Isn’t It Romantic

Directed By Todd Strauss-Schulson

Starring – Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Priyanka Chopra

The Plot – New York City architect Natalie (Wilson) works hard to get noticed at her job but is more likely to be asked to deliver coffee and bagels than to design the city’s next skyscraper. And if things weren’t bad enough, Natalie, a lifelong cynic when it comes to love, has an encounter with a mugger that renders her unconscious, waking to discover that her life has suddenly become her worst nightmare: a romantic comedy, and she is the leading lady.

Rated PG-13 for adult language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference

POSITIVES

– Plenty of contrast between worlds. With a movie like this depicting the tropes and cliches of the romantic comedy genre, I expected its satirical sense to be satisfied in a script only perspective, but what I got was a visual presentation that had the second act of the movie feeling like an entirely different film. The cinematography is arguably the biggest impact, trading in a horrendous persistent handheld design in favor of a crisp, clean still-frame that captures a wider picture depiction. In addition to this, the color coordination feels more refined, and the use of some finely textured computer generation makes the New York skyline light-up like the fourth of July. Strauss-Schulson is clearly a man who has done his homework, and he brings forth a two-for-one punch of creativity that clearly constructs a line of fantasy to the world within a world.

– Pays homage to some of the greats. Keep your eyes peeled for screenshots, posters, and even borrowed lines of dialogue from some of the most reputable of the romantic comedy genre. In the respect alone, it’s clear that the film is spoofing the top of the line stuff, and not the B-movie bargain bin that pick the scraps of its predecessors for all of the wrong reasons. This is top of the line, feel good rendering that tackles why those films were so infectious in the first place, and with it brings along a personality of its own that is every bit as indulgent as its competition.

– Harvests a strong personal message. One thing I wasn’t expecting in a Rebel Wilson movie was an emerging message of confidence during the third act that casts a bit of a temporary misdirection from this story than we were expecting. In this regard, and especially with this film being released on the Valentine’s Day holiday, the movie actually caters more to single audiences than it does couples, bringing along those parties of one that romantic films tend to forget about around this time of the year. Being in this party myself, I commend a film like this for selling itself to a much bigger audience, and I believe it’s in those spare audiences where the film will see its strongest benefit in terms of returns.

– Expansive romantic comedy soundtrack that thrives on familiarity. Everything from Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to Chris Deburg’s “Lady In Red” is inserted at the most opportune times, and bring with them a series of high-end dance numbers that really spice up the scope of the picture while playing into what’s transpiring creatively. What’s important is that no track ever feels out of plays or foreign to what it’s following, and in the spirit of great toe-tappers this is a complete offering that covers the entire spectrum of the rom-com craze that it audibly narrates.

– The laughs. This isn’t going to be one of the funniest films of the year for me, but the material itself did bring forth some hearty laughter in reactions and physical humor that consistently reach their aim for the most part. For my money, it’s more in the backdrop Easter Eggs where the real treasures lie, illustrating clever coincidences in business names, product advertisements, and energetic extras that more than steal the focus away from time to time. If you’re a student of the game when it comes to this particular genre, then you will feel one step ahead of the game at all times with these visual strokes of satire, picking up the slack in laughs where the PG-13 confines of material occasionally falter.

– Respect to the director. While I have only seen 2015’s “The Final Girls” from Strauss-Schulson’s filmography, a movie that I dearly loved, I can say that he has once again earned a fan out of me for keeping the control on a project that would be easy to float away from. I relate something like this to the Scary Movie franchise, in that it sometimes gets ahead of itself while not knowing when to quit with a joke or story direction. This movie stays firmly grounded in the gimmick, all the while composing an intriguing enough narrative that did maintain my interest. Todd also understands that while this is a spoof, it’s best not to insult the audiences of those movies, so the gags themselves are light-hearted and even factually based when compared to something of the previous film I mentioned, which goes out of its way to thrash and trash every little thing about them. Todd watched 65 romantic comedies in preparation for the film, and wrote down every narrative similarity about them, proving that he was a dedicated student of the game who went the distance to capture the surroundings accordingly.

– There’s something oddly satisfying about the only romantic movie coming out during Valentines Day weekend is a spoof. Considering the last few years have dealt with the dreaded Fifty Shades movies around this time, it gives a finer appreciation for a film like “Isn’t It Romantic”, that doesn’t require extremities or taboo to sell its picture. These are the kind of movies that I love seeing around this time of year, and even if it doesn’t fully satisfy on every angle of the filmmaking, Hollywood’s return to form for romantic comedies in February is a welcome return to form that documents Hollywood’s ever-changing face, thanks to its unorthodox leading lady.

NEGATIVES

– Performances drop the ball on an otherwise talented cast. I don’t mind Rebel Wilson, but her charms aren’t best utilized in this film. She still maintains the comic touch that has bolstered her career, but it’s in the romantic aspect where she falls flat in garnering the audience interest to feel inspired for her character. Her and Adam Devine still have impeccable chemistry from their Pitch Perfect days, but there isn’t enough tease or tantalizing in the flow of their relationship to feel their yearning. Hemsworth is once again flat in his charisma, continuing to stand in the shadows of a much more talented brother whose versatility helps him survive the storm. Aside from this, the best performance in the film is easily the gay best friend of Wilson’s character, portrayed by Brandon Scott Jones, who steals each scene because of his over-eccentric personality that is impossible not to laugh at. That’s really it in terms of compelling performances.

– Sloppy pacing. At 83 measly minutes, I knew the pacing associated with proper subplot development would be a challenge, and as it turns out I was right in that assumption. The characters are thinly written, relationships are rushed to their inevitable conclusions, and the entire second act would almost hold no weight with the narrative if it weren’t for one scene that establishes the rules within this world. While a quick watch is nice, this is a film that could easily use another twenty minutes to tie these issues together, and even for a spoof “Isn’t It Romantic” feels far too breezy to be groundbreaking.

