Breakthrough

Directed By Roxann Dawson

Starring – Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas

The Plot – Based on the inspirational true story of one mother’s unfaltering love in the face of impossible odds. When Joyce Smith’s (Metz) adopted son John (Marcel Ruiz) falls through an icy Missouri lake, all hope seems lost. But as John lies lifeless, Joyce refuses to give up. Her steadfast belief inspires those around her to continue to pray for John’s recovery, even in the face of every case history and scientific prediction.

Rated PG for thematic content including peril

POSITIVES

– Mutual respect. “Breakthrough” is the rare exception in religious exploitation films, where the film states its case and its belief in a greater power, and doesn’t shun the cliche atheist character for their contradicting beliefs. The character in question is played by Luke Cage himself, Mike Coulter, and he’s depicted in a way that not only gives a strong combination of dignity and class to the character, but also never tries to change his beliefs or prove that he’s wrong. It’s a world developed that allows both sides to prosper without unnecessary confrontation, and that element alone allows the movie the kind of rare open arms treatment, where everyone is welcome, regardless of spiritual beliefs or lack there of. It’s one of the only times when a movie like this didn’t judge me or make me feel uncomfortable, and that alone brings it a step above the rest in living out God’s message.

– Soundtrack depth. When the movie begins, we are treated to pop culture toe-tappers like “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, or “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore, and it’s enough eye-opening selections to give the film a rich sense in budget, all the while echoing the cultures of its youths. This of course eventually changes into all spiritual offerings, but the eclectic nature of the genre and composition’s inspire creativity to the conventional hymns that we’ve come to know, and instills a sense of creativity to the movie’s compositions that radiate that fresh appeal, and it allows the music to remain true to itself, all the while catering to a bigger audience based on pop culture familiarity.

– A couple of solid performances. Metz is definitely the breadwinner here, emoting Joyce with no shortage of tears or energy to the command that she has on each situation. The problem is that I detested her character, mainly because the movie hints at a transformation that never comes, but all the same, Metz harvests most of the film’s emotional registry. Likewise, Coulter has a strong on-screen presence that captures the attention in each scene that he’s in, and juggles the biggest conflict of the movie, because his own eyes and ears are failing him on everything that he believed to this point. Topher Grace was also a riot to watch, if only for the facial reactions to the movie’s events, which drew more than a few smiles out of me. In terms of likeability, Topher is the movie’s saving grace, and his hip demeanor in freshening up the old testament is something that this world could use more of.

– Iron production values. While nothing is academy award deserving, it is exceptional in terms of religious movies that sometimes diminish the power of their message with a presentation that looks like it was shot by a high school film class. That simply isn’t the case here, as the neon interiors of the hospital, combined with some breath-stealing scenery of St. Louis, conjure up a visual presentation that confirms a great amount of money was spent in post production, and the editing, while dealing with continuity issues at times, does at least keep the progression of the film smoothly running, to keep us firmly engaged. When you compare “Breakthrough” to a PureFlix movie, you see an immense difference that reminds you how strong a film can be if it has a big studio presence behind it, and it gives us a lot to look at when the film’s plot progression has kind of grinded to a violent halt.

– Big game talents. I was surprised at how much the camera work relied on the skills of the young cast to showcase their basketball skills without manipulating the shot to make them something they’re not. Long take shots offer a balance of choreographed dribbling and long range shot display that came from the hands of the cast themselves, and really impressed me for not only the confidence they display, but the confidence that Dawson has in them to get it right. These are sequences that are such a minimal use of time for the bigger picture, so it would’ve certainly been easy to cut and paste these kids in a way that would fool half of the audience into thinking these kids are something they so obviously are not, but the direction, especially with NBA star Steph Curry serving as a movie producer, commits itself to getting it right, and shows John at work with his finest skill, instead of just telling us.

NEGATIVES

– Predictable. This is the biggest obstacle that the movie faces, as aside from a trailer that gives away nearly everything about this plot, aspects as minimal as lines of dialogue were mimicked by a friend and I, who spoke them seconds before the movie did. It’s expected that the events would be told in completely honest detail, but what’s concerning is how little we learn about the character’s, which could offer some shred of intrigue during the waiting game, which is roughly 80% of this movie. It’s obviously better for people who know less about these true life events, but even then you know there’s only one certain direction that a plot and genre like this can travel, and the fact that “Breakthrough” left me with the ability to telegraph everything scenes before they happen, spoke levels to the entertainment factor of the script, that feels closer to a Wikipedia article for the covering of events.

– Pacing issues. Most of the problems that I discussed directly above this translates to the jagged pacing of the movie, which at nearly two hours feels like a stretch for how much develops during the film. For one, there’s plenty that can be removed with very little impact. Stretched sequences involving throwaway character’s outside of this family, or repetition in scenes that transpire the same way but pivot on character movements, feed into this padding for passage of time that is quite literally that. This movie’s consistency literally did feel like a hospital waiting game at times, and with some more first act exposition before the big splash, the film could ease itself from racing to a red light, which it remains parked at until the final fifteen minutes of the movie.

– Transformation issues. For this movie, there are two character transformations that inspire these character’s to become better people. First is Joyce, an overzealous control freak, whose own insecurities are exposed in the way she devalues those around her. The second is John, as he struggles with feeling the love associated with being adopted. Both of these serve a bigger purpose, but only one of them worked, and it lands in the hands of the person who stays under conscience for most of this movie. Joyce’s supposed transformation didn’t land for me because she isn’t really that different from the person she was before all of this, and even worse, her actions are justified for the sake of John’s progression. She’s a conflicted character who never cures her conflictions, and it says a lot that the kid who doesn’t speak for a huge chunk of this movie attains the things that the film’s central protagonist simply never does.

– Blunders. There were all kinds of errors in believability, continuity, and horrendous line reads that do bring forth some unintentional laughs while watching this. Some of my favorite involve a resuscitation scene where the nurse administering C.P.R is obviously not beating on the chest, nor even doing it on the correct area of the chest for it to work. Likewise during this scene, it’s fairly obvious that John is breathing, especially with the revealing camera angles used, as well as the placing of a tube on his chest, which only makes it easier to detect. This is also one of the worst hospitals in the country apparently, because doctor’s say things like “Think, Gene” to themselves during surgery, or speak negatively in the presence of the boy and mother in their hospital room. If you can get over this believability issue, a musical scene in which students from John’s school sing him to inspiration you simply cannot. The kids are not only singing at a level that would make it difficult to hear from twenty feet away, let alone three floors up on a hospital window that doesn’t open, but it’s even less believable when a piano is heard that simply isn’t there. These are just a few of my favorite things, and don’t reflect the stretches of logic necessary to understand some pretty moronic course of actions that I won’t spoil here.

– Pitiful poignancy. For my money, I could’ve used more discussion aimed at the thought-provoking of its subject matters, that the film slowly steps away from. One such discussion happens late in the film, when a character asks why miracles happen for some people and not the others. Instead of offering up some form of relief for those seeking answers for the awkwardness of the question, the scene uses it as nothing more than a brief hiccup on the way to bigger and better things. If you had no relief in the form of even opinion-based answers, then why bring it up in the first place. This movie is full of solid questions that should be coming from an atheist’s point of view, but the overall lack of energy used to support these queries makes their inclusion feel every bit as temporary as they do pointless. A cop out with no intention of supporting its believers.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Mustang

Directed By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring – Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern

The Plot – Roman (Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an “outdoor maintenance” program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang.

Rated R for adult language, some violence and drug content

POSITIVES

– A wide range of emotional response. Very few films, especially today, have the kind of depth in screenplay that connects with the audience on such a personal level. To this degree, “The Mustang” brought forth, laughter, sadness, anger, and an overall sense of inspiration in me, for what I call the modern day rendering of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ending. If films can invest you in a way that makes you feel one of these emotions, then it’s done a good job at connecting to its audience, but when you have a film touch you in a way that allows your own registry to ride hand-in-hand with those of the character’s, then you have something that transcends the screen, and gives us a sense of the vital importance of connection, even beyond that of a human level.

– The Roman/horse dynamic. When you compare these two lost souls coming together, you discover that they have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both of them are captured and imprisoned in ways that take them away from familiarity. Both are well reserved in their demeanor’s, requiring the bond of the other to open up and invest in something important to feel free again. Likewise, they both come together during a time when the lives surrounding them have crumbled, leaving them leaning on the dependency of the other to get by, and redeem the level of trust that they are both capable of. I also found it interesting how Roman’s engagement with the horse is reflected upon the brief visitation interaction’s that he shares with his daughter. The first one is very well reserved and full of anger, but by the third one he seeks forgiveness and redemption for the missteps taken in his handling of the situation. It’s not accidental that Laure depicts these two living, breathing creatures so closely in movements, and it all leads to the final shots of the film, where I interpret that these two become one almost metaphorically, bringing forth a back-handed triumph in the closing moments that makes sense the more you think about it.

– Heavy-hitting turns. This is easily Schoenaerts single best performance to date, transforming himself physically and personally to becoming this shell of a convict who remains to himself. Matthias’ ability to say so little throughout the movie, yet speak so loudly in facial reactions is something that establishes a line of immersive acting that he hasn’t been saddled with until now, and despite this character being a bit of a terrible person, you engage in him because his eyes are the windows of this tortured soul that is living with a fine combination of grief and regret. It builds to a third act transformation that gives way to him being able to open up the closer he gets to his trusty four-legged companion. In addition to him, it’s always charming to see Bruce Dern’s dry delivery of wit that commands respect if only for its stern enveloping. Young phenom Gideon Adlon is also a revelation, making the most of a few scenes with unabashed anger in streaming tears, that really forces you to turn against our central protagonist. I saw Adlon in last year’s so-so raunchy comedy “Blockers”, but her turn here shows that there’s a lot of fire burning in this furnace, and with any luck in casting, we will see her coals burning for a long time to come.

– Precise editing. The tight cuts are asked to perform a bit more magic in this film, as the movements of the horses are used to manipulate audiences into thinking that we are seeing them naturally attack. This is done with a fine amount of close angles and fluid continuity in pasting different takes together, to make a presentation that puts us front-and-center with Roman, in the heat of the action. Sequences like these almost give us no time to zero in and focus on even the slightest detection of weakness, but we never find it, and it’s all a testament to Clermont-Tonnerre’s hand of magic, where she only allows you to see what you want to see. For her first feature length film, her consistency never shatters, and it makes me want to see what else she can do on a bigger scale production.

