Assassination Nation

Directed by Sam Levinson

Starring – Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

The Plot – High school senior Lily (Young) and her group of friends live in a haze of texts, posts, selfies and chats just like the rest of the world. So, when an anonymous hacker starts posting details from the private lives of everyone in their small town, the result is absolute madness leaving Lily and her friends questioning whether they’ll live through the night.

Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use, all involving teens

POSITIVES

– Stylish introduction sequence that sets the precedent. The film opens with this stylish sequence that reminded me of exploitation movies of the 70’s, complete with audible narration and visual likenesses to tell you what’s behind its creative content. In this regard, it pretty much runs through every reason why this film is rated R, giving you a taste of the material before the storytelling has truly begun. This not only showed me that this film had a sense of humor, ala Quentin Tarrantino vibes, but also that it values style every bit as much as substance, welcoming us into a world where law and order has been reduced to civilian measures.

– Authentic dialogue. As a screenwriter, Levinson channels rich honesty in the way he mimics the speech patterns and conversations of today’s youth, bringing forth a level of realism that proves that the man has done his homework. But it isn’t just in the way that this group of free-spirited women communicate personally with each other, it’s also in the articulation and abbreviation of texting that really hammers this positive home. The amount of times that these characters reach for their phones is a constant reminder of how attached at the hips they are to social media, luring them with the cheese that will eventually trap them whole.

– As for the film’s camera work, there’s a documentary vibe that elicits itself from the experimentation in angles and movements that sets itself apart from the rest of the pack. Levinson cashes in quick edits for manipulated long takes, and this decision pays off immensely with some of my favorite scenes that keeps the grip on tension firmly. One such scene involves a house break-in by a masked group of guys, and we the audience are taken through each room of the house from the outside, pasting together the stream of madness that is spreading like a cancer inside. It is definitely one of my favorite sequences of the year, and magnificent for how it’s cut together to feel like it’s playing out in real time.

– Fresh-faced cast. While the film does have some big name long-time actors like Jennifer Morrison, Joel McHale, and even Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard, the decision to hire actresses who are majorly inexperienced is one that pays off greatly for immersing yourself in them as characters. What’s equally more endearing is that each of them steal the show in their own ways, carving out four star-studded breakthrough performances that will undoubtedly bring them to the spectrum of bigger pictures. More than anyone, it’s Young’s nightmarish transformation of Lily that keeps your attention, experiencing a growing reaction to the town that puts her at the forefront of the growing panic.

– Going into this film, I felt that this was going to solely rest as a study of harrowing feminism across a post-Trump elected environment, and while it thrives as that, it doesn’t just rest on those laurels. This is also very much a warning to the kind of stock and security that we put into technology, opening our eyes to how truly vulnerable every one of us are when we think this four inch device shields what’s boiling underneath. We are treated to the fragility of hormone-drive males and how respond to female nudity, and how often women are condemned for doing what they want with their own bodies. All of this echoes these small seeds of truth that we can pull from our own society, allowing the fears that are homegrown within the film to grow with the light of audience eyes firmly focused upon them.

– Reflective storytelling. While I already mentioned the transformation of Lily and what it does to the significance of her character, it also shouldn’t be understated what this does to the movie itself that so faithfully follows her. About halfway through the film, this turns into the scariest Purge horror movie that you’ve ever seen, bringing with it more seeds of honesty than that series could ever attain with satire. The unnerving movements and actions of the townspeople are very effective, and the movie’s thirst for blood is fully realized in the way the angles play with your imagination.

– Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film was the mesmerizing lighting scheme that radiated throughout much of the first act. These unorthodox coloring measures are every bit euphoric as they are absorbing, often embracing the mood of the room and characters respectively with its neon tints. As the film progresses, we are given subtle reminders of this scheme, but never as obvious or as influential as it was during those pivotal first twenty minutes, and I believe this is because there’s something to be said about shaking this almost angelic and dreary perception that the townsfolk have on these girls, in seeing them how THEY want them to be.

NEGATIVES

– Not a major problem, but calling the town Salem was a bit over the top for me. If you know anything about the Salem Witch Trials, you know what I’m referring to, and this not only gives off an unsubtle hint at what’s to inevitably come within our story and main protagonists, but also takes away from the audience relating itself even further to the material. For my money, I wish they would’ve not even mentioned the town name. Mentally, this would be food-for-thought in that it could happen anywhere, and doesn’t limit its message of urgency to one specific place.

– Second act spills. Without a doubt, the second act is the weakness of the film for me, often feeling like its narration is trailing off on character shaping and residential panic to properly bring along its progression. Because of the latter, it greatly feels like the response from the town jumps two steps with little or no warning, exceeding believability a bit with such drastic jumps, and I would prefer Levinson focus slightly more on what’s going on outside of these temporarily protected walls that our group of ladies secure themselves in.

