Song To Song

Two youthful couples face the positives and negatives of romance on the road, in Terrence Malick’s newest visual entrancement, ‘Song to Song’. In this modern love story set against the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene, two entangled couples; struggling songwriters Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), and music mogul producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) and the waitress whom he ensnares (Natalie Portman), chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal that will rock the foundations of each relationship and business bond. ‘Song to Song’ is written and directed by Terrence Malick, and is rated R for some sexuality, nudity, drug use and adult language.

FILM FREAK JOKE: How does Terrence Malick know when to end a movie? When he runs out of film.

‘Song to Song’, the latest from critically acclaimed and panned director Terrence Malick showcases everything that both crowds have come to love and hate, and will certainly offer nothing of groundbreaking alteration for each respective opinion. It’s a look at the music scene of Austin, Texas, with the same splashes of pretentious filmmaking that Malick has perfected into crafting one of the most unorthodox methods of camera work currently going. For me, Song to Song was a two hour endurance test that felt like I was climbing the steepest mountain, when others who joined me on the journey were falling along the way. At any given time, people will walk out of a movie. But when over half of the audience of eleven people get fed up with the lack of direction or narrative from where the story is heading, there’s a great problem on your hands. Add to the fact that I saw this movie at an art house theater and it only adds insult to injury when you consider the kinds of things that these particular audiences are used to sitting through. I myself came so close to making this only the second film that I have ever walked out of, not because it is the worst thing that I have ever seen, but because it often feels like you are watching a high-school kid aiming and shooting at the most random of occasions. It lacks any kind of structure for conceptual storytelling, and I don’t mean that as a rare breed kind of compliment. Song to Song is the worst film that I have seen in a three month old 2017 that has set the bar low so early on in the year. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

First of all is the story itself and lack of narration on-screen that stunted any kind of momentum or interest for the audience to engage in. As a storyteller, Malick would rather abide by the law of ‘tell but don’t show’, so a lot of the film’s sequences feel like jumbled pieces that don’t fit well together, signaling a trimming from a possibly much larger director’s cut that fills in the blanks from scenes that quickly become incoherent. The film’s four main cast members serve as narrators throughout the movie, but their lack of delivery with emphasis in the important subplots often feels like a blink and you will miss it kind of deal, as there were many points in this film where things switched up between romantic partners without very little warning or building. On top of this, Malick lacks any kind of dual or long-distance storytelling to pace out these four characters better. There are noticeable chunks in this movie where Gosling and Mara will disappear for twenty-five minutes, or Fassbender and Portman will vanish for thirty minutes. It hinders the boundaries of entertainment when we could use this period of breath between two protagonists to see what is going on with the other two, but this film is incapable of clicking and comparing the trials and tribulations of two couples equally to ever contrast the differences and similarities. As for long term, there is so much back-and-forth in this movie from where our characters begin and end. Everything feels like short instances instead of long breaths in the creative, so most of the material is throwaway for the plot that is such a small part of what this movie really centers on.

The visual presentation for the movie featured positives and negatives that both serve as glaring examples for their dependency on Malick’s signature style. The backdrops of Austin are gorgeous. This movie could’ve passed as being a video for A-list celebrities on vacation, but unfortunately that is one of the many missed opportunities. Malick certainly has a love and passion for this geography. There’s music, luxurious real estate, and sex….lots of sex for Terrence to oogle at. I’ve always been a way at how this director can frame a shot, opting to invade the space of his central characters to put us in the thick of their engagements. That never fades even in this movie. Terrence can point and shoot as well as anyone, but where there’s style, there better certainly be substance, and as I mentioned before, this film deprived me immensely of such a concept. Where the visuals negate to a fault is in the picture editing, which is among the most jarringly disastrous since Suicide Squad, and that’s saying a lot. Malick cuts far too often for even the most simple of exchanges, instead choosing to convolute something that is completely unnecessary for. There are many times in this film where questions will be asked by the current narrator of the scene, only to move on without any answer or reminder ever again. Imagine if someone told you a story like this; Mary is ten years old. Mary’s favorite food is……her favorite movie is……. One of the biggest problems that I think my audience had with this film was how jumpy everything felt. It keeps it from ever building any scene-to-scene momentum, and feels D.O.A early on in the picture.

Kudos to the trailer editor for this movie for somehow managing to take two hours of this dreary, dreadful film and crafting it into a story that anyone would be a sucker for. I certainly fell hook, line, and sinker for a trailer to a movie that I never got. I mean, the love story and the music is there, but this film’s visual style is constantly moving in slow motion, lacking any real energy to relate it to what feels so special about these people or this town. Lines of dialogue continuously take the long route each and every time to get to their destinations, most notably in Mara’s character, who is constantly brooding like she is in a Calvin Klein perfume commercial. After a while, the act gets stale, and the story could use any kind of stimulation to remind us of the importance of losing real, honest love. The screenplay continues to stomp over every detail that could’ve used appropriate time to soak up each detail, but instead slugs its way through pacing that practically doesn’t exist at all. The film feels like it lacks the three act structure from that of a typical screenplay, and instead exerts one continuous two hour act that drowns on like a funeral proceeding. The irony of which could be the foot in the grave that this director now has for the audience through this.

There’s not much to the performances, mostly because this well-stacked A-list cast is given so little to work with. It feels like Malick just turned the camera on for the four of them to say and do anything that they please, further adding to the celebrity vacation idea that I firmly planted in the previous paragraphs. The movie was shot over a five year period, so it’s funny to see hairstyles and even personal appearances vary as the movie goes on. It works well for the weathering of time, but does very little for visual continuity. Natalie Portman’s character is really the only character with any kind of gripping exposition, but she’s never given any kind of value in screen time to act her way through it. Fassbender is wasted. One of the very best actors in the world, and his character slouches in a dense fog of sexual addiction and alcohol that sideline him for a majority of the film. He’s nowhere near the important aspect that the trailer made him out to be. As for the two main characters, Gosling and Mara rarely insight a sense of magic that makes their union believable. There is certainly chemistry, but more believable as friends and not lovers, with the way they charmingly play around with each other. One cool aspect that the sound department does to relay the importance of the movie’s title, is that there is constantly some form of music playing around them when they are together. The idea of falling in love with someone and music always playing definitely came to mind here, and even if Malick can’t direct performances out of them, he at least sets the stage for a poetically beautiful confrontation that always kept my toes tapping where my heart wasn’t.

Whether hype or heart, Malick continues to polarize his reputation, conjuring up the very worst film to date that the once prosperous director has attached his name to. Song to Song is a disjointed, disheartening, and often times incoherent rambling of the director’s personal take on modern love. With some of the worst editing sequencing to hit the silver-screen, as well as hollow pacing that served as a dull exercise in patience, Terrence’s newest flub can’t find a screenplay to equally match its gorgeous cinematography. It’s a movie that feels like more of the same for a writer who has written himself into a corner of bland pretentiousness, hitting all of the wrong notes with musical monotony.

2/10

The Last Word

Shirley MacLaine gets ‘The Last Word’ in Mark Pellington’s newest dramedy, also starring Amanda Seyfried and Anne Heche. MacLaine is Harriet Lauler, a once successful businesswoman in tight control of every aspect of her life. As she reflects upon her accomplishments, she’s suddenly inspired to engage a young local writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), to pen her life’s story. When the initial result doesn’t meet Harriet’s high expectations, Anne sets out to reshape the way she is remembered, with Anne dragged along as an unwilling and unflattering accomplice. As the journey unfolds, the two women develop a unique bond which alters not only Harriet’s legacy, but also Anne’s future. ‘The Last Word’ is rated R for adult language.

‘The Last Word’ is a decent enough plot to entice its audience into checking it out. There has always been a certain curiosity to the kind of legacies that we as humans with our time on this world will leave behind, and what kind of words and sentences will be used to trigger our memories. This, in addition to the film’s hearty message of living for today and not being afraid to fail, is one that I take with great meaning and intention. Unfortunately, it had to come at the hands of a movie that is the exact counter opposite of such a quota. Saying that this is one of the most artificially emotional films that comes to mind simply doesn’t do enough. This is one that should be avoided at all costs because it doesn’t take the time or the transformation in its central character to merit the kind of somber finale that this film intended. On top of that, it’s trying to channel one too many emotional responses. It wants to be awkwardly funny with characters you despise, yet it also wants you to take pity upon said character when the inevitable rears its ugly head. One of these directions is fine, but to take both contradicts the other and leads us down a path of dishonorable proportions.

The story of this narrative revolves around Harriet’s redemption, especially when she finds out that many people were either afraid or terribly disgusted with a lot of her actions in her early life. These people range from her co-workers at a prestigious law firm, to her daughter who has wanted nothing to do with her for the better part of her existence. Over the course of the next 103 minutes, the story of Harriet trying to right her wrongs is interrupted and cast aside for Anne’s disappointing life. Contrived when it is trying to attain profound, and it never materializes to anything for the character it should be. Because this movie takes so much time in establishing and solving Anne’s own personal flaws, there’s very little time left for Harriet to become this person that makes us bask in her triumph by the end of the film. Sure, Harriet is helping Anne along the way to achieving the kind of dreams that she wants as a writer, but she does it at such a disrespectful cost along the way, often pausing the progress to critique or humiliate her in front of total strangers. There is simply no transformation to Harriet by film’s end, so we are kind of left with the same shadow of a human being living up to every nasty and honest thing being spread about her. A winding journey that essentially has no conclusion, but here’s the movie that tells us how important she was in the eyes of someone who knew her for two weeks. Bravo.