– Falls into its own set traps. I get that this is a spoof and that there are only so many directions this film can take, but the conventionalism associated with the resolves, in addition to committing many of the same tropes that the film mocks, plagues this film into the kind of familiar predictable territory that forces it to border hypocritical circumstances. In my opinion, some further elaborating on the differences of the real world could’ve been used to do things that the fantasy world cannot, and what we’re left with is a third act that finally ties these two contrasting tones together to one cohesive film for once, and while that sounds appealing, it’s for all of the wrong reasons.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Serenity

Directed By Steven Knight

Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane

The Plot – Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain leading tours off a tranquil, tropical enclave called Plymouth Island. His quiet life is shattered, however, when his ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) tracks him down with a desperate plea for help. She begs Dill to save her and their young son from her new, violent husband (Jason Clarke) by taking him out to sea on a fishing excursion, only to throw him to the sharks and leave him for dead. Karen’s appearance thrusts Dill back into a life he’d tried to forget, and as he struggles between right and wrong, his world is plunged into a new reality that may not be all that it seems.

Rated R for adult language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images

POSITIVES

– Exceptional framing work. While I have quite a few problems with the technical aspects of Knight’s style and circumstance, the man knows how to craft informative character framing in a way that helps you understand their characters more than this script ever could. Color coordination and particular objects are they key here, giving us exposition in the form of varying lifestyles that vividly paint the person in focus. These moments of self reflection were easily my favorite scenes of the film, and prove the sting of subtlety in ways that Knight never ties to other areas of his production.

– Gorgeous on-site filming locations. “Serenity” takes place on this gorgeous island that is full of dirty deeds and secrets that counter that of the breathtaking visuals that we are being treated to, courtesy of the island of Mauritius, which the movie spent six weeks shooting on. Very little green screen design is instilled into the picture, instead allowing cinematographer Jess Hall a bulk of the responsibility that he dazzles in consistency, thanks to a combination of wide lens movements out in the ocean and manipulated lighting that surprisingly remains consistent with the glow of the island sun. Like the setting itself, “Serenity” offers us lots of beauty, but it’s unfortunately never enough for the ugliness that is boiling just beneath the surface.

NEGATIVES

– That painful plot twist. Five minutes into this film, you can already comprehend that something deeper is at play with these characters and situations, and unfortunately it leads to a second act revelation that once again reminds us how influential the TV show “St Elsewhere” was in this newest generation of writers. This manipulative direction not only undercuts the meaning of everything and everyone up to this point, but it inevitably paints the movie in a corner that it will never find its way out of, in terms of satisfying its audience. We pretty much either cheer for the bad thing to happen, or we cheer for the bad thing to happen. Also, as with any plot twist, this one brings to light a series of questions that don’t add up to what the message is trying to convey. It’s a brain-dead movie that is trying to disguise itself as genius, when in reality its creative muscle gets caught in its zipper before it truly begins.

– Lack of narrative progression. Factor everything that takes place in “Serenity”, and you have a series of events that are every bit as stretched in pacing as they are selfish for even thinking this belonged anywhere near its 100 minute runtime. This film is the very definition of sluggish, as there are at least two instances in the film where everything moving forward comes screeching to a grinding halt, requiring the audience to be patient for the big blow that they’re being reminded of frequently, yet never rewarded in terms of satisfying payoff. It really is a train-wreck in slow motion, and if you’re fortunate enough to bring popcorn to the scene of the accident, you’ll be finished with the bucket before the script gets to the point.

– Insufferable characters. My problem with a lot of sex thrillers is that they often involve these characters that I truly can’t tie myself to, and that’s once again the case with “Serenity”. These are disgusting people who grow worse with each passing moment, making the challenge of spending time with them the film’s biggest obstacle. Hell, our main character mocks his best friend for being bad luck after his wife’s untimely passing. Your hero, ladies and gentlemen. I think I saw more sensitivity from McConaughey when he played a sadistic killer in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation”.

– Cold, callous performances from an A-list cast. There’s plenty of familiarity in the expanding cast that the film has to offer, but there’s nothing in the way of meaningful depth or subtle nuance to deem any of their deliveries the proper guidance that this movie needs to steer the ship. McConaughey at least is giving his all in trying to make salad out of shit, but the stilted dialogue and the overall way his character is presented reminds us of the B-movie stinkers that he was subjected to before he won an Oscar. Hathaway is someone out of a 30’s crime noir novel, complete with cigarette in hand and sex being her only weapon against the more powerful men. Her character alone sets women’s rights back another thirty years. Finally, Lane, Jason Clarke, and Djimon Hinsou are all wasted, preserving only a couple of scenes between them that echo the sound of a paycheck film that they have since tried to forget about.

– Rough editing transitions. The consistency of cuts in between the scenes of exposition, particularly in that of that during the first act, feel jagged and dissolving of any kind of momentum that the film has in winning its audience over. The result is a hack and slash feel in post production that gives pivotal confrontations a cliff notes feel of authenticity. I’m willing to bet that there is a two hour plus director’s cut sitting on a producer’s shelf, that may help answer some of the contrivances in story time reveals that practically grow because character interaction is treated like a poison in this film, and if you can’t invest into a movie early on, it makes for a painful sit that disallows you to feel even an inkling of interest into what evolves.

– Strange camera movements. One such choice for character introduction shots involves a sped-up revolving shot that slows down once an important character’s face is revealed. This trope is most commonly used in comedies, usually involving a gorgeous male or female character who is the object of affection for a protagonist, so you can imagine how it comes across in a film that juggles serious themes like sex, murder, and female abuse. Instead of coming across like a visionary stimulation, the sequences feel like a road-block of distraction that only served as one more instance of interruption that delayed me once more from reaching the finish line of this cinematic lobotomy.

– Horrendous dialogue. Once again, when discussing a sex thriller that felt dated even in the 90’s, you should expect dialogue exchanges between characters that will leave you gagging, but this film took it completely over the top. To be honest, I could quote the entire film, but my favorite line uttered by a post-sexed McConaughey goes “I’m a hooker who can’t afford hooks”. Huh? What? How can this film be written by the same man who penned the genius that was 2013’s “Locke”? A film so enriched with psychological bruising from family’s past that I was able to accurately paint a picture with just Tom Hardy talking in a car for 82 minutes. As for the dialogue in this film, it will test your patience in ways, while squeezing out an unintentional laugh or two during a scene that wanted so desperately to be moving and engaging.

