Ready Or Not

Directed By Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

Starring – Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien

The Plot – The film follows a young bride (Weaving) as she joins her new husband’s (O’Brien) rich, eccentric family (Brody, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell) in a time-honored tradition that turns into a lethal game with the bride fighting for her survival till dawn.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, adult language throughout, and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Ideal setting. The entirety of this movie takes place in and around this immense mansion, full of stretching secret hallways and unlimited isolation, which make it the perfect board for all of the pieces to intersect one another. The interiors have a gothic style to their decor, speaking volumes in preservation to just how long this family tradition has been taking place, and the surrounding woods that surround this place in the woods allows freedom free from the clutches of the law, which in turn feeds into the mentality that the rich are above it. The dark contrast of cinematography inside of the mansion to that of the wedding sequence in the beginning of the film lends itself to the idea of this secretive world that Weaving’s character has become a part of, and further fleshed out the air of freedom that she said goodbye to once the ceremony ended. Major respect to the set designer for making not only the mysticism of this family come to life, but also the articulation in believability that helps our protagonist against the overwhelming odds.

– Strange backstory device. In a normal movie, we would come to understand the grit of our heroine with each brush with death that she comes across, but something with “Ready Or Not” truly surprised me, and that’s where the movie chooses to invest its backstory on. Not only do we learn so little about our protagonist, but in turn we learn almost everything about our antagonists, fleshing them out in a vibrant way that puts weight on the cause and effects that the game has had on all of them. This takes a rich family, and forces us to make as many connections with them as possible, giving meaning to their mayhem, that while not entirely justifiable, is at least captured in a way where all of the pieces of intention line up smoothly. I’ve always said that the best antagonists in films are the ones we can dissect and give meaning to, and this family is given so much time, that we the audience in turn feel like a distant cousin who is in on their secrets and personality quirks.

– Superbly paced. As far as entertainment factor goes, “Ready Or Not” might be one of my favorite films of 2019 thus far. Its barely 90 minute run time never stilts its growth with each passing development, nor does it breeze through the details in a way that makes them easy to miss. Instead, this is a film that values exposition and violence seamlessly, and constantly keeps the fun in anxiety prominent throughout a film that is always moving forward. This is never more solidified than in the opening twenty minutes, which take us through the wedding, the celebration, and the beginning of the game with ease, making it the perfect recommendation for someone who finds difficulty in movies that require two hours for everything to materialize. I never once checked my watch during any point in this film, and even through the hour-and-a-half that I was given, I felt that twenty more minutes in this environment could’ve only added to the positivity encased in its well-crafted production.

– Expositional dialogue. Nothing feels heavy or out of place here, instead allowing conversation pieces to flow naturally, giving us knowledge in the details of what’s explained between character dynamics. For example, we the audience already know the rules of the game because of the trailers we sat through, but it’s really the meaning behind the why that catapults our intrigue, and forces us to hang on to every dialogue exchange bit-by-bit instead of one long-winded diatribe that we’ve come to expect in cinema. When the bigger picture is seen in completion, we have a brief history of the game that gives certain in-laws around the table still living believability and understanding for how they could’ve possibly survived these rituals, considering they aren’t the brightest crayons in the box.

– Perfect casting. Everyone here is off the chain in complimenting the film where it requires it, but the work of Weaving, Brody, and a rambunctious aunt by the name of Nicky Guadagni easily stole my attention in every scene they are given to chew up the scenery. For Weaving, what’s remarkable is there isn’t much a transformation to her character considering we learn very little about her along the way, but rather her instinct and brawn, which pay off immensely for the dependence of her survival. Weaving’s dry wit is also on display here, depositing several one liners in a defeated way that easily makes her the protagonist we can get behind, if only for how her reactions replicate ours the audience from just beyond the screen. Brody is the M.V.P for me, balancing sarcasm and alcoholism in a way that colorfully outlines the past for this tortured soul, and preserves him as this dark horse of sorts for a family so opposite of him in motivations.

– Tonal hybrid. One of the most difficult combos in genre offerings to balance is comedy and horror, yet “Ready Or Not” masters both sides of the coin without ones volume ever compromising the other. Much of the humor works for me because it’s so off-the-wall because of this plot that you can’t help but laugh out of nervousness and awkwardness that never leave the heart of the environment. As for horror, there is not only solid violence depicted in the form of top-notch prosthetic and make-up work, but also a strong amplification of suspense that is highlighted by Brian Tyler’s encompassing musical score. The third act definitely depends more on the humorous aspects, but it’s a transition that I will love more than other people will, if only for the way it gives weight to the things we believe in that eventually catch up to us, leading to a final five minutes that has to be seen to be believed.

– Upper class satire. Without question, the most rewarding scenes for me were the ones where this wealthy family struggle with certain aspects because none of them have ever been forced to get their hands dirty in the many ways the film requires them to. There’s a struggle with weaponry as seen in the trailers, but really it’s more towards the privilege that each of them inherits that presents an entirely different circumstance of challenges than those of a disappearing bride. This is a film that isn’t afraid to embarrass its antagonists, and some of that shame comes with the reward of satisfaction from those of us who love to watch them squirm, eventually giving way to a barrage of Youtube self-help and butler accommodation that speaks volumes to the kind of social commentary that goes well beyond stereotypical.

– Leaves room for future installments. I don’t say this often in the horror world, but I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing more childhood games brought to life with a devilish rendering in following chapters. From the very beginning, it’s clear that “Ready Or Not” has touched on something positive here for the horror community, balancing endless brutality with a self-aware tone that welcomes the fun into the environment, so I would be a liar if I said that I wouldn’t want to embrace this feeling again, albeit with an entirely new set of characters and game that could follow the satisfying formula cemented by this initial chapter. While this plot is wrapped up in a way that is fulfilling to the conflict of the plot given to us, the script leaves enough meat on the bone of optimism to make us wonder what devious roads they could take us down next. I’m talking to you, Red Rover.

NEGATIVES

– Erroneous tidbits. There were a couple of things in the film that I feel could’ve and should’ve been written out of the finished final draft. One comes in the form of dialogue from the auntie character, who says she hopes the bride can hide better than that, long before the game has ever been picked for her. I was hoping it would lead to a revelation that the game was rigged for the bride to receive this punishment because certain family members don’t like her, but it never happens, and leaves this line feeling entirely out of place with the sequencing of events within the film. My other problems stem from two second half character switches, which would’ve worked fine without the twists given to them. To say this without spoiling things, their twists never mean anything consequential to where they end up, so essentially they aren’t needed in the first place, and only feel like unnecessary padding for the sake of the movie to reach its 90 minute plateau.

– Special effects. This is only in the case of that batshit finale that I earlier referenced. There are some violent ends that require special effects to sell their impacts, but the editing and pasting of these blows are done so sloppily that you can easily see the cuts in between their riveting nature. It creates an emptiness of artistic merit that was almost entirely consistent up to that point, and makes me wish the film’s editing would’ve been as crisp as it was in earlier scenes with a character getting an arrow in the throat. That particular scene rattled with an intensity and speed that made it impossible to see the strings in the trick, supplanting believability before you even have a second to question its artificiality.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Directed By Richard Linklater

Starring – Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig

The Plot – Based on the runaway bestseller, the film is an inspiring comedy about Bernadette Fox (Blanchett), a loving mom who becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Bernadette’s leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

Rated PG-13 for some strong adult language and drug material

POSITIVES

– Gorgeous scenic shots. If Linklater was able to capture anything in this mess of a film, it’s in the gorgeous backdrops and exotic landscapes that are all filmed on location, without a single ounce of computer generation in their rendering. Antarctica is immensely gorgeous, and the way Richard weaves his way in and out of caves, over cliffs and crystal clear water, and establishes a rich vibe of isolation around us, gives importance to the feat that Bernadette has attained. In addition to this, the main setting of Seattle is beautifully rendered, preserving a psychological pulse in visuals in the form of rainy weather and rotting houses, that tell us everything about the character’s controversial move, and what it meant to her career. This is visual storytelling at its finest, and Linklater, a master of the lens, seduces us again with a variety in presentation that constantly keeps raising the stakes.

– Surprising cameos. A name as big as Linklater certainly comes with credible A-list drop-in’s, and the ones in “Bernadette” feel endless because of how even halfway through the movie they keep on coming. I won’t spoil any of the names here, but you would do yourself a huge favor if you kept away from IMDB or any other sites where they summarize the entirety of casts. For my money, the many icons of comedy who speak on Bernadette’s wisdom as an architect, in particularly one “John Wick” alum added the strongest presence to the main cast, and illustrated an outline of the genius before she became jaded by a conventional home life.

– One woman thunderstorm. Thank the movie gods for Cate Blanchett, because without her whirlwind of depth to the psychological pulse of the title character, we would otherwise be left with a series of performances that feel too wooden and forced to be believable. What works for Blanchett is the complexity, in that she’s really juggling two characters for the price of one. When we are introduced to her, we see the claustrophobia and overall smothering of a life that weighed this woman down in the most shape-shifting manner, and it makes it easier and satisfying to see the transformation that grows from that once she disappears. Blanchett constantly feels on the verge of tears, wrapped in a ball of anxiety from everything from a disrespectful neighbor to a marriage that is falling apart at the seams. It gives her this frail encompassing that matches the small bits of exposition deposits, like endless pill bottles, that we’ve come to know about the character, and cements another show-stealing performance from one of Hollywood’s biggest names going today.

– Cool post movie credits. Be sure to stay after the movie, as we get an informative and artistic rendering for the way first draft sketches come to life for architecture. Anyone who isn’t involved in the craft will find value from this, as it’s not only cool to see how even the most miniscule detail is captured, but also how the vision of the sketch becomes fully realized once everything is finished. What compliments this wonderfully are some fast-forward sequencing movements that slowly allows the drawing to fade away, and the building itself to come to life in a seamless transition. Audibly echoed by the sounds of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, the sequence is art imitating life in the form of Bernadette’s sketches, that preserve her passion in ways that show us her genius up front.

NEGATIVES

– False advertising. Considering this movie is marketed as an adventure comedy, the movie I actually got completely pulled the rug of expectations from under me in the worst possible way, and left me with this sluggish melodrama that never earned a single ounce of empathy from me. On a tonal capacity, this film feels like three different writers got in a room, and each plead their case, so the movie decided to keep the best parts of each. This not only undercuts the consistency of dramatic impact, but it also often contradicts its own direction with scenes of chaotic mayhem, that you can’t help but laugh at the sheer lunacy of it all. By the midway point, I completely checked out of this film because the sharp turns of a film trying to attain far too much tonally became as exhausting to mentally as it was physically to the title character.

