Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed By Drew Goddard

Starring – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson

The Plot – Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption; before everything goes to hell.

Rated R for strong violence, adult language, some drug content and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– We have to kick this off with the hotel itself. From a design and architecture perspective, this is a beautiful one stage setting for the entirety of this story’s current day narrative. In setting this story in the 1960’s, we are treated to these vibrant auburns and golds, the likes of which aren’t typically used to channel this particular era of American culture, and they do wonder in bringing the styles of Nevada and California together for a marriage of visual eye candy that is out of this world. The hallways and body of the hotel stretches and twists for what feels like miles, bringing with it a sense of a developing character in the script that hears and sees everything that these mysterious characters are doing.

– Goddard’s non-linear manner of storytelling. I’ve heard much to the dismay of many people about this element within the film, and while I do agree that at times it can be unnecessarily convoluted, it never confused or left me limited in understanding what is unfolding. Occasionally, the film will pause in modern day and rewind to the past, in order to better understand these characters and their current predicaments. This gives the film this sort of television element to its exposition, giving us a sense that the present is nothing to these people without the molding of a past that has taken them to this point.

– 136 minutes that are well worth it. One difficult thing for a film to do in 2018 is to craft a script that positively justifies the existence of each and every single minute, and keeps the entertainment factor in pacing firmly gripped at the pulse of its audience. Goddard succeeds at this because he presents these intriguing characters played by a super talented cast, and invests valuable minutes in telling us the whole story from many different perspectives. There is one sequence in the movie that repeats four different times, and it’s maybe not the most synthetic way to keep the audience engaged, but I can say that it worked for me because it illustrates how many layers are added to this one scene that could’ve easily been just another bump in the night at this eventful hotel. Note – This aspect will depend on how big your investment of the characters are.

– Drew Goddard loves his deconstructions. In “Cabin In The Woods”, he broke down the elements of horror in a way that was innovative and genius for hardcore fans of the genre. That theme continues in “El Royale”, although not as evident on the surface. Considering this takes place on the west coast of the 60’s, we are treated to cults, presidential scandals, and hotel wire tapping, and these elements channel a vibe of paranoia that was very prominent on our home soil during the Vietnam War era, and at the heart of it are these four strangers who are influenced by at least one of those things, and are molded together like a science experiment of atoms reacting to one another.

– A toe-tapping eclectic soundtrack of records and performances. The El Royale feels like a place where music is constantly breathing in the atmosphere, and there’s no more evidence of that feeling than the collection of Motown soul and groovy rock that makes up its almost spiritual jukebox that adorns the hotel lobby. To top that off, the leading female of the movie, Cynthia Erivo is herself a singer in real life, and the film takes advantage of this on more than a couple of occasions. Erivo bends notes to the point that they make the entire song feel fresh and debuting for the first time, and proved that this actress is so much more than just a pretty face.

– Speaking of which, the ensemble cast here is absolutely amazing, bringing to life many unique personalities and characters who I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Everyone is bringing their A-games to the screen, but there’s three people for me who stole the movie, and that’s Bridges, Erivo, and even Chris Hemsworth, who plays the leader of this dangerous cult. Chris is only in the film for forty minutes, but he makes the most of his limited minutes by carving out an egotistical antagonist side to his early resume that has me begging for more. Then there’s the magic between Bridges and Erivo that has them feeling like lifelong soul mates who are meeting for the first time. We already know that there’s plenty of secrets between them, but Erivo’s gentle touch when her walls come down casts strong empathy for her character, and Bridges wide range of demands brings us the best acting that he has done in decades.

– Tarrantino channeling. Lets get it out of the way; Drew Goddard is certainly a fan of Quentin Tarrantino and the elements that go into making his films as a one-of-a-kind experience. If he wasn’t, he certainly fooled me by crafting so many dialogue-heavy long scenes read by these very eccentric characters. I may be looking too far into this, but if I didn’t know any better I would think that Drew Goddard is an alias of Quentin Tarrantino, because so much of this film feels like a respectful homage, and not necessarily a theft of the aspects that Tarrantino made famous. Never mind that the El Royale may or may not be a nod to “Pulp Fiction”.

– Crisp editing for its violent turns. I almost missed this aspect of the film, and had it not been for some perfectly tightened transitions during the big blows, I probably would have. Without spoiling much, I will say that the crushing and fatal blows that happen in this film are cut and pasted together so wonderfully that I winced and exerted during the sparse occasions that they would invade the screen. Those for me are the best documentation of action sequences: when you feel the surprise and the detection of the blow equally, and that is something “Bad Times” does exceptionally well.

NEGATIVES

– Light bothers. There’s a bit of a stretching of disbelief for me, in that each of these dangerous people with such important motivations arrive at the hotel at almost literally the exact same time. In addition to this, there is a subplot involving this camera footage that we are reminded of every five minutes during the film, and we never find out who is actually on the film. Likewise, the frequent mention of hotel ownership leading to no reveal feels pointless for me.

– Twists? Trailers of this film promised many twists in the screenplay that never fully materialized for me. For one, these aren’t exactly twists as they are character threads, or even misconceptions. So much of what transpires between these people could be better communicated if they took the to just ask questions instead of jumping to these illogical actions. Much of the screenplay to me was easily telegraphed, and that didn’t ruin the experience for me, it’s just that you shouldn’t go into this film expecting some ground-shaking revelation, because it never comes.

8/10

The Old Man & The Gun

Directed By David Lowery

Starring – Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek

The Plot – Based on the true story of Forrest Tucker (Redford), from his audacious escape from San Quentin at the age of 70 to an unprecedented string of heists that confounded authorities and enchanted the public. Wrapped up in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and a woman (Spacek), who loves him in spite of his chosen profession.

Rated PG-13 for brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Redford’s last stand. If this is the final film of Robert Redford as rumored, then it feels appropriate that his career has begun and ended with a western. In fact, I feel like this film works better as a goodbye to Redford than it does a movie on its own. Especially with clips of Redford’s earlier film “The Chase” being inserted into a montage sequence. The philosophies behind living, growing old, and the constructs of time echo Redford’s career to a tee, and this allows the screenplay to transcend that of a film many times throughout.

– Impeccable chemistry. Speaking of Redford, the work between he and Sissy Spaceck charms and delights our senses in each and every scene. The dynamic between them is rich with charisma and on-point banter that we can never get enough of, making it easier with each scene to fall in love with both of them, especially when Daniel Hart’s jazz-flowing scores narrate such a seduction. Seriously, when they are together, the film flies by so much smoother, but the distance that grows between them does a disservice to a film like this that has a big enough outlet for romance in its live fast lifestyle choices.

– Unique production values. To say that this film feels like something straight out of the 70’s is an understatement. Joe Anderson’s grainy cinematography graphics combined with vintage side pan and slow zoom camera movements succesfully pays homage to the disco age of filmmaking, giving “The Old Man and the Gun” a one of a kind presentation that is totally out of this generation. In fact, it’s jarring to occasionally see newer film stars of this decade on screen, because it feels like they got into a time machine to the 70’s to further convolute their respective filmographies.

– Accurate depiction of the real Forest Tucker. Considering this is based on a true story, it would be expected that the film would take a few liberties with the material, but “The Old Man and The Gun” stays on a narrow path of fact and tastefulness that prove why he was arguably good or bad at his role of a robber. The film highlights Tucker as an intelligent individual whose biggest curse was the inability to live a normal life, and it’s in this curse where we learn the most about the mild manners of the man who charmed many he came into contact with.

– One song broke my replay button. Beyond just the use of this song in my single favorite scene in the movie, Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” is on my limited list of favorite tracks from a film for the 2018 movie season. Frank’s somber repetitve lyrical deliveries echo that of a Dylan-meets-Buckley kind of vibe, and it’s a track that haunted me in the most intoxicating way, long after I left the theater. I suggest you give it a listen and turn it up.

– Part of what I love about Lowery as a director that makes him perfect for this particular project is the inclusion of random images that don’t necessarily add anything but atmosphere to the unfolding scene. For example, the editing cuts at random times and cuts to people or objects that were initially out of frame, but are now receiving focus in the most charming out-of-context manner. In this perspective, it feels like David is trying to relay the idea that little things happen are happening all around us, and the matters of random play into fate whether we want them too or not.

