The Souvenir

Directed By Joanna Hogg

Starring – Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

The Plot – Julie (Byrne), A shy film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man, named Anthony (Burke). She defies her protective mother (Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Non-linear storytelling. What’s so synthetically natural about the exposition in the film is that it’s delivered in a series of events in a girl’s life, rather than one cohesive running story that connects each scene together. This makes the screenplay at times feel like a jagged collection of memories, rather than a conventional story, and speaks volumes more towards the spontaneity of life that is constantly evolving. This requires audiences to pay attention to key images in the background, as well as stay fully committed in the unraveling of each conversation, otherwise the answers don’t fill in with the question properly. Not everything that happens in detail is shown on-screen, and I greatly appreciate any film that makes the audience work hard for its answers, refusing to spoon-feed us like nearly every film does today with its valued exposition.

– Unorthodox camera angles. Hogg is definitely a director who loves her mirrors, and her use of incorporating them into nearly every scene is done so in a way that presents body movements and interactions in a more revealing perspective than we would normally receive shooting in front of our actors. Some of these shots are truly breathtaking in capturing the dynamic that is slightly off focus, all the while studying the change in tonal temperature that is present in the foreground, giving us a complete picture of the dramatic pulse that is transpiring between these two people learning about each other for the first time. In addition to this, the personal reflection shots off a POV angle, where the character’s are speaking to us the audience, putting us front-and-center in the heat of the moment to better convey the love, anguish, and humility developed from its many conflicts.

– Stimulating performances. Before I even start on the performances that were out of this world, I commend the casting agent for casting Tilda Swinton’s real life daughter as her daughter in the movie. This not only transcends the art that is persistent on-screen, but cements the visual believability better than it could ever possibly be. For my first film seeing her, Honor Swinton Byrne completely blew me away. From a once reserved girl on the verge of her sexual and creative awakening, to the life-tested control she exerts over every angle of her life, this woman harvested a constant plunge of gut-wrenching emotional pull that not only made you invest in her character, but also created a deeper narrative for the personal battle taking place inside of her, courtesy of some timely narration that was appreciated. Her male opposite is also played wonderfully by Tom Burke, another first timer for me personally, who juggled the bi-polar complexities that his character moved through like a roller-coaster, thanks in whole to a drug influence that depicted his change emotionally and physically before our very eyes. The chemistry between Honor and Burke not only felt rich with honesty because of the many trysts they are forced to endure, but also advantageous to both actors who capture our attention with facial expressions that tell the story long before dialogue ever could. Tilda Swinton’s physical performance, donning a grey wig and wrinkle prosthetics, also radiates with an essence of natural aging and seamless delivery that transforms what we’ve expected from the actress before our very eyes. It’s cool to see the two generations of Swinton dominate the screen, and outlines a relationship that is a loveletter to mothers everywhere who go from protector to protected as time carries on.

– Story within the story. This is a film that feels very personal to Hogg, for the way it spiritualizes the highs and lows of first time love, and upon further digging, Hogg has clearly expressed herself from the trials and tribulations of a similar story that she took from her own life growing up. The flat used in the film is a perfect replica of the one Hogg lived in during that same age, constructed in an airplane hanger that is continuously projecting 35 mm photographs that she took as a student in her 20’s. She is a London film student similar to the female protagonist in the film, and actually was best friends with Tilda since both of them were ten years old. I mention this as a positive because I’ve always felt that the best told stories stem from real life experiences, and there’s a certain articulation to the psychology, as well as authenticity to the specific detail, that speaks volumes to the nourishment of a particular experience, and I find it therapeutic for Hogg that she was able to bring so much of her past experiences with her to the bettering of her picture.

– Effective production value. This film takes place in the 80’s, and to capture the aesthetic of such a specific time, the production crew uses a fine blend of grainy cinematography, a multitude of different camera lenses, and an attention to detail with wardrobe, decor, and soundtrack that perfectly captured the mood of the cocaine-driven 80’s nostalgia. There are parts in this film where the imagery encased remarkably transported me to where I legitimately felt like I was watching a shelved picture from the 80’s, and even with my picky eye for detail, I couldn’t find a single instance of any object or depiction that soiled the integrity of its unique time frame. The objects of the apartment are also documenting a story within their many shifts and disappearances that I don’t want to spoil here, and only mention because its brilliance used to channel maturity is something you rarely ever think about when it comes to set pieces during an aging story.

– Accurate depiction of first love. Some women will view the love depicted as ridiculous, but I feel like every woman has dated someone that today their wisdom would tell them differently, and that’s what I find so intoxicating about this relationship. We the audience feel leagues above the girl in terms of knowledge. We know what signs to look for, we know where everything is headed, and it’s that aspect that is frustrating but in a way that is entirely for our investment in the well-being of the character. There is no initial first spark really, it’s just that a guy is paying her attention at a party, and especially in the case of her being a virgin, that first time always exposes the vulnerability that women face, especially considering the kind of influence a look from him holds over her through the first half of this film. It’s not the most delightful watch in this regard, but no film should be shunned for its unabashed honesty, and this film has it in spades, reminding us behind every corner of the wisdom that she will gain because of her timultuous experiences.

– The judgment game. In Hogg’s ability to give us so little time with every supporting character, with the exception of the occasional party or on-set scene, the film manages this level of uncertainty with each of their intentions that puts as in the shoes of Honor’s Julie. Especially during the late second act, when a barrage of these characters received more time in front of the lens, I began to wonder who had her best intentions in mind, and who was there to be another Phil on the highway to her accomplishing her goals. This once again begs the audience member to invest themselves in the unraveling of these exchanges, making us feel as a parent of sorts to Julie’s newfound breath of escape, and it outlines a level of weightless suspense that feels beneficial to the film without smothering it in urgency. This feeds more into the idea of Hogg grounding this story so deeply in reality, as anyone who comes into our lives really is just a smiling face until we get to know them.

– Meaning behind the title. The title “The Souvenir” is named after an 18th century rococo painting of the same name by Jean-Honore Fragonard, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover into a tree. This painting is shown twice throughout the movie, and at least from a metaphorical stance can easily be emitted from what transpires in the way Anthony influences Julie throughout. Without spoiling anything, I took away a complex tone of permanent scarring from the painting, which alludes to the permanence of someone etched into the memory of the carver’s psyche, for better or worse. A film’s title should summarize everything enclosed within its walls of creativity, and the title used for Hogg’s nearly autobiographical feature is one that requires digging beneath the material if one is to fully understand the meaning of its message.

NEGATIVES

– The pacing. Especially the case in the first act of the film, the unorthodox nature of storytelling and event depiction is a bit of a jump to overcome when you’re getting settled in to a film’s style. In this reflection, if you can get through the opening half hour of the film, your investment will give way to the meatier material that fills the remainder of the film. With the romance in particular feeling so cryptic early on, there’s very little to bounce off of within the initial meetings between these two lovers, and even for editing that remains patient throughout the film, these first few scenes feel so dramatically slower than anything else that accompanies it.

– Musical incorporation. I didn’t care much for the film’s soundtrack, as the inclusion of pop tracks like “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Love My Way” by The Psychadelic Furs felt like such an unnecessary forcing into a film that is stripped down in reality without them. In a sense, the scenes with no musical incorporation helped maintain this slice of real life that so much of the film was buried in, and to add songs, especially ones as familiar with the decade as these, gives it an overbearing feeling of obviousness for time-stamped gimmick that this film doesn’t have to stretch itself for. If they were played during the party scenes, I would be fine with them, but their inclusions during moments of self-reflection for Julie, feel like an obvious distraction in the clarity of the situation.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Sun Is Also A Star

Directed By Ry Russo-Young

Starring – Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, Faith Logan

The Plot – Natasha (Shahidi) is a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. She is not the type of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when her family is twelve hours away from being deported. Falling in love with him will not be her story. Daniel (Melton) has always been the good son, the good student, living up to his parents’ high expectations. Never a poet. Or a dreamer. But when he sees her, he forgets all that. Something about Natasha makes him think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store for both of them. Every moment has brought them to this single moment. A million futures lie before them. Which one will come true?

