The Snowman

The disappearance of a local woman sends a team of investigators on the hunt for a killer with a chilly side, in ‘The Snowman’. Michael Fassbender , Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in this terrifying thriller from director Tomas Alfredson. Based on Jo Nesbø’s global bestseller of the same name, the film begins when an elite crime squad’s lead detective, Harry Hole, yep that’s his name, (Fassbender) investigates the disappearance of a victim on the first snow of winter. Harry fears an elusive serial killer may be active again. With the help of a brilliant new recruit, Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), the cop must connect decades-old cold cases to the brutal new one if he hopes to outwit this unthinkable evil before the next snowfall. ‘The Snowman’ is rated R for grisly imagery, brutal violence, some adult language, and sexuality involving brief nudity.

History has proven that novels are often the winner in their often times inevitable showdowns with the big budget adaptations. More times than not, a book can grant you the kind of freedom from restrictions that hinders a film cold from keeping up the entertaining factor. No sentence will better define ‘The Snowman’, as this jumbled, melted mess that limps its way to a finish that had me questioning where it all went wrong. It is my opinion that much of the problems that screenwriters Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini encounter is in their desire to over-convolute a story that doesn’t require a thinker’s approach. The case within this story is your basic serial thriller, so when the film tries to demand that unnecessary reach to intelligence, it comes up short in its returns that bore you out of your seat. At nearly two hours, so much of ‘The Snowman’ can be trimmed or edited to fit its narrative, but this film is so poorly directed that it makes it easier to understand the negative side of when a film is left in improper hands, the making of such a decision that soils Alfredson’s often prestigious name and leaves him out in the cold for a story that fumbles at nearly every given chance.

The story for the film makes the conscience decision to craft this as a dual narrative for the first half of the movie. This second tier is led by Val Kilmer as an alcoholic detective nine years prior whose own obsession for The Snowman Killer ruined his life. I see the importance of what this arc played to our story in the bigger picture, but its insistence upon eating up valuable minutes of exposition comes at quite a hefty price. This could’ve easily been used in various flashbacks throughout the film, but every fifteen minutes or so, we are reminded of its existence by a brutal shoving in the script that doesn’t distinctly signify when this flashback happens or give any kind of indication of the time switch. Elsewhere, this screenplay feels gobbled up by a series of gaps and holes in sequencing that leave its audience struggling when trying to keep up. Things just kind of happen without any rhyme or reason, leaving me to wonder if a bigger director’s cut is lurking on a shelf somewhere. Either way, I’m not interested. As for the mystery itself, it’s somewhat intriguing, particularly during the early third act when it does start to feed into its ambiguity, but it’s ruined on one brutal shot of spoiler with about twenty minutes left in the film, that gives away everything without reaching a beneficial shock in its reveal. The final fight sequence is so underwhelming in its conclusion that I found myself asking repeatedly if that was it.

Possibly my biggest problem with the film is in the editing that can’t possibly be justified at a professional level. I’ve already mentioned that it feels like this script is subject to holes in progression that make it feel like an entire movie is missing, but the true horror comes in the fact that somewhere someone lacks that kind of personal imprint from the director that tells them when a scene should be shortened or ran longer. With ‘The Snowman’, there are many scenes left in this final cut that had me scratching my head for what pivotal role they played. There are also scenes that I felt were finally getting us somewhere, but were jarringly ripped from the screen with malicious intent. The editing is so devastatingly awful in this film that it in its own way is responsible for the mind-numbingly dull pacing that never bothers to pick up momentum or move cohesively as one continuous movement. Until the third act when things start to somewhat pick up in mystery, I was bored to tears because of the lack of energy or impressionable character that exerted itself into this movie.

On the latter of that concept, the performances within the film are about as good as they could be considering this top notch cast is getting no direction beyond the camera. Considering this is a film that takes place in Oslo, Norway, not one character speaks with the proper accent or even remotely struggles in speaking English. Fassbender can only do so much, despite being one of the most versatile actors working today. As Harry, we hear about a legend that has done so much, but there’s nothing about him that ever makes you understand why he is depended upon so much. To me, I feel like Harry’s biggest positive is that he’s in the right place at the right time, and that’s about as underwhelming with a protagonist as you can get. Val Kilmer is depressing because you can see on-screen how much life has worn him down, and shitty films like this will only make it worse. Kilmer’s painfully obvious ADR voice-dubbing is something that adds a jarring aspect of immersive break for me in each scene, and Kilmer can barely move at this point, let alone invest every emotional muscle to giving a performance for the ages. It’s just not there. J.K Simmons and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wasted in the bigger picture that doesn’t involve their characters holding weight within the complexity of this screenplay, and sadly Chloe Sevingly is only in one scene for the movie. Possibly the only actor who gets away with a passing grade is Rebecca Ferguson. Her performance at least feels like one with the proper kind of motivational pull, and there were times in the film where it feels like this should definitely be more of her movie than Fassbender’s Hole (Sounds terrible) because of this perspective. Ferguson commands Bratt with the kind of intensity in vengeance that has me screaming out to Hollywood and begging them to put this woman in a STARRING role for once, atop her own movie. To make something out of this hodge-podge, we owe her at least that.

Not all was terrible for me however, as the film’s visual compass was stunning in its overall cinematography and tonal volume that visually appealed to me. ‘The Snowman’ is very much an absorbing kind of movie that locks you into its setting almost immediately, and you can’t help but feel transfixed by the seclusion in immensity of the grand scale being depicted in the film’s opening shots. The sound mixing could’ve been better in audibly immersing me tighter in the experience, but the landscape shots and shooting locations were used superbly in setting a stage that unfortunately lacks the fire in material to combat the ever-enveloping cold around us. What this setting does wonderfully is replicating in detail the kind of character response that eats away at our main cast almost entirely. It feels like Harry and company have lived here for too long, becoming a product of their cold, harsh environment that has swallowed them whole and left them bitter.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Snowman’ collapses under a series of devastating plot holes and contrivances that leave it struggling to reach air from its numbing series of unnecessary plot contrivances. This underdeveloped mess of a film wastes its talented cast almost entirely, and leaves itself falling as the latest victim to being inferior to its multimedia predecessor of the same name. Adaptations can be done with excitement, but Alfredson’s dreadful direction here leaves this snowman without a base to prop itself up on.