– Plotless. For the first hour of this film, there is nothing in the way of conflict or resolution to feed into the plot that I described up top. In fact, the plot itself doesn’t even materialize until there is a half hour left in the movie, and even then the slashing of this film that sat on the shelf for over a year limits the pull of its mystery by trimming the run time. This film’s run time went from 130 minutes in the first draft that was supposed to release in March, and is now a 99 minute shell of its former self, and especially during Bernadette’s long distance journey, we never get to feel the conquering of her anxiety at sea, so the payoff is relatively unfulfilled.

– Halts progress. Every time the film starts to gain even a shred of momentum, the screenplay sharply brakes on these internet video sequences where we get lazy exposition in the form of former colleagues of Berndette speaking of her brilliance. These inserts aren’t quick by any stretch of the imagination, pausing the current day narrative for five minutes at a time to fill in the gaps where the original script before hacking certainly explained easier. It does this two times, and what’s even more concerning is that nothing included certainly isn’t anything that couldn’t be explained in passing conversations between Bernadette and her husband, or one scene in particular where a former colleague already on the tape finds her, and the two share a lengthy scene discussing her new life in Seattle.

– Detestable characters. Bernadette is certainly no peach, but neither is Wiig’s neighbor character. For the first half of the movie, these are the two sides that you have to choose from, and the movie’s begging for empathy between two upper class rude snobs isn’t made any better by the film’s second half, which proves how inconsequential everything prior really was. For the second half, we are still introducing new characters in the Arctic, and what doesn’t work about this late introduction is that the people described only serve as a convenient plot device to all but conveniently feed Bernadette her next spoonful of inspiration to get her over the hump. If a film lacks compelling character’s, it will be the hardest sell ever to me, and “Bernadette” never provides a side that any logical audience member can reason with, establishing a state of mind for Seattle that apparently breeds assholes. Why is this a best-seller again?

– Cheap plot device. This is a strange one because there’s a subplot introduced midway through the movie that has to do with fraud, and the way the script handles this horror story layering gave me more questions than the answers I was providing. For one, it inspired Bernadette to keep the architect mentality brewing, so why even head in this completely out of left field direction? For two, it wraps up in a way that is every bit as inconsequential as it is convenient in its resolution, providing no long lasting impact for why it was even incorporated in the first place. This subplot is never mentioned again once it is handled, so the way it introduces a conflict, and then handles it within ten minutes of one another is truly mind-numbing for the lack of weight it instills long-term.

– Strange pacing. For the first two acts of the movie, the unnecessary inclusion of some subplots stretch out the body’s movement in a way that makes the first hour feel twice of that, before the central plot even materializes. When it does, the film then rushes through the inspiring parts in a way that diminishes the meaning of the message, all the while illustrating two very sharp opposite directions in pacing that tested what little investment I already had in the movie. The obvious answer is the slashing that was done in the second post production that this movie went through, but I felt like the film tried to overly incorporate far too many aspects of the book that don’t translate well to the screen, without it ever finding its own voice of originality to not feel constrained by novel enthusiasts.

My Grade: 4/10 or D

Good Boys

Directed By Gene Stupinitsky

Starring – Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon

The Plot – Three sixth grade boys (Tremblay, Williams, Noon) ditch school and embark on an epic journey while carrying accidentally stolen drugs, being hunted by teenage girls (Molly Gordon, Midori Francis), and trying to make their way home in time for their first kissing party.

Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and adult language throughout, all involving tweens

POSITIVES

– Strong humor content. As expected from a series of trailers that articulated precise timing for its adult content, the film itself has no shortage of gut-busting material that constantly pushes the envelope. What matters most is not all of the good stuff is used in those trailers, leaving clever kid-aged quips, inexperienced naivety in mature situations, and a solid bond of chemistry between this trio of infectious personalities, while you would have to be heartless not to indulge in each time they share screen time together. While not as effective as “Booksmart” in terms of its unpredictability factor, “Good Boys” still embellishes enough in its good times to easily make this one of the three best comedies that I have seen thus far in 2019, and establishes youths as an untapped force to be reckoned with for truthful interactions.

– Surprisingly poignant. Perhaps the biggest positive that I pulled from the film was its responsible take for pediatric friendships that most movies don’t have the balls to feed to us through in an honest depiction. As the film progresses, we come to understand that being friends at the age of the boys in this movie is more built on convenience instead of deep-seeded similarities, and soon the air of inevitability rings true in testing them in ways that they never expected. What I love about this is it feeds into the mentality how barely any of us have friends from our childhoods, and the air of borrowed time is something that certainly adds a refreshing claustrophobic weight to the memories that they are currently relishing in. In fact, the entire third act feels like a precedent for the days that are about to come, nearly matching “Superbad” in that somber mall scene, where Michael Cera and Jonah Hill say goodbye for the last time.

– Star-making performances. Everyone already knows how much I adore Jacob Tremblay, after becoming a fan of his in 2016’s “Room”, and his work here is equally committing and precise in his timing for fine quality. So I will use this time to praise the duo of Williams and Noon for the unshakeable impact that they had on the film. Noon was originally who I thought would steal the show, but Williams’ combination of impatient yelling in pressure-filled situations and unique personality was something that allowed him to stand out from his on-screen co-stars. Noon is nearly equally captivating, delivering with a blunt brutality in vocal deposits that hints at a teenage badass in a 12-year-old’s body. These two not only gave me a majority of the laughs in the film, but also proved how far their versatility of emotional range will inevitably play into their blessed futures.

– As a pre-teen film. The coming-of-age story is certainly nothing new in modern cinema, but to document it from this age definitely is, and in doing so takes us through plenty of the complexities associated with junior high that stand in the way of our boys’ progression. For one, I love the anxiety that the film develops, not only with kissing for the first time, but also in the socially awkward enveloping in meeting people who we perceive as being “Cooler” than us. It tackles this as well as impressionable minds living in a grown-up world, and does it with a sense of unshakeable humor in personality, that keeps it from refusing this to ever turn dark in tone. Finally, I love that our trio of boys think so spontaneously. This more times than not gets them into trouble, and creates believable conflicts that evolve thanks in part to the mental incapacities of being placed in situations that they certainly aren’t used to, which in turn allows them to grow with every learning experience.

– A twist with plot devices. There’s a lot of surprises in this area, as a script so heavily outlined by obvious pivotal pieces in the first act weren’t used in ways that I was expecting throughout. For instance, a $600 object gets broken by the boys, and we know that a playing card that one of the boys has will easily solve this convenient conflict, but the refreshing positivity comes in the fact that this isn’t the eventual route that the film takes. In addition to this, a couple of other plot devices are distributed throughout, and not one of them ever materialized into the solution that I was expecting. There was absolutely no way that “Good Boys” was going to be anything but a predictable screenplay, but they pull it off with these momentary lapses of twists that prove that the duo of screenwriters are thinking outside of the box, further preserving an air of urgency that plays brilliantly with the party being only hours away.

– No time stamp. One of my problems with coming-of-age films is that they’re often given this air of modern day production in objects and backdrops that easily makes it a product of this time, in term limiting its appeal with each passing age. But “Good Boys” keeps its soundtrack ambiguous, saving a few familiar tracks only for instances involving humor within school plays or wherever else it doesn’t feel fresh for the setting of this story. In addition to this, there’s nothing in focus, outside of maybe the current day IPhone, that makes it feel like it won’t age well with future re-watches. The technical aspects of the movie are very grounded and conventional, but the productional aspects in set design and timely seamlessness gives the film crossover appeal that these subgenre films don’t often partake in, giving it the one true advantage where it can prosper.

– Highly quotable. What’s the key to any great comedy? Tons of quotes that become a part of pop culture conversation with our peers, and in this respect, the measure of comic firepower in “Good Boys” hits us with a barrage of one-liners and punchlines that I won’t be able to get out of my head for quite some time. Some of my favorites involve words being said wrong, or these loudly boisterous responses that elevate the laugh because of the physicality involved in the heat of the performance, but the cake-taker for me is definitely the hip demeanor with how these clean-cut boys lingo themselves in and out of conversations with their upper class classmates. This wave of slang sweeps over them like a transformational spirit, and soon I found myself whisked away to a time when I too tried to replicate what was hip for the current age.

NEGATIVES

– Obvious social commentary. My biggest problem with the script easily comes from these unbelievable lines of dialogue that no kid walking this earth would ever say. It mostly deals with female consent when it comes to kissing or any sexual activity, but springs as far as tax abandonment, the difficulty of political aligning, and of course equal rights, which we all know is a huge topic of conversation for eager youths. This wouldn’t be a problem if the film did it once or twice, and then dropped it, but these subject matters are brought up so frequently that it quickly becomes an agenda that the screenwriters are trying to instill, and while they are all admirable ones, they aren’t ones that gel synthetically with a child rendering.

– Plot conveniences. There were a few instances where things didn’t add up, with solutions from conflicts feeling like a disjointed mess in what we the audience are supposed to fill the blanks in with. Without spoiling anything, I refer to two different examples where reality didn’t gel with what transpired. The first is something that the boys buy, and how even without taking it out of the box are able to plug it into their phone to sync-up accordingly. The other one is how a drug dealer who sees the boys only hours before when they interrupted a kiss with his girlfriend, can’t recognize them face-to-face in a drug deal. One could write this off as coincidence, but these matters don’t add up for me, and instilled a level of incohesive storytelling that wore on the longer the film transpired.

– Choppy editing. When the jokes need visual assistance to sell their punchlines, the film fumbles in productional aspects, thanks in part to a framing device in editing that constantly drops the ball. Occasionally, you will get a bad joke that doesn’t land properly, and most of that has to do with a cutting to a character that sometimes happens too quick in terms of cutting, and often times too untimely with where it would better cater to the pause for reaction. Some reactions take too long to get to, and sometimes scenes cut during lines of read dialogue that are pasted together with the next scene in a way that abruptly crushes the prior, and overlaps the latter. It’s clear that this film is at the helm of a first timer in the directing chair, but hopefully with more experience comes a smoother presentation that better accentuates timing.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Blinded By the Light

Directed By Gurinder Chadha

Starring – Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell

The Plot – In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager (Kalra) learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material and adult language including some ethnic slurs.

POSITIVES

– Intriguing social commentary. Beyond this being a story about a dreamer, Bruce’s music, and the tie that binds them together, the film has a surprisingly deep amount of absorbing environment for Pakistani citizens living in England during the 80’s. This is at the cusp of a Nazi re-emergence which almost crippled the country whole, and led to a boom in racist rhetoric that challenged what many were viewing as a fresh start. For this family in particular, it leads to tight times for finances, tense conflicts in dynamics from within, and treatment for them by others, which documents racial inequality in a film that is otherwise upbeat. Credit to Chadha for tackling such mature content, and transitioning it smoothly enough to make everything gel with proper context and believability.

