Roma

Directed By Alfonso Cuaron

Starring – Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Cortina Aurtrey

The Plot – The most personal project to date from Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” follows Cleo (Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a family in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City. Delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a vivid and emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst political turmoil of the 1970s.

Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and adult language

POSITIVES

– One man rock band. Far beyond just writing and directing this movie, Alfonso Cuaron once again submits another award-worthy effort for best cinematography of the year. Decorated throughout the film with a black-and-white canvas that brings a photographic sense of detail to each and every still frame in the movie, the film radiates with such gorgeous flare and depth for what is ultimately a colorless scheme. I am serious when I say that you could pause the movie at any chance and hang it up as a scenery portrait somewhere in your house, and Cuaron again paints beauty in a world of black and white ideals.

– A love-letter to Cuaron’s second mother. Whether you’ve read the backstory or not on the meaning behind this film, one thing is certain: You get a more than in-depth feel for how Alfonso views this pivotal person in his life and his movie. In his eyes, the caretaker is someone who takes a mental and physical strain, yet still shines as the glue that bonds this family together, putting their needs first above her own. What’s also delightful about this far beyond the surface level of this singular character is that the film serves as a much-needed reminder of a woman’s impeccable value in keeping a family moving. This is something shamefully missing from the majority of Hollywood pictures in 2018, but “Roma” more than documents every kind of struggle that a woman faces in holding down the fort, bringing with it a sense of praise and focus that makes up wonderfully for lost time.

– Cuaron’s channeling of the moment. Presented here for our delightful understanding is a combination of sharp sound mixing and cerebral camera movements that really paint a vivid sense of the environments they cover. Each change of scenery opens up with a collection of sights and sounds that really allow you to immerse yourself in the moment of this unfolding narrative, and give light to the kind of detail that only a person who lived this lifestyle can attest to. There hasn’t been a film like this in recent memory, that gives us presence to a film in the form of footsteps and conversations that resonate within it, carving out a technique of third dimensional sound that is riveting without being rumbling. Cuaron’s slow pan navigation to the left and right also soak up the wide range of emotions present under this one roof where so much is on display. This gives the film great replay value, as the magnitude of what’s taking place in conversation and action feels like too much to ever intercept in one lone sit.

– As for storytelling, this is anything but a conventional script, instead choosing to spend its time on a multitude of life experiences that boil together in one simmering pot. This can be hit or miss to anyone watching because the developing drama is slow and methodical, pacing itself out in episodic methods to make it anything but conventionally predictable. What’s more impressive is the magnitude of topics covered, taking us everywhere from marital troubles to a full blown college riot on the surrounding streets that is a wrong place, wrong time scenario if there ever was one.

– Zero distractions. The decision to include no musical tones or tracks to the film, other than naturally playing music during the scene, is one that I take great pleasure with. Cuaron as a director is someone who has a lot of faith in his audience, therefore he allows them to interpret the moment without requiring manipulative or forceful musical accompaniment that this film simply didn’t require. This also grounds the overall presentation in a strong sense of realism that transcends its designation as entertaining art, making us feel like we are watching a real family and their lives play out before our very eyes.

– Juxtapositions in tone. This is something that I would usually negate a movie for, but the existence of an environment that is every bit as uncomfortable as it is funny, every bit as endearing as it is bizarre, and every bit stressful as it is relaxing, all paint this ambitiously interpretive picture that hints that life is anything but one consistent flow. This proves that the material has many layers, but more than anything it’s in the personal touch with how these characters experience these life and attitude changing revelations where something so simple in material feels so complex in delivery.

– The definition of a passion project. It’s something special to see one of the very best directors going today to feel so inspired by an idea that he puts everything else on the wait list, and that’s what you have here. Alfonso Cuaron marketing this film primarily for Netflix is something that proves it’s not just another movie to make money on. Likewise, the harvested feel of art imitating life is that rare one in a million chance where the writer and director of the film opens up their mind and memory to give the audience a piece of their past that is often times glossed over in Wikipedia biographies. “Roma” is the perfect film for Cuaron’s masterful touch, and it serves as his single greatest work to date because that passion is prominently on display throughout.

– My favorite ending of 2018. There’s no huge explosions or shocking twist, so what did I see that left such a huge imprint on me? Heart. From the bonding of this family against all odds that makes one particular character finally feel whole, to the final shot mirroring that of the first shot of the movie, I left “Roma” with an overall sense of satisfaction and feel-good goosebumps that served as the perfect emphasis for everything I experienced. It’s honest in the fact that life itself still goes on, but it’s appropriate enough in the finality of its conclusion serving as the catalyst for what comes next for all of them.

NEGATIVES

– Badly needs a studio edit. While the film clocking in at 130 minutes wasn’t my main problem in this regards, the lack of intrigue or excitement during the dry and tip-toeing first half of the film certainly is. This makes “Roma” a difficult film to get into right away, as much of the unwinding screenplay feels like Cuaron’s home movies, where lots of excess fat can be trimmed. As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate a director who takes time to study and articulate environments, but this is done in several instances where the camera turns on long before our characters come into frame, making it feel like we are waiting for the movie to catch up to our encroachment of their home.

– No central protagonist. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s easy to see that this is Cleo’s story”, well not so much. While the film does follow her more than anyone, the characters of the film are drawn so thinly that we as an audience just tend to bounce off of all of them in search of someone to take command and floor us with a personality that makes us beg for more. No such person exists like this in “Roma”, and because of such, we’re asking much more from a talented cast, who while happy to oblige at this request, don’t fully make up for the lack of important rendering. Half of the characters are irredeemable, while the other half rub together in ways that had me searching for any slight clues as to how they’re different.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Favourite

Directed By Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

The Plot – Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A trio of award worthy performances. Most films are fortunate enough to contain one breakthrough performance that earns its film recognition, in the form of word of mouth, but “The Favourite” is fortunate enough to have three, a testament to Lanthimos’ tight grip on his characters. Colman adds enough dimension and complexity to this Queen that reaches much further than her being just another spoiled recluse of royalty. There’s an air of sadness and loneliness to her that makes her engaging, despite her endless riches that no audience can relate to. Weisz also marvels as this sternly plotting right hand woman to the Queen’s operations. She does so with very little physical interaction and no yelling during her long-winded threats, and it’s all capped off by Rachel’s cold measuring stare that lets you know an idea is always brewing behind this exterior. The show stealer for me however, is definitely Emma Stone, channeling a transformative performance that adds yet another layer to the young starlet. Abigail knows how to get what she wants, and her sponge-like perception to soak up the boundaries in every situation is what makes her every bit as cunning and deceptive as her counterparts in power.

– The fine use of natural lighting throughout the picture. Aside from Yorgos’ expected cold, greying cinematography that feels more appropriate than ever during 18th century England, the presentational aspect of dimmed lighting and lustrous shadows provides much artistic integrity to the creativity in every shot. This unflinching darkness enveloping these auburn reds and sunlight orange tapestries tend to follow these character for the entirety of the film, visually conveying the ulterior motives behind every act of kindness that only serve as table dressing. This decision articulately channels the cold and insensitive surroundings of the immense mansion, and gives way to filters of colorful expression that never compromise the focus of any shot.

– Lanthimos, the master magician of the lens. In his previous films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, Yorgos used unorthodox camera angles and gimmicks to emit this layer of unsettling atmosphere that really allows the audience to immerse themselves in the interpretation, and we thankfully have more of the same here. Particularly in the use of fish-eye lens, the occasional inclusion feels foreign to the rest of its visual counterparts, allowing us these moments of valued focus to soak up the ever-changing scenery. Aside from this, Yorgos’ movements of the camera are always smooth and patient, never settling for handheld camera work that would otherwise distract from the artistic integrity of the portrait being painted before us. This tells me that this is a man who knows the best bang in every aspect of shooting a film, and “The Favourite” is easily his most technically ambitious film to date.

– A sensational game of cat-and-mouse. The rivalry between Abigail and Sarah in the film is easily the sell of it all for anyone who has seen the trailers, and it more than delivers on its pitch thanks to a combination of unpredictability and consequence that constantly raises the stakes. This provides plenty of examples of psychological and physical displays of power between them, and the film is wise enough to constantly keep them leveled evenly, so as not to sway the audience’s decision for who the Queen is better off with, one way or the other. There are many times during the film when the balance of power switches and unforgivable actions takeover, and it forced me to switch my opinion several times for these two dueling dames, providing emphasis for a circumstance so complex.

– Chapter title screens. The entirety of the 115 minute film is divided into these eight devilishly delicious sections, each numbered by Roman numerals, and supplanted with a pulled cryptic quote from somewhere in the film’s dialogue. Many films have been doing the storybook approach lately, but why it works so well for this story in particular is the ambiguity and double meaning of the quotes themselves, to constantly keep you guessing in terms of where this story will take us. There is nothing mentioned in text that ever remotely serves as a revealing spoiler, preserving the quality to constantly keep us guessing while giving importance to the value of episodic storytelling.