4/10

Marshall

The rights of black citizens inside of the courtroom falls on the hands of one prominent attorney tasked with presenting perhaps the most important case for equal rights ever. ‘Marshall’, is based on an early trial in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It follows the young Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) to conservative Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) charged with sexual assault and attempted murder of his white socialite employer (Kate Hudson). Muzzled by a segregationist court, Marshall partners with a courageous young Jewish lawyer, Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad). Together they mount the defense in an environment of racism and Anti-Semitism. The high profile case and the partnership with Friedman served as a template for Marshall’s creation of the NAACP legal defense fund. ‘Marshall’ is directed by Reginald Hudland, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong adult language.

‘Marshall’ is one of those bittersweet pills to swallow with cinema, not because the film is done terribly or anything of that nature, but it serves as a constant reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go for minorities to receive their entitled justice in this country. In the same ways that this Summer’s ‘Detroit’ offered an original take on racism and the kind of injustices that this disease instills by law and order, ‘Marshall’ too finds its original stance on the subject by pitting us in the heart of the battle with the judicial system, right where it belongs. This certainly isn’t anything original for the subject matter, but what compelled me further with this film where others have failed is in its ability to speak directly to the audience, catering towards the kinds of depictions of events that put us in the chair as a juror and lets us decide our own verdict piece by piece. The cause and effect’s of this film take place in the 40’s, but so much of what Marshall and Friedman deal with in terms of opposition in this film is sadly still present today, proving that many more building blocks must still be stacked, and that its title character was only the first in the much bigger picture.

The screenplay rides heavily on the courtroom drama procedurals, residing an overwhelming majority of its screenplay on the very grounds where these battles are fought and won. If these kind of procedurals don’t do anything for you in film, then ‘Marshall’ might be a difficult sell right off of the bat. For me, I indulge in these kinds of mental chess matches because it shows you that the biggest battles are won in the smallest of margins, giving way to the glaring holes in logic that were in their cases from the very beginning. The marvelous screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff signifies the importance of jury selection, courtroom location, and even lawyer/client relationships that can determine how you choose to hide the negatives of those you serve. Marshall was a student of the game in this perspective, and the film has enough leverage to dabble in the cerebral of one of the truly great minds of the game without becoming silly. There’s something beyond intelligent about the way the Koskoff’s depict this courtroom, leaving just enough room for the theatrics within a deposition to leave the audience watching glued to the screen.

As a biopic, there is a healthy offering of what makes Thurgood the kind of modern day legend that he has become. He’s a constant workaholic who the movie points out “Is depended upon by thirteen million African Americans”, and what this establishes within this particular story is that this man is rarely ever home, sacrificing a life with his beautiful wife to serve as the profit to wake this world up. I found him to be easily respectable on this sacrifice alone, but even more so for the way the Koskoff’s instill that at the end of the day he is only human. There are some adversities and challenges with being on the road so much that don’t garner him in the most appealing of lights, but it proves that the film isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty in valuing the truth of the material. If I did have some slight problems with the film, it’s in the early minutes of the third act that do come across as sluggish. At 113 minutes, this is a lengthy sit, but there’s nothing that can easily be cut without doing more harm to the integrity of the case. This is a problem because the minutes do start to catch up later when it feels like this film should be wrapping up, only to have another twenty minutes. Beyond this, the only other problem I had were with some of the longshots in logic that the people around Thurgood open his eyes to that play just as important into his case. We’ve all seen these scenes where a character will speak a throwaway line, only for a lightbulb to go off in the main character that makes him rush out of bed to tie everything together. In this instance, the scene is just a little too big of a leap for me in tying it all together, and it’s in those brief examples where the film sometimes sacrifices so much of the intelligence that it pieced together patiently.

I want to talk about presentation as well, because so much of the value within this picture is in the smooth transitions that Hudland and company preserve in replicating the style of its title character, as well as production that give it the authentic spin of the age. The musical score by composer Marcus Miller echoes the vibes of the jazz music age with such soft and tender focus on horns, cello’s, and of course the importance of piano that add class to any circumstance. In these tones, Thurgood walks with an air of confidence that makes his character anything but unlikeable, preserving him with the kind of swagger known to overtake a room. The visual compass as well sparks some original dabs in editing that give the movie character to play into the procedural stance. This isn’t a consistent thing, but early on in the film when the two lawyers meet and start to study the case, the scene transitions are given a typewriting sound of keys clicking that establishes smoothly the hours that are being put in around the clock. The lighting is soft within the courtroom scenes, and thankfully it never overrides its authentic influence by too much technological enhancement, making it stand out as something that feels manufactured to what the movie’s production team contend for themselves.

These trio of performances involved also instill a lot of weight to the depth in this screenplay, highlighting a fresh cast of male energy that strike all for their own respective reasons. Chadwick Boseman is someone who has taken on a few of these legendary figures from our past in movies, but in Thurgood we get a possible sleeper contender for some academy recognition. Boseman might lack the visual similarities to the title character, but he more than makes up for it in his dedication to vocal tones and attitude that ring true with Marshall. Boseman is so unlimited with charm and appeal that it’s impossible not to perk up any time he enters a scene, and the chemistry with Gad might be my pick for the best one-two punch in cinema this year. On the subject of Gad, he’s rarely someone who appeals to me in films, but ‘Marshall’ proves that he has what it takes to spice to instill his brand of sarcastic wit to any film without ruining the consistency of its atmosphere. Samuel is someone who faces the kind of serious backlash from his community in ways that Marshall does as well, but with more to lose to feed into the empathy of his character. This gives Gad’s Friedman a much deserved chair at the table in this story where he rightfully belongs. Dan Stevens is also solid, playing the antagonist lawyer of sorts to combat the team of Marshall and Friedman. Stevens is menacing, deceitful, and most importantly; determined to do what he has to for the victory. This sometimes can cast him as a superhero villain of sorts with the structure of his character coming out of nowhere, but Stevens calm delivery casts great fear in the kinds of things he says that you know he believes, and it’s further proof that every good conflict needs a beneficial antagonist.

