The Babysitter

The crush of an adventurous little boy is not who she seems to be, in McG’s newest horror comedy ‘The Babysitter’. Currently airing on Netflix, the film revolves around Cole (Judah Lewis) who is madly in love with his outrageously beautiful babysitter (Samara Weaving) Bee. She’s hot, funny, and popular. Everything a boy of his age could ever want. However, One night, in a moment of defiance, Cole secretly stays up his bedtime to discover she’s actually a cold-blooded killer who’s in a league with the Devil. He now must spend his night evading Bee’s band of vicious killers who will stop at nothing to prevent Cole from spilling their dark secret. It’s up to Cole to survive the night (and blow up a few people along the way). ‘The Babysitter’ is currently not rated, but does have scenes of violence, bloody gore, and adult language.

Many of teenage boys first loves are those temporary teenage parental units who bridge the transition from child to teenager with ease. In this regard, there’s plenty to take away from personality alone that ‘The Babysitter’ picks away at in the face of the complicities within a coming-of-age plot that adorns the film. If ‘Home Alone’ and ‘The Lost Boys’ made sweet love and were giftwrapped with a blessed child, that child would be McG’s newest film, and for my money, ‘The Babysitter’ works because of its streaming release that smooths out the problems that a simplistic structure like this inevitably deals with on several logical and illogical concepts within its build. If I paid for this movie in a theater, I would probably be a lot harder on my final grade for the movie, but as a Netflix night in, it’s a full-proof evening planner of laughs and solid kills in execution that offer at least one thing for every respective age group looking to have fun. It’s kind of a callback to those 80’s satanic B-films like ‘Fright Night’ that are disposable because of the fire power that resides within one watch, but the more you re-watch and think about it, the bigger the glaring problems start to arise.

The value from within this script weighs heavily within the bond of the title character and her child client that sets the precedent for everything that follows. The Babysitter feels like a quest to Cole in more ways than just a romantic one, and the deeper the film goes, we start to explore their relationship as one that evolves with each twist in the narrative. I love that this is a film with concrete pacing, clocking in at only an 80 minute sit, yet the film doesn’t feel like it rushes or flies through anything in sacrificing its material. The first act of the film is used almost entirely to build the friendship of these two characters who feel like they should be worlds apart to us at home, but are such a dynamic team that it feels like nothing else can touch them within their anything goes time frame together. The second act hammers home the idea that a babysitter can prepare a child for anything, but there will come a time when that kid will break away from the confines of guidance to blaze his own path to adulthood, and that stance comes to fruition throughout this night of madness that has him taking the reigns of man of the house. Fighting for your life is an easy concept to understand for any character, but when you start to see the carving out of adolescence taking place from within, you start to see that the bigger picture is in this evolution that Cole is enveloped in when he must stand on his own two feet for the first time in his life, setting the stage for a third act showdown that didn’t disappoint in anything that this production threw at the screen.

Perhaps the single greatest positive that I took away from the film was the pulse-setting kicks in production that give the film that much needed uproar in attitude that it required. The editing is sound, cutting into a lot of chase and suspense scenes with the standard panning out shot that quickly reveals the kind of environment that Cole is wrapped in. I also thought the use of on-screen colorful text to visually narrate the various weapons and even sounds that came from this nonstop action, gave the film a crisp throwback to the 70’s shootout flicks that always feel like the sounds required text. This is further emphasis on the kind of personality that the film tries to convey for itself, even if the tone can feel terribly juggled at times. More on that later. The sound mixing is crisp, delivering the devastation of every bone-crunching sound with the kind of impact that brings emphasis to the film’s brutality. In the wrong hands, sound can come across as corny or even meandering, but the work done on this production values the importance of such a presence, blessing the marriage of sight and sound beautifully that a campy horror film commands.

On the subject of some of that jumbled tone, I feel like the film worked best in its individual feats, but failed in bringing them together seamlessly. As a comedy, the film succeeds for its high school kind of personality that grants the movie a ‘Scream Queens’ kind of vibe. As a horror film, there’s plenty to love in gory death sequences that really strike a match for pure imagination. Yet interestingly enough, the two together never merge successfully on the same timeshare to craft a solid hybrid that can articulately juggle both. The film knows this too because by the third act, it loses all of its personality in humor to deliver entirely to the audience that will more than likely seek it out; the horror buffs. I blame a lot of this on the extremely immature direction in tone of the comedy versus the very adult surrealism of these brutal bloodbaths. Because they are so extreme in their respective directions, it makes it much more difficult to guide them back to that point in the middle where they both echo off of one another, catering to a law of averages that could’ve done them both a great justice.

Aside from the sometimes jumbled tone, I had a few problems with inconsistencies and logical stances that hurled a beating of my intellectual investment into this picture. For one, it always drives me nuts in horror films when so much noise and destruction is taking place in a neighborhood, yet nobody from any of the houses see this or call the authorities. One such example is a firework that blows up underneath the house and into the front yard, but five minutes later you never even knew this happened because of how quick it disappears. Speaking of vanishing acts, where do some of the antagonists go during these long fight and chase sequences with Cole? It definitely feels obvious that every sequence is structured as such because I find it difficult to believe that they all wouldn’t try to jump him at once, instead of leaving that gap of possibility for him to escape when going against just one of them. Objects too are getting in on the vanishing act as well, as a police car vanishes from the driveway, then re-appears in the end of the movie to provide an antagonist with a useful weapon. It’s parts like these that drive me nuts with the continuity of a story, and it’s something that holds no excuse for how simple it could all be preserved.

Not all is a negative however, as the performances I felt held up respectively for a magnitude of age brackets. Judah Lewis is solid as Cole, channeling a welcoming of adolescence that has felt as natural for a transition as I’ve seen in quite some time. Samara Weaving is also devilishly delightful as the title character who orchestrates this whole night. Weaving is the cousin of Hugo for those unaware, but to me she gave me such Eva Green kind of vibes in a crooked smile and rebellious demeanor that makes it easy to fall in love with her. The chemistry between these two is the single most important benefit for the film because without it, you never comprehend the betrayal and the tragedy that envelopes the spinning road that their friendship takes. Also, the entire group of antagonists each add something clever and defining for their respective character arcs. My personal favorite is Bella Thorne’s annoying cheerleader type who toes the line admiringly with a satirical sting that kept me laughing and rolling my eyes an equal amount.

THE VERDICT – Like its child protagonist, ‘The Babysitter’ grows up before our very eyes the longer it goes, even withstanding the blow of a few logical inconsistencies and constant tone juggling along the way. The film harbors an underlying gentle fable of growing up to counteract its bloody brigades, providing an earning of the coming-of-age tag within its funhouse of horrors that satisfies many crowds. Lewis and Weaving indulge in the teenage fantasy mindset above the clouds of imagination, leaving us anticipating the occasions they come down to transfix us with their bond. As for McG, you’ve finally done something valuable. Don’t screw it up from here.

7/10

Happy Death Day

Blumhouse Pictures is back with another horror story just in time for the Halloween season, with ‘Happy Death Day’. Teenage girl, Tree (Jessica Rothe) requires the simplicities in life around her college existence and her ever-growing number of friends who adore her. While trying to enjoy her birthday, she soon realizes that this will inevitably be her final one. That is, if she can’t figure out who her killer is. For whatever reason, Tree must relive that day, over and over again, dying in a different way each time to place her closer to the killer. Along the way, she will learn more as well about the way her closest friends view her. Can she solve her own murder and live to see another day? ‘Happy Death Day’ is directed by Christopher Landon, and is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, adult language, some drug material and partial nudity.

To anyone longing for the campy 90’s slasher vibes and mysteries within its plot, look no further. ‘Happy Death Day’ is a film that surprisingly has a few lasting positives to take away from it that lifts it from being one of the more dreadful fall films that I wasn’t looking forward to. I compare it to that timeline because this film feels like it could’ve been lifted from that particular era of filmmaking, combining personality and horror together like the kind of humbling marriage that the genre was destined for. This isn’t a film that will win over many faithful fans like myself who are thirsty for frightening atmospheres and bloody gore to boot, but it will keep the masses entertained for a good old fashioned whodunnit? while treating us to a positive message from within that surprisingly comes from the strangest of places. The film does still suffer from a lot of the same tropes and handicaps that keep it from establishing anything new to the overstuffed Blumhouse Productions catalog, but there was never a point in this 91 minute film where I was ever bored, and that should be commended especially for a plot that doesn’t exactly present anything groundbreakingly original.

This is yet again another example of a character living through the events of one day over and over again, similar to ‘Before I Fall’ or ‘Groundhog Day’, and if you’re looking for a reasoning in explanation for how any of this is possible, you’re surely set to be disappointed. ‘Happy Death Day’ has one of those storylines that requires you to shut your brain off just long enough to ignore some of its gaping problems in execution like logical setup or obviousness in mystery, and keep pushing forward with some light-hearted atmosphere that keeps things fun. It’s also great that once again we have a setting of Louisiana, yet no character speaks with a Southern  drawl. I guess the producers or director doesn’t care about those important details of immersion.  One thing that I positively took away was that in this film the pain of previous days carry over into Tree’s next attempt. This gives the protagonist urgency despite there being no chance of permanent removal from the story. As for the mystery itself, it was something that I figured out in the opening twenty minutes of the movie, mainly because the comparisons of character height and setting made it easier to weed out the many list of possible culprits that we are engaged into early on in the film. A major spoiler scene for me involved a cop pulling Tree over after she thinks she has escaped the clutches of the killer. If you’re paying attention closely here, you’ll notice something that the killer has that only one person could possibly have gotten. If you figure it out, you will be waiting for the film to catch up, but thankfully the heartfelt resonance of living for each day is one that kind of takes over for the film midway through, treating us to the empathetic side that holds Tree prisoner in repetition.