– Musical passion. We’ve all had something that inspires us, and speaks volumes to the kinds of tribulations we go through in our daily lives, and it’s the framing device for this excitement that gives the film a relatable quality in its content, serving psychologically as a story for the dreamers in all of us. For Jarev, Bruce Springsteen feels like a spiritual epiphany, and one that brings forth an air of clarity for him not being alone in his troubles. Comparing Bruce to a Pakistani teenage boy isn’t the easiest line to draw, but the film wonderfully articulates the accessibility of a poor boy from Jersey, who just wanted to escape his town of mediocrity for better ideals on the other side of the bridge. It highlights a power that music has in terms of emotional resonance, standing as the brick that holds everything together from crumbling down.

– SPRINGing soundtrack. There’s a fine offering of early Bruce favorites that adorn the collection of tracks heard throughout the film, but what’s more important than that is where they fit in to their real life time-frame. No song included is ever out of place with its 1987 setting, proving once again to “Bohemian Rhapsody” how the most simple things can preserve the strongest integrity for the artist. Surprisingly though, the boss isn’t the only artist featured in a song so deeply rooted in musical mastery. A-Ha, Pet Shop Boys, and even Debbie Gibson formulate nuance within the 80’s new wave bubble of pop, which was everywhere, and work so cohesively with the method of how the story frames them in their particular scenes. Bruce is clearly the artist in charge here, but it’s refreshing when a movie about a particular artist includes familiar faces and sounds from the designated era, giving light to complexity in musical tones, which serve as an audible scrapbook of memories from a past era.

– Borderline musical. The musical genre is grounded in reality here, as the performance scenes not only feel real with how they progress initially, but also immerses itself in the environment, with actors and actresses real voices doing the singing in the fluidity of the scene. Nothing is done in post-production or sound mixing, giving these fantastical sequences a manner of realism that doesn’t require the perfection of a musical to sell its allure. What sells it is their amateur singing styles never overlap the volume of the music itself, nor do they compromise the sizzle of the song. Completing the fun is Bruce lyrics, which come in the form of visual text seen on screen. This not only highlights where the lyrics hit so hard with Jarev’s particular situation, but also gives us the audience a chance at a sing-a-long for those tracks that we fell in love with like our jaded protagonist.

– Complex editing. There’s a music video kind of serenity to what transpires during scenes of musical incorporation, giving us a visual presentation that works beautifully with the pulse of the song. The editing movements themselves move cohesively with the beats of the track, giving us a firework of cuts that influence the firepower of the song without alienating the style of the sequence in an unflattering way. There are also many instances of photograph framing, where as many as four different angles of the same sequence are being presented in the same shot, giving us an abundance to focus on, instead of the conventional angle that we become accustomed to. These measures prove the energy and excitement entangled in the production of the film, and capture the essence of the boom in the music video era, which presented our musical icons as movie stars for the first time ever.

– Equal exposition. This is obviously Jarev’s story as advertised, but what’s a bit flattering about the screenplay is it takes valued time to contribute to these one-off side characters, teachers, and even every member of Jarev’s family, to better articulate the environment around him. A typical movie would throw a few lines in the direction of these characters, yet bind them from having any emotional weight to the progression of the script. Here’s a film that not only invests in them, but compares and contrasts the differences of their dynamics with our established protagonist. In my opinion, there wasn’t a character in the film who was unnecessary, and even more than this, one that I found unlikeable or non-deserving of their importance to the story.

– Production design. There’s plenty to unload here, but I’ll start with wardrobe design, which was synthetic in displaying the fashion trends of the late 80’s, which were a reflection of famous pop stars. For Jarev’s friends, there’s a lot of suit jackets, complete with padded shoulders and loud, boisterous color designs. For law enforcement, a three piece design, which prove those cops in “Austin Powers” were in fact moving and grooving with extreme comfortability. Aside from the fashion, the interiors are beautifully decorated, and reflective of the style for the Pakistani family , depicting a consistency of reds and golds from wall to wall that preserves a very lived-in quality to their influence. The production masters a level of personal identity without ever springing to feel too obvious within the focus of the scene, and during an age where absorbing styles and fashion trends were constantly changing, the film has a masterful approach in articulating this age of identity.

– Buzzworthy performances. Most of the cast here are virtual unknowns to American audiences, and what I love about that is it gives us the rare chance to paint on a blank canvas. In that regard, Viveik Kalra is a breath of fresh air for how he maintains teenage angst with a level of fresh optimism you don’t typically see. As Jarev, Kalra captures the essence of a dreamer, and one whose isolation from the family falling apart around him weighs heavily on our conscience. This is an actor who has never acted in a big screen movie before, and the professionalism and personality exuberated on his debut effort proves him as a face for the future, especially for his dedication to the craft, which allows him to transform spectacularly into a visual role that looks anything but similar to how he appears in real life. Aside from Viveik, Hayley Atwell is nourishing as a supportive teacher who drives Jarev to be better. The role is a bit cliche, which I will get to later, but Atwell’s energy and persistence for long-winded dialogue is something that translates wonderfully to the kind of mentorship that this character needs to drive him, and Atwell’s impression left on each scene proves that no role is too big or small for her endearing smile.

NEGATIVES

– Something doesn’t add up. While nothing in yearly consistency was problematic for me, there is a mentality introduced early in the film with Bruce which was a stretch for the particular time frame. Most of the teen characters surrounding Jarev allude to the fact that Bruce is a washed-up singer whose best days are behind him, yet to anyone who knows about late 80’s Bruce, he was fresh off of the success of “Born in the USA”, an album that made him a stadium rock mega-icon. Why is this such a problem for me? Because it makes those spare Bruce fans out to be loners of their kind, and while British new wave was extremely popular for the time, to only credit two kids in the film for having a love of Bruce is an extreme disservice to the one and only boss.

– Cliche’d. There’s a ton of cliches and tropes in the film’s plot that makes it every bit familiar as it is predictable to a scene’s conflict. Supportive teacher? CHECK, disapproving parents? CHECK, A kid trying to escape the town that limits him? CHECK, Neatly tucked in conclusion? CHECK. Everything is there, and stays so reserved from the trailer that we see, which gave us no additional surprises from the outline in my head that I had going into the film. It stands as the one major negative that I wish the film would’ve worked hard to clear itself from.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Directed By Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

Starring – Shia Lebeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zach Gottsagen

The Plot – An adventure story set in the world of a modern Mark Twain that begins when Zak (Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome runs away from a nursing home where he lives to chase his dream of becoming a professional wrestler and attending the wrestling school of The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Through circumstances beyond their control Tyler (Lebeouf), a small time outlaw on the run becomes Zak’s unlikely coach and ally. Together they wind through deltas, elude capture, drink whisky, find God, catch fish, and convince Eleanor (Johnson), a kind nursing home employee with a story of her own to join them on their journey.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, adult language throughout, some violence and smoking

POSITIVES

– Southern sizzle soundtrack. The musical incorporation has a huge part in this movie, echoing its twangs and bluegrass vibes for a majority of the film’s 92 minute run time superbly. There’s a seamless quality to the way it plays hand-in-hand with the documentation of the ever-changing visual environments, remaining consistently in-grip to the backroads channeling that the film holds so strongly in inescapable reminder. No track was ever familiar to me, and the benefit that holds is to maintain the attention of the audience firmly in tow to the dynamic of the story, leaving no escape routes of audible familiarity to drift away from what is transpiring on-screen. Very few films this year use music as a way to properly channel their unique setting, but “The Peanut Butter Falcon’s” immersive quality is nearly good enough to make you sweat with the humidity of the southern landscape.

– True tale of friendship. This is a feel good film that really tugs at the heartstrings of your cinematic vulnerability for how the movie values the common importances of life. It’s easy to see how these three characters alone have been jaded by life’s defining of each of them, but when they come together everything just clicks, and soon the trio find themselves blazing their own path of destiny as this lovable, disfunctional family that forgets the rules of conventionalism. What’s most important is the bond between them feels believable because of the time they spend interacting with one another, all for the interest of this magical man whose journey has united them. It teaches us not only to follow our dreams regardless of how big and boisterous they are, but also that the term family doesn’t always refer to blood. It’s a heartfelt reminder of life at its sweetest immagining, and gives the film a thought-provoking quality that radiates within its simplistic views towards life.

– Triple threat. It was great to see Shia back to dedicating himself to a character that requires a bit of a transformation to truly sell. Not so much in the visual capacity, but rather the audible one, Lebeouf maintains a southern accent wonderfully throughout, in addition to articulating enough quirks and ticks to his speech patterns that gives the character a very lived-in feeling of existence. Dakota Johnson also hands in another reputable turn in her post Fifty-Shades days. She emotes a character who balances a lot of love for Zak, as well as responsibility for the desperation of her job, and it makes the character easily the most complex of the film’s island of misfit toys. Gottsagen however, will repeatedly capture your attention in every scene he tears down the walls of personality which were built for him. In spite of his condition, the film has a lot of respect for Zak, comparing his dreams to that of us the audience, and offers one of those rare instances where he is defined for that quality instead of a condition that he was born into, and even when clashing with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, Gottsagen’s turn is the one you will definitely be talking about once the credits roll.

– Wacky personalities. Aside from the incredible work from the main cast, the combination of celebrity cameos and zany side characters added an endearing quality to the progression of the road trip, which surprised me at every turn. For the former, there’s a couple of professional wrestling cameos that made a wrestling fan like me do a double take, and added a layer of realism to Zak’s squared circle dreams, and for the latter, there’s apparently something in the water that intensifies the eccentric southern drawl that redefines the term southern hospitality. I couldn’t get enough of the many guests that this group came across, proving that compelling characters don’t necessarily require hours of exposition, but a flattering angle to capture the madness on display.

– Mesmerizing visuals. What I love is the complexity dedicated to the craft of shooting anything but a conventional shot composition to the immensity of the everglades, choosing instead to harvest it in some truly alluring wide angle lens combinations that speak wonders to a metaphorical double meaning. The first, is the distance of the journey itself, acting as a visual reminder to persevere through the miles that stand in the way as an adversity to ones dream, and the second is the preserving of this warm blanket of Heaven that the trio of newfound family find themselves in, under this vibrant blue sky that never seems to fade or diminish. This is a gorgeously shot film, and one that will easily transform your stereotypical opinion of the southern states in exchange for an endless amount of sunshine glow radiating off of the water so perfectly.