THE VERDICT – ‘Marshall’ harbors two equally compelling directions in its courtroom procedural, as well as the biopic centering around its title character that gives you two pleasures for the price of one. With a rich vibe in tone and texture, the film objects to ever being deemed under a ‘Movie of the week’ kind of classification, and the value of three electrifying performances on top of it makes the verdict of Hudland’s latest guilty of being an effective drama with lots of historical pull.

9/10

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

The Foreigner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

The Stray

The long distance move of a family on the mend, has them seeking help in the most unusual of places. ‘The Stray’ tells the true story of how a stray dog, named “Pluto,” comes out of nowhere and impacts the Davis family, who are struggling to find happiness within their home in many ways. In just a short time, Pluto the “wonderdog” manages quite an impact in saving a toddler, bringing comfort and companionship to a hurting 9-year-old boy, helping restore a marriage, and repairing a broken father-son relationship that remains on the rocks. Pluto is not only a guard dog; he’s a guardian angel. Sometimes help comes from the most unlikely places. Sometimes our prayers get answered in strange ways. Sometimes one dog can change everything. ‘The Stray’s is written and directed by Mitch Davis, and is rated PG for thematic elements including a scene involving peril.

The most credible of screenwriters can take a sour script and make it entertaining for all of the right reasons. They are master magicians at taking any kind of negative within the story and adapting it for proper comprehension at the viewer’s request. Even still though, there’s an even bigger problem when said writer is the real life father depicted in the movie, as it kind of becomes a conflict of interests, for what might be entertaining to him could be lagging to the audience who take it all in. That’s the biggest in a funnel of problems that overtakes a movie like ‘The Stray’, the latest sappy religious flick intended to tug at the heartstrings of its viewers without earning the dramatic pulse necessary in giving its biographical details merit. I don’t want to take the joy away from the Davis family, particularly Mitch, for him thinking this film was a surefire hit that just had to be made, but his film is as boring as changing the filter from a dryer. It’s 82 minutes of corny atmospheric sludge that feels disingenuous behind every turn and feels hollow in progression the closer that you get to it. I have been stuck with a few of these religious films every year, and ‘The Stray’ feels like it has the least to say or do to justify why its intended audience should be entertained by its story.

The film and real life setting is the early 90’s, and thankfully this designation makes it a little easier to swallow why some of the parents in the film are making some incredibly inhumane decisions. For one, there’s a scene when the youngest daughter of the Davis’s, 4-year-old Mackenzie manages to walk right off of their property with these two parents occupied elsewhere. I’m not going to say these are awful parents, but instead focus on the scene when she is found at the park with adults all around her. The father pulls up, grabs her, and brings her into the car. Did no one ask questions why this girl is missing in the first place? Does everyone believe that this is indeed the father of said child because he hugged her? Who cares though, right? Another convenience of this impeccable setting is the camping scene in which Mitch takes his son and two other boys he just met on a long-distance camping trip. Mitch meets their fathers and immediately asks to take them away for the weekend. This doesn’t seem strange to anyone, huh? Maybe my problem is that I’m stuck in 2017 and I can’t think outside of the box to reach the logical stem that is 90’s mentality.

Then there’s the padding of the screenplay that seems well determined to reach its timely goal by extending the necessities of every scene. Sometimes less is more when a scene has nothing of substance to add to the unfurling of the plot, but in Davis’s film we are treated a barrage of what has to be improv. I say that because I can’t believe for a second that any credible writer could extend a ‘Shit your pants’ gag for over two minutes. The focus as a whole for the film seems immensely in the wrong place, silencing or omitting out the title character from every scene except his first and last scene. I was waiting for something more to appear out of thin air for involvement, but the film just kind of forgets about him until it is required to bring him up for the emotionally stirring finale that this film shits the bed on. As for the lightning scene itself, it’s humorous to think even for a second that a studio would greenlight a scene visually depicting kids being fried by lightning, and even more laughable is its effect on them. These kids walk off lightning like it’s a bruised elbow, leaving little suspense or dramatic tension in the way of superman-like healing powers.

The production quality is very underwhelming, choosing some slightly risky avenues of filmmaking that never pay off because of its limited funding. For starters, the camera work is very agitating, taking the annoyances of handheld camera work to new lows with eye level heights that intend to put us in the shoes of our younger cast members. It’s clear that this cameraman had very little handle from a height that is much smaller that he or she is probably used to because there’s all of this shaking that feels like twitching that comes through in their sequencing. If this wasn’t enough, the editing would rather take the easy way out than do its part to help the bewildering decisions that came with crafting personal takes. These are the scenes that usually go back and forth between characters, establishing several cuts in editing that helps the free-flowing nature of a scene seamlessly. Unfortunately, the film leaves the camera on for some long takes in scenes, a fact that could work with better acting and even more importantly less extreme close-ups on the faces of every little boy. The camera work weaves its way in and out of every character like we are supposed to be intimate with them, a thought process that I would rather not approach with a majority of the ensemble being impressionable youths. When there’s adults and kids in a scene together? FORGET IT. The jarring movements of high-and-low will have you visually feeling like you are on a roller-coaster that doesn’t know when to quit, unfortunately I didn’t either.

What I did take positively from the film is at least the attempt to focus on the crumbling of this family and leaving the religion of the production to just passing mentions. I’m not someone who condemns religion in films, but it should at least serve a purpose. The use here is obvious, and thankfully we are never treated to a sermon of hymns that go overboard in hammering home their Jesus narrative. The pacing is decent enough, despite an easy twenty minutes that could easily be cut from this film in introducing one-off characters that never show up again. The acting for the film is far from anything award-worthy, and for the most part, the dialogue reads go by like a Ben Stein impression contest, but Sarah Lancaster has her grip firmly on the pulse of authenticity, emoting Michelle Davis like an actual human being and not a stereotype for the plot. She has great capability with the tears, and with a more firmly developed scene, her emotional release could warrant some goosebumps from the audience watching beyond.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Stray’ might not be the worst or most preaching of the religious exploitation films that I have seen, but it sticks to the tradition of undercooked narratives with a tedious experimental side to filmmaking that keeps that we’ve come to expect from these limited releases. Despite it being a true story, there’s so much about Davis’s reflections that feel manufactured for film, relenting to a side of family importance that takes the ridiculousness in continuing to search for a consistent direction in script and tone that it can (for lack of a better word) faithfully pursue.