– Principal subplot? One such instance of the sloppy grip that Levinson occasionally stumbles at with his materialistic agenda, is the subplot involving a principal’s secret being revealed. This goes virtually nowhere after the news breaks, and what’s even worse is the lack of involvement from this actor/character as the film goes on, reminds us just how much fat the film could’ve trimmed for itself, in ridding itself of these distracting subplots that take us absolutely nowhere. Another such example is the FBI supposedly tracking Lily’s online movements, but then never actually appearing in the film. Surely something this big would have government workers all over the place, but all we ever get is a goofy sheriff twice removed from a Dukes of Hazzard movie.

7/10

The House With A Clock In Its Walls

Directed by Eli Roth

Starring – Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccard

The Plot – Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccard), after losing his parents, is sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black). He discovers his uncle is a warlock, and enters a world of magic and sorcery. But this power is not limited to good people: Lewis learns of Isaac Izard (Kyle Maclachlan), an evil wizard who wanted to cause the Apocalypse so that he could see what happened afterwards. To do this, he constructed a magical clock with black magic, as long as it exists it will keep ticking, counting down to doomsday. He died before he could finish the clock, but he hid the clock in his house, where Uncle Jonathan now lives. Now Lewis and Jonathan must find the clock before it’s too late, and before Isaac’s wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry), gets to it.

Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and adult language

POSITIVES

– Zany production designs on every level. This is a film that takes place in the 1950’s, and what I appreciate about that is it gives the film a one-of-a-kind style in wardrobe and architecture to compliment the special effects that are constantly flying at us on-screen. The wardrobe in particular is a delightful throwback to the days of faded gowns and dusty blue jeans, and the lighting scheme inside of the house vibrates well off of the gothic style set pieces, that all of which perfectly capture the mood of the material in spades.

– Strong crossover appeal with Harry Potter fans. Whether you know it or not, the book of the same name for which this film is based on was actually an inspiration for J.K Rowling and her series of novels that have re-defined the young adult genre respectfully, so it’s certainly easy to see the appeal for kids in particular, who will easily immerse themselves in this world of similarity. I do have problems with some of the magic itself, which I will get to later on, but there’s clearly enough paranormal instances depicted here that will give the less-picky audience members a roaring good time.

– Black and Blanchett steal the stage. What I appreciated about their relationship more than anything is that the film doesn’t forcefully paint them as this romantic coupling just because every film seems to require that. These are very much two friends with devilishly delicious banter back-and-forth, who colorfully narrate the bond between them that transcends romance. In that way, they very much feel like outcast soulmates who have grown together because of their inability to fit in anywhere else in society, and the duo constantly keep this film on the railings of positivity thanks to their portrayals never feeling like this is a basic paycheck job.

– Sentimentality. Beneath the complexions of spells and warlocks, what won me over for this film immensely was the subplot involving Lewis’s remorse for his parents, and how it crafted and underlying layer of sensitivity for the film that I wasn’t expecting. Early on especially, we feel a sense of great isolation for Lewis that overrides the actor’s lack of focus on emotional resonance, keeping our investment in the character firmly for wanting to see him achieve the greatness he is destined for. Where the film ends especially hammers this angle home, and proves that this film has the heart required to counterbalance the scares, that could or could not test the younger audience.

– Enchanting musical score by Nathan Barr. More often than not, Barr’s tones of temperament ease us through the majestic mystery that resides in this gorgeous house, repeatedly giving that feeling of possibility in the air that the film’s environment requires. Nathan uses a lot of orchestral cues in enhancing the energy of what transpires visually, and offers enough variety in samplings to never feel like each piece is rubbing together or repeating.

– Great world-building in magical spells that will surely satisfy even the most hardcore magic fans. What I like about the spells mentioned and portrayed in the film is that they very much feel like they are ones that are at an introductory level, for the beginner who has recently picked up the skill of magic. Never in the film does Lewis feel like this prodigy who advances without practice, and I appreciate when a film isn’t afraid to document a character’s struggle, especially for something that is anything but easy to pick-up as a casual hobby.

NEGATIVES

– Poor child acting. I’ve already mentioned what worked about Vaccaro’s performance, but his screeching delivery and unbalanced emotional registry made for an uninentional rendering of the character that left him more annoying than indulging. In particular, it’s Owen’s inability to play up the dramatic pulse of the film dealing with his deceased parents that constantly underwhelmed, and left me wondering what could’ve been. Beyond Owen, the extras in the school scene severely lack focus. There are scenes where kids are in frame staring at the camera, that left me wondering how this ever got past the editing room that usually fixes these sort of ordeals.

– Obvious Plot Ploys. As usual in kids movies, there’s a lot of emphasis in the first act objects and subplots that are briefly mentioned, yet quickly diminished, that you know will pop up eventually as the film goes on. It’s terribly distracting for how these drops of exposition force their way into these casual conversations, but one in particular is far worse than the rest. This involves a backstory flashback scene shown to us the audience in film-strips, but doesn’t answer the question of how or who is filming this amazingly edited scene for the time.

– While this isn’t Eli Roth’s best film to date in my opinion, it is definitely the most ambitious of his career. Unfortunately, Eli is only half up to the task of the scope of such a legendary story, feeling the constant nagging of tonal imbalance and lack of overall wonderment that the story so desperately requires. There are interesting aspects that go bump in the night, but the volume of Roth’s magic feels very tamed when compared to a Potter or Goosebumps film that properly emphasized more of the impact and consequences from its delicate pages.

