The Mustang

Directed By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring – Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern

The Plot – Roman (Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an “outdoor maintenance” program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang.

Rated R for adult language, some violence and drug content

POSITIVES

– A wide range of emotional response. Very few films, especially today, have the kind of depth in screenplay that connects with the audience on such a personal level. To this degree, “The Mustang” brought forth, laughter, sadness, anger, and an overall sense of inspiration in me, for what I call the modern day rendering of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ending. If films can invest you in a way that makes you feel one of these emotions, then it’s done a good job at connecting to its audience, but when you have a film touch you in a way that allows your own registry to ride hand-in-hand with those of the character’s, then you have something that transcends the screen, and gives us a sense of the vital importance of connection, even beyond that of a human level.

– The Roman/horse dynamic. When you compare these two lost souls coming together, you discover that they have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both of them are captured and imprisoned in ways that take them away from familiarity. Both are well reserved in their demeanor’s, requiring the bond of the other to open up and invest in something important to feel free again. Likewise, they both come together during a time when the lives surrounding them have crumbled, leaving them leaning on the dependency of the other to get by, and redeem the level of trust that they are both capable of. I also found it interesting how Roman’s engagement with the horse is reflected upon the brief visitation interaction’s that he shares with his daughter. The first one is very well reserved and full of anger, but by the third one he seeks forgiveness and redemption for the missteps taken in his handling of the situation. It’s not accidental that Laure depicts these two living, breathing creatures so closely in movements, and it all leads to the final shots of the film, where I interpret that these two become one almost metaphorically, bringing forth a back-handed triumph in the closing moments that makes sense the more you think about it.

– Heavy-hitting turns. This is easily Schoenaerts single best performance to date, transforming himself physically and personally to becoming this shell of a convict who remains to himself. Matthias’ ability to say so little throughout the movie, yet speak so loudly in facial reactions is something that establishes a line of immersive acting that he hasn’t been saddled with until now, and despite this character being a bit of a terrible person, you engage in him because his eyes are the windows of this tortured soul that is living with a fine combination of grief and regret. It builds to a third act transformation that gives way to him being able to open up the closer he gets to his trusty four-legged companion. In addition to him, it’s always charming to see Bruce Dern’s dry delivery of wit that commands respect if only for its stern enveloping. Young phenom Gideon Adlon is also a revelation, making the most of a few scenes with unabashed anger in streaming tears, that really forces you to turn against our central protagonist. I saw Adlon in last year’s so-so raunchy comedy “Blockers”, but her turn here shows that there’s a lot of fire burning in this furnace, and with any luck in casting, we will see her coals burning for a long time to come.

– Precise editing. The tight cuts are asked to perform a bit more magic in this film, as the movements of the horses are used to manipulate audiences into thinking that we are seeing them naturally attack. This is done with a fine amount of close angles and fluid continuity in pasting different takes together, to make a presentation that puts us front-and-center with Roman, in the heat of the action. Sequences like these almost give us no time to zero in and focus on even the slightest detection of weakness, but we never find it, and it’s all a testament to Clermont-Tonnerre’s hand of magic, where she only allows you to see what you want to see. For her first feature length film, her consistency never shatters, and it makes me want to see what else she can do on a bigger scale production.

– Seeping-in musical score. The somber ingredients dispersed in the film echo such a cold sadness in the presentation of the movie, that it almost feels somewhat reflective of Roman’s interior compass. What’s impressive is patient level of volume used in post production to never overstep its boundaries on the art of the scene itself, and only becoming audibly obvious during scenes of transition, where the echo of hopelessness begins to evaporate. The man behind the callous tones is Jed Kurzel, the same man who scored “The Babadook”, one of my favorite horror films of the decade, and it was his influence that triggered much of the anxiety-ridden nightmare fuel that film had to offer. For “The Mustang”, he’s able to show a much more intimate side than horror can grant, and the confidence in his music to never strike louder than anything in the scene itself, better allows the elements of drama to simmer with the heat in orchestral engagements that he sprinkles each scene with.