The performances aren’t half bad, even if their intended directions tiptoe the grounds of conventional storytelling. Shirley Maclaine still has the firepower of a scene-stealer, and commands that presence through many hearty laughs throughout the movie. Even if her character is moral garbage, Harriet is definitely someone who doesn’t balk at having a good time, and a lot of that resonates because of Maclaine’s own timely humor that rarely ever misses its mark. Amanda Seyfried is decent, even if she is playing her usual stick here. Surprisingly, the two actresses from respectably vast age groups share the kind of depth in chemistry that would normally take a couple of films to channel. There are very few scenes when their characters aren’t together, and those make for the roughest in terms of transitional arcs from one subplot to the next. I also greatly enjoyed the work of AnnJewel Lee Dixon as the troubled youth that Harriet and Anne take in to better the former’s caring stature. Even if this insensitive subplot is honorable, Dixon is a delight to watch as a child with a few choice words to describe the awkwardness of those around her. I’m a sucker for kids cursing aloud, so AnnJewel won my heart and stole many of scenes even when her character felt flimsy to the importance of the movie.

The only other thing of notoriety was that of the pacing, which feels smooth in transition during the opening half hour or so, but then insufferably slow during the last act of the movie that tacks on far too much. It’s odd that the film can feel two different kinds of sequence storytelling speeds, but ‘The Last Words’ accomplishes this rare feat by elevating its story as it goes to contrived levels. I would’ve preferred that the film stick with that first act more, as much of its script focused more on the issue at hand of the people that Harriet has wronged over her life. Anne’s story is OK, but it isn’t one that feels necessarily important to the urgency of Harriet’s disposition, and so much of this tier of the story should’ve been left on the cutting room floor in favor for Harriet receiving tough love in consequences for the things that she has done. A direction that goes virtually unexplored and feels miles away the deeper that we immerse ourselves in this emotionally unstable script.

The Last Words of this particular film don’t generate the kind of somber or important message that the film had intended. Maclaine still slices with sharp precision in three-dimensional characteristics, but unfortunately for her the movie that accompanies is an uneven emotional mess that never hinders its potential behind a road of clarity for its morally blind protagonist. Even more so, there’s nothing of memorable merit to the bland dealings of this script, leaving Pellington’s latest dead on arrival before it finds the proper footing in collective tone. The lack of credibility in emotional truth undermines its own success.

4/10

Wilson

A troubled, older man named ‘Wilson’ stands at the metaphorical fork in the road, when his life changes for the better. Woody Harrelson stars as Wilson, a lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged misanthrope who reunites with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and gets a shot at happiness when he learns he has a teenage daughter (Isabella Amara) he has never met. In his uniquely outrageous and slightly twisted way, he sets out to connect with her and make things right with the way certain disappointments happened in his life. All the while, settling down and garnering the kind of lifestyle that everyone should feel entitled to. ‘Wilson’ is directed by Craig Johnson, and is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexuality.

This movie deceives its audience with one of the most exaggerated trailers that I have seen in quite some time. ‘Wilson’ is a comedy that wants to badly to be a message-baring dramatic piece, alienating its former in a way that was not only damaging to the film, but also to audiences that will deal with 90 minutes of bland personalities and narration that will exert more pity out of you than feel good humor. I am not embellishing even in the slightest when I say that this movie made me so depressed that I now feel immense uncertainty with the next series of comedy offerings that I will take in. In metaphoric terms, ‘Wilson’ is a one legged dog that loses a fight to a pack of angrier, hungrier dogs, then gets run over, then limps its way to the sidewalk, where it gets chewed up by a lawn mower. Vicious example I know, but this movie fails over and over with offering the sweeter side to Daniel Clowes character, when he created and penned this story decades ago. It’s a set-up that dooms itself in repetition, as well as an incoherent screenplay that feels far too often that it is throwing any idea at a wall to see what sticks.

It’s certainly easy to see the overdone pitch here, over-and-over again. Each scene starts off with a fresh landscape different from the scene before it. Wilson comes along to interact with someone embracing their privacy, gets involved in a long-winded conversation with said person, and then says something outrageous to offend or alienate that person. That’s it. Clowes ‘Wilson’ novel is a series of one page animations that feel like your typical Sunday morning cartoon strip in the local paper. The problem is how does this equate to a three act structure that is rarely ever given time to breathe between extremities, as well as time to soak in the reactions before jarringly bad editing comes in to break up what little reactions it garners from its audience. Honestly, I did laugh a few times during ‘Wilson’, most of which were the quick-digs that were prominently featured in the trailer. What did pleasantly surprise me was to find out that this movie is rated R, so that juvenile humor can blossom to the fullest potential. Unfortunately, this film is a comedy for all of the first act, after which it dips into one of the truly most pathetic protagonist stories that can not improve its credibility when one thing after the other diminishes this character and his hopes with each passing second.

Wilson himself is the kind of guy to let life walk all over him without feeling the kind of fire or charisma to fight back. He’s utterly pathetic, rude to everyone he comes across, and selfishly puts his own wants and needs above everybody else no matter what toll it will take on them. Harrelson himself plays the character fine, emoting the most in this fragile character that deserved to be studied instead of poked at with a stick, but he just isn’t presented in the brightest of lights. That rendering smile and wink that Woody has perfectly crafted over a respectable career is there enough to think that something more memorable is behind every turn, but unfortunately it is a pipe dream that never materializes. In addition to him, the supporting characters in this film by actors like Laura Dern, Cheryl Hines, and especially Isabella Amara as Wilson’s depressed daughter Claire, are equally as unrelatable and benign as the title character. After each interaction with these characters, the film slips further and further into a reclusive state, offering the occasional shock-and-awe dialogue just to see if the audience is still awake. Thankfully, Judy Greer does turn in a brief shining light that impacts Wilson the most, despite a brief lasting power. She’s the kind of positive influence that makes me want to grab Wilson and tell him to pay attention to what’s good about his life, and forget about the past that is better left exactly there.

At a flimsy hour-and-a-half, you would think that pacing shouldn’t be a problem at all, but this movie drags its feet like an infant throwing a fit at the beach. Pacing in comedies certainly aren’t a problem if the comedic effect is in full swing, but considering I only laughed at maybe 10% of the jokes in ‘Wilson’, it’s safe to say that I checked my watch on more than one occasion. It feels like forever mostly because of choppy editing that builds addition to these sixty second scenes that never amount to anything other than throwaway. It’s a certainty that this screenplay is either written poorly, or was at the very least harshly editing to leave out some important aspects. One such scene is a courtroom deposition that we as an audience never see, but hear plenty about from three different scenes that mention the importance of it. This plays into the shock I discovered when I checked my clock late in the movie. When I realized that there was still a half hour left in this movie, I wondered how that could be. This character and tracking story respectively, had been through so much within the first two acts of this movie. Even more so when you consider that where this movie should’ve ended, it doesn’t. It drags on further for fifteen more minutes of cringe-worthy, dumbed-down choices that rip away that chance of a happy ending for this fragile presence. The movie’s ending is fine enough, but I feel like it would’ve been better if past dealings were left in the shadows of this maturing man who is moving forward.

‘Wilson’ better serves as a two minute trailer that tightly boxes in the best laughs of the movie, and teaches everything that you need to know about this particular character. Harrelson’s charm is seeking air from the suffocating cloth of material that is being forced against his nose, but occasionally breaks free to remind us that one of the most enjoyable personalities is still under the glasses and thinning hair line. I only wish I could’ve said the same for the bleak, moronic character written for him. Daniel Clowes best work would be better left alone as a book, rather than to turn it into a movie that feels choppy and lacks most of the storytelling dynamics of its material.

3/10

Power Rangers

Five teenagers turned heroes learn of the impending doom upon their town of Angel Grove, forcing the group to become the ‘Power Rangers’. Five teens with attitude are inexplicably brought together by coincidence or destiny to become the newest generation in a line of warriors known as the Power Rangers. The world rests in their hands as Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a powerful witch and former Green Power Ranger, launches an assault seeking the Zeo Crystal with an army of stone golems called Putty Patrollers and a giant golden monster called Goldar. Based upon the popular American television series, ‘Power Rangers’ is directed by Dean Israelite, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, minor adult language, and for some crude humor.