– Accuracy in wardrobe and costume design. Mark my words, “The Favourite” will earn an Oscar nomination in the wardrobe department, and the reason for this is the collection of rich Bohemian gowns and expressive makeup design that durably channel the era of England that it’s depicting. With a series of elegant dinner parties and Parlament courts under the roof of this royal mansion of frequent guests, we learn that no cent is spared in the fashion sense of production design, and more importantly it all stays consistent with the respective time period (Take notes “Robin Hood”).

– One thing that I love about Lanthimos’ tones in his films is his ability to channel this comfortable blend between comedy and drama that breeds a subgenre of its own. Considering the shocking and dramatic pull of the material inside of these twists and turns, I wasn’t expecting to laugh half as much as I did. This dry, caustic kind of wit is made for someone like me, who has always seen the charm in English humor that is otherwise considered strange to my territory. The expressionless deliveries of some of these lines occasionally require double takes to let the punchline reach the heights of the quiet surrounding it, and the lunacy of royalty while eating and dancing is more than approached on to give ridiculous emphasis to something that should otherwise be considered prestigious.

– Johnnie Burn and William Lyons riveting use of classical music. There’s a strong compromise here of soft time-honored pieces combined with modern day production quality that gives new life to the music that adorns the film, and makes for a racketing of tension to flow freely into each scene. There is one such number that got a bit derivative for how long its same three tones are repeated throughout the scene, but everything else is delivered with such thunderous volume and echo to make it feel like the music plays throughout the house, instead of just accompanied in post production incorporation.

– Thought-provoking in the way it incorporates provocative subject matter with historical figures of yesterday. I don’t want to give too much away, but a revelation about the Queen happens thirty minutes into the film, and changes the complexion of this cousin rivalry moving forward. What I liked about this aspect was how it’s approached in terms of its shock factor towards its delicate time period, acting as a sort of weakness for her character during a time period when such personal ideals were anything but progressive. Where it crosses over to psychological for me is thinking about the possibility that many royal figures were just like Anne in this movie, in that they died with their own kind of secrets in their minds.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, the film feels slightly uneven after the incredible pacing and blow-for-blow battle for leverage during the first half of the movie. Once this angle runs out of gas, the second half, and more particularly the third act, is left to close things up in ways that don’t feel satisfying, conclusive to the progression of the narrative itself, nor believable for the Queen considering what we’ve been taught about her. I understand the point of the film’s closing shot intention accurately enough, but it loses so much steam by the redundancy of the final act that you wish it would just cut to the chase already. It stretches out for what feels like miles, and serves as the only point during the film when I wasn’t having a blast.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

The Mule

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring – Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena

The Plot – Earl Stone (Eastwood), a man in his 80s who is broke, alone, and facing foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive. Easy enough, but, unbeknownst to Earl, he’s just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. He does well, so well, in fact, that his cargo increases exponentially, and Earl is assigned a handler. But he isn’t the only one keeping tabs on Earl; the mysterious new drug mule has also hit the radar of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Cooper). And even as his money problems become a thing of the past, Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on him, and it’s uncertain if he’ll have time to right those wrongs before law enforcement, or the cartel’s enforcers, catch up to him.

Rated R for adult language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Great responsibility towards the outlook of Earl as a person. One of the things that worried me during the trailers was the film trying to cast Earl under this light of heroic happenstance that was easily relatable to anyone watching, and while the film certainly gives its central protagonist a lot of unapologetic personality, he is anything but honorable when you consider the things he puts above those who love him unconditionally, as well as some of his unabashed speech patterns that carve out a borderline racist. Especially is the case with Eastwood serving as the director and star of the movie, it gives him great selflessness to take this character in the direction that mirrors that of his real life counterpart.

– A hidden secret. It’s quite intelligent and even remotely poetic that Clint uses his own real life daughter Alison in the role of his on-screen daughter Iris. While the film somewhat drops the ball on this element of the film creatively (More on that later), there’s no mistaking that the fire and chemistry that harvests between them makes for some truly gut-wrenching scenes of dramatic entanglement. I love when a director isn’t afraid to blend the worlds of life and film accordingly, and this instance gives the movie the kind of subtle creative nuance needed to bring out the best in scenes of importance.

– Poignant approach on the value and appreciation of family. There’s nothing subtle about this element even if you’ve seen the trailers, but the underlying value of what grows beneath the phrasing as the story transpires is something that adds great depth and personal identity far beyond that of words uttered in a trailer. No matter how successful Earl is, he can’t escape the magnitude of what he gave up in life to follow his careers, and there’s strong representation with this feeling in a majority of the film being spent with Earl, alone, staring out a window, being isolated from the surrounding world, with all he has to show for his choices. Hard hitting material indeed.

– Eastwood and Cooper carve out two respectably complex characters for completely different reasons. Aside from the film measuring them as equals in terms of importance to the story, each of them are easy to marvel at for how they remarkably play against type roles than they’re used to. For Clint, it’s being depicted as this weakling of sorts, being pushed around by those of higher rank in the cartel, leaving him often the victim instead of the power player we’re used to. For Cooper, he portrays this no-nonsense FBI type that he only hinted at in “American Hustle”, and manages to grip onto with much more confidence in this film. While the film features other big names like Dianne Wiest, Laurence Fishbourne, Michael Pena, and Andy Garcia, it is the work of Eastwood and Cooper presenting us a fresh side of two reputable careers that really keeps their cat-and-mouse game fresh throughout.

– Exceptional photography of the open road. Some of the wide angle lens shots in the film are breathtaking, proving Eastwood has merit when it comes to establishing a setting and vibe comfortably, all the while visually narrating us through Earl’s many journeys. The winding road shots put us right in the frame of mind of Earl without feeling like too obvious of a gimmick, and the in-depth look at some Midwest American landscapes contains food-for-thought in the film’s valued depiction of an old soul in an ever-changing society.

NEGATIVES

– Strange social commentary. As is the case with all Eastwood directed films, he deems it necessary to take big amounts of minutes out of the film to discuss matters that are on his mind, that mean nothing to the context of the script. For “The Mule”, it’s poking fun at gay relations, certain words being offensive for minorities, and the difficulty associated with using the internet. Each of these aspects literally come out of nowhere when they’re brought to light, and end up feeling like a series of great debates started by your grandfather. Ya know, the one who never admits when he’s wrong and refuses to grow with the progressing world around him. They are all matters that are never required in the film, and only make Clint himself look like a senile spud, whose filter probably should’ve been left on.

– Sloppy editing transitions. You have to look a little more carefully for this one, but late in the first act there are some horrendous editing sequences with Earl interacting with his newfound employers that feel like a first time job opportunity for someone fresh out of film school. I say this because the continuity of characters in frame is every bit as poorly telegraphed as the variety in angles displayed from scene-to-scene of focus on Earl. What I mean by this is that he will be itching his head in one scene, while pointing at his watch in the very next cut. Teleporting in place is an aspect I never imagined with a film like this, but due to some uninspired cuts in the film, we make the impossible possible.

– Strays too far from the family narrative. There’s a period of around forty minutes in the middle of the film where Earl’s family isn’t seen or heard from amidst all of this unraveling chaos, and this has tremendous impact on the dramatic pull of the movie that feels non-existent. Without Earl saving his money for a greater cause, his intentions feel selfish, leaving nothing of focus for the character hanging in the balance for us to understand his motives. Aside from this, it gives us nothing of breather between the fight for power of the dry driving sequences of Earl singing and the pulse-setting thrill of FBI strategy that are the constant back-and-forth of this grounded screenplay.

– Tonally bankrupt. If you watched the deceitful trailers for “The Mule”, you’ll be excited to see an edge-of-the-seat dramatic thriller with all of the possibilities and none of the predictability. Sadly, this film is anything but, as Eastwood’s direction instead chooses to make 80% of this movie a comedy of all things, leaving any kind of intensity for the vulnerability of drug trafficking on the editing room floor. While the comedy is effective at more times than once, I never wanted to watch this movie to laugh, I wanted to see a cross-country chase with the elements of a western subtly nuanced beneath, but unfortunately Eastwood’s fumbling focus leaves this story feeling miles from its destination. Likewise, the trailer also gives away what few moments of tension the film artfully crafts for itself, showing us the steak before the sizzle that easily goes cold because of the familiarity we are patiently expecting.