– My favorite kind of westerns are the ones that build two sides equally without compromising the other, and the fight for leverage between Redford and Affleck equally provides two sides that you want to come out unharmed. When you have two characters from different sides you care about, your investment in the movie and their well-being doubles, and Lowery as a screenwriter is intelligent enough to understand that the chaser is just as important to the story as the one he’s hunting, giving away the concept of an antagonist for the movie to be anything other than the inevitability of time.

NEGATIVES

– Something’s missing. When I left the theater, I had an overwhelming feeling that something was missing from the movie, and then it finally hit me. This film for the entirety of 88 minutes has little or no danger or urgency to it. My opinion is that it might focus a bit too much on the charms of Tucker to ever make him look truly bad or wrong in his convictions, giving away any remote thrills or tension that a film like this could desperately use.

– Occasionally meaningless scenes or characters. Without spoiling much, I can say one scene in particular featuring Elisabeth Moss as Tucker’s distant daughter did nothing for the complexion or even the sensibility of the film’s unraveling narrative. What confuses me is how this woman who has never met her father once not only knows so much about his traits, but also how she even has pictures of him in the first place. In addition to this, the very existence of Affleck’s character considering where the film ends. This is summarized by an in-person exchange between Redford and Affleck that sounds cool on paper, but only feeds into the lack of energy that I mentioned in the previous negative. It’s sad because I love Lowery as a director, but his writing is faulty at best.

– Lowery has always had a desire to pan out his scenes, testing the pacing time-and-time-again in ways that would paralyze other films. Where that worked in a film like “A Ghost Story”, when Rooney Mara is devouring a pie for five straight minutes, is in how he depicts the isolation and condemning feeling of grief and what it does to the human soul. Here, that same stretching of the pacing hinders the entertainment value of the film without adding anything of substance to what its plodding is trying to convey. More than anything, this is present during the second act, when Affleck’s subplot overstretches its boundaries and domination on screen time over the Redford/Spacek dynamic. It’s nowhere near as testing as eating a pie continuously, but it’s nowhere near as substansive as that take either.

7/10

Colette

Directed By Wash Westmoreland

Starring – Keira Knightley, Eleanor Tomlinson, Dominic West

The Plot – After marrying a successful Parisian writer known commonly as “Willy” (West), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is transplanted from her childhood home in rural France to the intellectual and artistic splendor of Paris. Soon after, Willy convinces Colette to ghostwrite for him. She pens a semi-autobiographical novel about a witty and brazen country girl named Claudine, sparking a bestseller and a cultural sensation. After its success, Colette and Willy become the talk of Paris and their adventures inspire additional Claudine novels. Colette’s fight over creative ownership and gender roles drives her to overcome societal constraints, revolutionizing literature, fashion and sexual expression.

Rated R for some sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Rich and vibrant performances from the film’s leading duo. These are the kind of stirring renditions that lift a so-so screenplay to one that is full of radiant energy and impeccable chemistry between them for all of the wrong reasons. As the film’s title character, Knightley is intelligent, cunning, and especially confrontational. For a woman in the late 1800’s, Colette feels like a revolutionary for her respective gender, decades ahead of her time, and Keira is happy to oblige in giving the character the ambiance in fire that is dutifully required. West also shouldn’t be overlooked for his seedy brand of manipulation that gives the film the constant headache and obstacle that it’s protagonist requires.

– “Colette” is enriched with an overwhelming feeling of stage presence that constantly persists throughout the film. In translating to the screen, it’s nice to see that the meat and conflicts aren’t lost, because it’s in those moments when the dialogue diatribes becomes evidently louder, and the movements of camera remain firmly grounded. There were times during the film when I immersed myself into believing that I was watching a stage play, and it’s a testament to Westmoreland’s grip on the film, to never lose sight of what works from within.

– Vibrant production value in wardrobe and shooting locations. Duplicating Paris during the late 19th century presents many coveted opportunities that other films don’t get the blessing of, and “Colette” never squanders this chance, offering a wide variety of triple stitched dresses and suits to capture the ever-changing essence of our leading lady in a conforming male-dominated society, as well as a fine collection of gorgeous sites that were shot in Budapest to channel the vibe of French cultures.

– The depiction of fame in the 19th century. What I found so cool and unique about this perspective is the comparisons between now and then that highlighted many of the same parallels with being in the public eye. Rarely do we get a chance to see this angle played out in such a reformed and distant era from our own, and the inclusion of one informative montage sequence relates just how groundbreaking the Claudine novels were for escapism literature at their time, giving a vote of confidence to women everywhere whether their male counterparts knew it or not.

– Feels important without catering as Oscar bait. Whether this film receives eventual award consideration remains to be seen, but “Colette” thrives as one of these building blocks to a greater civilization without the necessity of feeling pertentious or callous as an independent film. Because of this, I feel like the film has strong crossover value with 21-40 year-old-males, who would otherwise never consider giving a film like this the time of day. It never loses itself in clunky, outdated dialogue, nor does it feel constrained by its sometimes dry time frame, and I hope many diverse audiences will give it a chance.

– Polished cinematography that was made for the silver screen. It’s so nice to see Giles Nuttgens stealing the show again after the triumph in visual storytelling that was “Hell or High Water”, one of my absolute favorite films of 2016, and his entrancing cruise control into the sights and sounds of Paris is something that certainly can’t be understated. It takes its time with painting us into the vibrant environment, and allowing us a vivid seduction of the landscape that are only surpassed by our leading lady’s impeccable character framing shots.

– Much of the dynamic between Colette and Willy is interesting, if only for the comparisons in infedelity that are labeled one way and ignored on another. What I found so honest and appreciative about their relationship is that these two people, who have fallen out of love, no longer wish to put on a charade to the dismay of their own homely environment. They embrace the arms of many other lovers, and do so without ever straying completely away from one another. One could say this is obviously because of Willy’s lock on Colette, and the fact that he needs her to keep writing, but I think it’s evident that if you are a part of someone’s life long enough, you inevitably will remain that way with or without choice. It’s anything but the conventional romantic rise-and-fall that you’re typically used to.

NEGATIVES

– It’s reach for poignancy far exceeds its grasp on some interesting subject material. Throughout the film, but especially in the ever-changing second act, the movie jumps from many pads to cleanse its pallet for many conversation starters, but unfortunately it never has much to say beyond the initial mentioning. Plagiarism, self-identity, and gay relationships are just some of the topics that move in and out of frame without much satisfaction for material, and I wish the film had more of an evident direction and fleshed out conclusion for why it required these stirring subtexts.

– Sharp time lapses. This is without a doubt my biggest problem with “Colette”, as the film feels like a jagged hack-and-slash that constantly trims the fat of some important time periods in Colette’s life. It’s more noticeable than ever during a first act that not only speeds us through three years of exposition within the opening ten minutes of the movie, but also finds itself fighting to gain any momentum in pacing that will challenge the audience right away. It does eventually payoff, but I can see a lot of people feeling weighed down for all of the wrong reasons before the film ever really gets going.

– The dramatic elements of the film are never fully realized, and it renders much of the consistency deaf in tone. There are parts of this film where I uncontrollably laughed at the mayhem that ensued, yet others when my face was a blank portrait for transpired, and for a movie so wrapped in manipulation and betrayal, I felt that the rendering of the finished product goes by without fully ever grasping what kind of feeling should exist within the atmosphere. This feels like 107 minutes that builds to a climax that just kind of comes-and-goes without much firepower, and it leaves the film’s closing minutes as nothing more than a Wikipedia page navigation.

7/10

First Man

Directed By Damien Chazelle

Starring – Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke

The Plot – A Biopic on the life of the legendary American Astronaut Neil Armstrong (Gosling) from 1961-1969, on his journey to becoming the first human to walk the moon. Exploring the sacrifices and costs on the Nation and Neil himself, during one of the most dangerous missions in the history of space travel.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Masterful sound mixing. One of the most difficult things to channel and articulate about a space movie are those often overlooked aspects of atmosphere that are rarely ever channeled properly in audio capturing. That is until Phil Barrie instills his influence of perfectionist touch upon the presentation. Phil’s consistency constantly overshadows what transpires throughout the many missions in space that the film depicts, and does so in a way that combines them into a chorus line of measurements that continues to magnify the tension associated with every scene.

