Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed By Drew Goddard

Starring – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson

The Plot – Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption; before everything goes to hell.

Rated R for strong violence, adult language, some drug content and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– We have to kick this off with the hotel itself. From a design and architecture perspective, this is a beautiful one stage setting for the entirety of this story’s current day narrative. In setting this story in the 1960’s, we are treated to these vibrant auburns and golds, the likes of which aren’t typically used to channel this particular era of American culture, and they do wonder in bringing the styles of Nevada and California together for a marriage of visual eye candy that is out of this world. The hallways and body of the hotel stretches and twists for what feels like miles, bringing with it a sense of a developing character in the script that hears and sees everything that these mysterious characters are doing.

– Goddard’s non-linear manner of storytelling. I’ve heard much to the dismay of many people about this element within the film, and while I do agree that at times it can be unnecessarily convoluted, it never confused or left me limited in understanding what is unfolding. Occasionally, the film will pause in modern day and rewind to the past, in order to better understand these characters and their current predicaments. This gives the film this sort of television element to its exposition, giving us a sense that the present is nothing to these people without the molding of a past that has taken them to this point.

– 136 minutes that are well worth it. One difficult thing for a film to do in 2018 is to craft a script that positively justifies the existence of each and every single minute, and keeps the entertainment factor in pacing firmly gripped at the pulse of its audience. Goddard succeeds at this because he presents these intriguing characters played by a super talented cast, and invests valuable minutes in telling us the whole story from many different perspectives. There is one sequence in the movie that repeats four different times, and it’s maybe not the most synthetic way to keep the audience engaged, but I can say that it worked for me because it illustrates how many layers are added to this one scene that could’ve easily been just another bump in the night at this eventful hotel. Note – This aspect will depend on how big your investment of the characters are.

– Drew Goddard loves his deconstructions. In “Cabin In The Woods”, he broke down the elements of horror in a way that was innovative and genius for hardcore fans of the genre. That theme continues in “El Royale”, although not as evident on the surface. Considering this takes place on the west coast of the 60’s, we are treated to cults, presidential scandals, and hotel wire tapping, and these elements channel a vibe of paranoia that was very prominent on our home soil during the Vietnam War era, and at the heart of it are these four strangers who are influenced by at least one of those things, and are molded together like a science experiment of atoms reacting to one another.

– A toe-tapping eclectic soundtrack of records and performances. The El Royale feels like a place where music is constantly breathing in the atmosphere, and there’s no more evidence of that feeling than the collection of Motown soul and groovy rock that makes up its almost spiritual jukebox that adorns the hotel lobby. To top that off, the leading female of the movie, Cynthia Erivo is herself a singer in real life, and the film takes advantage of this on more than a couple of occasions. Erivo bends notes to the point that they make the entire song feel fresh and debuting for the first time, and proved that this actress is so much more than just a pretty face.

– Speaking of which, the ensemble cast here is absolutely amazing, bringing to life many unique personalities and characters who I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Everyone is bringing their A-games to the screen, but there’s three people for me who stole the movie, and that’s Bridges, Erivo, and even Chris Hemsworth, who plays the leader of this dangerous cult. Chris is only in the film for forty minutes, but he makes the most of his limited minutes by carving out an egotistical antagonist side to his early resume that has me begging for more. Then there’s the magic between Bridges and Erivo that has them feeling like lifelong soul mates who are meeting for the first time. We already know that there’s plenty of secrets between them, but Erivo’s gentle touch when her walls come down casts strong empathy for her character, and Bridges wide range of demands brings us the best acting that he has done in decades.

– Tarrantino channeling. Lets get it out of the way; Drew Goddard is certainly a fan of Quentin Tarrantino and the elements that go into making his films as a one-of-a-kind experience. If he wasn’t, he certainly fooled me by crafting so many dialogue-heavy long scenes read by these very eccentric characters. I may be looking too far into this, but if I didn’t know any better I would think that Drew Goddard is an alias of Quentin Tarrantino, because so much of this film feels like a respectful homage, and not necessarily a theft of the aspects that Tarrantino made famous. Never mind that the El Royale may or may not be a nod to “Pulp Fiction”.

– Crisp editing for its violent turns. I almost missed this aspect of the film, and had it not been for some perfectly tightened transitions during the big blows, I probably would have. Without spoiling much, I will say that the crushing and fatal blows that happen in this film are cut and pasted together so wonderfully that I winced and exerted during the sparse occasions that they would invade the screen. Those for me are the best documentation of action sequences: when you feel the surprise and the detection of the blow equally, and that is something “Bad Times” does exceptionally well.

NEGATIVES

– Light bothers. There’s a bit of a stretching of disbelief for me, in that each of these dangerous people with such important motivations arrive at the hotel at almost literally the exact same time. In addition to this, there is a subplot involving this camera footage that we are reminded of every five minutes during the film, and we never find out who is actually on the film. Likewise, the frequent mention of hotel ownership leading to no reveal feels pointless for me.

– Twists? Trailers of this film promised many twists in the screenplay that never fully materialized for me. For one, these aren’t exactly twists as they are character threads, or even misconceptions. So much of what transpires between these people could be better communicated if they took the to just ask questions instead of jumping to these illogical actions. Much of the screenplay to me was easily telegraphed, and that didn’t ruin the experience for me, it’s just that you shouldn’t go into this film expecting some ground-shaking revelation, because it never comes.

8/10

A Star Is Born

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Starring – Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

8/10

The Wife

Directed by Bjorn Runge

Starring – Glenn Close, Christian Slater, Jonathan Pryce

The Plot – Behind any great man, there’s always a greater woman – and you’re about to meet her. It is crucial you get to know this woman – many of us already do and don’t even realize it. Joan Castleman (Close): a highly intelligent and still-striking beauty, the perfect devoted wife. Forty years spent sacrificing her own talent, dreams and ambitions to fan the flames of her charismatic husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) and his skyrocketing literary career. Ignoring his infidelities and excuses because of his “art” with grace and humor. Their fateful pact has built a marriage upon uneven compromises. And Joan’s reached her breaking point. On the eve of Joe’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the crown jewel in a spectacular body of work, Joan’s coup de grace is to confront the biggest sacrifice of her life and secret of his career.