There are times in my writing career when I take honor for being correct in my assumptions. Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for all of my doubters, ‘Power Rangers’ will not go down in history as being one of these times. When I first heard that they were producing a big budget silver-screen version of the popular 90’s kids show, I thought about how negatively some of these properties like ‘Jem and the Holograms’ or ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ have been treated along the way. Thankfully, Saban Productions knows the kind of property that they have on their hands, one that speaks to generations younger and older who adore this folklore. For my own personal grade, I view two important aspects to this movie; does it do damage to the original offerings? and does the film present enough of a fresh perspective to justify its re-imagining? Both of these answers play hand-in-hand with one another, but I can gladly say that this 2017 version should pleasantly please audiences of every timeline. Whether you were a 3-season fan like me, or you followed this evolving group of kids through every manifestation, there will be plenty of positives to instill that fun in you that you felt as a child, as well as have you anxiously awaiting the inevitable sequel that is hinted at in a mid-credits scene that is carefully orchestrated.

First of all is this fresh cast that a lot of this film rides on. The movie immediately introduces us to three valuable characters who are equally built among their respective angles and storylines. These are Jason, Kimberly, and Billy. Oddly enough, Billy was my least favorite character in the original ‘Power Rangers’, but here R.J Cyler combines nerdy intelligence with teenage awkwardness that places him in the spotlight of this adolescent who I just couldn’t get enough of. Likewise, Naomi Scott and Dacre Montgomery (Winner of the Zac Efron look-alike contest) too live up to their important characters as Kimberly and Jason respectively, and what I dig about both of them is that they feel like they come from two different worlds, and would otherwise never frequent one another, but this adventurous secret between them and everyone else, crafts a ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of arrangement that hits on that classic 80’s film setup on more than one coincidence. There are two other Power Rangers played by Becki G and Ludi Lin, as Trini and Zack, but sadly neither are given the valuable screen time or smooth transitions to their story that would otherwise build them equally with their other three protagonists. In fact, the film kind of forgets about the two of them until about midway through, when we are told vital information about one character’s sexual orientation, as well as the other one fearful to go home for their own personal dealings. These could’ve used more emphasis in a two hour run time, and regretfully character building is something that this film does feel jarring with all of its picking and choosing. Even still, I thought it was cool how they kept the names the same from all of the original rangers, and yet switching their heritage around with the color of their uniforms.

If there is one MAJOR flaw to the casting, it’s in Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa. I definitely admit that I got my prediction for the finished product of this movie wrong, but I was absolutely correct about this being an immense miscasting for the rangers biggest villain. Not that it’s completely Banks fault. She is given a very miniscule amount of on-screen time not only to build the backstory of her character, but also put her in any scene that doesn’t jumble the teenage drama kind of tone that the film surprisingly hit on wonderfully. Any time that Repulsa is on-screen, we return to the hokey kind of atmosphere that the original series dabbed in, and while this may satisfy some, I can humbly tell you that I never once believed that Banks fully immersed herself in this character. For the most part, it feels like she is playing dress-up and spouting off some cheesy lines that make it difficult to ever take serious. Banks is a decent actress, but this kind of action movie is anything but her forte, and the absence of a strong antagonist keeps this film as consistently predictable.

I mentioned the tone, and what works in its dramatic regards is that a lot of these teenagers in the movie are dealing with issues that mirror that of what our current youth entail. Sexual orientation, high school identity, and loneliness are just a few of the depictions that ‘Power Rangers’ hits on, and the portrayals consistently feel honest and not at all like a gimmick used for plot convenience. To watch this group of kids merge into a family is one that does a lot for the moral integrity of the film, and adds a dramatic layer of depth to your investment in those characters and their well-being. What’s smart about this is that this is an origin story, so the film feels it vitally important to build the men and women inside of the suit before it shows us the goods, a point that pays off soundly. At the end of the day, this is still a group of teenage superheroes who form a gigantic dinosaur, so there is some humor to boot, but the sprouts of it inserted throughout are used wisely and accordingly so as not to jumble the increasing tension within these inexperienced rangers and the impending doom that awaits them.

The action is given a nice big budget presentation in CGI destruction value. It’s kind of funny to watch this once little engine that could be transformed (Poor choice of words?) into a Michael Bay kind of depiction in crumbling buildings practically falling from the sky. The fight choreography pays homage faithfully to the kung-fu kind of brawling that engaged in the original series, even so much as turning the amps to eleven, with fast-paced movements that always feel tightly in-sync with one another. The camera work could definitely be stronger however, as there’s either often too much going on within each frame, or the direction of each shot is negatively compromised because of experimental camera work that reaches a little too much in aspirational pull. Some of what I mean for instance is when a character or machine will get knocked upside down, and the camera has to follow the flip all the way in the same vain that said object does. I certainly do not need this kind of accuracy to understand the pain associated with being knocked on your head, but if feeling the brutality was the intended purpose, then I most certainly did with some of the most visually sickening camera work of 2017.

The only other two things that bothered me was that of some viciously disgusting product placement, as well as an ending that could’ve lasted slightly longer in resolving Repulsa’s immense army. On the latter, this movie does touch on the familiar cliche that if you defeat the biggest one, the rest will fall. If you’ve seen ‘The Avengers’ you know what I’m talking about. On the former, there is a local donut business that gets the most repetitive two hour commercial that money could’ve bought them. Once or twice is OK, but to keep showing, and even having a character feast on a donut during the big climax, angered me to the days of Adam Sandler and all of his cheap usage to put some more change into his pocket. It feels as desperate here as ever before, and the intended purpose for this building could’ve been any other abandoned building or otherwise to get its point across.

‘Power Rangers’ was a brace for the worst kind of modern-day adaptation, but the marriage between 90’s cheesy kids shows and big budget productions is a gift-wrapped delight to fans who have been waiting for this kind of rangers movie for over two decades. With a better casting for the antagonist, as well as some modest step-taking when it comes to shooting action sequences, and Israelite could etch his name as a premiere filmmaker. Even still, the pacing never slows down for two solid hours of nostalgic insanity that will remind you of a simpler place and time.

6/10

The Girl With all the Gifts

One girl is the cure for the zombie epidemic, in ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’. The near future humanity has been all but destroyed by a mutated fungal disease that eradicates free will and turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries”. Only a small group of children seem immune to its effects. At an army base in rural England, this group of unique children are being studied, subjected to cruel experiments by biologist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close). Despite having been infected with the zombie pathogen that has decimated the world, these children retain normal thoughts and emotions. The children attend school lessons daily, guarded by the ever watchful Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine). But one little girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), stands out from the rest. Melanie is special. She excels in the classroom, is inquisitive, imaginative and loves her favorite teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). When the base falls, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. Against the backdrop of a blighted Britain, Melanie must discover what she is and ultimately decide both her own future and that of the human race. ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ is directed by Colm McCarthy, and is rated R for disturbing violence/bloody imagery, as well as adult language.

In 2017, it’s obvious that the zombie genre has run amock. At this point, fresh ideas to stimulate and energize this subgenre are few and far between, but occasionally an injection of pure adrenaline is injected, and we remember what was once great about these kind of movies. Out of the smoke comes ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’, a European horror offering lifted from the pages of the book by the same name. Perhaps literature still inhabits all of the fresh and unused in ways that film is truly lacking on these days, because this movie was dreary, yet inspiring. It’s a reminder that the best and truly most frightening angles in horror are the ones that we find great fear in within our own psyches, and this post-apocalyptic wasteland where youth reigns supreme is a call-back to the days of ‘Children of the Corn’, as well as ‘Pet Cemetery’. While paying homage in essence to some of those classic pictures, ‘Gifts’ is a movie that carves its own reputation by changing the perception in and around European horror.

First of all is the appreciation of a story that doesn’t overcomplicate itself by giving a typical narration intro describing how we got to this bleak disposition. There’s a lot of mystery and cryptic bypassing that surrounds the first act of this McCarthy’s film, and I dig that because his method of storytelling never requires the audience to be spoon-fed that important story arcs. This is a director who has more than enough faith in his viewers, so he lets them paint the pieces, and this is by no means a difficult picture to paint. The film is to be applauded by slow-peeling the layer of exposition. We know by the title that the younger cast maintain this constant level of importance to the overall story, but through the eyes of this teenage girl, we learn step-by-step why she is so important. I commend any film that invests in the capability of child actors, especially ones that are good at captivating audiences, but this film does all of that without needing the tired, cliche scripts that plague the young adult point of view. The film continuously built to a crescendo of pulse-setting scintilation, concluding with a finale that constantly reminds us that hope waived goodbye to this set of characters long ago. A message that the audience has to endure over-and-over through some ever-changing landscapes and backdrops.

If there is some weakness to this story, it’s more so in that defining of the rules from these infected children, who seem to turn it on whenever the plot deems it convenient. There were many examples during the movie of these kids snapping when they can smell the scent of their adult prey nearby, but then there are other points when these adults run and sweat, further engulfing themselves in fatigue that accelerates said smell, and there’s not even a flirt with such suspense. Other than this, the only other problem that I had with the movie was some slight obvious foreshadowing in the opening twenty minutes that one can read through the lines on to see where the film is headed. If you manage to watch this film in one continuous setting, these subplots that stick out like a sore thumb will constantly ring in the back of your mind near the end of the movie, and it suddenly becomes obvious how the dots connect. Small issues in the otherwise grander picture that is this frightening takeover that uniquely relays how adults are the new minority.