– Needless to say, this film is much more terrifying than any science fiction horror film can muster up. What Chazelle’s intimate exploration proves is that space never needed a world-ending asteroid or an army of venom spewing aliens to relay the risks that follow, illuminating the uncertainty of timely technology that was anything but a perfect science. You’re almost waiting for something to go bad during each attempt, and this thought process only highlights the desire of the mission that is every bit as urgent as it is delicate.

– Without question, my favorite aspect of this film is the seductive camera work and grainy cinematography. On the latter, it’s incredible that IMAX cameras were used to film a majority of this movie because the film’s intentionally dulled down color pallet is something that moved miles in terms of time period consistency, giving “First Man” a transformative feeling to a time when film quality wasn’t as fortunate. On the former, the decision to shoot the ship scenes with so much intimacy and claustrophobia, in addition to the occasional first person point-of-view, is one that pays off immensely for communicating not only the high stakes of the mission, but also how alone and isolated they feel from those they love. Most space films, especially during the 90’s, got this kind of thing wrong, but Chazelle more than anything wanted to illustrate the fragility associated with space exploration, especially during a time when science was anything but exact.

– In addition to the film’s look channeling its respective time period, the production props and wardrobe also vibrate a sense of authentication in subtlety that are sure to please. We are treated to a lot of short sleeve button up business shirts, with a thin tie to bring it all home. Likewise, the many peeks of classic automobiles and outdated Busch Beer cans were something that was a treat behind every corner, leaving no stone unturned for superb production details.

– Depthful screenplay by Josh Singer. In learning that this was the first film that Chazelle didn’t pen, it did have me remotely fearful for him covering someone else’s vision, but the very man who covered such important topics like child molestation with Catholicism in “Spotlight”, as well as the battle for free press in “The Post”, more than filled my glass of optimism with the amount of versatility he provides in 133 meaningful minutes. More than just another space movie, this film values the battle of what’s going on at home with the wives of these astronauts. It also brings to light the increasing pressure of the United States and NASA to come through with a meaningful triumph, and how those demands fell on the shoulders of one man who bordered obsession in such a mission. All of these subplots continue to play into our thought process as we watch the film, and give us great investment for Neil’s character, if only even for this drained man to finally attain the peace of mind he has worked so hard for.

– While this is Chazelle’s first film that doesn’t revolve around music, it doesn’t mean that the accompanying scores by longtime partner Justin Hurwitz don’t breathe a level of importance for the particular story. What’s appreciative is that they are mostly saved for the moments when their inclusion serves the atmosphere and scenery the loudest, capturing an essence of dramatic wonderment in American achievement that constantly fishes for goosebumps. Strangely enough, there’s one number in the film that repeats twice that I swore was a number from “La La Land”, only slowed down, and that’s quite possible considering the very same man who composed the Oscar winning numbers from that film also perfected the patience and prestige that accommodated “First Man”.

– A touch of the past. I was very surprised and humbled with the film’s decision to include the actual audio transmission of NASA headquarters in Houston, during such a monumental time. Even more pleasing than this however, is the use of 1969 stock footage between American commentary on the failing space program, as well as the influence that arguably the greatest achievement in American history had on the citizens who watched it in droves.

– Surprising assortment of supporting cast. In watching the three different trailers for this movie, I did manage to spot Kyle Chandler and even Jason Clarke, but never did I expect that this film was more of an ensemble piece than I thought. Pablo Schreiber, Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Shea Whigham, and of course the gret Corey Stoll all play important pieces that interact with Neil before his missions, and prove that the big names are beginning to flock to Chazelle as one of the prime directors of our generation, and with films like “Whiplash”, “La La Land” and “Grand Piano” under his grip, it’s easy to see why.

– The big payoff. It’s no secret the event that this film is building to, but after over two hours of build and exposition does it truly payoff in size? You bet your ass it does. My suggestion would be to see this film in the biggest screen possible, because the combination of breathtaking aesthetics, as well as magnitude in scope remind us not only why this story is so fascinating to us, but why American perseverence never quit. There’s one shot in particular that is almost frozen in frame, giving the audience plenty of time to soak in the immensity of it all, and single-handedly solidifying itself as my single favorite shot of 2018.

NEGATIVES

– If there was one thing that I wasn’t worried about, it was the work of Ryan Gosling, but that proved to be my undoing. This opinion might be unpopular with a lot of people, but Gosling’s reserved performance here is remarkably underwhelming for never giving us a single instance of gripping delivery. Beyond Ryan however, the film’s direction never allows us to see inside of Neil, instead choosing to continuously view him from the outside and come to our own conclusions about what’s going on inside. This proves a huge disconnect for the screenplay, and served as the only real negative that I took away from an otherwise flawless movie.

9/10

A Star Is Born

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Starring – Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott

The Plot – Seasoned musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) discovers and falls in love with-struggling artist Ally (Gaga). She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer, until Jack coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jack fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.

Rated R for adult language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse

POSITIVES

– Bar none, the best soundtrack of 2018. The original content that was written and recorded for this film offers an eclectic vibe in tone that blends the interests of indie folk and blues country together, forming a collection that pleased my ears on roughly 90% of the content. Some of my favorites are the very songs we were treated to in the trailers, like “Shallow” or “Maybe It’s Time”, and the decision by Gaga and Cooper to actually perform the songs in front of the camera moves the film’s creative engine miles for its scope of believability.

– Cooper’s first sit in the director’s chair. On a storytelling level, there are a few things psychologically that I would like to see Bradley improve upon for future projects, but it’s impossible not to feel seduced by this world on the road that he takes us on, painting with it with such vivid strokes of energy for artistic rendering. This is a director who soaks in and studies the very atmospheres that he conjures up, representing it terrifically with many over-the-shoulder pandering shots, as well as the candid intimacy that he unabashedly never shies away from between he and his leading lady. Throw in some splashes of neon reflection to represent the seduction of the stage, and you have an artist who values the canvas every bit as much as he does the material.

– Speaking of said material, what I’ve always appreciated from the four “A Star Is Born” films is their honesty in following the highs and lows associated with stardom. Without this feeling like an over-the-top gimmick front-and-center, this newest chapter shifts through the devil-in-the-details mentality that record companies thrive on when changing an artist for how THEY want them to be, and this never feels more appropriate than the current landscape of manufactured pop stars that adorn the landscape. In this direction, it’s almost cathartic that Gaga was cast, as she almost more than anyone knows what it feels like to be a victim of the personality-over-voice mentality that these companies poison their clients with.

– As for the performances, Cooper and Gaga bring their respective A-games in trying to warrant two Oscar nominated portrayals. Cooper, doing his best Sam Elliott because they play Father and Son in the movie, plays Jackson with an ounce of melancholy hiding just below the surface of this struggling alcoholic, and it makes for some personal conflicts within himself that sets the stage for the film’s peaking second act that it nails wholeheartedly. As for Gaga, it’s no surprise that her voice is easily her best gift to this film, but some will be surprised at how much depth and precision she emotes around these scenes of straight-forward anger. Ally transforms before our very eyes, and Gaga’s delicate touch around these subtle-but-evident changes nets us two performances for the price of one, proving that the title of this feature is anything but a subtle coincidence.

– The film constantly mentions that everyone is talented in their own ways, but it’s those who have something to say who distance themselves from the pact, so the question remains burned in our mind: What does this film have to say? To me, the message is firmly on the confidence to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to change you, but I also couldn’t escape the feeling that Cooper is challenging us to take those chances that will lead you down the path often not taken. It’s a philosophical take that is sprinkled in with some earnest sentimentality, and it’s great that a film that is filled with characters with their own personal demons can transcend the screen to inspire the audience watching with wonderment for the steps they should take in their own lives.