Rated R for adult language and some sexual content

POSITIVES

– Made for the stage. ‘The Wife’ has that rich air of authenticity in its volume stirring dialogue and devouring of scenery that transcends the silver screen, allowing audiences the chance to soak up the heat of the moment with such minimal distraction. This is a screenplay that takes its time with each setting, steering us through evocative dialogue between the characters that effortlessly raises the tension in drama, and it’s an aspect that kept my attention through all of its 95 minutes.

– Behind every great man, there’s an even better woman. I have nothing bad to say about Slater or Pryce as far as performances go. They both bring such nuance and intelligence to their respective roles. But this is a one woman show from the get-go, and Close remains a melting pot of dramatic impulse. With Joan, we have a woman defined by one secret that has haunted her for eternity, and it’s in Close’s ferocity screaming out from underneath layers of suppression that makes the character so mesmerizing. Even when her character is background for a conversation between two other characters, you simply can’t take your eyes off of her or her abilities to telecommunicate everything she is feeling in a look or stare.

– Much of the marriage between Joan and Joe felt to me like an abstract painting whose truth became clear the closer you approached it. When the film begins, they feel like two people beating with one cohesive heart, a sheer testament to the unshakeable chemistry between Pryce and Close. But as the film carries on, you start to see chips in the armor of their union, bringing to light aspects and objects that were originally delivered as nothing more than an afterthought but now bring a stimulating charge for what they represent. One such example of this is the walnut that finds its way into more than one pair of hands.

– Dual narrative storytelling. Runge as a director builds the meat of the story in present day from the memories of the past, which play as spicy ingredients when added to what we’re currently tasting. What is so brilliant about this is the side pockets of angst and pain that each character takes with them is on a collision course with one another, opting to finally be confronted when its impact will undoubtedly echo the loudest. It feels like boiling water in a teapot in this regard, in that its pressure becomes too much, forcing it to scream out from all of the building to this point, that becomes too smothering to ignore much further. Scintillating drama at its finest.

– In addition to the marvelous performances, much credit goes to casting agents Elaine Grainger and Susanne Scheel for bridging the gap of believability between two respective timelines. The younger portrayals of Joe and Joan are played by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke respectively, and their likenesses to the older characters they portray is every bit as accurate as it is poetic. I used the last word because Starke is the real life daughter of Glenn Close, feeding food for thought on art imitating life in the most sentimental of measures.

– Upper class imagery. Because this film takes place in Stockholm (Although it was shot in Glasgow), we the audience are treated to these beautiful backdrops and luxurious interior set pieces that radiate the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Metaphorically, these material things add more weight to the constant reminder of the dirty secret between this marriage, but in the literal display, the cleansing of our own personal pallet is simply too exquisite and cozy not to indulge in.

– Great conversation piece for the perfect time. To me, the most meaningful films are always the ones that you can’t wait to get out of the theater and talk about, and ‘The Wife’ will surely join the ranks as the latest in conversation starters for either of the respective sexes. For women, there’s obviously enough enclosed in the repressed past of Joan to nail the thought process of how far we as an equal-seeking society have come, yet still have so far to go, and for men there’s much to be debated on the merits and importance of a household run together by two equally important parents. I could go more into detail, but it would be reaching spoiler territory, and I think that the plot above already is giving away much more than I want people to know going into the film.

– Without question, my favorite scenes of the movie were Slater’s parasitic (Compliment?) writer character probes each character for answers on what they’re hiding. In this regard, Slater’s character feels like a detective who already knows what’s behind the curtain, and just waits for the big reveal that will allow him to pounce all over them. In the one-on-one meeting with Joan, it feels like a psychological game of poker between two champions of the game, who neither of them want to show their hand too early. It’s a fight for leverage that you could argue either side wins, proving as a testament to two actors who hone their craft with such personality.

NEGATIVES

– While I understand the intended purpose of the direction, there were elements about this ending that I found downright detestable. Without revealing too much, I can say that it feels like a regression for Joan, in that the one thing that has defined her life for the worst will remain with her until her dying day. Certainly mudslinging is unnecessary to characters who can’t defend themselves, but I required slightly more of an epiphany for her character than she rightfully received. With that said, I can respect the bonds and merits of marriage, even those that aren’t entirely honest with the perception they are depicting.

– For my money, I could’ve used more artistry behind shot compositions and overall lighting, that felt pedestrian when compared to everything else that is above average with this production. The camera work can be occasionally sloppy in its knee-jerking reactions to characters moving in and out of frame, and the imbalance of proper lighting tone to the camera causes the occasional out-of-focus shot that occasionally distracted me. These aren’t major problems, but a tighter grip on these minor aspects could’ve easily rendered this film as close to a 10/10 for me.

8/10

Operation Finale

Directed by Chris Weitz

Starring – Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent

The Plot – Fifteen years after the end of World War II, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad and security agency Shin Bet, led by the tireless and heroic agent Peter Malkin (Isaac); launched a daring top-secret raid to capture the notorious Eichmann (Kingsley), who had been reported dead in the chaos following Nazi Germany’s collapse but was, in fact, living and working in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina under an assumed identity along with his wife and two sons. Monitoring his daily routine, Malkin and his operatives plot and execute the abduction under the cover of darkness just a few feet from Eichmann’s home. Determined to sneak him out of Argentina to stand trial in Israel, Malkin and Eichmann engage in an intense and gripping game of cat-and-mouse.

Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some adult language

POSITIVES

– Superbly acted film, highlighted by the work of the two male leads. In Isaac’s Malkin, we understand a man haunted by the memory of what he lost at the hands of the Nazi regime. In such, his biggest qualm isn’t whether or not he’s going to catch Eichmann, but rather what he will do with him once he gets him, and Isaac’s charming bravado and crippled remorse are firmly in his grasp at all times, allowing him to switch them on and off when needed. Kingsley portrays Eichmann with a surprising amount of charisma. The film kind of dares us the audience to laugh or succumb to this man’s wits on more than one occasion, proving the level of manipulation that a man so evil can lead with. Kingsley’s portrayal often felt like a Hannibal Lechter of sorts to me, for the way his persistent confidence never withers in the situation. He constantly feels like he’s one step ahead of his captors, proving how tight a grip Eichmann had in the face of his enemies.

