Baby Driver

The assistance of a driver simply known as ‘Baby’ is the best case scenario for the criminal underworld, looking for the fastest route out. In “Baby Driver”, the newest from critically acclaimed writer/director Edgar Wright, A young and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) relies on the personal beat of his preferred soundtrack, to be the best in the world of crime, as music heightens his focus and reflexes to extreme levels. A car accident as a child killed both his parents, and left him with permanent tinnitus, which he blocks out using music. He is preferred as a driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a mastermind organizer of bank robberies and other high-earning heists. During the biggest mission of Baby’s career, he finds himself and his loving girlfriend Debora (Lily James) in grave danger at the hands of some rough customers who want him dead when Baby decides to flee town. “Baby Driver” is rated R for adult language and violence throughout.

Edgar Wright, take a bow. After nearly twenty years of directing both feature length films and brilliant cinematic shorts, the master of satirical modern comedy dons his absolute best film to date, in the adrenaline powder-keg known as “Baby Driver”. As far as cinematic experiences go, this is easily the most fun thus far that I have had in a movie in 2017, and is only really matched or topped in my six year critic career by that of “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Wright is the kind of director who always seems to pull one over on his audiences, advertising and marketing a movie one way and then completely peeling it back to show you the never-ending multitude of layers that his stories boost for themselves. To define “Baby Driver” as just a satirical comedy on 70’s speed flicks, or smash-em, crash-em big budget carnage films of modern day, is doing this movie the greatest disservice that I could possibly muster up. It’s a play on a magnitude of genres, never settling for constant direction, and this gives the movie a kind of playground where all of these tonal shifts can meet and play as one, an aspect nearly impossible without suffering compromising damage to the film’s integrity. But it serves as a testament to Wright for not only being a name that makes us perk up when we hear he’s got a new film coming out, but also one that proves his versatility is only getting started.

Even after seeing trailer after trailer for this film, it still manages to have a strong ambiguity quality about its plot that makes it feel like nothing has been spoiled. In the first act of the movie, Wright kind of just introduces all of the essential chess pieces on the board and has them play up to their moral fiber safely, and for a second you feel like you are typically getting the story you were promised. In Baby, we meet a young man who feels stuck in a job that he knows is wrong, but he keeps doing it to pay off a debt to a crime lord boss who took a chance on him. This is probably the lone critique of the movie that you will hear from me, because unfortunately we never really hear much else about this expositional past between Elgort and Spacey’s characters that maximizes the importance of this crossroads that the title character is on. Thankfully, the second half of the movie did more than enough to make me forget about such miniscule negatives. It’s in the second act when you start to understand the evolution of this story and how little you truly know about where it’s headed. With some surprising brutality twists along the way, this one constantly kept my eyes glued to the screen, pacing itself out accordingly across 108 minutes that felt about half of that. The ending itself might sour some audiences, but I found it to be responsible with the dark and twisted alleys that the film’s third act took us down. In Edgar Wright’s world, it’s understood that there are consequences for every action, unlike other crime films that make the existence of cops feel like a joke.

What Wright does with a pen and a pad is impressive, but I would say takes a silver medal to that of his mesmerizing scope behind the camera. This movie doesn’t just play safely to the genre’s standards, it completely re-defines them in how each and every little shot maximizes the potential of each sequence even further. The editing here is textbook, garnering a quality about it that illustrates and combines the importance of quick-cut jabs to reflect the modern age, and a forceful close-up occasionally to reflect that of 70’s chase flicks like “Duel”. This gives the action sequences a monitor for us to tell that it’s fully beating and increasing in pumps with each passing dodge. On top of this, there are some impressive long take shots during character confrontations that proved Wright has a lot of faith in his star-studded cast. Because our view is with the camera’s, we often get to immerse ourselves in each ever-passing environment that has engulfed these unpredictable situations. A credit to this camera work is that we never once see one robbery in the movie, but we feel like we’re with these characters through every bullet fired. The sound mixing is also quite impressive for the kind of tricks that it plays on our own ears, making us feel Baby’s situation front-and-center. Music will occasionally drop out in volume if a shot is taking place outside of the car, and this is respectable because it would otherwise feel fake if we hear the same kind of volume outside that the characters do inside of the car. Edgar also pays attention to Baby’s peculiarity because we get several examples of the muddled “Hum-in-the-drum” that has left him somewhat impared, and it’s in that stance where we feel more personal with a protagonist than other films can get. We’re hearing what he hears, so when the music hits, it sounds so much sweeter.

On the subject of that music, “Baby Driver” boosts a collection of mostly classic ballads and toe-tapper funk grooves that is sure to have you fighting back the urge to mouth the words to some of your favorite jams. The cleverness comes out of how each song shapes not only the tone, but the editing of each and every scene. If there’s a drum beat that is constant in the song Baby is jamming out to, it becomes evident that we too will be treated with the riddling of bullets richocheting to the bass of such a powerful audio level. There’s also some clever Easter eggs along the way that add lyrics to the song that is being listened to at any given moment. For instance, during the scene where Baby walks to the diner for his first meeting with Debora, we see scattered lyrics all around the sidewalk, windows, and street signs that he passes by. This gives the movie some quality re-watches to see just what in the backdrop you may have missed upon initial watches.

But a film this impactful would be nothing without a charismatic cast that guides it through these often entertaining waters, and thankfully this collection of heralded A-listers know a valuable chance when they see one. For anyone who thought Ansel Elgort’s most memorable role would be Augustus Waters in 2014’s “The Fault In Our Stars”, you have no idea the oral crime you just committed. As Baby, Elgort unlocks a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma, and because there’s so much personality to his character, it’s the spunk and likeability of a leading man that he lends his talents to marvelously. Elgort proves he can hang with the big names by giving us a character who constantly evolves into being a product of his environment, and when the tough get going, Baby is no infant. Two other members who I want to praise are Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm for completely stealing the show. Not that either of them need help in their careers, but their roles in this movie are the shot of adrenaline that both need from being typecast into the safe roles that have plagued their careers. Foxx dominates the first half of the movie as a menacing robber who always has his finger on the pulse of everyone involved. Because of such, he’s kind of a leader who always likes to stir the pot, and I found him to be authentic in his push for greed. Hamm too is a worthy opposition, but not until later in the movie do we see his truest of colors. In fact, the movie tells us all we need to know about Hamm’s character when he’s not living up to that immense shadow, but treat this as a warning because you will never look at Don Draper the same way again.