– Underwhelming effects work. While not everything is terrible about the 90% C.G work here, there’s also nothing impressive about it that we haven’t seen from better films. In the era of computer generated effects that often lack weight or heft to their inclusion, here comes another film that finds its way into that dreaded category. The layers of color constantly feel off with their manufactured properties when compared to physical that surrounds them, and the interaction with live actors always feels a step too late to feel surprising.

6/10

Johnny English Strikes Again

Directed by David Kerr

Starring – Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson

The Plot – The third installment of the Johnny English comedy series, with Rowan Atkinson returning as the much loved accidental secret agent. The new adventure begins when a cyber-attack reveals the identity of all active undercover agents in Britain, leaving Johnny English as the Secret Service’s last hope. Called out of retirement, English dives head first into action with the mission to find the mastermind hacker. As a man with few skills and analog methods, Johnny English must overcome the challenges of modern technology to make this mission a success.

Rated PG for some action violence, rude humor, adult language and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Late but purposeful. It has been eight years since the previous Johnny English installment, and fifteen since the original that went on to be a box office smash, bringing 320 million dollars between them. So it’s certainly easy to understand why a third chapter exists, and with the addition of technological nemesis like Cyber-Hacking, Identity Theft, and such, it allows English to explore avenues of antagonists that he hasn’t yet tackled. But it also provides the opportunity in valuing these new toys that help him crack the case a little easier. This gives the third movie proper motivation and deters it from the previous movies, whose environments were a product of their time.

– Stylish, spy thriller cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister. ‘Strikes Again’ is fill of slick car chase sequences through the bending mountainside, as well as never-ending portraits of English countryside that competently articulates the genre’s predecessors in visual likeness. These examples are a constant reminder of how faithful this film sticks with its intended genre purpose, and perfectly sets its audience in the mood for what’s to come.

– Quick run time. The film clocks in at a measly 84 minutes, and this may perhaps be its greatest benefit against a plot that isn’t necessarily substantive or even imaginative. Much of the pacing remained persistent, and never felt like it was sagging or dulling me to the point of checking my watch, particularly with the carefully spread out sight gags that bring enticement to each act.

– Doesn’t require allegiance to the previous films. As a critic, I am a bit ashamed to say that I never saw either of the first two films in this series, but thankfully Kerr’s sequel doesn’t rely at all on Johnny’s past work, just on the very legend of the character that sets him apart from the other spies. In this regard, the movie stands on its own independent feet, catering to a new generation of youthful moviegoers without ever alienating fans of the series, who are now grown-ups.

– Hit or miss performances. Atkinson still gives his all to this character, portraying English with a sort of unaware cool smug about his asinine decisions that make him the proper outcast for any spy character. His best attribute is in his bodily movements that dare you not to laugh each time he dedicates a thorough amount of time to the gag. Likewise, his chemistry with sidekick Bough (Played by Ben Miller) is impeccable, and allows the two cherished English actors great importance to the story’s progression. Unfortunately, the female cast is less opportunistic. Thompson is virtually wasted as the Prime Minister, sprouting her sparse ten total minutes on camera as being the subplot to Johnny’s mayhem. It is unfortunate that the two have such little screen time together to bounce off of one another, as the inclusion of a prestigious actress like Thomposon could’ve added much-needed female dynamic to the film that it just doesn’t master. Kurylenko is also phoning it in, playing Bond girl 27. The film just kind of forgets about her the longer it goes, proving her intention was nothing more than eye-candy that feels dated for the kind of equality we have mastered most recently in films.

NEGATIVES

– Cheap budget for virtually non-existent action sequences. What this film needs is an element of devastation in adding weight or memorability to the movie. One example of this limited perspective is a fire sequence in the opening twenty minutes that not only shies away from depicting the start of the fire, but also only acknowledges it through the facial reactions of our two male leads, with a flicker of light reflecting from their faces. Sadly, this is the highlight for the film in the set pieces department, removing any kind of consequential weight from the irresponsibility of clumsy characters.

– Ineffective humor. This film, perhaps more than anything else, is a blueprint for the differences in English and American comedy that have divided them for decades in terms of intended marks. With the exception of one sequence that stretches the boundaries and believability of virtual reality, I didn’t laugh once in this entire film, and that’s a huge disappointment for someone like Atkinson, whom I’ve adored for decades on the Mr. Bean program. Part of the blame is the juvenile atmosphere created, but I put so much more on punchlines that are skimmed over like just another line read.

– No surprises. Considering this is a spoof on spy thrillers, the lack of overall mystery and motivations within the characters feels like a pivotal misfire against a predictable screenplay full of genre cliches. Pretty much from the opening ten minutes of the movie you can piece it all together where the film’s antagonist, conflict, and resolution will fall, proving that the film’s lack of intelligence within itself stems from so much more than a bumbling protagonist who has never used a cell phone in 2018.