– Long take photography that constantly held my attention. There are a few examples of Javier Aguirresaorbe’s personable stroke with the one-on-one scenes between Malkin and Eichmann that drag on longer than normally expected, allowing the long diatribes the ability to transcend exchanges beyond the film stratosphere. During these exchanges, we are treated to the camera revolving around their unshaken focus towards one another that serves as a visual metaphor to the game of mental chess at play between them.

– Despite my knowing of the history surrounding the life of Eichmann, the film still managed to surprise me while providing a strong layer or urgency in the unfolding drama. I knew everything that was coming, and yet still I fell for the bone of uncertainty that the film so carefully throws in from time-to-time, suffocating us with these moments of quick-cut tension that never relent. The mission itself happens at about the halfway point for the movie, but instead of peaking early ‘Operation Finale’ continues to raise the stakes once we learn that not all bases were covered for this group of protagonists, and that the biggest climb still lies ahead once everyone else catches on to their plan.

– In addition to the command of finely withdrawn tension in the atmosphere, current Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat also deserves thanks for the underlying sizzle that constantly heats the steak. Desplat has a wide range in scope for the film, serenading us in the first half with jazz piano, while rounding home later with a collision of percussion drums and violins that repeat their few notes with far greater volume each time.

– On a factual level, the film shoots about 90% from the field in the events it covers over Eichmann’s rise and fall. This gives the film a responsible take not only in Eichmann’s disappearance, but also his hand in Hitler’s deadly regime. If you know nothing about Eichmann’s chapter in World War II, ‘Operation Finale’ will provide you with enough of an outline to leave you educated, yet itching to continue reading so much more about him, and believe me when I say it’s worth it.

– Cerebral retribution. With his direction, Weitz seems to communicate to us that the desire of revenge can overtake us if we let it, transforming us into the very same men we fight so endlessly to bring to justice. Because of this, each character in this operation must tangle the voice within themselves that asks if they have a chance to disperse justice on their own watch, should they? This repeatedly provides the movie enough chances at something deeper, portraying Eichmann’s mission as the ultimate question of self-reflection within ourselves: Should justice be in our hands just because it’s convenient?

– A double narrative with each part equally important. We already know the first part of this being the team’s mission to capture Eichmann, but the second and more surprising angle to this script is the team’s leading witness to spotting Eichmann (Played by the always wonderful Haley Lu Richardson). What this does is allow Isaac and team’s investigation to never feel stalled or repetitive, giving us scenes of break in between to truly depict the ghosts of an evil regime that still go well beyond just one man. These halves of the story are inserted carefully, eventually fitting together as one cohesive progression.

– Like any heist movie, ‘Operation Finale’ informs us of the very steps taken in retrieving such a valuable target. In doing so, we see that everything from the formation of the team, to the fake passports, to the surveillance of Eichmann’s home is hit upon. This proves that this mission was anything but impromptu, giving way to the many measures that went into bringing even one man to justice, as well as the overall calculation that went into such a caper that was anything but one hundred percent legal.

NEGATIVES

– One cliche in films that I hate is when a scene will depict a moment from the memory of a character who wasn’t even there when it happened. In this regard, Isaac’s character remembers the untimely death of someone close to him through constant flashbacks, that we later learn is something that he’s going on by speculation. My problem is that the scene feels otherwise pointless and even a bit manipulative with its inclusion to where it fits in the story. If they just showed the face of this person, it would be equally effective in its value, but because Isaac is imagining something that he wasn’t there for, it disperses speculation in a film that is otherwise entirely based around fact.

– Part of the forgettable side that people will find with this film is that it never finds a voice of originality (Artistically or creatively) for its own. ‘Operation Finale’ is a solid film on its own merits, but throughout the film I couldn’t escape this feeling that it constantly set itself up to be compared to better films of the genre that had a better grip on the tonal balance that this movie falters on, through too many inserts of comedy. There’s nothing here that stands up to the artistic integrity of ‘Munich’, and the idea of escaping on a plane in a dangerous foreign country hasn’t been done in five years, when ‘Argo’ took home best picture for the same ride.

8/10

BlacKKKlansman

Directed by Spike Lee

Starring – John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

8/10

Blindspotting

Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada

Starring – Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar

The Plot – Collin (Diggs) must make it through his final three days of probation for a chance at a new beginning. He and his troublemaking childhood best friend, Miles (Casal), work as movers and are forced to watch their old neighborhood become a trendy spot in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area. When a life-altering event causes Collin to miss his mandatory curfew, the two men struggle to maintain their friendship as the changing social landscape exposes their differences. Lifelong friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-wrote and star in this timely and wildly entertaining story about friendship and the intersection of race and class set against the backdrop of Oakland.

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

POSITIVES

– Offers a refreshing and artistic side to the Oakland landscape. This is the second movie within two weeks that is set and shaped in this ever-changing city, and Estrada’s one-of-a-kind vision offers us plenty of examples of the diverse cultures that have shaped the city as a boiling melting pot. There are split screen sequences to contrast the differences between the way minorities and majorities view their homes, as well as some stylishly shot drive-by sequences that capture the vast diversity in cultures and colorful blends upon the houses.

– For material, ‘Blindspotting’ itself means to perceive something in one way without understanding it from the complex side that is opposite of ones opinion, so this film had a great responsibility in channeling the inner-city rage and paranoia for African Americans when they come in contact with those sworn to protect us. It’s that rare buddy comedy that has plenty to say about social issues, and the overall gentrification of Oakland, as well as other culturally diverse American cities that continue to lose the soul of their beating hearts.

– Much of the dialogue is also original and seamless for the way it starts and stops between friends. When it’s low key between Collin and Miles, it feels naturally consistent in terms of how the changing topics free-flow, but when the movie has something important to say, it does so in rhymes. At first I worried that this gimmick would wear itself out, but it soon became apparent to me that the rhymes become easier for Collin with the darker turn the film takes. By the last time he does it, you’ll understand that the reason he became so good at it goes far beyond casual practice, instead speaking volumes to the level of anger that he channels in this particular scene.

– On the topic of that gentrification, there are many unique perspectives on the two male leads in the film working as movers, and being forced with the task to trash someone’s memories to provide for someone’s future. Scenes like these impacted me in a way that I never before thought about, and the endless examples of family pictures and belongings left to dust and fade away, gave me an up-close-and-personal vantage point of just how quickly the American dream moves on.