THE VERDICT – “Baby Driver’s” tank never runs close to being empty, taking us on a fast-paced thrill-ride that will have you holding onto your seat, afraid to take that breath of release for fear you might miss a delightful peak on auditory capabilities. There’s enough firepower and unpredictability in the mastery of Edgar Wright’s closely-guided touch to keep it from ever stalling, and the personalities from some of Hollywood’s finest make this one impossible not to want to strap in. Even if you just seek a movie to shut your brain off, “Baby Driver” will take the challenge one step further by astonishing you at every feat of the technical specter. Mister Wright can do no wrong.

9/10

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

All Eyez On Me

The legend of arguably the most influential rapper of all time gets the big screen treatment, in the musical biopic “All Eyez On Me”. The story, directed by Benny Boom, tells the true and untold story of prolific rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur. The film follows Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr) from his early days in New York City hustling to make ends meet, to his evolution into being one of the world’s most recognized and influential voices alongside Notorious B.I.G (Jamal Woolard), all before his untimely death at the age of 25 in 1996. Against all odds, Shakur’s raw talent, powerful lyrics and revolutionary mind-set propelled him into becoming a cultural icon whose legacy continues to grow more than twenty years after his passing. “All Eyez On Me” is rated R for adult language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality.

For nearly two-and-a-half hours, Tupac Shakur lives on again in the latest rap music biopic that depicts for fans young and old to embrace the voice of the man who spoke for them. With previous efforts like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Notorious” leading the way for the genre, the idea of Shakur’s life on the big screen seems like a no-brainer, and while “All Eyez On Me” does play to an accurate depiction of the man’s brief time in the public eye, it fails to reach the uncovering satisfaction and production values of the previous two movies. Being a big Tupac fan myself, I was greatly looking forward to this film, but I can’t help but taste a distinct taste of disappointment coming out of the theater from people who were thirsty for a refreshing look at Tupac Shakur the man, not the superstar. For any great musical biopic, you must carry an equal importance of knowledge and entertainment to instill upon your audience. The film has no struggles with the latter, but greatly neglects the former by speeding through some trait defining moments in his life, in favor of fast-forward pacing that cuts short far too much.

On that distinct trait of the movie, the pacing early on feels like it’s in a hurry to get to a certain finishing point, rushing harshly through the earlier points of Tupac’s life living in the slums and searching for a positive male role model like so many other youths who support Tupac can relate to. It was almost surreal how the movie was already at the start of Tupac’s amateur rap career a half hour into the movie, and it begs the question why so many other biopics, both music and non, feel it is important to push through the backstory in exposition so you can see the entire growth of the central protagonist? For a movie that shocked me at being 135 minutes, there is simply no excuse as to why some of these moments and relationships couldn’t use further emphasis early on, as it would touch on more of the sentimental peaks that the film reaches for later on that simply isn’t there. One positive that I can say about this aspect is that the movie never drags, nor slugs along for too long. It constantly keeps getting back up on its feet, and signals one of the easiest two-plus hour sits that I have had in a long time. The third act of the movie is undoubtedly my favorite, as Tupac’s time with Death Row seems to be the established direction that the movie was focusing on for its majority. Everything during this time feels appropriately paced, and finally it doesn’t feel like our backs are up against the wall, despite a hearty run time that should offer no handicaps for storytelling measures.

As far as story goes, the film feels like it is catering more to the casual fans of Tupac, whom occasionally heard through the grapevine some chilling occurrences within the rapper’s past. I say this because so much of what makes up the material in this movie plays to the rhythms of a glorified television movie-of-the-week production, choosing to hit all of the high points in Tupac’s life, and leaving so little for what fills in the gaps along the way. My favorite parts were finally seeing behind the walls of Death Row Records, and the horrors that befell its clients every single day. I found the character of Shug Night to be the snake in the grass that waits for vulnerability to strike, a true villain in the purest definition. I mentioned the pacing earlier, and why it plays such an important role in this film in particular is because not every scene can be a shootout or a high-stakes fight. You need those scenes and sequences of exposition building along the way to fill in the gaps, but the trio of screenwriters that make up this script fire off one round after another at the audience, and after a while it feels muddled in repetition, even to the point of redundancy on this long-winded script that constantly keeps punching. No hardcore fan will take much new away from “All Eyez On Me”, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with opening the eyes to new fans, but I think it’s a huge misstep to ignore the droves of fans who will see this movie to get one step closer to their favorite rapper for one more night knowing that they may never get this chance again.

The editing too showcases possibly my least favorite aspect of editing films that I have mentioned a time or two in my reviews. I have never been a fan of fading to black until the end of the movie, but “All Eyez On Me” repeatedly chooses this route, damaging the cohesiveness of a script that jumps in many avid directions because a majority of it is being told in flashbacks. This often gives the film a bunch of scattered pieces feel, instead of one well-working machine, and I greatly wish that the production of this film would’ve instead ushered for quick cuts, as I feel it would do wonders with keeping up with the story chronologically. One example of such a mess in editing comes in Tupac meeting his eventual girlfriend in the third act. The scene in which they meet has them at odds, but after fading to black, they are immediately together and living together in the next scene. This is a fault on the writers as well, but the editing makes it feel like so much was left out from the night of their meeting that was ommitted from our presentation.

One immensely positive area for the film is in its Oscar-worthy casting direction that single-handedly blew me away for the attention to detail that often left me riveted. Casting director Winsome Sinclair has outdone any and everyone before her, ensembling a cast of mostly fresh faces that chillingly indulges in the likeness of their respective characters. To name just two, Shipp Jr is Tupac Shakur, make no mistakes about it. I don’t believe for a second that Demetrius Shipp Jr is his actual name because there were moments in the film when I actually thought footage from Tupac’s life had been taken to mold into this movie. While we could use a closer look at the person, Shipp Jr does more than enough in radiating the charisma of the rapper, juggling valuably the way he saw the world, as well as the naivity that came with being so young at the time of his death. “The Walking Dead’s” Danai Gurira steals the show however, as Tupac’s Mother Afeni. Early on in the film, Afeni struggles to be the positive adult influence in her children’s lives, and it’s clear the demons within her are often at war for a distilling anger that she feels towards this unfair world. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to watch Gurira steer this character to such a satisfying transformation; she’s essentially playing two halfs that make up this depthful complex African American woman, a theme that is often neglected in modern cinema.