– Does the romance work? You bet your ass it does. While I have a slight problem for how fast the love between Jackson and Ally transpires in real time, I can overlook it because of the vibrant chemistry and spiritual connection that they share that helps balance the anxieties that each of them suffer from. In fact, the film goes out of its way to show just how lonely these two characters are when they aren’t together on-screen, and we as an audience can relate because it’s in the moments of togetherness where the film glides the smoothest, and reminds us of the importance that a duet plays in our lives.

– An army of comedians. It surprised me how many stand-up comedians made up the barrage of supporting cast characters that constantly come in and out of frame. If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know about Dave Chappelle, but the three others that I spotted in this film were great inclusions, if only because they are playing against character types in presenting us something fresh and updated for their resumes. This persuades you to keep your eyes focused for yet another reason other than the escalading tensions between our leads, and props to casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu for having the bravery to commit to these imposing figures who have dominated the mic in a completely different way.

– Wide variety of shooting locations. “A Star Is Born” features landscape locations like Bonnaroo and Saturday Night Live to name a couple, and what I love about these set pieces are the decision to film them in-person and live in front of an audience. This is obviously daring for a lot of reasons, but mainly because of the difficulties associated with shooting an uncertain schedule in front of an immense number of people, but Cooper’s capabilities feel leap years ahead of his experience in this regard. What it gives the film is a reflection of its high stakes, big budget feel, for two singers who are supposed to be greatly popular, and props to Cooper for never cheapening the important details required to immerse ourselves in this setting of stage and story.

NEGATIVES

– Where does it stand as a remake? While I do think this version of the decades old story is the best for its artistic merit and impeccable lead performances, the film’s creativity muscle falls a bit flat on a familiarly predictable outline that doesn’t receive enough originality in its modernization to tread new ground. This is a film that will benefit people who are new to the “A Star Is Born” story, while those of us who know where it’s headed will feel slightly disappointed and even a bit tested in a runtime that even at a half hour less than the Judy Garland version, still feels bloated with self-indulgence and subplots that go nowhere (See hearing device introduced during the first act).

– Awkward dialogue and situations. Sometimes the banter between Cooper and Gaga, particularly during the tone-setting first act, is anything but cute and affectionate, it’s downright creepy. If no other critic is going to ask it, I will: do women enjoy having their nose touched and complimented on by a guy they literally just met? How about sticking their finger in your mouth to remove a ring they’re wearing? These are of course brief instances and not the bigger, heartfelt picture, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make for an unintentional hurdle in character enjoyment that got this film off to the strangest of starts. It’s a shame too, because this film needs none of it. The bond between is more than enough.

8/10

Little Women

Directed by Clare Niederpruem

Starring – Lea Thompson, Ian Bohen, Lucas Grabeel

The Plot – A modern retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, we follow the lives of four sisters: Meg (Melanie Stone), Jo (Sarah Davenport), Beth (Allie Jennings), and Amy March (Taylor Murphy); detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood. Despite harsh times, they cling to optimism, and as they mature, they face blossoming ambitions and relationships, as well as tragedy, while maintaining their unbreakable bond as sisters.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and teen drinking

POSITIVES

– Thankfully, what still works about this story is this bond within the essence of sisterhood that stands tall against anything that the world, fate, and modernization wants to throw at them. It took a while for the dramatic element of this film to come through, but once it finally does we bask in the melancholy surroundings, that even though are familiar to anyone who knows this story, still works magically at lifting a tear or two from us the audience.

– While I had one MAJOR problem in the performance department that I will get to later, the majority of this fresh-faced cast do the job superbly at resonating what stands out about each of their respective differences in character. It’s particularly in the work of Allie Jennings as Beth that resoundingly won me over, giving life and aspiration to a girl who never had the benefit of leaving home. Beyond her, I also enjoyed the work of film veteran Lea Thompson as Marmee, even if her abundance of screen time feels extremely limited. Thompson’s portrayal is still a woman who is very much still growing into herself as a housewife on her own, so it’s easy to see the connection that she as a character share with her daughters, who themselves are carving out a name for themselves in the world.

– Who’s to blame? Much of this film to me felt like a studio obligation that was bending and tweaking an ages old story to accommodate viewers of a new generation to Alcott’s work, but in the direction of Neiderpruem, she is someone who makes the best of a desperate situation, squeezing out the most in a limited budget in the form of beautiful shooting locations to harvest the environment of this Massachusetts setting. She’s also someone who keeps the focus firmly on her young cast, instilling in them a layer of confidence as actors that propels them to push through some of the faults creatively that doomed this one from the start.

NEGATIVES

– I hate calling out one actress in particular, but Sarah Davenport’s portrayal of Jo, the time-honored protagonist of the story, is downright detestable. In Davenport’s often overly-dramatic deliveries and constant prickly personality, we can’t help but laugh or take great disdain with the character. Even in a story about sisterhood, Jo as a character is someone who tests nerves and boundaries repeatedly, and really makes you question what this movie sees in her as a continued protagonist to keep our interests.

– Aging progression. This film is told through a series of disjointed flashbacks, that kind of counts down the passing years in getting us to modern day, and what truly doesn’t work for a second about this gimmick is in the lack of believability associated with aging these characters. Never does their hairstyles, fashion trends, or even body varieties change for a second, and if this isn’t enough, the springing growth of Amy during the film’s final twenty minutes will hammer this glaring problem home. Amy is played by three different actresses, while the other girls are played by two, and this makes the third actress’s introduction in the final few scenes that much more of a distraction when she’s immersing with sisters who haven’t changed a bit in twelve years of story.

– Speaking of flashbacks, the film features these horrendously tacky looking visuals that we are treated to each time we ascend backwards. Because this film has zero confidence in its audience to pick up on time transformations accordingly, we have to be treated like brain-dead slugs throughout the movie, and have to be reminded by what only can be described as a blurred coma, each time we’re ready for another.

– Clumsy, inconsistent photography in camera work. Beyond these clunky walking sequences that feel like the cameraman is treading through a rocky desert, the sloppy framing work and undesirable angles made for quite the uncomfortable sit for 107 testing minutes. Objects constantly get in the way of the focus for what is front-and-center, and the film’s limited production capacity crafts that made-for-TV design pallet that should’ve catered more to the Hallmark Network instead of the big screen.

– While I didn’t have any problems with setting this story in modern day 2018, I found the gimmick to add nothing of importance or structure to the classic novel that was a product of its time. Some things feel sac-religious, such as the ambiance of rap music played during a school dance, or the family’s non-existent spin with poverty that established a needed layer of empathy to their characters, but the requirements of a time-stamped gimmick are those that treat the designation like a living, breathing character within the film. We can certainly prove that this film does take place in 2018, but what we can’t answer is why, and that’s an overwhelming feeling leaving the movie that I couldn’t escape.

– Underdeveloped story arcs. Whether the case of Meg’s largely ignored subplot with her romantic interest, that goes from eating a cheeseburger on a pick-up truck to getting married within twenty minutes, or the lack of influence from two parents in the film that feel like ghosts, the screenplay can never keep an accurate count of how many characters it involves to keep the story fresh. Basically, this is a film for lovers of Jo, Laurie, and Freddy’s story tier, fleshing out a forced love triangle between them that stinks of studio intrusion. Yes, i know this angle was in the book, but the level of focus given to it here makes it feel like the whole story, doing a disservice to characters outside of the bubble who we’re barely fortunate enough to check-in on from time-to-time.

– Things that bother me. While all of these are included in the original story, the lack of change associated with this film proves it’s more of the same. First of all, with Jo being such an independent and fighter of equality for women’s rights, why does she retort to falling in love with her teacher? It feels like the only way she will ever be signed is to succumb to what a man wants, and it does her zero favors in the morality department. The second is in the blossoming love between Laurie and Amy. If I need to explain what is wrong about this one, then you are part of the problem. I’ll leave it at that.

EXTRAS

– Due in 2019, Greta Gerwig will direct her own version of the Little Women story, rendering this one inevitably forgettable.

3/10

Lizzie

Directed by Craig William Macneill

Starring – Kristen Stewart, Chloe Sevigny, Kim Dickens

The Plot – In 1892, after the Borden family welcomes a new Irish maid called Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), she and Lizzie (Sevigny) become friends. The friendship between these women becomes something more and that is not only falling in love, at the same time they’re are both victims of physical and sexual abuse from Mr. Borden. But tension in the Borden household, leading to a violent breaking point.

