Destroyer

Directed By Karyn Kusama

Starring – Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany

The Plot – Follows the moral and existential odyssey of LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) who, as a young cop, was placed undercover with a gang in the California desert with tragic results. When the leader of that gang re-emerges many years later, she must work her way back through the remaining members and into her own history with them to finally reckon with the demons that destroyed her past.

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

POSITIVES

– Riveting performances all around. As expected, this is Kidman’s stage to shine, and she does so as Erin by channeling a combination of grief, anger, and confinement for this woman that stitch together two contrasting performances for the price of one. As far as physical transformations go, this is easily Kidman’s best work to date, as Kusama strips down every elegant and defining feature about the actress, in favor of this weathered and fragile look that tells the story of everything she’s been through long before the narrative does. Aside from Kidman, Toby Kebbell also commands attention as the film’s central antagonist. Kebbell’s variety in roles accepted have carved out quite an impressive resume for the Australian star, but it’s his work here that gives us glimpses of the terrifying presence that he should’ve had as Doctor Doom in 2014’s “Fantastic Four”. Kebbell’s cold stare practically burns a hole through the camera lens, and dares us to look for even a second to test the influence he has over us the audience, as well as the gang he is in control of.

– Unique method of storytelling. I compare this movie to a season of “True Detective”, in that the events of the past are every bit as important as what’s transpiring in the future, but it’s the full circle sense of sequencing is what really made this movie something special. Without spoiling anything, the first act introductions are brought back late in the movie, this time to add layers to the kind of images we saw that were easily glossed over when you didn’t know the entire picture. Overall, it gives the film an unnerving sense of time loss that reflects Erin’s greying eyes, and makes us the audience question if what we’re seeing is in fact reality.

– A woman’s touch. Kusama takes a human approach to a story so riddled in surreal violence, drugs, and characters that feel so foreign to the everyday person, and blends them together with living, beating woman whose priorities are never lost despite all of the madness. Erin as a character is very much a mother first, therefore she continuously takes time to look after her daughter even when the rest of her world is crumbling down around her. This not only gives the character strong integral value in terms of being a protagonist, but also speaks volumes to the good side of her who has otherwise been lost in the struggle of some truly awful decisions over the course of sixteen grueling years. Even when Erin doesn’t look familiar to us, Karyn never jumbles her conscience, and above all else crafts a character piece that sees unorthodox shades of grey in the usual white or black side of good versus evil.

– Julie Kirkwood’s gothic sense of cinematography in this nightmare world. L.A has never looked so seedy and haunting as it does in “Destroyer”. It’s a sense of environmental establishment that David Lynch would greatly appreciate, and makes the film’s setting feel every bit as remorseful as that of our leading lady. Kirkwood has been doing her thing for well over a decade now, but this is easily my favorite work from her to date, as the sunshine influenced visuals rubbing off on Erin’s emotionless pallet speak volumes to the familiarity in world that she can’t run away from, constantly glaring in her face with unabashed reminder of the things she’s lost.

– A slowburn sizzle. This won’t be a movie for every one, and I understand that people need actions to sustain their interest in a film, but for me I was much more captivated in Erin confronting the demons from her past, and finding out why she holds herself responsible for the things she can’t change. This case as a whole feels like the lone purpose left in her life that she herself can make right, and it’s in that inspiration where we see evidence of the great detective that she could’ve been had her life gone drastically different. In addition to this, I’m a sucker for a duel narrative that eventually reaches a head-on collision where everything ties together between two respective timelines. The back-and-forth plodding is satisfying and exceptionally edited, and for my money neither one ever feels substantially more important than the other, giving them equal value in the pacing of this case.

– Double duty for great make-up. The make-up work for the film are subtle in design, but very much effective in the desired impacts that the script calls for. I say double duty because they accomplish brutality and aging equally remarkable, and make the immersion for a story that takes place over sixteen years feel that much more seamless because of it. Kidman’s decaying facials deserve academy recognition by themselves, but it’s in the consistency of the cuts and bruising between long takes of the film where I tip my hat the highest, because they blossomed, dried, and scarred very much in the way that they rightfully should. Make-up isn’t something that I usually commend a film for, but the nuanced prosthetics made for such impressive returns that I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t commend the production for them.

– To capitalize further on the human aspect of the film, Erin is anything but a superhuman presence, and Kidman as a whole takes a physical beatdown every step of the way. This helps make the aging process of the make-up feel that much more synthetic, because Erin is slower, weaker, and especially less resistant in the current day narrative, and it all plays into the urgency of these rare conflict scenes, as we realize we’re following an officer whose best days are clearly behind her. Fractured protagonists are a delicate thing to possess in a movie, and can become cliche if they are not handled properly. But the performance of Kidman combined with the focus of some devastating blows, adds grave weight to the concepts of time, constructing Erin in a race against the proverbial clock that is undefeated against us.

– One spell-binding scene. In a movie containing two high-speed chase sequences, two bank robberies, and an endless array of ammunition, the scene that stuck the most with me is a Mother/Daughter confrontation at a diner that feels like a long time coming. This speaks volumes once again to the humanity that Kusama instills to the project, but even more than that captures a slate being wiped clean by two women, one coming up in the world and one coming out, that transcends space and time in a way where everything else around them is paused to the importance that is front-and-center. While this scene didn’t bring me to tears, there’s enough dramatic pulse in the rock-swallowing delivery of Kidman, as well as the series of revelations that are brought to the table that allow each of them to see the other in remarkably different light than previously established. It’s almost a warning of sorts from the woman who has lived that lifestyle to the girl who is heading in that direction, marking a crossing of paths that hits closer to home than these cop dramas are typically capable of.

NEGATIVES

– Dumbed down transition sequences. I almost took away two points for this aspect because the rest of the film surrounding it is so smart and non-linear, but deep in the middle are these awful sequences of reminder that reward audiences who aren’t paying attention. When a character is shown in the present day narrative, the film will flash-back to them in the past narrative, cementing who they are and why they’re important to the scene. Of course, if you’re paying attention to the movie this whole time, you won’t need to be reminded so damn frequently of things that you already know, and after the fourth or fifth time I was yelling “ENOUGH!!!” at the screen. It slowed down the progress of the story so unnecessarily, and I wish the editors had slightly more respect for the audience’s investment into their film.

– Anti-climatic conflict. For the entirety of this two hour film, we are building to this present day engagement between two central characters in a way that makes you beg for it once you know all of the elements. The problem comes in the form of a scene that comes and goes with so little impact or dramatic pull that it doesn’t even attempt to reward us with something remotely satisfying. I’m fine with a quick fight, but when the film doesn’t even capitalize on the tension of sixteen years apart between them, I start to wonder why this conflict was ever so pivotal to the entirety of the film to begin with. Beyond this, the remaining five minutes contain questionable imagery and sluggish conclusive storytelling that it stood out as the obvious weakness of the movie for me.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Directed By Dean Deblois

Starring – Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler

The Plot – As Hiccup (Baruchel) fulfills his dream of creating a peaceful dragon utopia, Toothless’ discovery of an untamed, elusive mate draws the Night Fury away. When danger mounts at home and Hiccup’s reign as village chief is tested, both dragon and rider must make impossible decisions to save their kind.

Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

POSITIVES

– Consistency in animation amazement. Considering this is a film series that has been released by three different studios, it’s the prestige associated with Dreamworks Animations that have allowed it to thrive by remaining true to itself. There’s a fine combination of wonder and beauty associated with the adventurous movements of the camera, as well as the detailed illustrations of costume and character trait that gives definition to appearances, and these are only further impactful when you consider that the legendary Roger Deakins is once again behind the movie’s cinematography. Deakins prescribes us a dose of fantasy immersion that almost allows us to feel the wind in our hair from these vibrant showcases of airtime, and the scenes of the hidden world itself are among my favorite setting for an animation film in quite a long time.

– Adds value to the previous chapters. For my money, the best kind of films give us a desire to re-visit previous installments to see if later narratives consistently hold up, and this is one trilogy that moves and breathes as one cohesive property because of Deblois’ continued interest in adding prestigious layers to kids films. There is one such subplot about the Night Fury’s that helps clear up some plot holes that I had for the first movie clear up. It’s not the only instance of this powerful capability, and only instills in me an air of respect for Dean and his vision in building each chapter simultaneously, even after its shelf life has expired.

– Maturity of the dialogue. One thing that becomes clear about this movie almost instantly is the influence of more comedic-driven dialogue and material that easily makes it the most light-hearted of the series. This was something that worried me after seeing the trailer, for reasons that it would take away from the focus of the conflict, in turn diminishing the urgency of the atmosphere. But I must say I was wrong, as the material is not only positively tasteful, it also hits its mark effectively more times than not. I love an animated film that can make me laugh as well as keep my attention in the narrative, and if more films were like “The Hidden World”, the world of kids films would be a better place.