3/10

Victoria & Abdul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Blade Runner 2049

Back in 2019 Los Angeles, things were much easier for the jobs of Blade Runners commanding the actions of replicant androids, but three decades later, one man will take the reigns against the advancement of technology that will paralyze society. Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new determined blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to seek out and find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing from the public eye for 30 years. Along the way, Officer K will investigate the seedy business practices of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), better known as ‘The Creator’, and the surprising revelation of K’s involvement in it all. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is directed by Denis Villeneuve, and is rated R for scenes of violence, some sexuality involving nudity, and adult language.

Denis Villenueve is a master magician behind the lens, crafting modern day masterpieces like ‘Sicario’, ‘Prisoners’, and of course my very favorite from him, last year’s ‘Arrival’, which I gave the coveted 10/10 to. But in accepting the job to helm the sequel to one of the most beloved science fiction movies of all time, ‘Blade Runner’, he tests strength in his biggest uphill battle to date. When you consider the adversity of this being thirty-five years after the original, the extremely difficult task of equaling the award-worthy visual presentation of its predecessor, as well as establishing a chapter to the Blade Runner realm without doing damage to that original movie, it certainly seems impossible that this would be anywhere on the same field. But once again Denis proves that he was the first, last, and only choice for the role, as ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a more than worthy competitor to the kind of lightning in a bottle that originally struck for this series. This is every bit the kind of film that fans of a franchise dream about when they hear a sequel is being made, but rarely often get. I went into this film with the highest of expectations that any normal director would crumble under the pressure of, but Villenueve continues to raise the bar for cinematic experiences that bring back the emphasis in taking in his films on the silver screen, assembling a team of over-achievers that each bring their best to offering not just another replicant.

There’s so much to breakdown with this film, but lets begin first with the story. It’s difficult to dissect without giving anything away, but screenwriters Michael Green and Hampton Francher offer an equally encompassing dive into the themes of what defines a human being. Certainly the trait of one’s soul would be more than enough to establish this narrative, but this film proves that there’s so much more than just what is beating on the inside. The themes of love, loss, personal identity, and even freedom more than add their two cents to the very parallels of what divide us from the replicants here. On top of this, there’s much advancement over the last thirty years in story time that has transpired. In this future, it feels like the replicants have advanced, mirroring human emotional response without any qualms, and the sparse humans that roam the Earth are losing what articulately defines them as the envied race. It’s smart to market so much backstory (Including three online shorts that fill in the gaps of the transpired events prior to the film) surrounding these ideals, and there’s so much concrete social commentary within its grasp that offers a glance at the similarities within our own world that are still evident even in this Los Angeles. Most future movies center around themes and ideals that feel like decades away, but Green and Francher provide stern warnings that these environmental issues are closer than we may think.

What I love is that no matter how much material and pinpoints that this screenplay has to hit, it does so in a way that feels entirely satisfying to those seeking answers to the questions that come up. Villenueve is known for his cryptic approach in his movies, challenging the audience to feed into their own theories, but in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, it feels like the answers are always presented in a way that offers little debate. This is certainly a different take from the original film, as many have speculated Rick Deckard’s authenticity since it aired in 1982. But much of the answers are presented early on during the first act. It’s important to pay attention during this time because many of the establishing minutes focus on foreshadowing that will play an important role later on. It certainly feels different to have a detective story with all of the answers almost immediately, but even in knowing the ends to the means, I still found myself perplexed at how this film surprised me over and over again, presenting a contrasting angle to the kind of truths that I already knew without falsifying the scene narration. Speaking of narration, if I did have one tiny problem with the film, it is once again in the overstepping in boundaries that the rare audio narration sometimes provides. This was a big problem in the original movie, and during the third act of this film I feel that yet again it tries to hard to force-feed the audience into knowing the emotional response in the head of K without giving us much time to soak it in. I think the performances are so strong that none of this feels necessary, and I’m thankful it only occurs in a few scenes later on.

As for some of those performances, this ensemble cast prove that there’s no such thing as big or small parts, just impactful ones. Ryan Gosling feels catered for this role. In commanding K, Gosling feels like a product of his weathered environment in personality, as there’s no sign of satisfaction or defining trait that establishes him being happy with his life, emoting a great underlying sadness in his situation that blurs the definition of slavery that I really connected to. Jared Leto was also valuable in fronting the antagonist of sorts in Niander Wallace. Truth be told, Leto is only in three scenes during the movie, but his lasting impression is one of great money and power that center around the legitimacy of what he is doing with the Nexus program. The visual darkness that surrounds his character is more than just a clever metaphor for what Niander has done with this business, and Leto’s almost robotic delivery will have you hanging on his every word. The favorite for me however, was definitely Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Niander’s trusty right hand replicant. Luv partakes in all of the dirty work for the antagonists of the film, especially with Leto’s noticeable absence during the second act, but she is more than up to the task. Luv is the kind of female antagonist that ushers in a refreshing combination of exuberant confidence, as well as deadly muscle to make her a more than a worthy representation of feminist progression during modern times. Hoeks steals every scene that she is in, giving forth to the inevitable threat that is hot on the tail of K and company. A taste in direction that is better suited with a woman’s touch.

But what Blade Runner sequel would be a success without an entrancing visual stage that pops the eyes without the use of 3D technology? Enter the best cinematographer working today, Roger Deakins, as well as one of the very best musical composers of all time in film, Hans Zimmer. Together, these two set the mood in stage and sound that transfixed me in ways that made me want to pause the film to soak in every epic shot for just a bit longer. This has always been my favorite fantasy landscape in film, and Deakins presence behind the screen captures a barrage of visual enticements during every shot that casts great replay value during its brief fly-by’s. The duo of Zimmer and Deakins are so in-sync here that they often feel like the same person, crafting a presence of beauty and despair equally in sight and sound at the beginning of every establishing shot that rivets your immersion into these foreign backdrops. Deakins scope has never been bigger, but it’s in his lighting for each scene that offers a diversity of color that never limits him to just one shade. Despite being computer generated for the most part, his manipulation of natural light feels authentic in a kind of stained glass kind of feel to the sequences, providing the important emphasis that color constructs in appropriately setting the mood. The sound as well is Oscar worthy, vibrating the tones of Zimmer to pulse-setting levels of diversity in instrumentals that constantly always give that sense of dread in the air. It was a dream team combination to see and hear these two together, and because of their importance to a film so wrapped in presentation, you couldn’t have chosen two better men for the job.