It’s in that aspect where I feel like the performances of this youthful cast keep the film plugging away at making anything about this memorable. No more finer example of this is made than its main star Jessica Rothe, who sports Tree with the kind of energy and magnetic charm late in the film that totally turns around her character’s likeability. To say that I hated this girl during the first act of the movie, is an understatement. At the beginning of the movie, you almost feel that dread of having to be stuck once again with a character like this, but that helpless element in Rothe’s performance starts to take over early into the second act and introduces us to an actual person who has gone through a lot of suffering long before this day from hell came into her routine. Rothe knows especially how to play up the repetition that coils around her day like an inescapable poison, and we start to see more vulnerability in the way that her other defining traits start to widdle away. Rothe is someone who I will definitely be looking for in future roles, but it’s in her uphill climb of peeling back the layers of an arrogant sorority girl that will always earn her a respectable place in my heart, because without her this film is a complete mess.

Some of the biggest problems that ate away at my surprisingly growing enjoyment of this film is in the very tone that keeps the environment fun, but does eat away at the concepts of what establishes this as a horror film. To me, ‘Happy Death Day’s’ presentation felt a lot like watching an ABC Family show on the same grounds as ‘Pretty Little Liars’. Sure, it’s entertaining and even compelling when it wraps you in its mystery, but it comes up roughly short in the horror element that satisfies us with a condemning payoff. For me, the PG-13 labeling is felt especially tight here, limiting our thirst for blood that kind of should go without saying in this kind of plot. The death scenes themselves thrive mostly on imagination, and if they were able to build the tension of something truly horrendous before that cut to the next day takes place, then we might be able to see something truly devastating in our minds without actually visually witnessing it. The death scenes in set-up aren’t anything that hasn’t been done, so there’s nothing other than the handicap of a rating that explains their absence from the torture that Tree goes through. Certainly the idea is to cater to a wider audience that includes the very teens that will shuffle out the cash to see this movie, but if it comes at the mercy of hindering the impact of said product, wouldn’t it just be better to go with artistic integrity?

To counteract some of the limitations of horror, the film’s presentation is capable enough in carrying the workload between editing and camera work to play soundly into the pleasures of pacing that constantly keep this one moving. The chase scenes, particularly the ones in the hospital, are thankfully given the choice to film in standard instead of handheld. I feel like the merits of this decision gives us the ability to capture more of not just Tree and the antagonist roughing each other up, but also the set pieces in environment that play to everything around them. The editing sticks with quick-cuts that present the rapid fire progression of the next day, and I like that because there’s a tight-rope that the editing team walk during a film like this on when to cut into each death scene. If they cut too early, there won’t be enough indulgence for the audience, but if they cut too late it can give away too much of what is left to imagination. This editing ratio is perfect, and I give much praise to the work of Gregory Plotkin for implementing his stamp of precision.

THE VERDICT – ‘Happy Death Day’ is never really scary, but it is campy enough as a comedy to treat viewers to enough entertaining factors to eat away at the horror limitations by its safe rating. The star making performance of Rothe, as well as its hearty message to live each day like it’s your last is one that comes with great eye-opening value for a film that I originally dismissed as just another cheap Blumhouse offering. It’s a lot like Halloween candy that you get every year; it might not be safe or good for you, but the sweet tooth from within demands that you indulge in it for this time of year.

6/10

Victoria & Abdul

Assistance comes in the least likely of places for an aging queen who seeks the proper inspiration to reclaim her imposing status. ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is the extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) remarkable rule. When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young clerk, travels from India to participate in the Queen’s annual Golden Jubilee, he is surprised to find favor with the Queen herself, striking up an unusual friendship between them. As the Queen questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge a devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to crumble and destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity. ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is directed by Stephen Frears, and is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and adult language.

Victorian era films aren’t the easiest sell in terms of entertainment factor for this critic. Mainly It’s in their stuffy atmospheres and outdated lifestyles that make for something that feels entirely compromising to the continuous pacing of a film. But Stephen Frears feels up to the arduous task by inserting an appreciated light-hearted blend of comedy to parallel some of the meaty subject matter in issues that make up a majority of the film that are still present in today’s society. As far as tone in concerned, this is basically as close to Monty Python movies as you are going to get in the 21st century, resulting in more than just a handful of legitimate laughs that carefully set the tone for what’s to come. This does result in some bending liberties of storytelling with the factual backstory of Queen Victoria’s final days as ruler, but the satirical sizzle of parody to just how utterly ridiculous the daily routines surrounding this queen are, make for some awkward tension in the air that will force the audience to do nothing but giggle in the inane amount of childish traditionalists that adorn the film’s central cast.

What is truly compelling about this story is that you are taking the two title characters and offering an unlikely comparison between them that brings them close in the viewer’s minds before the screenplay ever attempts to. Screenwriter Lee Hall sees a lot of polarization in the decisions and attitudes of each respective character, therefore casting them under a similar light to that of Romeo & Juliet without the romance. It feels like the rest of the world around them is crumbling under the weight of inevitable progression, and that makes the unity of these two polar opposites that much more beneficial in feeding into the very message that the film is trying to convey in bridging the gap of divide that has shunned their territories for hundreds of years. This queen feels untouchable to anyone fortunate enough to come across her, but Abdul sees the human side buried deep beneath her royal exterior, and it’s in the chances that he takes to reach out to her that is mutually beneficial in building a friendship against all odds.

As far as problems go for the screenplay, I think that the second act in particular is the weakness of the script for two compromising reasons that are opposite to that of a first act that flies by in pacing. For one, there’s a lot of subplot set-ups in Victoria’s newfound knowledge and embrace of her Indian territory, but we never see this knowledge put to action for better. There are mentions of her never being to India, nor ever speaking to her Indian citizens, and yet it passes by as an afterthought to the film as a missed opportunity. If there are proven liberties taken within the script, then surely embellishing in showing her compassionate side will do nothing but flourish Victoria’s newfound moral wealth. My other problem comes in the form of too many conflicts being thrown in at the screen at once that omits the very light-hearted personality from the movie. None of these conflicts are as serious and deserving of time as is the borderline racially fueled discrimination that takes place between Abdul and Victoria’s housemates, but is never addressed personally by her. I would’ve rather they used this as the film’s prime conflict, as anything else feels like a grasping of straws that stumble with how little lasting power they each have.

Beyond that, ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is an easy sell, as there’s plenty within the production that garners a faithful design to the foregone era that will make it simple to immerse yourself in. The cinematography is enveloping, complete with some shooting and establishing shots in locations that visually enhance the differences of wealth in worlds between India and England. India always feels like the sun is burning a yellow filter to the coloring of its scenes, while England looks and feels cold, wet, and damp. Three traits that couldn’t be further from the thousand mile journey that Abdul took the day his life changed forever. The wardrobe design by Consolata Boyle picks up right where she left off with Dench in 2006’s ‘The Queen’, and provide solidarity in the ideal that no one is better suited in channeling the elite vibrancy of colorful wardrobe. The stage as well is lavishly set, complete with elaborate set designs and rich furniture that adorn the most of every shot. It all comes together in a genuine kind of assembly that spares no cost in radiating glow from the practical and the cinematically manufactured.

Dench and Fazal also radiate above the pack, channeling two characters who are pivotal to the other. Judy Dench can play this role in her sleep, mainly because she’s done it twice already in her acclaimed career, but there’s a spark of personality and humor in her portrayal of Victoria here that wasn’t present in her previous delve. As the film progresses, we see the spark in her eye come to life again because of Abdul’s eager influence, and it feels like her queen finally has a positive reason to live again and serve her people. This is my first take on Fazal in a film, and I have to say that his cheery Abdul is a triumphed debut against all adversity that sometimes limited his capability in the script. In the second act of the film, he’s kind of pushed to the back of the pack, but Fazal’s persistence and unshakeable confidence prove that he will be a heavy hitter for years to come. The chemistry between these two co-stars is a bit surprising considering their vast age difference, but there’s a kind of romanticism between them despite them not being love interests. It makes for a truly poetic exchange every time they share the screen together, and I couldn’t get enough of how they equally complimented one another’s genuine portrayals.

THE VERDICT – ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is one of the more pleasant surprises of the fall movie season. Through some artistic liberties taken with the biography of Queen Victoria, the film supplants a compassionate point of view about the many colors of the world that keep it spinning. The second act is slightly sluggish in lacking significant weight to the overall plot, but the free-spirited comedy of the first act, as well as the bittersweet tug of it’s finale, make for a well-juggled range of emotional prosperity that will touch anyone with a pulse. Come for the real deal performances of Dench and Fazal, stay for the attention to detail in top-notch production quality.