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– Articulate photography. If nothing else, this film is a love-letter to the city of New York, in all of its immense architecture and melting pot population that lives and breathes within the city. In capturing such passion, Russo-Young’s blissful strokes of the canvas paint a sunny, serene setting for the world inside of the film to exist in, capturing more than several examples of artistic personality in unflinching focus, which feels like an homage to director Barry Jenkins, in that her setting becomes a character within the film, that surrounds the blossoming of these two love-struck young adults. The Bronx feels clean, poetic, and lived-in to the point of unabashed hope from the light above that continuously shines down on that front-and-center stage.

– Detailed montage sequences. This is where the film authenticates that literary feeling, stopping frequently throughout the progression of the plot to give us these sharply-edited, poignantly-informative flashes of backstory that matches the audible narration cohesively. These scenes are presented in such a crisp and absorbing way that it gives the film these brief moments of feeling documentary-esque, taking great pride in its responsibility to educate the audience not only in the history of the bi-racial cultures represented in the film, but also in the unrivaled path of collision that has set everything we know today in motion. Science is everything for a film that constantly seeks the evidence in matters, and thanks to some expressive montage sequences, we the audience engage in the important specs of information that blur the line between fate and coincidence.

– Speaking of the battle between those two themes, I love that the screenplay isn’t afraid to challenge centuries old debates in philosophy, like those from Carl Sagen, to contrast to the values obtained from choices of love. One line mentioned in the film is that “Love is the only proven thing that can’t be measured from science”. Interesting observation there, and it certainly adds weight and unpredictability to the single greatest emotion in the human stratosphere, for the odds of obtaining that one in a million who you were meant to spend your life with. As a single man myself, the script’s material reminded me not to overlook the smallest details, which may serve as signs for a bigger picture, but as a lover of film, the movie challenged me mentally in ways that romantic genre movies simply don’t in 2019, and it gives the movie a spring of pep in distinguishing itself from the overpopulation of such a territory.

– Surprise cameo. This film earns points just for finding a way to cast one of my all time favorite actors in a role that becomes evidently more important the longer the film proceeds. This guy is not only the most charismatic performance in the film, in all three of his scenes, but he also conveys the kind of presence needed in making you care and invest in anything that he’s involved in. It’s a bit of lesson to the film’s two central character’s, whose shoe-horned exposition against some less-than thrilling aspects about their character’s, brought forth two human beings who couldn’t sell me a bottle of water in a 365 day drought. I commend this actor for reminding me that there is no role too small for him, and that his variety in selected projects continues to expand even at the age of 54.

– Reflection to our own world. The fight for immigration plays a big hand in the developments of the movie, and especially considering this element is so prominent in today’s society, it gives the events a feeling of art-reflecting-life, that makes this movie feel more human than even its discussions on love. One question asked frequently throughout the film is what America means to this woman, an answer adored for its diversity, yet humbled for its honesty. It reminds us that even though this is the land of the free, we truly have a long way to go for everyone to feel the emphasis of that meaning, shedding light on the battle of the current day administration that now more than ever feels ever so urgent. Respect also goes to casting a Korean male and black female to echo those sentiments for the duration of the movie. It goes a long way when you can invest in one aspect; the love story, yet be entirely ripped apart by another; deportation, proving dramatic depth which is anything but timely.

NEGATIVES

– Clunky dialogue. Nope, this didn’t change from the terribly sappy trailers. The lines uttered in the film, mostly by Melton, are every bit as childish as they are meandering to the gullible audiences watching them and wondering why they can’t be romanced in such a way. The answer is simple; this wouldn’t work. Winking and nodding at a girl that you’re waiting for something from her would get you slapped and receiving of a restraining order the very same day. Likewise, the overbearing nature of Melton really made me uncomfortable, especially in the ‘Me Too’ era, where many men like this one manipulated women into thinking their intentions were honorable. LIGHT SPOILER – Melton, like those men I previously mentioned, eventually ends up in a dimly lit room, alone with the girl, and wastes no time making a move. Well, I guess they did wait four hours before they banged. Commendable.

– One PAINFUL song. I was mostly enjoying the soundtrack to this film, which authenticated the musical cultures from each respective family, with songs like “Don’t Stay Away” by Jamaican singer Phyllis Dillon, as well as “Here With Me” from Korean singer Susie Suh. But one performance tore it all down and soil the sanctity of every song that came before it. To anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer, Melton performs a version of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and The Shondells, and to say it’s uninspiring is putting it totally lightly. To say Melton’s voice is every bit as flat as it is reflective of a cat getting its nuts stepped on in the middle of the night, is an honest one. The performance is so bad in fact, that the movie mutes his performance to play us Tommy James version during a fantasy sequence from Shahidi. If this scene didn’t already feel like a stalker’s ploy to command attention, it now feels like that out-of-tune street singer who we must take pity on and spare a dollar if he’s ever going to move forward with his life.

– The performances. While separated, Shahidi and Melton display enough dramatic flare for the benefit of their character’s depth , but when they are together, it deconstructs everything positive up to that point. These two have no chemistry together, despite the film trying ever so obviously to convey that they do, and what’s even worse is that the sequence of events does nothing to issue believability that Shahidi has in fact fallen for him. It just kind of happens with a total lack of subtlety, and the lack of emotional registry from Shahidi frequently reminds us how cryptic it is to get an accurate read from her radar. Nice enough kids, but not who I picture when I think of convincing leading cast.

– Unnecessary padding. This movie is 95 minutes, and feels like it has an additional half hour thanks to plot halting that happens far too often from points A-to-Z. Every time the conflict advances, you can almost time that a convenient plot device or temporary adversity will present itself to further draw out the miniscule depth of this conflict. The good news is that there is a good movie in here somewhere, but it’s buried under too much unnecessary exposition explanation and not enough advancement, dimming the average of returns for dramatic material that is put on pause far too often to maintain audience concern. There were times in this film when I was edge-of-my-seat interested, yet times when I couldn’t be more bored, and when you average these two points out, it leads to average pacing, which shouldn’t be a challenge by hour-and-a-half measures.

– Predictable. If you’ve seen one of these films, you’ve seen them all. When a film is riding positive momentum, you know it will eventually go bad to put one over on the audience. The problem is that this has become a cliche of sorts with Young Adult cinema, so you are able to telegraph what comes next, and that’s the case here. The film, with all of its heavy-handed intentions towards fate, was easily predicted by me about a quarter of the way in, and I ended up batting 100% in that regard, leaving me nothing in the way of surprises or unexpected turns for me to hang my hat on. This film goes about the way you’d be able to pick out after watching the trailer, and for a film so expansively unique in its commentary in material, the people themselves are the least interesting and imaginative aspect in going against the grain.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Tolkien

Directed By Dome Karukoski

Starring – Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Laura Donnelly

The Plot – The film explores the formative years of the orphaned author (Hoult) as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school. This takes him into the outbreak of World War I, which threatens to tear the “fellowship” apart. All of these experiences would inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-Earth novels.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence

POSITIVES

– Thomas Newman’s gripping score. If I didn’t mention my single favorite aspect of this movie first, I would be doing a huge disservice to the maestro of magic, who once again enhances each scene with an element of drama that tinsels in the air from his lucid compositions. Newman’s music rides an emotionally surcharged roller-coaster of goosebumps, eclipsing each arm hill with a wave of enchantment and majestic radiance of “The Lord of the Rings” movies themselves, all the while outlining that invisible line of urgency that much of the movie unfortunately doesn’t capitalize it. Newman’s name for whatever reason is often overlooked when the best composers of the 20th century are talked about, but thanks to the moving renditions that he stirs into a hopeless World War I battlefield, the 21st century are ever in his favor.

– Riveting wartime sequences. Visually the highlight of the film for me. In addition to Newman’s influence that I just mentioned, we are treated to tight-knit editing, immense weight in impact, and a shot composition that definitely paid homage to “All Quiet On the Western Front” in terms of heavy breathing claustrophobia that gets as close in the trenches as being safe can buy. Never does the sequences feel staged or compromised for the lack of scope associated with both sides, instead using character narration and crisp, sharp sound mixing to audibly immerse us in the unpredictable drama. Even in knowing above average details of Tolkien’s biographical background, there was still much about orchestra of anxiety from Karukoski that left me uncertain about what transpired, and it all eventually leads to a convincing third act that does give you moments of satisfaction for remaining so patient.