– As a wrestling interest piece. The list of credible professional wrestling movies is every bit as long as amazing video game movie adaptations, but “The Peanut Butter Falcon” gives way to a surprising third act that takes its time portraying the craft of Zak’s favorite sport. I mentioned earlier that there are two professional wrestlers in the film, but far beyond that, there’s a very candid depiction of the depths that ones career falls when the glitz and glamor wear off, and the few passionate fans are all that remains. There’s also a fantastical aspect to the wrestling’s choreography that would otherwise feel out of place in a film so grounded in reality, but works here because of the sentimental value it holds within the weight lifted from Zak’s psyche. The wrestling is so much more than an emerging subplot, it’s really central focus for the final twenty minutes of the film, and quenches the thirst of a wrestling fantatic like me, who rarely gets a chance to see it depicted with the air of class it deserves.

– Derivative to a plus. There’s no escaping this feeling like a Mark Twain deciple, and instead of the film trying to allude us from the obvious comparisons that this film draws from something like “Huckleberry Finn”, the central character himself even mentions the author in a moment that feels like the crossroads for two respective properties on the path to moral highground. There’s certainly nothing wrong with paying homage to a piece of literature that inspired you, and the team of Nilson and Schwartz incorporate the outline and themes to said novel, all the while distancing itself the longer that the film persists. Nothing feels remotely disrespectful or plagiaristic, and if it inspires someone who has never picked up a Mark Twain novel to give it a shot, then shouldn’t we be all the more grateful because of such?

– The ending. Even in a film that isn’t the strongest for its unpredictability factor, the closing moments throw a couple of twists and turns that rival 2006’s “Running Scared” for changing complexion. At first I thought that this, along with the wrestling match that I previously mentioned, were all elements inside of a dream sequence, but soon the walls of reality seem clearly evident, leaving us with a feeling of uncertainty that shakes everyone and everything for what transpires. You may read this paragraph and think it is all a major spoiler, but I promise that what you think happens doesn’t. It’s an entirely different direction of dramatic heft that closed the film out brilliantly, and stood as the biggest metaphor for the roller-coaster of emotional free-fall that I just rode.

NEGATIVES

– Too many musical montages. As to where I commended the film’s use of music throughout, the abundance of montage sequences constantly hindered the minimal amount of exposition for an already brief run time. It compartments these dynamics that aren’t given the proper two hours to fully flesh out, and gives the film’s second act an overwhelming rushed feeling that it never escapes from. The personalities and interactions of this trio are so compelling that I could never truly get tired of them, and this abrupt aspect of the film hints that the studio or the movie’s writers didn’t think that audiences like me would indulge in them as easily as it ultimately was, but their faith should’ve afforded them another half hour of exposition, particularly in the love angle between Lebeouf and Johnson, which feels like overdrive from their initial meeting.

– Brother subplot. Jon Bernthal is in this movie? I seriously had no idea. What’s even more troubling is that his inclusion offers very few moments of tender reflection or much needed explanation for the audience given constant reminder of this aspect. Almost immediately, you realize the meaning of this inclusion, but it holds so little weight on Shia or anything else within the film, earning it a badge of disjointed storytelling that would’ve been fine being omitted from the finished product. It felt like it was setting itself up for a confrontation that never came, and never truly established who this character was, what happened to him, and how did it happen to him?

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Directed By James Bobin

Starring – Isabella Moner, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Benicio Del Toro

The Plot – Having spent most of her life exploring the jungle with her parents, nothing could prepare Dora (Moner) for her most dangerous adventure ever: high school. Always the explorer, Dora quickly finds herself leading Boots (Danny Trejo), Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), a mysterious jungle inhabitant, and a ragtag group of teens on a live-action adventure to save her parents and solve the impossible mystery behind a lost Inca civilization.

Rated PG for action and some impolite humor

POSITIVES

– Responsibility realized. When Dora debuted on Nickelodeon, she not only became a pop culture icon, but more importantly a Latino one, and especially during a time when our neighbors to the south are feeling the sting of freedom falling apart, the film is perhaps more important than ever in giving them a hero they can feel proud of. As an action protagonist, Dora is tough, charming, intelligent, and even dangerous when she needs to be, and the never-ending flow of her spirit is something that represents the Mexican demographic candidly, etching out a persistence for always getting the job done. Likewise, the film is shot on location in the Amazon, so many of the sets and wardrobe associated speak vibrantly to an Aztec culture that is very rarely rendered in cinema. Everything from family traditions, to free-flowing gowns is on display for the group better known as the people of the gods, and with it holds valuable weight to the film that makes them anything but just a beautiful shooting location.

– Set designs. Speaking of which, the imagination donated to fun and audience immersive puzzles is something that added a lot of intrigue to the film, crafting this as a kids version of Indiana Jones without fully ripping it off for inspiration. Not only is their detailed variety in the gorgeous backdrops that surround our leads, but every trap that they find themselves having to get out of requires each particular character to indulge in something that they are good at, building them stronger as a group the longer the film persists. In contrast to this, the scenes in Los Angeles offer a stark variation on everything that Dora is used to, bringing forth the boisterous sounds and toxic personalities that come with upper class privilege. It gives the film a big budget feel with so many varied locations, allowing it to transcend some of the bigger budget problems that the film faces in other areas that I will get to later.

– Perfect tone. Most importantly, this film knows what it is; a wacky slew of hijinks that vibes togetherness and inclusion in an adventurous manner. It finds a comfortable balance somewhere in the middle between being taken too seriously and feeling so off the wall that it feels disjointed in its sequencing. This one stays focused with all of its madness, and brings forth a level of comic firepower that left my gut in knots more than a couple of times. It’s mostly kid humor, but there are a few clever zingers scattered throughout that only adults will pick up on, and while I appreciate a kids movie that treats youths with respect, the accessibility for all ages of audience is something I appreciate so much more. My favorites are definitely the scenes where everything stops so Dora can speak to the audience beyond the screen, paying homage to the television show in a way that makes her look like a nut here. Loved it.

– Spanish flavored soundtrack. There’s a couple of things to compliment here. The first, Dora’s incredible freestyling skills, which takes the group through many embarrassing and tense situations in which she talks them through peacefully. One such song involves a character taking a dump, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the most catchy and detailed lyrics that I’ve heard from an original piece of music in a long time. Beyond this, the soundtrack itself includes many pop culture favorites, but done in Spanish, complete with mariachi style musical accompaniment. There are many, but the two I caught were Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking”, and of course my second favorite song from The Cure “Just Like Heaven”. It keeps the flavor of the movie finely tuned with the rest of the film’s cultural setting, all the while preserving a level of familiarity in choices that will have the parents toes tapping.

– My favorite scene. I was never a fan of Dora the Explorer during its television run, but the scene that left the biggest imprint on my memory even an hour after the film is this sequence where the characters go through a bit of a drug trip, and their embodiment changes to animated form. I won’t spoil anything else, because there is a lot of creativity donated to the dialogue of the scene, but this three minute fantasy pays homage wonderfully to the spirit of the original television show without soiling the integrity of everything that it’s accomplishing originally within this film. What’s important is the animation is the exact same, not exactly transferring well to the silver screen, but doing its job on the subject of homage integrity that many remakes can’t master accordingly.

– Committed performance. I’ve been a fan of Isabela Moner for a long time, but her work here is her single most convincing role to date. Moner was born to play Dora, and even more than that, she embodies every single aspect about the character that no other acting adaptation has mastered this year for a pre-established character. Isabela’s infectious demeanor requires you to be heartless to not be touched by her magnetic charms, and the girl kicks ass in a way that very few kid properties allow their characters to instill. Capped off with an openness that naively sees the best in people, Dora is the character we don’t deserve, but the one we need right now, and thanks to Moner in the driver seat, there’s no way that a young actress as dedicated to the craft as her would ever let this opportunity pass her by.

– Room on the bone for a sequel. The first half of this film is Dora experiencing real life in America, complete with the awkwardness of high school, and while I enjoyed the adventure that this film took me on, it was the America part that I could’ve used more of. The positive out of this is that it leaves plenty of meat of creativity for a second movie involving Dora’s vulnerability living now permanently in America, as well as dating, bullying, and everything else that comes with a fish out of water story. As for this film, it gives enough satisfaction in its material easily being worth the ticket price for a matinee screening, but it’s wise enough to build a second movie in which the expectations will be much higher since this film became a success.

NEGATIVES

– Awful computer generation. I figured the animal properties and certain effects work of the film would be computer generated, but what I didn’t expect was how lifeless their renderings left my mind having to fill in the gaps of believability. The animals themselves are the worst I’ve seen in a few years, not only for failing to attain the level of natural lighting in any scene that they are involved in, but also for the lack of weight they deposit on a live actor’s interaction. Even for Nickelodeon animation, this is bad on a whole new level, and is easily the biggest flaw for a movie that has a surprising amount of integrity to its reputation.

– No consequences. I understand that this is a cartoon world, but the lack of scrapes, blood, or any kind of injuries through death-defying leaps of faith is something that erases any level of vulnerability, which in turn takes away any shred of suspense for the audience. The excuse will be that people don’t watch Dora for suspense, but this is an action first movie, so therefore it requires even an ounce of real world consequence to its many stunts. The worst of all for me is a jump that Dora makes across two sides of the cave, which can be seen in the trailers for the movie. After her jump, it cuts, and we see Dora laying on the ground at least a hundred feet beneath where she jumped, with no scratches or bone breaks to make her regret doing it in the first place. If Dora doesn’t subdue to pain, then why not have her lunge herself at her opposition at all times? Part of what makes the character so relatable is the fact that she is a teenager, and one who lives, breathes, and hurts just like all of us.

– Weak antagonist. For my money, there never should’ve been an antagonist character in this movie. The antagonist itself should’ve been the cave, with Dora and her crew trying to find their way out of it. With that said, we receive an antagonist halfway through the film, and it holds very little bearing or impact to the remainder of the film. What’s worse is this antagonist makes even less sense the more you think about it. SPOILERS DO NOT READ ON. So you’re telling me that this guy went through everything that Dora and friends did just so he could turn on her? Every death defying instance? One of which he almost drowned on, and all of which he leaves his life in the hands of kids for. Not exactly the criminal mastermind kind of thinking you would expect.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Angry Birds 2 Movie

Directed By Thurop Van Orman

Starring – Jason Sudeikis, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader

The Plot – The flightless angry birds and the scheming green piggies take their beef to the next level when a new threat emerges that puts both Bird and Pig Island in danger.Red (Sudeikis), Chuck (Josh Gad), Bomb (Danny McBride), and Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) recruit Chuck’s sister Silver (Rachel Bloom) and team up with pigs Leonard (Hader), his assistant Courtney (Awkwafina), and techpig Garry (Sterling K. Brown) to forge an unsteady truce and form an unlikely team to save their homes.