– Then I suddenly became uncomfortable. I was OK when the sexual material stayed on McConaughey’s trysts with Lane or Hathaway, but an emerging bond between father and son characters is presented in such a way that harvested a rock of uneasiness deep in the pit of my stomach. McConaughey speaks telepathically by rubbing circles of spilled water. Doesn’t hit it for ya? How about a two minute underwater sequence where a naked McConaughey (Complete with Ken-doll crotch mound) floats while staring into the eyes of his adolescent son. If this is where the future of sex thrillers is headed, count me out. I left my Victor Silva shoes of pedophilia in ashes in the center of my fireplace. No thanks.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed By Barry Jenkins

Starring – Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King

The Plot – Set in early 1970s Harlem, the film is a timeless and moving love story of both a couple’s unbreakable bond and the African-American family’s empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (Layne). A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancĂ© Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Rated R for adult language and some sexual material

 

POSITIVES

– Jenkins’ impeccable influence in black cinema. What I find so refreshing and commanding about Barry’s touches as a storyteller is in the ability to finely illustrate characters of color in a way that renders them every bit as human as they are relatable. A lesser director neglects to stray far from the confines of subliminal stereotyping, but the people in Barry’s films are enriched with a level of respect and class that sadly black cinema just doesn’t capitalize on enough, and this in turn allows you to comprehend not only the nuance of every character’s personality, but the mentality of what makes each of them vibrantly tick.

– In addition to what I just mentioned the film offers mind-blowing and exceptionally eye-opening commentary on black experiences inside and out of the judicial system. What’s impressive is that it often does this in deep-focus conversation instead of showing us front-and-center, preparing us for what’s to inevitably come thanks to this informative foreshadowing. I was also painted with these strokes of helplessness, paranoia, and especially longing, that made the material blossom with self-indulgence. This is a film tnat takes place in the 70’s, but the contrasts and poignancy to the kind of injustices still going on in our own world in 2019 highlight an unnerving feeling that I simply couldn’t escape, nor did I feel that the audience ever should. It’s moving material to say the least, and offers an underlying pressure boiling beneath this nourishing love story.

– Competency in juggling dual-narratives. The storytelling in “Beale Street” is somewhat a linear structure, in that it is being told in a straight line, however there are actually two different time periods, before and after Fonny’s arrest, that the film simultaneously captures. What’s important is that there is plenty of time distance between both arcs, giving them narrative importance in keeping up the consistency of the pacing. One or two scenes do feel briefly repetitive, but there’s nothing inside that I would ever cut or trim, as I feel like just under two hours was the proper time allowance for this film to thrive on.

– Above and beyond artistic merit. This is a BEAUTIFUL film, complimented by an expansive set of shot composition photography and dreamy cinematography by frequent Jenkins collaborator James Laxton that offer enough experimentation and capture to constantly dazzle. During scenes of intimacy or reflection between our romantic leads, we are treated to POV slow-motion style depictions, with some of the strongest framing that I have ever seen. It gives the intimacy between them a feeling like nothing else exists in their world, as well as a vantage point in the scenery surrounding them that perfectly articulates the different worlds that their respective character’s come from. If you see this film for anything, see it for the images that solidify the team of Jenkins and Laxton as one of the best 1-2 visual combos since Villenueve and Deakins.

– The pulse of the neighborhood itself. This is really what I refer to when I mention that a setting is a respective character in a movie, as the very look and feel of this rapidly changing neighborhood really preserves the heartbeat of the many ideals and adversities locked inside. Throughout the film, we are treated to haunting visuals and unrelated stories from neighborhood citizens that conjure up a complete feeling of what it means to be settled here, and it’s in these feelings where the spirit of a proud but terrifying world reflects with each of them. Jenkins takes his time in capturing the polished colors and abandoned buildings of a once prestigious landscape, and really makes them pop against the ambitions of these two people who are now making a world for themselves.

– Immersive sound design. One thing that bothers me in films is when a scene takes place in what would otherwise be a noisy surrounding, and we only hear the conversation between the characters in our story. That couldn’t be further from what’s going on in “Beale Street”, as this place that is described early on as a noisy one perseveres with its own rhythmic shifts in traffic and population to constantly remind you of its presence. I would frequently close my eyes and let the narration of the characters tell me the story, and each time my imagination came to fruition because of these echoes in the atmosphere that only go away when a movie wants to be completely dishonest with itself and the world it creates. I give this film all of the respect in the world for bringing along the complete picture, and not just the things that are obvious.

– Nicholas Britell’s emotionally picturesque musical score. Britell is given vital free range here to play with feelings and nerves present in the film, and does so with such attention to character atmosphere that really takes us the viewer on a roller-coaster of free range emotion, through the ups and downs of this shaken family. There are many excellent musical takes from the film, but the one that has been on repeat coming through my speakers since I saw the film is “Agape”, a three minute tender sentiment that captures so much of the hope and fireworks associated with falling in love for the first time. I have attached it next to the trailer, up top. The relationship between jazz and classical music thrive in complexity from the different styles of technique pumped into each, and that’s never more prominent than its inclusion into the airy worlds that Jenkins manufactures.

– All of the performances are also well-timed and essential to the importance of scenes, but for my money it’s Layne and King who steal the show. Layne’s got the kind of eyes that weaken you in the knees, and continuously transfer her feeling of emotional registry long before she ever says a word. As for King, it’s a return to form for an entirely underrated actress, who here serves as the glue that bonds this family from falling apart. King gives us no shortage of long-winded dialogue deliveries, and the fire that captures the love she has for those important to her is admirable and conveying in the importance of a Mother’s touch on any family. I hope they both receive Oscar nominations, as the film would lose a lot of its luster without the perfect casting of each.

– My favorite scene. Amazingly enough, the scene that stuck with me the most throughout the film doesn’t have a single character, nor a line of dialogue spoken. It takes place with one of Fonny’s incomplete wood carvings, and the camera continuously revolves around it, illuminated by warm, golden lighting, and to me represented Fonny, in that it and Fonny both have the potential to be something whole and complete. It’s one of these genius moments that cement Jenkins as a genius, but also the importance of hope, which feels like it’s slipping the longer the film goes on. Take time to appreciate scenes like these, because often directors are trying to convey something to us that is anything but beautifully decorated table dressing.