THE VERDICT – “All Eyez On Me” steers a bit too conventionally to the rapper’s well known events in biography to ever open the eyes of anyone seeking a broader canvas of the revolutionary’s life behind the lens of a camera. There’s some truly compelling performances in the work of Shipp Jr, as well as Gurira that prove visually and emotionally that no one better could’ve been cast, but the muddled waters of shoddy editing, as well as a flawed script early on that pushes along without stopping, does very little to value the immense run time given to Boom’s production. The movie flounders this opportunity, but Keep Ya Head Up Tupac fans, the real story is in the lyrics of perhaps the most gifted MC to ever pick up a mic.

5/10

The Book of Henry

Things will never be the same for a small town neighborhood once a mother discovers a troubling book written by her son, called “The Book of Henry”. Sometimes things are not always what they seem, especially in the small suburban town where the Carpenter family lives. Single suburban mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) works as a waitress at a diner, alongside feisty family friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman). Her younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) is a playful 8-year-old. Taking care of everyone and everything in his own unique way is Susan’s older son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), age 11. Protector to his adoring younger brother and tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother, and through investments, of the family as a whole, Henry blazes through the days like a comet. Susan discovers that the family next door, which includes Henry’s kind classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler), has a dangerous secret, and that Henry has devised a surprising plan to help. As his brainstormed rescue plan for Christina takes shape in thrilling ways, Susan finds herself at the center of it. “The Book of Henry” is directed by Colin Trevorrow, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief adult language.

This movie has been the victim of a lot of negative reviews lately in the media, so going into it I kind of found myself at the questioning position of how a trailer with what I felt had so much promise could receive a critique as low as it has shamefully received, but we must remember that these trailer magicians are the same people who make money by presenting a less-than stellar film in attention-grabbing detail. Upon viewing “The Book of Henry”, I am here to add my two cents to the pile of growing naysayers for the film, as this movie is very much a disaster in everything from tone continuity to lack of moral integrity for characters that violently shift with each passing moment. It’s a jumbled experiment that is often trying to pass itself off as too many things at once, and because of such a concept, it often feels like you are watching three different acts from three different movies. Even the shining performances of three marvelously gifted child actors wasn’t enough to steer this film, as well as its condescending direction out of the woods with even so much as a compass to find its way.

Director Colin Trevorrow, as well as screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz should definitely be commended enough for crafting a story that does play with respect to these children that they are front-and-center of this unfolding melodrama, even if their ambitious reach of plot does over-exceed what should be a simplistic approach. What was appreciative for me was that this duo seem to understand and see children as this driving force within the world who will stop at nothing to help when they see danger. Hurwitz depicts the point of view of a pediatric as such that there is no filter with them in their wanting to get involved in compromising situations, a detail that any adult in the audience will wonder with curiosity where we went wrong in deciding to turn our heads to help those who are troubled along the way. It’s encouraging to see a director who sees the value in child actors, and doesn’t choose to wither away their increasing value in cinema. Because of such, Colin does succeed in crafting a surreal world where children can get involved with adult actions, a concept that only gets stronger the further you dive into “The Book of Henry”.

Where he goes wrong however, is in the increasing ridiculousness of cliches that continuously overstay their welcome, as well as the violent tonal shifts that cut this film’s momentum down at nearly every level. The light-hearted coming-of-age story of the first act was the only section of the film that felt natural to me. Trevorrow’s immediate introduction of our characters and their worlds is one that instantly pulled me in and had me demanding more for the personality in dialogue that leaps off of the page of the script. Then it all goes wrong. Instead of continuing with this vibrant feeling, the film turns into a crass melodrama due to a sudden plot twist that shakes everything up. I’m fine with different layers to a story in a movie, but when it’s as violently forced as this was, it can feel like it never finds its footing back to what made it great in the first place, a problem that sticks with this production. The third act throws everything at us, as the craziness of this plan between our protagonist and her children is one that not only annoyed me in logic, but also angered me in how much it repeats itself. Without spoiling much, sometimes you will have a scene in a movie where a character will listen to a tape, that character will say something, and then the person on the tape responds back to what they just said. It’s often used as a throwaway comedy line that is harmless, but here it happens every minute when this tape is on-screen. There’s geniuses among children, and there’s God-like characters. “The Book of Henry” casts its title character as the latter, and soon this ability to predict action and consequences in something as unpredictable as people, is one that does great harm to the believability of this once humane piece.

With twenty minutes left in the movie, and very little answered or satisfyingly concluded, Hurwitz moves fast in offering us a conclusion that really made me take a step back and compare how far we’ve come in the short 100 minute offering that rode a wave of unnecessary twists and turns to get here. That’s of course a back-handed compliment, because I found the ending of this movie to be bafflingly dull when compared to what was the lead-up before it. Everything is put together a little too “Matter-of-factly”, and it constantly left me with a bitter taste in my mouth of the juice never being worth the squeeze, a harrowing reality that starts to set in the more you think about the actions of this movie. On that thought, “The Book of Henry” feels like an irresponsible plan of mind-numbingly barbaric execution, instead of a gripping therapeutic plunge into the perplexities of grief and how it affects everyone else, a missed opportunity that could’ve played this film as slightly more cerebral than the outside-of-the-glass treatment that we got here.

What does keep my score on this film from falling too far down is in the charming circumference of this ensemble cast that each add wonders to their respective characters. Lieberher has been a star in the making for quite some time, but the momentum of the film rests solely in his small hands, as he portrays Henry as a boy genius who never feels rude or condescending. Tremblay relies more on the dramatic pulse of the film to get his points across, and I’ve never seen a child release the tears so heart-achingly surreal as he has in films like this and 2015’s “Room”. Maddie Ziegler, despite not having many line reads in the movie, is a force to be reckoned with for how she visually commands the presence of this tortured girl next door. Christina is someone who lives out her worst nightmares every single day of her life, and Ziegler doesn’t falter this in facial responses that define the absence of positivity. Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Dean Norris, all also buy into what Trevorrow is selling, so much so that their adult counterparts blend satisfyingly well enough to never feel like they are cutting in on the children’s time to work their craft. Norris is great as a villain, but does so without ever needing to come off as some Lifetime Television cliche. The worst kind of antagonist is the guy we should trust the most, and it’s very unsettling to know just what is going on under the roof of the police chief’s house that has left the surrounding patrons shattered in its wake.

THE VERDICT – “The Book of Henry” is three movies for the price of one, and only one of them should’ve been interesting enough to continue. Because of an overabundance in tone shifts, as well as fourth-dimensional breaks in logic, Trevorrow’s latest crashes and burns fast, leaving a finished product that feels slightly incomplete and muddled in seemingly unnecessary directions. The film definitely crafts an original take on child-first stories, but does so in a way that robs those intentions by the increasingly silly plot mechanics that would rather be the umpteenth “Home Alone” rather than the first “Book of Henry”.