– Seamless 1940’s design. From the soft color scheme of Finnish cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen, to the classy wardrobe design, to the consistency of visual likeness that never compromises the time frame, everything here is ideal for the look and feel of England during the time of great war, giving a strong attention to detail for the production that visually fired on all cylinders. Faded coloring filters are always the way to go in replicating the authenticity within an atmosphere of a prior decade, and it all manages to impress in ways that dazzle a level of time travel on the silver screen fluently.

– Effectively informative. I feel like “Tolkien” will at least succeed in outlining the important parts of Tolkien’s life, if literary biographies aren’t your thing. This film covers the rags-to-riches orphan tale of Tolkien’s early up-bringing, the bonds of fellowship in this friendship of boys, the lure that language plays in his stories, and of course the blossoming love between he and eventual wife Edith. If you’re a diehard fan of Tolkien, the film will offer you very little in the way of beneficial reinforcement, but if you’re someone seeking information for a term paper, or just looking to satisfy random curiosity after binge-watching the Rings films, “Tolkien” will educate just enough to fill in the gaps, all the while preserving a general outline for the mind behind the magic of arguably the single most influential series of novels in the English language.

– Special effects poetry. One nuanced aspect from the director that I wish was used a lot more, was a psychological delve into the mind of Tolkien, during which he sees familiar imagery from future books. It was during these scenes when I realized the crossroads of past, present, and future within J.R’s life, and it practically stands as these brief moments of inspiration that never require bloated or obvious dialogue in getting its point across. These are the scenes that will be most satisfying to fans, as we finally get a glimpse of the genius at work, proving that even in the heat of battle with fighting for survival, the execution of a creative mind still lives and breathes within the soul of a writer.

NEGATIVES

– Formulaic exposition. I don’t doubt for a second that artists pull inspiration from every spec of intrigue in their lives, but what I do have a great ounce of disbelief with is that it plays out in such a television soap opera, complete with practically wink-and-nod moments that illuminate for the audience. I have this same problem particularly with modern day musical biopics, as the overabundance of information deposited in a two hour film all but comes with a Wikipedia sign posting that each of the screenplay pages hit on ever so conveniently. Examples of this are scattered throughout the film, traveling through themes of fellowship and incredible journeys that provide material for the gifted writer, but do so in a way that prove in this film to be topical to ever come across as natural.

– Disappointing performances. I’ve been a fan of Hoult’s since I saw him on screen for the first time, and for a majority of his career he constantly elevates the material that sometimes does him no favors in connecting to the audience. But his work as this prestigiously humbling writer provides shoes that are just too big for him to fill, and leave us with a lack of personality in his portrayal that does highlight the genius in intelligence, but sadly leaves much of the twitches in Tolkien that he was well known for, on the floor of omittance. Collins likewise is an equally blank canvas, leaving as much of a lasting impact on the film as background wallpaper. The two exceptional leads try what they can to light the spark of chemistry between them, but it simply isn’t there, and without the love element providing warmth, the movie alludes and reaches to a motivation through war that simply doesn’t feel earned.

– Lack of influence from the source. The Tolkien family themselves have distanced themselves from the making of the film, not because they saw it and hated the movie, but because the production chose not to involve them when crafting a tale about their legendary ancestor. Why I think this is a big mistake is obvious: the movie is crafting a story without the ideals of heart needed to sell the man behind the books, and that’s essentially the common plague with this film. Throughout the movie, I felt like I was watching a cinematic character with very little shade of personality to help me understand and grow with who Tolkien was as a person. This is especially troubling because in a biopic it is important to separate the fame and the life, and draw the comparison between them that links almost magnetically. We don’t understand what drives J.R, and likewise the movie searches for that very same drive, traveling in a directionless fog, with all of the wrong people steering the machine.

– Sludgy pacing. I am not a “Lord of the Rings” fan by any stretch of the imagination. I can know and understand that they are exceptionally made films without personally indulging in them, but I can’t say the same about the quality exchanged in “Tolkien”. For the first hour of this movie, I was nearly falling asleep. The film’s disjointed screenplay that alternates between three different timelines transitions about as smoothly as hitting a pothole at 80 MPH, and does so with very little emphasis or distinction that a jump is coming. The film is able to gain very little momentum because it feels like it’s trying to cram in too many details in each respective age, and even at 107 minutes long, it could use another studio edit to trim the fat of adolescence that has such little bearing on anything other than the formation of his schoolboy fellowship.

– Not enough originality. For a film that preaches the theme of imagination, it’s remarkable how little there is of it throughout. When I see how boggled down and formulaic the screenplay feels for such an exceptional figure, I am reminded of similarly structured films that did it better. Just two years ago, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” depicted an author whose psychological durress with war equated out to making some revolutionary material in children’s literature. Likewise, “Dead Poets Society” managed dialogue and poetic insight better than any film before its time. So where does that leave “Tolkien”? As it turns out, searching for an identity of its own, and that’s what bothers me about a movie that should cast an immense shadow on the silver screen. There’s nothing about it that is remarkably fresh or insightful to have you screaming of its originality. It’s a collection of scenes from other films that can never jumble together to stand at eye level with its imposing title character, and feels like the forgettable secondary film to the bigger Tolkien blockbuster that feels just around the corner when a movie like this doesn’t quite live up.

My Grade: 5/10 or D +

Long Shot

Directed By Jonathan Levine

Starring – Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael

The Plot – Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is a gifted and free-spirited journalist with an affinity for trouble. Charlotte Field (Theron) is one of the most influential women in the world. Smart, sophisticated, and accomplished, she’s a powerhouse diplomat with a talent for mostly everything. The two have nothing in common, except that she was his babysitter and childhood crush. When Fred unexpectedly reconnects with Charlotte, he charms her with his self-deprecating humor and his memories of her youthful idealism. As she prepares to make a run for the Presidency, Charlotte impulsively hires Fred as her speechwriter, much to the dismay of her trusted advisors. A fish out of water on Charlotte’s elite team, Fred is unprepared for her glamourous lifestyle in the limelight. However, sparks fly as their unmistakable chemistry leads to a round-the-world romance and a series of unexpected and dangerous incidents.

Rated R for strong sexual content, adult language throughout and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Evolving chemistry between the two leads. What’s so believably fleshed out about the relationship of our protagonists is the way that it’s given ample time to mature throughout a two hour runtime. When they reunite at the beginning of the film, they feel like nothing more than friends, and at that moment lack the noticeable spark that bonds them together. But as the film progresses, and they each help balance what the other one lacks, the distance of inevitability between them draws thinner, and it helps attain this level of earned romance that I felt would be my biggest obstacle going into this film. At their peak, Theron and Rogen blend beautifully well together, and the film goes all the way in cementing that growing connection without ever reversing because of their obvious physical differences.

– Profound political commentary. Aside from the gags and obvious fingers being pointed at one political party only, the film harvests a fine combination of satire in the entertainment and real world that brought more than a few laughs of familiarity to my viewing. There’s a network hosted by braindead anchors that is obviously a stab at Fox News, with all of its unimportant equations that go into discussion. Beyond this, the great Andy Serkis acts his way in a wig and prosthetics that brings former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon to mind. Finally, the film has a very unabashed honesty in the way it depicts female candidates, in how they are relegated to answering demeaning questions and negotiating with power hungry white majorities to house their ambitions. It proves that “Long Shot” has much more to say beneath its plot of opposites attract, and within it offers a social reflection that proves poignant for this romantic comedy.

– Effectiveness of the humor. When this film is in its element and shining as a dual romantic narrative with bits of classy humor ingested into it, the landing power is that much more consistent. This gets away from the kinds of raunch comedies that Rogen is used to, but unfortunately not completely. I will get to that more later. But when the screenplay focuses more on its ironies involved in awkward situations, as well as romance dynamic between its two leads, the film garners a level of being a modern day “The American President”, which it so badly requires to transcend the typical Rogen typecast, and make this a recommendation for all audiences. The crossover value is certainly there, all the while never alienating its Rogen enthusiasts, and landing what I would consider an astonishing 70% of gags that it illustrates. The humor inside succeeds without being entirely political, and proves that it has a bigger scope that the predictable laughs associated with a White House comedy.