Rated R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some adult language

POSITIVES

– A different take. While there are certainly no shortages of Lizzie Borden movies to quench the audiences thirst for answers on the mysterious night in question, ‘Lizzie’ takes an alternate approach in direction and tone that I greatly appreciated. This film is a star-crossed lovers story of sorts, between Lizzie and Bridget, that overrides some of the horror tendencies that you might be preparing yourself for, going in. I found this direction to not only be a fresh take on a century old story, but also one that pays off immensely for the artistic opportunities that the film capitalizes on.

– Macneill has such a subtle tenderness about the way he depicts this blossoming relationship, shooting the romance with more respect than a story like this would normally feel capable of. For one, the moves of affection feel carefully timed, springing to vision an evidence of fear that is evident in both leading ladies, but also enough glow from intimate camera angles that garner a much-needed essence to Lizzie as a character, and not just a hatchet-wielding maniac. Because of this, Craig puts emphasis in the focus of this story revolving around love, and it’s in that investment whether this film will grab you or not.

– Whirlwind performances on every spectrum. This film certainly feels like a group effort, in that every member of the immensely gifted cast bring their best to their respective characters. Sevigny captivates as the title character, with a plentiful combination of longing and menace that helps balance Lizzie’s disposition. It helps that Chloe is an actress who says so much in a single facial reaction, allowing us to soak up more of the suffocating atmosphere that swallows the character whole repeatedly. Stewart maintains the audience’s focus, with a turn as Bridget that has her feeling like the lone conscience of the audience inside of this toxic household, and Jamey Sheridan once again wonders with playing such a detestable lead that reminds us why he’s one of the best in the business at that particular role.

– Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its script, which is hinged in this dialogue that makes you want to constantly pay attention to the character interactions, so as to gauge the many relationships. Like Bridget, we too are new to the engagements inside of this house, but once inside we firmly get a grasp for the troubled family’s environment that have riddled them full of trying secrets and desperate situations, and in this regard ‘Lizzie’ feels like a B-movie that Hitchcock might have helmed if his diminishing health didn’t cut his time in the public eye dramatically short.

– For my money, the nighttime sequences were the most eye-catching, for the way the lack of natural light invites us along to the things that go bump in the night. There’s a serene essence to the darkness that envelopes each scene whole, bringing forth the necessary scares that don’t require jumps or the paranormal to sell its taut, tense environment. The film never goes out of its way to feel like a scary movie gimmick, treating its visual capacity as nothing more than a stage for the madness that follows, and that’s something in patience that I commend this film greatly for.

– Composer Jeff Russo’s subtle ambiance in music that echoed the internal furnace of its title character. What Russo does that shouldn’t be understated is keeping his tones minimal in volume, never allowing his emphasis to exceed that of the situation that is playing out before our eyes. Beyond this, he audibly deciphers Lizzie’s feelings throughout much of what happens to her, allowing us the audience this necessary glance inside not only to comprehend, but also to anticipate what is coming next in her cryptic movements.

– Much of the costume work and designs also hit their desired marks, radiating the fashions of 1892 seamlessly. What’s even more appreciative is that these trends never go out of their way to sell the gimmick in the most extravagant of ways, choosing instead to mirror more of the three-piece Bohemian era suits and gowns that feel slightly outdated even for this particular year of setting. This sounds like a negative, but it actually provides layers for the character’s personalities, in that money will never be the whole picture to their well-being, and that subtle hint is something that I greatly marveled at.

NEGATIVES

– Even for a slow-burn, this film does test your patience repeatedly. There’s this very unnerving imbalance between the first and second halves of the film that divide its entertainment value ferociously, and I felt that with more concern paid to the plodding first half, the film’s final moments wouldn’t feel as much like a shred of lettuce for a starving hunger. The murder itself is satisfying, but ultimately not worth the thrill-less trail to get there.

– Trimmed down. This film originally was written as a four episode HBO series that was supposed to air a couple of years ago, and now that it’s a brief 101 minute feature film you can notice the constrictions to the story that rendered it a cliff notes version. Lizzie’s sister is introduced and barely included again throughout the story, Lizzie’s seizures are only touched upon on the opening ten minutes and then never again, and the backstory of Lizzie’s mother isn’t given enough respect to even be mentioned once in a passing conversation. This and many other tiers give the film an often impatient touch that unfortunately did nothing for its pacing overall, and for my money I think this story works better when it is allowed more time to cater to those side stories that help fill in the blanks slightly more.

– Differences in the real life story. I consider myself knowledgeable enough on the Lizzie Borden front, and because of such it was easy to spot the liberties that this film took with the cherished material. For one, the answers of the murder mystery itself has only been hinted at and never confirmed, so this movie’s ability to chalk it all up with nothing left to chance is a bit misleading and irresponsible. Another example is the film portraying Lizzie as this caring human being who took time to learn her help’s name, when in reality Lizzie was just as guilty as her parents with refusing to say their maid’s real names. This is a big deal to me when you’re speaking in terms of honesty for the material, and because of such, ‘Lizzie’ never feels like the whole story, just the parts that are convenient for its narrative.

7/10

Life Itself

Directed by Dan Fogelman

Starring – Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening

The Plot – As a young New York couple (Isaac, Wilde) goes from college romance to marriage and the birth of their first child, the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and through lifetimes within Life Itself.

Rated R for adult language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use

POSITIVES

– Immersive shot composition. While I had loads of problems with this film’s psychology overall, one thing that can’t be debated is Dan’s visual compass for depicting these very tender moments. He uses a lot of soft lighting to compliment the very intimate and claustrophobic angles, and what this does is not only engage us into the atmosphere of this loving couple, but also forces us to focus on a particular facial reaction that is played for an entirely different reaction the more we know about the story. It’s about the only dose of warmth and compassion that you will get from this film, and it does so without feeling like a gimmick, where the characters look into the lens to speak to us directly.

– One valid performance in a field of complete trash. It’s a shame that a majority of this prestigiously stacked ensemble cast are repeatedly under-directed and ineptly utilized, but one such man in Antonio Banderas overcame all of the odds to give us a valid amount of substance to his character. Maybe it’s saying something bad when Antonio Banderas is the best actor in your film, but the sadness that haunted his eyes made for some truly gripping dialogue exchanges that were easily the highlight of the film for me.

NEGATIVES

– Protagonists? These are insulting lead characters, who go for personable in their sarcastically naive deliveries, but it comes across more as dastardly unsympathetic when you really break it down. This film accomplished the insurmountable task of making me hate an Oscar Isaac character, in all of his rude and obnoxious communication that wears itself out after five minutes. He is only topped by Olivia Cooke’s emotionally vapid drone of a human being, who feels like she could accomplish more if she were dead. These are the kind of characters you don’t want to spend 108 minutes with, and you’re reminded of it redundantly, each time the story reboots itself to a new subplot. Hell is repetition.

– Minimal plot. In writing the synopsis up top, I squeezed a martini from sand. In general, this film has no plot. It’s a derivatively wretched country song of human misery that never has the capability of building an inch of momentum for itself, ridding itself of positivity the same way a cat does with fleas. What’s even worse is because it’s one of those stitched together films, with new additions every twenty minutes, the film never allows you the comfort in getting settled with what little develops. It’s every bit as forgettable as it is crass.

– Aims for a bigger picture in life meaning, but never earns what it doesn’t stride for. I compare the material enclosed to a depressed teenager who claims their life is over, but then turns their thought process around when they get a new Iphone, and I say this because ‘Life Itself’ is a constant self-wallowing mess that misses the beauty in the true spontaneity of life. Its grief and despair vastly overshadows those fast-forwarded moments of light that feel like the proper nourishment during a film that otherwise starves us of what we need to balance it out.