Leaps and bounds above the rest though, my favorite aspect to the film is a bittersweet fragile composition by Cristol Tapia De Veer. If one thing is certain, it’s that Cristol has definitely done his studying on the genre of zombie classics like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and the George Romero offering of zombie introductions. On those movies, ‘Gifts’ too uses the same few notes to repetition, slowly varying them with each passing second. This allows audiences to fully soak in and embrace the dread that envelopes our cast of characters in a dense fog. In addition to this, the overall sound mixing and editing justify a couple of jump scares in the script that constantly keep the viewer guessing. I’m a difficult person to rattle when it comes to timely jump scares, but ‘Gifts’ hit me hard during a second act reveal that came opposite from the side that you weren’t expecting. It overall makes for a grade-A experience if you watch this in a theater or a stacked surround sound experience.

The acting too brings to light a combination of reputable actors with relative unknowns that blended positively in a well-balanced cast. Gemma Arterton is someone who I’ve always felt needed the right script to shine appropriately, and as Justineau we get the lone character who understands and holds onto the importance of that dying age of positivity for the concept of a child being a child. Arterton and Melanie’s friendship weighs heavily in importance for the direction of the movie, and thankfully it inherits loads of heart to keep the protagonist angles working overtime against the remainder of adults who have their own selfish agendas. Such a character is Glenn Close’s Dr. Caldwell character. There’s so much menace and plotting going on underneath the surface of Close’s outstanding work here, and that attention to detail had me often times searching for the grand scheme beneath her stone cold exterior. Close and Atterton lead the way for adult leads, but it’s in the introduction of Sennia Nanua in her first feature film. As Melanie, Nanua triumphs soundly, balancing equal parts human and monster that never feels riddled in gimmicks or underplayed in emotional response. For a 14-year-old, she is leaps and bounds above her age with how she plays the movie, and silently she commits theft on the stealing of this screenplay, a ‘girl with all of the gifts’, if you will.

By finding an original take on the zombie epidemic, as well as blazing through a circumference of well-timed scares and dreary backdrops, ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’ re-ignites an antidote of adrenaline deep within the heart of this aging subgenre. Poignant, atmospheric, and brutally hungry, this adaptation from Colm McCarthy will leave you reeling long after the ending that delivers on a solid payoff. This one takes a bite and keeps on chewing.

8/10

Trainspotting 2

Twenty years after a heroin binge sent their lives in spirals, the gang of Edinburgh return to the silver screen, in ‘Trainspotting 2′. After betraying his friends and running off with (almost) all the money from a scam, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is back in Edinburgh. It is his first time back since the events that split him, Spud (Ewen Bremmer) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) apart. He looks up Spud and Simon but their lives are hardly much better than when he last saw them. Spud, after getting his life together, has seen it all unravel, to the point that he is suicidal. Simon is running his father’s loss-making pub, in between bouts of blackmail. Meanwhile, the fourth person in their caper of 20 years’ ago, the psychotically intense Begbie (Robert Carlyle), is in jail. He has no intention of staying incarcerated and revenge is foremost on his mind. Mark quickly finds himself unraveling in the same circular direction that nearly ended his life two decades prior. ‘Trainspotting 2’ is directed by Danny Boyle, and is rated R for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence.

Danny Boyle became notorious after crafting the original ‘Trainspotting’ in 1996, a movie that unapologetically depicted the live fast lifestyles of drug use and the consequences that came with them. Over twenty years later, it’s interesting to see an artistic imitation of life, as just like the protagonist of Mark Renton, Boyle too returns to the spot of his youth to dabble once again in the waters that would inspire him to grow as one of boldest artistic expressionists of our time. ‘Trainspotting 2’ might not prosper to a complete success in the same vain that its predecessor did, but there’s much to indulge in the nostalgic slice of pie that Boyle conjures up for his audience. It was certainly interesting enough to catch up with these characters with so much time removed from one film to the other, and the continuing script by John Hodge gels perfectly to bridge the gap of rust, emulating a story that feels very in-sync with that of the first movie. A difficult thing to do once so much time has passed not only in real time, but also in screen time between character to character.

From Hodge and Boyle’s standpoint, this film packs several impactful messages surrounding the importance of friendship and how the memories that we make as youths shape us to be the people we grow up to be. In regards to this film, it’s clear that so much can happen after two decades, but we can’t change the moral integrity of the heart beating inside, and it’s in that thought process where so very little has changed over time for our four main characters. Where the first film centered around addictions and selfish indulgences, ‘Trainspotting 2’ focuses more on the beauty of life and living with eyes wide open for the very first time. Sure, there is drug use in this film as well, but these feel like characters who are thinking clearly for the first time, and it’s more than satisfying enough to see them prosper, despite the ghosts of Edinburgh past coming back to haunt them occasionally. The difference in age and lifestyles go far beyond that of what’s depicted in story, but also that in pacing of this film versus the 96 original. At nearly two hours, this film feels sauntering when compared to the upbeat pacing and flow of the first movie, channeling the aging process accordingly of the 40-something cast that now deal with maturity. I found this angle in storytelling to be beneficial, even if there is about twenty minutes or so of the movie that flounders in purpose, and would’ve wisely been better left on the cutting room floor.

With Boyle being a magician behind the lens, we are once again treated to a visual fiesta of experimental lighting, editing, and overall camera work that integrates soundly into the picture. The scene-to-scene transitions are beautifully decorated here, characterizing the landscapes not only in Amsterdam to Edinburgh, but also in the coincidences in repetition that Mark realizes from his own past. On the latter, the touches and insertions of child actors being edited into what’s happening on-screen tugs at the heartstrings of anyone watching, highlighting the innocence in every one of us who once had a dream of greatness when we were younger. This film embraces nostalgia with open arms, so it’s beneficial to the creativity and relaying of internal feelings to the audience to include these youthful images, a feature that only someone like Boyle could master, with such similar touches in films like ‘127 Hours’ and ’28 Days Later’.

The character involvement was kind of hit or miss for me, treading a delicate line of material that could only go so far for so much cast. The redeeming friendship of Renton and Sick Boy, as well as Begbie’s escape from prison is a focal point of face value for the movie, but aspects like Spud’s new lease on life, as well as Diane’s one or two throwaway scenes felt very shoe-horned in for the storytelling that was taken place with the trio of main protagonists in the movie. Their performances all consistently reach their designated marks, particularly in that of McGregor who once again balances on a tight rope of personal wants that hinder his growth for the needs in his life, but there are times in this movie where it felt like I was watching two different films that were smashed together, both of which fighting desperately to get out. What I mean by that is it feels like Diane’s scenes in particular should be amounting to more, but they just never happen. I felt no one-on-one confrontation between her and Mark is a dropping of the ball for the ways some of the questions were left unanswered from the previous events, leaving a noticeable gap for the supporting cast of both movies.

My biggest gripe with ‘Trainspotting 2’ is that it feels like a commercial for the first movie, without ever selling its own chapter of merit for fans who seek the continuance. There is certainly nothing wrong with reflecting on events that happen in a previous movie, but this film goes to the well far too much, signaling a flimsy offering of original material that ‘Trainspotting 2’ has for itself. It feels like every time that this movie might be heading in search of its own identity, only to be told once again how great the first movie is. These reflections certainly coincide with that of the past playing such a prominent role in this movie, but after the third or fourth time, you can almost set your watch by when it will happen again, expressing a layer of predictability that these films should never have.

‘Trainspotting 2’ is a welcome and appreciative sequel that could do little better about having a twenty year lay-off that would normally doom a sequel with this kind of waiting power. Boyle and Hodge reflect artistically the kind of harsh realities that our pasts play on who we are shaping ourselves to be, and that disillusionment of age that forces us to earn our wisdom. Boyle’s return to Edinburgh is a good film that could be great if it had more faith in its current story, but the dabble into the past ironically enough is the undoing of a movie that centers around it.

7/10

A United Kingdom

A proposal involving two people from completely opposite cultures has their love seeking A United Kingdom against the resistance. Based on extraordinary true events, the film takes place in 1947, with Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the King of Botswana, meeting Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a London office worker. They were a perfect match, yet their proposed marriage was challenged not only by their families but by the British and South African governments. The latter had recently introduced the policy of apartheid and found the notion of a biracial couple ruling a neighboring country intolerable. South Africa threatened the British: either thwart the couple or be denied access to South African uranium and gold and face the risk of South Africa invading Botswana. A United Kingdom is co-directed by Amma Assante and Steven Hall, and is rated PG-13 for some adult language including racial epithets, and a scene involving sensuality.

‘A United Kingdom’ and screenwriter Guy Hibbert take a usually domestic hotbed like racism and push it further by giving us a different telling of history. Led by two more than capable actors giving stirring performances, the film offers a dual telling of racism from the white AND black side of hatred, garnering so much more than the typical one-dimensional flick during this particular era. If this wasn’t enough, the very locations in this film between Britain and South Africa cement the idea that this disease in logic is more of a worldwide epidemic than a Southern American bible belt where this genre of films usually revolves around. This idea, as well as a script that shows a heartfelt side to romance, gives Amma Assante a leg up on recent bi-racial love stories like ‘Loving’ that only flirt with the idea of equally portraying both sides of the racial coin. Hibbert has a clear responsibility to both sides equally in this story, and he dedicates himself to the idea that love is always more important than hate, a credo that envelopes the movie from start to finish, with this bi-racial couple endearing their newfound power.