– Anti-climatic ending. The most important scene in any film is the closing moments that remind you of the greatness you just experienced, and leaves us with the extra emphasis of driving the intention of its material home. “The Mule” doesn’t have this, in fact its final moments are so remarkably underwhelming and ineffective that the music doesn’t start for five seconds after the credits show, so as to say that even the film crew were expecting more. The only emphasis this ending provided me was an outline for the single biggest disappointment of the Winter movie season, as I was anticipating this film almost more than any other, but was left feeling the wear and tear of a film that felt like a million miles.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Aquaman

Directed By James Wan

Starring – Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe

The Plot – Arthur Curry (Mamoa) learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world. Standing in his way is the leader of a dangerous army, led by Arthur’s brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Will the communicator of underwater life stake his claim, or will the wrath of the Seven Seas provide too much for him?

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some adult language

POSITIVES

– James Wan’s immense scope on this decades old property. After you see the film, you will have no doubts that this modern day maestro was the right man for the job, as the variety of geographical set pieces and enhanced world building gives new life to the property many deemed impossible to bring to the big screen. Wan spares zero expense when it comes to capturing the sheer magnitude of the world beneath our feet, bringing with him several rumbling action set pieces and believably textured C.G work as far as the eye can see, that is sure to silence even the loudest doubters.

– Consistency of tone is key. One thing that D.C has failed with at nearly every big screen release until now is the cohesive bond that appropriately measures humor and drama respectively. Thankfully, “Aquaman” feels like the blueprint for future successes here because it keeps each within their boundaries, so as to never encroach on the importance of the other. What’s most commendable is the humor doesn’t feel forced or immature to the kinds of personality that the characters maintain throughout the film. There’s this very accommodating sense within the material that doesn’t just cater to older audiences like in past movies, allowing kids the chance to enjoy the wonderment and light-hearted atmosphere that this company has been under-appreciating in its comic movies.

– Strong ensemble work all around from this talented cast. While this is certainly a breaking out vehicle for its main star, who exuberates enough brawn and bravado behind a crooked smile, I was surprised at the allowance given to the supporting cast as well. Heard possibly steals the movie in my opinion, carving out another female heroine for D.C in ways Marvel can only dream of. Likewise, Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson each turn in impactful dramatic turns, giving the franchise name tremendous value because of the sum of its big name parts. It could be easy for any of them to get lost in the ridiculousness of wearing these costumes or donning these tridents, but each actor brings with them a level of professionalism that makes them believable in their respective roles, transcending the familiarity of their appearances into the characters they are portraying.

– The single most beautiful looking superhero film of all time. Yes, I just gave “Aquaman” the honors over films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor”, mainly because the difficulty in capturing the beauty of something as dark and mysterious as the sea is something film just hasn’t captured until now. Don Burgess’s turquoise filtering reaches an astonishing level of consistency throughout, but it’s his enveloping nature of the above water landscape shots that constantly captured my attention and stretched the boundaries of imagination, making these two worlds truly rub together synthetically. Whether you like or hate this movie, everyone will feel like they just came out of a film where the pages of a comic book came to life, and that above everything else is probably the most important aspect to any comic book adaptation.

– Learning from mistakes. Where “Aquaman” takes perhaps its biggest step forward is the decision not only to not make this an origin story, but also not to cater to a future installment before attaining greatness with this current film. Sure, there’s certainly flashbacks to Arthur’s training growing up, but they actually serve a purpose in echoing the timeline of current day, all the while leading to a big discovery that shakes both timelines immensely. If you’re watching this film for a link to other D.C movies, you will be very disappointed, but I think that’s the proper steps necessary for finally gaining some traction of momentum for this once storied company.

– Hits and misses with the music. While I despised the soundtrack for this movie (A Pitbull cover of Toto’s “Africa”? Seriously?), the compositions of Rupert Gregson Wagner more than carried the load in this particular area. Wagner’s entrancing and wonderous musical score instills enough fantasy to the outline of the picture that really makes those moments of triumph truly pop. In addition, the thunderous audible presentation of the war sequences bring with them a sense of rumbling urgency that frequently hold your attention, and echo that of war genre films like “The Thin Red Line” or “The Patriot” that juxtapose that level of uncertainty on the screen.

– Creative touches in serene camera work. Wan is the culprit here once again, as his revolving scope around these important scenes of dialogue experiment in a way that truly allows the audience to move and immerse themselves in the thick of the water itself. This one-of-a-kind experience gives us several takes of textbook pasting in editing that made even me question several times if what we are seeing was long take sequences of long-winded dialogue delivery. It’s great to see Wan has developed a level of personality behind the lens that constantly evolves with each project, and never distracts or takes away from the beauty within the fantasy of the setting.

– Despite the setting being this fantasy realm of caves and creatures, the material itself is instead grounded in this family hierarchy, debating the bond of blood relatives in a way that everyone watching can relate to. Think “Game of Thrones” set in a world of fantasy and you’re already halfway there. What I love about this dynamic is it takes something as unfamiliar to us as the deepest darkest blue and withdraws from it this level of family drama that everyone has dealt with at one time or another in their lives. More than anything, this makes “Aquaman” certainly the most relatable and accessible to audiences enjoying one of these movies for the first time ever, and highlights yet another layer of brotherly bond that we thought we’ve seen enough of.

NEGATIVES

– Manta, while looking menacingly awesome in a detailed body suit, never feels like an important or vital part of the film because of limitations of time given to his development. This is also the only light pacing issues I have with the film, as every time we cut to his subplot, it all just feels like filler to reach the 130 minute desired run time and breath for the more important war that Arthur is building towards. I would’ve preferred they saved this antagonist for an Aquaman sequel instead, allowing them not only to properly flesh out the revenge associated with the character, but also proper time for Yahya Abdul-Mateen to shine in the role.

– Clunky dialogue. There are still problems in the script with characters speaking these cringing lines with such a lack of conviction. That’s not to say that it’s the actors faults, just that far too often these lines don’t flow as natural conversation, instead catering to the superhero demographic that literally forces these people to say these same tired lines. A great example is “The Dark Knight”, where no one speaks like a superhero or villain, instead sounding like a conversation between HUMAN beings, that transcends its superhero label. “Aquaman” shakes itself of all of these familiar tropes except for this one, and it makes for instances of unintentional humor that were distracting.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Mortal Engines

Directed By Christian Rivers

Starring – Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Jihae

The Plot – A mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop a giant, predator city on wheels devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang, a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action

POSITIVES

– Poignancy in politics. One thing that I wasn’t expecting in a movie that takes place decades ahead of our own, is the similarities in government that truly transcends the screen. Aside from Weaving’s power hungry antagonist being one who believes in a wall separating kind, the very ideal of this bigger, more advanced vehicle being a bully of sorts to its contemporaries is something that certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. There are these kind of a tiny sprinkles of thought throughout the film, and prove that “Mortal Engines” never settles for being another Young Adult conventional offering, instead going the route of thought-provoking social commentary that certainly gave me something to hand my interest on.

– A duo of delight. Weaving continues to demand bigger roles in movies, carving out an antagonist who is every bit deceitful as he is narcistic. When Weaving isn’t chewing up the scenery in every scene, his presence feels the most valuable, detaching us from this character who you hate to love and vice versa. The real surprise however, might come from Hilmar as the story’s lead. Like the fragile character she plays, the narrative takes its time in getting to know Hilmar, starting off as another dry female badass who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But as the film progressed, I started to notice the layers and nuance that this young actress gave to her character, competently juggling enough tearful remorse and growth in reflection to make you buy into her investment into the character.

– Style eeks out substance. I mentioned earlier that there are some thinking points for the film, but for my money the allure of artistic integrity in the film is too valuable to be topped. During a season when films like “Venom” and “The Possession of Hannah Grace” make the nighttime look like a collection of colorless blobs, here comes a film that completely restores fate to what can be done in the shadows. The airtime battles are vibrant with moonlight ecstasy that radiates ever so smoothly against the fireworks of firepower that play in front of it, and the lighting scheme indoors takes on enough filters and dimensions to truly keep you guessing. If I recommend this film for anything, it’s the third act conflict that features a gala affair of everything I mentioned here.

– Effective camera work. I did have some problems with the concepts inside of the ships themselves, but Rivers as a first time filmmaker showed a lot of tinsel in movie magic in making me believe the immensity of its size. The revolving shots around this moving setting are luxurious and move at just the right speed to never slug down the movie and give the audience ample time to see what is transpiring behind every corner. Likewise, the action sequences are shot with enough urgency and articulate detection that you never struggle in hanging on to the many angles and characters inside.

– There’s certainly enough comparisons with popular films of the genre like “Star Wars” or “Mad Max” that the film evidently borrows from, but there’s also enough variation in the ideas to cement a name of its own. The concept of cities eating smaller towns (a process called Municipal Darwinism that provides an obvious metaphor for capitalism) is stunningly brought to life on screen, thanks to some truly extraordinary production design work never limited by its inflatable budget. The dynamic of land and air is also a unique take, allowing the film to press on through the ever-changing circumstances of the meaty two hour run time that would challenge the audience inside of a lesser quality science fiction film for all of the wrong reasons.