– Characters first. This third film in the series is proof of the major payoff that supplanted enough weight in emotional registry and audience investment, thanks to the evolution of this growing group of characters who bonded as a family. Thankfully, this film also supplies the strongest antagonist of the entire series, harvesting enough uncertainty in the unfolding of this long distance journey to prove why 3 is only a number. There’s a constant reminder of previous plots and predicaments each time you see a particular character, giving respect and reminder to the past, while building them closer to the future that has inevitably awaited them all this time. We, just like the characters, have grown with this series, and that reflection benefits us in ways that pays off tenfold to the story, structure, and the world that Deblois helped create.

– The equal balance of tonal territory from musical composer John Powell. The music itself in the film envelopes these tense scenes of action and expedition with an evening of dream and devastation that give the scenes it accompanies an audibly reflective roar that channels more emotion than words ever could. Deblois has such confidence in Powell that he removes any kind of distraction in the form of dialogue or on-set sound design from intruding. For a few exceptionally long takes on this wild ride, Powell’s orchestral influence is all that we the audience hear, and it almost makes every first line that follows after it release this air of disappointment that snaps us out of the impressive partnership of sight and sound that enhances the artistic merit for the film.

– A big name behind every corner. Aside from Baruchel’s captaining, which has been a star-making turn for the leading man, the work of big name presences like Blanchett, Butler, Jonah Hill, Kit Harrington, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, America Ferrera, and Craig Ferguson preserves a velvet rope where only the biggest are invited. I left out F. Murray Abraham for a reason, and that’s because as Grimmel, the film’s prime antagonist, the sun turns back and allows us to focus on the greatness that is Abraham one more time. Grimmel isn’t the villain you come to understand, but the one you fear for his sense of purpose that prove some dark days are ahead for these dragons. The film has no problem tapdancing on our devotion to Toothless, and it allows Abraham the ability to shine under his most sinister.

– Smooth fluidity in the pacing. At 97 minutes, this film is the quickest of the three movies in the series, but its runtime is only a metaphor for the movement through the three act structure that flows so breezy that I wouldn’t have been angry with another twenty minutes to better flesh out some of the supporting cast. Because of this light runtime and the benefit of watching a movie that knows and delivers to its audience, we get as easy of a sit as you’re going to find, and what’s more convincing is that it’s one that the whole family can enjoy.

– Finality with the ending. There is no hint at a fourth film, nor is there unanswered questions left that leave us searching for more breadcrumbs on the path to closure. What does emerge is an ending that is every bit satisfying as it is reflective, as sentimental as it is responsible, and as poignant as it is heartwarming. After three great films, it’s tough to say that I wouldn’t want to see more from this franchise, but for me there has never been a series that has had three near equally great films in its clutches, therefore the weight associated with goodbye has never felt as therapeutic as it has here. We can say that this is a film that never had a single bad installment. How often does that happen in any franchise?

NEGATIVES

– No arcs in the way of supporting characters. The biggest negative for me are these friends from Hiccup’s past, present, and future, who serve as nothing more than props to the focus of this particular narrative. There’s very little focus or mention of them in anything that doesn’t involve Hiccup or any of the other dragons, and that’s a bit of a letdown considering they all were pivotal pieces to the franchise at one point or another. This gives the film a reminder of it having too many characters and not enough for all of them to do, and if your favorite character is someone other than Hiccup, this will challenge you in ways that you weren’t expecting.

– While I enjoyed the structure and motivation for Grimmel as an antagonist, the film unfortunately falls into the hole of conventionalism, as every choice the character makes only hinders the ideas in his plan. For instance, there is an attack in the film by Grimmel’s army, where they more than make their presence felt, and despite this he refuses to land the crushing blow for any reason other than the convenience of plot. This doesn’t exactly spoil the ending of the movie, but it does meander some of the menace to Grimmel that made you believe in the power of his punch, and I wish there were better ways the film could’ve exploited prolonging the conflict for reasons that aren’t as obvious.

My Score: 8/10 or B+

Mary Queen of Scots

Directed By Josie Rourke

Starring – Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden

The Plot – Explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart (Ronan). Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones and change the course of history.

Rated R for some violence and sexuality

POSITIVES

– Fierce Femininity. It’s rare that a film can articulate the ferocity of the male thinktank like this movie can, and it’s something that gave me strong insight into the powers at play against these two women of power, during the 16th century. So much of the interaction between these two queens is in the hands of these dangerous male translators, who for better or worse, use religion as a judge of character for all who pass through their monarchy. The events that take place provided a lot of fuel for the fire for the back and forth in pitting these two women against one another, and for two shameful hours made me regret being born a man, for the silly things that we feel threatened by.

– The mental game. I was surprised that Mary and Elizabeth don’t meet in the movie until there’s twenty minutes left in it, but thankfully the sequence of saucy events from both sides keeps our attention firmly locked into this story without feeling the shackles of poor pacing. There’s so much about these two prominent ladies that I never knew about, and the loads of exposition that the film delivers, all of which is accurately true, establishes this film as the perfect opened door to anyone curious about 16th century politics, as well as the weight that comes with being queen.

– Faithful production values. There’s so much here that hits the mark and really articulates the look and feeling of 16th century England and Scotland that makes for the easiest of immersions. The costume and set designs are seamless, sparing absolutely no expense in transporting us through the visual spectrum of fashions and interiors that were routine for such royal figures. However, it’s the subtlety in make-up work that might be my single favorite aspect of the props department. Especially with that of Queen Elizabeth’s skin pock condition, the details of skin deterioration and scarring stand out firmly without ever feeling intentionally retching, and it takes a beautiful actress like Margot Robbie and strips away everything familiar about her eclipsing appearance.

– Cinematography and photography with a purpose. John Mathieson’s visual focus is in these breathtaking shots of the two countries not only in capturing the immensity to convey the magnitude of its majesty, but also in contrasting the obvious similarities in them visually from afar. These inspiring shots are done exceptionally well with a wide revolving movement that is done with enough patience and time to satisfy our wonder, giving feast for the visual pallet that provide such a close proximity to echo the events of what transpires in this screenplay.

– The performances, what else? If Ronan and Robbie are spared a nomination to the Academy Awards, I simply won’t watch. These are two impeccable performances from two powerful, yet oppositely complex leaders, who the screen so desperately depends on. For Robbie’s Elizabeth, she’s every bit as envious of Mary as she is strategic in her movements. Robbie etches out a loneliness to Elizabeth that other films about her haven’t fully rendered, and even when I didn’t agree with her intentions, I couldn’t help but marvel as Robbie’s single most transformational performance to date. Ronan is equally gifted as the title character. As Mary, Saorise bottles love, anger, and intelligence under the same command, bringing it home with a command that makes Mary a revolutionary in terms of the fearlessness she constantly maintained. This is one of my favorite female heroines of 2018, and provides further proof for why Ronan’s name will be synonymous with Academy recognition for years to come. David Tennant is also devilishly delightful, donning a wig and Rip Van Winkle beard to make him nearly unrecognizable.

– Synthetic conversations and language that feed into the time frame smoothly. This is one of the biggest things I look for in period pieces, as the dialogue can sometimes break mental investment into a movie if even the slightest of speech patterns don’t ring true with their era designation, but that’s never the problem with the combination of Beau Willimon and John Guy, who translate the book of the same name terrifically. The accents are perfect, there’s minimal adult language so to show respect for the throne, and the threats are done in such an intelligent manner that makes them sometimes feel like a back-handed compliment.

– The much anticipated meeting. For those who saw the trailer, with the banter between Mary and Elizabeth, the one scene they share together made the 100 minute wait worth it in more ways than one. For one, it slowly builds this tension around it, bringing forth a confrontation that bottles every adversity that we’ve seen each of them go through to this point, and it’s shot in such a beautifully hypnotic way that serves as a metaphor for the struggle of power between them. There are many curtains throughout the room that they meet in, making it difficult for them to connect, yet easier for Elizabeth to conceal her inferior visual appearance, and the tiptoe throughout is done so exceptionally timely that it makes us yearn for this face-to-face encounter that (Believe me) pays off in spades.

– Josie Rourke, welcome to the world. Considering this is Josie’s first big screen direction, it’s astonishing the kinds of things she managed to accomplish. Rourke has a distinct eye for the camera that radiates the tone and look of the film consistently, and soaking in the most of the suffocating atmosphere in the story that we’ve ever gotten. Likewise, the way she emits the most out of her leading ladies is beyond commendable. She gives this intensity to both ladies without it ever feeling obvious or reeking of desperation to make them equal, and it all sums up why if you want this story done, you require a woman’s touch, and the trio of Rourke, Robbie, and Ronan reign, rivet, and roar. Try saying that three times fast.

NEGATIVES

– Poor documentation of the passing time. It’s difficult to say just how much time passes throughout this story from beginning to end, and the reason for that is the lack of definition between events that has a lot of this rubbing together. One such instance shows a child character who is a baby in one scene and then a young child in another, and it constantly had me feeling like I was playing catch-up to the unraveling narrative that couldn’t be bothered to include a date for reference.