– To a certain degree, this film, as well as Fogelman’s writing, feels sadistic. It’s a word that I don’t often use in critiquing films, but how else can you describe a man who inevitably sets his characters up for doom in the most unapologetic of ways. Fogelman would want you to believe this accurately depicts life, but the overly-exaggerated depiction feels so unfamiliar from our own world, that it gives it this feeling of an emerging villain. Death from the Final Destination series of films doesn’t have shit on life in ‘Life Itself’.

– Television quality. This film proves to me what I already knew about Fogelman as a writer; he feels better suited for the television world of pacing that appropriately allows a writer to spread those impactful moments out. That’s not to say that Dan hasn’t made good movies, it’s just that with the recent success of his award-winning TV show “This Is Us”, it’s clear to spot where to compartmentalize his style of writing. In particularly, it’s in the redundancy of events so closely stitched together to ever allow us a welcome period of breath. Because of such, if you want to see this film, just don’t see it in theaters. Allow yourself the decency of being able to pause in between material that never relents for all of the wrong reasons.

– We get it!!!. This film has such an erection for the concept of unreliable narrator, bringing it up every five minutes, that it often feels like Fogelman just discovered this conveniently placed plot device. What’s funny is that his inclusion of the perk doesn’t enhance the dramatic pulse, nor does it satisfyingly surprise us in any method. As mentioned above, the bigger moments of this film are those sadistic ones, and nothing ever feels remotely satisfying because of such. Then there’s the problem with Fogelman’s definition of characters in an unreliable narrative that don’t match up even closely to what’s depicted front-and-center here. These characters are too bluntly honest to ever be unreliable, and it’s probably the only time in film that I wish I were lied to.

– Disjointed and contrived. This film is told in four different chapters from four different character’s perspectives, and this angle of storytelling doesn’t work here in the way it does other films because that connection feels between the arcs feels coincidental at best. When you divide this film into two halves, it often feels like you’re watching two completely different films, even two completely different languages, and that imbalance constantly asks us to start over before we have received closure from the previous offering. Because you’re dividing this film into quarters, none of the subplots ever receive ample enough time to feel properly effective, nor does their allowance of time ever feel remotely equal to what necessarily required more development.

– How did this end up being the script approved final ending? It’s clear that the intention is to go for something sweet and metaphorical, but these closing developments are truly morbid when you take even ten seconds to truly think about it, and dissect how awkward this family’s gatherings will really be when their two sides come together. Also, it’s kind of a betrayal of its material when said big message is told through the Spanish speaking characters in English, when the entire rest of the movie they spoke in Spanish, with subtitles being displayed underneath. It’s not a big deal creatively, it just doesn’t apply to what we already knew about one of these characters in particular, in that she was born, raised, and only spoke in her native language.

2/10

Unbroken: Road To Redemption

Directed by Harold Cronk

Starring – Samuel Hunt, Marritt Patterson, Will Graham

The Plot – Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, the film begins where the previous film concluded, sharing the next amazing chapter of the unbelievable true story of Olympian and World War II hero Louis Zamperini (Hunt). Haunted by nightmares of his torment, Louie sees himself as anything but a hero. Then, he meets Cynthia (Patterson), a young woman who captures his eye-and his heart. Louie’s wrathful quest for revenge drives him deeper into despair, putting the couple on the brink of divorce. Until Cynthia experiences Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Crusade where she finds faith in God and a renewed commitment to her marriage and her husband

Rated PG-13 for thematic content and related disturbing images

POSITIVES

– For a Pure Flix film, this one sure does have a lot of daring material. Usually with these kind of movies, I prepare myself for the kind of provocativeness that comes with singing ‘Old Mcdonald Had a Farm’ in a preschool class, but surprisingly the PG-13 label is tested repeatedly, with an array of spousal abuse and alcoholism that gives the movie actual personal demons that provide our protagonist with plenty of character flaws. I commend the movie for being amongst the most daring from the production company, and hopefully our first R-rated film isn’t far behind.

– Brandon Roberts nostalgic musical compositions. Even during a movie that my interest kept waning in, the musical score served as the shot of much-needed adrenaline to keep me into the grip of the story. What Roberts does is pay homage to the era of Jazz music in the 40’s that paints a vivid portrait of feel-good cinema. On my ears, it reminded me a lot of ‘The Sandlot’, in that it audibly enhances the beauty of the scenery that surrounds us, constantly reminding us of the light-hearted atmosphere that our characters partake in.

– I’m not of the camp who think this film was pointless, in fact I applaud it for telling the story AFTER the heroic event. Most films or franchises rarely ever tell the whole story, refusing to focus on the psychological toll that a haunting event from ones past has on the aftermath of their well-being, but Cronk takes that chance, and while the movie simply doesn’t work for its own reasons, you can’t hate against a director who is hungry to take chances.

NEGATIVES

– Feels like one long musical montage of Zamperini’s life. Perhaps the biggest offense that this film commits is that it’s trying to tell too much in such a short allowance of time (93 minutes). Particularly in that of the first act, Louie’s life flashes by with little ability to stop and soak in the very meaningful moments of his emotional homecoming, choosing instead to rush to a red light of entertainment that isn’t remotely as compelling. Because of this, this movie is a very difficult sit to get through because it’s all these remote tidbits that never add up to form the outline of this wounded man.

– Flawed production values. It isn’t enough that Zoran Popovic’s uninspiring cinematography hinders much of the style and vibe that the backdrops have going for it, but the camera quality and set designs mirror something of a low-budget dramatization show on television. Louie’s horrific flashback sequences are done in the lightning fast depictions because much of the effect work stumbles from low grade green-screen quality and obvious studio room limitations that remind you that these scenes are taking place anywhere but the actual ocean. This aspect alone constantly reminded me of watching a straight-to-DVD sequel, and it’s in Angelina Jolie’s once lucidly imaginative style that forces us through the biggest of all drop-offs.

– While I have no problems with the performances in this movie, other than the romantic leads having zero chemistry with one another, it’s more so in their demeanor and how they’re directed for why I felt they were both terribly miscast. As Louie, Hunt channels a vibe of arrogance on top of smug facial reactions that make him anything but relatable. Patterson is decent when she’s left to deal with being the eyes and ears of the household, but physically there’s nothing about her appearance that tells me she was the right woman for the job. If my words aren’t enough, wait for the film’s credit sequence, which does Patterson zero favors in the authenticity department.

– Constantly reminds you of the better film you should be watching. I get that this is a movie that takes place as a result of something tragically horrific for the protagonist, but this movie went to the well far too many times with this angle, saving its lone intriguing moments for the reminders of what we as an audience have already been through with a far superior film. Take this out of the film, and you start to find out not only how little this film established in terms of originality, but also how truly boring the diminishing laws of return are when the story’s meat has been removed.

– Forgotten subplots. I’m finding this kind of sloppiness a lot in religious films anymore. A series of storylines will be introduced to the unfolding scenario, usually in the second act, and we never hear anything of their conclusions. For ‘Unbroken’, it’s Louie’s emerging career as a possible professional boxer, or a broken ankle that is never mentioned again. Both of these subplots are given valuable attention and screen time during the film, but are abandoned faster than Louie’s atheist ideals, which I’ll get to in a second.

– For a while, I was convinced that the religious propaganda wasn’t going to pop up in this film. It goes roughly an hour with very minimal mention of anything holy. But the final half hour shoe-horns this angle in so forcefully that it transforms this into an entirely different film all together. Reverend Billy Graham is played in this movie by his real life son, and the last ten minutes are this obviously desperate ploy to speak to us the audience, in place of Louie whom he’s actually speaking to. The camera angles during these scenes are creepy to say the least, positioning Graham front-and-center looking at us to manipulate us into believing that matters of alcoholism and psychological duress will disappear if you believe in Christ. It’s all such an A-to-Z direction in terms of where this movie started, and touched on the very same notes that other Pure Flix films do that make all of their films so predictable.

– Clumsily rendered flashback sequences. The fantasy sequences in question lack even the smallest ounce of nuance and subtlety, reaching for shock factor that simply can’t hold a candle to the more horrific points of Jolie’s original film, that did more in a camp than this film could muster with imagination. Nothing ever feels effective to us the audience, and if we can’t feel Louie’s pain during his most trying moments, then it’s a constant reminder of how tragically flawed a story this easily engaging can’t manage to ever peak our interest.