– Seeping-in musical score. The somber ingredients dispersed in the film echo such a cold sadness in the presentation of the movie, that it almost feels somewhat reflective of Roman’s interior compass. What’s impressive is patient level of volume used in post production to never overstep its boundaries on the art of the scene itself, and only becoming audibly obvious during scenes of transition, where the echo of hopelessness begins to evaporate. The man behind the callous tones is Jed Kurzel, the same man who scored “The Babadook”, one of my favorite horror films of the decade, and it was his influence that triggered much of the anxiety-ridden nightmare fuel that film had to offer. For “The Mustang”, he’s able to show a much more intimate side than horror can grant, and the confidence in his music to never strike louder than anything in the scene itself, better allows the elements of drama to simmer with the heat in orchestral engagements that he sprinkles each scene with.

– Ruben Impens. One of my favorite cinematographer’s going today is back, and it’s no surprise that his boldly beautiful frames and color filters are the very best thing that this film has to offer. The wide angles that depict the mountainside and endless deserts convey a sense of freedom being so close, yet so far away for Roman. Likewise, the sunbaked effects that reflect in the camera itself, establishes a visual metaphor for his golden opportunity that he simply can’t let slip away. These things prove that a film doesn’t need a blockbuster budget to present these visually breathtaking enchantments, and these elements better channel the mental location of these characters, in a place that feels so isolated from everyone and everything they love.

– Educative and informative. A fine line of poignancy and human commentary persists in the idea of these horses being taken from their habitat, and sold for devilish greed, and the film never shies away from this inescapable feeling of victimizing that it is truly responsible for taking. Beyond this, I appreciate that the film not only gives us the facts with this disgusting poaching, but it also takes the time to teach us the steps in gaining a horse’s trust that other films may overlook. In this regard, we are able to slip into Roman’s shoes that much easier because we are learning things on the same speed that he is, and can’t escape that feeling of uncertainty and fear that smother the initial confrontations. This film not only told me how similar the breeds of human and horse are truly are, it showed it to me, and it proves that even in a 91 minute film, it’s important for audiences to understand how unpredictable their movements truly can be if you make even one wrong move.

– True story. I appreciate that the movie never got lost in the heat of the “Based on a true story” gimmick, and instead reserved itself for the beginning and end of the movie to relay its information. The end even treats us to some real life pictures of the people that the movie is based on, but doesn’t lose itself to fully telling their stories. This may sound a bit insulting to the real life figures, but when you’re not discussing a historical event of tragedy, the people can become shaped in whatever way the script requires them to be, to further enhance the element of surprise, which this movie has a couple of.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary prison subplot. This angle, which distracts from the intimacy of these stirring subplots, feels every bit as tacked-on as it does compromising to the film’s pacing. This angle involving drug trading and race war’s is something that didn’t feel synonymous with something in this particular prison film, and if it was removed completely, the film would trim ten minutes and lose absolutely nothing. It doesn’t hinder the progress of my score as a whole, but these brief hiccups were the only times when “The Mustang” felt like it was trying to be something and cater to a particular subgenre that it absolutely isn’t, and this element of the script simply doesn’t mesh well with its counterparts.

– Missed opportunities. Even if we do find out the “what” and the “how” of Roman’s incarceration, the “why” seems to be a much more important aspect that the movie never fully exploits for compelling drama. There’s a scene of remorse from Roman, where he speaks to his daughter about one faithful night, but the actions of an angry man come and go with so little understanding of the situation, that it almost feels secondary to the environment surrounding it. The father and daughter do confront one another, but for it being the closing shot between them, the resolution left a little more to be desired, and if it wasn’t for an additional closing narration (Which also feels tacked-on), this subplot would leave many audiences missing the finer points of easily the most engaging material that the movie has to offer.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

After

Directed By Jenny Gage

Starring – Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Selma Blair, Josephine Langford

The Plot – Based on Anna Todd’s novel of the same name, the film follows Tessa (Langford), a dedicated student, dutiful daughter and loyal girlfriend to her high school sweetheart, as she enters her first semester in college. Armed with grand ambitions for her future, her guarded world opens up when she meets the dark and mysterious Hardin Scott (Tiffin), a magnetic, brooding rebel who makes her question all she thought she knew about herself and what she wants out of life.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some college partying

POSITIVES

– Perhaps the most surprising thing about “After” is that it is at least technically sound in the presentation department. Soft, subtle lighting cast against beautiful scenery, compliments of cinematographer Adam Silver, and a tight precision in editing, which constantly keeps the flow of the movie moving at comfortable levels, are two of the beneficial aspects that this film indulges in, and proves that style was certainly heavier than substance in this vapid delivery of teenage fan fiction. If anything, the film will perhaps stand as a stepping stone for much bigger works by this production team, which simply feel far too advanced for anything it combines with in this movie that weighs down the law of its returns.

– A hidden narrative. One aspect of the film that is briefly touched upon, but never fully realized, is the sexual awakening of Tessa that springs forth her college curiosity. The aspect of first love’s for young women not living up to everything you expected, will offer strong relatability to the youths that take this film in, and even give them a general outline of what not to do when in that similar situation. In this regard, the film garners just enough responsibility to take Tessa down this road of self-identifying, and in turn carves out just enough ambiguity for beyond-the-screen companions right by her side. Very few films capture the complexity associated with love at such an early age, but “After” tackles it head on, juggling enough social commentary about the dating world along the way to give it substantial reasoning for its existence.

NEGATIVES

– No pulse. As far as modern day romances go, the bond between Harden and Tessa might be the single worst that I’ve seen in terms of chemistry or remote spark that helps convey their attraction. First of all, these are both terrible people in terms of how they treat everyone else around them, the dialogue between them is certainly nothing that makes us the audience feel weak in the knees, and the romantic scenes lack the kind of passion necessary to feel satisfaction in their mutual finding. I can imagine that watching a brother and sister romantically involved couldn’t be far off from what we’re presented, because there’s nothing fun or remotely engaging about two people who the movie wants to log-jam into fitting so perfectly together, yet what transpires in 97 minutes between them couldn’t be any further from the truth.

– Teenage fan fiction doesn’t translate well to the silver screen. For those who don’t know, this story is originally based off of One Direction (Yes, that One Direction) fan-fiction, that was originally switched up to instead depict every day people. As for the film itself, it can’t escape these obvious cliches that make it still feel like it’s being commanded by an adolescent girl. The irrational decisions, the over-abundance of easy listening like The Fray or Avril Lavigne, the barrage of red flags that are casually ignored by our ignorant protagonist, and the way the scenes stay with Tessa 100% of the time. It’s a modern day teenage fantasy that caters to the slimmest of audiences, and the ones it does haven’t lived through the kind of situations depicted to fully understand how maniacal they are.

– The cast. Nobody in the lead cast is redeemable, and what’s even more tragic about this is film veterans like Peter Gallagher or Selma Blair are subjected to such waste. I hate trashing actors who are trying to master their craft, but the reality is Langford and Tiffin wouldn’t be cast as even supporting character’s in a halfway decent film, due to their overall lack of commitment in each line read, as well as the flat emotional registry that lets each scene of connection to the audience slip away. I understand that the roles called for these kids to be introvert’s somewhat, but the complete lack of charisma made each interaction slug along with the kind of performance depth of a Charmin bathroom tissue commercial. Even Christian Grey and Anastasia committed themselves to the ridiculousness of the situation. These two never made the most of their most likely one and only chance.

– Redundancy in character’s. There are too many of the same kind of character personalities in this movie, and what’s even worse is the exposition between the leads could easily be summarized in a Wikipedia plot summary. For Harden, adjectives like “Quiet”, “brutish”, and “Bad Boy” could be inserted, but very rarely a character outline for who you see before you. If I’m not picking on Harden, then it’s Tessa’s cryptic roommate, who is introduced to the film early on, and then rarely tapped into again, and it speaks levels to the problems associated with sticking with two character’s for so long that you often forget that there’s a world that exists beyond them. That complete lack of initiative made it so difficult for me to invest in a single person, and even care remotely for what will become of them.

– Watered down rating. I myself haven’t read the book that this movie is based on, but I did read a material summary that gave me the finer points of the story, and immediately I can say that PG-13 was not the right way to go to remain faithful to the literary origins. The rating is obviously to cater to more younger fans to feed into the profits, but those kind of kids shouldn’t be watching this movie anyway, and the ones who are old enough to are left with deflated content that feels like an after school special, instead of something that is compared to being the teenage version of Fifty Shades of Grey. When you look at that property, you understand that there’s no way it could be done with anything less than an R-rating, and that’s the case here, where vital scenes of sexual interaction are shot so tightly that you don’t properly register the kind of body language that comes with such passion.

– Not even unintentional humor can save us. The best parts of movies like these, often defined as so bad they’re good, is the ability to laugh at the struggle of script and filmmaking incompetence, but there’s never anything in the way of lunacy in the former, or amateur in the latter, and it makes the sit that much more intolerable because of it. What’s left is a vacuum of entertainment-sucking where even unintentional humor wipes away the sands of therapeutic cinema for relief. “After” is one of the worst films of 2019 in this regard, and if there’s much more like this, it will be a bleak year of pretentious filmmaking that inspires a new generation.

– Padding out time. I mentioned earlier that the pacing is acceptable enough because of the on-the-nose editing that remains consistent, but 97 minutes for a movie with this much repetition in musical montages or date montages between our two leads, makes me feel like fifteen minutes could’ve easily been trimmed from this movie to not make it feel so obvious in reaching a time destination. To remain at 97 minutes, perhaps more character development, or a bonding of relationships outside of our two lovebird protagonists to up the stakes once the conflict’s start could’ve offered a satisfaction of variety that could’ve also done wonders for spicing up what is otherwise 80% a mundane screenplay. For my money, these two meet and fall in love far too quickly in the film, and I feel like more restraint could’ve better planned for those eventual third act twists that take a lifetime to arrive.

– Speaking of which, the curiosity that I had with about a half hour left did present a fine line of interest as to what kind of direction this story is headed, but sadly I was letdown by the film’s flimsy final message and closing sequences that had my eyes hurting from rolling so much. Without spoiling anything, this film could’ve had so much fun with Harden’s character, in how he responds to the foundation’s in his life that are crumbling around him, but the twist comes and goes, feeling every bit as inconsequential if two people could sit down and talk, as it does contradictory with the film’s closing moments. What’s even more frustrating is there is a push for a sequel, which will inevitably go unfulfilled, but leaves the ending of this film feeling anti-climatic because of final imagery that leans one particular way.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

The Aftermath

Directed By James Kent

Starring – Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard, Jason Clarke

The Plot – Set in postwar Germany in 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) arrives in the ruins of Hamburg in the bitter winter, to be reunited with her husband Lewis (Clarke), a British colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city. But as they set off for their new home, Rachael is stunned to discover that Lewis has made an unexpected decision: They will be sharing the grand house with its previous owners, a German widower (Skarsgård) and his troubled daughter. In this charged atmosphere, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal.