– Damn foreshadowing intros AGAIN. This is far and away my least favorite cliche to any film going today, and here we have it again in the form of an introduction scene that shows us what’s coming by the end of this film. What this does is give away far too much, diminishing any kind of hope or moment of momentum for them because we know what’s waiting right around the corner. Could screenwriters just pretend that people might not know everything about the biopics that they are producing? It would make for a more intriguing time for someone like me who could use that element of surprise for where the story takes us. Enough already.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Mary Poppins Returns

Directed By Rob Marshall

Starring – Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw

The Plot – In Depression-era London, a now-grown Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (Whishaw), along with Michael’s three children, are visited by the enigmatic Mary Poppins (Blunt) following a personal loss. Through her unique magical skills, and with the aid of her friend Jack (Miranda), she helps the family rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action

POSITIVES

– A whimsical collection of new musical numbers that enchant the sight and sound of the picture. Like only Disney can, they repeatedly emit that magic that is so much of Mary Poppins and bring it to life in the form of no-rules lyrics and snappy dance choreography to make the presentation pop. So much of the film radiates when it is showing off to be a spectacle, and the rich, vibrant production value that harvests from within will transport you once again to being a kid watching “Mary Poppins” for the first time, regardless of age. Even more impressive, all of the singing is actually done by the actors themselves, opening up my eyes and ears to Emily’s expanding brilliance. Is there anything this woman can’t do?

– Off-the-page special effects. If there’s one justification for making a Mary Poppins sequel 56 years after the original (A new live action record for time between films), it’s in the addition of modern tools that make so much of the film glow. The blending of computer generated special effects to make the unbelievable believable, as well as the decision to consistently keep the animation hand-drawn are instances that go a long way in blending the respective time periods seamlessly. Nothing ever stands out as hollow or obvious, despite these characters doing things that we in our heads know isn’t possible in the human world. It’s a testament to the production’s ability to competently immerse us in this world of make believe, where the rules are left at the doorstep of naysayers.

– Perfect casting all around. Much of my enjoyment of the film came from this terrific cast who bring their A-game to the immense task of living up to the storied history of one of Disney’s biggest names. The kids are never over-zealous in terms of their directed responses, and the big name cast are each given chances to seduce us under a spell of ambiance. Emily Blunt seriously gives her single best performance to date in an already amazing career. Stepping into Mary’s immense shoes, Blunt charms us with a combination of sophistication and tasteful arrogance that makes her donning feel synthetic with that of Julie Andrews original turn. Likewise, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his first big dive to the silver screen with enough energy and charisma in a look than most actors have in a hundred lines of dialogue. The chemistry between Blunt and Miranda twinkles like a star that stays lit regardless of the shine that surrounds them, and for my money two stronger on-screen presences couldn’t have been chosen for their respective roles.

– A generational affair. Transcending the story and screen respectively, I couldn’t escape this feeling I got where the youth in the theater audience were enjoying a Mary Poppins story in the same way that their parents did. This is clearly evident during the film as well, as Michael’s children are introduced in the very same way to the charm of this woman’s nurturing touch, all the while being whisked away to world’s far from their home’s comfort zone. More than anything, I hope kids are able to take away that family films don’t have to be dumbed down or slapstick to gain their attention. “Mary Poppins Returns” is a film too classy to stoop to this level, instead garnering enough family element and imagination to cleanse their continuously evolving pallets, and offer something for generations of yesterday, now, and decades to come.

– The conflict is bigger. It’s rare that a sequel will double the stakes of the previous film, but that is the case here, as the Banks family are not only fighting for their home but also for the link that bonds them together after the untimely passing of the family’s mother. I didn’t expect a story this light-hearted to be as emotionally gripping as it was, and besides just constantly rooting for these characters throughout, you really feel an overwhelming sense of empathy for why they need Mary’s return now more than ever. It keeps the story grounded in real life consequences, despite the fact that so much of the film is enveloped in fantasy and teleportation.

– Visual storytelling. Pay very close attention to the progression of the sky patterns throughout the movie, as it represents the ever-changing atmosphere of the family’s dynamic. When the film begins, we are soiled by the darkness of greying skies, but as Mary pops into frame, we notice that she brings with her a change for England that isn’t always prominent in a country so negated by the rain. I always love when small aspects of the film like this are present, and it adds another layer to atmospheric establishment when the film’s geographical location plays into the very ups and downs of what’s taking place under this roof.

– A collection of set pieces and designs that adds a firm reminder of nostalgia to the film. The Banks house itself looks EXACTLY the same as it did in the original film, and that fine eye of attention to detail is also evident throughout the film. Likewise, during a sequence involving Meryl Streep playing a character whose whole world is literally upside down is great for the fact that expanding objects featured in each frame feed into the gimmick, and really give us genuine moments of intrigue, where we wonder how certain scenes were shot. And yes, this is a “Devil Wears Prada” reunion, BONUS POINTS. My favorite however, is definitely the street scenes, complete with actual gaslight street lights, that echo the limited frailty of props within a Broadway stage show. It proves that sometimes less is more when it comes to simple set designs.

– The cameos. Besides the charm of a well rounded cast that each give their all to their respective roles, it was the surprises of two established film veterans that warmed my heart and brought the generational gap that much closer with their inclusion. I won’t spoil who they are, but only going to say that one of them was in the first “Mary Poppins”, while the other actually auditioned to be Mary Poppins. Take from that what you will, but seeing them will instantly bring a smile of appreciation to your face, and prove that Marshall is well versed in the historical accuracies of this film, as well as the undeniable ambiance that each of these two actors bring with them when they sign on.

NEGATIVES

– Far too predictable. I get that there has rarely been a Disney movie that has surprised me in ways of a plot twist, but there is nothing in “Mary Poppins Returns” that I didn’t see coming from a mile away. In this regard, I could’ve used even more distancing from the original, as much of the same beats and instances of that original film come into play, and really water down the possibility of letting this stand on modern day storytelling. The closest example to this was a first act character swing that makes this well respected actor the film’s antagonist, but once you hear his job title and obvious sinister musical accompaniment, you will sniff it out with easiness.

– Sometimes the abundance of songs take away far too much from the unraveling narrative. This is evident more than ever during the late stages of the second act, as the story’s conflict is put on hold for such a long period of time that I nearly forgot about what these kids were striving for. In addition to this, a couple of the songs add nothing of lesson to Poppins’ teaching, rendering them remotely pointless in terms of their inclusion.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Roma

Directed By Alfonso Cuaron

Starring – Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Cortina Aurtrey

The Plot – The most personal project to date from Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” follows Cleo (Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a family in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City. Delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a vivid and emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst political turmoil of the 1970s.

Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and adult language

POSITIVES

– One man rock band. Far beyond just writing and directing this movie, Alfonso Cuaron once again submits another award-worthy effort for best cinematography of the year. Decorated throughout the film with a black-and-white canvas that brings a photographic sense of detail to each and every still frame in the movie, the film radiates with such gorgeous flare and depth for what is ultimately a colorless scheme. I am serious when I say that you could pause the movie at any chance and hang it up as a scenery portrait somewhere in your house, and Cuaron again paints beauty in a world of black and white ideals.

– A love-letter to Cuaron’s second mother. Whether you’ve read the backstory or not on the meaning behind this film, one thing is certain: You get a more than in-depth feel for how Alfonso views this pivotal person in his life and his movie. In his eyes, the caretaker is someone who takes a mental and physical strain, yet still shines as the glue that bonds this family together, putting their needs first above her own. What’s also delightful about this far beyond the surface level of this singular character is that the film serves as a much-needed reminder of a woman’s impeccable value in keeping a family moving. This is something shamefully missing from the majority of Hollywood pictures in 2018, but “Roma” more than documents every kind of struggle that a woman faces in holding down the fort, bringing with it a sense of praise and focus that makes up wonderfully for lost time.

– Cuaron’s channeling of the moment. Presented here for our delightful understanding is a combination of sharp sound mixing and cerebral camera movements that really paint a vivid sense of the environments they cover. Each change of scenery opens up with a collection of sights and sounds that really allow you to immerse yourself in the moment of this unfolding narrative, and give light to the kind of detail that only a person who lived this lifestyle can attest to. There hasn’t been a film like this in recent memory, that gives us presence to a film in the form of footsteps and conversations that resonate within it, carving out a technique of third dimensional sound that is riveting without being rumbling. Cuaron’s slow pan navigation to the left and right also soak up the wide range of emotions present under this one roof where so much is on display. This gives the film great replay value, as the magnitude of what’s taking place in conversation and action feels like too much to ever intercept in one lone sit.