NEGATIVES

– Clumsy subplot juggling. This movie has no fewer than six on-going subplots from what I counted, and not only does this make for a challenging interpretation of who our intended protagonist is supposed to be during the first act, but it also limits certain narratives that easily could’ve used more time in development. My favorite subplot in the film deals with a male android and the relationship he has with Hester, and it just never felt fleshed out enough to warrant the sharp direction change that it takes midway through the film, and how it left this character feeling directionless. When you’re still introducing characters and subplots to the audience more than 80 minutes into the movie, you’ve certainly got problems, and I constantly felt suffocated by how bloated this screenplay truly is. Likewise to “Fantastic Beasts 2”, this film is overflowing with flashback exposition, giving way to many instances where this inevitable one-off film is compressing as much from the source material as humanly possible.

– A predictably convenient macguffin. Early in the film we learn about an object needed to suppress England’s power, and evening out the balance of the ensuing war, and to anyone paying even remote attention, the obviousness of the mystery that the film wanted so badly to present falls flat. It’s clear where this is going from the start, and it didn’t differ even remotely from where someone as inexperienced as I to these books predicted. I hate macguffins in movies enough, but when the movie tries to dumb down the material to cater to the audience, it shows its hand more often than not.

– Poorly rendered C.G effects work. There are instances in up tight camera angles where the computer generated effects feel passable enough, take for instance the visually descriptive depictions of England that I mentioned earlier, but as soon as they’re presented with a dominant live action opposition, you start to see the money was spent in less luxurious places. Take for instance the character of Shrike (live captured by the legendary Stephen Lang), who constantly looks phony with an illuminous green glow. I get that he’s an android character, but the design of his property is something out of an early 2000’s Tim Burton animation, and feels so out of place with everyone and everything he crosses paths with.

– Speaking of editing… It’s easy for Ray Charles to see what could’ve been left on the cutting room floor of this film. Often it’s the scenes and lines of dialogue that add nothing to the unfurling narrative, and stand out as an obvious cater to teenage audiences. One such instance involves our lead male protagonist, who has enough time in the face of life-threatening danger to stop and decide which jacket looks cool enough for him to sport. Keep in mind that this character isn’t self-serving or in love with himself by any stretch of the imagination. What makes it truly aggravating is that it’s instances like this one that makes it difficult to ever truly buy in to the supposedly overwhelming cost of what’s at stake, and twenty minutes less of these worst kind of Blu-Ray deleted scenes would serve the pacing of the movie well enough to not need the artistic merit to keep saving the day.

– Man did this movie want a shoe-horned love triangle like other Young Adult movies. There’s awfully sappy dialogue like “I will take away your pain”, a total lack of chemistry between Hilmar and Sheehan, and not a single scene between them that translates that growth in closeness that is present as the film persists. Maybe it’s the total lack of character build, or the one kissing scene between them feature an obvious stall by Hilmar, but I was never fully convinced, and the necessity to even include this sort of thing feels every bit as unnecessary to the film as it does diminishing to the strength of Hester as the female heroine that so many teenage girls need.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Directed By The Coen Brothers

Starring – Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown

The Plot – A six-part Western anthology film that acts as a series of tales about the American frontier, as told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen. Each chapter tells a distinct story about the American West.

Rated R for strong violence

POSITIVES

– Artistic framing with the dreamy backdrops. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is possibly my favorite Coen Brothers movie, so it gives me great pleasure that they brought along cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to provide visual layers with the film’s color pallet, against a gorgeous Wild West landscape. This is the first film that the Coen Brothers have shot in digital film, so there are literally no limits that they and Bruno can take in emitting the true beauty in such a dangerous and unpredictable place. The wide shots during story progression scenes harvest the magic of a refined museum painting, practically begging to be seen on a screen as big as the sky, and the variation of colored lenses throughout the many stories, provided a unique take on the ranging tones in atmosphere that every story took us through. Particularly during the sixth and final story, we are treated to a decaying blue effect that patiently rises as the sun goes down, giving nuance to the very cold shade of discovery that our protagonists are feeling.

– Sharp tongue-and-cheek humor to counterbalance the permanency of the impactful violence. While the film takes us on many bends of tone that would diminish the danger in a lesser directed film, The Coen Brothers instead remain true to their guns, depicting the level of savage, hard-R violence to blend fruitfully with the fantasy of aspects like singing narration, and the strange thing is it all works magically. Never in the film did the latter diminish the quality of the lawless environment, nor did it ever feel out of place with the Coen Brothers usual indulgence of humorous awkwardness during trying times. In fact, there were many times in the film when I was caught off guard with the twists and turns because I was fooled into believing that everything would be alright, with a delightful song and dance.

– Clever uses of the music heard throughout. Particularly during the first two stories in the film, the musical score by Carter Burwell is instilled by aspects that are happening on-screen, that give the music a very realistic shaping to what we’re hearing. Such an example is in a piano during the first story that we hear and don’t see until the camera pans left and our piano player comes into frame. This overall provides a gentle immersion between the road of film and real life that many movies lack anymore, and it’s certainly an ingenious way to bring the elements of music to the forefront of the story.

– Impeccable sound design. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a film to watch with the volume turned up as loud as the set of human ears can physically take, and the reason for this is in the riveting, pulse-setting loads of ammunition that fly by our character’s dreaded dispositions. This gives the unfurling drama a sense of being as close to the devastation as an audience can muster without actually being there, and the screenplay’s unforgiving nature to any character only elevates this tension to fearful levels when you hear a gun come into play during a scene.

– Authentically transformative performances from the entire cast, that etch out a reputation for the Coen Brothers handle over the elements of their film. While there are familiar actors in the film’s ensemble, like Liam Neeson or James Franco, the direction does a strong enough job in getting each actor to lose themselves in roles that are different from their usual comfort zones and roles that we as an audience expect from them. It also doesn’t hurt that the wardrobe and props department fire on all cylinders, forcing you to do many double takes towards each actor that moves in and out of frame. Without question, my favorite is certainly Tim Blake Nelson as the title character. Nelson exuberates a slick demeanor and authentic Western accent with confidence, giving us such an alluring set of welcoming arms into this story, and constantly doubling down on the endless charisma. My only wish is that he played a bigger role in the film, but I will get to that later.

– Brilliant camera drifts that works cohesively with the element of surprise. There’s such a cerebral sense behind the movement of discoveries that constantly built the drama, that I couldn’t get enough of. Such scenes are rare in film, and often give us the feeling that we are actually moving a mile ahead of the characters in the movie at all times, and this movie has no shortage of them. While I could list a few for this film in particular, I will say that my favorite involved a big protagonist character who doesn’t realize he’s been shot in the head until the camera pans down and we see a bloody hole in the front and back of his cowboy hat. Aside from the startling discovery of losing someone so prominent to the film, the sequence is shot in a way that forces you to hold your breath and hope everything that you’re feeling isn’t real, when in focus we find that it is. Rhythmic drama at its finest.

– Storybook style narration that adds nuance to the elements within an anthology genre movie. Beyond the many things I mentioned above, it’s the incredibly small attention to detail that gave the movie a rich sense of production value, and transcended the qualities of being just another set of campfire stories. At the beginning of each story, we are shown an actual storybook, complete with author-style text and vibrant storyboard drawings to accommodate what is transpiring on-screen. It gives the film a great sense of re-watchability for being able to pause it and take it all in, and it’s a reminder of throwback anthology films like “Creepshow” that adhered to the gimmick.

– Little things Part two. There’s this strong authenticity with the dialogue and character accents that fruitfully replicate the particular geography and time period seamlessly, and instill this feeling that many hours were spent on perfecting the craft. Terms are used that you wouldn’t necessarily hear in modern day, and that factor plays prominently in the believability of what we’re seeing and hearing on-screen. Nothing ever feels out of place or wooden to the world the brothers create inside, and I respect a perfectionist’s stance when it comes to hammering home something that could easily go over the head of its audience.

NEGATIVES

– A glaring weakness. For my money, stories four and six were the obvious weaknesses of the movie for me, and gave way to a lot of problems that didn’t exist in the rest of the project. It’s in these stories where the uneven pacing begins to show itself, as the stories up to that point moved with such vicious urgency. For whatever reason, these two stories were given much more ample time with developing their stories, and felt much more redundant in events because of such. In addition to this, I was disappointed a bit with the title of the movie because it doesn’t exactly define what the whole film entails. Instead, the title really only speaks to one-sixth of the story, and provides emphasis for why these stories would’ve worked much better as individual episodes, instead of one cohesive project.