– As far as performances go, I was not expecting the whirlwind of emotional registry that I got from Diggs and Casal. In being longtime best friends, the two male leads converse on being a product of a bad environment growing up, and it’s in that influence that has shaped them as adults effectively. Their chemistry feels natural in channeling the trust between them, all the while the distance that has plagued them since Collin got out of prison. Casal himself is a presence on screen that you wind up and watch deliver. Full of off-beat comic timing and persistent charm, you start to fall in love with him the same way Collin has, making it easy to see the building bricks to their foundation as friends. Diggs himself continues to capture the attention with dramatic depth that forces you to feel the indignities that build up within him. You start to wonder if it is indeed to late for his character to change, and a lot of that depends on Diggs impeccable balance between confidence and vulnerability that shape this modern day enigma before us.

– Sonic boom of an ending. It’s rare anymore that my favorite scene in a film is the movie’s closing moments, but ‘Blindspotting’ built through 90 minutes of vital information and experiences to unload on this climax of devastation that left me shaking even through the credits. Diggs in particular during these moments commands your attention, barking out a list of revelations with the ever-flowing tear in his eye that you almost want to wipe because of your empathy for the character. Estrada sends audiences home shortly after the most moving scene, helping to contain that bottled energy during the first moments when you’re able to speak about them.

– Proper balance of tones that never shift violently. Much of the movie swings like a pendulum, between the pleasantries of a casual buddy comedy, leading eventually into the dark and seedy drama needed to explore systematic racism and police brutality. Surprisingly, never does one area of the film so obviously exceed that of the other, as I felt both were equally important in the contrasting atmospheres between them. The paranoia and uncertainty of the closing act certainly wouldn’t be anything without the humor to compare it to that came before it, and vice versa, and ‘Blindspotting’ feels like two movies that are better together than they ever would be apart.

– It would be easy to compare this film to ‘Sorry To Bother You’ another film released recently that takes place in Oakland, and also deals with racism in its own unique perspective. But for everything right with that movie, ‘Blindspotting’ stands out even further for its own grounded approach. Because of this, I feel like more people will relate to the wisdom enveloped in this film as opposed to its predecessor, but they are both a constant reminder of the stories that we are hearing for the first time, and we’re thankful for such an opportunity.

NEGATIVES

– Much of the psychological spin inside of Collin’s head does feel a bit scatter-brained and schematic at times for how we embrace it to the unfolding narrative. After Collin spots a police injustice, we get a couple of nightmare sequences, but nothing ever that remains heavy in the way he interacts during the day. This feels like a misfire of direction, because we’re never shown examples of how this traumatic experience changes him until the film absolutely demands it to, and I could’ve used slightly more cohesive storytelling for those brief moments when Miles is alone in frame, without anyone to spot his differences.

– There’s kind of a feeling of selfishness as screenwriters that overcomes me in the regards to Diggs and Casal. They are the two biggest characters in the movie, but that idea shouldn’t spread like a cancer to the lack of depth and deposition for the supporting cast around them. There is one character besides the two leads who is given a lengthy diatribe, and it’s about one of the two leads in the first five minutes of the film. There are several subplots along the way involving Collin’s ex-girlfriend, the symbolism behind certain hairstyles, and the ramifications of the police officer that is just sort of glossed over without much emphasis. One could blame this on the 90 minute run time, but I think it’s an example of inexperience for first time screenwriters, and hopefully their next project will be more inclusive.

8/10

Mission Impossible: Fallout

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Starring – Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames

The Plot – The best intentions often come back to haunt you. The newest film in the Mission Impossible franchise finds Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his IMF team (Alec Baldwin, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames) along with some familiar allies (Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Monaghan) in a race against time after a mission gone wrong.

Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Enthralling musical score by Lorne Balfe. What is so subtle, yet effective with her tones is that she uses the familiar Mission Impossible theme chords, but does so in a way that slowly drifts away from that familiarity to create an entirely new piece of music. Throughout the many fast-paced scenes that fill the film, Lorne casts extra emphasis in the moment, and I don’t think these scenes would accomplish the urgency that they attain without her masterful touch.

– This feels like the first Mission Impossible film that feels like a synthetic sequel to that of the previous film, and a lot of that rests on McQuarrie’s influence in story and character development that gives the series more depth than ever before. Beyond the return of a few cherished characters from previous movies, the whole plot of ‘Fallout’ rests on the aftermath of ‘Rogue Nation’, serving as the perfect companion piece that feels like the effect from such a world-defining cause. Christopher was the ideal choice to continue this series, and I hope he has a hand in future installments.

– Meticulously crafted action sequences. Relying on the very realism aspect that so many other action films don’t capture anymore, ‘Fallout’ prides itself on letting the set pieces and resulting actions tell the story of its danger. Because of such, we have a finer appreciation for the craft that doesn’t require big budget computer generated effects, or an overall lack of emphasis of danger in the air. Now if they can just do away with the face-pulling gag.

– Strong work by an ensemble cast of all star A-listers that have become a family of sorts. Much valued here is how everyone brings with them their best work, regardless if the role is big or small. There wasn’t a single character who feels miscast or underwhelming at the very least, instead presenting us with above expectation work for Cavill, Angela Basset, and especially Alec Baldwin as the brains behind the operation. Like franchises like ‘The Fast and Furious’, we’ve come to expect these characters in every film, and it’s carried with it an indisputable chemistry between the trio of Cruise, Ving Rhames, and Simon Pegg that adds a much necessary layer of fun to the smothering danger that surrounds them

– The stunt work by Cruise deserves a mention in itself. Known for decades for doing his own stunt work, Tom proves why he is the last real action star of a past era that prided itself on gritty risks attaining great rewards. Throughout the film, there is no shortage of Cruise whipping himself off of motorcycle chases, jumping between buildings, and hanging off of a helicopter that is flying thousands of feet above the ground. Whether you like or dislike Cruise as a person, you have to respect how this guy has continued to never let a number define what he can do, and even at the age of 56, is still unmatched in action resume.