– As for storytelling, this is anything but a conventional script, instead choosing to spend its time on a multitude of life experiences that boil together in one simmering pot. This can be hit or miss to anyone watching because the developing drama is slow and methodical, pacing itself out in episodic methods to make it anything but conventionally predictable. What’s more impressive is the magnitude of topics covered, taking us everywhere from marital troubles to a full blown college riot on the surrounding streets that is a wrong place, wrong time scenario if there ever was one.

– Zero distractions. The decision to include no musical tones or tracks to the film, other than naturally playing music during the scene, is one that I take great pleasure with. Cuaron as a director is someone who has a lot of faith in his audience, therefore he allows them to interpret the moment without requiring manipulative or forceful musical accompaniment that this film simply didn’t require. This also grounds the overall presentation in a strong sense of realism that transcends its designation as entertaining art, making us feel like we are watching a real family and their lives play out before our very eyes.

– Juxtapositions in tone. This is something that I would usually negate a movie for, but the existence of an environment that is every bit as uncomfortable as it is funny, every bit as endearing as it is bizarre, and every bit stressful as it is relaxing, all paint this ambitiously interpretive picture that hints that life is anything but one consistent flow. This proves that the material has many layers, but more than anything it’s in the personal touch with how these characters experience these life and attitude changing revelations where something so simple in material feels so complex in delivery.

– The definition of a passion project. It’s something special to see one of the very best directors going today to feel so inspired by an idea that he puts everything else on the wait list, and that’s what you have here. Alfonso Cuaron marketing this film primarily for Netflix is something that proves it’s not just another movie to make money on. Likewise, the harvested feel of art imitating life is that rare one in a million chance where the writer and director of the film opens up their mind and memory to give the audience a piece of their past that is often times glossed over in Wikipedia biographies. “Roma” is the perfect film for Cuaron’s masterful touch, and it serves as his single greatest work to date because that passion is prominently on display throughout.

– My favorite ending of 2018. There’s no huge explosions or shocking twist, so what did I see that left such a huge imprint on me? Heart. From the bonding of this family against all odds that makes one particular character finally feel whole, to the final shot mirroring that of the first shot of the movie, I left “Roma” with an overall sense of satisfaction and feel-good goosebumps that served as the perfect emphasis for everything I experienced. It’s honest in the fact that life itself still goes on, but it’s appropriate enough in the finality of its conclusion serving as the catalyst for what comes next for all of them.

NEGATIVES

– Badly needs a studio edit. While the film clocking in at 130 minutes wasn’t my main problem in this regards, the lack of intrigue or excitement during the dry and tip-toeing first half of the film certainly is. This makes “Roma” a difficult film to get into right away, as much of the unwinding screenplay feels like Cuaron’s home movies, where lots of excess fat can be trimmed. As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate a director who takes time to study and articulate environments, but this is done in several instances where the camera turns on long before our characters come into frame, making it feel like we are waiting for the movie to catch up to our encroachment of their home.

– No central protagonist. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s easy to see that this is Cleo’s story”, well not so much. While the film does follow her more than anyone, the characters of the film are drawn so thinly that we as an audience just tend to bounce off of all of them in search of someone to take command and floor us with a personality that makes us beg for more. No such person exists like this in “Roma”, and because of such, we’re asking much more from a talented cast, who while happy to oblige at this request, don’t fully make up for the lack of important rendering. Half of the characters are irredeemable, while the other half rub together in ways that had me searching for any slight clues as to how they’re different.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Aquaman

Directed By James Wan

Starring – Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe

The Plot – Arthur Curry (Mamoa) learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world. Standing in his way is the leader of a dangerous army, led by Arthur’s brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Will the communicator of underwater life stake his claim, or will the wrath of the Seven Seas provide too much for him?

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some adult language

POSITIVES

– James Wan’s immense scope on this decades old property. After you see the film, you will have no doubts that this modern day maestro was the right man for the job, as the variety of geographical set pieces and enhanced world building gives new life to the property many deemed impossible to bring to the big screen. Wan spares zero expense when it comes to capturing the sheer magnitude of the world beneath our feet, bringing with him several rumbling action set pieces and believably textured C.G work as far as the eye can see, that is sure to silence even the loudest doubters.

– Consistency of tone is key. One thing that D.C has failed with at nearly every big screen release until now is the cohesive bond that appropriately measures humor and drama respectively. Thankfully, “Aquaman” feels like the blueprint for future successes here because it keeps each within their boundaries, so as to never encroach on the importance of the other. What’s most commendable is the humor doesn’t feel forced or immature to the kinds of personality that the characters maintain throughout the film. There’s this very accommodating sense within the material that doesn’t just cater to older audiences like in past movies, allowing kids the chance to enjoy the wonderment and light-hearted atmosphere that this company has been under-appreciating in its comic movies.

– Strong ensemble work all around from this talented cast. While this is certainly a breaking out vehicle for its main star, who exuberates enough brawn and bravado behind a crooked smile, I was surprised at the allowance given to the supporting cast as well. Heard possibly steals the movie in my opinion, carving out another female heroine for D.C in ways Marvel can only dream of. Likewise, Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson each turn in impactful dramatic turns, giving the franchise name tremendous value because of the sum of its big name parts. It could be easy for any of them to get lost in the ridiculousness of wearing these costumes or donning these tridents, but each actor brings with them a level of professionalism that makes them believable in their respective roles, transcending the familiarity of their appearances into the characters they are portraying.

– The single most beautiful looking superhero film of all time. Yes, I just gave “Aquaman” the honors over films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor”, mainly because the difficulty in capturing the beauty of something as dark and mysterious as the sea is something film just hasn’t captured until now. Don Burgess’s turquoise filtering reaches an astonishing level of consistency throughout, but it’s his enveloping nature of the above water landscape shots that constantly captured my attention and stretched the boundaries of imagination, making these two worlds truly rub together synthetically. Whether you like or hate this movie, everyone will feel like they just came out of a film where the pages of a comic book came to life, and that above everything else is probably the most important aspect to any comic book adaptation.

– Learning from mistakes. Where “Aquaman” takes perhaps its biggest step forward is the decision not only to not make this an origin story, but also not to cater to a future installment before attaining greatness with this current film. Sure, there’s certainly flashbacks to Arthur’s training growing up, but they actually serve a purpose in echoing the timeline of current day, all the while leading to a big discovery that shakes both timelines immensely. If you’re watching this film for a link to other D.C movies, you will be very disappointed, but I think that’s the proper steps necessary for finally gaining some traction of momentum for this once storied company.

– Hits and misses with the music. While I despised the soundtrack for this movie (A Pitbull cover of Toto’s “Africa”? Seriously?), the compositions of Rupert Gregson Wagner more than carried the load in this particular area. Wagner’s entrancing and wonderous musical score instills enough fantasy to the outline of the picture that really makes those moments of triumph truly pop. In addition, the thunderous audible presentation of the war sequences bring with them a sense of rumbling urgency that frequently hold your attention, and echo that of war genre films like “The Thin Red Line” or “The Patriot” that juxtapose that level of uncertainty on the screen.

– Creative touches in serene camera work. Wan is the culprit here once again, as his revolving scope around these important scenes of dialogue experiment in a way that truly allows the audience to move and immerse themselves in the thick of the water itself. This one-of-a-kind experience gives us several takes of textbook pasting in editing that made even me question several times if what we are seeing was long take sequences of long-winded dialogue delivery. It’s great to see Wan has developed a level of personality behind the lens that constantly evolves with each project, and never distracts or takes away from the beauty within the fantasy of the setting.

– Despite the setting being this fantasy realm of caves and creatures, the material itself is instead grounded in this family hierarchy, debating the bond of blood relatives in a way that everyone watching can relate to. Think “Game of Thrones” set in a world of fantasy and you’re already halfway there. What I love about this dynamic is it takes something as unfamiliar to us as the deepest darkest blue and withdraws from it this level of family drama that everyone has dealt with at one time or another in their lives. More than anything, this makes “Aquaman” certainly the most relatable and accessible to audiences enjoying one of these movies for the first time ever, and highlights yet another layer of brotherly bond that we thought we’ve seen enough of.

NEGATIVES

– Manta, while looking menacingly awesome in a detailed body suit, never feels like an important or vital part of the film because of limitations of time given to his development. This is also the only light pacing issues I have with the film, as every time we cut to his subplot, it all just feels like filler to reach the 130 minute desired run time and breath for the more important war that Arthur is building towards. I would’ve preferred they saved this antagonist for an Aquaman sequel instead, allowing them not only to properly flesh out the revenge associated with the character, but also proper time for Yahya Abdul-Mateen to shine in the role.