NEGATIVES

– There’s very little to complain about in this film, but small things distracted me from an otherwise perfect presentation. The first is in two big name cameos that lessen the impact of fresh-faced atmosphere from the picture. My problem is that these two are not only obvious, but a bit cartoonish because of the roles they portray, and it just didn’t sit well when everyone else is portrayed and grounded in such realism. The other problem I had is in the film’s attitude lacking the kind of urgency that was so prominent in the novel. While I was firmly invested in Fonny’s on-going trial, the lack of a scene depicting how much prison is changing him could’ve done so much in capturing the essence of time.

My Grade – 9/10 or A-

Nobody’s Fool

Directed By Tyler Perry

Starring – Tiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter, Whoopi Goldberg

The Plot – A woman (Haddish) is released from prison and reunites with her sister (Sumpter). She soon discovers that her sister is in an online relationship with a man who may not be what he seems.

Rated R for sexual content and adult language throughout, and for drug material

POSITIVES

– The REAL leading lady. Leaps and bounds above the comedic timing of Haddish, or the progression of Sumpter as the central protagonist, it is Goldberg who steals the show, with about ten total minutes of screen time. Whoopi was not only responsible for 90% of my laughs with this film, but she also added a much needed boost of sophistication to the film, that otherwise felt juvenile. I definitely could’ve used more scenes with her, and I wish Perry would’ve taken more advantage of his seasoned veteran.

– Definitely the easiest Perry film to watch. This doesn’t mean that I liked the film, it just means that “Nobody’s Fool” is easily the most accessable Tyler Perry film to audiences fearful from the word of mouth reputation that he’s attained. The reason for this is because this movie caters to two different types of genre audiences: comedy and romance, and that evolution to the second one is something that gives the film many unexpected directions, in terms of versatility, paving the way for possibly Tyler’s most ambitious project to date.

– Lavish interior set designs. For a film produced for super cheap (19 million), “Nobody’s Fool” has a taste for the finer things, decorating character’s apartments with sheik, alluring color schemes that radiate the vibe of New York City faithfully. This is the aspect of Perry’s direction that finally feels up to par when compared to his Madea films, that often look like they take place in front of cardboard cutout props and dollar store decorations. It’s a constant reminder of the differences between Sumpter and Haddish’s respective characters, painting a visual representation before our very eyes that constantly tells us everything we need to know.

NEGATIVES

– There goes the mystery. To anyone who has seen the trailer, they will know that the mystery of suitor Charlie is what a lot of the pitch is built around, yet when I saw the film this couldn’t be further from the truth. Attention is given to the mystery for about the first half of the film, before the characters move on from a terribly disappointing cameo reveal that reveals how far this celebrity has fallen. It is such an afterthought with the progression of this film, and only feels like a 40 minute joke that doesn’t pay off for a single second.

– Flat comedy that rarely hits. You can tell that this film is putting all of its chips on an amped up version of Tiffany Haddish, but it comes across more as a drunk, annoying ten-year-old, instead of a grown woman who interacts with people. Perry has also brought along one of his most annoying nags as a director, as his comedy never knows when to cut itself short, often dragging on these scenes of improv for what feels like a decade at a time.

– Incompetent direction. Perry never feels like he has a grasp on this story and characters, often changing his mind back-and-forth on the decisions they make that would otherwise be concrete for real human beings. This is no more prominent than in the final thirty minutes of the film, where two dating characters break up and get back together three separate times, and we’re not talking casual break ups where they both remain friends, we are talking devastatingly hurtful words that would scar stronger people. This arc of the film, to put it lightly, is batshit crazy. It’s the Tyler Perry movie you’re used to, but didn’t think you were going to get because of Haddish’s shining star. Proof that Perry will never change regardless of the situation.

– Uninspired effects work and attention deficit continuity. Whether in the car with some attrocious green-screen visuals to represent what looks like New York in the 70’s, or Sumpter’s high rise apartment windows mirroring the exact same lighting scheme every night, this film feels pedestrian for even the smallest things. Above all that though, is the laughably bad continuity between scenes that prove no one on set was paying attention. One such scene involves Sumpter’s character showing up to work with her hair looking crazy from getting no sleep. She is sent home, and immediately in the next scene has hair that is beautifully natural and flowing. Did she feel inspired to do her hair for the car ride home? Does she prefer to look better at home than she does at work?

– This premise isn’t believable in the slightest. You’re telling me that this grown, beautiful, intelligent executive is exchanging texts with a man she’s never seen before, and the reason given is because he has poor wi-fi? Since when do you need wi-fi to send a picture on your phone? Does he have a Facebook page? At the very least, could he have mailed her a picture in the one year they’ve been speaking? Even for a 1990’s premise, I can’t buy this in the slightest. It’s the same kind of baby back bullshit that Perry has been selling his audiences for over a decade, and they’re just stupid enough to buy into it.

– Crammed into the middle of this already bloated screenplay, is a sex scene that is every bit as awkward and engaging as Tommy Wiseau’s in “The Room”. Not only does this scene go on for what feels like forever, not only are the faces made so ridiculously goofy that you won’t be able to fight back laughter, not only is the chemistry between the actors as natural as a brother and sister getting together, but it all ends with the line “You can go home now”. Keep in mind that this is the romance we as an audience are rooting for. There’s also some speculation as to why Perry shot more of the male anatomy than the female in this particular scene. Sure you can say that he’s catering to his female audience, but my intuition points to another theory of mine that I’ve had for years for a man who has made a career dressing in drag. Just be free, Tyler, please.