– Relentless camera work that stays persistent without settling for compromise. I can’t be thankful enough that cinematographer Rob Hardy never requires the cheap gimmick of shaking camera effects to never pull the feeling of adrenaline that runs throughout the film. Beyond this, the camera moves in a way that stalks the characters and automobiles in a way that doesn’t limit the twists and turns in their choreographed patterns. These are very well planned out sequences that make it that much easier to immerse ourselves in the unraveling moments of tension required to care about the characters.

– Variety in exotic European shooting locations that speak volumes to the concepts of global terrorism that so much of the movie centers on. Beautiful wonder in establishing shots, combined with the obvious differences in their landscapes, pushes the Mission Impossible series to the very levels that only James Bond has treaded on. It proves that no cent was spared in production, and no opportunity wasted in capturing that big budget perks that come with six successful films.

– Earned consequences are established with the rising of the stakes. Ethan’s vulnerability plays a large part in this direction. We feel weak in the knees because we see the reaction that Cruise dons every time he attempts a death-defying feat, proving that mortality trumps immortality any day when it comes to mastering uncertainty in your audience. The eloquent sound design shouldn’t be overlooked for its raging intensity that amplifies the higher the story moves in elevation.

NEGATIVES

– Despite smooth pacing and minimal lag time, there is still simply too much material inserted into this bloated script. This film clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half-hours, and while that might not seem like a big deal because of the things I mentioned above, much of the exposition can be divided and put into earlier scenes. My biggest problem is that the film tries to make itself out to be smarter than it actually is, never requiring a full 142 minutes to tell THIS story. Two hours even would maintain more of that energy, while adding great replay value to its mastery.

– My hate for the intro credit sequence in this film magnifies the greater the film becomes. In this musical montage of visual text, we are treated to THIS film’s best moments of action to treat viewers to what’s coming up. Besides the fact that these scene reveals don’t make sense chronologically because we haven’t experienced them yet, my main problem is that it spoils the best moments of each scene without reluctance, and does so in a way that is asinine when there were other directions to go with it. For one, why not just show scenes from the previous Mission Impossible installments? Make it an Ethan’s greatest hits collection before facing his most arduous challenge.

8/10

RBG

Directed by Julie Cohen, Betsy West

Starring – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Sharon Frontiero

The Plot – At the age of 84, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a breathtaking legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon. But without a definitive Ginsburg biography, the unique personal journey of this diminutive, quiet warrior’s rise to the nation’s highest court has been largely unknown, even to some of her biggest fans…until now.

Rated PG for some thematic elements and adult language

POSITIVES

– Unique character framing. While it’s certainly no surprise for a documentary’s title figure to receive the royal treatment, Ginsburg’s superhero-like appeal is captured in the most unlikely of situations; with T-shirts and websites comparing her to figures like Notorious B.I.G. What I love about this is that it puts the world’s celebrity focus where it deserves to be; firmly with the support of those patriarchs who paved the way in crafting the world we live in today.

– Despite a brief runtime of 92 minutes, ‘RBG’ manages to envelope Ruth’s entire story, most notably her time on the Supreme Court bench, as well as her relationships at home. The latter was certainly more fascinating to me, as it’s in those interviews with her children, as well as soundbites from her deceased husband, that carve out a woman who truly did have and do it all. She never sacrificed her career to be a Mother or vice versa, and her up at dawn routine is firmly documented throughout.

– Because so many classic Supreme Court battles didn’t have the benefit of being filmed, we are treated to soundbites inside of the hearings as our depictions during the narrative. However, Cohen and West visually treat us to vital quotes that appear in eye-popping detail with a courtroom backdrop, to put us in the heat of the moment, without ever missing a step in dramatic pulse. This more than anything cements Ruth’s on-going legacy as a presence who never just rested on getting a seat at the table.

– Part of what makes Ruth such a lovable protagonist is her unabashed humility and selfless presence that is captured wonderfully in the up-close-and-personal style of shooting throughout this picture. Even at the age of 84, she can still command a room with her soft deliveries and stern-but-sweet personality that feels like the sweet grandmother we all deserved growing up. In the film, Ruth says she never yelled or intimidated when she spoke, because she believed that is the moment when a listener will tune out, and she couldn’t be more accurate, as my attention never withered or strained from hearing about her lasting legacy.

– My favorite aspect of the film that I think many people will indulge in, is her fifty-plus year marriage to her husband Martin. If there was ever a story for perfect couplings, Ruth and Martin take the cake. Throughout the picture, we learn that Martin was not only her biggest supporter during a time when the male majority was anything but, he was also her balancing act in making up in humor what she lacked. All of this is further elaborated on when you see the glow that Ruth preserves each time she looks at or speaks about him. There’s is a love too authentic for the silver screen.

– Revealing, insightful details. Even if you are the biggest of Ginsburg fans, ‘RBG’ will fill you with enough biographical, researched knowledge to make your head spin. Without spoiling a lot, some of the aspects of her time at Harvard Law greatly surprised me and enlightened me to the conditions that women were dealing with in seeking mutual employment. Interesting enough, this aspect of history repeats itself later on, when the focus turns to a group of females who seek entry into the Virginia Military Academy. You know what they say about learning from history.

– Now more than ever, a film like ‘RBG’ has such distinct value in those who seek the change that they wish to see in their own worlds. Inspiration is one thing, but this film teaches us that Ruth wasn’t alone in laying the bricks of activism, and if we’re going to see results of change, you won’t get a reaction without the action needed to push forward. Because of this, the film establishes that sense of being the perfect film at the perfect time for the #MeToo movement, proving that even though women have come so far, they still have a great distance to travel.

– In her inspiration of many young women, as the film so dutifully shows, the lasting impression of Ginsburg will never go one day again without being felt. This will undoubtedly give the film great replay value in terms of aging, that most films can’t pay for. Documentaries to me are usually a one-and-done kind of sit, but I see ‘RBG’ as being the cliff note for many future battles that our civilization will endure, going forward.

NEGATIVES

– While I can credit West and Cohen for their successful rendering of the topic subject, I cannot award them style points for anything groundbreaking or original in their visual presentation. Documentaries anymore provide a flare to compliment the hard-hitting details that virtually fly off of the page at you, and in this regard the movie was very plain and derivative for me, of everything else in the genre that came before it.