– Clunky dialogue. There are still problems in the script with characters speaking these cringing lines with such a lack of conviction. That’s not to say that it’s the actors faults, just that far too often these lines don’t flow as natural conversation, instead catering to the superhero demographic that literally forces these people to say these same tired lines. A great example is “The Dark Knight”, where no one speaks like a superhero or villain, instead sounding like a conversation between HUMAN beings, that transcends its superhero label. “Aquaman” shakes itself of all of these familiar tropes except for this one, and it makes for instances of unintentional humor that were distracting.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Directed By The Coen Brothers

Starring – Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown

The Plot – A six-part Western anthology film that acts as a series of tales about the American frontier, as told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen. Each chapter tells a distinct story about the American West.

Rated R for strong violence

POSITIVES

– Artistic framing with the dreamy backdrops. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is possibly my favorite Coen Brothers movie, so it gives me great pleasure that they brought along cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to provide visual layers with the film’s color pallet, against a gorgeous Wild West landscape. This is the first film that the Coen Brothers have shot in digital film, so there are literally no limits that they and Bruno can take in emitting the true beauty in such a dangerous and unpredictable place. The wide shots during story progression scenes harvest the magic of a refined museum painting, practically begging to be seen on a screen as big as the sky, and the variation of colored lenses throughout the many stories, provided a unique take on the ranging tones in atmosphere that every story took us through. Particularly during the sixth and final story, we are treated to a decaying blue effect that patiently rises as the sun goes down, giving nuance to the very cold shade of discovery that our protagonists are feeling.

– Sharp tongue-and-cheek humor to counterbalance the permanency of the impactful violence. While the film takes us on many bends of tone that would diminish the danger in a lesser directed film, The Coen Brothers instead remain true to their guns, depicting the level of savage, hard-R violence to blend fruitfully with the fantasy of aspects like singing narration, and the strange thing is it all works magically. Never in the film did the latter diminish the quality of the lawless environment, nor did it ever feel out of place with the Coen Brothers usual indulgence of humorous awkwardness during trying times. In fact, there were many times in the film when I was caught off guard with the twists and turns because I was fooled into believing that everything would be alright, with a delightful song and dance.

– Clever uses of the music heard throughout. Particularly during the first two stories in the film, the musical score by Carter Burwell is instilled by aspects that are happening on-screen, that give the music a very realistic shaping to what we’re hearing. Such an example is in a piano during the first story that we hear and don’t see until the camera pans left and our piano player comes into frame. This overall provides a gentle immersion between the road of film and real life that many movies lack anymore, and it’s certainly an ingenious way to bring the elements of music to the forefront of the story.

– Impeccable sound design. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a film to watch with the volume turned up as loud as the set of human ears can physically take, and the reason for this is in the riveting, pulse-setting loads of ammunition that fly by our character’s dreaded dispositions. This gives the unfurling drama a sense of being as close to the devastation as an audience can muster without actually being there, and the screenplay’s unforgiving nature to any character only elevates this tension to fearful levels when you hear a gun come into play during a scene.

– Authentically transformative performances from the entire cast, that etch out a reputation for the Coen Brothers handle over the elements of their film. While there are familiar actors in the film’s ensemble, like Liam Neeson or James Franco, the direction does a strong enough job in getting each actor to lose themselves in roles that are different from their usual comfort zones and roles that we as an audience expect from them. It also doesn’t hurt that the wardrobe and props department fire on all cylinders, forcing you to do many double takes towards each actor that moves in and out of frame. Without question, my favorite is certainly Tim Blake Nelson as the title character. Nelson exuberates a slick demeanor and authentic Western accent with confidence, giving us such an alluring set of welcoming arms into this story, and constantly doubling down on the endless charisma. My only wish is that he played a bigger role in the film, but I will get to that later.

– Brilliant camera drifts that works cohesively with the element of surprise. There’s such a cerebral sense behind the movement of discoveries that constantly built the drama, that I couldn’t get enough of. Such scenes are rare in film, and often give us the feeling that we are actually moving a mile ahead of the characters in the movie at all times, and this movie has no shortage of them. While I could list a few for this film in particular, I will say that my favorite involved a big protagonist character who doesn’t realize he’s been shot in the head until the camera pans down and we see a bloody hole in the front and back of his cowboy hat. Aside from the startling discovery of losing someone so prominent to the film, the sequence is shot in a way that forces you to hold your breath and hope everything that you’re feeling isn’t real, when in focus we find that it is. Rhythmic drama at its finest.

– Storybook style narration that adds nuance to the elements within an anthology genre movie. Beyond the many things I mentioned above, it’s the incredibly small attention to detail that gave the movie a rich sense of production value, and transcended the qualities of being just another set of campfire stories. At the beginning of each story, we are shown an actual storybook, complete with author-style text and vibrant storyboard drawings to accommodate what is transpiring on-screen. It gives the film a great sense of re-watchability for being able to pause it and take it all in, and it’s a reminder of throwback anthology films like “Creepshow” that adhered to the gimmick.

– Little things Part two. There’s this strong authenticity with the dialogue and character accents that fruitfully replicate the particular geography and time period seamlessly, and instill this feeling that many hours were spent on perfecting the craft. Terms are used that you wouldn’t necessarily hear in modern day, and that factor plays prominently in the believability of what we’re seeing and hearing on-screen. Nothing ever feels out of place or wooden to the world the brothers create inside, and I respect a perfectionist’s stance when it comes to hammering home something that could easily go over the head of its audience.

NEGATIVES

– A glaring weakness. For my money, stories four and six were the obvious weaknesses of the movie for me, and gave way to a lot of problems that didn’t exist in the rest of the project. It’s in these stories where the uneven pacing begins to show itself, as the stories up to that point moved with such vicious urgency. For whatever reason, these two stories were given much more ample time with developing their stories, and felt much more redundant in events because of such. In addition to this, I was disappointed a bit with the title of the movie because it doesn’t exactly define what the whole film entails. Instead, the title really only speaks to one-sixth of the story, and provides emphasis for why these stories would’ve worked much better as individual episodes, instead of one cohesive project.

– Conservative constrictions. While not a problem for everyone, there’s nothing enveloped that challenges the cliche conventions of Western civilization that are decades old. Once again, white men are heroes, even when they’re killers. White women are delicate prizes to be defended and won. Indigenous people are “savages” who exist purely to terrorize the first two groups. The west is a place of shattered dreams, dust, and death. Turn page. Repeat. The end. You’ve seen it before; the Coen’s have no qualms about showing it again. Just one story of female heroism or Indigenous perspective could’ve satisfied me.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Wildlife

Directed By Paul Dano

Starring – Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould

The Plot – Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, Mulligan stars as Jeanette, a complex woman whose self-determination and self-involvement disrupts the values and expectations of a 1960s nuclear family. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Oxenbould), is the only child of Jeanette and Jerry (Gyllenhaal); a housewife and a golf pro in a small town in 1960s Montana. Nearby, an uncontrolled forest fire rages close to the Canadian border, and when Jerry loses his job, and his sense of purpose–he decides to join the cause of fighting the fire, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Suddenly forced into the role of an adult, Joe witnesses his mother’s struggle as she tries to keep her head above water.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong adult language, and smoking

POSITIVES

– Dano’s first dive into the director’s chair. There’s much to be commended about Paul’s calm, stately compositions in the form of visual aesthetics, which I will get to later, that shook me, but it’s the psychological grip on this story and characters that cemented him as a future must-see artist. In presenting this film from the boy’s point of view, Dano accurately channels what it means to be 14, in the very helplessness and hopelessness that comes with divorce. There’s this suffocating weight that overtakes the environment and the characters whole, shaping them into shadows of themselves once the air of inevitability has been emitted from it, and I found this film to be sharply effective throughout.

– Perfect place and time. In setting the film in Montana, at the pulse of an evolving America during the nuclear age, Dano perfectly encapsulates the loneliness derived from the many missteps that the parental characters take. Despite the primary setting being this house on an everyday street, the people inside feel isolated from the rest of the world, and keeping this cast limited in numbers only adds to this effect. Mulligan even echoes in the film “Why would a man move us to a place that is plagued with such loneliness?”, and while I can’t quite pinpoint why Gyllenhaal’s Jerry made this move, I can say that Dano sees the value of urban decay in such a town. A place once built on dreams that the rest of the world has since left behind. That thought process alone also serves as a metaphor for this collapsing family.

– Creative uses with the soundtrack and musical score. First of all, I loved the work in tones of David Lang’s score. There’s this unshakeable tragedy from within the ominous organs and piano work that fill the film, but it’s perhaps the way it is inserted along with the 60’s diner soundtrack that really serves its purpose. Much of the music in the film is played at such a minimal level of volume that you almost miss it, instead serving as the reminder of the particular year that never oversteps its boundaries, and lets the actors themselves steal the moments. I praise any composer willing to take whatever role the film gives them, and while the work of Lang is off in the distance, it never goes unnoticed with how it audibly narrates the unfolding drama and tension of every scene.

