, as well as a prosthetic wig that nails down his commitment for the role. This was a dream role of sorts for Liev, and that shows in the morally flawed Wepner, a character he emotes with such shovanism and imagination that often both get him in trouble. Elizabeth Moss was also a breath of fresh air, playing Chuck’s emotionally fragile wife Phylis. Moss channels so much fire and emotional hilarity in her range that it can sometimes feel like she is too good for this kind of role, but it speaks depths that the film cares enough to make her a pivotal member of this plot even if it forgets about her halfway through. My lone problem with the casting was whoever was the agent who cast two polar opposites for Sylvester Stallone and Muhammad Ali that couldn’t be further from their real life appearances. I get that these larger-than-life people are difficult to cast, but I would’ve been fine with only hearing their voices while their backs are turned to the cameras. Their faces aren’t even close to the original thing, and it’s an aspect that broke my concentration every time they popped up on screen.

THE VERDICT – ‘Chuck’ is a stiff jab to the chin, but lacks the kind of tonal focus or steady hand patience in script to ever command knockout power. Because of the committed, durable performances of Schreiber and Moss, as well as a faithful brush of artistic stroke integrity that makes up the gorgeously decadent cinematography in the film, Falardeau can rest assured knowing that he has given the Bayone Bleeder one more round in the public eye. This one doesn’t quite go the distance, but it stands its ground with the other heavyweight contenders in an overcrowded genre that is only getting bigger. A constant reminder that somebody is always watching your story playing out under the eyes of the public lights.

7/10

The Beguiled

After the untimely invasion of a soldier, a group of young women find themselves as “The Beguiled”. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the film is a modern day remake of the 1971 original starring Clint Eastwood, and unfolds during the Civil War, at a Southern girls’ boarding school, led by Martha Farmsworth (Nicole Kidman), a strict, by-the-book kind of a teacher who doesn’t shake easily. Its sheltered young women take in an injured enemy soldier (Colin Farrell). As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries, and taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events, forcing the girls to band together against the unpredictable outsider who has pitted them against one another. “The Beguiled” is rated R for some sexuality involving sensuality.

The 1971 version of “The Beguiled” doesn’t quite have a soft spot in my heart of classic cinema, but when I found out the gifted Sofia Coppola was going to helm the remake more than 46 years later, in all of her feminine prowess, I knew that there was a shot to make this story something special, and for the most part my premonition hit the nail. The remake has a lot of strong qualities about the production value itself that were most notably missing from the cult-like original, and that quality in cinematography lends itself to maximizing the potential of this story and plot that are (If I’m being honest) a tad bit one-dimensional. Remakes come and go every week anymore, but this new edition of the classic telling justifies itself with some real gritty performances and beautiful artistic merit that pushes it through a vanity makeover of sorts. There’s a crisp uneasiness about the atmosphere in the movie that really controls and contorts our story, and Coppola being a master of suspense with exceptional startles in films like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost In Translation” floating to the top of an impressive resume, feels like the right woman for the job in documenting the changes of female traits when approached with someone or something from the outside.

One interesting aspect is how these two sides approach each other from the get-go. The ladies first-and-foremost view Farrell’s character as a Yankee soldier first and nothing more. It is in this aspect of his character that they find such startling and fear in, leading most of them to keep a guard up long before it was cautionary in who we allow into our homes. This fear is quickly subdued for a kind of curiosity among them once the Yankee shield has been lifted and they see him for what he truly is; a man. Because of this, “The Beguiled” often feels like a social experiment in pitting seven different ladies of all ages in a room and watching what happens when they are introduced to someone that half of them would immediately consider a social suitor. And that is where Coppola single-handedly earns most of her intrigue from the audience who watch and wait for the passion between them to impact.

As a writer, Coppola impresses me here, putting all of these contrasting elements into a pot and watching them boil for an inevitable confrontation that you have to see to believe. What’s interesting about most films is that people seek the answer to the mystery because that is what they pay to see, but I was quite opposite with “The Beguiled”, as I found the build-up in the documentation of these relationships to be the story’s true heart, leading to a finale that somewhat underwhelmed me. It does stick closely to the source material in this regard, but there’s a complexity in Coppola’s masterful touch on these people and properties that tells many stories in one single shot. One example is midway through the movie when Colin Farrell’s character is listening to the ladies sing him a nighttime song, and for a second we see many of the ladies faces and emotional responses to that of Farrell in that one shot. Some seek more information about him to peak their curiosity, some don’t trust him and look at him as an enemy, and some see him as a gently misunderstood man just trying to get back on his feet. Coppola can juggle these many tiers without them collapsing all down, and it adds depth to a story that shouldn’t be this complex.

The weakness for me was definitely in the third act after everything changes for the ladies and their guest after one traumatic night. It’s not that it isn’t done with excitement or passion for the story, it just kind of confirms what anyone who saw the trailer or the original movie already knew about where it was heading. Because of that, the last shot of the movie does feel like it wastes away some of the firepower of this altering event at the beginning of the third act, and the movie just kind of slowly fizzles out from there, whether you call it poor planning or too lengthy of a final scene that slightly drags. I also would’ve preferred more emphasis on the world that is melting around this all-girls school, most notably with the Civil War that has divided the nation. Where I think this could matter with this story is more with Farrell’s character and the kind of urgency that he finds himself in. We can only assume why he chooses to remain absent from war, but the psychological dimension of his character never makes itself present, and I think this is a mistake of sorts when growing his backstory.

I did mention earlier that the biggest difference between these movies is definitely the stylistic choices in scope that definitely favor the remake. The natural lighting was a valuable choice for the interior night shots, most notably with the candle-lights in the background that illuminate the pure creepiness of these Victorian mansions. There is an overall hazy look to the film, and I believe that this has more to do with the metaphorical smoke clearing of our soldier protagonist, as well as the physical with the war continuing to march on and away from our story’s setting. The wardrobe and costume designs are decadent in their depictions, and really speak wonders to the kinds of fashion trends and covering up of women that were present during such controlling times.

This is also incredibly well acted by a top-list cast that keeps on giving to the range of their respective characters. Colin Farrell has been on a resurgence during the later part of his career, and that continues here with one of his most wide range of personalities that he has portrayed to date. We are reminded that Farrell is a man at the end of the day, and like many men before and after him, he will make mistakes, and boy do those mistakes paint his character into a cage. Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst were also commendable. Kidman’s character is definitely the leader of the house and because of such, the assertiveness and eerie calm within her comes out on more than one occasion. My favorite performance of the film once again goes to Elle Fanning as Carol, the firecracker of sorts among the group. Fanning is so deceiving and conniving when it comes to her intentions, and she manages to flick on these dual personalities at the drop of tones changing within the movie. She is as dangerous as they come, but too much of the focus remains on Farrell for him being guilty by association within this war that he never supports, so Carol slithers by with a vibrant display of lust and cold resonating within her eyes.

THE VERDICT – As far as remakes go, “The Beguiled” is harmless with souring any nostalgic factor that very few had for the 1971 original. Sofia Coppola entices us with entrancing visuals and a set design that accurately depicts the cultures of the particular time. Her story could use some more light emphasis around the backstory of its important characters, and the third act kind of writes itself into a corner after the fireworks go off, but the bang of seclusion, seduction, and simmer make this slow burn thriller too dynamic to ever look away. A gothic gripping of girl power that cooks into the atmosphere.

7/10

Lowriders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Beatriz at Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Megan Leavey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Everything, Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Free Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10