– An idea within. Instead of a plot that more than rubs together with previous films in the series, I preferred an angle that the screenplay only hints at. English is now an espionage teacher of sorts for a school of youths, and I think this original direction could’ve done with its youthful cast the same things that ‘Kingsman’ did for troubled adolescents. Is there any guarantee it would’ve been a better film? Absolutely not, but the desire in crafting a chapter of originality is something I commend any series for, but unfortunately it’s a sequel in plot that never strays far from familiarity.

– In Kerr’s directing, the biggest flaw that I found was his inability in taking chances. Most of the shot compositions, as well as character world-building feels very pedestrian and one-dimensionally confined to the actions of the film. What I mean by this is it doesn’t feel believable in the slightest that this world exists outside of this movie, refusing to explore English when he isn’t donning the three piece suit. This is where screenwriter William Davies takes his share of the blame, because his conflict lacks true complexity in fleshing out the true danger of the profession. These psychological delves could allow us not only to feel more invested in the hollow plot, but also in the range of the character, who hasn’t sprouted much in fifteen years.

5/10

The Predator

Directed by Shane Black

Starring – Sterling K Brown, Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn

The Plot – From the outer reaches of space to the small-town streets of suburbia, the predator walks again. Now, the universe’s most lethal hunters are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves with DNA from other species. When a young boy accidentally triggers their return to Earth, only a ragtag crew of ex-soldiers and a disgruntled science teacher can prevent the end of the human race.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, adult language throughout, and crude sexual references

POSITIVES

– Coveted R-rating. Thankfully Shane Black knows the kind of adult material required to properly convey the ferocity of the Predator character, and this film makes the most of opportunities that other Predator movies weren’t fortunate enough to get. This latest chapter is bloodier (Albeit C.G blood), cruder, and especially the most violent of the series thus far. Simply put, you can’t succeed in a movie like this if you don’t give yourself the chance, and there’s zero limitations in terms of the influence of those things that I previously mentioned.

– As a writer, Black dabbles a lot in the Predator folklore and ideals for a franchise that six films in still feels very cryptic. This really feels like the first time we’ve ever tried to understand the culture of this alien race, and what their soul purpose is for frequently visiting our planet. Does every idea succeed? Absolutely not, but the layers that Black has given this iconic character certainly opens the door of experimentation for future films to soak in.

– Treasures its past. What I love perhaps the most about this film is that it is a sequel, first and foremost. In the era of reboots and rehashes, ‘The Predator’ continues the thirty year continuity with a chapter that bridges the gaps of the previous films, including many winks and nods to characters and invasions that only hardcore fans of the series would understand. Why reboot a series that frankly hasn’t even tipped the iceberg in terms of its creativity? Instead, cherishing the past will undoubtedly enhance the appeal of the future.

– The Predator’s costume is still one of the coolest in all of horror, and we are treated to several lengthy vantage points of its artistic integrity. The regular Predator has so much practical layers to it, and the new “Super-Predator” simply cannot compete with its ingenuity. What’s even more effective is that the movements of the actor inside the suit doesn’t feel hindered or compromised because of suffocating weight, giving whoever the ability to move as fast as the scene or sequence requires.

NEGATIVES

– Poorly edited. A question arose every ten minutes of my showing for this film, and I feel like a lot of people will suffer a similar fate because of the horrendous job of visual storytelling that this film merits for itself. Character deaths are missed by choppy cuts, certain characters feel like they transport from one room to the next between cuts because there’s no scene in between to bridge the time of travel, and days feel like they rub together because of how a scene taking place on Halloween cut and pasted a daytime and nighttime scene literally back-to-back.

– Do you watch a Predator movie to laugh? I certainly don’t. It’s not that I have a problem with humor being a part of the Predator franchise. Hell, there were great male sex jokes in the original movie. But you have to know where to draw the line, especially when it diminishes the line of suspense that this film goes without throughout its entirety. The comedy for the most part works in generating its intended laughter, but in going to this well far too many times, you start to lose sight of what kind of tone this film should rightfully be.

– One-off scene problem. This question will only be familiar to people who see the film, but how the fuck did the main protagonist swallow that enormous metal object in the beginning of the film? My suspension of disbelief can only go so far, and there’s no physical way that anyone on this planet could swallow or stomach something so abnormally big for the human throat.

– Pedestrian performances. I didn’t hate anyone’s work in this film. After all, poor character direction can only take you so far. But nobody in this movie feels believable in the roles they adopt. Olivia Munn is arguably the least convincing doctor that I have ever seen. A fellow doctor asks her how she got this far, and her reply is “I wrote a note to the president when I was a little girl, that said if an alien race was discovered, I want to examine it”. For a second, I wondered if this was a joke, and that something bigger was coming, but no, that’s the explanation we as an audience are treated to. Beyond this Holbrook’s leading man lacks enough charisma to be the true focus, and is responsible for most of the trouble that his group of misfits encounter. Donald K. Sterling is entirely wasted, being in the film for about fifteen total minutes, only to chime in when the film requires sloppy exposition to counter its minimal storytelling balance. It’s a shame too, because Sterling’s energy does give sagging scenes a much-needed pick-up, but Black never commits himself beyond billing to be a main character.