– Conservative constrictions. While not a problem for everyone, there’s nothing enveloped that challenges the cliche conventions of Western civilization that are decades old. Once again, white men are heroes, even when they’re killers. White women are delicate prizes to be defended and won. Indigenous people are “savages” who exist purely to terrorize the first two groups. The west is a place of shattered dreams, dust, and death. Turn page. Repeat. The end. You’ve seen it before; the Coen’s have no qualms about showing it again. Just one story of female heroism or Indigenous perspective could’ve satisfied me.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Robin Hood

Directed By Otto Bathurst

Starring – Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn

The Plot – Robin of Loxley (Egerton), a war-hardened Crusader and his Moorish commander (Foxx) mount an audacious revolt against the corrupt English crown in a thrilling action-adventure packed with gritty battlefield exploits, mind-blowing fight choreography, and a timeless romance.

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references

POSITIVES

– Surprisingly well shot action sequences. One thing that worried me about the trailers was the erratic editing and overcompensating slow motion movements that felt outdated in the year 2000. Thankfully, there’s plenty more to adore here, as the speedy fight choreography and thunderous sound mixing keep audiences glued to the unfolding drama between sides. What’s most important is the blow detection, especially for an action movie in 2018, and the competence of the crew at hand make the most out of these outbursts of action, that couldn’t come at a better time.

– One man above the rest. While most of the cast is easily forgettable for me, the work of Jamie Foxx as John allowed me to hang my investment into one character in the movie. Foxx as a constant professional, seems to have a firm grip on the kind of movie this is, allowing his fiery registry and father figure tutelage to shine throughout the film. If this was a movie about his character, I feel like the noticeable differences in Robin Hood material could’ve worked, but unfortunately we become saddled with a protagonist who doesn’t have a single thing interesting about him.

– This feels like the first Robin Hood film that properly depicts how Robin became so good with a bow. Through the arduous training montages with John that properly prepare him for the sheriff’s men, we come to build not only a delightful chemistry between Egerton and Foxx, but also building our believability for the many physical feats that our title character masters throughout. I commend any screenplay that doesn’t settle for these human characters being born with the ability to capture these astonishing feats, and because of these vital scenes during the early stages of the second act, we etch out an outline of a man who is second to none at weaponry.

NEGATIVES

– Robs from the rich. I’ve seen scenes in “Robin Hood” before, but never in a Robin Hood movie. Yes, this is the second straight week when a property is taken advantage of by making it a superhero genre film, and it never works because it changes the many things about the Robin Hood legend that we’ve come to love. Robin isolates himself in training to become the Hood (Batman Begins), A love triangle for Marianne’s heart takes place (Spider-Man), Robin’s identity is hidden away by an awful disguise (Superman), and Robin is somehow the only man to live through being shot by arrows (Take your pick). There’s even an obviously comic sequel set-up, as well as comic book looking after credits. These elements to the story feel so out of place that it frequently has the film searching for an identity of its own, feeling further from reality the deeper it goes.

– Complete suspense of disbelief. I, nor the narrator knows when this story takes place, but the incorporation of these mind-numbingly unbelievable weapons might help us distinguish. For one, the crusade wars have an automatic machine-gun arrow dispenser, that pumps arrows out ten at a time. This is not only ridiculous for a story that is supposed to take place in the 16th century, but also how this army manages to lose despite having this convenient perk. There’s also a shield that helps the Sheriff’s men move fire like a piece of paper. I know shields are able to protect you from the heat of flames, but not moving them to the point of them feeling like a brief inconvenience. Myself, as well as the audience had a great laugh during these moments, and make me wonder why they don’t exist in modern times.

– Lack of immersion in the costume and set design. Never once during “Robin Hood” did I feel like I was transported to this world that feels far from my own, and a lot of the reason for that are these choices in wardrobe and locations that limit the teleporting appeal that a movie is supposed to have. The leather jackets and camoflage army attire made me scratch my head, but it’s the placement of a casino scene, complete with roulette wheels and poker tables, that constantly reminded me I was watching a film. I’m not going to pretend like I understand what the production team was going for in the design of this movie, but if you wanted it in modern day, just make it in modern day. At least that would be something different for a Robin Hood movie, and would make sense why you shopped at Hot Topic for the costumes in the first place.

– PG-13 limitations……AGAIN. Why do studios do this to themselves? A story that should obviously be adult is anything but, and in this case it’s a scene that limits itself to almost cartoon levels of logic. A central character of our group loses their hand almost as soon as the movie begins, and not only does this actor not react in the way that anyone would by losing their hand, but there isn’t a single drop of blood to make this blow feel believable. I’ve never pretended to be a medical genius or anything, but I think at least a little blood would come from losing something as vital as your hand. But it’s never further elaborated on by any scenes of suffering or urgency to get the wound closed, and because of our rating designation, we’re supposed to forget about it as nothing more than a minor hiccup.

– I can’t understand for the life of me how the Sheriff and his men didn’t know how Robin Hood was Robin of Loxley. Even in the film world where Superman puts on glasses to become an entirely different person, this is far fetched, and left me inching further down in my seat each time they tried to play this off as a compelling mystery. For one, there’s a robbery scene with Hood and Foxx’s John, in which John isn’t masked or concealed by any measure. Following this is a party scene, where Loxley shows up with John as his guest. Did none of the hundreds of guards see this lone black man in the town when they were chasing him on his horse? Even Marianne knows it’s Loxley under the hood, as she makes fun of the lack of disguise that is anything but subtle.

– A truly ugly visual coloring scheme. This movie reminded me a lot of last year’s “Assassin’s Creed” for more reasons than one, mainly the choices used with the cinematography that left everything feeling very rudimentary. Many of the nighttime sequences lack clarity or consistency in their depictions, the daytime scenes have this bland brownish tint to their renderings, and the C.G graphics of the landscapes and rapid fire arrows are comical for all of the wrong reasons. If the intention was to crossover Robin Hood into a world of animated properties, then job well done, but the weight of the effects constantly lacked depth, leaving the most interesting aspects of this story on the digital room floor.

– No name appeal crafts such a mundane project. Otto Bathurst is a television director who obviously felt overwhelmed with such a big budget and important property to showcase. While I have nothing personally against the director, I can say that so much of his work here suffers from derivative sequencing, uninspiring performances, and an overall a lack of urgency in the atmosphere that sells nothing of dramatic tension from within the material. This all falls in the hands of the director, and it’s unfortunate that his first real big screen project will go forgotten, ten minutes after moviegoers leave the theater. Although for Otto’s sake, that’s probably not a bad thing.

My Grade: 3/10 or F

Wildlife

Directed By Paul Dano

Starring – Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould

The Plot – Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, Mulligan stars as Jeanette, a complex woman whose self-determination and self-involvement disrupts the values and expectations of a 1960s nuclear family. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Oxenbould), is the only child of Jeanette and Jerry (Gyllenhaal); a housewife and a golf pro in a small town in 1960s Montana. Nearby, an uncontrolled forest fire rages close to the Canadian border, and when Jerry loses his job, and his sense of purpose–he decides to join the cause of fighting the fire, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Suddenly forced into the role of an adult, Joe witnesses his mother’s struggle as she tries to keep her head above water.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong adult language, and smoking

POSITIVES

– Dano’s first dive into the director’s chair. There’s much to be commended about Paul’s calm, stately compositions in the form of visual aesthetics, which I will get to later, that shook me, but it’s the psychological grip on this story and characters that cemented him as a future must-see artist. In presenting this film from the boy’s point of view, Dano accurately channels what it means to be 14, in the very helplessness and hopelessness that comes with divorce. There’s this suffocating weight that overtakes the environment and the characters whole, shaping them into shadows of themselves once the air of inevitability has been emitted from it, and I found this film to be sharply effective throughout.

– Perfect place and time. In setting the film in Montana, at the pulse of an evolving America during the nuclear age, Dano perfectly encapsulates the loneliness derived from the many missteps that the parental characters take. Despite the primary setting being this house on an everyday street, the people inside feel isolated from the rest of the world, and keeping this cast limited in numbers only adds to this effect. Mulligan even echoes in the film “Why would a man move us to a place that is plagued with such loneliness?”, and while I can’t quite pinpoint why Gyllenhaal’s Jerry made this move, I can say that Dano sees the value of urban decay in such a town. A place once built on dreams that the rest of the world has since left behind. That thought process alone also serves as a metaphor for this collapsing family.

– Creative uses with the soundtrack and musical score. First of all, I loved the work in tones of David Lang’s score. There’s this unshakeable tragedy from within the ominous organs and piano work that fill the film, but it’s perhaps the way it is inserted along with the 60’s diner soundtrack that really serves its purpose. Much of the music in the film is played at such a minimal level of volume that you almost miss it, instead serving as the reminder of the particular year that never oversteps its boundaries, and lets the actors themselves steal the moments. I praise any composer willing to take whatever role the film gives them, and while the work of Lang is off in the distance, it never goes unnoticed with how it audibly narrates the unfolding drama and tension of every scene.