– Pointless, unlikeable characters. I mentioned earlier that this is a vehicle for Haddish’s talents, but what’s astounding is how little of weight her character has to the unveiling story. Haddish receives top billing, but it’s actually Sumpter who is the main protagonist of the movie, as everything revolves around her character’s love life. If you think Haddish has any place in this movie, think about how much the story would change if her character was wiped from the film. IT WOULDN’T. On the subject of Sumpter’s character, I’m going to be blunt: she’s a nasty, naive bitch who no person with morals would support or indulge with in the slightest. She complains about her love life, yet won’t give the time of day to the cute barista who she sees everyday who loves her and gives her free things, she says these terrible things about people behind their backs and then seeks forgiveness immediately, and she hurts those who help her constantly. I’m all for conflicted protagonists, but Sumpter’s character is someone who I would never embrace on or off screen, so I can’t in good conscience want her to succeed.

My grade: 3/10 or F

The Old Man & The Gun

Directed By David Lowery

Starring – Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek

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

Rated PG-13 for brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

7/10

A Star Is Born

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Starring – Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

8/10

Life Itself

Directed by Dan Fogelman

Starring – Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/10

Juliet, Naked

Directed by Jesse Peretz

Starring – Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’ Dowd

The Plot – Annie (Byrne) is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan (O’Dowd), an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe (Hawke). When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces, its release leads to a life-changing encounter with the elusive rocker himself. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, the film is a comic account of life’s second chances.

Rated R for Adult language

POSITIVES

– Surprisingly funny dialogue. Hornby as a writer has always been one of my favorites, but what this trio of writers does is add a much needed layer of humility to compliment the feel good side of this story. I did not expect to laugh as much as I did throughout this film, but it’s a testament to these flawed characters, in that the film puts up zero walls in making them feel relatable.

– If a movie that revolves around music can’t conjure up an eclectically rich ensemble soundtrack, then it will fail before it ever lifts off the ground. Thankfully this isn’t a problem for ‘Juliet, Naked’, as we are entranced by offerings from Indie gods like Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, and M Ward. But the question remains, can Hawke sing? That answer is a resounding yes. Covering a song as revolutionary as The Kinks ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is no small task, but Hawke vibrates with an electric piano, giving the song the raspy rhythm in vocals that brings new life to the decades old classic.

– Strong performances all around from this trio of magnetic actors. Hawke portrays Tucker as this sort of bumbling everyman that eclipses his fame to those who come into contact with him, never allowing him to feel self-pitying or overly depressive for the wrong decisions he’s made. Chris O’Dowd is also warmly annoying as this obsessed fan of Crowe’s. He commits himself in the way he looks at and tenderly tap-dances around the way he speaks to his idol, and there’s something rich with authenticity in his performance. Byrne takes the cake however, as her withered heart makes her someone we as an audience can engage in. Annie’s the kind of woman who wants the same things that every woman should be entitled to, so when the movie depicts the cruelty in her wishes being overlooked, we can empathize with her situation, and Byrne was made for the Romantic Comedy stage, as she glows with immense wit.

– As a director and musician, Peretz is gift-wrapped for this diatribe against middle age, nuancing an underbelly of regret that pops up front-and-center to remorse about a lifetime of wasted energy. But instead of mellowing out the material, there’s an inspirational side to his acting that tells us to keep moving through the complicated, and travel miles if you have to in seeking what you deserve. This is overall one of those films that just fill you with its charms and warming side, and it’s impossible not to credit Peretz for how hip he depicts middle age, giving hope to those of us not far from that downhill turn.

– Effective camera work to hide something in particular. As to where most reviews I credit the way a scene captures a person or place for its expressive angles, but the compositions here work their magic in omitting Byrne’s six month pregnancy while filming. There’s plenty of medium to close-up shots that keep the actress’s face in frame, and a lot of carefully placed accessories, like handbags and laptops, to take attention away from her mid-section. I think it’s great because Byrne didn’t have to turn down a role, and the production team glitters their Hollywood tinsel in the thought process that what the audience don’t know won’t hurt them. Well done.

– My problem with romantic comedies in general is they often follow a predictable formula where two leads extraordinary in lifestyles are picture perfect for one another, and we’re supposed to get behind them as protagonists. But with Tucker and Annie there’s certainly a theme of opposites attract that plays out through the growing feelings between them, and the general distinction that these two are anything but polished perfect leads. Tucker, to be frankly honest, has made some seriously shitty decisions in his life, and Annie limits her potential staying with a man who constantly mentally abuses her. So it’s certainly easy to get behind these two, and hope that love finds a way, and there’s little conventional about the road that works its way to their first interactions.

– What I found compelling about Crowe’s involvement in Duncan and Annie’s lives are that each of them view it as a form of cheating deceit towards the other. For Duncan, he must vanish and listen to a new Crowe album in privacy, and for Annie it’s obviously communicating with the rocker on e-mail, far from Duncan’s eyes and ears. This is obviously played out for humor, but it translates the real lack of affection from Duncan and Annie’s relationship that limits their growth for something as miniscule as sharing. If this wasn’t enough, Duncan is a PC guy, and Annie is a Mac girl. Doomed from the start.

NEGATIVES

– Conflict issue. As is the case for every film, there is a third act conflict involving a separation between the two love interests, and for me it just didn’t feel like a big enough obstacle for it to matter as much as it does. This is an example where the novel does it much better, adding depth in miles to the physical distance between them that better articulates the obstacle. It doesn’t feel natural in the slightest with its arrival, and if the two characters would sit down for even a brief moment, they could clear the air with much needed communication.

– For a story that is every bit against the grain of romantic comedies in material, the overall aesthetic for the film feels uninspired and too content in sliding by on average. Nothing is truly compromising to the integrity of the film, but nothing in the cinematography or coloring for the movie ever takes chances with instilling style. Most of the film takes place during daytime sequences, so there’s a missed chance to instill some of that wet streets vibe of England with the neon glow coming from the town bars. Overall, it makes me wish more chances were taken for Peretz to find a vision of his own, but as it stands ‘Juliet, Naked’ is a cover of every other soft lighted romantic comedy that came before it.

– One of the elements in subplot that simply didn’t work for me is the set-up involving a musician who has zero affiliation with music left in his body, somehow manages to come across and read deep into the comments about him. Throughout the film, it’s made evident that Crowe hasn’t performed or even picked up a guitar in decades, so how are we as an audience to believe that this guy randomly surfs fan-made websites to read what people thought about music that he made over twenty years ago? Yet it’s required because how else would he begin to communicate with Annie via e-mail? It’s too sloppy in logic for my taste.