4/10

Lady Macbeth

Rural England 1865 is the place and time for this sizzling spin on the classic tale of “Lady Macbeth”. Catherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman locked in a loveless arranged marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), begins a passionate affair with one of the servants on the estate named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Alexander and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank) attempt to put an end to the lovers infidelity, but the couple are willing to go to great lengths in order to keep their relationship alive. The situation becomes increasingly complicated, and Catherine is forced to make a difficult decision to save her reputation and her privileged life. “Lady Macbeth” is directed by first time helming, William Oldroyd, and is rated R for sexual situations involving nudity, violent material involving gore, adult language, scenes of drug use, and frightening scenes of intensity.

Movies centering around the kind of coming into power storylines are often depicted in such a way that feels inspiring or at the very least beneficial to the audience at home in propelling a character who they can get behind regardless of their morals. Cue “Lady Macbeth”, an hour-and-a-half of greed and seduction for what could essentially be considered the dawn of the modern age woman, and her rise to power that comes at such a cost. For such a brief film that flies by like a jet engine, this movie filled me with a vast array of emotions that left me reeling for hours after I saw the film. The movie’s screenplay is loosely based on the book “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, and while the movie hangs tight with the general outline of its literary counterpart, there’s so much about it that screenwriter Alice Birch updates to infuse its often times dull page-turner into a millennial twist that leaves its audience on the edge of its seat through each and every transpiring event that polarizes our central protagonist.

The very style of this picture goes a long way not only in defining human response and atmosphere, but also in the very isolated depiction that this film focuses on for treatment of the female specimen during such a long and forgotten age. The shot selection is gorgeous, focusing on shot framing that singles out Catherine and makes us focus solely on the pain surrounding her dreary routine. She stands front and center at every scene that plays out before her, and often times is our voice of digestion for the life that tends to move on without her consent. It’s true that this movie is focused almost entirely on one character, and kind of leaves everyone else to steer their own course, but I think it’s important to frame Catherine while these unspeakable acts are happening around her, so as to inform and incite the curiosity of the viewer who takes it all in. The film has a refreshing way of not commending the concepts of infidelity, nor singling out Catherine for the decisions that she makes, and I find that impartial direction to be one of great taste for Oldroyd, who feels like he has accomplished so much in only his first time behind the lens. I was flabbergasted to discover that a man directed this movie, as there’s such an overwhelming feeling of female revolutionary that encapsulates the picture, a sign that we’re headed in the right direction for both sides of the polished human gender coin.

As I mentioned earlier, the film flies by, and constantly keeps us moving through ambitious mountain that Catherine must climb to seize the life that she wants. If I have one weakness for the movie, it’s in the first act when everything feels like it zooms through far too quickly, neglecting to soak in the undesired marriage of Catherine and Alexander to its truly barbaric potential. The affair happens quite early on in the movie, and keeps happening, reaching four times of sexual intimacy at only a half hour into the movie to relate how rushed this opening feels, limiting anything to reach its true developmental purpose. Thankfully, it does slow down in the next act, when we truly start to see this woman blossoming into the wolf of sorts who she was destined to become. The final thirty minutes throw a couple of wrenches into the mix, and reminded me that no matter where I thought this film was headed, my guessing was often premature for the pulse-setting finale that left me tingling in speechless release. Because of such, “Lady Macbeth” surely isn’t going to show up on anyone’s feel good films of the year list, but it is one that speaks volumes to the lesson of people not being allowed to love who they love, a stance that even more than two hundred years later still troubles our own society.

Much of that has to do with the performance of Florence Pugh, who is an early favorite for this critic in the Best Actress category. This woman is a force to be reckoned with, and anyone in the way of Catherine will be run over by this steaming bull who fears no man or force of God. Pugh’s portrayal at times feels like we took a woman in 2017 and placed her in the 1800’s to answer the age old question of what these two opposing eras would feel like, to our chagrin it’s everything that you could want in a leading lady who balks at the rules. It takes no time for Catherine to understand the undesirable situation that she has been forced into, so immediately she takes matters into her own hands and spits back what life has presented her with. Florence stays quite stone-faced throughout the movie, but this character direction speaks volumes to her lack of empathy and her cold disdain, which she unleashes with no remorse. I would go further with the cast, but there’s no point. It’s not that the supporting cast are particularly terrible, it’s just that Florence Pugh acts in and constructs the stage for her to shine on. A one woman tour de force who slips under your skin to conjure up more than just one translation.

THE VERDICT – Through bold and dark twists that hold the hands of the audience and press it right up to feel the power, “Lady Macbeth” is an unnerving and often times insinuating intensive from William Oldroyd, who depicts the consequences of privilege and power with such heart-shattering volume to leave all who embrace it devastated within its wake. Pugh herself commands Catherine with the kind of impeccable precision for that silent fire burning within, and it’s when she reaches her boiling point that we know a star has been born. This movie could use about fifteen more minutes to digest some of the rapid fire first act movements, but its unclenching second half of the picture has enough shock-and-awe to make us (like Catherine) forget about meaningless measures in the past.

9/10

My Cousin Rachel

The 1951 novel of the same name gets its second big screen treatment, this time more than sixty years after the previous. “My Cousin Rachel” tells the story of a young Englishman named Phillip (Sam Claflin) who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms, and toes a devastating line of temptation as he seeks the clarity beneath it all. The two engage in a mental game for the land, riches, and romance involved in this particularly ugly situation that has developed between them and their neighboring friends of the family. “My Cousin Rachel” is written and directed by South African film director Roger Michell, and is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong adult language.

I myself have never read the literary original that this screenplay is based upon, but with reading reviews of others experiences with the novel has taught me that this is an accurate adaptation. With that said, this is a movie that relies heavily upon a mystery surrounding our central characters that has to do with whether Rachel is or is not the evil temptress that she has been made out to be. The film pushes this narrative because it is the key that unlocks all of the mystery surrounding the untimely death of Phillip’s guardian. The problem with this shaky concept is that this shouldn’t be a mystery at all to the audience who have faithfully paid attention, because most of the proof is in the pudding. Once you figure out the answer to this proverbial question, “My Cousin Rachel” tends to lose a lot of its charms midway through the movie, when you realize that this screenplay is focused on so little else to keep itself moving. Even still, once the answer is made frustratingly apparent during the final scenes, the screenplay did manage to tack on some closing surprises that changed my opinion from the once evident direction that it felt like we were once headed, finishing strong enough to earn itself rightfully back into rental territory.