Rated R for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images

POSITIVES

– Strong ensemble. Knightley continues to shine under tremendous pressure, channeling a combination of loneliness and longing that gives much of her character arc the emphasis of urgency. Likewise, her tremendous chemistry with Skarsgard is unavoidable, blazing a trail of obviousness between them that grows shorter with each intense interaction. What truly amazed me however, was Clarke giving arguably his single best performance to date. Kent’s direction here should be applauded, because he brings emotional heft to Jason in ways that no other director has to this point, and we’re rewarded with a third act collapse that has him confronting the demons from his past in ways that is every bit unsettling as it is effective to us the audience. This trio combats some glaring holes in material that make you question the moral fiber of their characters, and are each a delight to watch for how the war has shaped each of them in noticeably different effects.

– Gorgeous cinematography by Franz Lustig. Being a product of Germany himself better prepares Lustig for the style in scope that he delivers in each valued frame, indulging us the audience to immersive establishing shots of breathtaking scenery, as well as intimacy in scenes of passion that glow before our eyes. On the latter, this is something that a movie like “Fifty Shades of Grey” should take notes on, because the love is not only believable, but intense because of the limited window that we are given, which for better or worse, makes us feel a part of the scene with them. On the former, the snowy countryside of Germany feeds much into the circumstances establish by this cold, damp marriage on the rocks, as well as establishing this inescapable feeling of defeat in the air that shapes much of the mentalities from the movie’s various personalities.

– Originality in the war genre. We get a war film once every season, but it’s rare to be presented with the unique opportunity to see the effects from the cause, especially in the case of a once powerful faction like the Axis Powers, which would’ve re-shaped the world. What’s commendable about what “The Aftermath” does, is it explores the shade of grey between good and evil that both sides possessed, and takes valuable time in teaching us that very honorable people like the ones we’ve been believed to have, are also present on enemy lines. It’s not afraid to explore the side of conscience from people we’re not used to delving deep into, and conveys that no one really wins when the smoke of devastation clears.

– Atmosphere put to music. Composer Martin Phipps instills a combination of violin and piano that better triggers the tragedy in the air that binds people of two entirely complex sides together, and it makes for an overall musical score that plays wonderfully synonymous with the highs and lows of this arrangement. I usually don’t go for the classical side of compositions, but when you have a depicted era that calls for it, anything else would alienate these scenes of passion and tragedy with great underscoring on the pulse. Phipps’ work here is also every bit as absorbing as it is adaptive for Rachael’s newly-lit fire that burns for the first time in a long time, presenting us with an audio commentary of sorts for the ball of uncertainty that resides within her, and it’s never obvious or leading, remaining tasteful with its distance between the audience and the film they are engaged in.

NEGATIVES

– Distracted. The biggest problem with the romantic triangle plot is that it often feels like a subplot in a movie that centers around it. There are no fewer than three other on-going narratives taking place simultaneously, and it renders the material that everyone came to see limited in its appeal to further develop the characters and blossoming romance effectively. The additional stories are certainly nothing that I would waste an ample amount of time with, and to be honest, if they were cut all together, it would only create more lasting positives to the attention needed to render the plot more impactful than what we’re left with. Because of such, the thrills of the seduction feel lukewarm, and never provide anything of substance to override the overly-telegraphed movements that we’ve seen in literally any other film about cheating spouses.

– Unlikeable leads. Is it wrong that I related to Jason Clarke’s character the most? I detested Keira Knightley’s character, and no, not because I’m a white male who constantly blames the woman. In this case, the woman is in the wrong, balancing a life of complaining about her husband’s absence to protect the citizens of this country in favor of putting together a rich dinner party for friends, as well as her noticeable prejudice towards German’s that does her no favors in the empathy department. If this wasn’t enough, she cheats on Clarke, and we’re supposed to understand why because of what I previously mentioned and sudden character shifts that come out of nowhere. For instance, Clarke’s character is caring and supportive of German’s who he views as “Victims” in the first act, but then grows to feel inaffectionate when the story requires him to, at the drop of a hat. Skarsgard, not to be outdone, mentions that his daughter is his whole world, yet only spends time with her in the presence of Knightley, and doesn’t have a clue about her going off to join a radical Nazi group plotting to seek revenge. With character’s like these, who needs enema’s?

– Uneven pacing. This is a 104 minute movie, and a majority of the first half of that runtime moves at a snail’s pace of development. When you truly think about it, we as an audience stand in place for roughly the first forty minutes of this film, refusing to plan for future direction’s that pop-up with very little notice. It stays this way until the final forty minutes of the film, when I guess the movie realizes it has built very little inside of this triangle, and decides to get busy with a virtual machine-gun of exposition that almost feels like a different director as a whole is at the controls of. The good news is I was never bored with “The Aftermath”, the bad news is the undercooked dramatic elements never materialized to leave me anywhere near fully invested into what was transpiring.

– Too many cornball cliches. I mentioned earlier that this is typical cab fare for anyone who has seen a Lifetime or Cinemax movie in the last twenty years, but the real tools of tantalizing are so obvious that they craft an inescapable laugh. Let’s go through the list: Shacking up with a hot stranger, each of them has what the other is lacking, husband leaves wife alone with good looking guy for long period of time, film doesn’t condemn or shame cheating couple for their romantic tryst. There’s plenty more, but I’m seriously getting carpel-tunnel typing them out, and if it hasn’t already been proven, this movie goes where plenty of films went before it, leaving nothing in the way of originality or surprises to make it memorable for longer than ten minutes after seeing it.

– It’s a personal nag for me when the movie declares twice that the citizens forced to go against their will to join the Nazi party was worse than the thousands that lost their lives in England attack bombings. No film should ever be about weighing the devastation of two completely different subjects, but “The Aftermath” does this without hesitation, offering a layer of social opinion that doesn’t reflect the film in ways that are complimentary. Just stating the facts is more than enough to lay the impact at the feet of uneducated audiences, but this necessity to compare is something that is insensitive to anyone who was unfortunate enough to be alive during such a dark and scary time for the world’s bleak future.

– No pay-off to the conflict. To say that the ending was underwhelming is being nice. The film’s resolution comes and goes without any long-winded speeches, without any tearful confessions, and without anything that even remotely resembles the impact promised from such a tense and finely edited trailer. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the closing scenes are not only padded for extra time, but also nonsensical when you consider where we started and ended with this pivotal scene, and will lead to audiences either feeling disappointed because of what was teased the whole way, or defeated from the waste of time that everything took to get to this point. What’s more concerning is that the loser in this triangle doesn’t feel remotely affected by it, and it stands as the lone scene where the audience and character’s are on the same page, with neither feeling impacted by where we conclude.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

The Best of Enemies

Directed By Robin Bissell

Starring – Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Wes Bentley

The Plot – Based on a true story, the film centers on the unlikely relationship between Ann Atwater (Henson), an outspoken civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis (Rockwell), a local Ku Klux Klan leader who reluctantly co-chaired a community summit, battling over the desegregation of schools in Durham, North Carolina during the racially-charged summer of 1971. The incredible events that unfolded would change Durham and the lives of Atwater and Ellis forever.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference

POSITIVES

– Eye for detail. With an on-going story that is based entirely during the early 70’s, Bissell’s finest quality as a director is the attention she channels in generating the proper aesthetics. Beyond articulating the heat of the sunbaked temperature, which vibrantly reflects that of the underbelly of tension by a group refusing to change with the times, the film also uses its budget for wardrobe and automobile choices that were literally ripped from 70’s pop culture. What’s important is that nothing feels out of place or remotely counterfeit to where it’s plucked and placed, and this makes the story setting transition feel that much more fruitfully realized, keeping with the consistency of recollection that is out of this world in terms of its depiction.

– Charismatic performances. While the casting of Henson and Rockwell is a bit too gracious in terms of visual likeness to their real life counterparts, the duo do a magnificent job in juggling the complexities that each battle in the face of change. For Rockwell, the transformation is obvious: we have the leader of a racist organization, whose ignorance is eventually silenced the more he learns that color is merely only that, and that these are real people who he’s hurting. Rockwell maintains the air of energy associated with his comedic roles, all the while combining it with the dramatic pulse for long-winded speech deliveries that have made him a sought-after commodity. Henson herself has a flare for the dramatic, instilling a personality in Ann that brings the elements of bravery and resiliency to the forefront. The film thrives the most when the duo are on-screen together, but the ever-changing complexion to the way they view each other is better documented during scenes of isolation, and it establishes a twinkle of magic between two Hollywood heavyweights that each bring the thunder for such an important story, especially to a world still dealing with racial inequalities.

– Simmering soundtrack. Music plays such a pivotal role to the very pulse of the events that transpire in the script, and each insertion of audible familiarity is deposited without so much as an ounce of topical or obvious nature, that often take away the message of its inclusion. Roy Orbison, Al Green, and my personal favorite: Bill Withers are just a few of the names that play against what feels like such a lawless and evocative setting, and it adds a layer of depth and nuanced intensity to the tonal inconsistencies, which can sometimes feel overwhelming in the heart of the material. Setting a film in the south during a 70’s can be daring in what it’s trying to depict, but if it gives us one more chance to soak of that Southern sizzle of collective song stimulation, then I will be in every single time.

– Surprises within the screenplay. Some things that I commend this film for is in the touches of originality that left me appreciating as so much more than a two person show. For one, the supporting cast themselves are anything but one-dimensional characters, and the over two hour runtime gives more than enough opportunity for each of them to breakout of the subdued shadow that supporting roles can sometimes force. Two such actors, Babou Ceesay and Gilbert Glenn Brown, stole the show for me, breathing these articulate, open-minded people, who provide a sense of social commentary for each respective side of the color spectrum. Also, the necessity to include Ann’s flawed moral compass is another aspect that I give the film great respect for. It would be easy to focus solely on C.P., and what needs to change from within him, but Ann is someone whose darkest adversity has also rubbed off on her, and it’s led to a female protagonist who battles just as many demons as her white male adversary. Race subgenre films are usually one note when it comes to who leads and who follows, but “The Best of Enemies” reminds us of the condemning similarities that bind them.