– My biggest fear coming into the film did come true, as the movie does divide our political cultures, instead of being the catalyst to unite them. It isn’t quite left-side propaganda, but it isn’t far off either, as much of the third act material takes valuable time to fling mud at any right-winger who has come in Ruth’s path of destruction. Being an independent voter myself, I am able to flesh out these instances of promoting, and to me it felt so very different from the woman Ruth evidently is. She’s never someone who uses a negative to reduce someone, but sadly the film is never as admirable with its clear-cut intention.

8/10

Leave No Trace

Directed by Debra Granik

Starring – Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeffrey Rifflard

The Plot – Will (Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (McKenzie), have lived off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. When their idyllic life is shattered, both are put into social services. After clashing with their new surroundings, Will and Tom set off on a harrowing journey back to their wild homeland.

Rated PG for thematic material throughout

POSITIVES

– This is a beautifully shot film, documenting the Oregon countryside with such an evocative colorful palate of vivacious strokes. The natural lighting is a meaningful choice for authenticity, but it’s in the yellow sunlight bleeding through the green of the trees that gives the backgrounds that stained glass effect that only comes naturally when you’re shooting a majority of your film outside.

– As for the work of Foster and McKenzie, they are asked to be in 100% of the scenes, and that dependency really drives home the work of these two polished actors carrying the movie. These performances never include those long-winded diatribes that feed into Academy recognition, but rather they are praised for feel synthetic to the human approach. Most of their charm is that they don’t ever feel like characters, but rather real people, and both respective actors bounce off of each other with the father/daughter honesty that radiates the chemistry between them.

– What I love about the exposition is that it never feels forced or convenient to the unfolding knowledge that we are learning about Will, in particular. This requires audiences to hang on to literally every single conversation between the two characters, if they wish to learn more about them. Even then, the film leaves plenty to abstraction, choosing not to follow these bombshell droppings within the three act structure like we’re used to. Granik is wise enough to not have to force-feed the audience these vivid details, instead spreading out these details of truth that speak volumes to her trust in us to adapt.

– Poignancy in parenting. One great debate frequently revolved around in this film is the spotty definition of the terms “Provider” and “Providing”. Through the ventures that feature many ups and downs between these two characters, we as audience are left with plenty of instances for an enlightening conversation, with no side ever being clearly defined for being wrong. Will believes he is right because it’s worked this way for so long between them, and the Children’s Services believe they are right because they act within the best interests of the child. The best part is that no matter where your allegiance lies on this issue, Granik as a screenwriter throws many wrenches along the way that are sure to keep you updating your stance from one side to the next.

– Deep beneath this family drama that engulfs the entirety of this film, is a maturing coming-of-age narrative that develops terrifically during the third act. These developments certainly speak wonders to the fragility of adolescence, and just how tragically some kids are forced to grow up far too quickly. I took great empathy towards this aspect, because it is in those aspects that we can’t control that feel the most damning to those they sneak up on, and it all leads to a bittersweet finale that reflects the miles that these two have traveled.

– Like Granik’s earlier work in ‘Winter’s Bone’, I find it quite indulging how the environments in her films present themselves as an integral member of the cast, allowing her to play with volumes for such an immersive experience. What this does is allow us to soak up the atmospheres whole not only in sight, but in sound. There’s excellent capturing of forest sounds like birds and branches rubbing up against one another that you could almost close your eyes and imagine yourself right there with the protagonists.

– The comparisons with 2016’s ‘Captain Fantastic’ are inevitable, and while I think this is the weaker of the two films by comparison, ‘Leave No Trace’ is more appealing on a personal measurement of character study that the former just can’t get close enough to. Because this movie only has two central characters, we are able to focus more prominently on the dynamic that eventually shapes the emotions that each are feeling. This kind of story I feel works better with less characters for the danger and isolation that we feel for them, making their situation feel more bleak upon dissection.

– Likewise to Granik’s admirable patience within her current masterpiece, the musical score from Dickon Hinchliffe also has great restrain in its presence throughout. The musical inclusion is certainly there, most notably when a scene requires self-reflection, but it does so in a way that never intrudes or soils the somber deliveries or required focus that remains faithful to your investment in the characters. Hinchliffe instead serves as more of an underlying current of steady keys that never needs to push the volume to eleven to maximize a scene.

NEGATIVES

– It pains me to say that even though this film succeeds on its own merits, it’s a difficult recommendation because of plodding pacing that eventually catches up. Much of this fault is due to redundancy in the material that shortcuts any kind of tension that this film so desperately requires, but the overall lack of a central antagonist certainly shouldn’t be understated. Without that continuous presence hot on the heels of this duo, the film gives up on an early included subplot that just kind of dissolves without resolve.

– While I mentioned earlier that this film can contribute more of its time to two characters, as opposed to a big cast, the film kind of squanders the psychological presence of the movie by never delving into Will’s head in the way we need for context. I was never lost or confused by the brief details delivered in the film, but I wouldn’t have been opposed to some flashback sequences involving the Mother in this family, no matter how forced or cliche that may sound. To me, I couldn’t escape this feeling of a bombshell delivery coming throughout the movie, but it never comes, and we are left to put together Will’s pieces without ever having a look at the box for the bigger picture.

8/10

First Reformed

Directed by Paul Schrader

Starring – Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

The Plot – Reverend Ernest Toller (Hawke) is a solitary, middle-aged parish pastor at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the church is now a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock. When a pregnant parishioner (Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of grandiose violence.

Rated R for some disturbing violent imagery

POSITIVES

– In casual Schrader fashion, there’s a lot within this film to be said about the world that offers much poignancy in debate. Whether it’s the corporation narrative that churches have become, the whiplash as a result of people not taking care of our world, or the confines that come from being a pastor, this is very much a Schrader movie, in that he’s a director who is never afraid of alienating his audience.

– The film uses narration so skillfully, a la Taxi Driver, in that there is a deep psychological tug-of-war between what Toller is thinking in his mind as compared to what he is writing in the notebook. This commentary in take allows us plenty of evidence of the struggle from within that help to shape the figure that he becomes by the powerful third act. Basically, he’s his own unreliable narrator, and that stance is something rarely seen by a narrator in a film.

– Hawke is doing some of the very best work of the latter part of his career. As Toller, we see a conflicted figure who is deeply affected by the loss of his son from many years ago, as well as a struggling patron outside of the cloth to live with the deep-seeded issues that come with living in the today’s world. Toller unleashes a beat down upon himself that allows Hawke to portray him as someone who is keeping the deepest secrets buried deep within the many people who only see him as this leader, and we as an audience find it easy to soak up his presence because of Hawke’s untimely collapse that is depicted in 100% of the film’s shots.