– Delightful cast. Theron couldn’t give a bad performance if she studied eight months to give it. As this Secretary of State character, she’s strong, caring, and most of all blinded to the political and physical politics associated with the relationships that surround her, and carves out a refreshing female lead that we just don’t see enough of in 2019. Rogen is his usual stick, but with an air of untypical intelligence to his character that really makes him pop in this kind of elegant environment. Aside from them, there’s appearances from Serkis, Bob Odenkirk (As the President, no less), Alexander Saarsgaard, and my personal favorite, O’Shea Jackson as Rogen’s best friend. Why doesn’t Jackson have his own starring movie yet? This kid combines enough conviction in comedic line reads, as well as an illuminating smile to pay homage to the stars of the tinsel age of Hollywood, and makes any film better that he pops up in.

– Positive messages. Aside from the obvious table dressing in the movie pointing to beauty being skin deep, Levine is all about inclusiveness, and because of such harvests two motivational messages for the price of one. The first is about self-image, in that our leading lady cares too much about what her peers think of her decisions. The film alludes to overcoming those biases by being true to yourself, and only live by the rules set by one person: you. The second message, and more surprisingly compelling to this critic, was the desire to bring both sides of the political spectrum, Republican and Democrat, together to work for the better of the nation. This direction I found refreshing, especially considering the beatdown that Republicans take in satire throughout the film, but it makes me forgive when the script itself realizes the vital importance that coming together casts, hinting especially at not judging someone who doesn’t share the same political beliefs as you. If you put every message together, “Understanding” seems to be the common theme, and it proves that the heart of Levine is in the right place when it comes to the world that he is calling upon.

– Against type performances. Another thing that I find appealing to the dynamic of Theron and Rogen is the fact that each of them are working in a genre that they’re not typically used to. For Theron, it’s the rare comedy casting that we haven’t yet gotten from her until now, bringing forth a new side to her one woman storm that prove she has a distinct timing for intelligent humor. For Rogen, it’s viewing him as the leading man in the romance genre, that would probably be the last direction that I would expect from the lovable goofball. Rogen himself will tell you that he isn’t the first guy he would cast as the dreamy male protagonist in any movie, but his personality gives way to strong male morals like supporting his woman, equal rights among gay relations, and an explosive opening confrontation against Nazi’s that prove he can take a hit. It’s refreshing in films when one actor will walk new ground, but here we get two for the price of one, and it’s a team-up combination that will open up many new avenues for this star-studded duo.

– Levine as a director. One thing that I respect Jonathan for deeply is the fresh spin on a contemporary setting that offers a serving of poignancy within the world that transcends the screen. In setting this film in the current day, Levine signals that much of the film’s ideals, both sociological and political, could in fact be ours if we stop focusing on the pety, and like his previous films like “50/50”, “Warm Bodies”, and “The Night Before”, he challenges the status quo that we cement within our own ideals, and turns them upside down by offering the truth in the dynamic of screen and real life. This is clearly a director who is every bit as ambitious with his world building as he is with his comedy, and like those movies that I previously mentioned, touches on a lot of different aspects creatively that somehow each fit in to the narrative that he ties together wonderfully, and the depth instilled upon “Long Shot” proves that it might be his single greatest film to date.

NEGATIVES

– Tonal tug of war. For my money, the film is a comedy first movie with elements of romance sprinkled in throughout, and this all vibes wonderfully together, until these unnecessary instances of gross-out humor spoil the elegance of its demeanor. In this regard, the film struggles to nail down what it wants to be between a rare romantic comedy without any of the cliches, or a typical Seth Rogen movie, and what we’re left with doesn’t really commit to either side of the equation because it too often contradicts itself one scene after grounding its feet, leaving this film struggling for a directional distinction to get away from the tonal inconsistencies that occasionally feel uneasy from scene to scene transition. If we cut anything away from this film, it should be the gross-out humor that just doesn’t fit with this setting or plot, but somehow keeps finding its way to soil the sanctity of everything inside.

– Hypocritical stances. One flub that the film commits is in its ability to go back on its word in the morals department it establishes for its two leads, and soils them in a way that breeds hypocrisy in the very next scene. For instance, Theron’s character constructs an eco-friendly bill that will ease carbon gases being introduced into the air, yet she drives around this abnormally massive airplane that does exactly that. Not to be left out, Rogen also comes to the parade of hypocrisy thanks to his disdain for major corporations that we hear about on more than one occasion. He says this, and then mentions how much he enjoys watching Marvel movies. Small nitpick? Sure, but it proves that the screenwriters don’t fully value their character’s in a way that makes them practice what they preach, and in doing so make themselves no better than the very same people they criticize.

– Hollow third act conflict. Yep, there has to be another late movie distancing, but this time it is setup in such a way that feels so ineffective when you really consider what’s at stake. Without spoiling much, I will say that the Steve Bannon type that I mentioned earlier blackmails Charlotte with a recording that damns Fred, and he uses it as leverage for her to accept his endorsement. The problem with this is the tape in question is condemning to Fred, and not necessarily Charlotte, so where does it hurt her if it is released to the public? In addition to this, wouldn’t he be held just as accountable if someone tracks the source for how a laptop was hacked into to attain private footage? But it happens because the movie needs a conflict between Theron and Rogen, leaving me scratching my head wondering if this is the best the writers could come up with, why even include a conflict at all?

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

After

Directed By Jenny Gage

Starring – Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Selma Blair, Josephine Langford

The Plot – Based on Anna Todd’s novel of the same name, the film follows Tessa (Langford), a dedicated student, dutiful daughter and loyal girlfriend to her high school sweetheart, as she enters her first semester in college. Armed with grand ambitions for her future, her guarded world opens up when she meets the dark and mysterious Hardin Scott (Tiffin), a magnetic, brooding rebel who makes her question all she thought she knew about herself and what she wants out of life.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some college partying

POSITIVES

– Perhaps the most surprising thing about “After” is that it is at least technically sound in the presentation department. Soft, subtle lighting cast against beautiful scenery, compliments of cinematographer Adam Silver, and a tight precision in editing, which constantly keeps the flow of the movie moving at comfortable levels, are two of the beneficial aspects that this film indulges in, and proves that style was certainly heavier than substance in this vapid delivery of teenage fan fiction. If anything, the film will perhaps stand as a stepping stone for much bigger works by this production team, which simply feel far too advanced for anything it combines with in this movie that weighs down the law of its returns.

– A hidden narrative. One aspect of the film that is briefly touched upon, but never fully realized, is the sexual awakening of Tessa that springs forth her college curiosity. The aspect of first love’s for young women not living up to everything you expected, will offer strong relatability to the youths that take this film in, and even give them a general outline of what not to do when in that similar situation. In this regard, the film garners just enough responsibility to take Tessa down this road of self-identifying, and in turn carves out just enough ambiguity for beyond-the-screen companions right by her side. Very few films capture the complexity associated with love at such an early age, but “After” tackles it head on, juggling enough social commentary about the dating world along the way to give it substantial reasoning for its existence.

NEGATIVES

– No pulse. As far as modern day romances go, the bond between Harden and Tessa might be the single worst that I’ve seen in terms of chemistry or remote spark that helps convey their attraction. First of all, these are both terrible people in terms of how they treat everyone else around them, the dialogue between them is certainly nothing that makes us the audience feel weak in the knees, and the romantic scenes lack the kind of passion necessary to feel satisfaction in their mutual finding. I can imagine that watching a brother and sister romantically involved couldn’t be far off from what we’re presented, because there’s nothing fun or remotely engaging about two people who the movie wants to log-jam into fitting so perfectly together, yet what transpires in 97 minutes between them couldn’t be any further from the truth.