From a scope perspective, this is a very gorgeous production, taking place during the late 19th century in Europe. We are treated to some very surreal establishing shots with endless displays of green landscapes and mountains that tend to accurately depict the kind of backdrops that envelope this picture. The main setting takes place in this enormous mansion that takes on the compliments of atmospheric natural lighting to make it feel more authentic. The night shots use candles to illuminate the property, and this speaks volumes to the kind of darkness and mystery that plagues this bickering family. The camera work too was simply stunning, choosing to focus more on some long take back-and-forth perspectives, instead of using choppy editing that can sometimes come across as too polished of a feature for this place in time. Because we embrace most long-winded dialogue gasps in their entirety, it can accredit so much more to the kind of heavy performances that Weisz and Claflin offer throughout.

On the subject of those roles, Claflin and Weisz create vibrant, albeit treacherous music together, commanding the presence of the screen each time their intentions contrast those of the opposition. Claflin’s Phillip is very much a boy who becomes a man during this picture. His abilities to have seen the world have almost made him brash and slightly arrogant when it comes to returning to his homeland, but he is quickly humbled upon meeting his mysterious cousin. As a whole, Sam does a strong job portraying this character, but Phillip is written in such a way that doesn’t translate well with today’s modern males, and because of such, if you’re like me you will find Phillip to obnoxious and even a little cringe-worthy midway through the movie. As a protagonist, he folds like a cheap suit, and it’s easy to see who commands this mental chess game. That winner of course would be Weisz, who dons Rachel as this strong force despite her ever really having to get her hands dirty. So much of what makes you boil for Rachel is the way Weisz’s long and cold stares appear frequently throughout the movie, and you really get a sense that this is a character who knows how to get what she wants without much effort. Their blossoming romance is something that we as an audience know is bad news, but you won’t believe where these two prized actors take them right before the credits roll.

As a script, I commend “My Cousin Rachel” for evolving with each passing act that changes up the kind of dance that our two characters orchestrate. The first act is probably my personal favorite because it is during this time when they are strangers to one another, and feeling out the other one to understand their ulterior motives. I mentioned earlier that this turns into a mental chess game of sorts, and that’s an entirely accurate representation because there’s a power struggle early on when each character tries to one-up the other, and it leads to some pretty uncomfortable and awkward exchanges that simulate anger, sorrow, and vulnerability so uncanny. The second act switches it up once we start to see the vast change in Phillip’s demeanor towards Rachel, and suddenly we as an audience feel like we are on the wrong side of the moral coin, far from where we once stood in this fight. When you step back to soak it all in, you really have to appreciate the slow unraveling of this metaphorical poison that took over the room. The final act sets up a beautiful confrontation that does pay off….sort of. If you’re someone like me who appreciates the true irony of any situation, you’ll adore it. But if you’re someone who expects physicality in results, “My Cousin Rachel” might not leave you on the best of circumstances. Either way, the script lagged very little for me, and feels appropriate to close it out around the 100 minute mark.

THE VERDICT – “My Cousin Rachel” often tries to float a mystery that simply isn’t there. Even the most mind-wandering of film detectives will fish out the answers to this story long before our central protagonist has, and that’s perhaps the biggest hill to climb for Michell’s slice of sizzle and seduction. It’s a solid representation of its source material, mainly due to the dedicated performances of Claflin and an entrancing Weisz, who both dominate the screen time in getting across two polar opposite characters with the common bond of grief. It’s a stern reminder that where there is smoke, there is often fire, and this is one flame too hot to ignore.

6/10

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

It Comes at Night

Imagine the end of the world. Now imagine something much terrifying, as “It Comes at Night”. Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order that Paul (Joel Edgerton) has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge in their secluded fortress. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul. Suddenly what is inside that Paul finds himself running from. “It Comes At Night” is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, and is rated R for brutal violence, disturbing imagery and adult language.

“It Comes at Night” is certainly a different breed all together when compared to the kind of shriek-fest that today’s youths are exposed to in horror cinema. A24 Productions is always a company that demands a wiser, albeit articulated kind of moviegoer to embrace their style of offerings, and there’s no film from them that will be more dissected than this one. I enjoyed this movie a lot, but I’m also someone who picks up on little clues and hints at exposition that is anything but blatant. This is a movie that demands its audience fill in the gaps from plots and sequences that can sometimes toe the line of cryptic storytelling, and because of such, this feels like the kind of film that will divide audiences right down the middle from what they were expecting and what they actually got. In my estimation, that isn’t a bad thing, because “It Comes at Night” begins as one kind of movie, then morphs into a totally different beast that depicts the very frailty of human interaction. On top of it, Shults visual palate is something that impressed me all around, building the tension between these two families that reaches a satisfying boiling point by the third act.

As a screenwriter, perhaps Trey’s most astonishing feat is that he takes a central plot and regresses it back midway through the movie to reduce it to a subplot of source for the real monster that has overtaken the screen. Considering that this is a story that takes place during an airborne epidemic, wiping out those who ingest it, Shults doesn’t tell us much about the origins or the rules that come with such a burden. Could this be considered a mistake? Possibly, but as the film progressed I found myself feeling less-and-less interested with this plague that has secluded those who remain unharmed by it, and more drawn to the cause-and-effects of choices big and small that haunt us with each passing day. As far as this concept is concerned, I compare this film a lot to “The Thing”, in that it shows us a variety of different characters, but tells us so little about them. Because of this, you, like the people in question, realize that this works to our disadvantage of seeing what lurks beneath the actions of kindness, and hinting at what possibly could be our worst nightmares coming true. Any parent’s first instinct is to protect their kind, so the actions in “It Comes at Night” feel like a car crash that we as an audience can see coming for a mile, but quietly embrace the inevitability of disaster just ahead. My one weakness in the script is during the final few minutes of the movie, after the heart-pounding conclusion, when the film’s air and momentum slowly sink away, instead of ending on the satisfying element of surprise. Those final establishing shots are alright, but it leaves the door wide open for audiences to give one of their famous “That’s it?” lines that can hinder the positives that previously shone. Visually too, these final few scenes feel sloppy, in that they are a series of cut scenes, instead of one cohesive unit. It ends the movie on a jumbled note that deviates from enticing visuals that constantly kept raising the bar for 90 minutes.