7/10

Puzzle

Directed by Marc Turtletaub

Starring – Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman

The Plot – A closely observed portrait of Agnes (Macdonald), who has reached her early 40s without ever venturing far from home, family or the tight-knit immigrant community in which she was raised by her widowed father. That begins to change in a quietly dramatic fashion when Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift and experiences the heady thrill of not only doing something she enjoys, but being very, very good at it, thanks to the assistance of Robert (Khan), a heralded expert with jigsaw puzzles.

Rated R for adult language

POSITIVES

– Macdonald’s layered performance. I have always been a fan of Kelly’s, and it’s nice to see her finally getting the kind of starring roles she deserves. As Agnes, Macdonald’s greatest touch is her subtlety to the chaos that unfolds around her daily, repetitive life, bringing nuance to the change that is boiling from within her. Kelly is also someone who says so much without saying anything. It’s in her depleted, even shy reactionary painting on her face where we understand her need to want to live again, and feel inspired even if only for a child’s game. Kelly proved that she can be depended on to steal the stage, and I hope this is the first of many more lead roles for her.

– Oren Moverman’s metaphorical script. Like the game that Macdonald and Khan excel at, the screenplay itself introduces these pivotal pieces, that we at first dismiss them as these minimal drops of exposition, but soon are reminded of their necessity when their pieces rightfully fit into the unfolding drama at the right times. Such an example is a tiny piece of glass that comes from a plate breaking in the film’s opening scene. It is forgotten and never mentioned again until late in the third act, when its deposit brings new life to its purpose.

– The comedy was greatly appreciated, and never felt used as a necessity or gimmick. What I mean by this is that despite this film being billed as a comedy genre film, it never feels forced or strained to make the audience laugh every two minutes, instead choosing to breed the humor naturally in these awkward instances of life that the audience can understand and react to because of their familiarity. In this regard, it’s the initial meetings between Agnes and Robert that succeed the most, taking its time to air out the space between two strangers whose lifestyles couldn’t be anymore opposite by comparison.

– As a director, Turtletaub’s greatest strength is in the ability to let the scenarios play out for themselves for the audience to judge. In this regard, he never feels like he’s forcing a particular narrative or direction down our throats, instead letting the pieces of life play out for themselves to instill that no one is right or wrong in what happens. The concept of randomness is one that is touched upon so frequently throughout the film, and it’s in the strings of such a definition for the word that translates how coincidences often rule fate, no matter how much we pawn for the latter.

– Much of the photography and shot composition on display are also beautiful and move with smooth subtlety. To me, the best kind of filmmaking is the kind that immerse us in the shape and color of a particular scene, allowing our senses to forget about the commander behind the camera, and ‘Puzzle’ accomplishes this feat repeatedly by cherishing the marriage in natural lighting and timid handheld movements. There’s almost a dreamy escapism vibe to some of Agnes’s moments of self-reflection.

– Any film that firmly depicts the importance of a Mother, and how she is the piece of the puzzle that makes any family complete is alright by me. ‘Puzzle’s’ majority audience will no doubt be middle aged women, and Turtletaub’s vision provides an homage to those with the will’s of iron to take what life throws at them, day in and day out. There’s a sturdy bone of female empowerment constantly throughout this movie, and the sting of psychology is one that proves not all decisions by a leader are easy.

– Responsible in its strategy. Any film about a particular subject has a responsibility to teach strategies to the audience about how to prosper in it, and thankfully ‘Puzzle’ is an education lesson for those of us who have always been curious how to attack a 1000 piece mammoth. Through Robert’s teachings, we learn that it’s sometimes best to circle the table to get a look at the shape of pieces from every perspective. Also, my ages old trick came into play, as you should group the similar colors together so the progression within them becomes that much more obvious. It will inspire you to sit down and open up a box, even if your abilities lack that of Agnes’s instant success.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary R-rating. This film receives the coveted rating for the six times that it drops the F-bomb, four of which being in the same line of dialogue together, and its instances prove how unneeded it truly was in this film. There is a desire to depict authentic family conversations, but this rating does nothing to enhance the comedy or the appeal to younger audiences who will not be able to see it because they are not old enough. Bad decision indeed.

– This film does unfortunately make the move between its two stars that anyone could pick out from watching the trailer. When it decides to make this decision in direction about halfway into the movie, the energy between the leads stalls, and the screenplay writes itself into a corner that will undoubtedly have an unsatisfying ending to anyone watching. This continued cliche in films where a man and a woman can’t be just friends is one that greatly disturbs me, and proves how unimportant everything else becomes because of its unfazed attention to it that overtakes everything else.

– The final ten minutes of the movie are sloppy, and feel like a tug-of-war in the mind of Moverman for his inability to make a decision. Agnes’s final shots left me with more questions than answers, and I get this feeling that two pivotal scenes are missing from the movie that would tie some of those shots that come out of nowhere together. One involves the result of the puzzle competition itself, leaving us to hear what happened instead of being there to embrace it with the two characters, the other is an epilogue between husband and wife that could’ve suppressed some of my second half disappointment in Agnes, but instead has it feeling like an afterthought for what’s to come. Adding an additional ten minutes onto the film would’ve done wonders for the emptiness that the closing moments left me with, bringing to light the obvious weakness in an otherwise movie that fits together wonderfully.

7/10

Crazy Rich Asians

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Starring – Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh

The Plot – The story follows Rachel Chu (Wu), an American-born Chinese economics professor, who travels to her boyfriend Nick’s (Golding) hometown of Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Before long, his secret is out: Nick is from a family that is impossibly wealthy, he’s perhaps the most eligible bachelor in Asia, and every single woman in his ultra-rarefied social class is incredibly jealous of Rachel and wants to bring her down.

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– For a movie that centers around riches, the very production qualities of the movie more than express that rich vibe. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was shot on location in Singapore, so we are treated to the vibrant cultures imbedded in the fashions, as well as luxurious traditions in ceremonies that are second to none in terms of beauty. I swear that this movie had the most imaginative wedding ceremony in a film that I have ever seen, making it impossible to not exhale when you find yourself transfixed in its luring qualities.