– Teenage fan fiction doesn’t translate well to the silver screen. For those who don’t know, this story is originally based off of One Direction (Yes, that One Direction) fan-fiction, that was originally switched up to instead depict every day people. As for the film itself, it can’t escape these obvious cliches that make it still feel like it’s being commanded by an adolescent girl. The irrational decisions, the over-abundance of easy listening like The Fray or Avril Lavigne, the barrage of red flags that are casually ignored by our ignorant protagonist, and the way the scenes stay with Tessa 100% of the time. It’s a modern day teenage fantasy that caters to the slimmest of audiences, and the ones it does haven’t lived through the kind of situations depicted to fully understand how maniacal they are.

– The cast. Nobody in the lead cast is redeemable, and what’s even more tragic about this is film veterans like Peter Gallagher or Selma Blair are subjected to such waste. I hate trashing actors who are trying to master their craft, but the reality is Langford and Tiffin wouldn’t be cast as even supporting character’s in a halfway decent film, due to their overall lack of commitment in each line read, as well as the flat emotional registry that lets each scene of connection to the audience slip away. I understand that the roles called for these kids to be introvert’s somewhat, but the complete lack of charisma made each interaction slug along with the kind of performance depth of a Charmin bathroom tissue commercial. Even Christian Grey and Anastasia committed themselves to the ridiculousness of the situation. These two never made the most of their most likely one and only chance.

– Redundancy in character’s. There are too many of the same kind of character personalities in this movie, and what’s even worse is the exposition between the leads could easily be summarized in a Wikipedia plot summary. For Harden, adjectives like “Quiet”, “brutish”, and “Bad Boy” could be inserted, but very rarely a character outline for who you see before you. If I’m not picking on Harden, then it’s Tessa’s cryptic roommate, who is introduced to the film early on, and then rarely tapped into again, and it speaks levels to the problems associated with sticking with two character’s for so long that you often forget that there’s a world that exists beyond them. That complete lack of initiative made it so difficult for me to invest in a single person, and even care remotely for what will become of them.

– Watered down rating. I myself haven’t read the book that this movie is based on, but I did read a material summary that gave me the finer points of the story, and immediately I can say that PG-13 was not the right way to go to remain faithful to the literary origins. The rating is obviously to cater to more younger fans to feed into the profits, but those kind of kids shouldn’t be watching this movie anyway, and the ones who are old enough to are left with deflated content that feels like an after school special, instead of something that is compared to being the teenage version of Fifty Shades of Grey. When you look at that property, you understand that there’s no way it could be done with anything less than an R-rating, and that’s the case here, where vital scenes of sexual interaction are shot so tightly that you don’t properly register the kind of body language that comes with such passion.

– Not even unintentional humor can save us. The best parts of movies like these, often defined as so bad they’re good, is the ability to laugh at the struggle of script and filmmaking incompetence, but there’s never anything in the way of lunacy in the former, or amateur in the latter, and it makes the sit that much more intolerable because of it. What’s left is a vacuum of entertainment-sucking where even unintentional humor wipes away the sands of therapeutic cinema for relief. “After” is one of the worst films of 2019 in this regard, and if there’s much more like this, it will be a bleak year of pretentious filmmaking that inspires a new generation.

– Padding out time. I mentioned earlier that the pacing is acceptable enough because of the on-the-nose editing that remains consistent, but 97 minutes for a movie with this much repetition in musical montages or date montages between our two leads, makes me feel like fifteen minutes could’ve easily been trimmed from this movie to not make it feel so obvious in reaching a time destination. To remain at 97 minutes, perhaps more character development, or a bonding of relationships outside of our two lovebird protagonists to up the stakes once the conflict’s start could’ve offered a satisfaction of variety that could’ve also done wonders for spicing up what is otherwise 80% a mundane screenplay. For my money, these two meet and fall in love far too quickly in the film, and I feel like more restraint could’ve better planned for those eventual third act twists that take a lifetime to arrive.

– Speaking of which, the curiosity that I had with about a half hour left did present a fine line of interest as to what kind of direction this story is headed, but sadly I was letdown by the film’s flimsy final message and closing sequences that had my eyes hurting from rolling so much. Without spoiling anything, this film could’ve had so much fun with Harden’s character, in how he responds to the foundation’s in his life that are crumbling around him, but the twist comes and goes, feeling every bit as inconsequential if two people could sit down and talk, as it does contradictory with the film’s closing moments. What’s even more frustrating is there is a push for a sequel, which will inevitably go unfulfilled, but leaves the ending of this film feeling anti-climatic because of final imagery that leans one particular way.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

The Aftermath

Directed By James Kent

Starring – Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard, Jason Clarke

The Plot – Set in postwar Germany in 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) arrives in the ruins of Hamburg in the bitter winter, to be reunited with her husband Lewis (Clarke), a British colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city. But as they set off for their new home, Rachael is stunned to discover that Lewis has made an unexpected decision: They will be sharing the grand house with its previous owners, a German widower (Skarsgård) and his troubled daughter. In this charged atmosphere, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal.

Rated R for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images

POSITIVES

– Strong ensemble. Knightley continues to shine under tremendous pressure, channeling a combination of loneliness and longing that gives much of her character arc the emphasis of urgency. Likewise, her tremendous chemistry with Skarsgard is unavoidable, blazing a trail of obviousness between them that grows shorter with each intense interaction. What truly amazed me however, was Clarke giving arguably his single best performance to date. Kent’s direction here should be applauded, because he brings emotional heft to Jason in ways that no other director has to this point, and we’re rewarded with a third act collapse that has him confronting the demons from his past in ways that is every bit unsettling as it is effective to us the audience. This trio combats some glaring holes in material that make you question the moral fiber of their characters, and are each a delight to watch for how the war has shaped each of them in noticeably different effects.

– Gorgeous cinematography by Franz Lustig. Being a product of Germany himself better prepares Lustig for the style in scope that he delivers in each valued frame, indulging us the audience to immersive establishing shots of breathtaking scenery, as well as intimacy in scenes of passion that glow before our eyes. On the latter, this is something that a movie like “Fifty Shades of Grey” should take notes on, because the love is not only believable, but intense because of the limited window that we are given, which for better or worse, makes us feel a part of the scene with them. On the former, the snowy countryside of Germany feeds much into the circumstances establish by this cold, damp marriage on the rocks, as well as establishing this inescapable feeling of defeat in the air that shapes much of the mentalities from the movie’s various personalities.

– Originality in the war genre. We get a war film once every season, but it’s rare to be presented with the unique opportunity to see the effects from the cause, especially in the case of a once powerful faction like the Axis Powers, which would’ve re-shaped the world. What’s commendable about what “The Aftermath” does, is it explores the shade of grey between good and evil that both sides possessed, and takes valuable time in teaching us that very honorable people like the ones we’ve been believed to have, are also present on enemy lines. It’s not afraid to explore the side of conscience from people we’re not used to delving deep into, and conveys that no one really wins when the smoke of devastation clears.

– Atmosphere put to music. Composer Martin Phipps instills a combination of violin and piano that better triggers the tragedy in the air that binds people of two entirely complex sides together, and it makes for an overall musical score that plays wonderfully synonymous with the highs and lows of this arrangement. I usually don’t go for the classical side of compositions, but when you have a depicted era that calls for it, anything else would alienate these scenes of passion and tragedy with great underscoring on the pulse. Phipps’ work here is also every bit as absorbing as it is adaptive for Rachael’s newly-lit fire that burns for the first time in a long time, presenting us with an audio commentary of sorts for the ball of uncertainty that resides within her, and it’s never obvious or leading, remaining tasteful with its distance between the audience and the film they are engaged in.

NEGATIVES

– Distracted. The biggest problem with the romantic triangle plot is that it often feels like a subplot in a movie that centers around it. There are no fewer than three other on-going narratives taking place simultaneously, and it renders the material that everyone came to see limited in its appeal to further develop the characters and blossoming romance effectively. The additional stories are certainly nothing that I would waste an ample amount of time with, and to be honest, if they were cut all together, it would only create more lasting positives to the attention needed to render the plot more impactful than what we’re left with. Because of such, the thrills of the seduction feel lukewarm, and never provide anything of substance to override the overly-telegraphed movements that we’ve seen in literally any other film about cheating spouses.