– Lets talk about the photography in the film, because everything and everyone inside look like inspiration from a Norman Rockwell painting. Dano values reaction as much as he does instinct, and how he manages to master both is this variation between intimate close-ups when characters are speaking with one another, and these deliberate POV angles when the intended reaction sets in. During the latter, we the audience feel like a member embattled in the overbearing drama of this family, because they are speaking to us behind the camera, and what’s really important is Dano never overuses this gimmick, instead choosing to save it for when the anger, despair, and curiosity reaches its peak in each particular scene.

– Hit and miss performances. Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are seasoned veterans at this thing. They are two accomplished actors who can turn on and off their dramatic switch when needed, and know how to make the most in every scene. For Jake, it’s the longing to be what he wants to be for his family, but can never quite attain it, and that unnerving conscience from the inside often plays itself outside in a lot of his performance. Mulligan easily steals the show, at times playing what feels like two different sides of Jeanette with impeccable believability. For the more compelling side, Jeanette feels like the ghost of regrets past, transforming before our very eyes into someone we barely recognize anymore. If Carey knows anything, it’s timing for such a switch, and as an actress she’s someone who knows how to envelope every side of audience reaction for her character. She deserves an Oscar nomination at least for how much she is asked to carry this film. Which brings me to my only disappointment in the cast being that of Oxenbould as our main protagonist. This is definitely Ed’s best work to date, but the role requires a gut-wrenching pull of empathy for this kid that I felt was never fully realized. All of his reactions from start to finish are the same, feeling like dirt on his shoulder instead of the walls of his world coming down.

– Depth in coloring palette. Cinematographer Diego Garcia puts on an artistic feast for us, illustrating a festering of light as the film progresses. When the movie begins, we are presented the warm, flowing levels of sunlight shining through the windows to represent the prosperity and solitude of this family’s current fortunes. But as the unpredictable starts to spin, and one thing leads to the next, we quickly realize the cold, callous, and almost colorless compass that speaks levels to the love that is bleeding out from within. I’m a sucker for colorful context in the form of these beautiful articulations of visuals, and “Wildlife” is anything but an abstract painting from the gifted mind of Garcia.

– Deconstruction of the American family. Whether you’re a product of divorce like I am, or not, the movie has strong crossover appeal because it relates this progressive side of understanding where it all went wrong. The film isn’t blaming Jake or Jeanette for the family’s mishaps, instead etching out this idea that this family’s problems were a long time burning, and it’s commendable for a film that could easily blame this all on the woman once again, to instead instill that it does indeed take two to tango. Also, because of such, I look forward to future re-watches, so that I can study the communication between these two a little tighter, and telegraph what other little clues I may have missed.

– Two of my favorite shots of the movie. While there are no shortage of reputable scenes that you can bring to the forefront of topical discussion, two come to mind when it comes to what impressed me. The first is an outside shot, in which we see Joe tucked away in his room, far away from Jake and Jeanette who are in the kitchen. This shot speaks levels not only to the distance that has shaped this family into virtual strangers of one another, but also in the body language of each character, that long for the love that they themselves are afraid to invest in. The second shot is actually that of the poster, which cleverly incorporates itself into the final shot of the movie. I don’t want to give anything away here, but there’s an abstract closing moment that I’m dying to discuss with people, in if they took it as an optimistic or pessimistic goodbye to the future of this haunted-by-their-memories family. Either way, Dano and equally talented cast stir the nerves from within, sending you home with the two best sequences of the film in the final five minutes.

NEGATIVES

– While I didn’t have a problem with the slow-burn of the pacing, the lack of momentum built between scenes had this feeling like a series of individual events with little magnetics, instead of a cohesive mass that constantly kept me glued. Each scene feels like you’re starting out again, in the form of episodic drama, and this sometimes contrives the fluidity of basic screenwriting.

– Run time limitations. I sometimes felt throughout the 99 minute run time that character realizations were sometimes unfulfilled, based on the extreme nature of their actions. That’s not to say that these kind of things wouldn’t happen in real life, but rather the lack of proper build along the way made such a jump feel comical to say the least. One such scene involves a fire near the end of the film, and it’s just kind of put away without any kind of weight of consequences to make a certain character finally pay for some terrible things he is responsible for. No epiphany ever takes place, and that’s the biggest problem from a moral standpoint.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Creed 2

Directed By Steven Caple Jr

Starring – Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

The Plot – Life has become a balancing act for Adonis Creed (Jordan). Between personal obligations and training for his next big fight, he is up against the challenge of his life. Facing an opponent with ties to his family’s past only intensifies his impending battle in the ring. Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is there by his side through it all and, together, Rocky and Adonis will confront their shared legacy, question what’s worth fighting for, and discover that nothing’s more important than family.

Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, adult language, and a scene of sensuality

POSITIVES

– Caple competently picks of the pieces left by Coogler. As a director, Caple’s focus is rooted in life experiences first and boxing second. This doesn’t necessarily take the power of the punch away from the ring, but rather enhances its compelling drama by stirring the ingredients around the ring. Redemption is a big one throughout, but also legacy, and it’s in the impact of that second topic where “Creed 2” evolves beyond the ropes, in presenting us with two fighters who are equally empathetic for similar reasons. These are two sons who feel like their stories were written long before either of them were born, and while their life paths have taken two distant directions, Caple’s execution draws them together in the form of the fight from within that they both take on.

– Electrifying boxing presentation as a whole. The fight sequences are intense, bringing with them a combination of claustrophobic camera angles, brunt force in sound design, and crisp, free-firing fight choreography to keep audiences glued. The spectacle of the sport is also very sharply telegraphed, bringing an extravagance of lasers and television perspective to really draw you into this world of pageantry. If boxing looked this good in real life, I would watch it more.

– Passing of the torch. While I feel that “Creed” was still Stallone’s film, “Creed 2” is Jordan’s sweetest triumph of his young career. Much of the dramatic pulse rests on the shoulders of Michael, and he never gives up the grip, inciting a level of emotionally stirring reads and timely tears to articulately expel the boxer’s conscience from within, where revenge acts as the devil on his left shoulder. Aside from Jordan’s riveting balance, Stallone is again synthetic as Balboa, taking us through the motions of grief and distance for his current family predicaments that broke my heart for my own distant final days with my own father. Tessa Thompson is also granted more screen time in this sequel, and she makes the most of it. The chemistry between her and Jordan is impeccable, treating us to two incredible actors who feel comfortable around themselves, and work just as well as best friends as they do lovers.

– Surprising cameos. There’s no way in good conscience that I can give this away, but the two inclusions in this movie provide the series a level of consistency that has been noticeably absent from the previous installments, and gives me hope for where future sequels may be headed. The first is great for those of us who have read about her off-screen trysts with Stallone, and the second made for such a satisfying and therapeutic finale, that had me fighting off tears. I commend the film for including these measures, and it’s just another example of why the Creed series have adopted the previous seven films in the franchise far beyond just bringing Sly along.

– Evolution of a fighter. Beyond Adonis’s physical transformation, which is so impressive that it demands to be computer generated, the psychology of him as a fighter has clearly matured with more ring experience. More than anything, I noticed his confidence and switch handed boxing have evolved, carving out two less prominent aspects to a fighter that come with time. This is another nod to the physicality of Jordan’s performance, and the astonishing brutality of two impressive training montages more than colorfully illustrate how this actor becomes the title role in more ways than one.

– Props to bringing back Ludwig Goransson, composer of the first film, back to the middle of the ring. I say it like this because most of the film doesn’t require Ludwig to get his hands dirty until the fights themselves, choosing instead to accompany a majority of the scenes outside of the ring with a hip-hop dominated soundtrack that appropriately channels Creed’s personality. This absence did make me remotely nervous, that is until the fights themselves, which Goransson fruitfully takes over, enchanting us with a barrage of rumbling numbers that would inspire a mass army to dive head first into the halls of hell. Goransson collides thunderous drums with volume exceeding trumpets, and just when you think he’s outdone himself, he throws in Bill Conti’s familiar notes to “Gonna Fly Now”, at the perfect moment it means the most.

– It’s impressive when you think about the most fantastical sequel of the Rocky franchise, in the fourth one, and weave it into this rich dramatic tapestry in 2018 that feels authentic. Never once during this film did the material discussed in that movie feel extreme or silly in the least, and it was certainly rewarding to see this weathered side to a man who was once as unstoppable as Ivan Drago was, and tack on top of him a son, who is clearly only fighting for the admiration of his father. Every time the film cut to them, which is unfortunately not enough, the tone remained consistent, and I’m glad that Caple never lets his film get out of hand to feel like a music video movie, like “Rocky 4”.

– Entrancing photography that added artistic merit during Coogler’s noticeable absence. While we won’t get long take fight sequences here, the film makes up for it by supplanting us with what feels like an unlimited amount of breathtaking scenic shots of the desert, Las Vegas, and Russia, to name a few, that encloses the film in this big budget presentation that mirrors the success of its title character. On a singular basis, any one of these landscape depictions could be a background on your laptop, but when you combine them together, you conjure up a need for aesthetics that succeeds in different ways from the first film, ultimately giving this movie great replay value.