The first act will undoubtedly be the biggest test for the audience. I myself found the opening half hour to be jarringly abrasive from the remainder of the film, rushing through various plots and character exposition that is only made up later from two performances that constantly meet their mark. The editing is slightly jumpy during this act, breezing us through the finer parts of this relationship that is vital to the audience falling in love with them. Thankfully, the second act smoothly transitions, and one thing is certainly clear; all of this rushing of developments was done to focus not only on the rising of tension between South Africa and the Brits, but also that of this duo taking their love to a new environment. One of great polar opposite to where the two met and fell in love. As the story pushes along, I found myself impressed with how Hibbert and Assante could succeed at the very merits of what their relationship meant to the conflict of the African village and vice versa. Most unrelated subplots in films will usually not tie with one another, but you start to see the impacts that one has on the other, culminating in a gut-wrenching finale that will have you on the edge of your seats if you don’t know the real life story of Ruth and Seretse.

But how does the relationship stack up? If it’s not believable, then surely this story will deflate. Thankfully, that is never an issue, as the chemistry of Pike and Oyelowo not only feels believable, but is also given appropriate time to supplant their characters. What I love about the layering of this story is that this duo not only grows wonderfully as a couple, full of heart and compassion for one another that radiates beautifully, but also as individuals braving their own uphill climbs. Midway through the movie, a startling controversy separates the two, and the battle within their individual character becomes just as important as the strength between them when they are together. It’s kind of brilliant to attack the issue like this, especially considering that this is a romance of sorts that revolves around the concept of two against the world. But to get there, Hibbert forces us to understand that these are two brave people who came together to mold a union that was leaps and bounds ahead of its time, asking their respective sides to change along with them.

I mentioned the on-screen progression of Ruth an Seretse, but they would be nothing without the two experienced actors who harness that positive energy into two hearty performances. Rosamund Pike is thankfully starting to get the kind of roles that she deserves in Hollywood. As Ruth, Pike feels fragile, but caring, wanting the latter to outweigh the former in a place that she is unfamiliar with. That sense of feeling lost could overcome her character at any moment, but Pike pushes on, signaling a caring in her eyes with the numerous dispositions that she sees in the citizens of her new home. Oyelowo continues to be Mr. Dependable in A-list roles. David has always been someone whose childlike eyes do wonders into his extremely likeable personality, and Seretse is the perfect role for someone of that stature. He’s a lover, but as strong of a fighter as it gets, and you really start to take in the kind of isolation that he feels being on opposite sides from the one person who makes everything going on easier to take. Oyelowo gives an Oscar worthy speech midway through the movie that turned my skin into a bumpy sidewalk of goosebumps, full of chilling emotional response that cements this man as one of the finest dramatic faces working today. The chemistry between Pike and Oyelowo transcends even their roles as this couple, making it easier to immerse yourself into this delightful coupling that radiates positive energy frequently. The only performance that felt unnecessary to me was that of Tom Felton. His performance felt very out of place and slightly cartoonish as one of a few villain characters in this movie. Because of this overabundance, his character feels unnecessary, as well as flawed with how little he is really given to impact. His brief scenes felt more like a speedbump to the more meaty issues that didn’t concern him, and Felton’s character feels expendable in the overall scheme of things.

On the technical side of things, this is a beautifully captivating visual piece that really exceeds in the backdrop of these two strong actors putting on a show. The establishing shots of South Africa are breathtaking, and comprehend the idea of just how cut-off and isolated that they appear to be from the rest of the world around them that treats them like outsiders. The editing finds its place after the choppy first act that I mentioned earlier, and a strong musical accompaniment by composer Patrick Doyle plays its way into the immensity of this situation in story. There’s great building tension in the notes that Doyle commands, and the jazz soundtrack that radiates audibly during the first act sets the mood appropriately for the running joke early on that establishes their overnight romance.

‘A United Kingdom’ has some spotty pacing issues early that doesn’t capitalize on the patience of established storytelling, but fortunately the charming duo of Pike and Oyelowo, as well as a refreshing originality in content to race relation genre films, gives Assante the proper pieces to unite audiences of all races. It’s a perfect story for the perfect time, and feels like a constant reminder that in a world of bleak situations, love always trumps hate.

7/10

The Shack

Light spoilers ahead. I needed them to make my points. Apologies

One troubled and haunted man seeks clarity after an unpredictable accident leaves him with memories of The Shack. The film is Based on the best-selling novel by William Paul Young, which was originally published out of a garage by Brad Cummings and Wayne Jacobsen. After his young daughter is murdered during a family camping trip, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) spirals into a deep depression causing him to question his innermost beliefs. Facing a crisis of faith, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to the shack where the crime occurred, deep in the Oregon wilderness. Despite his doubts, Mack goes there and encounters an enigmatic trio of strangers led by a woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer). Through this meeting, Mack finds important truths and lessons that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever. The Shack is directed by Stuart Hazeldine, and is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving violence.

I’ve had my trysts with religious films over the course of six years as a film critic, and I have to say that ‘The Shack’ is among the worst in religious offerings. That’s not to say that I am against religious films as a whole, it’s just that more times than not they over-complicate unnecessary steps to tell an intriguingly gripping story. Good religious films like ‘Captive’ or ‘Son of God’ don’t feel it necessary to use two plus hours to give a sermon that is sure to test your moral fabric, as well as your patience along the way. ‘The Shack’ takes preaching to a completely new level. This is 127 minutes of a story that definitely could and should have been half of that. At face value, the idea of losing a child, complete with mysterious circumstances and the progression of grief is certainly more than enough fire power to hook me into any story. The problem mainly comes with the fact that the actual shack side of this story, including the haunting disappearance, becomes less and less important to the direction of the picture, the further it goes on. Choosing instead to halt the progression of a narrative to stop and show the astonishing power of Christ. Something that those who believe in already know, and would much rather figure out details to this mystery of the little girl.

That mystery is rarely ever addressed, nor answered. There is a conclusion towards the end of the film that at least offers a conclusion to her situation, but does very little in answering the who or the what. If the book is like this, it is some truly terrible structure that does very little to smooth the pacing of this overcrowded story. In addition to this, it turns out in the opening minutes that we find out Mack is a murderer himself. Surely this will be deemed wrong in the eyes of God, and he too will seek judgement, right? WRONG. The only time that this is brought up again is during a brief scene in which said murder is treated like he stole a Snickers bar from the local grocery store. That’s a huge problem within this film; it deems what is appropriate and what is not to properly tell its story. Mack is forced to deal and forgive this dark shadow that is plaguing his life, never once having to deal with his own personal demons that had more than a few reasons for his lack of faith at the start of the film. Of course anything is easy to forget when you have a film that overstays its welcome at every turn.

To say that there is so much that isn’t necessary to the structure of this plot, is a gross understatement. This film feels like a director’s cut that the director decided to keep for all of the cutting edge green-screen work that he could show off to the occasional moviegoer. Once Mack ventures into the forest, we never again see his friends or family until the very end of the picture. That lack of dual storytelling diminishes any kind of possibility for crafty narration that goes above and beyond. At least Hazeldine’s backgrounds are beautiful, despite the fact that most of them aren’t physically there. The third act is suffocating, slugging us through a variety of possible conclusion points that would’ve been more than enough to properly finish this narrative. But no, the movie instead deems it necessary to include what I can only imagine is every single aspect of the literary counterpart. That’s the problem with most book-to-film adaptations; you either cut too much, or include too much. ‘The Shack’ never finds that comfortable balance between those two doomed directions, and tap dances through some of the worst pacing that I have dealt with in 2017 so far.

Leaps and bounds above the rest of the offensive material, was the idea that grief can be easily forgiven and appropriately timed. Everybody’s reactions are different to losing a child or anybody in their lives, so to say for a second that forgiveness is as easy as saying you’re sorry, is a gross exaggeration that is of poor responsibility to the youth who will watch this film. Forgiveness is more about feeling that anger and regret slipping away. Anything is easy to say, but you have to feel it out when the time is right, and nothing about Mack’s journey from start to finish in this movie ever feels warranted with where he ends up. Especially considering he, nor the audience, ever find out the complete details of his daughter’s last days. Leaving out details like that will play a HUGE part into the battle with forgiveness and what kind of demons that this character chooses to hold onto. The film tells us that man or woman was never supposed to play God with someone else’s life, and that they are to blame for the bad things that happen in the world. That might be true for that particular instance, but what about AIDS? or cancer? or any other life-threatening illness that plagues the world? Is that blamed on humans too? I guess none of this matters when you manipulate and crafts a script into any kind of way that your audience will eat up. Ultimately, this whole thing feels like it was written by a five-year-old who watched one too many Hallmark Channel movies about the power of God. Believing is cool, force-feeding is irresponsible for the other side of the audience who come to just watch a good movie play out. A wish that goes unfulfilled quite often.