– Lets talk about the photography in the film, because everything and everyone inside look like inspiration from a Norman Rockwell painting. Dano values reaction as much as he does instinct, and how he manages to master both is this variation between intimate close-ups when characters are speaking with one another, and these deliberate POV angles when the intended reaction sets in. During the latter, we the audience feel like a member embattled in the overbearing drama of this family, because they are speaking to us behind the camera, and what’s really important is Dano never overuses this gimmick, instead choosing to save it for when the anger, despair, and curiosity reaches its peak in each particular scene.

– Hit and miss performances. Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are seasoned veterans at this thing. They are two accomplished actors who can turn on and off their dramatic switch when needed, and know how to make the most in every scene. For Jake, it’s the longing to be what he wants to be for his family, but can never quite attain it, and that unnerving conscience from the inside often plays itself outside in a lot of his performance. Mulligan easily steals the show, at times playing what feels like two different sides of Jeanette with impeccable believability. For the more compelling side, Jeanette feels like the ghost of regrets past, transforming before our very eyes into someone we barely recognize anymore. If Carey knows anything, it’s timing for such a switch, and as an actress she’s someone who knows how to envelope every side of audience reaction for her character. She deserves an Oscar nomination at least for how much she is asked to carry this film. Which brings me to my only disappointment in the cast being that of Oxenbould as our main protagonist. This is definitely Ed’s best work to date, but the role requires a gut-wrenching pull of empathy for this kid that I felt was never fully realized. All of his reactions from start to finish are the same, feeling like dirt on his shoulder instead of the walls of his world coming down.

– Depth in coloring palette. Cinematographer Diego Garcia puts on an artistic feast for us, illustrating a festering of light as the film progresses. When the movie begins, we are presented the warm, flowing levels of sunlight shining through the windows to represent the prosperity and solitude of this family’s current fortunes. But as the unpredictable starts to spin, and one thing leads to the next, we quickly realize the cold, callous, and almost colorless compass that speaks levels to the love that is bleeding out from within. I’m a sucker for colorful context in the form of these beautiful articulations of visuals, and “Wildlife” is anything but an abstract painting from the gifted mind of Garcia.

– Deconstruction of the American family. Whether you’re a product of divorce like I am, or not, the movie has strong crossover appeal because it relates this progressive side of understanding where it all went wrong. The film isn’t blaming Jake or Jeanette for the family’s mishaps, instead etching out this idea that this family’s problems were a long time burning, and it’s commendable for a film that could easily blame this all on the woman once again, to instead instill that it does indeed take two to tango. Also, because of such, I look forward to future re-watches, so that I can study the communication between these two a little tighter, and telegraph what other little clues I may have missed.

– Two of my favorite shots of the movie. While there are no shortage of reputable scenes that you can bring to the forefront of topical discussion, two come to mind when it comes to what impressed me. The first is an outside shot, in which we see Joe tucked away in his room, far away from Jake and Jeanette who are in the kitchen. This shot speaks levels not only to the distance that has shaped this family into virtual strangers of one another, but also in the body language of each character, that long for the love that they themselves are afraid to invest in. The second shot is actually that of the poster, which cleverly incorporates itself into the final shot of the movie. I don’t want to give anything away here, but there’s an abstract closing moment that I’m dying to discuss with people, in if they took it as an optimistic or pessimistic goodbye to the future of this haunted-by-their-memories family. Either way, Dano and equally talented cast stir the nerves from within, sending you home with the two best sequences of the film in the final five minutes.

NEGATIVES

– While I didn’t have a problem with the slow-burn of the pacing, the lack of momentum built between scenes had this feeling like a series of individual events with little magnetics, instead of a cohesive mass that constantly kept me glued. Each scene feels like you’re starting out again, in the form of episodic drama, and this sometimes contrives the fluidity of basic screenwriting.

– Run time limitations. I sometimes felt throughout the 99 minute run time that character realizations were sometimes unfulfilled, based on the extreme nature of their actions. That’s not to say that these kind of things wouldn’t happen in real life, but rather the lack of proper build along the way made such a jump feel comical to say the least. One such scene involves a fire near the end of the film, and it’s just kind of put away without any kind of weight of consequences to make a certain character finally pay for some terrible things he is responsible for. No epiphany ever takes place, and that’s the biggest problem from a moral standpoint.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Green Book

Directed By Peter Farrelly

Starring – Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

The Plot – When Tony Lip (Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism, danger-as well as unexpected humanity and humor-they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, adult language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– The powerful dynamic between the two leads that keeps your attention throughout the film. There are very few scenes when Mortensen and Ali aren’t sharing the screen together, and that dependency speaks volumes to the confidence that the script writers had on their unshakeable chemistry, which is appealing in any and every way you can imagine. Besides their impeccably witty banter that I couldn’t get enough of, and firm grasp that each actor had on their character, the duo each do a positive service to the other, like how Tony breaks down decades old levels of racism in how he was brought up, and Don adapts to the cultures and experiences that have eluded him in his classical music upbringing. Each character opens up the eyes to the other, and it’s refreshing to see two older male leads who work better as a team than they do solely.

– Speaking of those two men, the performances from them are more than deserving of Oscar consideration, and consistently keep pace with each character’s evolution. For Mortensen’s Tony, he’s every bit naive as he is disgusting, and it’s in the unabashed nature of the latter that keeps the former in the range of childhood innocence. He says some pretty offensive things, but you get the feeling that he doesn’t know any better, and Viggo’s charisma is constantly on display. For Don, it’s a classier side of Ali that we unfortunately haven’t seen until now. Mahershala keeps Don bottled up for most of the movie, restrained by the confines of countrywide racism and isolation, as a result of his astonishing talents. Ali continues to build lengthy presence on screen, and his designation as the straight man to Tony’s mayhem never limits him to playing second fiddle.

– In seeing the trailers, I designated this as just another road trip film, with sprinkles of racist tribulations thrown in, and I couldn’t have been more wrong in that assumption. Sure, the elements of that subgenre are certainly there, but they’re only an outline to cater to a much bigger picture. The film’s meaty material guides us through elements of racial stereotypes, police brutality, and obviously the cultural divide between the north and south. This film takes on so many subplots, and yet it succeeds at stirring the pot of conversation in every single one of them. Eventually, it even evolves into one hell of a Christmas movie, during the emotionally stirring third act that warmed my heart in ways that only the Christmas classics have done. I haven’t felt this emotionally satisfied from a film in quite some time, and its important subject matter makes it very time appropriate for our particular age.

– Unorthodox introduction. There are no opening credits or title card in the film. This is done as a way to immerse audiences into the action of the opening scene, and ultimately makes them forget that they’re watching a film. I would like to see more movies taking creative stances like this one, as I feel too much is hung on the conventional introductions that have otherwise become stale in films. With more emphasis on the transcendence of real life, the film can blend into the real story taking place at hand. Beyond this, some of the real life Vallelonga family members are extras during family dinner scenes.

– Peter Farrelly’s strongest work to date. Yes, it’s the same guy who wrote the ear jizz scene in “There’s Something About Mary”, but this is Peter’s welcoming parade into the world of compelling drama and hearty lessons, that audiences can take home with them. What’s most impressive is Farrelly’s ability to incorporate the same kind of comedic material that exists in his previous movies, and balances it with the dramatic pulse in material that adorns the film, and none of it ever misses a step. This keeps the optimism firmly in the air of a consistent tone for the film, and it’s an example that no director in Hollywood should ever be written off before the project is finished.

– The look and feel of 1962 is represented fruitfully with an earnestness to captures that radiates. There wasn’t a single aspect of the vintage automobiles, three piece suits, or throwback hotel interiors that didn’t sync up, and it’s great to see a film that captures the beats of its respective era by properly channeling the vibes of everything prominently familiar about it. Visually, this is an America we’re no longer accustomed to, and it gives food for thought for the picket fences format, in that the most disturbing things are happening in the most ideal looking backdrops.

– We’ve seen this kind of story before, but what transcends the material of the cliches within this screenplay, is the poignancy of it being based on a true story. These were two men who remained best friends until their dying days, only months apart from each other, and the film does a strong enough job of juggling the expectations of a real life story with the entertainment value of a screenplay, only changing about the story what wouldn’t have otherwise translated well on-screen. It’s also got great adaptability as a crossover favorite for mainstream audiences, highlighting a similar track to some recent best picture winners that previously started off as just independent buzzworthy cinema.

– Contrary to what you’re seeing on-screen, Mahershala Ali does not play the piano, but the film does a great enough job in camera manipulation and sound editing to properly attain this believability. Kris Bowers, the film’s musical composer, doubles as Ali in his piano sequences, and in particularly hand close-ups that attain the movements of a reputable pianist superbly. When Ali is obviously in frame, the audio from the piano is muted and replaced with Bowers masterful work, carving out times when I really did question whether Ali took classes as a pianist, leading up to the film.