7/10

Battle of the Sexes

A man and woman at the top of their respective games, let their balls do the talking in ‘Battle of the Sexes’. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the rise of the women’s movement, the 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-men’s-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was billed as the BATTLE OF THE SEXES and became one of the most watched televised sports events of all time, reaching 90 million viewers around the world. As the rivalry between King and Riggs kicked into high gear, off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles. The fiercely private King was not only championing for equality, but also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, as her friendship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) developed. And Riggs, one of the first self-made media-age celebrities, wrestled with his gambling demons, at the expense of his family and wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Together, Billie and Bobby served up a cultural spectacle that resonated far beyond the tennis court, sparking discussions in bedrooms. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is directed by the husband and wife duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.

Sports can serve as a chess piece of sorts in the bigger battles that shape and advance our society. While these are just games of friendly competition, there’s no debate to the undercurrent of political conversation that is taking place beneath the stage of smiles and respectable handshakes. Most notably from history are games like the 1980 Hockey Winter Olympic games, which staged the ultimate underdog Americans defeating the Russians at the heart of the cold war, Jackie Robinson stepping onto the field for his first major league game, and of course Billie Jean King fighting for women’s equality in a sport that up until then had been dominated monetarily by males. We point to these chapters in history as the building blocks for the much greater picture in all of its hurdles, and that is what gives a film like ‘Battle of the Sexes’ its stroke of importance against the litter of sports biopics. Despite the mostly light-hearted atmosphere being displayed here, there’s very much a struggle for power, and King herself feels like the brunt of frustration for a generation of males not quite ready to give over their dominance just yet.

From a narrative perspective, the film is so much more than just its title event, which is so miniscule in the grand scale of what is really going on in this movie. The script that is written by Simon Beaufoy takes us through these two prominent figures of their sport and chooses to focus and peel away at the human side to each of their respective lives, building up the backstory prominently to feed into the main course later on. In Billie Jean, we meet a woman on the verge of her sexual awakening, feeling love for the first time in the clutches of a woman and a union between them that by all means was looked upon in shame not only by the sport but also by its fans. On top of this, King’s real battle takes place off the court with the head of the tennis organization, Jack Kramer (Played by Bill Pullman), and his sexist stance on refusing to grant woman the kind of equality that they have fought so hard for with increasing ratings. On the parralel, Riggs is surprisingly not half of the antagonist that the film tries so desperately to shadow him as. Just as King’s life is taking a turn of revolution, Riggs is down and out with an addiction to gambling that has cost him nearly everything that he loves. The people in his life view him as a joke, and because of such, I felt great empathy towards this character and how this big name battle is every bit important to restoring his name as it is to building the legacy of King’s. Because the film builds these two characters equally, it means that much more when their tug-of-war comes to fruition later on, and the heartbreak of how only one of them can walk away as the winner, and that is riveting storytelling at its finest.

Another prominent perspective in this film is the impeccable artistic pageantry during the disco ages that doesn’t feel like it’s being used as an artificial gimmick. So much of the set designs and cinema scope with color palates in the film feel like they are patiently distributed and wait for the film to come to them instead of vice versa. Soundtrack is a big example of this, limiting the uses of top 40 favorites into the film, and instead opting for B-side bullets that never try hard to timestamp and hammer home the idea of this particular decade. The fashion trends rarely feel like anything that you can point to and laugh at, and it gives the entire production a kind of earnest respect that doesn’t feel necessary in exploiting it for its own cheap giggles or observations. The camera work stays fairly close for some conversation pieces, particularly with that of King when her usually tough exterior comes crumbling down at the hands of a woman who she falls smitten for instantaneously. The inclusion of neon colors splashing particularly in that of bar setting scenes feel like they play into Billie’s inside desire just burning to come out, feeding into the passion between them that the film unabashedly buys into. Even the television presentational value caters as well to this consistent grip for authenticity that the film carries on with, steadying the broadcasts with intentionally slow editing and pacing that was very much a staple of 70’s broadcasts. It all feeds into two hours of seamless visual merit that keeps the film firmly grounded in its roots, bringing to life the sunshine backdrops of the California coast that reflect the flower generation in all of its colorful displays for our own personal eye candy.

As for performances, there is no limits of familiar faces who pop up on screen to steal a scene or two in this film with no shortage of meaningful roles. Emma Stone refuses to rest on her Oscar win last March, breathing in King with precision in feminine heroism and dedication to appearance that immerses her fully into this role. Stone again has several moments of possible Oscar clips here as well, and her fiery finesse propels her to the front of the line to retain her trophy. Carell might give my single favorite performance from him to date as Riggs. Steve juggles two different Bobby’s to their respective importance with the script; one in front of the camera and one off of the camera, and they are anything but one and the same. Bobby is wise enough as a business man to know that every good match needs a villain that the people (in this case the women) can grit their teeth at, and his charismatic stroke of shovanism knows no bounds. It’s a difficult thing to balance these two opposite sides under the same helm, but Carell’s integral exuberance keeps them two equally compelling characters for the price of one. In addition to these two, there’s notable turns from veterans like Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, and the lady who constantly keeps the film’s tonal comedy in the palm of her hands; Sarah Silverman. This trio round out a collective ensemble that rival any other film this year, not just in big name quality, but in how much energetic material there is to go around for everyone to take a turn.

My problems are quite limited with this film and only come down to one or two sparingly random instances that did little damage. For one, the affair storyline with King and Marilyn really only focus on them and ignore almost entirely the perspective from King’s husband until it is absolutely necessary to include him. Doing this makes where it is going predictable for the viewers who don’t know everything about King, and I wish the film did a little more to leave him with a lasting impression upon us. My other problem is with the actual Battle of the Sexes, which takes place in the final twenty minutes of the film. It’s hard enough to build the dramatic effect in this game if you know what happened, but I feel like Dayton and Faris could’ve done a slightly better job at the unfolding atmosphere of male uneasiness that was present in the stadium. For the most part, the game breezes by, focusing too often on wide television angles, and less from a player perspective inside the physicality of it all. It just kind of makes the final scenes fizzle out like a boxing match that we were built up for from all of the pregame talking, but then disappointed once it actually happened.

THE VERDICT – Dayton and Faris serve up yet another crowd pleasing time capsule of 70’s euphoria that moves us with two endearing performances by Stone and Carell at the top of the bill. Like our own world that still requires lots of growing for our own narrow-minded, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ does give us some semblance of hope for how far we’ve come, and the kind of stage that only sports can provide in diving into that valuable social commentary. The ball stays inbounds for two hours of breezy emotional substance that invites us to laugh and love with these characters.

8/10

Cult of Chucky

The world’s smallest serial killer returns once again to torture and brutalize once more, years after the events depicted in ‘Curse of Chucky’. This time, in ‘Cult of Chucky’, we bring back all of the central characters from the previous movies. The film centers around Chucky’s (Brad Dourif) return to prey upon Nica (Fiona Dourif), who’s been confined to an asylum for four years after being framed for the murders in the previous installment. Chucky’s nemesis from the original Child’s Play, Andy (Alex Vincent), tries to save Nica, but he has to deal with Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) and her sinister intentions, as well as more than one good guy that shows up to wreak havoc on the Asylum and its inhabitants. ‘Cult of Chucky’ is written and directed by Don Mancini, and is rated R for brutal scenes of violence, adult language, and scenes of peril.

The Chucky films have kind of found a new home on the Video-On-Demand route, and it’s all probably a good thing because the last two movies in this series have breathed new life into the decades old franchise, with some new spins and directions that keep it from ever growing stale. ‘Cult of Chucky’ is the latest of that creative spin, and with the exception of the typical leaps in logic that plague these movies, I had a really good time with this film as well. It might not match the originality of the first film, but it makes up for the lack in overall presentation and creative ruthlessness that prove committed to the individual personality that its tiny killer has enjoyed. It’s kind of refreshing to see a horror film in which all of the principal characters from the previous movies return to lend a hand in prolonging the staying power of this series. This points to the fact that more than any other horror series, the Chucky movies seem to really invest everything they have into making a film for its fans that entertain them while playing into their nostalgic feelings for these stories and respective characters. More than anything though, ‘Cult of Chucky’ is as grounded in gore as the series has gotten, cashing in on a collective juggling in offering of practical and C.G effects that will bring out a wince or two in choosing to never cut away on the camera angles.

What’s enticing about this film is that it does require you to watch the prior film before you proceed. This gives these movies a kind of cohesive direction, instead of the choice to craft each one as individual efforts. The movie picks up after the events of ‘Curse of Chucky’, offering a dual narrative between that of Nica and Andy each in their tortured and respective pasts with the doll that has plagued them in different ways to this point. The satisfying feeling in tone with this film is that it more than any previous installment picks up on the very empathy of these two characters. There’s a real sense of sadness within them for how these two lives have been ruined and the common bond that unites them. I also dug the idea of multiple Chucky’s in the movie that really played well with stacking the odds and giving us more of Dourif to soak in audibly. The story is competent enough, despite some glaring plot holes with the Nica and her situation inside the prison itself. Not that this series doesn’t already have enough suspension with disbelief, but the film could be used as a satirical screenplay for our own very accommodating takes with the justice system that sometimes lends more opportunities at these cliche setups than we’d like to admit.