– Exceptional camera work. There are some breathtaking eclipse shots involving entrancing architecture and exotic landscapes that paint a gorgeous backdrop of the high stakes being portrayed within this family, and we as an audience are treated to these circling establishing sequences that feel like they’re constantly opening their arms to us. What I appreciate even more, is that these angles take their time before we step inside, allowing us a video postcard look inside of foreign scenery.

– Faithful casting that as a whole delights. This is the first American produced film in 25 years with an exclusive Asian cast, so finding the right pieces in bringing these personalities to life was no small feat. Thankfully, they hit the nail head on here, as Wu and Golden dazzle as these two lovebirds with these very grounded ideals despite the riches they have inherited in this story. They have amazing chemistry together, and never shed one ounce of believability through this two hour feature.

– There’s a lot of flare and poise in the on-screen text that takes us through the many island locations in a storytelling-like delivery. These big, bold letterings are an homage to the golden age of Hollywood, when title screens and location cues were such an important part of the transformation within the story. Aside from the lettering, there is also a map graphic visually depicting the distance traveled by the two leads that relates how far they are from their safe zone of home.

– Immersion even in music. The film features many classic pop favorites performed by an Asian artist with Asian translation of the lyrics, and I commend this because it transports us as an audience to the very sights and sounds that you would hear under these circumstances. It’s a personal touch that is greatly appreciated and nearly perfect, if not for two English translated songs that slipped under the radar.

– If this film doesn’t make you hungry from all of the tight, focused shots on Asian cuisine, then you don’t have a pulse. Not since 2014’s ‘Chef’ has a movie seduced me so effectively with a variety of dishes that truly triggers the care that this family puts into feeding their guests. In many ways, this aspect puts us in the shoes of Rachel, satisfying our pallets with champagne wishes and caviar dreams. It’s all that and dim sum.

– Romantic comedies are probably the hardest sell for me in terms of genres, but ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ earns its heart with a two hour journey that pushes you to see the growth in these characters. During the first act, this film is definitely a comedy, echoing the very awkwardness in first impressions that movies like ‘Meet the Parents’ and ‘Coming to America’ took the ball and ran with so effortlessly. But in the second half of the movie, something different happens. The film puts away its humorous material in favor of these bittersweet developments that test this couple far more than just the typical third act conflicts. We start to understand why there’s such a divide in the upper and lower class tiers, and this growing bump in the road brings the confrontation to such boiling levels in the form of a decision that will alter Nick’s future forever.

NEGATIVES

– Even though the film would be considered “White-Washing” if it took this method, I feel the conflict of Nick dating an American woman would’ve been far greater if he actually dated an American born character. Rachel is every bit as Asian as Nick’s family are, so the disdain doesn’t feel as grand as it would if he legitimately dated someone so different. Especially after you see the first scene of the movie, involving Nick’s family interacting with some borderline racist white folk.

– It’s a little strange to me that the film takes place in Singapore, surrounded by a 95% Asian ensemble, and yet every single one of them speaks perfect English. With the exception of the grandmother, no one even remotely uses their native tongue, and I find that hard to believe from an authenticity standpoint. This is the time when subtitles are appreciated and understood in a film, but the stretch of everyone accommodating American audiences in Asian territory is a bit far fetched.

– In my opinion, there are too many characters for the film that simply don’t offer enough to justify their existence. I get that this is adapted from a trilogy of books, but I would’ve liked to have seen the editing button achieve a greater presence in the film adaptation, as even midway through the movie we are still being introduced to new characters to the story who are never given proper time to develop. This aspect of the film is perhaps the greatest test for Rachel and Nick’s relationship, as there’s a brief period where it feels like the importance of their plot takes a backseat to another couple’s wedding.

7/10

The Seagull

Directed by Michael Mayer

Starring – Elisabeth Moss, Saorise Ronan, Annette Bening

The Plot – An aging actress named Irina Arkadina (Bening) pays summer visits to her brother Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her son Konstantin (Billy Howle) on a country estate. On one occasion, she brings Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a successful novelist, with her. Nina (Ronan), a free and innocent girl on a neighboring estate, falls in love with Boris Trigorin. As Trigorin lightly consumes and rejects Nina, as the actress all her life has consumed and rejected her son, who loves Nina. The victims are destroyed while the sophisticates continue on their way.

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity

POSITIVES

– Feels very faithful to its stage presence. With the amount of scenes taking place in one desired setting, as well as the ever-changing characters that move in and out of frame, The Seagull easily feels like a play unfolding before our very eyes, blending the world of film and stage with the kind of ease that makes the transition seamless.

– Fresh, caustic wit. There’s a touch of polished humor to the awkwardness in 19th century lifestyles and philosophies that burns ever so delightfully from these characters, but particularly that of Bening and Moss. If it wasn’t for the dry deliveries of these leading ladies, I would’ve probably given up on this film much earlier than I rightfully should, but the sarcastic dark humor was the perfect compliment to keeping the attention span firm in hand.

– Outstanding wardrobe choices by Oscar winner Ann Roth. The dresses and gowns are a reflection of the post Victorian era, and the three layered suits adorned by the gentlemen of the cast feel casual without having to sacrifice eye-catching style in personality. It’s a constant reminder of the film’s dated setting that would otherwise slip through its fingers.

– This story continues to be a fortress of knowledge for the concepts of love and all of its brash circumstances. The Seagull is almost therapeutic in this regard, dissecting the many sensual feelings between these inter-weaving characters that is never requited from a single person in return. I find it interesting how Anton Chekhov, the play’s original author, was ahead of his time in this regards.

– Strong work all around from the entire cast, but this is Bening’s film for the taking. As one of the heads of this get-together, Bening’s Irina has a self-loving narcissism that is every bit as devilishly delightful as she is expressive. She’s someone who has no shame in making those around her feel miserable, and Bening obliges by eating up the scenery of every scene without being aware of her actions. She’s that character you just love to hate and hate to love, and end up rightfully somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

– While the camera work and angles on display stay mostly grounded, there is one exception in the area of one-on-one confrontation. These occasions offer an ingenious use of point-of-view shooting that speak levels to those rare moments of intimacy between two characters who just can’t seem to get away from the overcrowded number of family and friends that surround them. This also takes us back to the stage setting that makes it feel like the characters are speaking directly to us.