THE VERDICT – The best kind of sequels are the ones that establish the importance of its own chapter while adding depth to the original, and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is the rare example of a perfectly crafted science fiction film that will equally stand the test of time to its predecessor for its own wondrous reasons. Through nearly three concentrated hours of epic cyberpunk presentations and imaginative thought-provoking material, Villenueve spins a spellbinding immersion of biblical proportions that doesn’t require nostalgia in getting its feet wet. One of few films that must be seen in theaters, and one of the only that this critic will see again.

10/10

Woodshock

The grief and anguish of loss takes many mental and physical forms, in the new psychological melodrama ‘Woodshock’. The exquisite feature film debut of visionary fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy , their film is a hypnotic exploration of isolation, paranoia, and grief that exists in a dream-world all on its own. Kirsten Dunst stars as Theresa, a haunted young woman spiraling in the wake of profound loss, torn between her fractured emotional state and the reality-altering effects of a potent cannabinoid drug that has got her uncertain about the things that she sees and feels. Immersive, spellbinding, and sublime, ‘Woodshock’ transcends genre to become a singularly thrilling cinematic experience that marks the arrival of the Mulleavy siblings as a major new voice in film. ‘Woodshock’ is rated R for drug use, adult language and a scene of violence.

We’ve all been around that pothead at a party who has had too many tokes on the old wisdom weed and decides to tell a story. For whatever reason, his story could last a minute, five minutes, or in some cases even ten minutes if he is committed to enough bullshit and payoffs in laughs from a crowd who are just trying to be nice to him. Under no circumstances however, can anyone be nice to a guy of this description for 95 minutes, and that’s ultimately what my experience with ‘Woodshock’ gave me. The Mulleavy’s certainly know what is captivatingly original about their visual spectrum to this film, but as screenwriters they have plenty to learn about entertainment value that lends no favors to their debut featurette. For all of its dabs into visual and literal intoxication, the film feels like it is jumbled into a million pieces, never having the glue or the right hands behind it to getting its narrative base put back together to make a cohesive whole. Sadly, the most obvious fact that I will take away from this film is that Kirsten Dunst has a fantastic body, a statement that I feel disgusting for mentioning in a theatrical review, but none the less relevant when compared to how little else I took away from this sloppy disaster.

The dialogue in this film comes at a minimal offering, choosing instead to visually depict the kind of emotions and post-traumatic traits that come with losing the most important person in one’s life. I don’t personally have a problem with this particular direction. Most notably ‘A Ghost Story’ this year succeeded at visually carrying the double load in progression for the narrative, and never struggled once. At this perspective, I was riveted early on during the first act, looking forward to what theologies and spins on the afterlife for those still living that these sisters indulged in. Sadly that movie never materialized, and what we do get in return is a barrage of mind-numbingly vague sequences, as well as quick-cut edits that at least unintentionally pay homage to the kind of editing that Aronofsky was doing in ‘Requiem For A Dream’. The film’s pacing stalls out repeatedly, making the entirety of the second act feel like a chore that feels like it is paying zero dividends to the kind of progression that this film needs in getting us ready for a gut-punching final act. That too is wasted away in the hazy cloud that engulfs this movie whole, closing out with some last minute twists that intend to resonate, but fail to break the rough exterior of anger that I felt from being mislead one time too many throughout this picture.

Another big negative for me comes in the neglect of character exposition that not only makes these characters feel foreign, but also gives the supporting cast no weight of importance to the film’s lasting memory. There’s no question that this is a one woman show of sorts, with most of the attention being paid to that of Dunst’s Theresa, but as a character she feels too underwhelming and quite self-pitying to ever bask in the sadness and emotional distress that she is going through. So much of her actions and movements are overly repetitive that I often found myself wondering if the film intentionally repeated scenes from earlier, but instead just decided to portray the same result, but this time with slightly different consequences. And because so much of the imagery that we are seeing is being played out by the drug use in that of our central protagonist, there’s a haze about the film’s cerebrum perspective that fails to give any kind of insight into Theresa’s rumored past that the film only hints at and fails to ever fully materialize. It makes for a focus in presentation that doesn’t feel interested in exploring the effects that Theresa’s shaky behavior has on others, yet doesn’t give us a lot of reasons in excitement to ever stay committed to her perspective.

As for performances, I will choose to only speak about Dunst because frankly everyone else is just afterthoughts in the prime focus of screen time and dialogue. It feels like we’re at that point in the career of Kirsten’s where she is beginning to explore in her choice of roles. Most recently, her portrayal in ‘The Beguiled’ felt like the right kind of motherly hands to carefully cradle the film’s often conventional approach. For ‘Woodshock’, she’s asked to be depended upon again, and this time harbors an enigmatic delivery in Theresa that articulately conveys the imprisonment of grief. There are times when you’re not sure whether to laugh, cry, or stay paralyzed from her volcanic offering that constantly builds itself in every scene. Most definitely in the third act, we see the biggest parallel in her previously reserved embodiment, and the anger that multiplies in her eyes in the later scenes brought the only kind of emotional feeling that I related to during the film, saving me temporarily from the depths of boredom that clouded this film entirely.

Without a doubt though, my favorite aspect to the film and one that keeps it above water from being one of the more dreadful theatrical experiences of the year for me is in the film’s visual compass that declares the marriage of art and fashion like only siblings of this magnitude can do. The editing can be choppy at times, but the grainy spectrum when combined with off-center framing gives the film an unnatural home video kind of feel to it that I found vividly appealing. In my opinion, it feels like much of this movie was shot on reeled film, a form of filming that sadly is limited in its uses during the digital age, and evidence of such seems apparent especially during these psychological scenes that mirror that of Theresa’s past and present. It’s presented in a manner that doesn’t feel tampered or manipulated with in digital encoding, but natural in how appealing the very unappealing vision of it comes across. It’s just too perfect to be unnatural, and presents some beautifully hypnotizing trances that keeps us in its daydream.