– Unlikeable leads. Is it wrong that I related to Jason Clarke’s character the most? I detested Keira Knightley’s character, and no, not because I’m a white male who constantly blames the woman. In this case, the woman is in the wrong, balancing a life of complaining about her husband’s absence to protect the citizens of this country in favor of putting together a rich dinner party for friends, as well as her noticeable prejudice towards German’s that does her no favors in the empathy department. If this wasn’t enough, she cheats on Clarke, and we’re supposed to understand why because of what I previously mentioned and sudden character shifts that come out of nowhere. For instance, Clarke’s character is caring and supportive of German’s who he views as “Victims” in the first act, but then grows to feel inaffectionate when the story requires him to, at the drop of a hat. Skarsgard, not to be outdone, mentions that his daughter is his whole world, yet only spends time with her in the presence of Knightley, and doesn’t have a clue about her going off to join a radical Nazi group plotting to seek revenge. With character’s like these, who needs enema’s?

– Uneven pacing. This is a 104 minute movie, and a majority of the first half of that runtime moves at a snail’s pace of development. When you truly think about it, we as an audience stand in place for roughly the first forty minutes of this film, refusing to plan for future direction’s that pop-up with very little notice. It stays this way until the final forty minutes of the film, when I guess the movie realizes it has built very little inside of this triangle, and decides to get busy with a virtual machine-gun of exposition that almost feels like a different director as a whole is at the controls of. The good news is I was never bored with “The Aftermath”, the bad news is the undercooked dramatic elements never materialized to leave me anywhere near fully invested into what was transpiring.

– Too many cornball cliches. I mentioned earlier that this is typical cab fare for anyone who has seen a Lifetime or Cinemax movie in the last twenty years, but the real tools of tantalizing are so obvious that they craft an inescapable laugh. Let’s go through the list: Shacking up with a hot stranger, each of them has what the other is lacking, husband leaves wife alone with good looking guy for long period of time, film doesn’t condemn or shame cheating couple for their romantic tryst. There’s plenty more, but I’m seriously getting carpel-tunnel typing them out, and if it hasn’t already been proven, this movie goes where plenty of films went before it, leaving nothing in the way of originality or surprises to make it memorable for longer than ten minutes after seeing it.

– It’s a personal nag for me when the movie declares twice that the citizens forced to go against their will to join the Nazi party was worse than the thousands that lost their lives in England attack bombings. No film should ever be about weighing the devastation of two completely different subjects, but “The Aftermath” does this without hesitation, offering a layer of social opinion that doesn’t reflect the film in ways that are complimentary. Just stating the facts is more than enough to lay the impact at the feet of uneducated audiences, but this necessity to compare is something that is insensitive to anyone who was unfortunate enough to be alive during such a dark and scary time for the world’s bleak future.

– No pay-off to the conflict. To say that the ending was underwhelming is being nice. The film’s resolution comes and goes without any long-winded speeches, without any tearful confessions, and without anything that even remotely resembles the impact promised from such a tense and finely edited trailer. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the closing scenes are not only padded for extra time, but also nonsensical when you consider where we started and ended with this pivotal scene, and will lead to audiences either feeling disappointed because of what was teased the whole way, or defeated from the waste of time that everything took to get to this point. What’s more concerning is that the loser in this triangle doesn’t feel remotely affected by it, and it stands as the lone scene where the audience and character’s are on the same page, with neither feeling impacted by where we conclude.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

Gloria Bell

Directed By Sebastian Lelio

Starring – Julianne Moore, Alanna Ubach, John Turturro

The Plot – Gloria (Moore) is a free-spirited divorcée who spends her days at a straight-laced office job and her nights on the dance floor, joyfully letting loose at clubs around Los Angeles. After meeting Arnold (Turturro) on a night out, she finds herself thrust into an unexpected new romance, filled with both the joys of budding love and the complications of dating, identity and family.

Rated R for sexuality, nudity, adult language and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Pulse-setting cinematography. At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that a woman is doing a woman’s work behind the lens, as cinematographer Natasha Braier gives a consistency of life and energy to the photography of the picture, that beats with each passing second entrancingly. The club scenes, complete with absorbing neon lighting and handheld style of the camera, echo the authenticity in style and flare for the singles scene, that really bring newfound life and appreciation to the visual chances that Lelio took more in this film than the 2011 original of the same name, and it balances a capable consistency with the soft, comfortable color textures during scenes of isolation and self-reflection. It made for an overall presentation that helped fight off some of the anxiety inducing scenes of character interaction with a comfortable medium between soft and vibrancy.

– Articulate musical injections. First of all, credit to the soundtrack director Matthew Herbert for putting together a collective group of 70’s and 80’s artists like Bonnie Tyler, Olivia Newton John, and obviously Laura Branigan’s empowering ballad “Gloria”, that are perfect in acting as a sort of audible conscious to the character that springs creativity. Aside from that however, it’s the placement of the music itself that feels every bit as authentic as it does timely. What I mean by this is that the music support never feels obvious or desperate in a way that waters down the effect of such in that particular film. Instead, the tracks here come at the absolute perfect time, and border the casualty of crossing over to a musical genre for a few seconds, albeit if you ever seek the ability to sing karaoke with Julianne Moore.

– Lack of narration. I couldn’t commend this movie more than for its choice to leave these scenes of honesty and truth untouched, allowing the audience themselves the power to not feel distracted while soaking in the awkwardness of the environment. Films use audible narration to further express a character for audiences who might not interpret things on their own, but Sebastian’s interactions never allows you the ability to look away or feel remotely distanced, therefore it leaves there being no point to counterfeit the authenticity of the engagement. All of Gloria’s emotions are on full display here, and to dig any further would only make the screenplay feel desperate to push a particular narrative.

– Realistic in its depiction of middle aged dating and family dynamics. There were moments during the film when I felt truly anxious to escape a particular scene and group of characters, and that intended design gives the material an edge of honesty that we in the single world can fully embrace and identify with, all the while giving way to this romance that is anything but conventionally blossoming. From the very second that Gloria and Arnold meet, it goes down a path of rapid advancement, unforeseen complications, and about as many make-up and break-ups of a 90’s soap opera. This gives the duo’s relationship a series of rise and falls that better articulate the movements of modern dating in ways that very few other films captivate on, and it gave the film extreme relatability for a 34 year old like me, who couldn’t be further from Gloria’s desired demographic.

– The symbolism of Los Angeles versus Las Vegas. It’s interesting to comprehend Sebastian’s depiction of two vastly different cities and what they each represent in Gloria’s entanglement of emptiness in order to fill a void. In L.A, we not only get a lot of energy from a soundtrack that feels synonymous with the beats of Gloria’s every day routine, but a maintained demeanor from her that keeps her guarded at all time. In Vegas, it’s entirely different, as Gloria is every bit as reckless as she is ambiguous to the woman we’ve come to know from the prior city. Likewise, the musical score brings with it a sense of modern day techno music that feels so far out of Gloria’s comfort level, and even shows in the way she dances awkwardly and so unaware to it. This is one of those visual storytelling metaphors that better help distinguish the confidence and security of the character, and only supplants more food for thought in the ages old comparison of the city of angels to that of sin city.

NEGATIVES

– Dry pacing. The story sequencing and lack of dramatic impact made for such an insurmountable toll on the overall pacing of the film, and took an average 97 minute run time and made it feel like twice of that. This is more prominent than ever during the first two acts, in which the first is rapid fire developments, while the second feels like the longest funeral ever for the dearly departed drama, that is virtually non-existent in this film. There have definitely been worse films than “Gloria Bell” this year, but none that have left me as bored as this one did, and it’s easily the biggest obstacle that audience will face when seeing it. Speaking of which, two middle aged people walked out midway through our showing.

– Romantic disinterest. Besides the stilted dialogue, which does no favors for Moore or Turturro’s complete void of romantic chemistry, the total lack of characterization makes the two leads feel like mindless drones who fight for a single reason to seem interesting to us the audience. The line reads in this film are as good as they could possibly be from actors who give a look of lunacy at their romantic counterpart in speaking them aloud, and if it wasn’t for the blessing of being able to laugh at lines so immature and incompetent of conveying human feelings, I would’ve probably taken away two points for the pounding that my ears took in hearing them. This is “Twilight” levels of sweet. YUCK!!!