Rated PG for rude humor and sequences of action

POSITIVES

– Animation improvements. As to where the vibrancy in color designs were equally as captivating in the original film, it’s really the dimensions given to character outlines, as well as the animator’s firm grip on landscape influence that makes this film stand out as visually superior. In particular, the action sequences feel far more impactful thanks to the detail in devastation that equals that of the rhythmic sound design. Likewise, the eye-popping arrival of the snowy mountainside offers a stark contrast to the sunny tropical climates we’ve grown used to from the franchise. This is certainly a beautiful triumph for Sony Animation, and it’s one that will hold the attention of its youthful audience, if only for the dazzle that comes with production experience.

– Consistently persistent. A film clocking in at 87 minutes is expected to be swift in its storytelling movements, but what works for “Angry Birds Movie 2” is that it constantly keeps the pressure on the movements of the conflicts and environments without it weighing heavily on the pacing of the scenes. There are problems I had with the disjointed nature of the continuity in scenes edited together, particularly during the second act, but never once can I say that I was bored by the film, and that’s almost entirely because, like its feathered flock, this one is always flying by, leaving little in the way of heavy exposition. The material encased isn’t exactly thought-provoking or poignant in deeper meaning, so the decision to keep it short, sweet, and directly to the point is one that I greatly appreciate.

– Charismatic cast. Much thanks goes to Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels for having a much bigger hand than people think in the casting of this film. Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Leslie Jones, Maya Rudolph, Pete Davidson, and Beck Bennett lead a cast of prime time players who each give their signature flare and raw tapped-in energy to a barrage of eclectic personalities who make up our group. Beyond the SNL crew, we get noteworthy turns as well from Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Tiffany Haddish, Danny Mcbride, Peter Dinklage, and a birds debut from Awkwafina, who steals the show and screen time for the lessons instilled by her character that better materialize Red as the protagonist we’ve always needed. This talented cast goes well above the material, and really invest their all into the heartbeats of their respective characters, and in a collaboration world that recently just saw Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham come together to save the world, the credibility associated with this film comically is second to none in 2019.

– Positive lessons. As is the case with any kids movie, this one summarizes its lessons in the material it conveys, and it’s clear that the intentions are easy to emit from the many scenarios that play out on-screen. “Angry Birds 2” harvests a message of teamwork, as well as a comfortable blanket of being yourself, and not worrying about the way other people see you. As is the case with Red, his newfound heroism is something that he is still learning to grow with, and because of such he allows this thought process to cloud his judgment when it comes to the friendships he has gained for the first time in his life. This gives the film a great continuance on the guidelines it set for opening up during the first movie, and teaches us that being a good person relies on so much more than being there for other people, it’s also being there for yourself.

– My favorite arc. I love that much of the film focuses on the psychology of Red’s moves while in control, and the way that his peers see him since the triumph of the closing moments of the first film. It gives the film an unusually heavy layer of subconscious that breathes alongside the storytelling in ways that allows the central protagonist to grow naturally from one film to the next. Because of the weak antagonist plot, which I will get to later, this more than anything felt like the sail that was steering the fragile masculinity of the character, and gave him a surprising amount of depth in the way that no other character even comes close to. I may not have a lot to say positively about this film, but Red is one of my favorite animated protagonists of 2019.

NEGATIVES

– One sided humor. Like the first film, many of the gags both audibly and visually in the film are geared towards youthful audiences, with very few moments of reprieve for the parents forced to tag along. Especially as is the case with kids movies today, there’s often a desire to please both sides of the coin, but “Angry Birds 2” isn’t clever enough to find the same kind of double meaning in its material to invite multiple age groups to pull something different from the joke, and it demeans it from having strong crossover appeal with those forced to take it in. For my money, I laughed twice in the film, and these certainly weren’t gut-busting blow-offs, but rather bombastic instances where the animation practically leaped off of the screen, and sold the lunacy of the situation better than the set-up ever could. In this regard, the moody crumudgeon Red of the first film gave me at least a few more giggles where I could relate for the similar personality that I possess.

– Weak antagonist. For about the first forty minutes of this film, it felt like there was no villain for the birds and pigs to go against, but out of nowhere, without properly navigating through this character’s backstory, she is turned and sold as the central conflict of the story, and given the tired destructive role that antagonists in kids movies are practically born with. Leslie Jones does a decent enough job emoting this character, but the screenplay couldn’t take a scene to build her on her own when the protagonists aren’t standing right next to her, and it signifies an already cluttered character list didn’t have enough time to properly build one more, and overall it gives much of the conflict dynamic within the film this underwhelming lack of urgency that ironically feels even more cliche’d despite not wasting half of the normal screen time on her.

– Outdated soundtrack. Another tired trope for kids movie is to market these top 40 dance tracks that are a few years too late by the time the film eventually drops, and make a sight gag out of them in lazy, uninspired manners of comedy for the purpose of selling downloads. The easy answer is that the typical animated movie takes 2-3 years to make, but the most familiar offender here, “Turn Down For What” by Lil Jon, is from 2013, giving its inclusion a salmonella level of shelf life that made me sick just from hearing its familiar initial notes. It embodies everything that is wrong with the Angry Birds name to begin with; a corporate manufactured product with the only intention being to sell downloads.

– Too much borrowing. There’s nothing original about “Angry Birds 2”, and what’s even worse? it shares writers with the very films it lifts its material from. Peter Ackerman, who penned many of the Ice Age movies, brings along hijinks scenarios where everything around the characters goes wrong far beyond their control…..similar to Scrat in “Ice Age”. Beyond this, the whole mission itself, from tonal capacity to event outlines, serves as a discount version of “Despicable Me 3”, a film that was easily the weakest of that respective franchise. Finally, how many animated movies have a peaceful group led by a hero, who then comes across a new-and-improved character, which then makes the former feel alienated from the power he has attained? It’s like preserving chewed-up meat, and then throwing it on the grill to hope it will sizzle. It doesn’t, and it leaves this film every bit as uninspiring as it does predictable.

– Pointless padding. Towards the end of the second act, there’s a subplot introduced involving the finding of three eggs that some of the supporting characters try to hunt down. Not only does this not hold any weight within the confines of the central conflict, but its conclusion essentially holds no weight or bearing on the closing moments of the picture. This makes it feel like an obvious device for getting the run time to the desired minimum, and what’s even more confusing is that it should’ve been used to better accommodate the fumbled antagonist focus, which as I mentioned earlier is virtually non-existent throughout the first half of the film.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Farewell

Directed By Lulu Wang

Starring – Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin

The Plot – A headstrong Chinese-American woman (Awkwafina) returns to China when her beloved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Billi struggles with her family’s decision to keep grandma in the dark about her own illness as they all stage an impromptu wedding to see grandma one last time.

Rated PG for thematic material, brief adult language and some smoking

POSITIVES

– Cathartic direction. Wang herself lived through this story, so in her ability to write and direct these very intimate situations, she outlines a series of nuances within her family environment that are given these moments of personalization from her subtle touch. As a storyteller, Wang is someone who takes value in preserving the integrity and realism within a scene, choosing to let a laugh or emotional pull feel earned with the progression of those who move in and out of frame. This not only gives the movie a unique manner in its telling of exposition, but it also allows us the audience to absorb more of the ever-changing roller-coaster in tone that so much of the film rests its shoulders on. On the surface level, “The Farewell” is a Hallmark card to the woman who cemented such a legacy within Lulu’s heart, and it’s one that transcends geographic designation in favor of feelings and emotions that makes every culture similar in heart.

– Chinese culture. It was refreshing and even thought-provoking to learn about Chinese mentality, especially that with how they view America as a prestigious destination. Throughout the film, we are given many examples of Chinese citizens describing the dream that is the land of the free, but it’s in Billi’s love for her birthplace, as well as the absorbing quality in visuals that hint at that feeling of home being where you make it. Even though America is usually thought of as the greatest country in the world, here China makes its claim with entrancing landscapes and a yearning for family importance that offers plenty of poignancy for comparative dissection. With the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” and now this movie, the tide seems to be turning for cultural reaffirmation, and it’s great that American productions are allowing themselves the faith and integrity to focus on a demographic that has been ignored for far too long in cinema.

– Tonal balance. “The Farewell” is a full-fledged dramedy that competently and consistently reaches for two tones in direction that are mastered wonderfully without one ever compromising the other. What’s so rich about the humor is that it often comes at the expense of a family in their most intimate of settings, yet never feels condemning or insulting to them at the same time. Meanwhile, the dramatic weight preserved from such a condemning lie within this family keeps this cloud of regret hanging over them through each celebratory occasion that each of them knows will be the last for their beloved family member. What’s surprising is how each of these sides develop naturally through the dynamic of each relationship, giving us several moments, like life, that can throw a shower of moods our way thanks to the spontaneity that keeps us on our toes.

– The Lie. You always hear how something bad happening to one person doesn’t just hurt them, but everyone around them, and this case couldn’t be heard more loudly than the deceit that so many people keep buried deep inside. In one example, a couple within the family rushes their marriage all for the sake of Grandma being alive long enough to see it, and what this does is not only lessen what is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime special day, but also leaves the bride and the groom mentally paralyzed to shake their minds free of anyone or anything other than their sick grandmother. Likewise, the longer this lie is maintained, the more the characters flirt with eventually letting it all go, and it makes for some truly crippling scenarios that certainly hurt them, and leave the only person physically affected by all of this left unscathed. Perhaps justification and logic for why the lie was created in the first place.

– Eye-opening performance. Awkwafina is easily the main focus here, and it’s definitely a good thing, as this starring role allows her to shed most of her comedic impact that has typecast her so far in her career, in favor of dramatic chops that pull at your heart. Awkwafina’s watery eyes and soft-spoken demeanor are only topped by the performance of her body language, that channel what is taking place internally within her. What’s so pivotal about this is that it accurately portrays grief as something so much more than emotional, and articulates a measure in performance that other films dealing with grief often overlook when directing their films. It’s clear that Wang demanded more from Awkwafina, and thanks to her protagonist’s untouched dedication to the role, we get a transformative performance from her that serves as the cemented argument whenever anyone challenges her dramatic depth.

– A rare feat. It’s not often that a live action film, especially a dramatic one, attains a PG rating, but “The Farewell” proves that it doesn’t require unnecessary attributes to sell the meaning of its material. Never at any point in the film did these missing contributions hinder the quality of the film I was watching, nor did it make the character’s feel any less human because of my lack of familiarity with how I myself respond to grief. What’s truly compelling is despite the grown-up demeanor in consequences to the screenplay, this really is a film for the whole family, and one that pertains a gentle side of mental conflict that takes up so much time of the advancement within its character’s.