On the subject of that location, the film’s artistic integrity does hold up well with its end of the bargain in supplying some visually stunning displays that pack a punch in and out of our primary setting. There’s almost a futuristic vibe within the design of this prison, in all of its metallic luminous and spot clean corridors that make it stand out more than anything you’ve ever seen by comparison. The death sequences themselves are sadistically hypnotic in the way that they manipulate slow motion technology to play into soaking in every devastating blow. The gore can be quite excessive, but you pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into by this point, especially considering that this property no longer caters to big screen release restrictions. The color filters cater to mostly white backgrounds, and I think this is to replicate the Winter setting that is present outside of the prison, and could be taken for this cold and isolated feeling internally that feeds on Nica. This series of movies isn’t known for its visual appeal, but it’s clear that Mancini continues to approach his acclaimed property with a hands-on approach that gains him illustration points aplenty.

As for characters and performances, Fiona Dourif is once again fantastic as Nica, emoting her as this fragile helpless protagonist who feels like she is alone in the world at this new home for her. Father Dourif as well continues with his most famous role to date, voicing the sinister doll with harmful intentions and endless jokes to give him the extreme likeability that we have come to love. Together, these two are a pleasure to watch, and there’s something pleasantly surreal about watching a passing of the torch in ways from Father to Daughter that surprisingly touched my heart. Unfortunately the rest of the cast are underwritten in ways that bring to mind the very outline of nameless bodies that are known to stack up in these kind of films. Considering absolutely zero expositional minutes are wasted on their respective characters, it shouldn’t come as a surprise where they’re headed, and Chucky has no qualms about wasting time to send them on their ways. This is a continuing problem that I feel with horror today, because I think screenwriters should write for ensembles and not just one or two characters who the audience already knows will be in the final confrontation. With an emphasis on supporting cast, we can use those sparing minutes thoughtfully in ways that won’t drag the film down whenever neither of the Dourifs are on camera, and that’s a though that I think this film should’ve subscribed to dearly in its screenwriting phase.

THE VERDICT – Even seven films deep at this point, Mancini and company splatter enough lowbrow thrills and buckets of blood to add a fresh perspective to this constricted setting. There’s still a great lack for compelling protagonists, as well as a great concern for where this series overall might be heading, but if the future is anything like the Curse or Cult, consider this good guy built for stability. ‘Cult of Chucky’ crafts legitimate scares without succumbing to the overabundance of jump scare cinema that has plagued the genre. This is shock violence at its finest, and who better than one of the famed fathers of the slasher genre?

7/10

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The world’s most intricate group of spies become that much more versatile in ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” introduced the world to Kingsman, an independent, international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion, whose ultimate goal is to keep the world safe. In “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” our heroes face a new challenge. When their headquarters are destroyed and the world is held hostage, their journey leads them to the discovery of an allied spy organization in the US called Statesman, dating back to the day they were both founded. In a new adventure that tests their agents’ strength and wits to the limit, these two elite secret organizations band together to defeat a ruthless common enemy, in order to save the world, something that’s becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy (Taron Egerton). ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ is written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, and is rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, adult language throughout and some sexual material.

Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 surprise hit of the season, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ was everything and more for an action comedy that introduced us to how cool this secret society can really be, in all of its gadgets and gizmos that bring up the rear of a taut shoot-em-up. For all of its positives and negatives, ‘The Golden Circle’ falls into the category that I refer to as ‘Sequelitis’. This refers to a series second chapter that is bigger in budget, overdone in celebrity cameos, and thrives off of the material that made the initial effort original in its depiction. This film definitely does all of this in a manner that feels like Vaughn just can’t help but show off his studio approved budget that is nearly twice of the 81 million that he was approved for in the first film. Kingsman doesn’t need all of this if the fun is still there, which for the most part I can say that ‘The Golden Circle’ is still an infectious good time that combines the pacing of a spy thriller with the fun atmosphere of a modern day comic book. But getting out of the shadow of its original, better structured predecessor is an inescapable trap that Vaughn places himself in and can’t find the secret door out.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours is certainly no easy feat for any film to accomplish, so as a screenwriter Vaughn has an uphill battle to climb with keeping the audience firmly paced while riding on the edge of their seats for some top budget theatrics in fight sequences. We’ll get to the latter in a bit, but the former gives us enough material in subplots and adversity for our fellow Kingsman to fill two movies. This feeling is made even more obvious with hiking across the globe multiple times during the film that doesn’t add up to the Kingsman’s American invasion within this plot. For my thought process, I would’ve left Firth’s return as an integral part of a possible third film, giving it time to breathe and effect the psychological growth of Eggsy for an entire film. It’s easy to find so much of this redundancy in exposition expendable, especially for that of Moore’s antagonist Poppy who overstays her welcome almost immediately. So much so that as the antagonist, the film forgets about her for nearly an hour before returning to these scenes only when it’s mandatory to advance the chase. The pacing feels particularly uneven between the second and third acts when we stick to one landscape mission for extended periods of time, giving us little room to breathe when a scene feels like it has run for far too long. It’s easy to see where you could cut a half hour off of this movie and not lose a thing, mainly because this introduction to the statesman feels like an origin story that the film isn’t fully committed to pursuing. Outside of Pascale’s Whiskey character, there’s very little impact or weight that any of them have to this chapter, making their introductions all the more time filler.

Where the material does work is in the underlying drug epidemic plot that Vaughn springs upon us almost halfway into the movie. I found this not only relatable to the current problems that are bending and breaking our own real world structure, but also responsibly bitter in the thought-provoking stance that Vaughn proposes to the audience watching at home. Matthew’s war on the current drug trade reveals how this problem, no matter how dirty or ineffective that it feels to some of us, is our problem, and it’s ours to deal with by our own compassion. This gives the film something more than just a typical action flick that many of us have come to see, and I always grade with the curve when a film that is supposed to be dumbed down can lean in from time to time with a poignant approach. The mentor approach from Eggsy to Harry is also one that elated me with the kind of heart and chemistry that proves how far these protagonists have grown in two movies. Harry feels like the dad that Eggsy never had, and where ‘The Secret Service’ was Eggsy’s teenage years, ‘The Golden Circle’ feels like our grown man who has finally bloomed into a leader, and oh boy what a transformation it has been.

As for the action sequences, they are still shot eloquently enough in high definition to radiate that of a comic book feel. Where I feel that Vaughn succeeds in his choreography and camera style as opposed to someone like Zack Snyder is that Vaughn can slow things down just enough to where it doesn’t feel like a matrix spoof and gear the audience ready for the blow that is about to be dealt, while bracing for what’s to come next in the background. Because of this, the first scene of the film is a personal highlight for me, echoing to the sounds of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ for enticement. If the action sequences have one problem, particularly later in the film, it’s that their C.G capabilities can sometimes manufacture the scenes to look like one collective take. Where this feels like a problem is some of the illustrations of characters can sometimes come off as jarringly hollow, and the punches feel like they lack detection outside of their quick movements. Thankfully, the camera angles stay consistent and everything is telegraphed precisely from the audience, but some of these scenes could use more of a practical approach to their gain, leaving a lot of the big screen magic to the pros who train for this kind of thing.

On the subject of those pros comes some winners and losers on the grand spectrum of this A-list ensemble that hit the screen. First the positives; Taron Eggerton is again a delicious slice of personality and confidence that highlight how far this troublemaker has come from his early days. Taron is the one performer we have seen transform the most, so we feel beneficial any time his tinsel overtakes center stage in going toe to toe with some very accomplished actors. Colin Firth is also a welcome breath of fresh air, even if I didn’t fully agree with how he was brought back in this film logically. As a performer, Firth’s soft spoken demeanor embody everything that Kingsman stand for, but it’s in his slow-peeling psyche of a man trying to get everything back where we embrace that vulnerability for once and show a slice of a man who is broken and on the way to being fixed. Pedro Pascale as Whiskey is probably the best new addition to the team, mainly because he’s the one that doesn’t feel like just a cameo. There’s a bit of a tortured past with his character, and Pascale’s morale disposition makes his wild card of a character a thrill to watch when comparing actions to that of the Kingsman. Outside of these three, everyone else was quite expendable to me. There’s celebrity singer cameos for the hell of it that very much overstay their welcome, and then there’s celebrity cameos who are supposed to be an integral part of the script, but don’t make enough of an impact due to shoddy screen time dedication. To this degree, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, and especially Julianne Moore are all pointless to this film. Moore is the antagonist, yes, but her character is so poorly written and a bit of a male shovanist infused female that it’s easy to ever engage in her squeaky clean villain with something lurking beneath the eyes. Moore is an amazing actress, but I found her performance here to be unconvincing and forceful to the degree that the film’s momentum stalls every time she’s on screen.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Golden Circle’ is still the same fun and wild ride helmed by Vaughn that made its predecessor one of the most talked about movies of 2014. But this overstuffed and often times over-budgeted production can take something unique for all of its original quirks and transform it into something nearly unrecognizable for its convoluted directions. I do feel that there is enough magic in the performances of the trio listed above, as well as a timely social message, to expell a majority of the negatives, but if there is a third movie, it would be best to not overthink what puts this sassy satire ahead of the bullet.