From a technical standpoint, Shults stakes his claim as a master visionary behind a camera of establishing shots that really paints the picture masterfully in each scene. Trey’s focus isn’t just conventional with cutting from character to character, but instead weaves in-and-out of each conversation with some pretty impressive long takes. Besides this, the house itself plays a pivotal role in displaying the distance between these two families. While it’s certainly nothing new or original, the panning out shots slowly reveal the kind of environments that slowly build the tensions not only of our characters, but our own ball of nerves that feel like they are on pines and needles because of the startling echoes of Brian McOmber’s impactful musical score. Brian is certainly no stranger to independent horror films, but here he provides such emphasis and terror in each volume-increasing note, playing against the sounds of silence that never fails to reach eleven on the dial. Your eyes and ears can easily play tricks on you with a presentation like this one, and that thought alone constantly kept my mind guessing for what’s going on slightly off-shot of what we’re focused on.

The performances are solid, particularly in Joel Edgerton who adds another layer to an already impressive resume of meaty diversity in the roles he selects. As Paul, we see an honorable man who will stop at nothing to protect his family despite the crumbling of the world around them that constantly provides a new test for them everyday. Paul is a leader by choice, and that decision means his character has to continuously do some things that we don’t like, but Edgerton’s every-man approach never shakes his moral response as anything other than understandable. Aside from Joel, the work of Kelvin Harrison Jr and Riley Keough also impressed me as characters spread out on both sides of these roommate families. Harrison confidently dominates a lot of screen time here, riding a wave of paranoia and teenage emotions that remind us he’s not as old as his father wants him to be. A subplot with Keough is just enough to move the mouse’s wheel in all of our minds, and hints at a butterfly effect that could unravel everything that has been built up. One scene in particular towards the end shows the kind of powerful release that Riley can give, and it felt easy to feel that pain with the horrible situation that leaves her stumbling for words. As far as crying on command goes, Keough in her prime is a hard-hitting heavyweight that tugs for the tears.

THE VERDICT – Regardless of what side of the proverbial fence that “It Comes at Night” casts you upon, one thing is for certain; Shults sculpting hands craft an unnerving environment of unrelenting consequence that always keeps you guessing. Led by excellent performances from a paper thin cast, as well as a lurid and entrancing musical composition, this grim atmospheric brought the scares well beyond that of a post-apocalyptic plot that doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of what really floats beneath. It proves that horror doesn’t have to be formulaic, and that the experimental side can still keep this genre fresh. True, the ending could trim a few minutes, but overall there’s too much to gush at to fault it too much for not concluding at the right time.

8/10

Wonder Woman

DC Comics first and most powerful female superhero gets her own big screen treatment, in the origin story, “Wonder Woman”. Fresh off of her debut in 2016’s “Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice”, Gal Gadot returns as the title character in the epic action adventure from director Patty Jenkins. Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior while living on the island of Themyscira, a sheltered island paradise. One day, American military pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers and her true destiny. “Wonder Woman” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content.

It’s interesting that perhaps D.C Films last chance at standing against the monster empire of Marvel at this point, comes in the form of a woman. Neither of the comic book giants have taken many chances at female led stories after the failures of films like “Elektra” and “Catwoman”, but “Wonder Woman” stakes its claim as the perfect superhero story at the perfect time, for all of its practically identical similarities of art imitating life. For the first time in the three films in the D.C Universe, one of its movies doesn’t feel like an advertisement for the upcoming movie that follows this one, choosing instead to focus its merit and time on the origin story of perhaps the most powerful female superhero of all time. Because of it, it’s clearly evident that the Justice League has now found a suitable leader, guiding their team of unstoppably gifted protagonists into the 21st century. With Jenkins precision in guiding along female stories, the force is strong with this one, and certainly gives back the kind of hope to its fans that they may have found something that Marvel just can’t touch; a desire to reach out to its female moviegoers in the audience, in hopes that they finally have a character who speaks not only to their superhero side, but also to what it means to be a woman in modern times.

On the count of that subject, the material in “Wonder Woman” offers a stark self-reflection in our own society for the ridiculous nature in which the male population more times than not views their female counterparts. It does so in an educational manner instead of a contradicting one, still reminiscing on the importance of men, but showing that females can offer an equally distinctive vision for a future of promiscuity. I laughed quite a few times during this picture, mostly at the material that compares and contrasts the two worlds of Themiscyra to our very own, and signals some odd peculiarities for what it means to be a woman in a male dominated day-and-age. As a screenwriter, Allan Heinberg gives us quite the abundance of thought-provoking conundrums to make us as an audience question the status-quo of things being the way they are, and the dominant backdrop of World War I playing a prominent role in teaching us that no matter how far we’ve come with equality, we still have miles to travel before reaching our destination.

I mentioned earlier how “Wonder Woman” carries such an empowering voice to the female audience well beyond being a superhero idol, but so much of what the script is really about channels the themes of growing up and becoming who you were born to be. It’s evident in Diana’s leaving of her home, as well as seeing the world and living with her eyes open for the first time that this is very much a woman on the cusp of her own spiritual awakening, and that’s a concept that I think will intrigue many ladies in the audience into an experience that they have yet to illicit in these kind of films. It’s funny that going into the film I figured that so much of the movie’s two-plus hours would be geared towards us learning about Diana and her vast culture compared to the 1940’s era that dates this movie. The surprise was that instead it was her learning more about us, and from a creative standpoint I think that is the right decision on an entertainment and a narrative angle, speaking to the idea of there being so much more for Diana outside of the only place she has ever really known. Strolling us along is a riveting musical score from composer Rupert Gregson-Williams that always sparks such powerful compositions of thrilling nature to the depictions of war that envelope the movie. The action scenes themselves leave nothing more to be desired, and are shot beautifully without an overabundance of cuts to over-complicate each angle.

As for problems with the movie, I did have two that reminded me no matter how far we’ve come with D.C, this is still the same company that took a movie like “Batman Vs Superman” and convoluted it to the point of a third act that jarringly complicated the rest of the movie. Here, we have the same problem, as the final twenty minutes of this movie tries so hard to break down what made the rest of the movie so revolutionary in terms of its material. There’s a subplot that I won’t spoil, but deals with a certain figure in Diana’s life whom she’s been told stories about, and the movie approaches this from a literal standpoint instead of a figurative one, and it’s the signal for all things flying off of the handle in the most negative of ways. The final battle contradicts everything that I mentioned about the crisp and vivid detail of how these war scenes were previously shot, instead opting for more of the explosions, crashes, and burns that took something pure and made it a grandstand of C.G portions. This movie also pulls the 1960’s alien movie trick where if you kill the master, the rest will turn back to good. I could go for this if ya know….it wasn’t the Nazi’s that we were talking about. As a whole, I would’ve been fine with this particular angle not being in the movie, and there’s definitely a part before the final twenty minutes that while it would’ve underwhelmed for its equality in fight, would’ve at least ended things calmly instead of going batshit insane. That leads to my other problem in the movie. We once again have a great lack of compelling antagonists to go against our prominent lead. This is becoming more and more of a problem with both comic book empires, and the fix is something as easy as possible for this movie. There is the basic minimum of exposition when it comes to the two antagonists that make up our story, and that’s a shame because the movie feels like it moves on without them, only bringing them back when it’s absolutely necessary.