– Variety in shot composition. There’s a strong sense of maturity within Wang that helped her grow as on-screen presenter the longer the film went on. During the first act, much of her angles and framing rate felt very grounded and uninspiring, but during the film’s second half, her sense of experimentation took over, and brought us a series of memorable shots that gave the film strong artistic merit. Several long-take scenes, character following shots, That 70’s Show style during a Chinese memory game where everyone is drunk, and the gorgeous detailing of framing that reflects some vibrant levels of Chinese decorations. These shots are not only filled with lots of personality as described in the later shot I previously mentioned, but also visually reflect the change in tempo and mood from what is transpiring on-screen before our very eyes.

– Layers in musical accompaniment. Alex Weston’s work here is seamless with emotional weight. So much so that his score for the movie mostly emits a level of ominous dread that really captures the essence of the task that this family is left to deal with. Likewise, the soundtrack of assorted top 40 favorites to a Chinese rendering is equally captivating, and gives the movie a level of pop culture familiarity that helps it in being as equally accessible as the film’s many central themes. It will probably take a re-watch to gather all of them, but some that I definitely noticed were “Killing Me Softly” from The Fugees, “Come Healing” by Leonard Cohen, and another 80’s favorite that I currently can’t put my finger on, that closed the film. The Chinese instrumentals that go alongside each of these tracks provides weight in geographic location to perfectly place where the story is at all times, and Weston’s ceremonious string of stingers presets the proper mood scenes before the character conflicts ever do.

NEGATIVES

– Abrupt ending. For a movie so content with sentimentality, the lack of care instilled in the film’s closing minutes felt anti-climatic, and left me yearning for more in terms of impactful closing moments, Sure, there’s a pre-credits visual text that tells us everything we need to know about the family associated with the story, but it does that on-going Hollywood cliche where it tells what it should be showing, and leaves the biggest article of importance as a post-movie afterthought, free from the disjointed closing shots, that felt a bit tacked-on.

– Plot hole. One thing that I couldn’t overlook in the movie was the grandmother’s condition not feeling clearly evident to her that she is dying, despite what everyone along the way is telling her. I myself have never had cancer, at least as far as I know, but I’ve heard that you literally feel the life draining out of you, and in spite of all of this, the grandmother in the film is completely clueless when it comes to her condition. Especially considering how long she has been told that she has to live, it’s a bit misleading that she hasn’t picked up on some of the long term symptoms that ride alongside a disease so conforming and shaping of the people we know and love.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Hobbs & Shaw

Directed By David Leitch

Starring – Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba

The Plot – Lawman Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and outcast Deckard Shaw (Statham) form an unlikely alliance when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain (Elba) threatens the future of humanity.

Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Signature Style. As opposed to the cinematography of the previous franchise installments, “Hobbs & Shaw” is privy to a combination of geographic variety and intense shot compositions that vividly pay homage to the 90’s action thrillers that practically defied gravity. The chase sequences are easy to register, and more importantly don’t rely on shaking camera effects to sell the appeal of its adrenaline, and the music video style of neon lighting and absorbing cultural qualities constantly gives the movie a big stage presence that our colorful protagonists must adapt to frequently.

– Speaking of which, the action set pieces in the film are every bit as challenging in dynamic as they are diverse in props and creativity. This not only keeps the set designs fresh for innovation when it comes to methods of torture for our leading duo, but also allows them plenty of moments to chew the scenery when it comes to reacting to what they are being put through. It’s also important that no conflict or solution repeats itself, and this benefit helps us to see the intelligence factor between Hobbs and Shaw, as well as continue to build the chemistry between them, which grows before our very eyes. Some of these sequences are a little long for my taste, but the movie’s never-slow-down mentality continuously keeps our blood pumping throughout scenes of destruction and total chaos, leaving us very few moments of breath along the way.

– Bonding buddies. To say the work of Johnson and Statham is electric would be an understatement. Without question, the film’s biggest strength is the on-going rivalry between the two, which gives us plenty of laugh-out-loud moments of digs at one another, as well as plenty of moments of vulnerability that broke down the walls of masculinity that we the audience have become conditioned to. Both articulately balance this level of brute and humor exceptionally, and carve out two characters who are not only equal in storytelling importance, but also in the capabilities that each one has when the proper situation calls for it. Aside from these two, I also loved the work of Vanessa Kirby as this kick-ass M-I-6 agent gone rogue. It’s not often in this series that we get a hard-nosed female protagonist to counterbalance the testosterone that sometimes smothers these films, but Kirby’s snappy speed in execution and unintentional sexuality makes her a devilishly dangerous force to be reckoned with.

– Surprising cameos. In addition to the main cast that provide endlessly, the incorporation of some pretty big names in cameo roles were a pleasant gift that forced me to keep my eyes open at all times. I won’t spoil who they are, but one has been in a previous Fast and Furious film, and the two new ones are two of the biggest celebrities working in Hollywood today. What’s essential about their inclusions is that they aren’t their for facial fan service, but instead provide pivotal links to Hobbs and Shaw, both in and out of the field of danger. Even the case with one surprise star, it gives me a taste at this guy being in a movie with Johnson that I’ve always wanted, and proves that their chemistry is every bit as strong as the duo we’re left to spend over two hours with.

– Self-aware. This is a film that knows what it’s trying to be, and even more respectful, has no shame in the batshit evolution that its franchise has taken to this point. My measure for this is in some awfully cheesy dialogue, which allude to the point that this installment is the measuring stick for crossing over to the other side of sanity, giving us a series of crazy scenarios and big dumb fun that practically oozes out of every pore of the movie. Whether you like or hate this movie, you won’t be able to shake yourself of the intentionally fun time that this story and characters have with one another, and from the opening split-screen introduction to our two leads, we are shown the diversity between their backgrounds, which allow them to clash heads through no shortage of one-upmanship.

– Perfect director. David Leitch is someone who perfected his uniqueness in the 2016 film “Deadpool”, and that sense of personality in the heat of the moment, as well as his capabilities with shooting action sequences is definitely carried over to his latest work here. As I mentioned earlier, the camera angle versatility showcasing some crisp, believable fight choreography dazzles, and his ability to instill moments of awkwardness to the dynamic of this friendly rivalry that exists within these moments of saving the world allows it to break the fourth wall of conflict in the same manner that “Deadpool” did so unapologetically. While not as big of a slam dunk as that movie was, “Hobbs & Shaw” demanded and received a director who values action and humor hand-in-hand, and it’s in that desire to know what it wants that allows the most off-the-rails movie of the franchise to also feel like the most precise in terms of where it should be in tone.

NEGATIVES

– Plodding pacing. This starts to catch up around the halfway mark in the movie, as the abundance of action sequences start to catch up to the fluidity of the story’s minimal exposition script. It’s not that there’s even too many action scenes, but just that too much time is devoted to each of them, erasing the lines of the three act structure in a way that minimalizes the momentum that the movie continuously must start over building for itself. Likewise, the film’s 133 minute run time ends prematurely so four different post credit scenes can play out to shop another Hobbs and Shaw movie. If it were up to me, I would cut the break-in scene in the middle of the second act, and just spend more time on further fleshing out Hobbs return to Samoa, and the effect that his vanishing had on the members of his family.

– It’s a cartoon superhero film. Debating logic in a Fast and Furious movie is like counting calories at Mcdonalds; there’s no point. But the lack of logic associated with elements in the film is such a stretch that there’s simply some things I couldn’t overlook. Why is it a cartoon? gravity practically disappears from this world, giving us scenes of a helicopter pulling five pick-up trucks, no consequences in the world of law enforcement or injuries, despite some insanely devastating crashes for the latter, and voice-only antagonist leader, which inadvertantly pays homage to Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw. Why is it a superhero film? Genetic altering. Elba’s antagonist is made superior by a serum that makes him quicker and more dangerous. The problem is we aren’t told how this serum works or where it was even created in the first place. Beyond this, Johnson seems to be infected with it as well, as a scene involving him clotheslining a biker coming from the opposite direction apparently doesn’t snap his arm like a twig. This definitely feels like The Rock’s response to The Avengers not picking him for their team, so why get mad when you can get even?

– No urgency. The problem with making your heroes so cool is that it not only demeans the power of your antagonist, but conjures up no scenes of tension for the audience watching at home. This is the problem with Elba’s antagonist, as despite Idris doing the most he can for the role, the script simply doesn’t value him enough to make him anything other than a world-dominating baddie whose soul defining trait is his gruff vocal range that every antagonist seems to have. Johnson and Statham can’t be bothered in the least with feeling intimidated by their opposition. So much so that I feel the “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions” song by The Lonely Island was written exclusively for them.

– Plot convenience. It’s pretty cool that Johnson’s character conveniently knew not only where Elba’s gang of thugs were going to strike big during the third act conflict, but also what time they were going to be there, giving him ample time to prepare for such a force. Likewise, I’m thankful that all of his elite governmental group’s computers are so easy to hack into that three different non-governmental workers manage to do so in this film. If I went into the virus itself, this review would be 2000 words easily, so instead I will say this (SPOILERS…..YOU’VE BEEN WARNED) Viruses can’t be removed from a vaccuum. Once they are introduced to a body, removing them completely is impossible.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

Directed By Quentin Tarantino

Starring – Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie

The Plot – Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature length film visits 1969 Los Angeles, where everything is changing, as TV star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore, but after Rick gets a new neighbor in the form of actress Sharon Tate (Robbie), the two face a new level of prominence that they didn’t see coming.

Rated R for adult language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references

POSITIVES

– Deeper cuts. On the surface level, this film is marketed as an action thriller between two film star best friends who interact with their newfound famous neighbor, but the material reflects a passion much closer to the heart of its enthusiastic director. In such, Tarantino crafts “Once Upon a Time” as this commentary on all things film, balancing the many rises and falls of fame, as well as a colorful dynamic between real life and the silver screen that clearly has more respect for the former. For Quentin, it feels like the best things often happen in real life, as echoed by Margaret Qualley’s character when she states “Actors are so phony. The real people are the ones getting their asses kicked by life”, and boy is she correct. Through many vivid observations on the set, we gain a surreal gaze not only on the craft of acting, but also in the many conversations and background studio cliches that more than support the idea that Tarantino has soaked up a few things from the nine movies he has helmed.

– Production value. Easily the best that I’ve seen in 2019, as Tarantino bends the sands of time with a visual presentation that immerses us fifty years into the past, to conjure up this consistency in believability that continues to shine the longer the film persists. Throwback businesses, complete with neon signs, wardrobe and cars reminiscent of the flower power generation, unorthodox shot compositions by Tarantino that reflect the golden age of cinema, and an audible reminder in the atmosphere full of commercial advertisements and catchy jingles to construct weight for the time period. Everything here is perfect, and it allows transcendence in this idea of us the audience watching a film that takes place in 1969, and instead brands the whole feature itself as a tape from the era, giving us synthetic authentication for how Tarantino would’ve managed as a filmmaker in his favorite generation of cinema.