6/10

The Lego Ninjago Movie

The world of childhood imagination comes to life once again, this time in the art of the ninja underworld in ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’. the battle for NINJAGO City calls to action young Master Builder Lloyd, aka the Green Ninja (Dave Franco), along with his friends, who are all secret ninja warriors. Led by Master Wu (Jackie Chan), as wise-cracking as he is wise, they must defeat evil warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), the Worst Guy Ever, who also happens to be Lloyd’s dad. Pitting mech against mech and father against son, the epic showdown will test this fierce but undisciplined team of modern-day ninjas who must learn to check their egos and pull together to unleash their inner power of Spinjitzu respectfully. ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is directed by first-timer Charlie Bean, and is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.

The lively innocence of the lego world is back for a third helping of childlike storytelling and imagination like only they can provide. Over the last couple of years, the lego property has given us not just exciting kids pictures, but also something that even the oldest of family members can enjoy with timely humor and visual spectrums that are second to none. This time the property takes advantage of one of their most popular toy lines, in the Lego Ninjago Force. The line itself has a television show that currently airs, and while I don’t think it is imperative that you must watch that show to get the references here, the film more than feeds into the aspects of that show, offering plenty of winks and nods to the source material. The biggest problem that this film faces is not competition from a lackluster Summer of underwhelming kids movies, but within itself and how it fares to 2014’s ‘The Lego Movie’ and 2017’s ‘The Lego Batman Movie’. To have two of these films in the same year will offer likely comparisons, and while ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is still a fun dip in immersive waters, it fails to hold the consistency of its predecessors, making this the Iron Fist of the Lego film world.

Lets get the positives out of the way first, and focus on the visual presentations which once again thrill and awe us with flawless animation. A majority of this film is again used with the lego toy line, and it really never fails to amaze me just how detailed the backdrops and landscapes detail even the most minute of properties to get it all correct. What’s impressive to me here isn’t so much the visual features, which are oscar-worthy, but more in the camera work that feels like it is at its most experimental peak with the series. Considering there is so much going on with so many monsters and gigantic robots flying through the air, the camera work follows along cohesively without too much shaking camera effects to throw us off. Throughout the weaving of building and towers, you really get a sense of the urgency that carries itself in the atmospheres, and it all really just makes you wish these tiers in effects were able to be used more effectively in live action genre flicks. The color palate is also jaw-dropping, especially with the wardrobes of the characters who come across as a Power Rangers of sorts with their varying colors to represent their inner gifts.

With the setting, the setup is the same as ‘The Lego Movie’, and for anyone who saw that film you will understand the deeper intention of what is really going on here. My problem with it however, is that once you understand the real life setting of where this is all taking place and between what characters in the movie, it starts to add up how this wouldn’t be possible in such a limited amount of space. Even the widest suspension of disbelief doesn’t sync accordingly to the kind of pulled back practicality that the first film in this series showed us, and I would’ve been fine with this just being a stand alone animation film that doesn’t depend on human architects to tell its story. Aside from this, I never had a problem with anything included within this stage. Even the C.G additional work is used in such a practicality that it never overrides or feels jarringly artificial when compared to the practical properties of these toys. It proves once again that Lego is doing things with animation that serves them as the only consistent competition to Pixar at this point.

Where the film does go wrong for me is during the second act, in which we feel the sacrifice of humor for a more enveloping dramatic swing on the forefront. Up until this point, the first act was the very best intro in the series for my money, complete with smooth pacing and articulate exposition. But the second act makes us all feel the sharp turns that seven different screenwriters on the same set can push it. Too many cooks in the kitchen is one expression, but these cooks jerk this story harshly to a setting and direction in plot that make it feel like two opposing properties are being conjoined together. I certainly have no problem with a film giving us a heartfelt center, and the material for father and son is as real as anything could possibly get, but too much reliance upon that sentimentality spoils the atmosphere in which it once felt like anything could be discussed and dissected even in the name of harsh consequences. This period of the film feels so sharply dry and opposing that of whoever wrote the first forty minutes of the movie, and I wish it hadn’t tried to override so much of what made it a delightful sit early on. Does it get any better in the finale? Kind of. It’s at least back to the kind of tone that we felt in the first half of the movie, but this too makes the second act stick out even more for its jarringly compromising disposition towards the rest of the film.

On some of that comedy, there are some quick-cuts that burned deep within my enjoyment early on, but the handicaps of repetition can sometimes make this feel like a Seth Macfarlane production. If one thing is clear, it’s that this film doesn’t have the kind of endless material in satirical firepower that ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ did, but the decision to slow the jokes down to grant the viewer more time to soak everything in is much appreciated in not being rushed to the next scene. This is vital not only to the pacing of the overall storytelling, but also to the joke’s release, for when you have more time to omit the laughter that those jokes deserve, you don’t have to worry about missing the start of the next one. If you did miss a particular joke, fear not, the film will say it at least one or two more times to remind you how good it hit the first time. It feels like a friend who launched a zinger, but then burned it into the atmosphere of redundancy, each time it’s being told losing a little bit more of its offensive sting.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ might be the current black sheep in the trilogy of Lego offerings, but it’s only because the precedent set by the first two films was exceptionally high in bringing together the universes of kids and adults in the theater. The film’s biggest obstacle is overcoming too many minds coming together under the same script that can derive and contradict the film’s smooth beginning and ending, making a middle that is every bit as sentimental as it is comically dry. Even still, the artistic expression is still there, and the film’s scope in presentation snaps together like its miniature counterparts. Two films in one year might be too much for this property, and unfortunately this one takes the bite in head-to-head competition.

6/10

Stronger

One man’s quest to stand up, forces him to be ‘Stronger’ against the odds of defeat. The film is the inspiring true story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become the symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff, a 27-year-old, working-class Boston man who was at the marathon to try and win back his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Waiting for her at the finish line when the blast occurs, he loses both his legs in the attack. After regaining consciousness in the hospital, Jeff is able to help law enforcement identify one of the bombers, but his own battle has just begun. He tackles months of physical and emotional rehabilitation with the unwavering support of Erin and his family. It is Jeff’s deeply personal account of the heroic journey that tests a family’s bond, defines a community’s pride and inspires his inner courage to overcome devastating adversity. Filled with raw emotion, humanity and humor, Stronger is the inspirational real-life story of the man who became the living embodiment of “Boston Strong.” ‘Stronger is directed by David Gordon Green, and is rated R for adult language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity.

The tragic day of the Boston Bombings of 2013 surely changed the lives of Bostonians everywhere that fateful Tuesday morning, but none more shape-shifting than that of Jeffrey Boudain, and in this harrowing true story we are able to piece together the pieces of the many tribulations of PTSD, as well as being forced into overnight celebrity for something that you haven’t even fully come to terms with yet. What I love about this film is truly how gripping and honest its portrayals feel not only in the characters and performances, but also in learning to adapt to a completely different lifestyle. This is so much more than just a new lease on life for Jeff, and the film depicts this vicious struggle with choosing to focus on those matters that elevate this movie from being just another inspirational tale complete with cinematic tropes that we’ve come to expect. This film is a tale of triumph and tragedy, but it adds context and structure to those few scenes of familiarity and pushes them much further than just something that we have seen in outline more than a few times. ‘Stronger’ earns its tears, and does so with capturing the very essence of Boston Strong.

This screenplay is a bit unorthodox in its structure because it has limited dependency on plot, and instead chooses to focus more on Jeff’s daily routine without sugar-coating it. What I found so enlightening about this direction is that where most movies will ignore or simply never mention how something so life-altering can change you, Green feels like it is in those painful details where the real story resides. Most of the captivating imagery is shot from a tight shot in angles, and this is to visually tell the story of struggle and strive in more ways than audible narration. Through capturing these characters at their best and worst, we feel like it is not only easier to understand their sometimes irrational thinking, but also like we are included into this family of crazies, inserted possibly the tightest with Jeff’s struggles that only we see. The film also focuses so heavily on the physicality that comes with learning the routine, and sometimes it is legitimately painful and redundant in its frequency. If there was one problem that I had overall, it is in the first act pacing where the film feels slightly in a bit of a rush to get to the tragic day, and while I can understand that is where the meat of this story resides, those limited occasions of getting to know Jeff and feeling the very tragedy of a kindred spirit is a bit lost in unnecessary rushing. Thankfully, the rest of the film moves along smoothly, and overall felt like half the time of the nearly two hours that we spend in Boston.