THE VERDICT – The buzz of two reputable sisters like the Mulleavy’s should’ve been enough to carry it through a dreary and dreamy trip through bereavement, but their debut effort stumbles at nearly every narrative miscue and patience-testing minute that ruins the high. Like most trips, afterwards you’re hungry for something of substance, and sadly you won’t find it in this clouded and convoluted fog that blurs the line of some pretty cutting edge photography. Dunst is riveting, but this is one Mary Jane that she might want to distance herself from.

3/10

The Mountain Between Us

The meeting and befriending of two total strangers will require them to depend upon one another in the coldest of conditions, in ‘The Mountain Between Us’. Stranded after meeting and co-ushering a tragic plane crash, two strangers (Kate Winslet and Idris Elba) must forge a connection of trust between them to survive the extreme elements of a remote snow covered mountain in the coldest of conditions. When they realize help is not coming, they embark on a perilous journey across hundreds of miles of wilderness, pushing one another to endure and discovering strength they never knew possible. Along the way, they learn plenty about each other that prove appearances aren’t everything. ‘The Mountain Between Us’ is directed by Hany Abu-Assad, and is rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury imagery, and brief strong adult language.

‘The Mountain Between Us’ has a lot of potential from its personality and charm as a result of the turns of its two extremely likeable leads, but treads on thin ice with a barrage of romantic genre cliches that ultimately sink it. Undeniably, there’s too much weight of predictability and unnecessary comedic tone here that takes away from the intrigue and suspense that counteracts what the film builds on itself for an isolated disaster movie during the first act, and it’s proof that these opposite directions clash with the most dire of consequences, leading to much of what the audience will wisely enough discover from just the brief character outlines. It was maybe thirty minutes into this film when I mapped everything out that was going to happen in this movie, complete with character backstories and forced innuendos in screenplay that really takes the breath from a movie this limited. Sure, there isn’t a lot that you can do with a movie primarily set in one place, but films like ‘127 Hours’ and ‘Cast Away’ serve as validated examples of keeping the focus equally on the characters, as well as the conditions in consequences of the landscape, the latter of which Abu-Assad’s drifts away from like the very snow coming off of the landscapes.

From the get-go, Winslet and Elba’s characters meet and feel like old college friends. This is a puzzling direction immediately because it lacks some of the awkwardness and the vulnerability that will come into play later with trusting someone you just met. If these two are working together as a team early on, it will limit the transformations and growth that each character supplants with one another as the film goes on, and their resources become more and more limited. What I did enjoy about the screenplay is that it all kind of centers around this one conversation that the two characters have about brain versus heart, and in that instance the roles that each one of them play in such a debate. Elba is definitely the brain, considering his character is a surgical doctor and he is the one who plainly speaks “The heart is just a muscle”. Winslet’s character takes offense to that statement, and it’s clear that her drive and perseverance provide her with so much of that muscle that it often provides the light to keep on going. The film is also tightly paced until the third act, in which the movie feels like it tacks on one too many endings to cater to the audience who might feel alienated from a brave approach in closing minutes. I found this to drag on immensely, and I wish that some of the risk taking that the screenplay took in the mountain’s final minutes would’ve carried over to the film’s closing because it screams out the desperation that feeds into the redundant machine of romantic movie cliches.

On the subject of some of those cliches, this film has absolutely no shortage of them, providing an unintended spark of comedy that some can’t help but roll their eyes at. Considering these are two good looking people in the heart of the winter season on the rockies, this script practically writes itself. This feels even too obvious to someone like Nicholas Sparks, whose films revel in the opportunity to make a teenager’s most romantic fantasies come true, and leave out the logic or awkward exchanges between two strangers who met only days before. My issue with this aspect isn’t so much the overflowing amount of their uses, but more so in just how dishonest and undercooked that it makes this story feel. As the film carries into the second half, I found myself occasionally forgetting that these two were stranded because it’s clear that the film’s focus of that aspect felt secondary to the importance of a man and woman in seclusion, miles away from anyone, and with only the power to keep each other warm. If you think that sounds bad, I’m literally vomiting in my mouth as I type this out.

At least the scope of Abu-Assad and company bring aplenty to the film’s breathtakingly gorgeous production that certainly set the stage for the cold and unforgiven conditions. The decision to film this movie on location reaches levels of importance not only in immersing yourself in the very environment that our protagonists are thrust into, but also in the believability in physical performances that feel authentic to the toll of their body’s beat-down. The wide angle lens plays a valuable role here in accomplishing some the immensity of this landscape and the kind of uphill climb that the two now face. But not to lay back and play it safe from afar, the film also is credited with some vibrant experimental shots that had me twisting and turning in my seat quite a few times from the kind of point-of-view that the visuals cast us into. One such example is a scene involving Elba near the peak of a mountain, when he loses his footing and is sliding down towards the edge. Elba stops himself, but the camera keeps on going over the cliff, and it gives off this feeling of unpredictability even when the curtain has already revealed the result.

The performances as well are equally praising, even if the material frequently lets Elba and Winslet down in nearly every instance from conventional stakes. There’s no question that these two are too good for this kind of film this late in their careers, but I indulged none the less in their impeccable chemistry that they enveloped each and every scene with. I mentioned earlier that these two give such physically gifted performances on top of their already resilient personalities, but it’s in the work of Elba and the kind of secrets that transpire late into the movie surrounding his past that prove how capable he is of holding a script in the palm of his hands. Winslet is no slouch either, it’s just that the emotional register of Idris when it feels like a camera has got him cornered, is an illuminating shine that only gets brighter for him with each passing role. Kate’s on-time delivery in sarcastic wit plays valuable into keeping the attention spans firmly locked in on the movie during some trying times in pacing, and it all just serves as a testament to one of the most dependable leading ladies even still in all of Hollywood.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Mountain Between Us’ will certainly have its fans of date night moviegoers looking for a few simple thrills in action sequences, as well as some soft tenderness to go with a love story that you can get behind. Unfortunately for this critic, my heart is worth so much more, bringing to mind the never-ending inclusion of romantic movie tropes that exposed the predictability in every direction. If the film ends ten minutes before the string of false finishes, then it would be enough for me to push this through with a passing grade. But this, in addition to the overly telegraphed peril, and there’s nothing that could’ve closed the mountain of distance between me and Abu-Assad’s film.