– Lack of geography or telegraphing within the action sequences. In addition to the various choppy editing that I already mentioned, what makes these scenes of havoc so difficult to interpret is the poor lighting associated with shooting these scenes at night. This pales in comparison to the final fifteen minutes of the movie however, as the last big bang by the two sides at war goes by so lightning quick, yet its pacing somehow feels like it takes a lifetime to get through. This is of course because we as an audience can’t read properly into what is happening to who, therefore diminishing your interest and forcing you to keep checking your watch to see how much is left.

– Takes far too long in getting to the movie that was advertised. To anyone who watched the deceiving trailer, you can put together that this is a film about humans battling a Predator, when a bigger, badder Predator shows up. That’s it. But in getting to that subplot (Yes I said subplot), you must first tread through fifty minutes of government agencies, dismissed soldiers, and scenes so full of dialogue that it would make Quentin Tarrantino say “Enough is enough”. Once we finally get the movie that was promised, it never feels like the most interesting or focused-upon material of the movie. For all of its hype, the super Predator is just a bigger version of the already dangerous model one, and his terrible C.G influence makes me want to cancel the upgrade, and instead stick with the original that is already proven.

4/10

A Simple Favor

Directed by Paul Feig

Starring – Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

6/10

Juliet, Naked

Directed by Jesse Peretz

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

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

Rated R for Adult language

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

7/10

Blood Fest

Directed by Owen Egerton

Starring – Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Zachary Levi

The Plot – Fans flock to a festival celebrating the most iconic horror movies, only to discover that the charismatic showman behind the event has a diabolical agenda. As festival attendees start dying off, three teenagers, more schooled in horror-film cliches than practical knowledge about neutralizing psycho killers , must band together and battle through various madmen and monstrosities to survive.

Currently not rated

POSITIVES

– Creative kills. Sadly, the effects work is mostly computer generated, but that doesn’t spoil the creativity involved with a first act setting of the stage that is certainly the five most satisfying minutes that this film has to offer. Chainsaws, road tools, and pools of pig’s blood splash and gash across the screen, giving you a fiesta of carnage that the rest of the film has trouble ever living up to.

– Subtle homages to horror icons. While most of the rules and material of ‘Blood Fest’ felt more insulting than not for my taste, the Easter Eggs pointing to some of the elusive legends of the genre felt satisfying for their familiarity. It’s not so much ripping off popular properties as it is depicting their magnitude on the horror pop culture stratosphere. I won’t spoil much, but Hoddertown as a setting within the park gave me plenty of motivation as to where I want to live next.

– I love the idea of this plot. This feeling of life imitating art is one that thrives with my general interest, even if the movie managed to round up zero legitimate scares along the way. On the surface, the event Blood Fest is this great excuse for gore and body counts of the highest ratio to come together, bringing the torture on a grander scale than were used to in a conventional horror film, with the exception of maybe zombie films. P.S – There are zombies in this movie.

– While none of the acting is worthy of over-the-top praise, the work from this ensemble of mostly inexperienced cast members do a solid enough job as a likeable entity. Particularly the work of Gabriel as the final girl of sorts for this film, served as my single favorite performance for the movie, as someone not afraid of getting dirty when a scene requires it. She tends to give her whole body to a scene involving violence, and her petite stature is one that comes in handy for the many twists and turns that the story, as well as her body, takes.

– Much of the comedy, while juvenile and redundant at times, hits its target for a majority of the time, bringing a few hearty laughs that definitely made the sit a lot easier. My favorite scene of the movie takes place in the opening five minutes, when the trio of leads are talking at the video store. The banter between them is timely in their sarcastic deliveries, and overall it’s this scene that sets the precedent for the personalities, as well as the brand of humor for the entirety of the movie going forward.

NEGATIVES

– While this is a far greater improvement on production designs from Rooster Teeth’s other feature films, the set pieces in particular feel lifeless and artificial. When the film isn’t limiting the most of its horrific looking green-screen effects that obscure and blur anything surrounding human properties, the physical properties feel like they were cut out of a gimmick haunted house, lacking any kind of depth or creativity for their inclusion.

– Bare minimum character exposition. These are people who are limited to one word descriptions like “Blonde” or “Virgin”, and the film’s lack of focus to their proper development leaves them equally with nothing to live up to with these minimal tags. Even for a B-grade horror movie, ‘Blood Fest’ caters more to the familiar tropes of the genre, instead of building on the audience’s investment in a particular character, and the result are weightless deaths that add nothing of urgency or effectiveness to the frights of the film.

– Plagued by predictability. ‘Blood Fest’ feels worn down by the lifespan of its gimmick as a movie that is ahead of the rules it promotes, beating into the ground constant reminders that riddle it full of telegraphed moves before they even happen. A couple has sex, so of course they’re dead, a blonde is naked in the shower, so of course she’s next, and this constant ring of reminder annoyed me because of how saddled it becomes with being another follower of the pack.

– ‘Blood Fest’ is everything wrong with the pop culture appeal that it satirizes so often. The film’s antagonist speaks of the horror genre losing its effect because studios have taken what’s forbidden and made it routine, and this movie does the exact same. It’s insulting to condense horror into a few simple rules, but even more than that it’s damning to the integrity of the film when the tone-deaf range, as well as lack of anything original or compelling for the genre rears its head. This gives Rooster Teeth a double F for eFFort.