– Ruben Impens. One of my favorite cinematographer’s going today is back, and it’s no surprise that his boldly beautiful frames and color filters are the very best thing that this film has to offer. The wide angles that depict the mountainside and endless deserts convey a sense of freedom being so close, yet so far away for Roman. Likewise, the sunbaked effects that reflect in the camera itself, establishes a visual metaphor for his golden opportunity that he simply can’t let slip away. These things prove that a film doesn’t need a blockbuster budget to present these visually breathtaking enchantments, and these elements better channel the mental location of these characters, in a place that feels so isolated from everyone and everything they love.

– Educative and informative. A fine line of poignancy and human commentary persists in the idea of these horses being taken from their habitat, and sold for devilish greed, and the film never shies away from this inescapable feeling of victimizing that it is truly responsible for taking. Beyond this, I appreciate that the film not only gives us the facts with this disgusting poaching, but it also takes the time to teach us the steps in gaining a horse’s trust that other films may overlook. In this regard, we are able to slip into Roman’s shoes that much easier because we are learning things on the same speed that he is, and can’t escape that feeling of uncertainty and fear that smother the initial confrontations. This film not only told me how similar the breeds of human and horse are truly are, it showed it to me, and it proves that even in a 91 minute film, it’s important for audiences to understand how unpredictable their movements truly can be if you make even one wrong move.

– True story. I appreciate that the movie never got lost in the heat of the “Based on a true story” gimmick, and instead reserved itself for the beginning and end of the movie to relay its information. The end even treats us to some real life pictures of the people that the movie is based on, but doesn’t lose itself to fully telling their stories. This may sound a bit insulting to the real life figures, but when you’re not discussing a historical event of tragedy, the people can become shaped in whatever way the script requires them to be, to further enhance the element of surprise, which this movie has a couple of.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary prison subplot. This angle, which distracts from the intimacy of these stirring subplots, feels every bit as tacked-on as it does compromising to the film’s pacing. This angle involving drug trading and race war’s is something that didn’t feel synonymous with something in this particular prison film, and if it was removed completely, the film would trim ten minutes and lose absolutely nothing. It doesn’t hinder the progress of my score as a whole, but these brief hiccups were the only times when “The Mustang” felt like it was trying to be something and cater to a particular subgenre that it absolutely isn’t, and this element of the script simply doesn’t mesh well with its counterparts.

– Missed opportunities. Even if we do find out the “what” and the “how” of Roman’s incarceration, the “why” seems to be a much more important aspect that the movie never fully exploits for compelling drama. There’s a scene of remorse from Roman, where he speaks to his daughter about one faithful night, but the actions of an angry man come and go with so little understanding of the situation, that it almost feels secondary to the environment surrounding it. The father and daughter do confront one another, but for it being the closing shot between them, the resolution left a little more to be desired, and if it wasn’t for an additional closing narration (Which also feels tacked-on), this subplot would leave many audiences missing the finer points of easily the most engaging material that the movie has to offer.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Hotel Mumbai

Directed By Anthony Maras

Starring – Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi

The Plot – A gripping true story of humanity and heroism, the film vividly recounts the 2008 siege of the famed Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists in Mumbai, India. Among the dedicated hotel staff is the renowned chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and a waiter (Patel) who choose to risk their lives to protect their guests. As the world watches on, a desperate couple (Hammer, Boniadi) are forced to make unthinkable sacrifices to protect their newborn child.

Rated R for disturbing violence throughout, bloody images, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Picture perfect documentation of the real life events. There are many different variations of heroes in this story, and the movie’s dedication in taking time to cover every end of the respective spectrum from this hellish nightmare is something that I commend Maras’ style of filmmaking greatly for. In addition to following our big name actors throughout this hotel, the film brings along no fewer than ten other pivotal characters, each with their own obstacle to face as a result of this terrorist group, and all of which inbedded with extreme engaging qualities from personality to heart that makes each of their tiers to this story feel vitally important. Most movies can’t carve out two interesting characters, but “Hotel Mumbai” brings for the single best ensemble that I’ve experienced so far this year. In addition to this, the film is obviously based on real life, so the predictable factor and endless cliches are thrown out the window in favor of finely tuned vulnerability all around, and it further elaborates that the less you know about this story, the better it will be for your indulgence in its unraveling.

