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-

Overlord

Directed By Julius Avery

Starring – Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

The Plot – On the eve of D-Day, American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation. They find themselves fighting against supernatural forces, part of a Nazi experiment.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, adult language, and brief sexual content

POSITIVES

– Not your typical horror movie. Considering how this film was marketed, it’s greatly surprising to me that above all else it is an exceptional war film first, with a lot of substance in creative storytelling and filmmaking to match the buckets of blood, to which there is no shortage of. With a combination of grainy footage and propaganda-like introduction and conclusions, it’s clear that time and attention to detail were firmly invested in this finished product. This location of Germany isn’t just one that is approached from on a surface level, we very much live and breathe inside of the dread that feels like a fog over this country, giving depiction to an environment that can only be described as the darkest level of hell, far from anything conventional.

– Bar none, the very best sound mixing in 2018. “Overlord” thrives with the kind of pulse and intensity that leaves little to no suspension of disbelief on the field of battle. I say this because there are many scenes where it’s difficult to hear character’s speaking, especially when combating the aggressive noises of airplanes and gunfire that overcrowd the senses. Through the many war sequences involving what feels like an unlimited amount of rattling explosions, the film’s crisp vibrations rivet you, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the kind of environment that we’re being shown. Watch this one with the very best sound system theater that you can find, because Avery takes no prisoners.

– Jed Kurzel’s best work in years. Considering this is the same man who penned the musical tones in 2014’s “The Babadook”, it comes as no surprise how much he relies on increasing volume to consistently charge the suspense in every scene. Kurzel’s score feels like it never subdues, instead constantly building over a minefield of thrashes and bangs that follow our protagonists down long hallways in the same manner that their opposition does. I can’t give enough credit to Jed’s constant presence throughout the film, elevating the waves of vulnerability in such deep waters that it’s difficult to ever pull yourself out of.

– Last man standing. While I commend the work of Adepo’s character struggle between being this soldier and the man he used to be, I was more glued to the wild card of Russell (Son of Kurt) as the biggest badass these eyes have seen in quite sometime. Considering this is the same man who played a throwaway stoner in “Everybody Wants Some”, I find it impressive how he is able to constantly play against type, and taking on roles that never typecast him or leave him confined to just one genre. His work in this film was a treasure to watch, as he never relents under the mission at hand. He may be conflicted as a protagonist, and even slightly a loose cannon, but it’s that unpredictability that makes him difficult to shake, and his presence proves that Wyatt was having the time of his life with this particular role.

– My favorite scene in the movie. It would usually worry me when the best scene in a movie is the opening ten minutes, that takes us through an arrival into Germany that depicts war in the very gruesome dangerous environment that it rightfully is, but this fact instead tells you everything that you are getting into with the rest of the 105 minute picture. In this sequence, we are given impeccable cinematography that moves through air and water with such persistence to the characters, a stunning series of visuals that capture that anxiety associated with war, and a sense of strategy that articulates how armies move throughout. Avery sucks us right in, and we fall for it like kids taking carnage candy.

– Consistency is the key. What’s impressive about two such genre opposites, like war and horror, is Avery’s ability to keep the consistency of the tone, because after all, war is exactly that. It has the ability to turn men into monsters, like the movie so bluntly does, and never does this sacrifice the smooth pacing or urgency of the elements, instead carving out a maniacal sense to our Nazi antagonists that we already know from history. Other films struggle at a mid-movie switch, but this one feels cohesive in how it matures its material, from a battlefield strategy piece to a zombie splatterfest that never missteps for single second, thriving more the sillier the story takes us.

– Much of the violence, especially in the third act, feels every bit as grimacing as it does cathartic. This element alone gives the film enough audience investment, whether they embrace or wince at the unapologetic nature of the film’s gore. Either way, it is a blast to watch it all go down, and capitalizes on some of those promised Summer blockbuster thrills like “The Meg” or “The Equalizer 2”, that only remotely lived up. This one is a ferocious fall frightener that constantly exceeds even the highest of audience expectations.

– Strong combination of practical and computer generated effects. What’s most impressive is that there were times when this film expert couldn’t tell the difference, and I think that says a lot to the kind of budget devoted to this supposed B-movie that constantly overachieves. For my money, My favorite is in the complete transformation of one Nazi lieutenant, who wears the wounds of torture he has suffered as a badge of reminder against the very same man who gave it to him. It gives the character a Frankenstein style look of permanent reminder to the audience, to play into the transforming effects of the potion that have their own facial altering features.

NEGATIVES

– Rushed fight sequences. With so many positives on the presentational aspect of the film, it’s a bit of a letdown that the conflicts in action are so underwritten and thinly developed. With the exception of the very last fight of the movie, the rest around it begins and finish with little emphasis for the burning drama of character well-being. Never does it feel like our protagonists are in trouble, and even worse the resolutions are repeated quite often, so that midway through the movie you can already telegraph what will happen before it does.

– One-dimensional characters. While I had enough enjoyment from the characters in the film, mostly because of the film’s exceptionally talented cast that lift the miniscule backstory into honorable territory, the overbearing sense of neglect that these soldiers receive is alarming. The main character (Played by Adepo) never feels like the focus in his own movie, instead playing second fiddle to Russell’s executioner corporal, who feels like more of the conflicted protagonist necessary to lead by example. The problem is worse with the supporting cast, as some are given objects like a camera and a baseball to fill in the gaps for a lack of attention given to their forgettable presence.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Suspiria

Directed By Luca Guadagnino

Starring – Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth

The Plot – A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director (Swinton), an ambitious young dancer (Johnson), and a grieving psychotherapist (Ebersdorf) . Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some adult language including sexual references

POSITIVES

– Successfully blazes its own trail. The 1977 version of “Suspiria” is one of my all time favorite horror films, so it’s safe to say that my expectations were high with this film. Thankfully, the overall presentation by Luca and company is one that establishes this as more of a re-imagining than the shot-for-shot remake that we’re used to. Because of this, this version is free to explore the strange and beautiful side of horror, free from the confines of an original film that was at the time the bar for artistic expressionalism for the genre. Some familiarity is still there for faithful fans, but Guadagnino proves he was the right man for the job because his version never feels restrained or limited to the game of compare and contrast.