– The twist, while anything but predictable, is as far-fetched an idea as anything that this film scares up for us. What’s even more ridiculous is that the film didn’t require it, as the movie’s true antagonist and surprisingly creative plot made for more than enough explanation on the idea of this festival. I guess it’s appropriate that a character involved in the ending spouts the line “I did warn you that Blood Fest was going to suck”. Well played movie, and this twist only further emphasizes how right on the money you truly were.

5/10

Support the Girls

Directed by Andrew Bujalski

Starring – Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Dylan Gelula

The Plot – Lisa (Hall) is the last person you’d expect to find in a highway-side ‘sports bar with curves’, but as general manager at Double Whammies, she’s come to love the place and its customers. An incurable den mother, she nurtures and protects her girls fiercely, but over the course of one trying day, her optimism is battered from every direction. Double Whammies sells a big, weird American fantasy, but what happens when reality pokes a bunch of holes in it?

Rated R for adult language including sexual references, and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– A virtual showcase for Hall. Regina has proven in films before that she has a fiery emotional registry that proves she transcends being just another funny leading lady, but ‘Support the Girls’ feels like the first time where her command over a script feels like the sole existence for the film. As this supportive Mother type character, Hall’s Lisa envelopes enough life experience and overall genuine personality to make her the straight laced protagonist the film so desperately needs, and Hall’s grip on roughly 90% of the screen time proves the film has its focus in the right place. Richardson’s sugary Maci also shouldn’t be understated, bringing a new personality to Haley that proves she can play against type with sharp-tongued dry honesty.

– I loved the overall unrefined design to the set pieces and shot composition, that gave the film more of a television vibe in presentation. I would normally be panning this as a negative in a film released on the big screen, but I think it works when you’re depicting a crew battling through all of the obstacles that they face in a single day of exposition. It makes it feel like we’ve stumbled upon this restaurant where we the audience feel like the customers who never want to go home. It’s textured realism at its finest.

– Very smart in its depiction of male customers against a female objectified business. The candid focus and unsubtle instances of perverted demeanor, as well as egotistical arrogance not only felt authentic in delivery, but also honestly informative for the backlash that “Breastaurant” employees constantly face. In addition to this, the male owner’s (Played by James Le Gros) sporadic appearances also hit the target of reality, invoking the very spirit of such a degrading place for the way he treats the female employees he depends on.

– Part of what’s to be admired about Bujalski’s vision is the appeal in humility that his film isn’t afraid to run from. Because these are women stripped down to the very gimmick that gets the best of them, we are treated to not only a satire on business ethics in America 101, but also the lack of self-respect and confidence of female employees that these business’s thrive on. Like Bujalski’s previous efforts, this is very much a story set in small confines that has a bigger effect to the audience it engages, and his affection for the ladies that rock is stage shows in spades.

– Intelligent title. The term ‘Support the Girls’ is definitely a clever play on words with the breast cancer campaign ‘Support the Ta-ta’s’, and what is truly brilliant about this to me is that both subjects in their respective campaigns wield the kind of attention required for change. It’s not only incredibly self-conscious, but it also feeds into the required thought that women are so much more than a single body part, and that we must support everything about them that makes them the epitome of the terms strong and beautiful.

– Perfect place and perfect time. To set this film in modern day Southern Texas is ingenious for an array of reasons. In addition to its country saloon style setting within the backdrop of the restaurant itself, the southern accents play such a pivotal role in (Unfortunately) maximizing the sleaziness in appeal of the male customers who frequent the restaurant. One interesting aspect is there not being a female customer over the course of this movie, sharply prodding into the psychology of these audacious men who view them as this lone role of T & A that is there to only serve them.

NEGATIVES

– This film is marketed in the trailer and poster as a comedy, and I find that designation severely manipulative. This film doesn’t just fail at its comedy, but it barely even tries to obtain its genre tag, breezing through scenes of screen time without showing the true lunacy of working at a restaurant. In this regard, ‘Waiting’ is a film that perfected its shenanigans, but ‘Support the Girls’ never feels like it has enough confidence on its menu to even try.

– Bad sequencing between the problems that lack any cohesiveness. As the day goes on, these random obstacles that Lisa talks her way through feel like they lack any common link to draw them all together, giving the screenplay a desperately scatter-brained feeling of pulling problems out of thin air to fill in the gaps of its targeted run time. The beginning of the third act in particular, has its heart in the right place, but it’s a constant reminder of the lack of solidified direction that was inevitably bound to catch up to a film that never ties itself down to consistency of any sort.

– Even at 90 minutes, it feels strained. For much of the first half of the movie, with the combination of rookie training and established environment in the restaurant, I was very on board for where this film was ready to elevate itself. The problem is it never does, and that shining theme of female empowerment that starts to turn during the jaded second half, doesn’t feel fully earned in a finale that floats more on the half empty side of optimism.