Despite the sobering realities of the dark events, what I commend screenwriter John Pollono for is keeping with a surprising level of humor to correspond with the shock that Jeff’s life entails. It may be perhaps the most difficult thing to bring a laugh to an auditorium of people who are watching something so spellbinding and tragic to comprehend, but I’ll be damned if ‘Stronger’ didn’t supplant me with some legitimately hearty supplies of sarcastic wit and adult personalities to coincide. Where most of it comes from is Jeff’s overly-Boston family who choose to drink and smoke their problems away. Definitely not the best role models for Jeff’s recovery, and Pollono isn’t afraid to explore that avenue in true story fashion. Especially for Jeff’s mother Patty (Played by Miranda Richardson), is a surface matter that her true intentions in all of this might be for the stardom that comes with her son being labeled a hero, and even though her love is definitely there for her only child, you do start to see the gears turning in her head, bringing to light the awkwardness of family that you can’t help but indulge in.

The technical aesthetics also render a beautiful portrait for the city of Boston, in all of its rich and prideful traditions. The cinematography is gorgeous, issuing us with some breathtaking views of local landscapes like Fenway Park and Long Wharf North that really go a long way in visually rendering us with the impact of an entire city. One such personal touch that moved me miles was the insertion of actual CNN footage into the real time carnage, and play especially well with the coinciding visuals from Green that are horrendous in brutality yet artistically symbolic for the past that can no longer be washed off on the streets or the mind of our protagonist. These impacts give the film a lot of leverage in showcasing Green one more time to the vapid flocks of audiences that he has already proven himself in with serious films like ‘Joe’ or slapstick films like ‘Pineapple Express’.

I want to talk about performances because this film not only has one committed turn, but two in eye-opening male and female leads. Jake Gyllenhaal has been one of the very best and most committed actors walking the planet today for a long time, but Jeff feels like his biggest hurdle in terms of physical performance to compliment his already stellar delivery. Jake inserts so much personality and charisma into this portrayal, making us grateful to hear that this powerful loss for him hasn’t taken away the heart that his family and the audience will come to enjoy throughout the film. Jake throws himself into each devastatingly crunching blow when it comes to falling from heights that feel like so much more for someone strapped to a chair. What really resonated with my even an hour after I left the theater is that of Maslany as the love interest to Jeff in this story. Initially, her character is kind of shy and soft-spoken, but when we start understanding what she lost in the bombing, we start to see the coals burning fire engine red behind these eyes of watered compassion. I found her performance as Erin to be the Adrian to Jeff’s Rocky, relaying the idea that behind every great man is a woman motivating him to get back up and push forward. When these two are on camera, I couldn’t get enough, and one such argument scene late in the second act between them in a car, had this critic wiping his eyes for the first time this year, casting little doubt that Tatiana is a dramatic heavyweight who is here to stay.

THE VERDICT – ‘Stronger’, like its impacted male lead, chooses to constantly get back up and never stay down by the overexposure of biopic tropes that have hindered recent efforts. Instead, David Gordon Green crafts an entertainingly riveting dramedy that supplies the very pulse for a city still reeling, but getting back on its feet one day at a time. The title might be slightly misleading, but I dig a movie that captures the ENTIRE process of difficulties associated with something that we take for granted everyday. Gyllenhaal and Maslany pluck away at our heart strings, and for this one instance, I too will choose to endure the pain of their seamless precision.

9/10

Brad’s Status

The life and accomplishments of A middle aged Father will force him to confront ‘Brad’s Status’. When Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) accompanies his college bound son to the East Coast, the visit triggers a crisis of confidence in Brad’s Status, writer and director Mike White’s bittersweet comedy. Brad has a satisfying career and a comfortable life in suburban Sacramento where he lives with his sweet-natured wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and their musical prodigy son, Troy (Austin Abrams), but it’s not quite what he imagined during his college glory days. Showing Troy around Boston, where Brad went to university, he can’t help comparing his life with those of his four best college friends: a Hollywood bigshot (White), a hedge fund founder (Luke Wilson), a tech entrepreneur (Jemaine Clement), and a political pundit and bestselling author (Michael Sheen). As he imagines their wealthy, glamorous lives, he wonders if this is all he will ever amount to. But when circumstances force him to reconnect with his former friends, Brad begins to question whether he has really failed or is, in some ways at least, the most successful of them all. ‘Brad’s Status’ is written and directed by Mike White, and is rated R for adult language.

It has taken Ben Stiller some time and a very long distance to finding his proper footing, but ‘Brad’s Status’ feels like his return to form with a journey back to the top in a memorable role. That’s not to say that his work in recent films like ‘While We’re Young’ or ‘Zoolander 2’ didn’t peak my interest, but it’s clear that Stiller has a lot more to offer as an actor that being just a one-dimensional comic genius. As the title character here, Stiller feels most at home because he’s walking in the shoes of a man who feels like he is at a crossroads with life, wondering where it all went wrong. Call it a midlife crisis or whatever, but Brad’s questions seem to merit some discussion within his own psyche at picking apart the decisions that he made that may have caused such discontent. Stiller controls Brad with a childlike innocence that makes this character empathetic with our own opinions, even if his close-minded thinking hints at the life lessons that we already understand, making the audience feel light years ahead of its protagonist. It’s clear that no matter how old Brad is (47 in case you’re curious), he still has plenty of room to go, and the stuttering ramble of Stiller at its finest tuned in years, proves he’s back to compliment his dry humor with a dramatic pull that did have me fighting off a tear or two.

This is very much a film that people should flock to because it hammers home the life lessons of material versus physical, and the importance that we cast particularly upon one that doesn’t deserve it. With ‘Brad’s Status’, it sometimes feels like a lashing out against the upper one percent, and while that feels satisfyingly therapeutic, it shouldn’t be misinterpreted that Brad’s war comes within himself and the worst of times that this is taking place during his son’s college interview. Even if the material is predictable and had me feeling like I mapped out its general direction within the opening half hour of the film, I can’t say that I was never drawn to understanding the teachings that Brad was picking up on, something that I credit Mike White on dearly as a screenwriter that really gives his film a rich feel. In fact, one ironic delight is that it feels like the youth are the ones living with their eyes open in this one, and that being an adult can blind you to what is really there.

White should also be credited for commanding a two-part tone within the film that caters more to the underlying dramatic pulse and less to badly timed comedy that can come off in movies as heavily scripted. Here the humor does flow but it flows in a natural manner in which the true awkwardness of any and every situation bubbles its way to the top, tingling on the true complexity of Brad’s current situation. No, instead the movie presents itself in a way that should be taken seriously in all of hits social commentary on how the world distributes its wealth. Without getting overly preachy, White makes some valid strokes of genius in pointing out the very eye-rolling moments that come with fighting for a table at a fancy restaurant, or even the shady rules for coach flyers when purchasing air travel. It’s funny, yet painful because we have all been there at one time or another, and White’s stark surrealism contrasts a fine abstraction that will pull out either side of the emotional release; to either laugh or battle back tears from the painful rejection that society plays in its political card time and time again.

The runtime can sometimes feel like a point of contempt with me, although I don’t know if it will have the same negative condentation with people who take in White’s film. The material often stays firmly in the grip of his pen holder, choosing to take very little risks or unorthodox directions to play into Brad’s unwinding, and the actual ending feels like it takes place with about twenty minutes left in the film. The fortunate aspect is that the best scene of the movie takes place at the very end of it, sending the audience home satisfied by fighting off a tear or two that this scene cleverly earns. I just wish that some of the footwork to getting to that moment could’ve been left on the editing room floor, because it slowly omits the momentum of Brad’s triumphant moment when he puts it all together. Aside from this small critique, 97 minutes doesn’t do too much harm to the over presentation and pacing of ‘Brad’s Status’, and thankfully the delight of the supporting characters adds some much needed help to Stiller for being shouldered with the burden of carrying yet another picture.

Aside from Stiller’s delightful Brad, the film weaves a few impacting performances from some heavy-hitting A-listers, as well as one youth who really stole the show for me. On the latter, Austin Abrams is a breath of fresh air as Brad’s son Troy. On the surface, it feels like Troy might be the typical teenager who is embarrassed at the very sight of his parents, but it’s clear midway through the film that Brad and Troy share a bond that transcends their respective ages, and really hammer against the ideal that parents can’t be best friends with their children. At such a young age, he already has such a vibrant and choreographed view of the world that will make you wonder who is the parent here. Abrams witty and dry delivery does do battle with Stiller, in a kind of callback to Ben’s earlier years, carrying him as the perfect casting to play his son in the movie. I also greatly enjoyed the brief but blossoming work of Michael Sheen as Brad’s former best friend Craig, as well as Jermaine Clement who steals a scene as an island inhabitant with two wives. Clement’s Billy feels like Brad’s fantasy for everything he wants to be, but it all seems hilariously terrible to anyone who sees the bigger picture beyond what Brad conjures up in his mind. Sheen is again devilishly delightful as an analyst in Washington who grew a little too big for his one-time friendly britches. If you seek an asshole for a film, you go to the best, and Sheen is quickly making a name for himself as that condescending antagonist in films who you can’t help but grit your teeth at.

THE VERDICT – ‘Brad’s Status’ overcomes the midlife crisis tropes of familiarity with insightful observations and humorous commentaries towards the state of the material world and all of the things that Gordon Gecko fought so hard for. It is fairly predictable, and the third act could compact itself slightly more by trimming some time, so as not to lose so much of the impact from that gripping final exchange, but the work of Stiller and Abrams as a father/son duo prove to be the pivotal pieces in White’s unapologetic and thought-provoking diatribe about the value that we cast upon things that are out of our control.