As for performances, there’s plenty of positives and negatives to dissect. Octavia Spencer can practically play this role in her sleep by now. The idea of playing a savior is certainly nothing new to Spencer, and her soft, admirable personality shines its way through every delightful bit that rarely sprung up for me. Tim Mcgraw is also decent, despite not being in the film for too long. Mcgraw feels like the kind of friend to Mack that he desperately needs during this trying time, and I was saddened to learn that his material is as short as my patience was for this film to get going. Sam Worthington continues to be the previous decade’s Jai Courtney for under-performing each opportunity. Sam’s emotional register feels cold, and often times needs musical accompaniment to reach into the hearts and tears of the audience, lessening his quality for capturing those gut-wrenching moments. On more than one occasion, Worthington’s Australian accent cracks the surface and totally took me out of each moment I was invested. Worthington isn’t alone however, as one of Spencer’s henchwomen was truly out of place for her casting in this particular film. This actress (Sumire Matsubara) is in her first movie, and it clearly shows, as her delivery left quite a few uncomfortable scenes when clashing with Worthington’s character. There’s a lot of awkward sexual chemistry between them that is unwarranted, and Sumire plays all of her line reads far too softly in distinguishing herself from the other two spirits. The scenes involving her beg for spoofing, and i fear another Marlon Wayans comedy will be glad to take the reigns. Another reason ‘The Shack’ will inevitably make me sour.

‘The Shack’ overclouds itself with unnecessary exposition and subliminal religious undertones, over-thinking an interesting enough mystery genre film and replacing it with sermon verses. My resentment over two hours of Hallmark Channel lessons and Bollywood style pacing, left me dispirited over the death of the movie I was hoping I would get. This one is preaching entirely to the choir of ears who will undoubtedly invest in those simplistic Sunday school lessons that will otherwise be a collection of yawns and groans from everybody else.

2/10

Table 19

A table of rejects revolt against the weddings that keep them distant at Table 19. Ex-maid of honor Eloise (Anna Kendrick) – having been relieved of her duties after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man via text, decides to hold her head up high and attend her oldest friend’s wedding anyway. She finds herself seated at the ‘random’ table in the back of the ballroom with a disparate group of strangers, most of whom should have known to just send regrets (but not before sending something nice off the registry). As everyone’s secrets are revealed, Eloise learns a thing or two from the denizens of Table 19. Friendships – and even a little romance, can happen under the most unlikely circumstances. Table 19 is written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity.

‘Table 19’ concerns itself with trying to be too many kinds of genres at once during a brief 82 minute offering that cuts itself short at nearly every subplot that the script tries to present itself. Upon seeing trailers of this picture, people will think that they are engaging themselves into a quirky wedding comedy, full of hijinks and awkward humor, and for the first half hour of this movie, we are presented that delicious dish of as promised. In general, this feels like an idea for an episode of an NBC sitcom that was scrapped for being deemed too flimsy of an idea. Then, when the studio tries to sell this as a motion picture, there comes a great responsibility to fill the other fifty minutes with a satisfying enough ending that sends audiences home happy. Look, I’m not trying to point the accusing finger here, but the screenwriter clearly either watched or has a fascination with ‘The Breakfast Club’ while writing this script, and it reflects during a second half of a movie that has one too many coincidences to pay homage to. With each diminishing breath we are pushed further and further away from the concepts and quirks that audiences fell in love with for a two minute trailer, instead of an 82 minute film with only thirty minutes of credible ideas.

As I mentioned before, the first act is delightful, mixing in a satisfying blend of awkward wedding commentary with an 80’s backdrop in soundtrack that is every bit as nostalgic as it is torturous on the ears. The idea of this terrible wedding band performing these songs are justified and appropriate if anyone has ever had to endure a group like them for multiple hours a sitting. There’s also an admirably sweet romantic subplot being setup between Anna Kendrick’s character and a stranger who she meets that very day. It is remotely predictable, but sometimes safe is the best way to play these kind of subplots to send the audience home with a satisfying taste in their mouths. I became slightly concerned however, as much of what I saw in the trailer happened during these initial thirty minutes, leaving me wondering what was to be setup and explored for the remainder of this movie that I was slowly falling in love with. There in lies the real truth with ‘Table 19’; it’s a soiled drama that tries to pass itself off for cutesy, harmless fun. A manipulation that I was struck with brutally during the second act that switches up everything that you’ve come to learn by this point.

For ‘The Breakfast Club’ dramatic portion of this script, we are treated to these six strangers coming together and growing as a group of outcasts who everyone pre-determined as losers. They decide to leave the wedding together to do drugs, dissect how imperfect each of their lives are, and are faced with the inevitability of a day in which time will eventually run out on their union. Sound familiar? If this wasn’t enough, there is even a dance scene near the end of the movie that seems to stop time and space for them to lash back at the snobs who rejected them. I wouldn’t have a problem with any of this change of direction if it were properly built and given enough time to mature from the immaturity that we delightfully endured during the first act. At 82 minutes, there’s so little that you can do with a multitude of characters and situations, and so much of that is glossed over without ever going back to again, leaving sloppy situational drama that feels so out of place when combined with a setup that was anything but.

The finale continues this the bi-polar trend by treating us to a 90’s romantic comedy between two people who couldn’t be worse off for each other. I mentioned earlier about Kendrick being setup with this mysterious stranger. Well, you can forget about that because the film steps on what would’ve been the better direction for her character, in favor of an option that has been proven disastrous on more than one occasion. This is a major betrayal on her character because Kendrick works best during the first act when she is rebelling against a group of family and friends who feel like they are moving on without her. Beyond this, the final twenty minutes of the film go back-and-forth rushing so much character exposition into the final frames that it often feels like an hour has been squeezed in to accommodate the overabundance of subplots that the film introduced for itself. Most of the closing scenes do very little to make me think that these characters have grown, nor will their outcast tag be removed by the society that dubbed them one. It is seriously the most insulting of wrap-ups that treat the serious problems plaguing their respective situations like they are a cake walk, when the second act wanted us to understand them as happiness-threatening. That lack of directional decision making is what charred this invitation on more than one chance, refusing to ever settle for just another cute an quirky indie comedy.

If this wasn’t enough, the very setup is flawed with this being the table that nobody wants to show up. Midway through the movie, we are told that the Mother of the bride was hoping that nobody at table 19 would RSVP, therefore preventing her from spending $200 more per seat. How about you just don’t invite them in the first place? If you sent them an invitation, you can’t be mad at their acceptance. That’s just an inane idea that makes very little sense on the ideas of saving. But the plot needs them to be there, so we are supposed to forget this line in the screenplay that did more damage than good at setting the stage for this group to come together and enjoy one another’s company.

Besides Kendrick, there were really only two characters who I reasoned with and enjoyed for this movie. Nobody is terribly miscast, but characters like Craig Robertson, Lisa Kudrow, and Tony Revolori are given very little logic or reasoning for their appearance frame-to-frame. June Squibb continues to be a national treasure, taking the reigns as the new senior citizen known for her unabashed observations in a sometimes dumbed-down society. June feels like a Eugene Levy kind of character, where she feels wiser than the youthful faces that surround her table, and I couldn’t use enough of her startling dry releases. Stephen Merchant though, is leaps and bounds the single best aspect of this movie. Merchant doesn’t have a ton of screen time or dialogue, but where he excels is those quick cut edits where we soak in character reactions to something silly that just happened. Stephen is a master at this concept, and does it so well that you often forget that he is even there, sneaking his way into every scene-stealing moment that the script allows him. If nothing else, ‘Table 19’ provides us with a supporting cast that entices us to look past Kendrick’s short comings as truly one of the most misleading lead characters of an early 2017.

‘Table 19’ is one reservation that would be better suited to send an eraser as a newlywed gift, for its inability to choose a faithful direction to steer it clear of the many misfires that the movie takes us though. To watch this is to endure thirty minutes of awkward humor, thirty minutes of misplaced drama, and twenty minutes of romantic resurgence. Totaling 80 minutes that would be better suited at the open bar, instead of this inconsistent table that collapses under the power of one leg to stand on.

4/10

Before I Fall

One girl must live her nightmare of a day over and over again, in Before I Fall. What if you had only one day to change absolutely everything? Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutsch) has it all: the perfect friends, the perfect guy, and a seemingly perfect future. Then, everything changes. After one fateful night, Sam wakes up with no future at all. Trapped reliving the same day over and over she begins to question just how perfect her life really was. And as she begins to untangle the mystery of a life suddenly derailed, she must also unwind the secrets of the people closest to her, and discover the power of a single day to make a difference, not just in her own life, but in the lives of those around her, before she runs out of time for good. Before I Fall is directed by Ry Russo-Young, and is rated R for mature thematic content, sexuality, violent imagery and adult language.