– Introduces far too many subplots that it never fully commits to, nor fully follows through with. Particularly with a co-worker being abused by her boyfriend, as well as the decaying relationship between Lisa and her husband, the film continues to bring to light these new issues that it never intends to bring closure to, and it just didn’t work for me. Considering my problems with where this film ends, I felt that this script presented itself far too many outs to make this film truly great, and it just didn’t. Those lack of answers greatly bothered me.

6/10

Puzzle

Directed by Marc Turtletaub

Starring – Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman

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

Rated R for adult language

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

7/10

The Happytime Murders

Directed by Brian Henson

Starring – Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph

The Plot – A murder mystery set in a world where humans and puppets co-exist, but puppets are viewed as second-class citizens. When the puppet cast of an ’80s children’s TV show begins to get murdered one by one, a former cop (McCarthy), who has since become a private eye, takes on the case.

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

POSITIVES

– This is a funny movie without question. Whether it’s the practical sight gags of two puppets having sex, or the witty banter of McCarthy and her Private Investigator partner, somewhere some way this film is going to make you laugh, and its consistency rate is one that certainly warrants you the ability to give it a chance. My problems with the material itself, I will get to later, but you will have to have lockjaw to escape this film without falling under its spell a time or two.

– Superb cast all around. McCarthy never feels too good or famous for the material, instead having the time of her life playing against manufactured character properties while investing every bit of her body into each scene. The real movie-stealer though, is Bill Baretta (Perfect name) as the film’s central protagonist puppet. Baretta is famous as a voice actor, working with Henson properties in the recent Muppet movies, as well as a decades long career that translates his versatility in vocal range. Here, he voices three different characters, all of which sound different and delivery, but all of which hit their marks with the kind of precision of guidance that a film like this requires. Baretta’s raspy delivery is perfect for a crime noir story of this magnitude, and the chemistry between he and McCarthy transcends the hollow property that his voice is reduced to.

– Hard-hitting fight sequences. Considering the production is working with puppets, it’s incredible to see the tricks that they do in camera angles and editing to make this flow so smoothly. Most of the time, you get puppet movements in movies that feel uninspiring, lacking believability that they move without human interaction, but in ‘The Happytime Murders’ every movement responds well enough so that the puppet characters echo off of their human counterparts with little to no resistance, making for fast-paced action that rarely relents.

– No matter how you feel about the film after you see it, please make sure you stay for the credits, as there’s a brief making-of montage that colorfully illustrates how the puppet effects worked. What’s so captivating about this, is that it’s mostly green-screen digitalization that impacts why this was the perfect place and perfect time for a film like this. As to where the film fell by the wayside by the third act, I could definitely watch two hours of production features for an ensemble team who kept such a tight grip on creativity.

NEGATIVES

– Fails as a crime noir story as a whole. This is a film that is every bit predictably bland as it is compromising to its own gimmick, and both of those make the introductory intention to cast this film alongside a classic like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ that much more depleting when compared to a film that came out thirty years ago. There’s no style to compliment the gritty nature of the street game, and my ability to figure out the murderer in the opening ten minutes made me feel like I was constantly waiting for the movie to play catch-up. Even more disappointing, the film forgets about this noir style of audible narration midway through the movie.

– There are absolutely no established rules for the puppets and what counts as a vital blow. In one scene, a character is taking several punches by a human biker gang and saying that he can’t feel them because he’s virtually a soft pillow, then in the next scene he’s near death because of a gunshot wound. You can’t do one without the other, so which is it? These characters don’t have organs, yet McCarthy’s character was saved early in her career because she has a puppet liver. Also, where do puppets come from? Are they stitched? Are they born? I know it’s pointless to argue about the rules in a puppet movie, but the film’s repeated contradictions are simply too frequent to ignore.

– Repetition in material. Once you get over the giggles of seeing a puppet curse, take drugs, and have sex, you start to understand how limited this movie’s appeal truly is. Smart writing to me should work whether the characters are human or not, and there’s no way that this juvenile material would have the same effect in a film entirely with human characters. As I mentioned earlier, I did laugh quite a few times at it, but that’s mostly in the third act when the basis of the material is still very fresh. After twenty minutes, you’ll be screaming enough is enough.

– Sloppy third act. Not only does the film reveal the murderer far too early, with nearly thirty minutes left, but it also reverts to improv humor of the worst kind from two of its female leads. McCarthy and Rudolph are the culprits, and because they’ve been in every other movie together we must have an out-of-place scene between them despite their characters having no interaction up to this point, where the material stretches as long as the pacing does. Once the mystery is revealed, we should theoretically wrap the movie up, but the storytelling is still piling miles of unnecessary exposition down our throats, making the final act of the film an arduous race to the finish line.

– Nothing subversive at play here. As to where a film like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was intelligent enough to articulate the underlying issue of cop/minority relations, ‘The Happytime Murders’ has nothing remotely thoughtful to grab onto. This film is based purely for shock factor, nothing more. It’s lacking in a deeper motion to prove that it is something entirely different than the shock-and-awe factor that is plastered all over the trailers.