– Versatile shot composition. The deviation from handheld to still frame is something that normally feels uncanny to me in the worst kind of way, but here it utilizes and stitches together both aspects fruitfully, thanks to pacing in photography that never overstays the benefits of either. The unnerving angles and sequencing add strong anxiety to the movie’s developments, crafting a sort of mouse maze within this hotel, in which two sides of the moral compass are heading down two different hallways that will eventually meet up, and only us the audience see the future on this inevitable confrontation. It tiptoes on this trepidation repeatedly throughout, and never grows stale or repetitive because the heartbeat of the action remains firmly gripped with what’s transpiring.

– Sizzling social commentary. Beyond the night’s mental tug-of-war that keeps each guest and employee on their toes, the inclusion of racism in the form of spiritual symbolism in clothing is something that I appreciated the screenplay greatly for, in its ability to turn the mirror of reflection against us, the very same people who displayed it towards the innocent after 9/11. This side thread is really just that: A momentary hiccup in the film’s much bigger picture, but its mere mention offers a poignant open door that helps us further realize what the victims deal with on a daily basis, which only provides yet another obstacle for them to contend with in their lives. I commend any film that takes valued minutes to try to carve out a better and more conjoined world, and it reminds us of the valued connection that movies can serve if we only stop to listen at what’s being said.

– A unique approach. I’ve always said that the best kind of antagonist is one whose intentions are clearly defined and given ample time to comprehend for us the audience. That couldn’t be more true here, as the film’s opening five minutes begin by following this terrorist group to India, as they prepare for the dangerous mission that awaits them. They all know that death is inevitable, yet because of everything they feel they’ve had robbed from them by supposed money hungry corporations and business time greed, we see the line of visibility in understanding. We are put in their shoes: hearing the message of hate from an unforeseen leader, and seeing what clues only further allude to such preaching by him. In a strange sense, the group themselves are the main character’s of the movie, and this mindset goes a long way in understanding the who as well as the why in a way that other films aren’t brave enough to capitalize on.

– Transcendence of film. A special touch that blends the worlds of real life and film seamlessly is the use of real life footage taken from the unfolding scene itself, which constantly reminds us that there’s a world much darker than the one that takes place in that magical realm of fantasy. The combination of news broadcasts and cell phone footage helps rivet these impactful scenes exceptionally so much more than actors and convenient editing ever could, and the choice to include chronologically with the transpiring film speaks volumes to such a tragic event holding such a place with the world that even 11 years later hasn’t been forgotten.

– Hard-R material. The violence is certainly there, even with the gunshots taking place with a wide angle lens, but the coveted rating does more for the dialogue and enhancement of the personalities in terms of distinguishing each character’s respective demeanor with the crippling drama that surrounds them. Jason Isaacs character is probably my personal favorite because of it. Here’s a guy who coerces prostitutes in the most charmless of methods, as well as insults hotel patrons unapologetically, and it humanizes the interaction aspect between these people much clearer and synthetically than a lesser rating more than likely would allow. Likewise, the make-up work gets a lot of time to shine, garnering enough wounds and dislocations to document the effect after the cause. This is the best kind of way to harbor an R-rating, and it cements the thought of how much weaker its devastating punch would be if it were taken down a letter or two.

– Technical achievements. The cinematography by Nick Remy Matthews is every bit as gritty as it is suffocating, emitting that overall dirty feeling of needing to take a shower after seeing it. Likewise, the tight angles and claustrophobic compositions speak volumes to the confines of the hotel patrons limited spots of relief from their pursuers. Finally, the editing is precise, keeping the consistency in entertaining pacing of each scene firmly gripped through two hours of pulse-setting action and conflict that constantly helps elevate the redundancy in material. I went into this film dreading it because of the questionable run time that I didn’t think possibly matched what transpired at the scene, but each scene included holds valued significance to the integrity of the victims, and brings forth the single easiest two hour sit that I’ve had in years.

– Featured players. It’s great to see Hammer and Patel again, as they’ve become two of my more sought after actors for the variety in projects they attack with two prestigious careers. Hammer is once again given a chance to play an action role, but this one really sees him commanding more of the Bruce Willis vibes involved with rescuing family and outsmarting terrorists that the story treats him to, while Patel juggles enough heart and nuance to establish himself as the glue that holds the story and group together. Without question though, the breakout is Tilda Cobham-Hervey as the babysitter of sorts for Hammer and Boniadi’s child. She doesn’t have a major role in the script, but the emotional stratosphere of this woman is something that simply cannot be ignored, displaying a command of endless tears and shook demeanor that truly echoes the effects of this invasion. Her more than anyone articulately taps in to the victim mentality, and it’s something that provided a roller-coaster of range that frequently covered my arms in goosebumps.