– Strength in adversity. After a movie like “Green Book” taking Best Picture honors last year for feeling a bit too shielded of its material, it’s nice to see a film like this come along and remind us that the sweetest rewards of unity are only fully realized from the deepest conflicts, and it gives the story that much more of an urgency from within, because this town could literally burn to the ground at any moment. For my money, films depicting racism should always offer a gut-punch to audiences that endure them, and while “The Best of Enemies” isn’t a knock-out blow in this regard, it leaves enough damage on the complexion of audience feelings to leave you feeling stimulated by it, long after you leave the theater. For a PG-13 movie, there are scenes of daring nature, and it doesn’t balk whenever it starts to feel the weight of its daring impact.

– Insightful post credit offerings. If you’re seeing this film, definitely stay in your seats for the film’s epilogue, which includes footage taken from real life interviews between C.P and Ann that better paint the vibes in friendship that the film otherwise stops too early to fully realize. What’s so effective about these vital inserts is that the air of rivalry from between them didn’t die, even all the way to both of their final days on Earth. In particular, there’s a scene of the two dancing that reaches back into the arms of time, and allows the two aging figures on-screen to emulate their youthful strides for even one more minute, and it’s proof that the memory of these two touched so many people, yet it was the work that they did on each other that carved out two monumental figures with racial integration in Southern schools.

NEGATIVES

– Dry spots. The first hour of this film was a bit of a challenge to get through for me, not because of the pacing of the film, mind you, but because outside of C.P’s introduction, we go so long without a flare for the dramatic in the pulse of this story. It almost gives a sense of what’s transpiring outside of this group is less important to the context of the story, only to be put on pause until the film absolutely requires it. Thankfully, the final forty minutes of the film is easily the highlight for me, but it’s such a task in getting there that some might turn back before making the upward climb through 128 minutes of dialogue driven material.

– Convenient and manipulative plot device. C.P Ellis did in fact have a mentally handicap son, who lived his life in a group home, but my problem is more with how this tier is included into the film, making it feel every bit as predictable as it is assisting. On that second adjective, I mean that the film only cuts to it when it needs reason to tie clunky storytelling together. Likewise, this subplot is the breath of air that the film gives us to never completely hate Rockwell’s character, allowing him enough wiggle room to get out of the ties that he binds himself in early during a disgusting scene that tests your first impression of him. What’s so obvious is that his son is brought into the fold in the immediately next scene after this introduction, making me roll my eyes because I knew that this kid was only going to be called upon for the meandering.

– Technical issues. While not the biggest of blunders here, the editing to me felt a bit too strained, as well as yearning for the two hour plus runtime that would otherwise be unnecessary. Anyone who knows me, knows I love long-take sequences in a film, but here their only intention is to halt the audience from looking away from a facial reaction (Particularly from Henson) after engaging in something humbling for her character. There are honorable intentions in this kind of visual creativity, but the reaching scenes never pull anything of depth for the performances themselves, and as a result, we’re left with with sequences that feel a bit delayed in their transition, instead of converging in one fluid movement that solidifies consistency.

– Tonal inconsistencies. I feel weird asking if a film about racism is a comedy, but the first half of this film plays its terrible events with a sense of ironic dark humor that is confirmed in the gleeful musical score and lively line delivery that could’ve definitely used another take. On a whole, the tone of the film never blends together as one cohesive unit, often feeling like a film of two halves, where each of them blend about as well as a train-wreck approaching each other at full force. In my opinion, the film should’ve remained faithful to being a drama. The humor itself never worked for me, and only adds confusion to scenes and sequences that are anything but humorous.

My Grade: 6/10 or C+

Hotel Mumbai

Directed By Anthony Maras

Starring – Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi

The Plot – A gripping true story of humanity and heroism, the film vividly recounts the 2008 siege of the famed Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists in Mumbai, India. Among the dedicated hotel staff is the renowned chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and a waiter (Patel) who choose to risk their lives to protect their guests. As the world watches on, a desperate couple (Hammer, Boniadi) are forced to make unthinkable sacrifices to protect their newborn child.

Rated R for disturbing violence throughout, bloody images, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Picture perfect documentation of the real life events. There are many different variations of heroes in this story, and the movie’s dedication in taking time to cover every end of the respective spectrum from this hellish nightmare is something that I commend Maras’ style of filmmaking greatly for. In addition to following our big name actors throughout this hotel, the film brings along no fewer than ten other pivotal characters, each with their own obstacle to face as a result of this terrorist group, and all of which inbedded with extreme engaging qualities from personality to heart that makes each of their tiers to this story feel vitally important. Most movies can’t carve out two interesting characters, but “Hotel Mumbai” brings for the single best ensemble that I’ve experienced so far this year. In addition to this, the film is obviously based on real life, so the predictable factor and endless cliches are thrown out the window in favor of finely tuned vulnerability all around, and it further elaborates that the less you know about this story, the better it will be for your indulgence in its unraveling.

– Versatile shot composition. The deviation from handheld to still frame is something that normally feels uncanny to me in the worst kind of way, but here it utilizes and stitches together both aspects fruitfully, thanks to pacing in photography that never overstays the benefits of either. The unnerving angles and sequencing add strong anxiety to the movie’s developments, crafting a sort of mouse maze within this hotel, in which two sides of the moral compass are heading down two different hallways that will eventually meet up, and only us the audience see the future on this inevitable confrontation. It tiptoes on this trepidation repeatedly throughout, and never grows stale or repetitive because the heartbeat of the action remains firmly gripped with what’s transpiring.

– Sizzling social commentary. Beyond the night’s mental tug-of-war that keeps each guest and employee on their toes, the inclusion of racism in the form of spiritual symbolism in clothing is something that I appreciated the screenplay greatly for, in its ability to turn the mirror of reflection against us, the very same people who displayed it towards the innocent after 9/11. This side thread is really just that: A momentary hiccup in the film’s much bigger picture, but its mere mention offers a poignant open door that helps us further realize what the victims deal with on a daily basis, which only provides yet another obstacle for them to contend with in their lives. I commend any film that takes valued minutes to try to carve out a better and more conjoined world, and it reminds us of the valued connection that movies can serve if we only stop to listen at what’s being said.

– A unique approach. I’ve always said that the best kind of antagonist is one whose intentions are clearly defined and given ample time to comprehend for us the audience. That couldn’t be more true here, as the film’s opening five minutes begin by following this terrorist group to India, as they prepare for the dangerous mission that awaits them. They all know that death is inevitable, yet because of everything they feel they’ve had robbed from them by supposed money hungry corporations and business time greed, we see the line of visibility in understanding. We are put in their shoes: hearing the message of hate from an unforeseen leader, and seeing what clues only further allude to such preaching by him. In a strange sense, the group themselves are the main character’s of the movie, and this mindset goes a long way in understanding the who as well as the why in a way that other films aren’t brave enough to capitalize on.

– Transcendence of film. A special touch that blends the worlds of real life and film seamlessly is the use of real life footage taken from the unfolding scene itself, which constantly reminds us that there’s a world much darker than the one that takes place in that magical realm of fantasy. The combination of news broadcasts and cell phone footage helps rivet these impactful scenes exceptionally so much more than actors and convenient editing ever could, and the choice to include chronologically with the transpiring film speaks volumes to such a tragic event holding such a place with the world that even 11 years later hasn’t been forgotten.

– Hard-R material. The violence is certainly there, even with the gunshots taking place with a wide angle lens, but the coveted rating does more for the dialogue and enhancement of the personalities in terms of distinguishing each character’s respective demeanor with the crippling drama that surrounds them. Jason Isaacs character is probably my personal favorite because of it. Here’s a guy who coerces prostitutes in the most charmless of methods, as well as insults hotel patrons unapologetically, and it humanizes the interaction aspect between these people much clearer and synthetically than a lesser rating more than likely would allow. Likewise, the make-up work gets a lot of time to shine, garnering enough wounds and dislocations to document the effect after the cause. This is the best kind of way to harbor an R-rating, and it cements the thought of how much weaker its devastating punch would be if it were taken down a letter or two.

– Technical achievements. The cinematography by Nick Remy Matthews is every bit as gritty as it is suffocating, emitting that overall dirty feeling of needing to take a shower after seeing it. Likewise, the tight angles and claustrophobic compositions speak volumes to the confines of the hotel patrons limited spots of relief from their pursuers. Finally, the editing is precise, keeping the consistency in entertaining pacing of each scene firmly gripped through two hours of pulse-setting action and conflict that constantly helps elevate the redundancy in material. I went into this film dreading it because of the questionable run time that I didn’t think possibly matched what transpired at the scene, but each scene included holds valued significance to the integrity of the victims, and brings forth the single easiest two hour sit that I’ve had in years.

– Featured players. It’s great to see Hammer and Patel again, as they’ve become two of my more sought after actors for the variety in projects they attack with two prestigious careers. Hammer is once again given a chance to play an action role, but this one really sees him commanding more of the Bruce Willis vibes involved with rescuing family and outsmarting terrorists that the story treats him to, while Patel juggles enough heart and nuance to establish himself as the glue that holds the story and group together. Without question though, the breakout is Tilda Cobham-Hervey as the babysitter of sorts for Hammer and Boniadi’s child. She doesn’t have a major role in the script, but the emotional stratosphere of this woman is something that simply cannot be ignored, displaying a command of endless tears and shook demeanor that truly echoes the effects of this invasion. Her more than anyone articulately taps in to the victim mentality, and it’s something that provided a roller-coaster of range that frequently covered my arms in goosebumps.

NEGATIVES

– Contrast to originality. I mentioned earlier that the film focuses primarily on that of the antagonists, and one backlash from this different style of following comes from the protagonists feeling so brutally underwritten that other than the tragedy itself, you find it difficult to indulge in any of their characters. When you really think about what you’ve learned from each of them, you come to understand that exposition in each of them before they ran into the hotel is deemed unimportant, and it’s a big mistake, as I feel that focus is needed to better draw out the drama in some of their untimely passing. Without it, the ambiguous victims in the film don’t fully realize the intended reaction required to sell the weight in consequences, unfortunately leaving over one hundred victims left without a character outline.

– Of the three films covering this touchy subject matter, “Hotel Mumbai” is the one that covers the most ground, yet ironically is the most assuming of the trio. What’s dangerous about this is it blurs the line creatively as to what’s legitimate and what’s speculation, forcing me to dig a little deeper if I want to disprove what is created just for the sake of the screen. I understand that there’s really no way to solidify the complete spectrum of events that took place with something behind closed doors, but I wish a film wouldn’t try as forcefully to force what doesn’t fit. In this exception, plot holes are appropriate, because I’d rather not tread where eyes and ears haven’t, if it means respect to those unable to speak.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Dumbo

Directed By Tim Burton

Starring – Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton

The Plot – Holt (Farrell) was once a circus star, but he went off to war and when he returned it had terribly altered him. Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) hires him to take care of Dumbo, a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him the laughing stock of the struggling circus troupe. But when Holt’s children discover that Dumbo can fly, silver-tongued entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Keaton), and aerial artist Colette Marchant (Green) swoop in to make the little elephant a star.

Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild adult language

POSITIVES

– Just enough deviation. For my money, there’s a strong combination between the familiarity of scenes from the original animated property, as well as a healthy helping of experimentation with the gut-punch of the source material, that allows the film enough balance to prosper without playing it safe and conventional, as Disney often does with these live actions remakes. What surprised me most is the focus and unapologetic attention rendered to animal abuse, especially under that of a business model, which allowed the script to master some of its finer dramatic elements, in turn transcending itself from the safety net of feeling like a Disney movie. Part of that is on Burton’s gritty surface level temperature, which at times does push towards a PG-13 direction of harsh realities, but swings itself back around for more of the fantastical imagery needed to transfix the youthful audience.

– The complex case of Ben Davis. As a cinematographer, Davis is a mixed bag. After the bland presentation that was “Captain Marvel”, he redeems himself here, getting lost in a Burton-esque world, complete with weathered color design and the vibrancy of the circus, which transfixes and serves as an ode to fantasy visuals. The glowing of radiant lights surround our characters, giving the setting a surreal feel of the attention they command over the army of eyes ready to be dazzled, and placing these familiar faces in cast in a place and time far from anything they’ve ever been a part of. Whether Burton opened up the mind to expand Ben’s creativity, is a question we’ll never know the answer to, but one thing remains certain: he has a visual encompass that perfectly captures the radiance and imagination that lives and breathes in this palace of outcasts, and with such an echoing ambiance, we too are delighted to be a part of it.

– Superb visual effects. While not perfect in its movements during scenes of flight for its title character, I can say that the illustrations and aesthetics associated with the film do master not only a believable quality to the color and shapes of its animals, but also a heavy one with the way its manufactured properties interact with the sets surrounding them. In my opinion, it’s the details in attention to Dumbo, complete with wrinkled skin texture and baby blue eyes as big as oceans, that take the cake, and blend synthetically with the grade in visual cinematography that I previously mentioned above. Nothing ever feels counterfeit or out of place to the integrity of each frame, and masters a visual immersion that is second only to 2016’s “The Jungle Book” in terms of spell-binding accuracy.

– Elaborate set designs. Where does one start with the single best aspect of the movie? Perhaps in the intimate atmosphere of the small-stage circus, complete with man-made posters and signs, giving it that cult-like quality of better days being behind this family troop. Or maybe it’s the collision of present and future in the devil’s nest known as “Dreamworld”, garnering no shortage of stadium lighting, ride attractions, and the promise of science to hook its curious minds. Every prop or gimmick in the film holds immense weight to the complexion between two completely different settings, and this allows us the audience to be visually seduced by the pageantry of it all, in the same way that these performers thirsty for a chance are embracing for the first time ever. Instead of telling us what makes these places so different, Burton shows us, and it’s in that immense size where we understand the disposition of being seduced by greed, regardless of who gets hurt along the way.

– Burton brings his posse. What’s unique about this film is that it not only brings forth some of Burton’s most favorite alum, but it also treats us to a reunion of one of his most legendary films: “Batman Returns”. I couldn’t get enough of seeing Danny Devito and Keaton interacting, albeit in reverse protagonist and antagonist roles from their previous engagement, but there’s definitely a winner between them. Keaton easily steals the show from the rest of the gifted ensemble, chewing up enough scenery with a hokey inconsistent accent and relish for the fame, which make this role unlike anything we’ve ever seen from the decades-old performer. If Keaton has one adversary in scene-stealing however, it’s definitely from 14-year-old Nico Parker, who herself comes from acting royalty being the daughter of Thandie Newton. Parker has the childlike innocence in facial resonation, but it’s really the sass that boils just below the surface that made her endearing to the cause, and made her so vital to Dumbo’s development as a stage act throughout the movie. In fact, the film knows this so much that it focuses repeatedly on her, and nearly forgets about her on-screen brother (Played by Finley Hobbins).

– Perfectly paced. At 104 minutes, “Dumbo” is more than double the screen time of its animated predecessor, so immediately you know that plenty is going to be added to the story and subplots associated with the film, and thankfully I can say that all of it works in a way that never dulls or sags with the movement of the material. For a movie that thrives on redundancy, in that we’re seeing a lot of these scenes repeated to perfect the act of the flying elephant, there’s a surprisingly increased interest with each passing scene because the stakes are being constantly raised, not only for our big-eared protagonist, but also for the family that have taken him in to this point. It, as well as the fact that the entire second half of this movie is new material for the Dumbo folklore, gives the film strong urgency and uncertainty for where the story is headed, and despite its desire to repeat so much of what comes and goes, there’s not a single sequence during the film that I would change to fan dwindling interest. I was glued to my seat throughout this film, and that isn’t easy to do with someone like me who doesn’t support Disney live action remakes.

NEGATIVES

– An unwanted guest. Legendary ring announcer Michael Buffer makes two surprise appearances in the film, and you can pretty much guess what his involvement is here, as well as what line he mutters that made me completely want to punch a wall for how it broke my immersion into the film. I compare it a lot to 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” when rap music is being played throughout the film, despite the fact that this is taking place in 1922, when rap genre music wasn’t even a glint in the beatboxer who developed it. Buffer’s involvement in this film is every bit as cringey as it is unnecessary to the integrity of the time period and the consistency of the movie’s tone, and it reeks of desperation in the worst way possible.

– Lack of human character development. There’s so many scattered plot threads introduced early on in the film that are never followed upon or elaborated further with for the integrity of depth needed for the people whose names aren’t in the title. Dumbo is Dumbo. He will be alright regardless of what we learn about him, but it’s really those other pivotal leads who are never given the light of day to enhance your interest into them, particularly that of Colin Farrell’s wartime hero, who goes virtually unnoticed during the climax of this movie, minus climbing a stadium sized building along the side of it with one freaking arm, and without any sweat or conflict what so ever. I wish this film wasn’t afraid to dig a little deeper with the people we spend the most time with, and as it stands we learn more about a character who doesn’t talk than people who can’t shut up.

– Ruining a solid musical score. Legendary composer Danny Elfman pens one of his most emotionally stirring scores in quite some time, bringing along compositions that impact important scenes, just not in the way I was positively hoping. The music elevates the scenes, but it’s done in such a way that is mixed far too loud in each scene of inclusion, making it stand out as more of a distraction rather than a necessary inclusion, and it takes something that should feel inspirational, and instead brings out the emphasis in meandering from the audience what they are supposed to be feeling. Elfman brings the lightning, but the deafening delve of its level of incorporation is the thunder that unnecessarily shakes.

– Disappearing antagonists. One of my favorite clichés from movies is when a bad guy character will disappear in favor of a bigger, badder character, and that’s totally the case here, as a throwaway character during the first act, who says some of the most ridiculous lines to children that I’ve ever heard, practically vanishes once Vandevere’s character is brought to the forefront. Think of it as the movie’s inability to build two of the same characters simultaneously, but I think it’s a testament to just how unnecessary this prior antagonist feels, especially when you consider that he exists in an environment where everyone else interacts so positively.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Gloria Bell

Directed By Sebastian Lelio

Starring – Julianne Moore, Alanna Ubach, John Turturro

The Plot – Gloria (Moore) is a free-spirited divorcée who spends her days at a straight-laced office job and her nights on the dance floor, joyfully letting loose at clubs around Los Angeles. After meeting Arnold (Turturro) on a night out, she finds herself thrust into an unexpected new romance, filled with both the joys of budding love and the complications of dating, identity and family.

Rated R for sexuality, nudity, adult language and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Pulse-setting cinematography. At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that a woman is doing a woman’s work behind the lens, as cinematographer Natasha Braier gives a consistency of life and energy to the photography of the picture, that beats with each passing second entrancingly. The club scenes, complete with absorbing neon lighting and handheld style of the camera, echo the authenticity in style and flare for the singles scene, that really bring newfound life and appreciation to the visual chances that Lelio took more in this film than the 2011 original of the same name, and it balances a capable consistency with the soft, comfortable color textures during scenes of isolation and self-reflection. It made for an overall presentation that helped fight off some of the anxiety inducing scenes of character interaction with a comfortable medium between soft and vibrancy.

– Articulate musical injections. First of all, credit to the soundtrack director Matthew Herbert for putting together a collective group of 70’s and 80’s artists like Bonnie Tyler, Olivia Newton John, and obviously Laura Branigan’s empowering ballad “Gloria”, that are perfect in acting as a sort of audible conscious to the character that springs creativity. Aside from that however, it’s the placement of the music itself that feels every bit as authentic as it does timely. What I mean by this is that the music support never feels obvious or desperate in a way that waters down the effect of such in that particular film. Instead, the tracks here come at the absolute perfect time, and border the casualty of crossing over to a musical genre for a few seconds, albeit if you ever seek the ability to sing karaoke with Julianne Moore.

– Lack of narration. I couldn’t commend this movie more than for its choice to leave these scenes of honesty and truth untouched, allowing the audience themselves the power to not feel distracted while soaking in the awkwardness of the environment. Films use audible narration to further express a character for audiences who might not interpret things on their own, but Sebastian’s interactions never allows you the ability to look away or feel remotely distanced, therefore it leaves there being no point to counterfeit the authenticity of the engagement. All of Gloria’s emotions are on full display here, and to dig any further would only make the screenplay feel desperate to push a particular narrative.

– Realistic in its depiction of middle aged dating and family dynamics. There were moments during the film when I felt truly anxious to escape a particular scene and group of characters, and that intended design gives the material an edge of honesty that we in the single world can fully embrace and identify with, all the while giving way to this romance that is anything but conventionally blossoming. From the very second that Gloria and Arnold meet, it goes down a path of rapid advancement, unforeseen complications, and about as many make-up and break-ups of a 90’s soap opera. This gives the duo’s relationship a series of rise and falls that better articulate the movements of modern dating in ways that very few other films captivate on, and it gave the film extreme relatability for a 34 year old like me, who couldn’t be further from Gloria’s desired demographic.

– The symbolism of Los Angeles versus Las Vegas. It’s interesting to comprehend Sebastian’s depiction of two vastly different cities and what they each represent in Gloria’s entanglement of emptiness in order to fill a void. In L.A, we not only get a lot of energy from a soundtrack that feels synonymous with the beats of Gloria’s every day routine, but a maintained demeanor from her that keeps her guarded at all time. In Vegas, it’s entirely different, as Gloria is every bit as reckless as she is ambiguous to the woman we’ve come to know from the prior city. Likewise, the musical score brings with it a sense of modern day techno music that feels so far out of Gloria’s comfort level, and even shows in the way she dances awkwardly and so unaware to it. This is one of those visual storytelling metaphors that better help distinguish the confidence and security of the character, and only supplants more food for thought in the ages old comparison of the city of angels to that of sin city.