– Emotionally stirring performances from a female dominated cast. Swinton is her usual scene-stealing self, portraying Madame Blanc with enough ferocity without ever feeling desperate or obvious. Swinton however is not who I want to focus on, as the duo of Goth and particularly Johnson are off the charts with their characters. Goth’s Sara gives us a tender supporting protagonist who we can believe in, and it’s in Goth’s haunting glow from her facial registry, as well as the command she has over the screen that makes this a major step forward for this gifted actress. As for Johnson, this is a star-turning role that she has been waiting years for, treading through awful movies left and right for the part that she was born to play. For Dakota, this isn’t just an emotionally riveting performance, it’s also a physically rendering one as well, and this combination builds towards one of the more riveting transformations that I have seen in quite sometime. You won’t believe what Anastasia Steel can accomplish when she breaks free from the chains of degrading nature.

– Entrancing visuals. In a year when “Hereditary” dropped our jaws completely in the final ten minutes of its film, “Suspiria” elevates its game to eleven, making the competition feel like a day at Disney when it comes to what it accomplishes. Being almost 34-years-old, not a lot scares me anymore, but the spectacle in macabre, and this ideal that something un-foreseen can possess your body, constantly gave me the kind of chills that I haven’t been treated to since I was a child. On top of it all, there’s artistic merit in said violence, that works beautifully alongside this form of dancing expression numbers that the rival the lighting buffet of the original movie.

– Meticulous exposition. There’s going to be many complaints that this film is jumbled or disjointed with its story arcs, but with some firm commitment to the developments taking place in front of you, it will all become clear by film’s end. For one, I appreciate a film that doesn’t hammer home every single detail to the audience, spoon-feeding us in ways that insults the intelligence of those it caters to. For two, I loved how these angles in story that originally felt so distant from those it was being told against, slowly started to form a pattern of why they were included in the first place. It all comes full circle in this moment during the climax that actually had me reaching for the tissues in ways I didn’t see coming.

– A student of the game. Aside from the accolades that I already commended him for earlier, Guadagnino’s biggest accomplishment is what he and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are able to master in terms of dated camera work. I mean this as an impressive positive, as the entirety of the movie feels like it belongs in the same era of filmmaking as its 41-year-old original, presented in 35 mm film, and dazzling us in ways that didn’t seem possible with the sheen look of modern technology. The movements faithfully pay homage to said decade of film, radiating with a combination of sharp cuts, slow-pans, and wide frames that only further enhance the ominously unnerving atmosphere that the film cements for itself.

– Thom Yorke’s sinisterly audacious nightmare of a musical score. It’s hard to believe this is the Radiohead front man’s first work as a composer in a film, because everything works about the tones that underline the dread and despair that fills the sets like an airborne toxic. Yorke uses plenty of loud alarming instruments to gain our attention, but what keeps it is his repetitious work behind the keys of a piano that go hand-in-hand with shots that we focus on for so long until we demand to look away. There’s little in the way of value more than a composer who grasps his environment, and Thom’s initial descent into the world of film impressed in ways that give us a glimpse into the mind of a musical madman.

– The sound mixing and editing is also something that I greatly commend, for its psychological spin on the unraveling insanity surrounding us. Some of the characters can communicate telepathically, and this aspect is depicted with a stern echo that reminds us of its use. Aside from this, there are these quick buzzes and whispers that cloud the scenes whole, and are presented with such minimal value that had me wondering if I was going crazy. This bending and manipulation of the voices and sounds further articulate why “Suspiria” is a breed of its own, offering a psychological titilation in wonderment.

– Impressive effects work. There’s far too much to even list here, but I have to mention a surprise for yours truly. Yes, I am applauding the use of C.G blood for once, for the way its shading and release feel synthetic to that of the actual human body. Nothing feels compromising to the scene, or obvious by its inclusion, and what’s best is this aspect is rarely ever used until the final twenty minutes, when all hell breaks loose. There’s also detailed makeup work that really made me wince on more than a few occasions, for hideous character design, as well as abrupt violent impact that visually mimics the crunch from impeccable sound editing.

NEGATIVES

– Long, very long. Considering the original “Suspiria” was 98 minutes, it’s a bit of an investment for this newest one to clock in at 146 minutes. That’s a long time to ask of any audience, especially one with a story whose pacing is plodding and calculating like this one. For my money, most of the early second act could easily be trimmed and compacted down, keeping the finished product at somewhere around the two hour mark. I don’t mind long films as long as they remain entertaining, and there were a few slow parts during the film when I couldn’t help but check my watch.

– There is a push for poignant social commentary within the film that goes nowhere, and only feels a tad bit on the pretentious side of ambitious reaching. For instance, the mention and setting of the post-Nazi Berlin is something that could add layers to the world unfolding outside of the walls of all of this terror, but the film would rather tell and not show…..several times. I think a couple of scenes to soak up the mentality of the townspeople could’ve done wonders not only in the bloated run time, but also in the pacing of redundant scenes that could use a breather before progression.

My grade: 8/10 or B+

Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed By Drew Goddard

Starring – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

8/10

A Star Is Born

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Starring – Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

8/10

The Wife

Directed by Bjorn Runge

Starring – Glenn Close, Christian Slater, Jonathan Pryce

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

Rated R for adult language and some sexual content

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

8/10