– Bone-crushing brutality. Tarantino has always captivated audiences with his exploiting nature in the way he documents violence, and this film may take the cake in that regard. What’s truly compelling is how little of it there really is throughout this movie, saving its opportunities for the moments when its impact will be heard the loudest, and boy did it ever ring true in the final fifteen minutes of this film. Capped with impeccable sound design and tight-knit editing that keeps the sequence wrapped inside of this ball of never-ending torture, the scene will serve as a divisive one for moviegoers, and stand as a virtual ink-blot test for psyche stimulus. For me, even with most of the violence being towards females, the atmosphere and sheer lunacy of its arrival constantly kept this in the hilarious realm of surrealism, keeping me from ever taking it seriously as anything other that fantasy filmmaking.

– Attention-grabbing performances. Tarantino has always had great casts, but this might be his single greatest to date, garnering a big name behind every corner and scene, that really gives the film this big budgeted feeling of fame that its troubled protagonist can’t shake. Dicaprio is a whirlwind as Dalton, balancing consistently a southern accent and many noticeable ticks and quirks that gives his character this element of fleshed-out humanity that I wasn’t expecting. Brad Pitt is easily the show-stealer for me, as during late in the second act, this film kind of becomes his character’s, and takes us through the eyes of a man who takes no shit, and gives nothing but brutish personality in the way he attacks life, easily outlining one of my favorite characters of 2019. One disappointment however came in the handling of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. Other than this free spirit who dances and pines for the limited fame she attains, Robbie is given very few chances for the audience to understand her character’s motivations, and feeling like nothing more than an attaining feat for Dalton, instead of her being a pivotal character during a film that is telling her life story.

– Slamming soundtrack. Music is such a continued presence in the film that it practically becomes a character alongside the many familiar faces we engage with. What’s beneficial about this is not only does Tarantino match the consistency in continuity with the particular time period, but his musical selections for the majority are deep cuts that really only appeal to lovers of the generation. It’s also not close-minded in its eclectic nature, bringing us big name artists like Neil Diamond, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Vanilla Fudge, and of course Deep Purple to constantly keep our toes tapping. There’s a wide versatility in the volume level given to the many tracks, and this allows each of them to feel much closer to the characters instead of this beacon of post-production that our actors and actresses are so obviously not hearing and interacting with.

– Tarantino’s Truth. This is another case of a real life event that is bended with an air of fantasy and surrealism through the director’s eyes, and it allows us another ‘What If’ example of storytelling that changes the complexion of the things about the Sharon Tate murders that we’ve come to know. What I love about this is that it combines fiction and reality in a way that is not only respectable to the people involved, but never sacrifices entertainment value because we the audience know we’re watching something that truly didn’t happen this way. I view Tarantino films as this Twilight Zone of never-ending possibilities. Taking something that would otherwise be predictable if it followed every single measure of fact, and instead weaving us through these three stories intricately in a way where fate binds them together to craft this new tale.

– Deconstructing the narrative. As is the case with what Tarantino did in 1994’s “Pulp Fiction”, he once again strips everything we’ve come to know about a three act structure, and presents us with this hybrid of tonal shifts and dialogue-driven long takes that completely reinvents storytelling once again. Surprisingly, the film is essentially plotless, instead taking us through the lives of many people in a way to further realize the momentum of the swing that fame currently holds them within. This will definitely not be for everyone, as I compare it to his film “Death Proof”, a movie polarized by many Tarantino faithful for its abundance of talk with very little walk (Action). The same thing is present here, as the dialogue takes its time to get to know the characters and atmospheres accordingly, catering to many sides of tonal shifts along the way, with everything from comedy, to action, to downright horror for the sake of conflict evolutions. If you’re expecting one of his films that cuts straight to the point, you will probably be disappointed with this one. Quentin is certainly a painter who wants us to embrace every broad stroke for the integrity of the painting, and it has no problem taking its time in this regard.

– Character placement. I wanted to mention this in a separate section from the production, as the editing of familiar films from cinema are given the inclusion of Dalton in them, and the look and feel of the manufacturing feels seamless for the attention given to the details here. Leonardo Dicaprio obviously wasn’t in “Marlowe”, but thanks to grainy cinematography for the screen within the screen, as well as the directed performances of Dicaprio instilling a sense of weight to the interaction with those characters, these sequence bits astound in a way that really makes me wonder just what Hollywood can do if they wanted to take a modern day actor and throw them into “Back to the Future” or “The Breakfast Club”. Production like this is so good it’s scary, and gives Dalton a visual reputation to go with the audible one we hear so much about throughout.

NEGATIVES

– Constant nagging. While not a major problem, the fact that some elements inside of the storytelling weren’t fully rendered did serve as a problem for me. Aside from focused characters disappearing anti-climatically throughout the film, there’s a major backstory with Pitt’s character that I wish would’ve been given more time to further elaborate on. Without spoiling anything major, his character was previously married, and while it’s hinted at in rumors how it ended, I could’ve used more attention to flesh out the intention behind it, if it even is true in the first place. It could’ve produced an air of regret to a character who feels, for the most part, like he lives conflict free.

– Too long. Not a surprise that a film being over two-and-a-half hours has some pacing issues, but for me it was really more about scenes being trimmed that could’ve shaved a much-needed twenty minutes off of this finished run time. The heaviness of the dialogue never alienated me, but the repetition of familiar scenes without a break certainly did. It kind of rivals what I said earlier about Tarantino molding a new medium of storytelling, but it happens with some casualties along the way; mostly in the idea of scenes that sync up in a way that I certainly wasn’t expecting. Tarantino indulges in these conversations sometimes a bit too much, and it will test anyone who isn’t a Tarantino enthusiast in a way that will have them checking their watches at least once.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Art of Self-Defense

Directed By Riley Stearns

Starring – Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

The Plot – After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.

Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A Stearns sense of humor. Riley Stearns is my spirit animal when it comes to his style of humor. In being every bit as blunt as he is unapologetic, this whirlwind of social commentary appropriately articulates the ridiculousness associated with toxic masculinity in a way that the characters on-screen take seriously, yet us watching in the theater translate as elementary behavior. This not only gives the film’s material a unique blend of dark humor rarely capitalized by other independent films, but also makes us the audience dig a little deeper to properly channel what kind of tonal ranges the film is taking us on at any given minute. There were moments so dark and depraved that made me want to laugh, and moments so silly that made me want to cry, and it speaks volumes to a writer and director so involved in both aspects of a film’s creative process that allows them to flow cohesively throughout the picture.

– Confronting the poison. This is the second straight week that I have reviewed a movie dealing with toxic masculinity, and the kind of consequences it has in raising a generation of glorified entitlists. Where it stands in the movie takes us through themes involving firearms, mental manipulation, crude behavior involving the polarization of females, and an overall demeanor in demographic that tells us what to listen to and how to act at all times. What’s so rewarding about seeing this through Stearns eyes is not only is it layed out in a way that feels every bit truthful as it does obtuse, but the lessons learned by the end of the film reward us in a way that promotes hope through progression. Even for a film that classifies its material as satirical, it still wraps up in a way that deconstructs the mentality and lifestyles of decades worth of movements, and gives itself a lasting image that reminds us to strive for better.

– Wonderful performances. This is a three course dinner of uniquely gifted performances by the cast that shine for completely different reasons. It begins with this being the perfect role for Eisenberg, in that it allows him to bring along his nervous ticks and quirks for the nuance of the role. His Casey has very much been a victim his whole life, so Eisenberg’s introverted shyness gives us no shortage of body language to visually narrate what we already learn in his backstory without the narration telling us anything, and it leads to his best work in years. This is my first experience with Alessandro Nivola, and I have to say that his antagonist of sorts is endearing for how much he truly believes in his disgusting and deceitful ways. Almost immediately, you notice the mental advantage he holds over Casey, in that he is able to convince him to follow through with Karate, and it outlines this sort of mental chess game that feels ten times stronger than the physical hurdles that Casey endures in competing with dojo students who command years of experience ahead of him. The real shock however, is Imogen Poots, transforming herself once more to illustrate the film’s only female character. Her character’s personality feels tougher than anyone because of the treatment she has had to endure, and through a couple of near-tearful exposition dumps, Poots displays a variety in range and on-screen presence that proves those teenage romantic comedies were thankfully a thing of the past.

– Complex compositions. The camera work in this film is beautifully constructed, illustrating a range in personality that visually takes us through the roller-coaster in tone that is the film’s juggled tonal capacity. When it reaches for humor, it usually signals out one character in particular with a still-frame long take that reaches for awkwardness in isolation. When it reaches for unnerving uncertainty, it gives us a slow pan-out shot similar to David Robert Mitchell’s style of reveal that focuses on the smaller aspects in the background coming into focus to grow into something much bigger. In my interpretation, every shot in the film has meaning in establishing a greater purpose of gimmick within the script’s many themes, outlining a level of pulse and presence for the film’s cinematography that I certainly wasn’t expecting in a film advertised mostly for the psychological abuse of Casey disposition.

– Crisp editing. In addition to the colorful blend in shot layers that stimulated with precision in variety, the editing gimmick used in the film also provides these sharp cuts that provide a particular advantage of its own for what transpires on-screen. Not only is there a treat in the form of heavy metal karate montages a couple times throughout the film that marry two sides of the coin I was truly never expecting, but the self-defense action itself is cut and pasted in a way that preserves the continuity in a sequence that was probably shot and run through three or four different times to pull from the best takes of each run. This makes Hollywood actors look and feel like authentic Karate athletes, and thanks to the consistency of timely editing preserves that level of Hollywood magic often overlooked with independent cinema.

– Color representation. Being a film that revolves around karate and the many ranks associated with color in belts that the students wear, Stearns intelligently uses this as a mentality tool that follows the characters along with them everywhere. For example, Casey spends most of the movie being a yellow belt, and the influence of that color that seems to pop up everywhere from that point forward prove that it is anything but unintentional. Some of the examples are obvious, like the shopping scene where he buys nothing but yellow products, and it’s elaborated upon by the cashier mentioning it, but there are other scenes so obscure in size that really require future re-watches of the film to catch them all. This takes character framing to a whole new level, and provides food for thought in the absorbing quality that Stearns provides in transferring the mental capacity to the outside where it vibrantly flows with pride alongside the character it is intentionally supposed to represent.

– Delicious dialogue. Not only are the lines in the film clever in the way they construct conversations, but also in how the actors are directed with a dead-pan to deliver emotional lines that should feel more animated. This only adds to the comical layer of the film that I mentioned earlier, that further feeds into this unique and satirical world where nothing sounds too strange, and allows the actors to commit to an idea so silly and contrived that it feels routine in a male-dominated society like the one depicted in the movie. Likewise, jokes that are originally introduced during the first act return later on, and bring with them greater landing power because we the audience now grasp the situation in better detail after living through it with our central protagonist, and understanding what he’s gone through to reach this transformation in mentality.