NEGATIVES

– Unfortunately, there are moments of familiarity for fans of the franchise, particularly in that of things borrowed from “Rocky 2” and “Rocky 3”, that made the intended direction feel predictable as it transpired. What this does is take away from some of the creativity of the Creed franchise, feeling like an obvious reach for the Rocky series that the film just doesn’t require. These scenes made for the only slow parts of the film for me, because I could sniff them out from a mile away, and the film would be advised to change even something small about them to differentiate.

– Some of the exposition from the boxing commentators felt forced and often intrusive, to the point when they felt like narrators who we couldn’t shake. I get that the characters in the film are watching TV when they pop up, but some of their comments feel more obviously geared towards the movie, and not necessarily something you would hear on a television broadcast. It all comes across as a bit too on-the-nose for my taste, and breathed an air of desperation that the first act couldn’t shake.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

A Private War

Directed By Matthew Heineman

Starring – Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan

The Plot – In a world where journalism is under attack, Marie Colvin (Pike) is one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time. Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontlines of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless, while constantly testing the limits between bravery and bravado. After being hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka, she wears a distinctive eye patch and is still as comfortable sipping martinis with London’s elite as she is confronting dictators. Colvin sacrifices loving relationships, and over time, her personal life starts to unravel as the trauma she’s witnessed takes its toll. Yet, her mission to show the true cost of war leads her, along with renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), to embark on the most dangerous assignment of their lives in the besieged Syrian city of Homs.

Rated R for disturbing violent images, adult language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Pike and Dornan are spell-binding. The former is obviously the bigger pull here, as Pike immerses herself fully into this role, and while it’s a bit of a stretch to compare the physical similarities between Pike and her counterpart, I do say that her stirring performance isn’t hindered because of it. In fact, the vocal range of Pike is very much in tuned with that of Colvin, sounding eerily similar to the point I had to wonder if the film was just playing audio of Colvin and letting Pike lip-sync over it. Pike’s Marie is great as a character because she’s persistent about these big stories in the world, and there’s never a point when she lets fear overtake her from opening the eyes of her audience. Dornan likewise hands in another respectable turn, feeling like the voice of conscience and reasoning that Marie so desperately requires in getting back up to the world of journalism, after a horrendous explosion in the Middle East leaves her permanently blind in one eye. Considering this is the same guy who once played Christian Grey, it’s astonishing to see what Jamie continues to take on with his career, and he’s very much a driving force to the impeccable chemistry between the two leads, that never requires romance to sell their sizzle.

– Sharp in its poignancy about war without ever feeling preachy. This is very much a show-over-tell kind of picture, in that we as an audience are put through the ringer with these traumatizing visuals and suffocating atmospheres. What’s satisfying about this is it lets audience interpret and comprehend matters for themselves without pushing a particular narrative on them. In my experience with the film, Syria feels like a world blaringly different from our own, and unnervingly resonant for the idea that children wake up to this same thing every day of their lives. It really is a reminder of the advantages we have that we take for granted all the time, carving out a feeling of appreciation that films like these champion in.

– A wide variety of shooting style used throughout. This is visual storytelling at its best, as the entrancing war sequences are captured with a handheld style of filming, that weaves us in and out of frame of the devastation, while the scenes in tranquility and safety are rendered with a still-frame direction. Subtly, this vast difference increases the tension in one scene to the other, all the while giving the cinematography an air of creativity that never settles for just one particular style.

– As for the action sequences themselves, they never feel over-styled, keeping with the authenticity of the big budget set pieces at our disposal. The pulse of the battling itself feels spontaneous in its barrage of claustrophobic bullet registry and unpredictable choreography, giving the scenes a blanket of urgency and vulnerability that gives off the impression of an on-the-ground documentary, instead of the independent cinematic experience we’re used to. This is no doubt a credit to Heineman, who himself is known for his work on award winning documentaries, and only occasionally sits in the director’s chair to adapt material. These charged scenes themselves, while spread out wisely, impressed me constantly, and proved that much can sometimes get lost in big budget presentations and ideals.

– I myself am not a supporter of war, but the film is appropriate food for though, in that it illustrates how we as one world should embrace to help those plagued by such ravaging conditions. The graphic imagery involving the poor medical conditions, sacrificed youths, and uncertainty of trust, are just a few of the examples of why action is the key to any change. My opinion overall might have stayed on peaceful grounds, but I learned that to sometimes attain such peace, matters must be dealt with.

– Sheds immense light on the career as a journalist in the field. Aside from the obvious dangers in being an on-the-ground correspondent, the job has a combination of preserving honesty and unshakeable passion that feels important in today’s fake news landscape more than ever. In addition, these valuable assets can’t un-see images that change them forever, and more times than not take their work home with them. It really is a career path that requires you to lay everything on the line, and in doing such bridges the gap between war and strategists in a way that many in ivory towers wouldn’t come close to otherwise.

– Brilliant biopic. This is certainly no love-letter to Marie, and it’s that level of honesty that I appreciate not only from “A Private War”, but also from all kinds of biopics that preserve the complete picture of what made said person tick. As a protagonist, Marie is flawed by a combination of alcoholism and dedication to her work that has sacrificed any semblance of home life that she has going for herself. While there’s nothing condemning about her, the film doesn’t go out of its way to paint her as someone and something that she’s not, and especially coming off of the fluff job that was “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I can’t say enough Heineman as a director, for letting these intricacies shine through in carving out this amazing figure in how we view the news.

– A riveting finale that leaves it all on film. As to where some films would cut away when a movie reaches its unsettling climax, “A Private War” never hesitates for moment, instead choosing to remain true to itself and Marie by refusing to look away when it matters the most. The final shots played repeatedly in my head, long after I left the theater, and I think one of the most important things in a film is the ability to finish when the adrenaline is pumping the highest, and that’s certainly the case with this one.

NEGATIVES

– Uneven pacing. The film has its moments of plodding, especially during the second act, but I was more concerned with the first act of the movie, which whirlwinds some of Marie’s most accomplished moments as a journalist into these compartmentalized scenes that happen too rapidly to leave a lasting impression. The damage isn’t felt especially until that second act that I previously mentioned, slowing things down to endure every sight and sound, and leaving it feeling like a different director between the first two thirds of the film. It’s Heineman’s one weakness here.

– It’s a difficult sell to believe twelve years passes during the course of this barely 100 minute screenplay, and even more so when nothing of appearance on any of the characters changes, nor ages during that time frame. Therefore, there’s not enough weight between transitions to make this feel reflective of what the on-screen text is telling us. This is always a major cliche in time transition films for me, and unfortunately this one falls into the same trap.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Widows

Directed By Steve McQueen

Starring – Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki

The Plot – The story of four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Davis), Alice (Debicki), Linda (Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Rated R for violence, adult language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity

POSITIVES

– Possibly the best ensemble casting of 2018. Aside from accredited actresses like Viola Davis keeping a firm grip on your attention each time she’s on-screen, because of impeccable range that channels the dynamic between rage and grief, or Robert Duvall’s deep-seeded racism that acts as an outline for the politics played throughout, the film is really a casting call for the underdogs take the reigns. Debicki gets possibly the most focus throughout the film, and it’s interesting and extremely satisfying to see the edginess from this once battered housewife come to life because of the feat she’s tasked with. Also great is Daniel Kaluuya as this dangerously cool gang leader with no remorse for those he hurts. For Daniel, this may be the role that takes his career in a completely different direction, as he makes the most in every scene by chewing up the scenery that he invades.

– McQueen’s unorthodox camera styles. Part of what makes McQueen one of my three favorite directors is his ability to experiment with opposite approaches and unnerving patience when it comes to long takes, and that’s certainly the case here. One such scene involves a car ride, in which none of the characters are shown, only heard, and instead we are focused upon the rapid change in city living, from the slums to the mansions, in a matter of seconds. McQueen uses this to channel not only city official’s hypocrisies by not living somewhere they represent, but also in the dynamic of differences between them visually, and it disturbs us with this unshakeable feeling that these officials could do so much more, yet choose to keep things the way they are. There’s also manipulations and bending with scenes involving mirrors, that allow the audience to keep an eye on the facial registry of each character in frame, during scenes we would otherwise be behind their backs.

– Much more than a heist film. Part of what works for Gillian Flynn’s writing as novelist and screenwriter, is that she understands that it’s the ingredients that go into the pot that make it a much tastier sizzle, giving these ladies an outline of grief, fear, and especially vengeance, that the film focuses so prominently on. In fact, the heist itself takes place in the film’s final fifteen minutes, emphasizing the care and concern for the characters above the mission itself, and never does that decision hinder or corode the material’s deeper meaning. This also feels like much higher stakes than something like “Ocean’s Eight”, in which the ladies didn’t have to do the heist like the women in “Widows” did.