‘Before I Fall’ opens as another typical teenage time-stamped film, but slowly unweaves itself full of insightful character exposition and social commentary for the teenage years, setting this one as a rare delight upon the young adult genre. The very idea of repeating the same day over-and-over again is certainly nothing new. Films like ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘Premonition’ most recently come to mind as movies with a similar plot, but ‘Before I Fall’ takes that familiarity and makes it something fresh and organic when combined with the pressures and regrets of high school. This kind of plot when used as a dramatic force, brings out not only the comical side of repetition in fashion trends and dated musical interests, but also in re-living the same kinds of decisions that don’t make you proud. It is thrown in the face of our protagonist with each day that is stuck in the same place, and with that, she is able to grow from a unlikeable follower when we are first introduced to her, into a full blown woman who moves to the beat of her own drum by the end of the movie.

My first commendable appreciation was in that of director Ry Russo-Young for giving a film that revolves around and geared toward teenagers, an artistically merited design within the backdrops and style decisions in the film. The setting of Seattle is certainly nothing new with this crowd, but it works better here more than ever for the kind of foggy and dreary emotional roller-coaster that Sam is trying to get to the bottom of. There are many gorgeously ominous shots involving fog curling around the wooded landscapes that surround the endless forests, as well as a lot of cold and damp interior shots of the Kingston’s residence, relaying a strong presence of distance between the once loving family. These directions do so much more in removing some of the burdens of carrying the movie on the script, and grant us a stage of wondrous beauty for us to appreciate during some of the lackluster moments of the film. More on that later. For the first act of the movie, there’s also a lot of reliance upon the soundtrack. There are no doubts that this is one of those movies geared at spiking up ITunes numbers, but I didn’t have as big of a problem with it, simply because it isn’t geared towards my age bracket. The repetition of hearing these songs might annoy some audience members, but do quite the job of understanding the shock and anger associated with living through the same events without end.

The exposition in character reveals and thickening plots is also to be appreciated here. Beyond the slow points of the first act, where the setup is to repeat the same events a few times, our patience is finally rewarded with each passing day, when we learn a little more about character details and plots that paint a brighter picture for certain actions and responses between them. It is in that beginning of the second act when you feel how truly heavy that this script really is, and I found myself on the edge of my seat for the histories and pasts of these revolving characters coming in and out of frame. The film is also smart enough to give audiences a provocative chance that is too sweet to take, on having the opportunity to go back and change some of the things that we regret about our youthful years. With each day, Sam tries to change something different, giving us a butterfly effect of sorts not only for herself, but also for her ensemble group of people who she interacts with every day. As I mentioned before, this is certainly nothing original, but the fresh young adult perspective offers plenty of insights into peer pressure and breaking trends that are too self-reflective not to enjoy.

Unfortunately, the main plot of the movie wasn’t as rewarding to me because of a reveal that I figured out with about an hour left in the movie. The film’s big mystery on how Sam is stuck in this disposition, as well as what happened that night on that lonely road, is maneuvered to be what the audience should care about, but after seeing the same scene play out twice, I figured out the twist with ease. I won’t spoil anything, but through the many amounts of car crash sequences that I have watched in my career, I know a thing or two about sights and sounds, and overall what to expect from this kind of scene. The big trigger was a certain sound missing from the equation that more than revealed to me just what happened. After this point, the movie slowly starts to leak energy from the enjoyable enough setup that it garnished before this. Because of my advantage, it felt like waiting for the inevitable on something that wasn’t shocking or even informative for the audience to understand the logic behind Sam’s pause button. It feels a lot like asking three questions and only getting an answer for one, the one that seemed the most obvious at the time.

What does lift this well beyond the status of a passable rental however, is the stirring performance of Deutch at the helm of her first dramatic starring role. Sadly, Zoey has only been cast in comedies up to this point, so her turn as Samantha is something of a coming out party for the woman being asked to juggle so many emotions in her repertoire. In this role, I consider that she is playing two totally separate characters from start to finish, and each she achieves with an honest register of teenage emotions that feel brutally honest. Considering the actress is only 22 years old, she is still fortunate enough to channel these feelings and actions like they were yesterday, and we’re fortunate enough because ‘Before I Fall’ gives us a glimpse into her inevitable stardom. As for the supporting cast, I also enjoyed Halston Sage as Samantha’s troubled, albeit flamboyant best friend. Sage first appeared in 2014’s ‘Paper Towns’, but here she is given slightly more camera time to perfect the bitchy best friend that we fear talks about us behind our backs. Sage does her character well, even if she is kind of one-note on material. Beyond this, I couldn’t get comfortable with anyone because the characters were frequently interchangeable. I did however notice some terribly bad ADR within that of the two other best friends involved in this group. I don’t know if it’s because they are appearing in their first major motion picture or what, but it’s clear that post production fixed some otherwise faulty line reads between them.

‘Before I Fall’ leaves a lasting impression and sets itself apart from a genre of disposable trash by laying heavily on the darker layers creatively and visually in its atmospheric drama. At the helm is an eye-opening performance by Deutch, as well as a breakthrough direction by Russo-Young that hinders on the importance of empathy, judgement and family, and less about the temporary imbalance of high school endeavors. Profound and poignant without ever demeaning itself for shallow waters. This is one fall I gladly recommend.

6/10

Logan

The last remaining X-Men faces a resistance that sees him seeking the alliance of a little girl with a secret gift. In Logan, It’s 2029. Mutants are gone, or very nearly so. An isolated, despondent Logan (Hugh Jackman) is drinking his days away in a hideout on a remote stretch of the Mexican border, picking up petty cash as a driver for hire. His companions in exile are the outcast Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart), whose singular mind is plagued by worsening seizures. But Logan’s attempts to hide from the world and his legacy abruptly end when a mysterious woman appears with an urgent request; that Logan shepherd an extraordinary young girl (Dafne Keen) to safety. Soon, the claws come out as Logan must face off against dark forces and a villain from his own past on a live-or-die mission, one that will set the time-worn warrior on a path toward fulfilling his destiny. Logan is directed by James Mangold, and is rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity.

For seventeen years, fans of the Wolverine character have waited patiently for a spin-off worthy of arguably one of the greatest comic book heroes of all time. With ‘Logan’, that time has carefully been plucked, and during the most appropriate of times for its charismatic cast. Speculation has been that this will be the final time that Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart will don the roles of their respective characters, and if that is the case, they have done us proud with an R-rated gash-fest sure to satisfy the gore hound in all of us. ‘Logan’ quite often than not feels like the adult side of X-Men movies that has always been teased, but never fully committed to for fear of the risky R-rating that rarely proves possible for comic book movies. If one thing is clear, it’s that Mangold fruitfully resonates themes like weathering and vulnerability to show-off a side of Logan that has never been seen in eight previous films. Because of Mangold’s attention to style over adaptation, we get a presentation that very much feels like a nod to 70’s westerns and road trip flicks to bond and present a wild ride that responsibly depicts the very cause and effects that come with such power.

With zero restrictions on what this character can do, it feels like this film can prosper in ways that other films haven’t, most ideally in that of adult language and fight sequences that drag the audience kicking and screaming through every unsettling jab. The concept of claws feels like it is accurately being told for the first time, as Logan and his youthful passenger leap and attack through an army of endless antagonists who feel the barbaric wrath of their ill intentions. What works is that the new rating doesn’t feel like it’s being used at desperate lengths. The fight scenes are very carefully separated from one to the next, giving the movie an anti-superhero film of sorts. In fact, ‘Logan’ likens itself more to a dramatic western genre film that has decided to pluck a character from comics just to see how he would do in this environment and picture. He prospers wonderfully, and even in his ninth film, Wolverine feels like he is seeing the world through new eyes given to him by the ambitious Mangold who paints the true torture and isolation from what comes from being different. All of this time we’ve heard about it, but never witnessed it, and it presents a somber and melancholic side to these heroes we grew up admiring, and knowing that their best days are clearly behind them.

Aside from this mysterious little girl and her purpose, ‘Logan’ surprisingly packs a wide range of well-attentive subplots that constantly keeps the movie moving well past the two hour mark. For the first act of this film, it practically breezed by, and I found myself very immersed in this world where Logan exists as someone just trying to get by. He’s kind of pathetic, revealing a nightly ritual of abusive drinking, as well as bickering back-and-forth with the one relative in mutation who he has left, Charles Xavier. The relationship between them feels like father and son, and plays even more importantly in the backdrop of the developing relationship between Logan and the little girl. This embraces a hearty side to the script that is usually steered clear of in comic book films, but it works here being the last chance that Logan has to live a somewhat normal life. The only time that the film felt like it was living up to its paper origins was in the final showdown that enthusiastically reminds audiences of who this title character is, and gives him one more day of Summer as we catch one final glimpse into the prime of the toughest S.O.B that Marvel ever illustrated. ‘Logan’ lightly touches on the graphic novel ‘Old Man Logan’, but leaves the pages of its script to original territory, relying more on gripping performances rather than action sequences in which we’ve been there and done that.