7/10

Home Again

The trials and tribulations of A newly established single Mother prove that it is A necessity to go ‘Home Again’. The film proves to be A generational affair, with Hallie Meyers-Shyer writing and directing, while her Mother and critically acclaimed author Nancy Meyes is at the helm of producing. It stars Reese Witherspoon as Alice Kinney in a modern day romantic comedy. Recently separated from her husband Austen, (Michael Sheen), Alice decides to start over by moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles with her two young daughters. During a night out on her 40th birthday, Alice meets three aspiring filmmakers who happen to be in need of a place to live. Alice agrees to let the guys stay in her guest house temporarily, but the arrangement ends up unfolding in unexpected ways. Alice’s unlikely new family and new romance comes to a crashing halt when her ex-husband shows up, suitcase in hand, expecting to make things right with the love of his life. ‘Home Again’ is rated PG-13 for some thematic and sexual material.

Being A film critic has taught me to examine and appreciate the many aspects of film that go into making A finished product. Even in movies that I despise, I can usually garner A taste for A particular area of production that stands out strongly against the rest. It’s no secret that I have never been much of A fan of Nancy Meyers as A writer or filmmaker, and her daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, seems determined to keep the flame burning for lifeless cinema that sacrifices plot for bold and vibrant cinematography whose only strength is mimicking A Zoloft commercial. ‘Home Again’ is A paper ice cream cone. Sure, there are those flavors of ice cream that we love and that we stay away from when it comes to our favorite frozen treat, but the only kind of flavor response that I received from Hallie’s intro to the world of film is that from A tasteless bite that left me searching for anything to positively hang my taste buds on. This film obviously feels close to Hallie, in an art imitating life kind of way, with her (like Alice) having two famous parents and kind of articulating the circumstances that come with such an inheritance. In this instance, real life doesn’t make for that compelling of entertainment, and if home is truly where the heart is, this heart loses its beat almost immediately from the opening shot.

By the second act of this film, it’s pretty obvious where this all is headed; an endless array of untapped results and weightless consequences that do little to test the boundaries of compelling suspense. This screenplay is A strange one because to me it feels like Hallie almost forgets to translate real life drama into something for an audience first-and-foremost, and I found the entirety of this 92 minutes to be dry and lacking of anything manipulated for audience response. We just kind of watch these characters circle around themselves repeatedly in their rich and posh surroundings, appealing to A very minimal one percent who probably don’t go out to see movies anyway. The film throws all of its chips into this love triangle between Alice, Austen and Harry, but does little along the way to build up what each man means to Alice and her ever-changing life. Because the film gives us very little focus on Alice alone and by herself, we’re never given anything to hang the positives and negatives of each suitor on in terms of effect on her. I think Austen is supposed to be the antagonist but because the Hallie feels too timid to play it safe as A screenwriter, Alice is propelled to choose between two men who are essentially equal in underwritten exposition, instead choosing to focus on no shortage of musical montages to make up for how little this film actually progresses.

Everything that I just mentioned could probably be fixed with some chances that the film needed to take to exert some kind of drama in the ever-growing complacency that the film creates for itself. There are plenty of opportunities between the second and third acts that hint at something brewing beneath the surface of this trio of roommates that Alice houses, but their movements are for nothing and silenced without much purpose to the film alluding to them. When the film’s biggest dramatic pull and focus comes from one of the daughter’s upcoming school play, you know the kind of sleeper that you’re dealing with. The pacing of events within the plot isn’t half bad, but the decision to attack so many compelling possibilities at only face value is A mistake that makes this film feel like A forceful spoon-feeding around the one hour mark. It was at this point where ‘Home Again’ lost me for good, and I begged desperately for the kind of emotional clarity that the character of Alice simply never gets by an ending that is as forgettable as it is safe.

The production feels hollow and artificial in trying to capture the California sunny landscapes, but will only be deemed evident by someone like myself who studies A film’s visual specter first. One person might look at this film and be transfixed by its appeal visually in the rich and the famous lifestyles, but this overly-illuminated lighting used often in romantic comedies feel like they do more harm than good in their intention, and trespass the boundaries of what is visually tasteful. Because the lighting is so loud, it gives off that feeling of A television’s tint being turned all the way up, blending light colors of clothing and walls together in the least visually appealing of methods. The editing settles for the fade-to-black kind of style instead of sticking to what works in quick-cuts for scene-to-scene transitions. What this decision does is divide the anatomy of each scene, forcing them into these individual pieces instead of one cohesive movement that gel together to meet the same goal.

Even if they are all far better than the material that they are acting out, the collaborative cast of actors in the film are enjoyable enough to watch bounce figuratively and literally off of each other. Reese Witherspoon still holds the female audience firmly in her grasp, but the character of Alice feels like something that she is light years ahead of, for better or worse. You care for her character, but Witherspoon’s energy feels like she is doing A favor instead of pursuing A passion project, and she’s alright but nothing memorable for an Oscar winner. Jon Rudnitsky as George is far and away my favorite aspect of not only the cast, but the entire film. Rudnitsky plays George with patience, and that’s something that is gravely important in A film that feels desperate to play into the stereotype outlines of each and every character. He’s kind of established as the brains of this trio, but he’s also the very pulse of logic when it comes to attacking some laughably bad dialogue that he overcomes. If there is one thing that we should take away from this film, it’s that Jon has a future, and I would prefer that future happen immediately so that we can forget about the kind of paper flavor of depth that he was presented here.

THE VERDICT – I myself couldn’t wait to get home again from ‘Home Again’. Hallie Meyers-Shyer’s film breeds pretentious and upper class privilege, orchestrating such A wasteful opportunity of girls night cinema and an A-list leading lady. Overcoming the adversity of inanities or vanilla ramblings, this romantic comedy doesn’t have enough grip or pulse by the director to succeed in either genre, breeding an overabundance of artificiality with each passing moment. If this is A portrait to her parents, it’s clear that she remembers much, but learned so little.

3/10

Patti Cakes

The journey to the top of the overcrowded rap game inspires a new and unlikely story from the stage name of a gifted female MC, named ‘Patti Cake$’. In a coming-of-age story straight out of the dirty streets of New Jersey, an unlikely rapper finds her voice as a one-of-a-kind hip-hop legend in the making, turning a cold shoulder to the adversity that her unsupportive environment around her that tries to limit her potential. It’s Patti’s (Danielle Macdonald) determination that will earn her undeniable street cred, and ushering in the era of a new lyrical lion-heart. The first feature film written and directed from (appropriately enough) acclaimed commercial and music-video director Geremy Jasper. Set in gritty strip-mall suburbia, “Patti Cake$” chronicles an underdog’s quest for fame and glory with humor, raw energy and some unforgettable beats. The film is rated R for adult language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image.

If ‘Patti Cakes’ were A track, it would be compared to A Top 40 club hit that requires some time to grow on you. Sure, at first it’s annoying and A bit too forced for its genre or classification, but after you’ve heard it A few times and know what it’s about, it starts to grow on you until you can’t get its irresistibly infectious tones out of your head. Jasper’s newest project definitely feeds into the underdog appeal of the hip hop community in the same way that films like ‘8 Mile’ or ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ did across the last decade. But the appeal with ‘Patti Cakes’ is that it takes A protagonist who is audibly and visually unlike anything going in the hip hop game today, and appeals to those dreamers watching at home who stare into A mirror wishing for greener pastures. In that sense, it’s A story for all of us. The dreamers tale is certainly nothing new, especially in modern cinema, but Patricia feels like she has earned that prestigious title by keeping her head above the clouds and silencing the doubters who have written her off A long time ago.

From A storytelling perspective, there’s plenty to be commended about in Jasper’s co-written script, but none more powerful than the honesty that it bestows upon its framing of the real world. Set in Bayone, New Jersey, A town that is anything but A hip hop community, this screenplay pokes and prods at the concepts of how something completely out of our hands in decision-making like hometown can serve as the single greatest antagonist in obstacle to ones success. We’ve heard critics before mention how A setting in A particular film feels like A character within the movie, but in ‘Patti Cakes’ that labeling feels far more appropriate because it really is all of these antagonists like local rappers, childhood bullies, and even family that plague this woman from making something of her rare talent to silence them all. There’s almost A feeling of rotting in the air here without feeling too forced, A poison that keeps you grounded the longer that you stay within its clutches, and we see this direction affected many times because of the many people who see Patti as the typical overweight lazy burden that doesn’t seem to visually match the part by her white skin color or curvy physique for all of the wrong reasons to them. This is that rare film that bottles all of those historical attributes up and carries them out for A protagonist whose greatest strength is in the pipe bombs that she unleashes whenever the doubters fill the room.