NEGATIVES

– Dry pacing. The story sequencing and lack of dramatic impact made for such an insurmountable toll on the overall pacing of the film, and took an average 97 minute run time and made it feel like twice of that. This is more prominent than ever during the first two acts, in which the first is rapid fire developments, while the second feels like the longest funeral ever for the dearly departed drama, that is virtually non-existent in this film. There have definitely been worse films than “Gloria Bell” this year, but none that have left me as bored as this one did, and it’s easily the biggest obstacle that audience will face when seeing it. Speaking of which, two middle aged people walked out midway through our showing.

– Romantic disinterest. Besides the stilted dialogue, which does no favors for Moore or Turturro’s complete void of romantic chemistry, the total lack of characterization makes the two leads feel like mindless drones who fight for a single reason to seem interesting to us the audience. The line reads in this film are as good as they could possibly be from actors who give a look of lunacy at their romantic counterpart in speaking them aloud, and if it wasn’t for the blessing of being able to laugh at lines so immature and incompetent of conveying human feelings, I would’ve probably taken away two points for the pounding that my ears took in hearing them. This is “Twilight” levels of sweet. YUCK!!!

– Completely unnecessary R-rating. I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw that this film was given the coveted R-rating that so many films need, but don’t receive, and its use of such made me even more clueless by the end of the film. There’s very little adult language, and what there is never felt necessary to include the occasional F-word to sell its point. What does make this an R is the inclusion of four different nude and sex scenes for Julianne Moore, which might be a tad bit over-indulgent for driving the point home. Moore looks incredible, don’t get me wrong, but the lack of fireworks from her and Turturro, as well as scenes feeling repetitious quite often, made me feel like so much of this could’ve been trimmed from the finished product, and even one sex scene could be shot in a way that shows dignity to both of the actors and the eyes of its audience.

– What’s with the cat? Being a cat owner myself, I can appreciate any film that involves our furry little loved ones in a way that strikes my curiosity, but this film never even attempts to explain a question that it asks itself frequently. Moore’s character keeps coming home to a cat in her apartment that isn’t hers, so where did it come from? How does it keep getting in there? Don’t worry about all of that. Instead, we’re going to bring this up three different times in hopes that the audience are too stupid to ask a couple of legitimately good questions about the security of her home.

– Ludicrous resolution. At the end of everything I previously mentioned, we get a conflict resolution that is every bit as ridiculous in believability as it is tonally inconsistent with everything else from the film that is surrounding it. (SPOILERS) A paintball gun comes into frame, and I guess this is supposed to count as revenge for a character who has felt wronged up to this point. At least the foreign version’s resolution never reached childish levels of cringeworthy material, wrapping everything up in a way that, while not closed up air tight, does allow the protagonist therepeutic resolution while staying in the realm of reality that the film has maintained for itself. I’m not sure if I was supposed to laugh at this scene, but I had no probelm exerting myself to the audience surrounding me.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Five Feet Apart

Directed By Justin Baldoni

Starring – Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani

The Plot – Stella Grant (Richardson) is every bit a seventeen-year-old. She’s attached to her laptop and loves her best friends. But unlike most teenagers, she spends much of her time living in a hospital as a cystic fibrosis patient. Her life is full of routines, boundaries and self-control – all of which is put to the test when she meets an impossibly charming fellow CF patient named Will Newman (Sprouse). There’s an instant flirtation, though restrictions dictate that they must maintain a safe distance between them. As their connection intensifies, so does the temptation to throw the rules out the window and embrace that attraction. Further complicating matters is Will’s potentially dangerous rebellion against his ongoing medical treatment. Stella gradually inspires Will to live life to the fullest, but can she ultimately save the person she loves when even a single touch is off limits?

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, adult language and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Familiar premise. An aspect with the romantic genre is that you often have these two people in love who simply can’t be together because of contrasting worlds tearing them apart, and as to where that plot is redundant for this particular genre of film, the necessity of it here makes sense more than ever. Considering these are two people suffering from a very dangerous strain of CF, it forces them to keep their distance so as to avoid possible death, and what this does is not only give the premise reason for its existence, but it also gives it immense weight in the form of the conflict itself. To be together means that these two will sacrifice touch, and it really begs the question if a relationship can survive without such intimacy.

– Responsible approach with its subject matter. Aside from this being a mostly entertaining film in whole, the task of educating its audience on the specifics of Cystic Fibrosis is taken with enough tender care in explanation that makes it so much more than just another movie. The director and actors spent ample time with a Cystic Fibrosis foundation in order to capitalize on accuracy, as well as the hopelessness of the care given to the medical staff themselves. What’s vital here is that nothing is glossed over or fancied up for the screen itself. The depictions in the film can look and sound grueling and dejecting for its audience, but without those valuable depictions, the film would be doing an extreme disservice to the impact of living with a disease that cuts literally everything short.

– Method of exposition insertion. Stella’s character has her own Youtube channel, and aside from this aspect of the film inevitably feeling someday dated, the aspect of it allows the film to tell some pivotal moments in her life that the screenplay might otherwise have difficulty conquering. Through her daily VLOG’s, Stella explains what impact the disease has on her, some of her favorite tastes in her otherwise limited world, and the importance of a missing family member that has weighed heavily on her development. This gimmick hasn’t worked in other films because of how much it’s often trying to convey in such a small window, but the details here feel natural and synthetic to the kind of videos and conversations that are prominent on video sharing websites in modern times, and allows us the audience to pick up on things at the exact same time that our co-protagonist Will is.

– Cute, charming lead cast. This is definitely a leading cast kind of film, as the supporting characters are kind of reduced to keep them front-and-center, but it allows the chemistry of Richardson and Sprouse to shine because of the care given to the progression of their relationship. The movie takes ample time in preserving them as friends first before dropping the romantic star-crossed lovers angle that was promised, and I appreciated this because it does sort of depict how love is a progress that sometimes doesn’t fit right away. As for performances, Richardson is given her first meaty dramatic role and thrives with ample colors. Stella has no shortage of running tears or vibrancy in personality, and for Haley’s first dramatic lead it really opens your eyes to how the young actress can captivate audiences with an arrangement of emotions that are brought out and returned like Mister Rogers suit jackets. Sprouse also has plenty to be grateful for, mostly in the form of precise comedic timing and a conflicted character who feels like the responsible shoulder that the story so desperately requires. Sprouse’s Will walks that fine line of responsibility on the eve of his 18th birthday no less, and his honest outlook on life gave his character many miles for his age, and actually turned out to be my favorite character in the film.

– Intimacy in camera work. While I wasn’t blown away with the complete presentation of the movie’s cinematography and movements behind the lens, I can say that the variety in handheld and still-frame pageantry shows great responsibility from Baldoni’s nurturing hands. The framing here is exceptional, bringing with it a necessity to focus on the facial registry of the actors respectively, and giving us the audience and immersive quality to what is transpiring. This allows the film to frame its two leads close in ways that the disease inside of the story keeps them conflicted, conjuring up a feeling of satisfying fantasy in ways that we know will rarely ever pay off in real time.

– Elements of the novel coming to life. Like most successful films in 2019, this film is based off of a book with its own artistic vibes that the movie felt necessary to bring along. Featured in the movie are drawings that were prominent in the first run editions of the novel itself, and these portraits can be seen and mentioned not only in the artistic capabilities of Will’s ever-trusting notebook, but also in Stella’s hospital room home away from home. Each of these hold strong merit to their inclusion to the film, and adds a wink-and-nod element to longtime fans of the novel, who are otherwise tired of the originality of such stories being forgotten for movies that take more than a few liberties. That isn’t such the case here, as “Five Feet Apart” proves that a book and movie can live together in near perfect harmony, without one infringing on the benefits of the other.

– One stage setting. I’m a sucker for movies that exist in one continuous place, so much so that I commend the movie for illustrating the claustrophobia for these kids being forced to live without much escape, as well as its ability to stay mostly entertaining considering its landscapes stay almost entirely grounded. It helps that the film stays faithful to the two leads instead of depicting the reactions of parents or supporting family. This not only allows the film to set up this world inside of a world, but it remains a testament to the movie’s confidence for how it’s able to constantly maintain my interest considering visually it is going nowhere. You don’t see one stage setting films often anymore, but “Five Feet Apart” proves that this angle can succeed if the story is gripping enough, and the characters are easily engaging.

NEGATIVES

– Prolonged dramatic tension. Right around the beginning of the third act, the wear of redundancy in the screenplay feels evident, and it forces the story to take some forceful directions in logic to grip the audience in their seats and push forward towards the two hour run time that Baldoni so desperately wants. For one, most of the typical third act distancing that we’ve become saddled with in movies feels particularly unnecessary here, and could easily be resolved with much-needed communication. One such occasion with Will distancing himself from Stella comes out of nowhere, and had me scratching my head because of things about his disease that we must believe he is learning for the first time in his life. In addition, the third act scene away from the hospital is not only ridiculous for how many red herrings it forces against us the audience that takes away from the dramatic elements of the scene, but Stella herself goes against established directions in her character with a decision that could easily help her. Instead, a simple decision leads to irresponsibility on one character that costs two, and only brings forth a visible line of desperation that this story couldn’t escape from.

– This might be the worst hospital ever. In addition to having no security cameras of any kind to keep an eye on its patients who just might interact with one another, there are nurses who ignore monitors going off and dismissing it as nothing more than a patient sitting on a button. I get that the reason this angle happened is because this very thing does happen earlier on in the film, but there isn’t a nurse on this planet who asks questions first and takes action later, and it just made me question how many lawsuits this place may have fought through along the way. In fact, the one nurse explains that a couple already died on her watch for them interacting behind staff’s back. Maybe that incident might lead to some tougher safety precautions, but no, we need it for the plot device, darling.

– Unnecessary opening monologue. Once again, we are treated to narration by an actor that is every bit pointless as it is spoiling to what it gives away. When you think about it, you know this character will probably live considering they are talking in the past tense. Not only this, but it doesn’t add to any particular scene or established plot because it is stating the obvious to anyone who has already seen the trailer. This is one of those major flaws that I hate in films, and it only further convolutes the relationship that a movie this cerebral establishes with the audience it conveys to. If it is indeed purposeful, take it out of the movie and see what it changes.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

A Madea Family Funeral

Directed By Tyler Perry

Starring – Tyler Perry, Cassi Davis, Patrice Lovely

The Plot – A joyous family reunion becomes a hilarious nightmare as Madea (Perry) and the crew travel to backwoods Georgia, where they find themselves unexpectedly planning a funeral that might unveil unsavory family secrets.

Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content, adult language, and drug references throughout

POSITIVES

– Still par for the course is the exceptional make-up work that distinguishes the many characters that Perry and friends portray. While nothing of substance that will surely win an Oscar in the category, there is enough detailing in the form of greying hairs, saggy skin, and additional prosthetics that allows the actor inside to fully immerse themselves in the beat of the character, and carve out an air of respect to the film’s limited production to be able to impress in any area of the spectrum. It’s one of the only things in Madea movies that I’ve always tipped my hat to, and the vibrancy in variety that each character sports makes each of them noticeable without their prosthetic designs rubbing together in repetition.

– A scene of substance? I know, in a Tyler Perry film this is groundbreaking news, but there is a moment late in the film in which the Mother of this family, portrayed by Jen Harper, not only steals the film, but does so by conjuring this emotionally moving strip of dialogue that will inspire female audiences who see it. Harper proves that she may be the one actress who deserves better than being subjected to this slop, and through measured responses of anger, regret, and patience, her character diminishes the line of what should be overlooked in modern day relationships.

NEGATIVES

– Bloated run time. There is absolutely no reason for this film to be anywhere near two hours, but it is because once again scenes are stretched in a way that assists Perry in containing budgets without frequenting between sets. Without question, the Improv humor is the thing that truly makes these scenes unbearable, muttering off line after line of atrocious conversation and jumbled dialogue that add about as much to the perspective of the film as integrity does. How can a movie bore you ten minutes in? “A Madea Family Funeral” feels like being a kid again, when you were forced to sit there and endure your older family members talk for hours about the “Good old days”, and you sitting there thinking how great your life would be if you were put up for adoption.

– Two cars racing towards a collision. This film has serious tonal problems, and I say that because half of it is a sluggish comedy with Madea and her friends, and then there’s a polar opposite direction with a family drama that is ungluing at the seams. Both are highly contradictive towards the other, making the progression of this film and each respective subplot feel like a tug of war that is constantly fighting against its own self-momentum. What’s most surprising is as a vehicle for Madea’s supposed goodbye, she never feels like the main character or focus in her own movie, with each appearance feeling like a shoe-horned cameo in one of Perry’s B-grade dramatic offerings that never got half of the box office take that his leading lady accomplished.

– Technical problems. Most productions and filmmakers grow from past blunders with experience, but Perry as a helmer has proven that he doesn’t take notes for the horrendous bloopers that fill his screen. Choppy A.D.R that feels like a Kung Fu film dubbed for American audiences, actors corpsing in laughter throughout serious scenes, and blurry lighting schemes that are so bright and unedited that they felt like I was waking up from a long night of drinking. All of this pales in comparison however to the biggest offender of all: body doubles in the background that come nowhere close to replicating the actor in question. There’s a scene where David Otunga, a muscular black man, obviously wasn’t there for the day’s shots, so the film fills in his absence with a light skinned, thin as a beanpole actor, whose comparison gave me the one laugh that I had during the film. Filmmaking this bad is offensive, not just to me paying money to watch this movie, but to the loads of aspiring filmmakers who can’t catch a break despite someone in Hollywood doing the craft much worse.

– Perry’s direction. The only thing worse than Perry as this wretched title character is his work behind the lens in inspiring his actors to go above the material. I mentioned Harper earlier, and that was only a single scene. The rest of the cast is virtually wasted playing second fiddle to Perry’s four characters who take up a majority of screen time. Beyond this, when the supporting cast do get a chance to shine, their deliveries feel cold and unconvincing in a way that lacked complete motivation. It’s sad because if this is indeed the big break for some of these actors, I see their days ahead for casting being very dark and humbling because Perry has given them the depth of a late night Skinemax flick. Without boobs, a Skinemax film becomes pointless. Catch my drift?

– What funeral? What’s commendable at least with the funeral scenes in the film is that they are sometimes a clever take on the bloated nature of funeral services, but the problem is that it takes so long to even reach the pivotal setting of this movie, pushing audiences through a redundant endurance test with scenes that feel so far removed from where this film inevitably takes us. There are 28 minutes remaining in the film when we finally hit the mourning services, and it comes and goes with so little weight compared to the rest of the story moving around it. When you compare it to “Boo: A Madea Halloween”, that whole film revolves around that magical night where anything can and often does happen, but the funeral here is a footnote in a bigger picture in a film that goes nowhere, emphasizing what little they could actually do with such a constricting gimmick.

– Characters missing frequently. As I mentioned before, Perry dons make-up and multiple costume changes to become four different characters in the film, and after seeing some flawed continuity errors catch up to him, maybe it’s best that he release his grip on feeling so ambitious. There are many examples of this throughout, but the most glaring one is the very last scene of the movie, where Madea and friends are leaving, with a certain driver missing from the goodbyes all together. Did they leave Brian (Perry) with this struggling family. Did he run away from the madness that is dealing with these window lickers every single day? I’d say we will never find out, but we all know that another mindless Madea effort is coming. Otherwise, I’d have to rely on Adam Sandler or Kirk Cameron to make my life a living hell, and they’ve been traded to Netflix in recent years, where I don’t have to give a shit about either of them.

– An uncomfortable commentary. I won’t go over it much, but I can’t escape this uneasy feeling that Perry continues to flirt with, in that light skinned African Americans are evil. Every single one of the characters who fill this description in the movie are either cheaters, abusive, or completely out of their minds crazy, and I can’t begin to even entertain the idea why this is the case in every single Perry directed movie thus far. It’s not only made it to where each character’s motives are completely predictable when fleshed out, but also a bit of a cliche for how he can’t remove himself from this particular agenda.

– Why the humor fails. Aside from the material residing in the grounds of redundancy where every joke missed by audiences is replayed three or four times, there’s very little diagraming or set-up to Perry’s comedy that builds towards the big payoff. The accents as well do their parts to take audiences out of the attention span of the conversation, playing into audible kryptonite for much of the expectations in deliveries that never reach their desired destination. Patrice Lovely is by far the worst in this regards, because her screeching delivery and stroke victim face come off as feeling catered to three year old’s who just need a funny face and boisterous enactments to earn their praise.

– Visually, this film still withstands the presentational value of a Sears Air conditioner commercial, complete with cheap cinematography and stilted editing that is a chore to keep focus on. Establishing shots feel very conventional, refusing to leave the safety of exterior house depictions that was made famous only thirty years ago during the boom of network sitcoms. For all of the money that Perry has made, he deserves to flex some cash into crafting an exceptional Madea movie that stands out above the rest, but one unfortunate common theme in these films is that each one feels substantially more amateurish in its filmmaking, an aspect that continues with “Family Funeral”.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

Arctic

Directed By Joe Penna

Starring – Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir

The Plot – A man (Mikkelsen) stranded in the Arctic after an airplane crash must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown in hopes of making it out alive.

Rated PG-13 for adult language and some bloody images

POSITIVES

– A complete immersive experience. “Arctic” is a survival movie whose elements push the limits of theatrical watches, placing you right in the cold of the moment within this frozen hostile wasteland. The sound mixing, while slightly too low to authenticate the atmosphere seamlessly, does do a fine enough job in constantly reminding you of the conditions that are brewing surrounding our protagonist. The visual camera work is easily my favorite aspect of the film, harvesting a majority of wide angle lens depictions that not only convey the realities of isolation, but also instill a sense of weight to a journey that exponentially tests the will of human strength. Likewise, the absorbing color textures reflect the desperation and hopelessness of the situation, and constantly remind us the audience of the situation if even we forget for a single solitary second. These perks combine enough emphasis of the bone-chilling cold that transcends the screen, making for a combination of sight and sound presentation that is exceptionally impressive for a first time filmmaker.

– Visual storytelling throughout. What I love about this screenplay is the minimal amount of dialogue and exposition delivered that highlight how the characters service the film and never vice versa. There are no conversations, nor past flashbacks that provide insight into how this guy came to be in this predicament, but if you pay attention closely enough you can notice abilities that he would only master if he has been forced to live that way for a while, and that’s what I took away from how the film depicts him. Likewise, props and objects used in the film are frequently inserted, and it isn’t till later on when we learn what they elaborate towards, proving that the puzzle is complete when you can understand how all of the pieces vibrantly fit together. In certain aspects, this is a modern day silent film that visually communicates to its audience instead of beating them over the head with heavy details, and I admire the kind of confidence that comes with outlining a story where we begin right in the middle of this thing without much thought as to what came before it.

– Pleasantly paced. I sat through what only felt like the first act of this movie, and was surprised when I checked my watch to see that only 40 minutes remained in the film. This isn’t an insult to the film, but instead complimentary for a script that is so grounded in reality that we as an audience find ourselves lost in the redundancy of something mundane as a daily routine. Perhaps it’s a testament to Mikkelsen’s persistent presence on the film, who I will definitely get to later, but I feel bigger credit derives from beneficial editing that never hangs on or relents for too long on a particular scene. The splicing on this film is wonderfully done, inspiring subtle humor in redundancy, all the while giving grave focus to each task he must endure to stay alive, and the introduction of a map that comes into play gives us something to keep tabs on in our man reaching his goal.

– Speaking of grounded in reality, “Arctic” maintains real life dramatic tension and situations that gives the film anything but a par-for-the-course Hollywood survivalist movie. There’s plenty of adversity in the way of predatory animals, increasing heights, and even sleeping arrangements, that never stretched or removed the visible line of what’s possible, and if anything it proves that real life drama can still be compelling without reminding us every ten minutes that this is a movie. While not an action movie first, this is the kind of action that I crave in a film, combining the dangerousness of environment against man’s desire to live, and what we’re left with is a confrontation that never exceeds the boundaries of the human spirit.

– Dedication to the craft. This movie was filmed on location in Iceland, and what Penna pulled from such a decision made for some specific challenges in filmmaking that, while difficult to maintain professionalism, does solidify the intensity of the destination. Front-and-center in the lens of the great Tomas Orn Tomasson, we see sequences involving hurricane-like winds increasing the ferocity of a blizzard, as well as the many peaks of the mountainsides, which treats us to claustrophobic scenes involving caves. As well, Mikkelsen himself gets in on the fun, gutting and devouring more than one fish to colorfully illustrate one man’s unabashed hunger. When what we’re seeing before us is real, it pays off in believability and integrity, and I commend the crew immensely for taking nearly three weeks to film in such an undesirable location that pays off valuably for the production of the film.