– As for the heist itself, it is very much grounded in reality, and capped off with a beautifully layered sound design that rattles and conveys urgency during the film’s climax. As with any heist movie, there is much that goes into the mission itself, but nothing ever feels unbelievable or stretching in logic, and I appreciate that during an era when heist movies embrace the far-fetching, here’s a film that would rather keep it simple by instead indulging in the air of the atmosphere itself. It helps that these ladies have gone over every angle of the plan to a tee, but what really comes to focus is their ability to adapt under pressure, providing a metaphorical reminder of what life has already thrown at them and forced them to deal with on their own.

– McQueen’s presence in guiding this complex narrative. “Widows” uses every bit of its two hour run time to commentate and tackle on the world’s sociological stratosphere instead of feeling like an entertaining film first. This is very much a slow burn kind of movie, and if that’s not your bag, it might feel enduring to you, but for me I appreciated this director’s patience in taking his time not only with the script, but also in giving each of the characters a proving ground amount of time to cement where they stand in this story. Davis is obviously the main character in the film, but in a sense it feels like all of these women are tough in their own way, proving that the many shapes, sizes, and colors of a gender have one thing in common: strength.

– Exceptional editing that really articulates the thought process behind grieving. Many sequences of isolation involving Davis’s character, deal with her channeling these memories of her and her former husband (Played by Liam Neeson), and it’s done in such a way that blends perfectly with the progression of the current day scene. Audio overlaps and quick-cut edits to remove a character, are just a couple of the measures taken in rendering these psychological takes, and the pacing of each sequence replicates the idea that Davis mind is a million miles away, even for a few seconds after someone starts talking to her. Brilliant visual representation that I’ve only seen topped by Jean-Marc Vallet.

– Possibly the most important film during the #MeToo era. Aside from the obvious of women banding together to accomplish a common goal, the film’s ability to put these women in predicaments that are historically male-driven is something that I commend the movie greatly for. There are males in the film, but the focus remains persistent with these hearts of the household, depicting that even the ability to drop it all and decide to engage in this heist is something that isn’t as easily said for women with great responsibilities. “Widows” feels like a movie that alludes that women aren’t to be overlooked or underestimated, and it makes me want more crossover roles for women that doesn’t demean their talents or keep them in the bubble of female confinement that reminds you endlessly of their gender.

– There’s a lot of subtle nuance to the revelations between characters and situations in the film, that cater to the belief that Flynn has in her audience. Most of these are object related, and don’t cater to the kind of screenplay, in which the writer is beating the audience over the head deliberately, with obvious clues and hints as to what they are alluding to. Instead, the movie pays off audiences who have stayed firmly in-grained into the layers of onion that the film has slowly been peeling, and because of such will reap the benefits once the direction takes a different step. Aside from what I already mentioned, I adore this because it feels very much like reality, instead of the distractions that screenplays present. If you watch this film, be sure to pay attention to objects in addition to characters.

NEGATIVES

– There’s a twist midway through the movie, that while it did floor me in surprise for how I didn’t see it coming in the slightest, it doesn’t do much for the remainder of the film in terms of impact. I feel like I will be in the minority here, but it felt tacked on to me to provide an unnecessary final conflict. In my opinion, the motivation of the women were stronger before this twist, and I wish the film felt confident enough to keep rolling with the punches of that original direction, because it makes the vengeance feel more raw and polished, and this new twist takes too much of the focus away from the women and their mission.

– No pay-off to certain subplots. Without spoiling anything, I will say that there are subplots between characters that are mentioned frequently, like there is going to be a major impact to the story, and then just kind of fizzle out when the film finally concludes. This left me with a couple of questions walking out of the film, and upon thinking about them now, I can’t help but point to them as the noticeable distractions to pad this story out. Could the film have been told properly without them? Yes, on most of them, and it would’ve only added to the fluidity of the script, that can sometimes trip itself up with the big conclusion of its properties.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Directed By Marielle Heller

Starring – Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells

The Plot – Lee Israel (McCarthy) who made her living in the 1970’s and 80’s profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Grant). An adaptation of the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of best-selling celebrity biographer (and friend to cats).

Rated R for adult language including some sexual references, and brief drug use

POSITIVES

– Above all else, I interpreted this as a film about friendship, and its one between Lee and Jack that makes so much of the film delightful. These are nearly two strangers who meet and soon find out that they balance each other out. It’s refreshing because they aren’t romantic interests, but rather sharing of a deeper soul connection that each of them so desperately needed to fight the depths of loneliness and isolation. The banter between them is so exquisitely polished, forcing you to hang on to every word between them, and the impeccable chemistry cements this as one of, if not the best, duo of the 2018 film year.

– Bad deeds, good people. It’s a difficult task to indulge on characters who do such illegal and condemning activities, but the film’s outlining of Lee’s undesirable disposition showcases a side to crime that certainly any of us could easily fall into. The motivation from her is fighting back against a life that has beaten her down constantly, therefore when the opportunity arises not only to fight back, but fight back against the system, she more than earnestly accepts. Even with all of this however, the film is responsible enough not to support these decisions, informing us of the steep price to forgery that comes with playing the game. Unconditional love and understanding goes a long way.

– Strong humor without the gimmicks. Yes, this is a drama first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean that McCarthy doesn’t get to show off her comedic presence, which is among the most popular in the business currently. Why the humor works so much for me here, instead of films like “The Boss” or “Life of the Party” is because she isn’t amped up to eleven. Her delivery is very much subdued, relying instead upon brilliant script writing and caustic wit to sell her presence on the film. This is the McCarthy we should be getting more of, and with any luck the film will succeed, proving to her that money is only so important.

– A buzzworthy duo of performances. This is definitely the McCarthy and Grant show, as both accomplished actors bring with them not only a faithful visual transformation to their real life counterparts, but also stirring renditions that have them in award season contention. For Grant, it’s his soft demeanor and gleefully dim-witted delivery that make him the perfect compliment to McCarthy’s lead. For her, it’s Israel’s gruff personality, striped down makeup, and rocky interaction with humans (She loves her cat) that offers something of substantial difference for McCarthy as an actress. There’s an element of sadness in her character, in that her whole career as an author has been to represent someone else’s work, and this cements a level of empathy in Melissa’s and the film that is required to invest in both.

– Colorfully illustrated New York in 1991. Most films would depict this as an excuse to get distractive with the gimmick of the setting, but Heller incorporates a subtle nuance to the big apple that never gets in the way of the unfolding events. It’s almost like you have to look closely to spot the time frame’s dated references, like IBM computers and classic automobiles to name a few, but they’re most certainly there. The cinematography as well, caters to a somberly yellowish faded design of coloring that gives the film that distinct feel of a particular era.

– Can you seriously remember the last time when two gay characters were a film’s two leading protagonists? Points for a film set in the past with such progressive ideals, that does so in a way that is neither insulting, nor incredibly over-the-top for revealing this fact. The orientation of these characters is important enough to the story, but feels secondary to outlining them as people first, and the sooner that we as a society blur the line of similarities to someone with a difference in orientation, the more likely we are to see more stories like them.

– Heller as a director does a superbly, fast-paced job that is responsible for nearly everything that I mentioned above. Aside from her film feeling incredibly engaging from the very start, the film doesn’t have a single scene in it that doesn’t harvest some level of importance to what is unfolding, and that speaks levels to a director who makes the most of her allowance of time. On the commentary side, it’s clear that Heller values Israel as a figure that time sort of forgot, but does so without diminishing the faults that make her an equally compelling antagonist as she is a protagonist. This is a director whose filmography is every bit as expansive in genre offerings as you can ask, and it’s got me curious to see what she will tackle next.

– A family affair with an extremely underrated musical score. Composed by Marielle’s brother Nate, there’s a strong reflection of this film being a character study, reflected by some heavily influenced jazz tunes that are incorporated into the serenity of this picture. It’s never overbearing, nor out of synth when compared to what transpires on screen, and that sense of light-hearted atmosphere in music ages well as the film takes us through some heavy threats that come the way of Lee’s newfound hobby.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of urgency with the third act weight of consequences. While the repercussions of Lee’s choices are inevitable, there’s an overall absence of anxiety missing from the film that would really elevate the tension of getting caught. It’s not a major problem, it just keeps us, and Lee for that matter, free from the kind of motivation required to quit. I could’ve used slightly more teasing within the script to warn Lee to back off. Without it, the final act of the movie feels slightly rushed, and really stands out at the only problem with the screenplay.

– No surprises beyond what is shown in the trailer. The trailer itself isn’t full of spoilers like other terribly constructed ones these days, but rather it paves and easy path to predicting what will transpire here. The sequence of real life events itself are limited, so there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for bombshell announcements or surprises, so it feels remotely pedestrian as a compelling drama. For my money, the film succeeds more as a comedy, and that’s a bit of a letdown because the performances feel very dramatic when the script doesn’t fully meet up with them.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-