– Completely unnecessary R-rating. I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw that this film was given the coveted R-rating that so many films need, but don’t receive, and its use of such made me even more clueless by the end of the film. There’s very little adult language, and what there is never felt necessary to include the occasional F-word to sell its point. What does make this an R is the inclusion of four different nude and sex scenes for Julianne Moore, which might be a tad bit over-indulgent for driving the point home. Moore looks incredible, don’t get me wrong, but the lack of fireworks from her and Turturro, as well as scenes feeling repetitious quite often, made me feel like so much of this could’ve been trimmed from the finished product, and even one sex scene could be shot in a way that shows dignity to both of the actors and the eyes of its audience.

– What’s with the cat? Being a cat owner myself, I can appreciate any film that involves our furry little loved ones in a way that strikes my curiosity, but this film never even attempts to explain a question that it asks itself frequently. Moore’s character keeps coming home to a cat in her apartment that isn’t hers, so where did it come from? How does it keep getting in there? Don’t worry about all of that. Instead, we’re going to bring this up three different times in hopes that the audience are too stupid to ask a couple of legitimately good questions about the security of her home.

– Ludicrous resolution. At the end of everything I previously mentioned, we get a conflict resolution that is every bit as ridiculous in believability as it is tonally inconsistent with everything else from the film that is surrounding it. (SPOILERS) A paintball gun comes into frame, and I guess this is supposed to count as revenge for a character who has felt wronged up to this point. At least the foreign version’s resolution never reached childish levels of cringeworthy material, wrapping everything up in a way that, while not closed up air tight, does allow the protagonist therepeutic resolution while staying in the realm of reality that the film has maintained for itself. I’m not sure if I was supposed to laugh at this scene, but I had no probelm exerting myself to the audience surrounding me.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Five Feet Apart

Directed By Justin Baldoni

Starring – Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani

The Plot – Stella Grant (Richardson) is every bit a seventeen-year-old. She’s attached to her laptop and loves her best friends. But unlike most teenagers, she spends much of her time living in a hospital as a cystic fibrosis patient. Her life is full of routines, boundaries and self-control – all of which is put to the test when she meets an impossibly charming fellow CF patient named Will Newman (Sprouse). There’s an instant flirtation, though restrictions dictate that they must maintain a safe distance between them. As their connection intensifies, so does the temptation to throw the rules out the window and embrace that attraction. Further complicating matters is Will’s potentially dangerous rebellion against his ongoing medical treatment. Stella gradually inspires Will to live life to the fullest, but can she ultimately save the person she loves when even a single touch is off limits?

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, adult language and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Familiar premise. An aspect with the romantic genre is that you often have these two people in love who simply can’t be together because of contrasting worlds tearing them apart, and as to where that plot is redundant for this particular genre of film, the necessity of it here makes sense more than ever. Considering these are two people suffering from a very dangerous strain of CF, it forces them to keep their distance so as to avoid possible death, and what this does is not only give the premise reason for its existence, but it also gives it immense weight in the form of the conflict itself. To be together means that these two will sacrifice touch, and it really begs the question if a relationship can survive without such intimacy.

– Responsible approach with its subject matter. Aside from this being a mostly entertaining film in whole, the task of educating its audience on the specifics of Cystic Fibrosis is taken with enough tender care in explanation that makes it so much more than just another movie. The director and actors spent ample time with a Cystic Fibrosis foundation in order to capitalize on accuracy, as well as the hopelessness of the care given to the medical staff themselves. What’s vital here is that nothing is glossed over or fancied up for the screen itself. The depictions in the film can look and sound grueling and dejecting for its audience, but without those valuable depictions, the film would be doing an extreme disservice to the impact of living with a disease that cuts literally everything short.

– Method of exposition insertion. Stella’s character has her own Youtube channel, and aside from this aspect of the film inevitably feeling someday dated, the aspect of it allows the film to tell some pivotal moments in her life that the screenplay might otherwise have difficulty conquering. Through her daily VLOG’s, Stella explains what impact the disease has on her, some of her favorite tastes in her otherwise limited world, and the importance of a missing family member that has weighed heavily on her development. This gimmick hasn’t worked in other films because of how much it’s often trying to convey in such a small window, but the details here feel natural and synthetic to the kind of videos and conversations that are prominent on video sharing websites in modern times, and allows us the audience to pick up on things at the exact same time that our co-protagonist Will is.

– Cute, charming lead cast. This is definitely a leading cast kind of film, as the supporting characters are kind of reduced to keep them front-and-center, but it allows the chemistry of Richardson and Sprouse to shine because of the care given to the progression of their relationship. The movie takes ample time in preserving them as friends first before dropping the romantic star-crossed lovers angle that was promised, and I appreciated this because it does sort of depict how love is a progress that sometimes doesn’t fit right away. As for performances, Richardson is given her first meaty dramatic role and thrives with ample colors. Stella has no shortage of running tears or vibrancy in personality, and for Haley’s first dramatic lead it really opens your eyes to how the young actress can captivate audiences with an arrangement of emotions that are brought out and returned like Mister Rogers suit jackets. Sprouse also has plenty to be grateful for, mostly in the form of precise comedic timing and a conflicted character who feels like the responsible shoulder that the story so desperately requires. Sprouse’s Will walks that fine line of responsibility on the eve of his 18th birthday no less, and his honest outlook on life gave his character many miles for his age, and actually turned out to be my favorite character in the film.

– Intimacy in camera work. While I wasn’t blown away with the complete presentation of the movie’s cinematography and movements behind the lens, I can say that the variety in handheld and still-frame pageantry shows great responsibility from Baldoni’s nurturing hands. The framing here is exceptional, bringing with it a necessity to focus on the facial registry of the actors respectively, and giving us the audience and immersive quality to what is transpiring. This allows the film to frame its two leads close in ways that the disease inside of the story keeps them conflicted, conjuring up a feeling of satisfying fantasy in ways that we know will rarely ever pay off in real time.

– Elements of the novel coming to life. Like most successful films in 2019, this film is based off of a book with its own artistic vibes that the movie felt necessary to bring along. Featured in the movie are drawings that were prominent in the first run editions of the novel itself, and these portraits can be seen and mentioned not only in the artistic capabilities of Will’s ever-trusting notebook, but also in Stella’s hospital room home away from home. Each of these hold strong merit to their inclusion to the film, and adds a wink-and-nod element to longtime fans of the novel, who are otherwise tired of the originality of such stories being forgotten for movies that take more than a few liberties. That isn’t such the case here, as “Five Feet Apart” proves that a book and movie can live together in near perfect harmony, without one infringing on the benefits of the other.

– One stage setting. I’m a sucker for movies that exist in one continuous place, so much so that I commend the movie for illustrating the claustrophobia for these kids being forced to live without much escape, as well as its ability to stay mostly entertaining considering its landscapes stay almost entirely grounded. It helps that the film stays faithful to the two leads instead of depicting the reactions of parents or supporting family. This not only allows the film to set up this world inside of a world, but it remains a testament to the movie’s confidence for how it’s able to constantly maintain my interest considering visually it is going nowhere. You don’t see one stage setting films often anymore, but “Five Feet Apart” proves that this angle can succeed if the story is gripping enough, and the characters are easily engaging.

NEGATIVES

– Prolonged dramatic tension. Right around the beginning of the third act, the wear of redundancy in the screenplay feels evident, and it forces the story to take some forceful directions in logic to grip the audience in their seats and push forward towards the two hour run time that Baldoni so desperately wants. For one, most of the typical third act distancing that we’ve become saddled with in movies feels particularly unnecessary here, and could easily be resolved with much-needed communication. One such occasion with Will distancing himself from Stella comes out of nowhere, and had me scratching my head because of things about his disease that we must believe he is learning for the first time in his life. In addition, the third act scene away from the hospital is not only ridiculous for how many red herrings it forces against us the audience that takes away from the dramatic elements of the scene, but Stella herself goes against established directions in her character with a decision that could easily help her. Instead, a simple decision leads to irresponsibility on one character that costs two, and only brings forth a visible line of desperation that this story couldn’t escape from.