NEGATIVES

– The stage version of this play often doesn’t run much longer than an hour, so the constant padding that adds very little to the script except fluff, over-exceeds the necessity in pushing this to the 93 minute finish time. For my money, I would be perfectly fine with keeping this film around the 80 minute mark, because sometimes the break in between the heart of this story keeps the ends few-and-far between.

– There’s a strange hybrid created between distinguished tone that the film harbors. The first half of the film is definitely a dark comedy, but the second half of the film elevates to drama, and my big problem with all of this is that the dramatic elements rarely have enough time in dedication to materialize, while the biggest positive of the film, the comedy, is gone all together. I would’ve preferred that Mayer built these varying directions simultaneously to feed the need of both sides of the audience.

– I felt that the film strongly lacked emotional connection with the audience. I blame a lot of this on the lack of complexity for the characatures of characters who rarely break apart from one another. Also problematic are the themes and movements of 19th century Russian literature not translating all that well to 2018. It’s obvious that this is a different time period all together, but the whole ‘Pretty white people with problems’ idea is something that audiences will find much difficulty investing empathy in.

– With a confusing and albeit incoherrent conclusion, the film’s ambiguous ending will feel like the latest in a series of missed opportunities from this adaptation. With the way the final scenes are edited, there’s an air of dishonesty to Cherkhov’s writing that always capitalized on sharp pencil consequences. Without the bravery or desire to send us home shocked, the film leaks air all the way to the anti-climatic conclusion.

6/10

Adrift

Directed by Baltasar Kormakur

Starring – Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin, Grace Palmer

The Plot – Based on the inspiring true story of two free spirits whose chance encounter leads them first to love, and then to the adventure of a lifetime. As the two avid sailors set out on a journey across the ocean, Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin) couldn’t anticipate they would be sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. In the aftermath of the storm, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and their boat in ruins. With no hope for rescue, Tami must find the strength and determination to save herself and the only man she has ever loved. Adrift is the unforgettable story about the resilience of the human spirit and the transcendent power of love.

Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, adult language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Above all else on the production side, it’s great to see a film where the female of the relationship is the one making moves to secure their safety. What makes Woodley’s portrayal of Tami work more than anything is the resilience and determination in her spirit that keeps her drive going, all the while the vulnerability from being inexperienced in this particular situation speaks levels to the overbearing volume of being isolated.

– On the performance front, this is clearly a two person show between Woodley and Claflin that offers mixed results. I don’t have a problem with Claflin as an actor, but here he is kind of subdued to play second fiddle to Woodley, and because of such, his endless charm and charisma that he has exerted in films like The Hunger Games saga, and Me Before You is virtually non-existent. The chemistry between them still burns the end of the wick, and a lot of that is because of Woodley’s transformative and physical displays of strength that left me awestruck. It’s great to see her get these kind of roles, because she really dedicates herself to the most brutal kind of physicality that each role demands, and I commend her iron will not only to survive but to save the one thing in this world that makes sense to her.

– This film is shot beautifully by Robert Richardson, who really paints an immense, yet immerse picture of the sea that feels never-ending. It’s quite interesting because Robert shoots these tight-knit, but revolving pan shots inside of the boat, replicating the movements of the sea ferociously. Yet his depiction of the world outside of the dock depicts the sheer magnitude of the situation unfolding before this couple that are certainly on borrowed time.

– I feel like Adrift taught me more about the sea than any other sea-based film of the previous ten years. Instances of paranoia, mental stress creating mirages, and even means of survival are all highlighted with the kind of detail that other films can’t even mention. Because of such, this is so much more than an entertaining film, it’s a surreal film for those who spend so much time in the water.

– The screenplay uses a dual narrative between two respective timelines to paint a picture of this relationship, and while I’m usually against this sort of thing because it over-complicates for no reason what so ever, I feel like Kormakur paints enough information in both time periods to make its incorporation necessary to fit into a 95 minute film. Spending too much time in either period would drag, but to do it simultaneously, you constantly keep the energy of the script moving while bringing out the importance of each hinted backstory.

– During the age of Green-screen backdrops and computer generated effects, it was refreshing to see a film shot almost entirely at sea, proving the dedication associated with getting the look and feel proper. The crew shot 90% of the movie at sea, working 12 hours on water with little to no land in sight, and it’s those kind of production notes that show in the bigger picture of a film’s authenticity.

– There’s something almost poetic about a disaster movie mentally moving its audience without the necessities of big budget blockbuster to push its gimmick. To me, the storm always feels secondary to what is taking place on-board, and that’s a sure sign that Baltasar believed even more in the characters than he did their ensuing predicaments.

NEGATIVES

– Compromising first shot. The opening shot of the film will divide audiences into two groups. If you understand what this means right away like I did, then the film will feel very predictable every step of the way. There’s a big twist that happens at the beginning of the film’s third act that I actually saw coming from a mile away, and felt disappointed because the opening minute of the movie, as well as a few scenes of shoddy dialogue that further hint at this point, gave me the answer I wasn’t looking for.

– There’s never a pushing for urgency here, despite that the two characters mention how limited their rations for food are. The whole stranded aspect of this film feels more like a temporary hiccup instead of a life-threatening plunge, and because of such, the film’s dramatic tension sinks about midway through the movie. For my money, I could’ve used more danger in the way of streaky weather patterns, or even long-term frailty that lasted longer than a scene.

– Limited character exposition. It’s funny to think how little we really know about these two characters despite the fact that we spend nearly two hours with them on a boat. Woodley’s character for instance speaks of trouble at her home back in San Diego, but we never learn much of why. For Claflin’s character, we hear about his family in England, as well as time sailing in other countries, but that’s just table dressing that is never touched or devoured upon. It’s a testament to the performances that the chemistry of this relationship even works, because I feel like this is watching two strangers speaking on the importance of their love without understanding why.

7/10