– One aspect that a lot of road trip movies forget about is properly channeling the distance in miles to properly articulate the distance from home, and thankfully “Green Book” doesn’t fall under this same spell. In addition to its over two hour run time, the majority of which is spent on the road, the film takes us through a variety of landscapes and cultures to echo that of the melting pot known as America. This is a film that takes its time in illustrating the perils of isolation on the road, making the months feel like years, and the appreciation of things absent from sight that much more meaningful once the reunion takes center stage.

NEGATIVES

– There’s a subplot twist that happens with Shirley’s character midway through the film, that I wish the movie would’ve further elaborated on. In addition to people’s prejudice against him as an African American man, this would’ve only further enhanced the fight against that hatred, and for a scene that changes much about the way we view Shirley, it’s quickly disposed of, to never be mentioned again. This is the one example when a character needed further fleshed out. I could’ve also used more time devoted to Shirley’s estranged brother, who is occasionally brought up to represent Don’s loneliness.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

The Front Runner

Directed By Jason Reitman

Starring – Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K Simmons

The Plot – The film follows the rise and fall of Senator Hart (Jackman), who captured the imagination of young voters and was considered the overwhelming front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when his campaign was sidelined by the story of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). As tabloid journalism and political journalism merged for the first time, Senator Hart was forced to drop out of the race; events that left a profound and lasting impact on American politics and the world stage.

Rated R for adult language including some sexual references

POSITIVES

– All boys club. While the film regrettably wastes away the talents of Farmiga, the work of Jackman and Simmons are more than enough to keep the entertainment factor of the audience consistent. Jackman’s transformation into Hart shows an empathetic and articulately intelligent side to the politician than we’ve ever seen. As expected, Jackman commits himself freely to the role, echoing off no shortage of long-winded and volume-increasing diatribes that have him commanding the presence of the screen firmly. Simmons is his usual comedic self, but his sharp tongue pierces the scenery of every scene he comes into contact with, because of the overlapping witty banter written by Reitman, Jay Carson, and author Matt Bai. This trio of reputable writers rivals only that of Aaron Sorkin in terms of cool consistency, and it allows Simmons to shine in his best deliveries since 2014’s “Whiplash”.

– Illustrates a poignant approach to political reporting that is relevant now more than ever. When you consider how far from normal we are in our current political landscape, a movie like “The Front Runner” outlines the question when is it too far to dig deeper, and especially when you consider everything positively that Hart had going for him, that moral dilemma feels like more of an obstacle than expected. We might not agree with the process depicted in the film, but the commendable notion that hints that the leader of the country should be the one to lead by example, is something that I couldn’t agree more with.

– The film does a great job of showcasing what it was about Hart that inspired so many. In many ways, this is a family man, who never dressed, walked, or acted like a politician, and many people saw themselves in a man who very rarely spoke at a podium. In the film, Hart often feels like the last of a dying breed, and it’s a breed that went beyond words, and required actions to back up their claims. As an informative piece, the film is strong on the political side of Gary, but leaves a bit more to be desired on the home front. Either way, it’s a timely piece of political intrigue that shouldn’t be understated for its similarities to modern day obstacles.

– As for aesthetics, the film is presented as a mockumentary style of sorts, without the extreme nature of the gimmick. What I mean by this is the camera often weaves in and out of desktop conversations with ease, stopping only to follow a character who moves out of frame to do something in private, and spies on them through books and other objects to stay firmly in grip. These sequences also occasionally throw in a manipulated sense on long take shots, keeping the focus on the importance of issues being discussed.

– In dissecting the story into three week intervals that obviously reflect the three act structure in a film, the movie is able to properly channel the bending of time between things going good and bad in Gary’s campaign. For instance, during week one when things are optimistic, time flies like a train. When things are awful for Gary, the pacing slows down and the days turn into what feels like years. This is quite a unique take on a film’s pacing, and I commend Reitman for positioning the audience into the feel of a whirlwind campaign’s random ups and downs.

– Cinematographer Eric Steelberg’s subtle balance of an 80s realism. Grittiness and production design details with elaborate movement and a genuine mastery over the place and time, are just a couple of the examples of the visual story taking place, and this perk overall elevated the film from feeling like just another imitation of style over substance. It looks and moves like a film that was produced in the 1980s, in spite of the script’s decidedly post-modern beats, and Steelberg’s photographic memory of the place in time cements the believability of the film in ways that documentation of events don’t always do.

NEGATIVES

– Despite the big name cast, credible director, and intriguing real life story, the film comes across as regrettably bland when analyzed in the sum of those parts. The film itself is alright, but considering the release date during Oscar season will inevitably leave us expecting one of the best films of the year, the execution leaves much more to be desired. As far as political biopics go, this one is very mundane and middle of the road, leaving “The Front Runner” campaigning to be something it never attains.

– Too ambiguous on where the film itself stands on the issues. Is Gary wrong? Is the media wrong? You will find that your opinions on both questions aren’t fully fleshed out by the conclusion of the movie. Because of such, the weight of the drama in the screenplay is never fully realized, despite its hefty, urgent material, and over a two year period when films like “The Post” or “Vice” are its competition, there’s much to be forgettable about Reitman’s late season project. Sadly, it’s not even the best Reitman film of 2018.

– Remarkably tone deaf for a movie that deals with such sensitive matter. For my money, I could’ve used an “Ides of March” second act switch with the tone. This would give the film great urgency, that is otherwise noticeably missing from the film, and supplant more emptathy for Hart’s disposition that the film never spends enough time on. It’s difficult to classify this as just one particular genre, and the film’s cautious stature to remain too clean for the subject matter, does it a disservice in the compelling drama department.

– Convenient narrative? How could the film forget to include the legendary National Enquirer photo, involving Donna Rice sitting on the lap of Hart, while on vacation? It’s my belief that Reitman doesn’t include this to make Hart feel like more of a victim of his own respective era, and crafts a layer of deceit for the film’s production that angered me. This might not be a big deal to other people, but to me, without that picture, the evidence against Gary is a stretch at best, and allows the floor to fall out from beneath what was a story of logic and relevance to that point.

My Grade – 6/10 or C+

Creed 2

Directed By Steven Caple Jr

Starring – Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

The Plot – Life has become a balancing act for Adonis Creed (Jordan). Between personal obligations and training for his next big fight, he is up against the challenge of his life. Facing an opponent with ties to his family’s past only intensifies his impending battle in the ring. Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is there by his side through it all and, together, Rocky and Adonis will confront their shared legacy, question what’s worth fighting for, and discover that nothing’s more important than family.

Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, adult language, and a scene of sensuality

POSITIVES

– Caple competently picks of the pieces left by Coogler. As a director, Caple’s focus is rooted in life experiences first and boxing second. This doesn’t necessarily take the power of the punch away from the ring, but rather enhances its compelling drama by stirring the ingredients around the ring. Redemption is a big one throughout, but also legacy, and it’s in the impact of that second topic where “Creed 2” evolves beyond the ropes, in presenting us with two fighters who are equally empathetic for similar reasons. These are two sons who feel like their stories were written long before either of them were born, and while their life paths have taken two distant directions, Caple’s execution draws them together in the form of the fight from within that they both take on.

– Electrifying boxing presentation as a whole. The fight sequences are intense, bringing with them a combination of claustrophobic camera angles, brunt force in sound design, and crisp, free-firing fight choreography to keep audiences glued. The spectacle of the sport is also very sharply telegraphed, bringing an extravagance of lasers and television perspective to really draw you into this world of pageantry. If boxing looked this good in real life, I would watch it more.

– Passing of the torch. While I feel that “Creed” was still Stallone’s film, “Creed 2” is Jordan’s sweetest triumph of his young career. Much of the dramatic pulse rests on the shoulders of Michael, and he never gives up the grip, inciting a level of emotionally stirring reads and timely tears to articulately expel the boxer’s conscience from within, where revenge acts as the devil on his left shoulder. Aside from Jordan’s riveting balance, Stallone is again synthetic as Balboa, taking us through the motions of grief and distance for his current family predicaments that broke my heart for my own distant final days with my own father. Tessa Thompson is also granted more screen time in this sequel, and she makes the most of it. The chemistry between her and Jordan is impeccable, treating us to two incredible actors who feel comfortable around themselves, and work just as well as best friends as they do lovers.

– Surprising cameos. There’s no way in good conscience that I can give this away, but the two inclusions in this movie provide the series a level of consistency that has been noticeably absent from the previous installments, and gives me hope for where future sequels may be headed. The first is great for those of us who have read about her off-screen trysts with Stallone, and the second made for such a satisfying and therapeutic finale, that had me fighting off tears. I commend the film for including these measures, and it’s just another example of why the Creed series have adopted the previous seven films in the franchise far beyond just bringing Sly along.