– Spell-binding photography. What impressed me the most about this film, aside from it being shot in a 1:37:1 ratio, was how reserved and dedicated that it stayed in camera style throughout the picture. With the exception of two memorable scenes that clearly point to the change within Toller’s life, the rest of the film is single, still-framed shots that insist on the characters coming to it. Throughout many single character perspectives, as well as wide-lens establishing shots, we learn as much as there is to know about the characters and atmospheres that Schrader would rather audiences grasp visually instead of audibly, and I couldn’t be more impressed with this decision.

– Minimal music cues. Perhaps even more surprising than the impeccable photography is the decision to accompany this film with very little musical tones. Composer Brian Williams chooses instead to play up his dark and ominous influence for the right moments, so as to not take too much away from the surrounding circumstance that suffocates through each scene. I believe this is the best way to not dilute how the audience interprets these scenes, and sometimes minimal inclusion makes for the biggest result.

– Alexander Dynan’s bleak cinematography that speaks levels to Toller’s aging disposition the further the truth takes him. Despite the fact that the majority of this film takes place inside of such a spiritual confinement, it’s interesting to see how the production takes advantage of such bare and desolate surroundings, creating beauty in the atmospheric sin that withers inside.

– Nothing ever felt predictable to me, despite the fact that many key elements are introduced early on that play a more prominent role the further the story develops. For my money, the ending was very much a last second twist that I didn’t see coming. Even if I can’t feel fully satisfied with the way the lack of effect that it takes on everyone but the two characters involved, I can still appreciate what Schrader is trying to tell us in terms of this important element that outranks everything else. This effect was even more evident, in that none of my audience members wanted to get up from their seats. They were that transfixed on the final images.

– While I don’t agree with many people labeling this as the Taxi Driver for the new generation, I can say that Schrader has brought along all of his best traits to make First Reformed feel like a greatest hits of his creativity. Aside from the claustrophobia in focusing solely on our lead character, Schrader again insists upon a candid view of the world that many are afraid to depict. He’s a director who excels in that hard-to-watch imagery that other directors look away from, but Paul stays committed to those shocking necessities that get under the skin of those who take in his films.

NEGATIVES

– Despite convictions that I can truly admire and respect him for, Schrader’s social commentary does occasionally overstep boundaries into heavy-handed and preachy territory that made me say “Enough already”. My problem isn’t so much that Paul uses 103 minutes to focus on overlooked social issues, but rather how redundant it feels when compared to the lack of development that some of the characters don’t receive. Because of this sluggish pacing, many people will give up on First Reformed before it reaches its best stuff, so the recommendation here comes with a bit of a warning.

– The film severely lacks nuance. I can get over a scene where two characters are flying over a city in an almost metaphysical moment, but a pregnant woman named Mary (of all names) is when I draw the line. And this is only one example of the lack of subtlety that plagues the film. I could go on, but it would be spoiler territory.

8/10

Incredibles 2

Directed by Brad Bird

Starring – Craig T Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L Jackson

The Plot – Everyone’s favorite family of superheroes are back in Incredibles 2, but this time Helen (Hunter) is in the spotlight, leaving Bob (Nelson) at home with Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner) to navigate the day-to-day heroics of “normal” life. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s emerging superpowers. When a new villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot, the family and Frozone (Jackson) must find a way to work together again, which is easier said than done, even when they’re all Incredible.

Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild adult language

POSITIVES

– As to where most superhero films will stretch and even force a family narrative amongst a supergroup, this comes natural to a film like Incredibles 2. Most of the film’s material in dynamic stems from the importance and value of those we should never take for granted, etching out a layer of heart in bloodline that we surprisingly rarely get from the superhero genre.

– Bird once again captures the imagination and heart-pumping sequencing when it comes to off-the-wall action that pushes the boundaries for animation. It’s clear that Brad is a fan of vintage superhero shows like the cult 60’s Batman saga, as he incorporates a multitude of sight and sound gags that feel artistically lifted from the pages of a graphic novel. These scenes serve as the strongest positive for the film, and give life to superpowers within a character that never lacks creativity in the way they are used.

– The animation has aged like a fine wine over fourteen years. While the illustrations remain faithful to the previous film, the layering, shading, and overall attention to detail allows technological advances of 2018 to finally catch up to this ahead-of-its-time animated feature. Some of the aspects that blew my mind involved the crinkling of bed sheets, Pixar’s continued excellence in bringing fluidity to water properties, and of course the city skyline backdrops that immerse us within the architectural beauty of a fictional place. While the setting of Incredibles 2 is timeless, there’s a sense of 60’s art deco shapes and sights to cleanse our palate, all the while saving room for the endless blue skies that breed opportunity.

– Poignancy amongst its material. As a screenwriter, Bird allows plenty of humorous but observant takes when it comes to the parallels of parenting, be it toddler, child, or adolescent. Some of my favorite scenes involved the clever visual metaphors that Bird takes in providing a wink-and-a-nod to parents in the audience who know what it’s like to see their own pink monster in their child, but with the nature and patience of a provider, it can all work to their benefit.

– As expected, the leading cast continues to be in-sync when it comes to their impeccable audible chemistry with one another. 14 years have passed, but Nelson, Hunter, Sarah Vowell, and Huck Milner all shine and narrate their respective roles to a tee. It’s clear that Hunter’s Elastigirl is certainly the centerpiece for the sequel, and deservingly so. Hunter’s southern drawl and raspy delivery bring to life an indulgence of excitement for her and women everywhere who break out of the confinements that society often puts them in, behind their male counterparts. As for new additions, the work of Catherine Keener as Evelyn Deavor certainly presented a stark contrast to the roles Keener has been saddled with as of late, and Sophia Bush’s Void was someone who I thought deserved a lot more screen time, if only for her energetic free-flowing delivery that bridges the gap of fan becoming superhero.

– Much of the comedy lands too, although nowhere near as accurate as the original classic chapter that at the time was arguably the greatest superhero film of all time. In fact, much of the film’s three act structure feels slightly more directed towards a dramatic narrative that twists and pulls the strings of family well-being to its breaking point. As for that humor though, the inclusion of this new baby character is one that reminds us of great innocence and humility for an experienced family that is, at the very least, still learning.