The performances themselves merit a solid combo of Gadot and Pine that radiate our screen through every kind of human emotion that they pull from us. The chemistry between them is terrific, and takes very few scenes to understand the charisma that oozes between them every time they look at one another. This is of course a love story between them, but the film takes its time naturally in getting from Point A to Point B, offering a hilarious, albeit informative contrast between the problem solving and moral foundry that both of them were raised upon. This is definitely Gadot’s single best performance to date, and I hope that “Justice League” will take this as a hint to feature her more prominently, instead of shielding her behind two mammoths like Superman and Batman. As Diana, Gal emotes a childlike innocence in a smile that makes it easy to fall in love with her, but equally as devastating with a powerful presence that packs a gripping punch. Above Affleck or Cavill, I can understand clearly what humanity means to her, and her importance with being the face that the people can believe in. I can start to see this actress as Wonder Woman, now I just have to see how the character grows with her time in the real world. Pine has always been a dependable force on the big screen, but here he’s playing accordingly where the movie needs him. He never overtakes or diminishes Gadot’s time to shine, instead offering the perfect circumference of 20th century ignorance and boyish charm to melt the hearts of the ladies in attendance. Steve feels like the kind of character who knew a revolution was coming, and instead of standing in the way of fate, he rides alongside his newfound accomplice, and the two create a kind of box office magic that elevates comic book love stories to a whole other level.

THE VERDICT – “Wonder Woman” lassos a whip of engaging sincerity combined with honest commentary on the very adversities that females face, proving that Jenkins once again can weave a web precision in storytelling with her own sex that very few can follow. D.C’s latest might not be the home run that it needs to fully get back into the game, because of a lackluster third act, as well as underwritten villains, but it does swing for the fences in terms of a pro-feminist direction and overall fun that has rarely ever succeeded quite this WONDERfully. Gadot and Pine are a match for the ages, and their humanity brings depth to a world full of the extraordinary. Move over boys, Diana’s taking over.

8/10

Berlin Syndrome

The impacts of a one night stand prove that sometimes leaving isn’t as easy as opening the door, in the thriller “Berlin Syndrome”. While holidaying in Berlin, Australian photographer, Clare (Teresa Palmer), meets Andi (Max Reimelt), a charismatic local man, and there is an instant attraction and chemistry between them that takes them back to Andi’s apartment. A night of passion ensues between them, but what initially appears to be the start of a blossoming romance, then takes an unexpected and sinister turn when Clare wakes the following morning to discover Andi has left for work and locked her in his apartment without any available methods of escape. An easy mistake to make, of course, so Clare doesn’t initially lose her cool, except Andi has no intention of letting her go again. Ever. “Berlin Syndrome” is directed by Cate Shortland, and is rated R for disturbing violent content, strong sexuality, nudity and some adult language.

As if we needed yet another cautionary tale about how we should never go on vacation alone in a foreign land, along comes “Berlin Syndrome” and re-affirms those beliefs. While the story at surface levels feels rudimentary and even a bit derivative, there are certain alternating measures that screenwriter Shaun Grant takes to deviate this film from those that have depicted the very traumatic experiences within that of the links between being held captive and that of the real-life term known as “Stockholm Syndrome”. These original directions bring out the experimental side to Shortland’s film that embrace this familiar setup in new and entrancing methods. That’s not to say that everything here works. “Berlin Syndrome” inevitably stumbles as it stretches the minimal amount of material that the movie has for all of its entertaining purposes, limiting its emotional resonance in the once suffocating atmospheric tones that now had me feeling as cold and empty midway through the movie as the protagonist in our film.

On the subject of some of those originalities, the narration is surprisingly angled from the perspective more of Andi the captor, rather than that of Clare the victim. This is to be commended because usually this kind of subgenre of film will more times than not leave our villain in the shadows, revealing very little about his motive or his life outside of the box of seclusion that he has inflicted on his prey. The movie shows us that Andi isn’t some unstoppable monster or devastating force. He is very much a human antagonist who has the same kind of wants and needs as that of our protagonist, but goes about getting them in the most unorthodox of methods. What hindered this certain angle in perspective for me was that the film backs away from being about Palmer and this terrific performance that she is emoting, and settles for someone as bland as Andi in narration. If this captor were even remotely fascinating or slightly more developed, I think spending nearly two hours with him wouldn’t feel as much like a chore that it does here, and because of that, so much of the progression in plot stands still. A feeling that becomes evident about halfway through the movie when the pacing feels obviously uneven.

That’s a shame because the first forty minutes or so of this film had me glued to the edge of my seat, preparing me for a cerebral game of chess between the two players that unfortunately rarely surfaced. This is the kind of picture in which we as an audience crave that kind of supremacy in intellect that a favorable female lead can grant us, and even though I mentioned earlier that Palmer’s performance is right on the mark here, so much about her direction and material do her absolutely no favors in making a key ability in her repertoire stand out for her survival. The second half of the film feels like everything is being portrayed in slow motion, and while this could be a reflection of Clare’s life being played out minute-by-minute, it lacks the kind of stimulation in dramatic pull to ever keep us dry through the rains of repetition in her escape attempts. It does pick up in the final twenty minutes of the film, finally getting to the final conflict that we could’ve used thirty minutes earlier. The ending is satisfying enough, even for all of its ploys against predictability.

From a cinematic scope, Cate is certainly a more-than acceptable captain to helm some visionary perspective to this film that would normally be given a conventional spin. The color scheme in particular in the film has a slow robbing effect that drains all of the life out of it from the beginning of the movie to the halfway point, that then turns to bland white and grey coloring to get its point across. This is clearly intentional to mesh with that of Clare’s life, which is now just a shell of what it once was. Cate also embraces a lot of shots that are foggy upon first shot, but then use auto-clear about two seconds into the scene to use the glaring as intentional. The idea here is that Clare’s days are blending together, and one murky day could easily be the same as when she woke up the day before. Because of so reliance on time or dates, this measure in artistic design relays the ideas that this feels like one constant nightmare for Clare that blurs together and never ends.