5/10

Super Dark Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Gerald’s Game

Seclusion and isolation are the keys to ‘Gerald’s Game’ that sees a woman on the edge for the fight of her life. Based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel of the same name, the film revolves around Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) and his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) as they attempt to rekindle the flames of their marriage with a retreat to their remote lake house. All is hot and heavy, but when a dangerous sex game accidentally kills Gerald and leaves Jessie handcuffed to the bed, the latter is forced to overcome panic and hallucinations from her past if she wants to escape, proving that shackles are only meant to subdue a person and not actually confine. ‘Gerald’s Game’ is written and directed by Mike Flanagan, and was not rated at time of publication, despite having scenes of bloody gore, as well as some minor adult language.

What I think makes director Mike Flanagan and the projects that he chooses to helm stand out as more appealing than that of the typical modern day horror director is that Flanagan realizes the importance of a psychological spin to the horror genre. Simply put, without mental prowess, a horror film is just flashes of mindless gore with nothing appealing behind the wheel. ‘Gerald’s Game’ is perhaps his single greatest accomplishment to date, bringing to life the pages of King’s book in a way that even the sharp tongued critic in Stephen would appreciate. He respects the material that came before him, but crafts it in a way that makes the film his own unique artistic vision, and it’s one that I respect tenfold for its simplicity. This film certainly feels like King’s most faithful adaptation to date based on the source material, offering very few changes in the way of circumstantial negatives for myself or any King enthusiast to balk at. Clocking in at 103 minutes, the pacing is kept appropriately tight, even if this one primary location setting does expectedly hinder what it can do in entertaining value consistently. The production is kept reasonably cheap, and thankfully because of outlets like Netflix, we no longer have to worry about mainstream television standards that chop up King’s films in mini series format for all to wonder what could’ve been.

Because this is a very cerebral screenplay, there’s so much about ‘Gerald’s Game’ that gets inside of the head of its central protagonist, as well as the viewers watching at home, and offers us a glimpse into a tortured woman whose soul never left her dark and abusive past. I do love a slow-burner, and this one feels satisfied cooking its material at 300 degrees, so just to let each square inch of its arresting substance peel back one layer at a time. There’s a very creative take with how Jessie’s character confides and communicates with herself that I feel like really gave the movie a boost of entertainment value towards sarcastic wit, while playing into the adversity of the ever-stacking odds in front of her. The additions of Jessie and Gerald as secondary characters serving as real Jessie’s conscience goes a long way in organizing the strategy that she herself takes to get out of her captivity step by step. This also feels like a therapeutic way to communicate with Gerald from the grave and get out some secrets about herself that she was always too guarded to tell him. Then there’s the dog, who is portrayed as time, the very essence that Jessie herself has limited amount of. These intricate and original takes for their respective positions are what gives this story the kind of personality relevant to a King plot and really maximize the collision of vulnerability when it’s on a course meeting with the inevitable.

The scares in the movie resort more to the psychological torture of one’s past and the role that it plays in shaping the person that stands before us today. There is no need for silly and ill-timed jump scares here, and thankfully Flanagan invests more in what haunts us instead of what stalks us. The difference of course feeding into that age-old theory that the scariest thing that will ever happen to us has indeed already happened, and for Jessie re-living that day brings out the nightmares of her dreams for us to feel warm compassion for her character. There is still the expected blood and gore in the film like there would be any horror film, but they save it for the time when it makes the biggest impact after withholding it for nearly an hour and a half for a finale that had me covering my eyes from the shock factor of it all. From the effect and prop work delivered here, I would expect that this sequence receive no less than Oscar consideration from the academy, as it is every bit believable as it is terrifying from the uncertainty that envelopes its unpredictability.

This is also a very stylish and artistic film at times, even if that vision is kept on the most minimal of terms in majority. The eclipse sequences in the film offer a beautifully decadent red tint that serves as a metaphor for the shackles that envelope Jessie both in and out of her current bedroom setting, and faithfully depict this rare occasion better than any film that I have ever seen with an eclipse in it. The cinematography for the film is impressive considering this is a Netflix first project. There’s many articulate measures that Flanagan and company puppeteer with the natural lighting outside that plays many tricks on the minds of us at home during a film when we never see a clock shown even once in the movie. The camera work offers a very eclectic display of wide angle and close up shots that constantly keeps the pacing of each scene moving fluently, and the establishing shots of the lake and woods area surrounding articulately explore the setting of how secluded these two characters really are, and just what that entails for their current predicaments.

I would be a fool if I didn’t mention the outstanding portrayal of Jessie by Carla Gugino, in her single greatest performance to date. Do they give award consideration for Netflix films? If so, Carla should be at the front of that list, treading the tight rope of the enigmatic Jessie, whom we feel even early on that something terrible has happened to her because of Carla’s tender withdraw from what should be a fun weekend away from it all. The kind of impact in visual storytelling on the face of Gugino touched more than just a nerve with me emotionally, and there’s something to be said about a woman who just witnessed her husband die, and yet that isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to her. Her performance is flawless in execution, and her hypnotic trance kept my focus firmly planted on her even in the most physically restricted of roles that she’s taken on. Bruce Greenwood also offers plenty despite leaving us early on in the film. The chemistry between he and Gugino feels authentically in depicting that of a longtime married couple whose best days are behind them, and Bruce’s Gerald serves as the catalyst behind Jessie’s motivation to defeat the trauma with the will to live.

THE VERDICT – ‘Gerald’s Game’ proves that you don’t need major budgets or buckets of blood to render a mentally haunting tale of despair based on the things we have no control over. Ironically, it is the complexity of a simplistic approach to detail that returns Flanagan yet another winner in imaginative horror tenfold. Gugino is a whirlwind in performing arts that devastates anything and everything in her wake, and this two person show has enough versatility to field two movies. Netflix continues to kill it with their handled approach to cherished properties that makes them only second to Disney in that category. This is one game with serious consequences.