– This might be the worst hospital ever. In addition to having no security cameras of any kind to keep an eye on its patients who just might interact with one another, there are nurses who ignore monitors going off and dismissing it as nothing more than a patient sitting on a button. I get that the reason this angle happened is because this very thing does happen earlier on in the film, but there isn’t a nurse on this planet who asks questions first and takes action later, and it just made me question how many lawsuits this place may have fought through along the way. In fact, the one nurse explains that a couple already died on her watch for them interacting behind staff’s back. Maybe that incident might lead to some tougher safety precautions, but no, we need it for the plot device, darling.

– Unnecessary opening monologue. Once again, we are treated to narration by an actor that is every bit pointless as it is spoiling to what it gives away. When you think about it, you know this character will probably live considering they are talking in the past tense. Not only this, but it doesn’t add to any particular scene or established plot because it is stating the obvious to anyone who has already seen the trailer. This is one of those major flaws that I hate in films, and it only further convolutes the relationship that a movie this cerebral establishes with the audience it conveys to. If it is indeed purposeful, take it out of the movie and see what it changes.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Princess Bride

Directed By Rob Reiner

Starring – Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright

The Plot – A kindly grandfather (Peter Falk) sits down with his ill grandson (Fred Savage) and reads him a story. The story is one that has been passed down from father to son for generations. As the grandfather reads the story, the action comes alive. The story is a classic tale of love and adventure as the beautiful Buttercup (Wright), engaged to the odious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), is kidnapped and held against her will in order to start a war, It is up to Westley (Elwes), her childhood beau, now returned as the Dread Pirate Roberts, to save her. On the way he meets a thief and his hired helpers, an accomplished swordsman and a huge, super strong giant, both of whom become Westley’s companions in his quest.

Rated PG for adult situations and language.

POSITIVES

– Practicality all around. A refreshing aspect in watching a film that is 32 years old is the collection of set designs and special effects that speak levels about a now forgotten age of creativity. Most of the set visuals in the film authenticate that stage presence, in that everything sticks out especially, giving each prop sufficient weight in the movement and influence of each scene. Likewise, all creature special effects are done with animatronics, and while this decision looks obvious by today’s standards, there’s no substitute for time devoted to craft. It gives focus to distinct features of each creature that would easily be glossed over with computer animation, as well as gives the actor something lively to interact with during scenes of tension.

– The magic of the lens. Many of the establishing shots here are GORGEOUS and full of wide angle immensity that would make you think much of it was shot on location, but in reality pay homage to the immersion of studio filmmaking that suspends disbelief. In particular, it’s the shots on the water, with a sprinkle of moonlight used to illuminate the ships in focus that peaked my interest and outlined a layer of focus to the importance of this storybook tale that is established in each capture. None of these scenes lack believability in scale, but are made that much more impressive when you consider they were done inside of a backlot studio, instilling distance in a stage with only water and a single light to inspire believability.

– One legendary line. While everyone has a favorite line of dialogue for the movie, my personal favorite has always been Inigo’s threatening menace behind “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die”, and as I’ve recently learned there’s quite a story behind it. Patankin, who played Inigo, had just recently lost his father to cancer in real life, and used the dramatic pull of the loss to channel the vengeance in delivering the line. What I love about this line is that it repeats throughout the film and manages to feel more focused the closer Inigo gets to his enemy, all the while standing out in a way tonally that feels other-worldly to the rest of the romantic comedy taking place around it.

– Stellar cast performances all around. Elwes is every little girl’s prince charming, exuberating a combination of confidence in swordplay and cool demeanor that make him irresistible as a protagonist. Patankin also commands the attention, riding this story arc of redemption that is equally as intriguing as the central plot rescuing of Robin Wright’s Buttercup. Patankin’s transformation throughout teaches us a lot about his tortured past, all the while never diminishing the intensity of Patankin’s roguish appeal. Aside from the two leading men, there are charming appearances from Billy Crystal, Andre The Giant, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, and of course Wallace Shawn, who gives my single favorite laugh of the film when laughing gets the best of him. Overall, it cements an ensemble effort that fires on every cylinder, giving ample time for each of the big names to shine with each character introduction.

– Management of dual narrative. Considering there are two stories running simultaneously throughout the film, it’s the incredible pacing and structure of each that astounded me in ways that other dual narratives today don’t equally balance out. While a majority of the film is set in the fantasy world itself, the three instances of Savage and Falk’s family characters are placed in a way that gives outline to the three act structure, and really pauses our interest in the fantasy when progression is at its peak. We, like Savage’s grandson character, can’t wait to jump right back into it, and in this regard the film transcends screen, in that we too are held at the mercy of Falk’s luring storytelling, giving us the audience a presence in this fairytale that feels like it’s being told to us exclusively.

– Stunning sword choreography. There’s much to give praise to here, but it all comes at the respect of Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson, who between them had been in the Olympics, Indiana Jones films, and eventually Lord of the Rings films. What’s so impressive is that not only is the swordplay fast between oppositions, but the foot work of the actors engaged manages to evade a barrage of branches, bricks, and rocks that we’re just waiting to see have an influence in this conflict. It never comes, and it’s a testament to the handling that was taken in preserving hand-to-hand authenticity, made even more impressive considering Elwes broke his toe on a four wheeler only hours before the scene was shot. Diamond and Anderson work magic on these big name actors, and because of such juggle enough testosterone and urgency to constantly raise the stakes.

– Constant 80’s nostalgia. One of my favorite aspects in watching a classic movie is the hints of dated pasts that could only reside in a particular decade, and there’s plenty to admire and even pause the film over here. I love the extra props like the all red and white Cheetos bag, as well as Fred Savage playing the Commodore 64 computer game “Hardball”. Each of these items add important perspective into Savage’s close-minded personality at the beginning of the film, coming off as a generation X slacker of sorts, who will eventually become more captivated into material that he condemned before it started. It’s a perk that is totally irrelevant to the film, but something that I like to mention because its objects and focuses have almost become time-stamped in the same way that the medieval age has in the story that Grandfather and Grandson are moving through.

– Meticulous in the humor. While juggling the content of romance, action, and family elements alike, this movie features plenty of hearty laughs in the form of modestly gentle and subordinate deliveries that never step on the straight story evolving around it. Similar to the structure of Mel Brooks (Who is in fact in the film) or Monty Python, the material doesn’t halt the progression of the narrative, an aspect that many modern comedy films could take a lesson from, in that improv humor is used as fluff for a two hour run time designation. Instead, “The Princess Bride” still values these moments of release, but does so in a way that never holds the story hostage, nor does it over-indulge in allowance, proving to us how comedy can work hand-in-hand with fantasy if the two can work as partners instead of adversaries over the screen.

NEGATIVES

– Horrendous sound mixing. One of the things that became obvious with this watch was the sloppy sound manipulation that the film tries to pass off onto the audience as synthetic. Several scenes throughout the film feature overheard dialogue that is said without any of the lips of characters moving, but none more prominent than that of Elwes back-riding scene of Andre The Giant. In just this scene alone, there are a few instances where the mixing takes advantage of a majority of Elwes head being shielded during long winded dialogue, but it flounders because the mouth is still as obvious as any close angle shot, and serves as one of two major problems that I had with the production of this picture.

– The other one. It’s not often that the production is the biggest hurdle for a film that I watch, but once again post-editing brings to light some disastrous decisions as to what’s left in the film. Several instances of production crew’s shadows being in a shot, boom microphones moving in and out of the tops of shots, and a landing pad during the first fight scene which is as obvious as a fart in church. I get that it’s the 80’s, so there’s some room for forgiveness in this respect, but if you’re going to ever deem a film as “A Timeless Classic”, then the production has to stand up to the forth-coming decades that it stands tall through, and sadly amateur mistakes like these keep the film from ever reaching its potential as one of the best films of the decade.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

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 fiancé 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-