– Visual props. To rebel even more in Stearns cleverness, the film rewards audiences so in-tuned with scenes by supplanting visual extras that honestly land just as effectively as the rich dialogue. Particularly present during the first act, we are treated to a couple of jokes in the form of a male magazine with the male icon on the cover, and a combination of guns, cologne advertisements, and female nudity within its pages, as well as an opening scene payoff that is genius for how it turns the advantage of a character dynamic on its head. Without spoiling much, two strangers are insulting a character in their native language, and we learn that their assumptions get the best of them. Where the visual comes in is during the second setting scene, where one reveal shows us everything that we need to know about the prior scene, and pays it off in a way that could be condemning if our attention is wandering during these initial minutes.

NEGATIVES

– Predictability. There are essentially two twists during the second half of the movie, and with relative ease I was able to predict each of them correctly. It’s not that the film shows itself too early, but rather its lack of moving room creatively within the story and minimal amount of characters leaves it claustrophobic with the available directions it could take with its mystery. The second twist is more something that happens within the reveal of a scene that I saw coming because of how uneven the odds were against a particular character. Both are credible reveals within the movie, but ones that I saw coming from early on in the second act, and the focus for the second half of the film revolved around this element of the reveal that I waited for the screenplay to catch-up to.

– Plot conveniences. This is the biggest problem I had with the film, as many coincidences during the first act are a stretch at best for lining up properly to the plot twist reveals that I previously mentioned. Things perfectly work to the advantage of the movie’s antagonist without really taking the time to understand how such things are possible, and why Casey would choose something like karate over the permanency and intimidation of owning a gun. Hell, the whole jumping happens when Casey is walking home from a supermarket trip that he walked to. We find out later that he owns a car, so why would you walk at night in a dangerous neighborhood to a store when you have valuable transportation? It doesn’t get any easier with the progression of the film, as there are a couple of situations that are easily escapable for someone with the intelligence of Casey that the film must ignore to further prolong the conflict. This also feels like a world where no cops or consequences exist, giving us about as much urgency within Casey’s blackmail conflict that never allows itself the time or opportunity to flesh itself out properly to coincide with the weight that we are visually told resides within this deal.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Stuber

Directed By Michael Dowse

Starring – Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan

The Plot – A mild-mannered Uber driver named Stu (Nanjiani) picks up a grizzled detective (Bautista) who is hot on the trail of a sadistic, bloodthirsty terrorist and finds himself thrust into a harrowing ordeal where he has to keep his wits, himself unharmed, and work with his passenger while maintaining his high-class rating.

Rated R for violence and adult language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– Strong comical pull. This is really the most important aspect of this film, as it is a comedy before anything else, thanks in part to the combination of Nanjiani and Bautista, who improvise through many awkward situations and exchanges that left my gut busted. The most used device definitely comes from Bautista, who undergoes Lasik eye surgery for the improvement of his character, and it leads to several instances of audible, physical, and slapstick comedy that constantly kept me engaged to the many character dynamics and ever-changing backdrops that the film takes us through. As for the two male leads, their comical chemistry is impeccable, occasionally taking turns on being the straight man who unleashes a sarcastic poke to chew into his counterpart within the car, and setting the stage for the boundaries accordingly that exist between two strangers who are taking in complete polar-opposite directions in lifestyle choices and character demeanor.

– Delightful leads. In addition to the comedy that is top notch, the performances from minority-heritage Nanjiani and Bautista were the perfect display of their respective talents, giving us the same kind of fan service that has gotten us to fall in love with their personalities time and time again. For Bautista, it’s the ability to balance the tough guy action bulldozer that he was born to become with this element of emotional acting that he starts to convey once we eventually break down the walls from his character. Like his turns as Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, Dave once again gives proof to something deeper beneath his registry, and while his ass-kicking is what you came for, it’s the scars his character wears from past parental issues that will make you stay. Nanjiani is also a pleasure once more, with his dry sarcastic delivery and reserved emotional investment that gives him a unique voice in today’s comedy landscape. Some of the best scenes for me were definitely those where Kumail is trying to assert some level of control over a situation that he is entirely incapable of, giving us several examples of scenes where he has to adapt to a world taking place far beyond his luxury sedan. As far as polar opposites go, these two were made for each other, and it’s that bond in chemistry between them that turns the script’s many pot holes into minor speedbumps.

– Joseph Trapanese. Yes, the very same man who musically scored films like “The Greatest Showman”, “Straight Outta Compton”, and “Tron: Legacy” returns for atmospheric work on “Stuber” that is every bit present as it is evolving with the tonal shifts of the movie. Like his work in “Tron”, Joseph’s work here points to a vaporwave encompassing that vibrantly pays homage to the 80’s buddy cop thrillers of yesterday, all the while maintaining a level in volume which never feels obvious or hindering to the integrity of the scene it accompanies. Particularly in the film’s third and final act, Trapanese fleshes out the urgency and intensity in ways that Dowse’s direction often falls flat on, and conjured up an element of surprise for a production that is otherwise blandly conventional on nearly every end of the artistic spectrum.

– Topical for the day. Another surprising element of the film was the dissection of toxic masculinity that gives the narrative a strong helping of emotional weight beneath the table dressing of shoot-out action in modern day Los Angeles. The measure taken with how this film approaches such a touchy subject is one that is as equally profound as it pertains to a real world, where until recently male protagonists were appreciated for the way they degrade everyone surrounding them. I definitely didn’t expect the film to dissect the cultural definitions of what we perceive masculinity to be, but the polar-opposite pulling of two male characters whose personalities colorfully off-set one another, leading to the answer being somewhere in between, not only proves that this casually slapstick comedy is so much more than that dreaded labeling, it’s a commentary on preventable poisons that deconstruct decades of personality building that build up one to tear down many.

– Commercial advertising. This is usually a problem for me, but the film’s inclusion of the Uber product is one that is cleverly more informative than it is a blunt marketing campaign for 88 minutes. Throughout the film, we are told in dialogue the many uses and rules associated with the taxi-cab application that will help fill in the gaps of curiosity for anyone who hasn’t been fortunate enough to use its services. What’s more important here is that the film isn’t out to make Uber anything more appealing than that of a modern day convenience, even going as far as to rarely show the emblem or the app itself to gain profitable interest. Does Uber play a pivotal role in “Stuber”? Absolutely, but the maintained focus on the screenplay, as well as the character-building bond between our male leads, harvests this film as anything other than “The Emoji Movie”, a kids movie that engorged an abundance of vital screen time in order to sell toys.

NEGATIVES

– Obvious foreshadowing. One of the film’s biggest adversaries is its inserts of tropes, which makes this film easily predictable to anyone who has ever watched a buddy cop movie. One such example is in the terribly weak antagonist of the movie, who doesn’t have a single scene dedicated to the exposition of his character for a bigger purpose. Almost immediately, you know a bigger swerve is coming, and come it does. A second antagonist develops from a mystery that was every bit as unpredictable as “Men In Black: International”, and as it turns out I accurately predicted from the moment this character was introduced. Beyond this, the film’s heavy focus on a romantic subplot, as well as no shortage of scenes involving convenient plot devices, constantly had me sarcastically saying “Gee, I wonder if that will come into play later”. Subtlety is certainly not Dowse’s bag, baby, and thanks to a series of telegraphed scenes that step over boundaries repeatedly, “Stuber” becomes a film where we are waiting for every character inside to catch up to what we’ve sniffed out in fifteen minutes.

– Uninspiring title. “Stuber” is as lazy of a movie title as you will find in 2019. Considering it stems from a jerk supporting character, who uses it as a combination of Nanjiani’s character’s name (Stu) and the part time job that he endures through (Uber), the studio heads prove that they don’t have a lot of imagination to sell their product, leaving many moviegoers confused heading into a screening of it. It’s not often that I hate on a movie for the title, but considering this is really the first thing that you learn about the film, and it’s supposed to be used as a summary of everything enclosed, the one word noun that isn’t even a word at that, only touches the surface of what the plot, narrative, and characters are building towards, making ambiguity feel like a bumbling curse that dooms it from the opening page of script.

– Shaky-cam action sequences. The biggest hindering for action movies is back, this time in the form of tight-knit compositions and sloppily choreographed camera movements that ruin every single set piece that the movie contains. Not only are these sequences so close that you could recognizes an acne sprouting on the film’s cast, but the intended direction to make us the audience feel like a pawn in the unveiling visual narrative is something that makes it difficult to depict what is actually taking place. If done right, the scene’s intensity can articulate a feeling of presence for our vantage point, but this intention is often done wrong because of commanders who substitute intensity for atmosphere, and try to capitalize on every little aspect of detail that the character’s in frame are going through. If I wanted to be an actor in Hollywood, I would’ve done it the second I graduated from high school in 2003, but my desire to be a moviegoer instead, means I would rather watch and follow a scene from the comforts of my seat, and this film’s supercharged sequences give me neither option to pleasantly chew on.

– Uneven halves. For the first forty minutes of this film, I really found myself invested to one of the more consistent comedies of the 2019 movie year, but the last forty-five minutes made it so obvious why this film isn’t receiving the best reviews globally. For the compromising second half, there are no shortage of violent tonal shifts, redundancy in comic gags, and antagonists who are handled about as easily as nick to the skin when you cut yourself shaving. For my money, “Stuber” is a film that originally takes pride in being what it is; a buddy comedy, but eventually feels ambitious on its way to transforming as a dramatic action thriller that simply hasn’t earned the kind of emotional tug that it asks of its pivotal third act. If it remained more true to the advertising it conveyed in its trailers, then the film would’ve been one of the sleeper hits of the year, and a film that I would be proud to stick up for, but “Stuber’s” resonance to change up the game far too often leaves it scrambling for an identity that is completely unnecessary.

– Revenge subplot. (LIGHT SPOILERS) We open up the film with a death involving Bautista’s cop partner, at the hands of the movie’s antagonist, and what’s truly puzzling is how little of weight and focus this impact leaves on the remainder of the film that follows it. Never again is this partner ever brought up again, or further elaborated on what kind of impact psychologically that this has on Bautista, considering the two were practically married at the wheel, and it all just kind of evaporates this personal level of vengeance that Dave’s character has for this antagonist without ever capitalizing on the rivalry that makes this dynamic special. More concerning, as I mentioned previously, the film also drops the ball on following that antagonist, which creates a level of disinterest within the film so deep that we lose sight of the subplot that was driving this whole thing.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+