– Evolution of a fighter. Beyond Adonis’s physical transformation, which is so impressive that it demands to be computer generated, the psychology of him as a fighter has clearly matured with more ring experience. More than anything, I noticed his confidence and switch handed boxing have evolved, carving out two less prominent aspects to a fighter that come with time. This is another nod to the physicality of Jordan’s performance, and the astonishing brutality of two impressive training montages more than colorfully illustrate how this actor becomes the title role in more ways than one.

– Props to bringing back Ludwig Goransson, composer of the first film, back to the middle of the ring. I say it like this because most of the film doesn’t require Ludwig to get his hands dirty until the fights themselves, choosing instead to accompany a majority of the scenes outside of the ring with a hip-hop dominated soundtrack that appropriately channels Creed’s personality. This absence did make me remotely nervous, that is until the fights themselves, which Goransson fruitfully takes over, enchanting us with a barrage of rumbling numbers that would inspire a mass army to dive head first into the halls of hell. Goransson collides thunderous drums with volume exceeding trumpets, and just when you think he’s outdone himself, he throws in Bill Conti’s familiar notes to “Gonna Fly Now”, at the perfect moment it means the most.

– It’s impressive when you think about the most fantastical sequel of the Rocky franchise, in the fourth one, and weave it into this rich dramatic tapestry in 2018 that feels authentic. Never once during this film did the material discussed in that movie feel extreme or silly in the least, and it was certainly rewarding to see this weathered side to a man who was once as unstoppable as Ivan Drago was, and tack on top of him a son, who is clearly only fighting for the admiration of his father. Every time the film cut to them, which is unfortunately not enough, the tone remained consistent, and I’m glad that Caple never lets his film get out of hand to feel like a music video movie, like “Rocky 4”.

– Entrancing photography that added artistic merit during Coogler’s noticeable absence. While we won’t get long take fight sequences here, the film makes up for it by supplanting us with what feels like an unlimited amount of breathtaking scenic shots of the desert, Las Vegas, and Russia, to name a few, that encloses the film in this big budget presentation that mirrors the success of its title character. On a singular basis, any one of these landscape depictions could be a background on your laptop, but when you combine them together, you conjure up a need for aesthetics that succeeds in different ways from the first film, ultimately giving this movie great replay value.

NEGATIVES

– Unfortunately, there are moments of familiarity for fans of the franchise, particularly in that of things borrowed from “Rocky 2” and “Rocky 3”, that made the intended direction feel predictable as it transpired. What this does is take away from some of the creativity of the Creed franchise, feeling like an obvious reach for the Rocky series that the film just doesn’t require. These scenes made for the only slow parts of the film for me, because I could sniff them out from a mile away, and the film would be advised to change even something small about them to differentiate.

– Some of the exposition from the boxing commentators felt forced and often intrusive, to the point when they felt like narrators who we couldn’t shake. I get that the characters in the film are watching TV when they pop up, but some of their comments feel more obviously geared towards the movie, and not necessarily something you would hear on a television broadcast. It all comes across as a bit too on-the-nose for my taste, and breathed an air of desperation that the first act couldn’t shake.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

A Private War

Directed By Matthew Heineman

Starring – Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan

The Plot – In a world where journalism is under attack, Marie Colvin (Pike) is one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time. Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontlines of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless, while constantly testing the limits between bravery and bravado. After being hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka, she wears a distinctive eye patch and is still as comfortable sipping martinis with London’s elite as she is confronting dictators. Colvin sacrifices loving relationships, and over time, her personal life starts to unravel as the trauma she’s witnessed takes its toll. Yet, her mission to show the true cost of war leads her, along with renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), to embark on the most dangerous assignment of their lives in the besieged Syrian city of Homs.

Rated R for disturbing violent images, adult language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Pike and Dornan are spell-binding. The former is obviously the bigger pull here, as Pike immerses herself fully into this role, and while it’s a bit of a stretch to compare the physical similarities between Pike and her counterpart, I do say that her stirring performance isn’t hindered because of it. In fact, the vocal range of Pike is very much in tuned with that of Colvin, sounding eerily similar to the point I had to wonder if the film was just playing audio of Colvin and letting Pike lip-sync over it. Pike’s Marie is great as a character because she’s persistent about these big stories in the world, and there’s never a point when she lets fear overtake her from opening the eyes of her audience. Dornan likewise hands in another respectable turn, feeling like the voice of conscience and reasoning that Marie so desperately requires in getting back up to the world of journalism, after a horrendous explosion in the Middle East leaves her permanently blind in one eye. Considering this is the same guy who once played Christian Grey, it’s astonishing to see what Jamie continues to take on with his career, and he’s very much a driving force to the impeccable chemistry between the two leads, that never requires romance to sell their sizzle.

– Sharp in its poignancy about war without ever feeling preachy. This is very much a show-over-tell kind of picture, in that we as an audience are put through the ringer with these traumatizing visuals and suffocating atmospheres. What’s satisfying about this is it lets audience interpret and comprehend matters for themselves without pushing a particular narrative on them. In my experience with the film, Syria feels like a world blaringly different from our own, and unnervingly resonant for the idea that children wake up to this same thing every day of their lives. It really is a reminder of the advantages we have that we take for granted all the time, carving out a feeling of appreciation that films like these champion in.

– A wide variety of shooting style used throughout. This is visual storytelling at its best, as the entrancing war sequences are captured with a handheld style of filming, that weaves us in and out of frame of the devastation, while the scenes in tranquility and safety are rendered with a still-frame direction. Subtly, this vast difference increases the tension in one scene to the other, all the while giving the cinematography an air of creativity that never settles for just one particular style.

– As for the action sequences themselves, they never feel over-styled, keeping with the authenticity of the big budget set pieces at our disposal. The pulse of the battling itself feels spontaneous in its barrage of claustrophobic bullet registry and unpredictable choreography, giving the scenes a blanket of urgency and vulnerability that gives off the impression of an on-the-ground documentary, instead of the independent cinematic experience we’re used to. This is no doubt a credit to Heineman, who himself is known for his work on award winning documentaries, and only occasionally sits in the director’s chair to adapt material. These charged scenes themselves, while spread out wisely, impressed me constantly, and proved that much can sometimes get lost in big budget presentations and ideals.

– I myself am not a supporter of war, but the film is appropriate food for though, in that it illustrates how we as one world should embrace to help those plagued by such ravaging conditions. The graphic imagery involving the poor medical conditions, sacrificed youths, and uncertainty of trust, are just a few of the examples of why action is the key to any change. My opinion overall might have stayed on peaceful grounds, but I learned that to sometimes attain such peace, matters must be dealt with.

– Sheds immense light on the career as a journalist in the field. Aside from the obvious dangers in being an on-the-ground correspondent, the job has a combination of preserving honesty and unshakeable passion that feels important in today’s fake news landscape more than ever. In addition, these valuable assets can’t un-see images that change them forever, and more times than not take their work home with them. It really is a career path that requires you to lay everything on the line, and in doing such bridges the gap between war and strategists in a way that many in ivory towers wouldn’t come close to otherwise.

– Brilliant biopic. This is certainly no love-letter to Marie, and it’s that level of honesty that I appreciate not only from “A Private War”, but also from all kinds of biopics that preserve the complete picture of what made said person tick. As a protagonist, Marie is flawed by a combination of alcoholism and dedication to her work that has sacrificed any semblance of home life that she has going for herself. While there’s nothing condemning about her, the film doesn’t go out of its way to paint her as someone and something that she’s not, and especially coming off of the fluff job that was “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I can’t say enough Heineman as a director, for letting these intricacies shine through in carving out this amazing figure in how we view the news.

– A riveting finale that leaves it all on film. As to where some films would cut away when a movie reaches its unsettling climax, “A Private War” never hesitates for moment, instead choosing to remain true to itself and Marie by refusing to look away when it matters the most. The final shots played repeatedly in my head, long after I left the theater, and I think one of the most important things in a film is the ability to finish when the adrenaline is pumping the highest, and that’s certainly the case with this one.

NEGATIVES

– Uneven pacing. The film has its moments of plodding, especially during the second act, but I was more concerned with the first act of the movie, which whirlwinds some of Marie’s most accomplished moments as a journalist into these compartmentalized scenes that happen too rapidly to leave a lasting impression. The damage isn’t felt especially until that second act that I previously mentioned, slowing things down to endure every sight and sound, and leaving it feeling like a different director between the first two thirds of the film. It’s Heineman’s one weakness here.

– It’s a difficult sell to believe twelve years passes during the course of this barely 100 minute screenplay, and even more so when nothing of appearance on any of the characters changes, nor ages during that time frame. Therefore, there’s not enough weight between transitions to make this feel reflective of what the on-screen text is telling us. This is always a major cliche in time transition films for me, and unfortunately this one falls into the same trap.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-