– Michael Giacchino’s immersive musical score that roars with passionate thunder through two chilling hours. Michael is certainly no stranger to scoring Pixar films, most recently with his versatile level of emotional response from 2015’s Inside Out, but for Incredibles 2 it’s certain that these boisterously epic horns and trumpets are there for one reason; to inspire. Likewise, the music provides the extra emphasis and impact of each crushing blow that our protagonists orchestrate, once again paying homage to those timeless television cereals that crafted a third-dimensional sense of their own, feeling like they allowed us to actually see the music.

– I mentioned earlier that the boundaries and limits of animation are pushed here, and a lot of that has to do with the invasive camera movements that faithfully follow our heroes throughout their winding trysts. These sharp twists and turns bend with such volume in angles that it really reminds you just how far animation as a whole has advanced over the years, reminding us that the sky just isn’t high enough of a limit for a film so full of heightened adrenaline and entertainment.

NEGATIVES

– Far too much predictability. Considering I mapped out who the reveal was going to be for the centerpiece antagonist Screen Slaver. This is the second film this month that I feel has shown too much of its cards, this time incorporating obvious character slights and overly-insightful clues that you would truly have to not be paying attention to get it. Disney or Pixar, however you want to slice it, is going through a major antagonist problem with their films, and Incredibles 2 unfortunately does nothing to silence it, treating the film’s major plot twist with not even enough air to fill a balloon.

– Second act sleep. It’s not that I hated the second act of the movie, it’s just compared to the excitement and action involved with the first and third act, it’s the obvious weakness for the movie, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. This is clearly the moment for character exposition, and I’m Ok with that, but it becomes a problem when you’re only getting one of the Incredibles in action for a majority of the film. If this is the direction we’re heading, and please consider the mostly child audience, then I would be happy with a 10-15 minute trim to keep their attention.

8/10

Upgrade

Directed by Leigh Whannell

Starring – Logan Marshall-Green, Richard Anastassios, Rosco Campbell

The Plot – After his wife is killed during a brutal mugging that also leaves him paralyzed, Grey Trace (Marshall-Green) is approached by a billionaire inventor with an experimental cure that will “upgrade” his body. The cure; an Artificial Intelligence implant called STEM that gives Grey physical abilities beyond anything experienced and the ability to relentlessly claim vengeance against those who murdered his wife and left him for dead.

Rated R for strong violence, grisly imagery, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Falling in love with the overall presentation is easy to do. This film never specifies what year this is, but establishes with it a believable presence not only in its humble technology, but also in the vantage points of city skyline shots that relates this world being not too far from our own. Because of this, ‘Upgrade’ combines the best of both in fantasy and reality that hammer home the imagination time and time again.

– This is Whannell’s first directing effort since 2015’s less-than-stellar sequel ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’, and it’s clear that Leigh has come a long way in finding a signature visual presence that he can mold. The camera work here breathes the kind of creativity necessary to put you in the presence of the protagonist without ridiculing us in a POV circumstance, jerking its way back and forth through the twists and turns of Grey’s interactions, and the attention to detail in story challenges our attention on more than one occasion, to make sure we’re constantly paying attention.

– Jed Palmer’s masterful musical score that establishes a nightmare inside of a daydream. Considering the variety that Palmer establishes with heart-pounding exuberance, I pondered quite often a multitude of composers for the project, but Jed’s emphasis on tone and environmental shifts prove that if you want to do something right, you have to do it on your own. This might be my favorite score so far, in 2018.

– Of the many influences that Whannell pulls from for inspiration, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘The Terminator’, and especially ‘Robocop’ feel the most prevalent. But homage, not imitation, is the key here. In crafting a film the tributes those classics of yesterday, Leigh puts together a modern day science narrative capable of walking in its own shoes, while conjuring up the poignancy of man’s dependability in technology.

– There’s great restrain from the writer of the original ‘Saw’ movie in where he inserts his violent touch. Because this is a Sci-Fi film first and a horror movie second, the gore is spread out carefully, making its mark when the film needs that impact the most. On top of this, the effects work in makeup and detail to these bloody battles are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Truly gritty stuff for the gorehound in all of us.

– Something that fascinated me about this film is that the single best flow in chemistry was between Grey and STEM, his artificial intelligence working from within. Besides the fact that this depicts just how easy man’s obsession with technology can flourish, it’s also a shining example of Grey’s fading interaction with human beings who are trying to help him. Super smart.

– On the field of performances, Marshall-Green (Visually a poor man’s Tom Hardy) gives us two for the price of one. Aside from his dramatic pull which unravels with subtlety the longer the film goes on, Logan also immerses himself in the sheer physicality that the role demands. All of his movements feel precise with awkward pull, considering he is being controlled by something entirely opposite of what he is, and there’s no shortage of bending that these intense fight sequences require of his body. Harrison Gilbertson’s corporation head Eron is also a shining presence, feeling so foreign because of his time and dedication spent with so much advanced technology.

– Further meaning within the lighting scheme. Even though it’s fairly obvious what these sequences of half blue-half red face coloring are conjuring up, it’s in their illumination of the surrounding set pieces that serves greater value within the beauty hidden in such a grungey and reactive situation that replicates our own real world.

NEGATIVES

– Despite the fact that the screenplay hits more than misses, there are some truly atrocious lines of dialogue that completely take me out of certain scenes. One such line has Grey taking out a gang leader by putting his foot on top of the man’s beaten body and saying “Didn’t anyone tell you? I’m a ninja”. UGHHHHH!!!! My problem isn’t so much inserting humor in tension-filled situations, but rather just how forced that said humor feels when compared to the rest of Grey’s personality and actions.

– Tug-of-War ending. There are two bombshell deliveries associated with the ending. The first one is obvious because of how little the movements of the main cast are blessed with. The second pleased me initially because it was a swerve from what I previously mentioned, but soon soiled when you start to think how little it makes sense. It’s hard to say this without spoiling it, but there’s no real reason why Grey was even necessary in this particular plan. Besides this, it makes even less sense when you consider how many times this true antagonist put themselves at risk just so the plan would come to fruition.

8/10