On the subject of those performances, I can confidently say that this is some of Jackman’s best stuff. I’ve always thought that the best kind of story with superheroes are in the ones when age and deterioration have caught up to them. As Logan, Jackman endures a world where X-Men no longer exist, emoting a kind of harrowing reality to just how lonely he is in this new world. Even after nine movies though, Jackman continues to be the single greatest casting decision that Marvel has ever succeeded at. To find an actor who can appropriately channel his rage, as well as dramatic depth when it comes time to harness the goosebumps, is one of great difficulty. Logan feels like his own greatest detractor, denying a hint of hope, despite the fact that a little taste of it still burns strong in his veins. I don’t know if Marvel will cast another Wolverine, but I would be happy without this character ever seeing the light of day in the film world, the effects of Jackman portraying a character so well that he will never escape it, long after he shuffles off. Patrick Stewart was also hilariously delightful, once again portraying Xavier. The deterioration of Charles and a mind once powerful, reminded me that there comes a time for all of us when the easiest task becomes the longest climb, and Stewart emotes that difficulty with much disdain, as well as a taste of that wise-ass humor that lives to tug at the sanity of Logan. These two have felt like father and son from the start, so it’s not even slightly a suspense of disbelief when Mangold illustrates this metaphor vibrantly in a world where the other is the only person who understands what they’re going through. Leaps and bounds however, I was greatly impressed with the work of Dafne Keen as (No reason to hide it) X-23 herself. Dafne kicks ass and does it with the most paralyzing of stares to weaken not only her antagonists, but that of the audience that she peers into on more than one occasion. For a majority of the film, Keen is kept quiet, and that felt like the appropriate call to channel the isolation and fragility of such a character who has never experienced a normal life, let alone a mutant one thanks to her history. Kid actors is a difficult thing to cast, but Dafne Keen’s chilling range will permanently keep her atop the list of youthful actors who you will see frequently for years to come.

As for problems, there were two small critiques that occasionally soured my otherwise amazing experience. The first is with the pacing of the second act feeling slightly off from the rest of the picture. It’s during this time when some of the setups to the final confrontation either drag on too long, or reach an overabundance in offering. For my money, some of these could’ve been condensed into one single confrontation, instead of a series of setups that feel somewhat repetitive by the third one. My second and much more important problem came with the predictability of some of the subplots that I referred to earlier. I won’t spoil anything, but a friend of mine can faithfully vouch for the fact that I successfully predicted the outcomes of more than a few of these conflicts, and I blame this on a flimsy setup that was easily transparent. If this wasn’t enough, the trailers once again spoil some visuals spoilers in the movie that would’ve been nice to be surprised on. One such scene involves a burial that is all over the trailers like it’s no big deal. My thought process soon will be to stop watching trailers, as the best in surprises for cinema are being ruined one-by-one by thoughtless teasers that do more harm than good to the creativity of a script as strong as this one.

‘Logan’ aggressively charges its way through a somber, yet sterile offering of brutal engagements. With some deliciously violent exchanges, as well as some emotionally gripping material that constantly tugs at the heart, Mangold’s goodbye to the beholder of claws is one that Wolverine fans will be gushing over for its pulled back approach to re-defining the superhero genre. Proving that even after nearly two decades, the claws are as sharp as ever to inject into the audiences looking for an articulate conclusion to Jackman and Stewart, who satisfy in spades.

8/10

Fifty Shades Darker

Get ready to settle into something a little more comfortable, in the anticipated sequel Fifty Shades Darker. Following the events of Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson) tries to move on from her relationship with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She begins a new job as personal assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), a powerful executive with a less-than flattering appeal to Ana himself. After some passed time, A wounded Christian meets Ana for dinner and convinces her to resume their romance under Ana’s conditions, free from any secrets, contracts or lies. As the couple begins their normal relationship, Christian’s past, as well as the new characters coming into frame in their new union, threaten to tear apart all that our two protagonists have built for each other. Fifty Shades Darker is directed by James Foley, and is rated R for for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and adult language.

Fifty Shades Darker attempts once again to bottle the questionable chemistry of two leads whose moral accountability comes into question on more than one occasion. To know this film is terribly underwritten in terms of story depth and character exposition is a given, but to acknowledge all of that and know you had fun with it, is an even greater feat to admit. That’s the situation that I find myself with because there’s something about these films that are so empty and hollow in material offerings, yet you can’t help but remove your hands from your eyes every time you hear an awkward exchange or notice an unsexy form of intimacy between our characters. It is very much the fast food of the softcore porn industry; terribly bad for you, but tastes nourishing going down. This doesn’t mean that Fifty Shades Darker is off the hook completely for its underwhelming presentation, it just means that a competent director like James Foley knows where to carefully place the pieces to at least divert the attention of moviegoers like myself who are always seeking more from their movies.

The script feels very much like a barrage of one-off liner notes fused together to make a finished product that feels jarringly unfitting in terms of the rest of the events around it. E.L James seems to have a grave incompetence when it comes to long-term storytelling, the bulk of which feels evident here through the many story arks that are thrown at the creative wall, seeking some form of fusion to build the entertainment that is constantly evaporating with the chemistry in the room. More on that later. But some of the examples within this chapter of the Christian Grey narrative deal with a stalking ex-girlfriend, a harassing boss of Anastasia’s who gets a tad bit too close, and a late third act accident that places the life of one character in grave danger. Normally, events like these would be presented vital time in development to accurately depict the true severity of their situations. Not in this world however, as each event in this relationship is glossed over like a gnat on the skin of a lion, brushed off quickly like the unimportant speck that it is. When you consider how much really happened over the two hours of this film, very little of it feels memorable or even slightly hindering on the relationship of these two horrible characters who re-define what we view as people.

We have now spent four total hours with the characters of Steele and Grey, and with the exception of some flacid abuse backstory at the hands of the latter, I feel like I know very little about either one of them. What I do know is that Steele is arguably the worst female protagonist that any of these Y.A novels have conjured up. Whether you agree with my stance or not, you have to admit that certain unlikeable aspects about her character really make you question where our authors are heading with female protagonists in the 21st century. During a time when a women’s revolution is taking place in our own world, we have a woman in Steele who doesn’t fight for the things that she wants, is easily a pushover when it comes to her dominant male opposite, and seems to be able to swallow anything as long as her love interest is handsome and rich. This would all be enough to label her as the worst character that I have dealt with over the last two years, but she is given the silver when it comes to the Grey in this charisma-less world. Christian is the epitome of what should be an antagonist. He’s rich, so he feels like he can buy anything and anyone, he has no connection to the heart of his love interest beyond sexual relations, and feels very immature at family gatherings for someone pushing 27 years of age. The only reason why these two work well together is because both of them are so traumatically rotten on the inside that they couldn’t successfully be with anyone else. The chemistry between Johnson and Dornan has at least slightly improved in this film, but the lack of anything meaningful given the rightful amount of screen time, renders their stigmas frighteningly hollow. This much is evident by again an overabundance of sexual material to make up for ill-timed chemistry that constantly misses its mark.

On the subject of sexual material, the film gives us six different sex scenes over a 113 minute picture. Sex is an important aspect to a story and series of this nature, so how does it stack up with garnishing its signature crop? With the exception of the final sex scene, most of the exchanges feel awkward and unbelievable when it comes to the fluidity of the motions or placement of the bodies. Some of the awkwardness could be blamed on a terrible soundtrack that sadly overrode a Danny Elfman composed score that wasn’t half bad when you got to hear it. There’s no passion to these embraces, and a lot of that can be blamed on the fact that these two characters re-unite only fifteen minutes into the movie. That lack of time hinders any kind of release for the audience that had to go a long time for the reunion, and even more so when you consider that they have only been broken up for a week. The pacing of these sex scenes could’ve used more spreading out, as there are four in the first forty minutes of the movie, then not another one for nearly an hour. As I mentioned, I did commend them for the final sex scene because it does get interesting with the bondage aspect re-introduced, as well as it feeling like a celebration of sorts to the great news that is revealed for both characters in the closing minutes of the film.

The film also succeeds at luring in its audience once again to exceptional set designs and quality cinematography that at least accurately depicts the lavish lifestyles of a man with money to spend. The greyish tint (No pun intended) does wonders in representing the gloomy side of a Seattle landscape fruitfully, and the film’s polished look of sorts offers a clean backdrop to the very dirty ordeals that our characters are going through. I really dug the combination of establishing shots whether on land or sea, as well as the occasional personal shot that showcased a character looking and talking into the camera, offering the audience a momentary glance into the lives of Grey and Steele. The design in concepts feels like the one noteworthy praise that constantly carries the slack for a lackluster script that constantly remains in chains.

When you consider the word ‘darker’ in the title context, you think of a film that is twice as daring or prestigious in its finished product. Fifty Shades Darker once again underwhelms with cold embraces and hollow faces, and it does very little to change the minds of either side of audience whose first film experience was the final verdict in expectations for this series. It is smut, but it’s far from the worst sit that I have had in an early 2017 that has already given me six films worse. Overall, the only punishment dulled out in this film comes at the hands of the audience who have to sit through two hours of notable events that have no synthetic connection in one total sum. It’s a movie that takes itself too seriously, but you can’t help but laugh at. With one shade left, the Grey franchise has already fallen limp on two separate occasions.

4/10