3/10

The Wife

Directed by Bjorn Runge

Starring – Glenn Close, Christian Slater, Jonathan Pryce

The Plot – Behind any great man, there’s always a greater woman – and you’re about to meet her. It is crucial you get to know this woman – many of us already do and don’t even realize it. Joan Castleman (Close): a highly intelligent and still-striking beauty, the perfect devoted wife. Forty years spent sacrificing her own talent, dreams and ambitions to fan the flames of her charismatic husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) and his skyrocketing literary career. Ignoring his infidelities and excuses because of his “art” with grace and humor. Their fateful pact has built a marriage upon uneven compromises. And Joan’s reached her breaking point. On the eve of Joe’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the crown jewel in a spectacular body of work, Joan’s coup de grace is to confront the biggest sacrifice of her life and secret of his career.

Rated R for adult language and some sexual content

POSITIVES

– Made for the stage. ‘The Wife’ has that rich air of authenticity in its volume stirring dialogue and devouring of scenery that transcends the silver screen, allowing audiences the chance to soak up the heat of the moment with such minimal distraction. This is a screenplay that takes its time with each setting, steering us through evocative dialogue between the characters that effortlessly raises the tension in drama, and it’s an aspect that kept my attention through all of its 95 minutes.

– Behind every great man, there’s an even better woman. I have nothing bad to say about Slater or Pryce as far as performances go. They both bring such nuance and intelligence to their respective roles. But this is a one woman show from the get-go, and Close remains a melting pot of dramatic impulse. With Joan, we have a woman defined by one secret that has haunted her for eternity, and it’s in Close’s ferocity screaming out from underneath layers of suppression that makes the character so mesmerizing. Even when her character is background for a conversation between two other characters, you simply can’t take your eyes off of her or her abilities to telecommunicate everything she is feeling in a look or stare.

– Much of the marriage between Joan and Joe felt to me like an abstract painting whose truth became clear the closer you approached it. When the film begins, they feel like two people beating with one cohesive heart, a sheer testament to the unshakeable chemistry between Pryce and Close. But as the film carries on, you start to see chips in the armor of their union, bringing to light aspects and objects that were originally delivered as nothing more than an afterthought but now bring a stimulating charge for what they represent. One such example of this is the walnut that finds its way into more than one pair of hands.

– Dual narrative storytelling. Runge as a director builds the meat of the story in present day from the memories of the past, which play as spicy ingredients when added to what we’re currently tasting. What is so brilliant about this is the side pockets of angst and pain that each character takes with them is on a collision course with one another, opting to finally be confronted when its impact will undoubtedly echo the loudest. It feels like boiling water in a teapot in this regard, in that its pressure becomes too much, forcing it to scream out from all of the building to this point, that becomes too smothering to ignore much further. Scintillating drama at its finest.

– In addition to the marvelous performances, much credit goes to casting agents Elaine Grainger and Susanne Scheel for bridging the gap of believability between two respective timelines. The younger portrayals of Joe and Joan are played by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke respectively, and their likenesses to the older characters they portray is every bit as accurate as it is poetic. I used the last word because Starke is the real life daughter of Glenn Close, feeding food for thought on art imitating life in the most sentimental of measures.

– Upper class imagery. Because this film takes place in Stockholm (Although it was shot in Glasgow), we the audience are treated to these beautiful backdrops and luxurious interior set pieces that radiate the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Metaphorically, these material things add more weight to the constant reminder of the dirty secret between this marriage, but in the literal display, the cleansing of our own personal pallet is simply too exquisite and cozy not to indulge in.

– Great conversation piece for the perfect time. To me, the most meaningful films are always the ones that you can’t wait to get out of the theater and talk about, and ‘The Wife’ will surely join the ranks as the latest in conversation starters for either of the respective sexes. For women, there’s obviously enough enclosed in the repressed past of Joan to nail the thought process of how far we as an equal-seeking society have come, yet still have so far to go, and for men there’s much to be debated on the merits and importance of a household run together by two equally important parents. I could go more into detail, but it would be reaching spoiler territory, and I think that the plot above already is giving away much more than I want people to know going into the film.

– Without question, my favorite scenes of the movie were Slater’s parasitic (Compliment?) writer character probes each character for answers on what they’re hiding. In this regard, Slater’s character feels like a detective who already knows what’s behind the curtain, and just waits for the big reveal that will allow him to pounce all over them. In the one-on-one meeting with Joan, it feels like a psychological game of poker between two champions of the game, who neither of them want to show their hand too early. It’s a fight for leverage that you could argue either side wins, proving as a testament to two actors who hone their craft with such personality.

NEGATIVES

– While I understand the intended purpose of the direction, there were elements about this ending that I found downright detestable. Without revealing too much, I can say that it feels like a regression for Joan, in that the one thing that has defined her life for the worst will remain with her until her dying day. Certainly mudslinging is unnecessary to characters who can’t defend themselves, but I required slightly more of an epiphany for her character than she rightfully received. With that said, I can respect the bonds and merits of marriage, even those that aren’t entirely honest with the perception they are depicting.

– For my money, I could’ve used more artistry behind shot compositions and overall lighting, that felt pedestrian when compared to everything else that is above average with this production. The camera work can be occasionally sloppy in its knee-jerking reactions to characters moving in and out of frame, and the imbalance of proper lighting tone to the camera causes the occasional out-of-focus shot that occasionally distracted me. These aren’t major problems, but a tighter grip on these minor aspects could’ve easily rendered this film as close to a 10/10 for me.

8/10

White Boy Rick

Directed by Yenn Demange

Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richie Merritt

The Plot – Set in 1984 Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, the film is based on the moving true story of a blue-collar father (McConaughey) and his teenage son, Rick Wershe (Merritt), who became an undercover police informant and later a drug dealer, before he was abandoned by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.

Rated R for adult language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Articulate production value in its respective decade setting. Considering I searched far and wide for something in the film to stand out as illegitimate of its 80’s establishment, the film does a solid job of echoing the very fashion trends and automobiles that were prominent in the Ford city. The males don flashy leisure suits of all shapes and color, but it’s in the furry jackets with gang surroundings where we get perhaps our most vivid take on the defining decade. These were very much the members only jackets of their time, long before it was only acceptable for a woman to wear fur.

– Variation in soundtrack that authentically represents the changing of the guard. For the first half of the movie, we’re treated to several tracks of Motown favorites, but as the film persists it’s the overtaking of rhymes and rhythm that distinguishes the change of voice within the streets. What this does is audibly represent Detroit’s transformative period from doo-wop to hip-hop colorfully enough in a way that echoes the very increase of violence and tension that we’re treated to from our character engagements.

– Presence behind the lens. There’s much to credit in Tat Radcliffe’s impeccable cinematography that unintentionally brings to life the beauty of the slums, but it would be nothing without the inclusion of Andrew Amine’s daring movements that really brings us along into this world of drug and weapon trafficking. The long takes are very persistent, studying the ever-changing locations and situations long enough to get a vibe for its danger and elegance alike, and the revolving shots that surround our cast give off the impression of life constantly moving around them with little reluctance.

– Dedication to Rick Junior. It would certainly be easy for this movie to overlook the importance of this being the youth’s story, especially with the big A-list names that more than make-up the celebrated cast inside, but Demange’s desire to see this as Ricky’s coming of age story is one that I greatly commend the movie for, in that he is the line between law and family that influence his every move as the glue between both. Mconaughey gets top billing, but the film’s unshakeable faith in keeping the focus on his kin is a decision that isn’t always easy, but one that pays off in spades for the integrity of the title and the story that never feels distracted.

– Without the family element, all else would fail. Because of the continued desire of Ricky to put his family back together, the film takes on a much more sentimental direction than I was rightfully expecting, proving itself as so much more than just another infiltration or get-rich-quick film that are currently all the rage in the drama category. In particular, it’s the bittersweet finale of a gut-punching third act that proves how much the dramatic pull was earned throughout, so much so that your heart is engaged in seeing this family outrun the live-fast lifestyle and setting that constantly surrounds them.