9/10

Til Death Do Us Part

All is fair in love, marriage, and life-threatening war, in the newest dramatic thriller, ‘Til Death Do Us Part. Michael (Stephen Bishop) and Madison (Annie Ilonzeh) Roland had planned to spend the rest of their lives together after getting married, until one day Michael’s scary controlling ways turned their perfect marriage into a hostile game of escape for Madison. With the help of her best friend, Chelsea (Robinne Lee), Madison decides to get away. After adopting a new identity, she meets Alex Stone (Taye Diggs) and learns to love again. All is well, until Michael discovers Madison’s whereabouts, and recreates the nightmare she once lived all over again. ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ is written and directed by Chris Stokes, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving domestic abuse, violence, some sexuality and adult language.

My opinion for the most overcrowded subgenre of films is in that of black stalker dramas that give us three or four of these similarly structured plots each year. Already this year, ‘Unforgettable’ made its presence felt, but the magic enveloped in ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ makes that previous film feel like ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. This is an awful movie, highlighted by the cheapest of production qualities that give it that VH1 Sunday Night Drama visual enticement. I didn’t even learn about the existence of this movie until two days ago, and I debated even seeing it until I saw the laughably bad acting and redundant plot that instantly made me yell out “Another one of these?” ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ feels like walking down the aisle with a property that you truly know in your heart is doomed for failure, but you’re forced to love it all the same even when the red flags pop up like weeds all over this film. Is there anything salvagable about it? Only the positivity of laughing at its unintentionally benign ideas for how the real world works, exchanging common sense for scandalous propaganda at every mind-numbingly sufferable turn. It all makes a case for possibly the worst movie that I have seen of 2017, and that is saying a lot to compete with the gutter offerings of this underwhelming year.

First of all is the character framing for the film that really made me question who truly was the villain in a movie that centered around female domestic abuse. The first act of the movie showcases Michael in a way that any of us can understand and reason with. Sure he’s a little too fake in personality on the outside, but never anything that feels like a foreshadowed warning for events to come. Madison is presented as a pushy, self-centered, and even forceful protagonist that wants, needs, and has had to have a baby since she was five years old. If you think I am embellishing here for the sake of a review, you’re sadly mistaken. I found it disgusting that right up until Michael laid a hand on Madison, that I was fully in his camp of thought process considering he has given her everything up to this point. Despite how little I believe that no signs of Michael’s abuse have popped up to Madison up to this point, I find it even more difficult that these two have anything in common with the lack of internal chemistry or bumbling line reads that omits between them. It goes nowhere often, and each scene feels worse than the previous one because of the kind of dialogue that beats the obvious intention of direction over the head of the audience with each crushing blow.

The tide is turned about thirty minutes into the film when Madison (Spoiler) decides to fake her death in the most elaborate scheme that I have ever seen. She hires a male friend to play her doctor, he renders her unconscious with a medicine that stops her heart for two minutes, and somehow the hospital stands by without asking any questions? Considering they have to use an actual hospital room for the procedure, I don’t see how this secret was kept successfully. You know what’s even more asinine? How did Michael not once ask to see his wife pre or post death announcement? The movie doesn’t care about these questions because it has to keep going with painfully mangled storytelling that often feels out of place from scene to scene. I say this because there is one scene where Madison is beaten up by her husband, only to be happy and talkative in the next. Yet the scene after this will show her as battered and bottled up because of the events of two scenes prior. NOTHING MAKES SENSE. If a film’s story is a straight and narrow line, this film’s sequencing looks a kid with a disruptive bladder is drawing on an etch-a-sketch. It’s so hard to stay invested in something that is constantly moving and doesn’t slow down in order to soak in the weight of each pivotal (If you can call it that) moment of plot details.

Refusing to be outdone by the flawed screenplay, is the visual presentation that truly made me furious on how a film of this amateur level got funded. The editing is so choppy that it often feels like it cuts out just at the moment when we’re making up some ground on character development or maximizing the dramatic tension. An example of this poor editing is a scene early on in which Michael is visiting the graves of his deceased Mother and Father. After he’s done talking to them, he walks away, the scene cuts, and the next scene is him back at his house knocking on the door. Without a new establishing shot, this feels like the scene is trying to tell us that he has two buried parents in his backyard amongst a field of other unrelated tombstones. If you think this is bad though, it doesn’t hold a candle to the music video style of artistic direction that the film’s soundtrack and cinematography takes us through. For some strange reason, the film feels like it is being forced to sell the soundtrack, because we get these uproaring musical cues in each scene that play at such an ear-shattering level that I couldn’t help but clutch my head from the voices that were seeping in. If this isn’t enough, we can’t go literally two minutes or two scenes without a lyrical song playing in the background to strike up the mood of a particular scene or to introduce the first in a series of musical montages that we are treated to in this film. The worst of this offering definitely comes from Taye Diggs workout regimen that includes him listening to deathgore metal unlike anything you’ve heard in the movie. It’s funny enough to envision Taye Diggs enjoys music where you can’t understand the lyrics because of thunderous guitar chords, but it’s even funnier when you consider this is a soundtrack that includes Flo-Rida’s ‘My House’ and ‘Son of a Preacher Man’.

As for performances, there’s nothing worthy enough to even remotely save this flop, but Taye Diggs in always enjoyable to see in the few scenes he pops up in late in the movie. Again though, there’s no chemistry between he and Ilonzeh to match her previous establishment with Bishop, so the film is missing the kind of depth in heart from these performances that make you invested in th well-being of their characters. Ilonzeh and Bishop trade in demeanor and commitment to character for the ability to yell their dialogue every few minutes into the camera. Somewhere this is considered acting, but here it feels annoyingly childish in representation for how real people act. Is there yelling in relationships? Of course, but you build to that moment, you don’t start off with the amps on 10 to begin with. Bishop has the visuals of a prominent psychotic antagonist, but his delivery often makes his register feel forced and hollow of the establishing anger that is buried deep beneath his discovery of betrayal. Stokes often writes him into a corner, taking him down roads of unoriginality that many more established actors have traveled down years before him.

THE VERDICT – There was never a minute where I was convinced that I was going to enjoy ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, but the uninspiring overall presentation and lack of emotional center make this campy thriller a death sentence for staying awake. Stokes surgically removes logic from his story, parading us through one event after another of implausable consequence that doesn’t even remotely touch base with the human spirit. Could I be taking this a bit too seriously? Perhaps, but if a B-grade thriller flick can’t even embrace the fun within its own inane concepts, why should I feel light-hearted for it wasting 96 minutes of my life? Til Death Do Us Part? Why wait?

2/10