NEGATIVES

– Contrast to originality. I mentioned earlier that the film focuses primarily on that of the antagonists, and one backlash from this different style of following comes from the protagonists feeling so brutally underwritten that other than the tragedy itself, you find it difficult to indulge in any of their characters. When you really think about what you’ve learned from each of them, you come to understand that exposition in each of them before they ran into the hotel is deemed unimportant, and it’s a big mistake, as I feel that focus is needed to better draw out the drama in some of their untimely passing. Without it, the ambiguous victims in the film don’t fully realize the intended reaction required to sell the weight in consequences, unfortunately leaving over one hundred victims left without a character outline.

– Of the three films covering this touchy subject matter, “Hotel Mumbai” is the one that covers the most ground, yet ironically is the most assuming of the trio. What’s dangerous about this is it blurs the line creatively as to what’s legitimate and what’s speculation, forcing me to dig a little deeper if I want to disprove what is created just for the sake of the screen. I understand that there’s really no way to solidify the complete spectrum of events that took place with something behind closed doors, but I wish a film wouldn’t try as forcefully to force what doesn’t fit. In this exception, plot holes are appropriate, because I’d rather not tread where eyes and ears haven’t, if it means respect to those unable to speak.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Shazam!

Directed By David F. Sandberg

Starring – Zachary Levi, Djimon Honsou, Jack Dylan Grazer

The Plot – We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel) case, by shouting out one word: “SHAZAM!”, this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam (Levi) courtesy of an ancient wizard (Honsou). Still a kid at heart: inside a ripped, godlike body, Shazam revels in this adult version of himself by doing what any teen would do with superpowers: have fun with them! Can he fly? Does he have X-ray vision? Can he shoot lightning out of his hands? Can he skip his social studies test? Shazam sets out to test the limits of his abilities with the joyful recklessness of a child. But he’ll need to master these powers quickly in order to fight the deadly forces of evil controlled by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, adult language, and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– A Different direction for D.C. In finding something that sticks to the wall positively, D.C has stripped everything down in order to find what is great about the comic book genre of films in the first place. Long gone are the big budgets, the extensive post-production rendering, in-the-dark cinematography, and atmosphere that makes us feel like we’re watching a movie from The Crow franchise. Instead, we are treated to an airy environment full of wonder and humor, vibrancy in color texture, and an overall presentation that looks like it was something off of a C.W Channel of shows. That’s not to say this is a bad thing, but instead reminds us that “fun” should be the first adjective mentioned when discussing comics, and with some hope in consistency to this approach, D.C will rise from the ashes to fight again.

– Imagination in action set designs. Where the budget that the movie does have goes is in the variety of backdrops and sequence pieces that stand as a love letter to the city of brotherly love. Because this is set in Philadelphia during the winter time, we are treated to a mall scene that pays homage to 1986’s “Big”, a convenience store, and a winter fair full of rides and prize booths for our characters to lose themselves in. These are settings with a purpose, and because of such we are treated to supreme improvisation when it comes to the ways these adversaries adapt and overcome one another that would otherwise make things difficult. Above all else, the setting of Philadelphia itself is an original take for comic book films, and proves that D.C is all for spreading their influence across the geographical stratosphere.

– The comedy works. One thing I was worried about heading into this film were the trailers that convinced me on everything BUT the humor, and thankfully this isn’t the case, as the film saves its best lines and sight gags for the feature presentation itself. Not everything lands as intended, but I can say that the chemistry between these actors, as well as the positive energy commitment that they give to making these lines pop from personality, is something that gave me plenty of hearty laughs, and all in a way that is good for the whole family. I also enjoyed the gags at superhero films, like long distance hearing, that otherwise usually bothers me, but is commended here for being called out by the sheer ridiculousness of it all. This is a PG-13 film, but there’s nothing here that is too extreme or testing for younger audiences, and I commend that much higher than something like “Deadpool” that can easily reach for the raunch of no restrictions whenever it needs to tickle its audience.