– As someone who understands the impact that puppets can have on immersing people into a particular world, it’s slightly surprising that a Henson directed this. The production quality is cheap, the puppets lack any kind of eye-catching detail, and the presentation never lifts itself from this stilted quality that limits it at every turn. This is great for a short film or a limited Youtube series, but as a feature film the benefits rarely materialize, making for a sit that is every bit as frustrating as it is boring.

4/10

BlacKKKlansman

Directed by Spike Lee

Starring – John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace

The Plot – It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream.

Rated R for adult language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references

POSITIVES

– One of my favorite aspects of film is how it has this overwhelming power to push this string of emotions out of you, and ‘BlacKKKlansman’ is certainly no stranger to this. I can’t recall the last time when a film has made me this angry and disappointed in our nation from refusing to learn from our torturous past. Lee conducts this on-screen story that takes place in the 70’s, all the while offering the modern day comparisons of the incidents that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and the resemblance between the K.K.K and the so-called “White freedom chasers” is uncanny. The final moments of the film are a stern warning to the kind of impacts inequality and racism continue to cast great urgency on our own society.

– As a director, Spike is still one of the master experimentalists, carving out a combination of crooked,, unorthodox personal still frames and slow character pans that both pay homage to the 70’s Blacksploitation films that have left an obvious impact on his style. Because of this, the immersion into this particular time frame feels rich in authentication, and layered to the tee in complex filmmaking.

– Much of the humor in the film works because of the absurdity of the situation that would otherwise make you want to scream. As a screenwriter, Lee knows when to pace these valued moments of positive release out, conserving them between scenes that blur the line of reality vividly with vicious surrealism. One such example is the big two hour payoff that this film continuously builds towards, and it makes for one stunning moment of reality that forces the world of one character to come crumbling down.

– Plenty to provide from a dominantly fresh-faced cast. The work of the two male leads in Washington and Driver definitely made the movie for me, both offering an equally poignant approach to infiltrating two different gangs that ironically are similar for an array of ways, as well as preserving this chemistry of brotherhood that we’re treated to, the deeper it goes. For Washington, his borderline arrogance due to his constant naive demeanor is one that builds and burns bridges within the police force, but it was Driver’s constantly raising stakes in this purely evil assembly of middle aged white men that brought this film the real conflict. Driver’s character, a Jewish descendent, deals with standing against his family traditions, transforming him into this Klansman that challenges him ideally and morally. Topher Grace is also surprisingly smooth as David Duke, bringing a different take on such a monstrous personality that otherwise gets you to comprehend how easy it is to fall for his sinister pitch.

– There’s always that one scene that stands out in a Spike Lee movie more than the others, and the trophy here definitely goes to the history lesson that visually depicts the birth of the Klan. Without spoiling much, there’s this side-by-side comparison shot that very much shows the impact of the Klan’s pride in consequence to that of the African-American’s well being. It’s riveting to say the least, and serves as a reminder that our history has treaded through some very shallow waters.

– Perhaps Lee’s greatest triumph is the film is that he marries the relationship between anger and intensity with the restraint that he’s usually known to hold in visual poetry of editing. Why it works so wonderfully here is that those gentle brushes continuously build until the bigger picture of displeasure is seen in its completion, and it’s never preachy like Lee has been known to be, because the very proof is in the pudding that he dishes out.

– Despite the many themes that the film covers, the tonal balance is well maintained throughout. As is the case with other racially uneasy movies this year like ‘Sorry To Bother You’ and ‘Blindspotting’, this one feels capable of transitioning through each of those valued tiers of material seamlessly. Perhaps you can blame that on the two hour run time that the film harbors, but I believe it is Lee’s constriction to this being a true story that doesn’t allow him to get too fantastical with it. This keeps the film and its respectable material very grounded, leaving our teeth firmly gripped into the message at hand.

– While ‘BlacKKKlansman’ isn’t my favorite Lee film, I can value it as arguably his most important to date. This feels like Lee at his most focused, and a lot of that can be contributed to a career that has spanned 21 feature length films all leading to the kind of media attention that this film and respected director has gathered. It proves that in the clutch Lee can deliver in the most provocative of ways, and that the line between satire and reality is blurring with each passing day of social injustice.

NEGATIVES

– While I more than admire the film’s stance against racism and objectifying how wrong it truly is, Lee’s morals still feel a bit outdated due to the way his antagonists AND protagonists bash the gay community with their version of the N-word repeatedly. This can be contributed to the 70’s setting, but when you’re speaking to a 2018 audience, it blurs the line of right and wrong viciously, conjuring an air of hypocritical stance that the characters become saddled with.

– The romantic subplot in the film felt so forced and underdeveloped in what the film required from it. Particularly late in the third act, the film relies on this angle to play a pivotal role in Stallworth’s urgency and vulnerability, and yet it simply isn’t anything close to that level, besides the increasing racial tension that the whole film is about. With the exception of one brief scene where Stallworth and Patrice (Played by the beautiful Laura Harrier) discuss 70’s Blacksploitation heroes, it goes relatively unheard of for the better part of 45 minutes, and it’s the one glaring flaw from this otherwise well-maintained film.

8/10

Crazy Rich Asians

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Starring – Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh

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

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

7/10