If there is A weakness to the film’s progression, it’s definitely in the overall presentation that caters to the music video style pizazz of cinematography. This is of course intentional, after all Jasper is A former music video director, and the decision to craft A plot that centers around music feels like A no-brainer from his position, but it always feels like it’s limiting the atmosphere of these situations that hover above and wait to be embraced with patience. In that regard, it is the one soul emotion that is clearly missing here because jumpy editing and extreme close-ups during sequences that deserve A wide angle lens alienates more than appealed my viewing and ever kept me from fully embracing this unorthodox style of filmmaking. The pacing too is slightly off, especially during the second act when it felt like this film should’ve been wrapping up where it still had forty minutes left. The third act does triumph gorgeously with more pills of truth to swallow about the prejudices plaguing the hip hop community, but it’s in that middle where viewers will find the most trouble staying hooked firmly into this story. Nothing feels like it should be cut, I just think the film is sometimes trying to approach from too many angles the many people involved in Patti’s life instead of focusing on the title character who never fails to steal the show.

On that regard, welcome to the show Danielle Mcdonald, your time is now. The one thing missing from Mcdonald’s performance here is that long-winded speech that surely nominates her for an award or two, but she more than makes up for that loss with A harrowing and committed performance of this alter ego that has no shortage of confidence or charisma in the swagger that she strides with. This will definitely be one of those roles that will be difficult for Danielle to shake because she simply is Killa P, the urban princess of Bayone who attacks more bars than A jail of prisoners, and she became this role so fluently that I’ll never be able to see her as anything else for A long time. Mcdonald feels like the right protagonist for the right time in our society, when body shaming is getting out of hand. Here comes A girl who takes the worst that her community spits at her, and she spits right back with an arsenal of vicious rhetoric. Besides Mcdonald, this entire ensemble cast plays their parts accordingly, and really made for some emphatically entertaining exchanges by this group of misfit toys. The best moments for me are definitely when Patti and best friend Jheri (Played by Siddharth Dhananjay) are together, but this script would feel hollow without the riveting exchanges that Patti endures from an immature Mother (Played by Bridget Everett) who places far too much responsibility on the shoulders of A kid who clearly didn’t grow up with A needed parental figure. That effect has shaped Patti’s outlook on life clearly, and there is A taste of that anger from Mcdonald’s register boiling beneath the surface, even if her demeanor portrays A devastating force who can’t be stopped, only slowed down.

Soundtrack tastes are always entirely subjective, but I rode the wheel of indecision for the majority of this film, enjoying and disliking what was offered. What I will say is that music does indeed play A vital role to the movement of this screenplay, dominating the first and third acts of this movie like A modern day hip hop musical that does the occasional pausing of progression to drop some character exposition in the most literal of ways. What was difficult however, was when the rhymes and pacing of the lyrical lines does feel slightly off in the amateur songwriter kind of way. Could this be intentional because this story is about A local rapper? Quite possibly, but that doesn’t make them anymore enjoyable to indulge in. I can remember being floored in positivity by each and every track in ‘8 Mile’, so there’s very little excuse as to why ‘Patti Cakes’ can’t quite accomplish the same feat, especially when you consider Mcdonald’s precision with becoming this personality. For my money, the best track was involved in the closing of the movie, that takes place on A local talent show to scout future talent. The duality of rock and rap involved in the track mentioned gives this soundtrack A stamp of experimental that reminds us what could’ve been had they not stuck so close to the gimmick rap of easy rhymes and cheesy sound effects.

THE VERDICT – ‘Patti Cakes’ strikes A familiar flow in the underdog structure, but the flawless passion of A breakthrough performance by Mcdonald, as well as the honesty in attacking some truly vicious stereotypes in the hip hop community makes this cake A deliciously hard-edged treat that stands tall. The style of the film would be better suited to slow down and pace itself accordingly with the sometimes enduring 103 minute runtime, but it can be forgiven for its creative mistakes by hammering home the heart, soul, and resiliance of its title character. Proving that Patricia (like Mcdonald) was made for the big stage.

7/10

The Only Living Boy in New York

A boy becomes a man in Marc Webb’s newest dramedy, ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), the son of a publisher and his artistic wife, has just graduated from college and is trying to find his place in the world. Moving from his parents’ Upper West Side apartment to the Lower East Side, he befriends his neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges), a shambling alcoholic writer who dispenses worldly wisdom alongside healthy shots of whiskey. Thomas’ world begins to shift when he discovers that his long-married father (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair with a seductive younger woman (Kate Beckinsale). Determined to break up the relationship, Thomas ends up sleeping with his father’s mistress, launching a chain of events that will change everything he thinks he knows about himself and his family alike. ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ is rated R for adult language and some drug use.

Ever since the dawn of Woody Allen and his library of films, the world has ushered out more than A few of his disciples whom you can clearly taste the Allen influence in their respective pictures. Marc Webb is one of those mentioned, and the taste of pretentious filmmaking reeks in his latest movie ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. That’s not to say that this is A terrible film, it’s just terribly bland. Once you have watched the trailer for this film, you can take pleasure in knowing that you have witnessed the entire first hour of this rushed 83 minute production. To say that we’ve seen this kind of film before is quite the understatement, so what makes it noteworthy in the slightest? The New York Backdrop (Cough Cough Allen)? The soft and unsubtle lighting textures that make every shot feel like a painting (Allen)? or maybe it’s the snobby cast of characters who complain about A life that most would wish for (You know what? You get the picture). I felt like I have already seen this film up until A last second swerve that is far too late in hitting us hard with the big life lesson. Was I shocked? more so noticed, as it’s the first point in the film that I began investing myself in, but it doesn’t fix what’s been broken through this vapid script of insincerity.

This film early on takes a popular cliche by instilling some narration by Jeff Bridges character in the movie, but it feels completely unnecessary with the creative direction of the film, albeit except for one stance in logic; exposition. Because this film is so brief in its runtime, it doesn’t have time to bring along these characters and their respective backstories, so Bridges is tasked with filling in the blanks to outline the proper traits in these characters that do sometimes run together because of their limited expressions. Then the film decides to just drop it forty minutes in. There is no longer anymore narration by Bridges, and suddenly it feels like we’re on our own, and my honest fear of sloppy exposition seems to have been affirmed by the film’s lack of attention in keeping up with its own rules. If there’s one positive that I had, it was in the relationship between Bridges and Turner’s characters, serving as the film’s blackboard for emotional pulse. The film feels the most light hearted during these scenes, mainly because it isn’t trying to take itself too seriously, and just enjoying those quiet moments in life when clarity is necessary.

As I mentioned before, the pacing does feel incredibly rushed, and this limits the potential in clearing these hurdles in continuity and progression that far outruns our waning interest. From the romantic triangle perspective, too much happens far too quickly during the early scenes of the second act, and it often felt like the film was hinting at where it was going long before we had the possibility to accurately depict it. I’m not saying this movie is the most unpredictable offering in the world, but showing your cards far too early will shatter the boundaries of immersion that anyone will have in this project, leaving it void of any suspense. There is never enough tension being built with Brosnan’s character that he will either find out about Turner and Beckinsale, or that he himself will be caught having this seedy affair. Those elements could’ve done wonders in establishing the proper attitude for this film, which often feels unattended by the proper creative direction. I could swear that this film was A comedy, but I’m still completely unsure.

The performances aren’t too bad considering what little this extremely talented cast is given to work with. I do believe that this is my first engagement of Turner’s work, and I have to say that he wins the award for best James Franco impersonation. As Thomas, Turner can sometimes come across an sniveling and callow, making for the wrong guy to want to spend an entire feature with. His character lacks anything that makes him come across as engaging, and I would’ve much rather spent time with the adults in the movie who properly keep the flow of these conversations going. To that degree, Bridges is definitely the best here. Besides being the pulse in narration for the movie, Jeff can make A line of dialogue delightful by simply emoting that rugged sarcasm that has earned him universal praise. Pierce Brosnan isn’t too bad, but lacks enough proper screen time, and Kate Beckinsale is virtually playing every character that she has for the past three years. It’s got less to do with her talents, and more to do with the writers she is working with who time-and-time again write her unflatteringly against type.

With the choices for cinematography and artistic expression, the film does yield some exceptionally elegant lighting, giving way to the Allen environment that Webb articulately demonstrates. Some of the wide angle interior shots in this film are so gorgeous that they belong on a rich person’s wall, so they can show off their rich people to everyone else. See the problem here? New York is also very prevalent in the film, but there’s never enough gorgeous establishing shots to ever make it too A character who is present and talks back against all of the bad that is being said about it by these people. Anytime you have A setting as big as this, you MUST embrace it to relay the kind of heartbeat in culture that many of us have only heard about and never seen. Everything else is quite conventional, and that’s kind of A disappointment because Webb’s sleek style usually plays A prominent role in his visual breath-stealers like ‘500 Days of Summer’ and ‘Gifted’. There’s not enough on the experimental side to ever make this one his own, and it serves as A reminder all around of A project that is entirely forgettable.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ is A bit of A boring one. There’s A word used often in the film that is “Serviceable”, and that concept would be giving this one far too much credit. Webb’s latest lacks the kind of patience in precision storytelling or insightful characters to ever make this must-see entertainment from someone we’ve come to know as A modern day master. The visual specter tingles in patches, but the art isn’t enough to save itself from A screenplay lacking any kind of hardened drama or edge. This boy isn’t living, he’s mumbling through A life that has already moved on from his constant moaning.

5/10