As mentioned above, Palmer is radiant here, giving away her single greatest performance to date in the young starlet’s career. As Clare, we see the tragedy of a once ambitious youth who learns the hard way that caution is the most important instinct during traveling. Clare’s fragility becomes her lone identifiable trait by the third act of the movie, and it’s a testament to Palmer’s orchestration that she has commanded such a response, despite being in the minority of screen time between her and Reimelt. Speaking of which, Max too is chilling as the antagonist Andi. Because of his human approach, Andi’s unpredictability and cunning deceit is perhaps the most dangerous aspect to his character, and Reimalt’s tip-toeing of subtle paranoia is something that pricks and prods away at us as we learn as much about him on the same speed as that of Clare. Reading the synopsis, it’s easy to know what’s coming, but that doesn’t make Andi’s unchained rage any less menacing. He is ruthless, and Clare finds out over-and-over.

THE VERDICT – “Berlin Syndrome” locks us in a room for nearly two hours with two exceptional performances by its duo of actors that compliment the urgency behind the situation. What will have us scratching at the knob will be the uneven development between the first two acts, whose contrast in fluidity will serve as an obvious step down, as well as the shaky decision to record the antagonist as essentially the main character in this film. Even said, Shortland’s first major step in the public eye is an enigmatic spin about caution that doesn’t require the visceral to taut its gripping European art house vision. Check it out in theaters, but always be careful with the person sitting behind you.

6/10

The Lovers

The impending divorce of a bickering couple could be just what they need to once again be considered ‘The Lovers’. Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, The Lovers is a refreshing, funny look at love, fidelity, and family, starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as a long-married and completely dispassionate husband and wife. Both are in the midst of serious affairs and are increasingly committed to their new adulterous partners. But on the brink of officially calling it quits, a spark between them suddenly and unexpectedly reignites, leading them into an impulsive romance that forces them to navigate the hilarious complications of “cheating” on their once respective lovers. A mixture of humor and powerful emotion, the story is a uniquely honest take on a modern open marriage. The Lovers is rated R for adult sexuality and language.

There’s plenty to be appreciated about Azazel Jacobs and the kind of emotional roller-coaster that his film “The Lovers” takes us on. Considering this is yet again another case where the trailer doesn’t depict anywhere near the kind of pacing or tone that the movie omits, there was enough from what does land in his deconstruction of a marriage to warrant a recommend from this critic. Do not be fooled, this isn’t anywhere close to being a cutesy romantic comedy, and instead speaks to the children-turned-grown-ups who themselves are a product of divorce. To say that there were many times during this film where I felt uneasy and slightly uncomfortable, is an understatement. Jacobs as a director opts for more of the organic sights and sounds surrounding a crippling marriage, instead of trying to create another Hollywood-influenced version of that. It’s commendable for authenticity, but that doesn’t mean it makes the most entertaining of sits, being that this film has more than a few weaknesses that will leave it on the shelf as a one-and-done viewing for the rest of my life.

First of all is the story. It’s refreshing and sometimes even surreal to see how Jacobs sets up his two protagonists on the roads that have led them in opposite directions. As the film begins, this practically feels like a silent picture, circa to the days of Charlie Chaplin, and a lot of that is because of the tension in the room between them that could easily be cut with a knife. There’s little musical accompaniment during this span, and I certainly preferred that as it allowed us to soak up all of the awkward exchanges that happen between them on a daily basis. We find out little about their history as the film goes on, just brief note-drops that help the audience on their own paint a picture that Azazel doesn’t feel is necessary with holding the hands of his viewers. I appreciated this approach, and it leaves the reasoning ambiguous and relatable for the concepts that couples break up for a variety of reasons. I found it funny how similar that their roads to infidelity were from scene-to-scene, but it did feel like a grinding halt each and every time I was ready to move on to the next scene. This is once again signaling the compromise of authenticity for entertainment that a brave director like Jacobs has no problem reaching for, and I think it paid off more times than not in terms of entertaining returns.

This movie also garners the ability to always keep us guessing, despite a trailer that hints at the first of three directions that the third act takes us on. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that our married couple do begin to have feelings for each other again, but it’s certainly not as easy as rolling the credits from there. In fact, I appreciated the durability and tenacity that this film had for pulling the wool over my eyes. Each and every time that I felt I had it pegged, I was surprised yet again, a rare feat considering in 2017 it feels like we have seen everything that the silver screen has to offer. As for the ending itself, I found its original take valuable, even if it feels like fan service at some points. During the third act, it’s clear that any attempts at a comedy are now flushed out the window, in favor of a dramatic pulse that overtakes us to goosebumps. The pacing of these scenes that do run slightly longer than necessary did have me reaching for my watch, but it all picks up by the finale that proved that love takes on so many angles in direction.

As for characters and performances, Letts and Winger toe the difficult task of emoting so much without much narration. This lack of clear direction is sometimes the flaw for the movie, but thankfully the undeniable chemistry between our two leads navigates us through some pretty murky waters midway through the film. There’s never a moment that I despise either of them, despite the fact that they are committing a hurtful deed against the other, but it’s in watching them grow together, as well as apart that makes their reunion that much more of a touching sentiment, because we feel that we have been with them all along. Beyond that, the rest of the material for the actors in the film is a bit limited, wasting very little effort to fully developing their characters. The affairs in question are portrayed by Melora Walters and Aiden Gillen, the latter of whom I am a big fan of. Sadly, the film doesn’t feel the need to make them deeper characters, and that’s unfortunate because I believe that doing so would’ve made the decision that much harder in the end not only for the married couple, but also the audience who could view the supporting characters as something more than “The other lover”. Far and away though, the weak spot of the acting is that of Tyler Ross as the couple’s only child. Listen, I don’t have anything against this guy, but his response is constantly poorly timed and overly-emotional for all of the wrong reasons. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing every time he got angry or stood up to his parents. Considering they are the cheaters here, it’s a testament to how bad Ross is every time I said in my head “Shut up kid, you’re too young to understand anything”.

THE VERDICT – The Lovers pertains two delightfully absorbing performance by that of Letts and Winger, as well as an awkwardly honest portrayal of the tank of love when it’s running near empty. Contrary to another misleading trailer, this is NOT the perfect date movie. This is a sour cautionary tale that elaborates on the concepts of what’s fun is fun and what’s done is done. Jacobs film does sometimes lack the consistency in pacing to keep his audience together as a whole, but as the film proves; you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and The Lovers satisfied just enough in illustrating yet another layer to the idea of a happy ending.

6/10