– Strong performances all around. What a breakthrough for Merritt, who manages roughly 90% of this movie’s story on his own. As Rick Jr, Merritt leaves enough divide in naive adolescence and street-smart hustle to represent how fast this youth is forced to adapt and grow-up to the ever-changing neighborhood around him. On top of that, the casting director couldn’t have chosen a more identical actor to play the real life figure. McConaughey gives another gripping dedicated turn as this father of two, who is trying to change himself for the better during a time when his kids are changing for the worst. Matthew emotes so much love and torture for the way he looks at his blood, and you start to really understand how vulnerable a parent’s responsibility really is, especially when their voice only goes as a far as the door their children go out to enter the world. Bel Powley was also a scene-stealer as Rick’s daughter, who herself has her own personal demons that she’s running from. This girl commands attention every time she enters the screen, and my heart ached for the decisions she made that cost her so much time along the way.

– Seedy setting. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for films that are set in the Motor City, and thankfully ‘White Boy Rick’ doesn’t squander the opportunity at some layered atmosphere that fill in the blanks of the imagery that surround it. Rick’s Detroit stage in the 80’s is one that still feels optimistic enough in the lurid seduction of neon lights and post-disco skating rinks, but it’s in the arrival of a cold, despairing Winter where the air of optimism quickly fades to grey, giving way to a chillingly numbing dose of reality that the characters simply can’t run from.

NEGATIVES

– Treads, but never fully walks through the poignant debate of guns versus drugs, as well as the corruption of the American judicial system. On the former, there’s a brief scene in the film where the father and son discuss their mutual poisons being unleashed onto the community, and what the real difference is between either. Unfortunately, the scene quickly and unfortunately evolves into something of bigger physical magnitude, and we’re left without a conscience for a movie that so desperately needed one. As for the law itself, it never feels like a big enough presence on the screenplay, disappearing halfway through the movie for a long period of time.

– Feels like scenes are missing. Rick moves in with his grandpa immediately after doing something terribly wrong to him? The mentioning of dad’s roommate girlfriend, despite us never seeing or meeting her? The formation of Rick’s gang and how he even met them? These are just a couple of examples of scenes during the movie that came out of nowhere, and feel like they constantly did a disservice to editing that was otherwise on-point for holding down the consistency of storytelling. These examples give off the feeling that this 106 minute movie could easily have a two-and-a-half hour director’s cut lying around somewhere.

– Questionable time transformations. While I mentioned earlier that the music, wardrobe, and production are spot-on for their respective era, the lack of attention to physical character progression is something that deeply troubled me. This film goes through four years of story, and in that time father, son, daughter, nor anyone ever change hairstyles or facial growth, or really anything to articulately translate the many lapses in time. It’s this kind of thing that constantly takes me out of a story, and is the easiest thing to clear up in terms of continuity.

7/10

A Simple Favor

Directed by Paul Feig

Starring – Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding

The Plot – The story centers around Stephanie (Kendrick), a mommy vlogger who seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s (Lively) sudden disappearance from their small town. Stephanie is joined by Emily’s husband Sean (Golding) in this stylish thriller filled with twists and betrayals, secrets and revelations, love and loyalty, murder and revenge.

Rated R for sexual content and adult language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence

POSITIVES

– The greatest Lifetime Channel Movie EVER. What Feig’s direction does is instill that air of self-aware satire that sizzles on a screenplay this scandalous. In doing so, he can bring his variety of humor to a movie that isn’t necessarily deemed a comedy, accentuating the hilarity associated with mom dates and online blogging that can’t escape the occasional laughter after suffocating awkwardness. Female moviegoers will appreciate its serious side for its twists and turns, but they will also appreciate the familiarity associated with friendships that develop because of their children.

– As an adaptation from the book, the screenplay is roughly 80% similar. This is good because it chooses not to deviate much from what made it such a provocative read in the first place, all the while trimming the fat of what doesn’t translate well to screen. Particularly the choice to make Stephanie’s blog a Vlog in this case, as well as to let the events transpire without narration, are two of the decisions that I commend this film greatly for taking, and allow the events transpiring in real time to hold the audience’s captivation. Then there’s the ending. While the book and film endings are both HEAVILY convoluted, I did enjoy the film’s ending so much more, for how it didn’t betray the heart of the characters. The last fifteen minutes of this movie are completely batshit crazy, and I engaged in it because nothing felt familiar from the pages that I already scanned.

– Flavor for the Favor. Blake Lively, where have you been all this time? As Emily, Lively is a walking temperament of shattered glass that catches the skin of everyone she comes into contact with. In conversing with Emily, you very much feel inferior and downright insulted with her vicious vocabulary, giving forth to a personality that is every bit as intimidating as she is unabashed in her deliveries. Kendrick as well breathes the air of timidness that Stephanie requires in channeling that outgoing “Mom” personality. Say what you want about Kendrick’s quirky demeanor eating away at your ears, but everything that she has done in her career has pointed her towards this role of a woman clearly in over her head, who may or may not be wound a bit too tight.

– Snappy soundtrack. In matching the posh set designs and lavish wardrobe choices, the musical tracks for the film envelope a taste for French elegance that gives the movie a seductive pallet. Every song does maintain this direction faithfully, and certainly speaks wonders for the beauty in voice talents when you can’t understand what the lyrics are truly saying.

– Likewise, the decision to shoot this film in Univisium gives it a vibrancy of color and detail in cinematography that would otherwise be underutilized in this particular film. This is possibly what I admire most of all about Feig’s directing, because even the slightest detail in decoration to a shot feels like it serves an artistic merit when played against the rest of the backdrop. Without question, these are some of the best slow motion sequences of the year, presenting the rain in a music video style fashion that glitters and glows with every drop.

– Makes the most of its R-rating. What I commend the film for is that it does have these instances of violence, brief nudity, and adult language, but it uses them in ways that doesn’t feel forced or manufactured by someone sitting in a chair off-screen. These are very much rational conversations, as well as calculated measures that are taken by the characters, and withheld until the moment when their inclusion matters the most, and less like a gimmick. This is an example of adult material done right.

NEGATIVES

– Cheap Youtube templates. As to where I commended a movie like ‘Searching’ for paying the extra few bucks and portraying actual Youtube to its very real world setting, I unfortunately cannot do the same for ‘A Simple Favor’. This is another example of an obvious website intention that feels cheap in its knock-off details that are distracting to say the least. When you view this as a streaming website in 2018, the quality in pixelation on screen, as well as the world’s smallest comment section, makes this feel like the first edition of America Online, long before the blessing of Wi-fi euphoria.

– As my readers know, I have no shame when it comes to calling out child actors, and boy did I have a field day with the two in this movie. Whether it’s their speech patterns that feel anything but believable, or their obvious staring off screen for scene guidance, the duo of Ian Ho and Josh Satine were a baseball bat to my precious eyes and ears. Ho in particular is cringey for his hollow delivery in curse word deliveries, as well as an overall lack of energy in fighting style that echoed that student film vibe in college that we’ve all been missing. I’m not overboard when I say that neither of them should act again, and it’s just a constant reminder of the term “Stay in School” holding more weight.

– Pace race. Despite this film being nearly two hours long, the pacing of exposition drops felt very rushed in their plotting, feeling like one big montage scene that never slows down to let it all sink in. I mentioned earlier that the ending is completely convoluted, despite my enjoying it, but it is a calling card for what is truly wrong with the big impact scenes of this screenplay. The developing relationship between Stephanie and Shawn felt like it happened in a matter of days, contrary to the screenplay telling us that Emily has been missing for months, and I wish the movie would’ve taken more advantage to plod in its generous 111 minute runtime that easily could’ve used more patience.

– Book comparisons part 2. As for what I appreciated about the book more, the characters feel far more developed in their dirty secrets. What I love about that is it adds more weight to the mystery of what happened to Emily, giving way to many more theories and scenarios than this film could ever map out for itself. The book also keeps it between the trio of main characters for the entire film, as to where this movie has a group of supporting cast in classroom parents, who add absolutely nothing to this film. Every time a scene cut to them for reaction or commentary, it weighed down the momentum of what was previously built, and stood out as the one instance where the film’s comedy was anything but subversive.

6/10