– One kickass Easter Egg. This is only known if you’ve read the production notes, but Mikkelsen’s character name in the movie is briefly shown as H. Overgard on his I.D photo. What’s funny about this is not only did Penna use a picture of Mikkelsen from the amazing TV show “Hannibal”, but he also hints that the “H” in his name is a nod to his breakthrough performance as the show’s title character. From someone who has adored that show endlessly, and was pissed when it was cancelled, it brought a smile to my face that some will never forget the time Mikkelsen spent in the role, re-defining Hannibal Lechter for an entirely new generation.

– Once again, Mads Mikkelsen proves why he is one of the very best actors working today, providing a committed performance from having very little to work from. When it all boils down, Mikkelsen is basically just emulating human emotion, and it’s his honesty and drive that preserve such intrigue for the character with no exposition or backstory to work from. Mikkelsen’s greatest strength in the movie is the physicality that he must endure in order to reach his goal in mind, and throughout it all we see a man who gets beaten down over-and-over, only to persevere and keep moving. Mikkelsen’s grip on the audience is so tight that we often know what’s to come from crytpic facial responses, carving out a telepathic link to an otherwise ambiguous character, that only serves as a testament to just how gifted Mads is.

– No special effects used for anything. This could be categorized in the dedication to the craft section, but I felt it deserved its own mention. During a couple of scenes during the film, we are shown a Polar Bear that frequently makes its presence felt through scenes of rash urgency. What’s incredible about this is the production doesn’t use C.G or any other form of incorporation for what we see front-and-center. This is very much a live action real walking, breathing bear, paying homage to a forgotten era of filmmaking that preserved calculated risk to the integrity of its film. Live action property in this instance pays off immensely, keeping the budget of the film maintained respectably, all the while bringing the most genuine of reactions from Mikkelsen when put in these dire situations.

NEGATIVES

– MINOR SPOILERS. There’s a female character introduced around fifteen minutes into the film, and I kept waiting for something big to happen with her, and it simply never does. Aside from her being a convenient plot device in regards to people looking for her, she serves no purpose or holds no bearing on the consequences of the story itself, instead serving as an unnecessary weight for Overgard’s quest that is already tough enough. For my money, I could’ve used a scene of connection between her and Overgard. If not, just keep this as a one man survivalist film, in turn making his isolation that much more complex considering he is quite literally all alone.

– While this is a beautiful looking and well acted film overall, the movie will do nothing to change or revitalize the sub-genre for the lack of chances it took with the condensed story. When you step back and look at the complete picture, long after the film has completed, you will notice more of the similarities to the competition more than the fresh takes, and if there’s anything that I wish this film would’ve done to rectify that it’s invest more into emotional character arcs with Overgard in particular. Mikkelsen pulls a diamond out of the rough, but the screenplay does him no favors in meeting him halfway with a layer that emits the drama from intended conflict. Take chances, swing the bat, and don’t be afraid to take your film to never before seen heights.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Fighting With My Family

Directed By Stephen Merchant

Starring – Florence Pugh, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey

The Plot – A heartwarming comedy based on the incredible true story of WWE Superstar Paige . Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige (Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for World Wrestling Entertainment. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training program, she must leave her family and face this new, cut-throat world alone. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep, fight for her family, and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star.

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, adult language throughout, some violence and drug content

POSITIVES

– Captures the true essence of wrestling, both inside and out of the ring. It’s no surprise that a film like this is a commercial for the WWE brand, but in doing so the film has the right framing in the phenomenon of its product, as well as the passion involved with living this lifestyle that makes it anything but glamorous. At its core, the life of a professional wrestler is lonely, painful, and often times impossible because of the limited few who make it, and Paige’s story is the embodiment of all of these ingredients, fleshing out a narrative in which fans and non-fans of the sport can come together to embrace a true underdog on the silver screen, for only the first time since 2009’s “The Wrestler” brought gravity to a sport that is pre-determined.

– Surreal casting. Props in this department not only go to the director Stephen Merchant for doing his homework on the essential characters in this story, but also to casting director Shaheen Baig for calling on some pretty big names to render the synthetics of their real life counterparts. When I say that Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, and of course Florence Pugh emulate the look and feel of this family perfectly, I mean it in a sense that they immersed themselves in each role, leaving fans who are familiar with the Knight family feeling eerily satisfied with just how deep the film goes to master everything from personalities to movements in the ring. It gives the film a transcendent quality on the screen that was previously seen in the documentary of the same name, but made even more impressive considering this is Hollywood elite who are donning the roles.

– Constant professionalism in performance work. Speaking of this talented cast, the energy they dedicate to the film pays off immensely for the believability, as well as the underlying longing of each sibling that is pulled from them brilliantly by Pugh and Lowden respectively. In Pugh’s Paige, the actress channels enough heart in bravery for being in a foreign land, and blends it superbly with the little girl fan inside her who is screaming in agony for not capitalizing in the way she thought she inevitably would. There’s enough humility to her performance to make this anything but a predictably conventional protagonist, adding layers to pre-conceived notions of wrestlers that give poignancy to unfamiliar audiences with the craft itself. Vince Vaughn is also a scene-stealer here, bringing a stern hand of authority to the humor we’ve come to expect from him, and harvesting it into this character whose intentions are honorable, but is also someone who has no problem breaking a person down mentally to reach their limit. For my money however, it’s Lowden who steals the show, riding Zack’s highs and lows that forces the character through an identity crisis of sorts, in that he swallows through the inevitability of his dream never fully coming true. Lowden’s wave of emotional instability brings a lot of intensity to scenes that would otherwise fall flat, and he’s an actor who I’ve only seen three times, but with each role confirms the lock he has on resiliency that makes him a thrill to watch.

– Juggling tones. The atmosphere in this film masters two exponentially different attitudes for the price of one, in comedy and drama, and accomplishes each of them tremendously without ever combining them as a cliche hybrid that we’ve come to expect. For the first half of the movie, this is very much a comedy, full of snappy dialogue and vibrant personality to bring forth more than a few hearty burst of laughter, but once it all settles down, the impact of dramatic tension lends itself to some very gripping scenes involving envy, isolation, and of course polarization, to give the screenplay depth. What’s important is that neither of these directions ever step on or compromise the other, giving the film plenty of time for you to indulge and feast on this circus under one roof, before the actions of the animals bite you in retaliation, and it proves that “Fighting With My Family” has enough heart and humor to flesh out a surprisingly moving narrative that is too infectious to ignore.

– Anything but a paint-by-numbers biopic. Beyond this feeling like a greatest hits collection of Paige’s most important moments, the film instills enough curveballs in the progression of the protagonist to make her conflict feel anything but temporary. In addition to this, the decision to make this film a sort of dual narrative of sorts, with Zack’s story feeling every bit as important as Paige’s, pays off tremendously for the shelf life of the respective plots, and reminds us of the importance of not only the film’s central protagonist, but that of the people who make her who she is. Imagine if “Bohemian Rhapsody” actually took the time to get to know the members of Queen, instead of just its flamboyant frontman. It would give the screenplay enough variety to keep it far from the outlines of conformity that unfortunately too many biopics become saddled with today, and this gleaming benefit keeps us firmly invested into even the more well known angles of Paige’s story, giving nuance to the kind of emotions and bitter pill’s the 20 year old was forced to taste.

– Rapid fire pacing. If this film has done just one thing better than the other twenty films that I have seen this year, it’s in the fluid pacing of 102 vitally important minutes that never waste an opportunity in adding something to the story. Considering this is a film revolving around something as redundant as wrestling, the film surprisingly masters a lot of complexity not only with its filmmaking, but also in the knowledge of the sport itself, with how it’s very much teaching the audience at the same time it is teaching the students of the game. There was never a point during the film where I was even remotely bored, despite knowing a majority of the results in Paige’s struggle. It caps off a command by Merchant that shows his passion for the sport and filmmaking alike, and it makes for as easy of a sit as you’re going to get for something that never feels the weight of its minutes.

– Production value between worlds. Merchant’s biggest gain as a director in this film deals with his capabilities in comparing and contrasting the worlds of big league and independent wrestling that articulately channel the desperation of the two ambitious students. When we’re in the independent world, the angles are claustrophobic, dimly lit, and full of cheap effect smoke to give the complete picture a very small stage essence. Yet when the WWE appears, we get these beautifully vibrant sets, with no shortage of professional lighting to tie it all together. The greatest strength a film can have in dealing with two worlds is to compare them side-by-side, and in doing so it visually channels the uphill climb, all the while selling the spectacle that many have fallen in love with.

NEGATIVES

– Incorrect sequencing of timeline events. There were a few nagging instances I caught where the film mishandled the years of important events not only in wrestling, but also in pop culture. There are small things from the movie mentioning “The Hunger Games” movie, which came out in 2012, despite the fact that Paige’s story takes place in 2010. There are also big things that only wrestling fans like myself would notice, like a pivotal John Cena title win shown that didn’t take place until 2013. These are the kind of constant time frame errors that I often look for in movies with a particular time designation, and as it turns out this one missed a lot in the mentions that it tries to so cleverly slip by its audience. If you’re going to do something right, check for continuity, otherwise remove any mention of events you’re too lazy to look up.

– Time is a construct. Days, weeks, months, years. I mention these because the film has no need to inform the audience on how much time has passed. Why is that important? Because it helps illustrate not only how long Paige has been apart from her family, but also how long she has fought in winning over her peers during her time in NXT. Speaking of which, the NXT area of the film is so trimmed down and confined that it doesn’t capture Paige’s pivotal Women’s Title win, nor does it articulate how and why she endears herself with the fans. It leaves a noticeable gap late in the movie that makes her jump to WWE feels spontaneous instead of earned, and this is the area more than any that could use more clarity, as well as more time to better convey the passing of time, to which the movie has none of.

– Sloppy final sequence. This will only appeal to wrestling audiences like myself, who are bothered by the little things. In this regard, it’s during Paige’s title match against A.J Lee, where not only are the wardrobe choices by both wrestlers terribly wrong in every imaginable way of fashion, not only is Lee’s bodyguard Tamina missing from the scene, not only is the choreography of the match completely off from the real life match itself, but also the editing is done in a way where Paige wasn’t already extremely popular with audiences before she defeated Lee. This gives the sequence a manipulative presence, orchestrating itself to convenience of a plot device that it strictly didn’t need, and gives a phony feeling to the production during this area of the film that was otherwise remarkable up to this point. Even WWE Films apparently doesn’t watch their product. Can’t say I blame them.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-