– Razor sharp performances all around. Aside from a little girl character, whose speech patterns were completely unbelievable, the rest of the cast here knocks it out of the park, and each receive ample attention in getting their characters over. For my money, it’s easily Levi and Grazer who steal the show, bouncing off of one another in interaction like typical bored teenagers who have just stumbled across the greatest thing in either of their lives. For Grazer, it was the slick tongue in the way he reacts to Shazam’s superpowers that I couldn’t get enough of, as well as the command he has over every scene he stands in. Mark Strong is also solid as an above average antagonist, who does carry with him a lot of torture from his past. Strong is having the time of his life playing this role, and the menace and persistence from his character design collides well with a demeanor that never shifts from serious. However, it’s definitely Levi’s show, as the complexity of harvesting the immaturity and curiosity of a teenager is something that is clearly evident in his deliveries, making it easier to see the child buried deep down in this barrage of bulging muscles that nearly protrude his seat. Levi’s charisma is feel good humor at its finest, and if his infectious powers have no effect on you what so ever, you may in fact be heartless.

– Evolution in script. There is a subplot involving Billy’s mother that until the final half hour or so I found to be faulty because of its believability, but it turns out that the film was saving the biggest impact for our hearts, and what emitted was a third act dramatic pull that I truly didn’t see coming, that even tugged at my heartstrings. This, in addition to an overall family-first narrative is something that I took great pleasure in, and proves that the film tries so much harder in conjuring up the human side of its superheroes for us the audience to see ourselves in. Because of such, it proved that this movie was doing so much more than resting on its laurels with a one-sided humorous pull, bringing with it the crossroads between past and present for our character that really serves as the catalyst for his psychological transformation.

– D.C continuity does exist. It’s funny to see a notable chapter in the D.E.C.U that does in fact take place in the same world as its most notable superheroes, but the film never feels desperate in getting that point over as anything other than table dressing. In addition, the weight of the threat from the antagonist itself, while serious, doesn’t feel big enough that the entire world is at stake, at least not yet, so it, as well as the distant setting from Gotham and Metropolis alike, makes it feel believable that all of this could be taking place somewhere out of the grasp of Batman or Superman alike. Most of all, it’s cool that because these are child characters, the film can exploit those superheroes as idols or rock stars in a way that their respective films never could, and it makes Billy’s delve into that territory feel much more attainable to the kid watching at home, from beyond the screen.

– Actual consequences. One scene in particular really stuck with me in the change of pace that we’ve come to expect from superhero films and what we’re able to see in regards to victims. While there is still some imagination to be left to shadows and colored glass, we do see character’s flying out of windows, character’s heads being eaten, and complete destruction on a basis that we’re often not privy to. Part of this is on Sandberg himself, a usual horror director, who brings his sense of sadistic saturation to the film without it ever feeling tasteless or pushing the envelope. It establishes him as the perfect director for bringing reality to the superhero genre, and as to where a film like “Batman Vs Superman” will overlook the many casualties that throwing a monster into a nitroglycerine plant will cause, “Shazam!” embraces it, and reminds us that with great power comes dangerous consequences.

– Perfect last second stinger. I felt that the film ended in a perfect place after the conflict resolution, but there’s one last scene that began to worry me for its purpose until I saw the point. I won’t spoil anything, but the final line of dialogue mumbled during this major surprise that is at least creative for what it does or rather doesn’t show, made me laugh and feel excited at the same time, and really brings to life the reality of kids becoming their heroes that I mentioned earlier on. It’s such a well filmed, finely-timed scene, that ends the film on the highest possible note that it rightfully could, and is the perfect transition into some child-like drawings of familiar faces in the universe. Also, stay for a mid credits teaser that will pay off if you were paying attention during the first act.

NEGATIVES

– C.G restrictions. Some of this can be forgiven for budget limitations, but the rendering of monster supporting antagonists brought to light some less than stellar animations when compared to a live action backdrop. Particularly for me, it’s the total lack of mouth movement from those characters that not only made the graphics feel lifeless, but also made it distracting each and every time we have to cut back to which ever one is talking because we couldn’t possibly give them moving mouths in the first place. Likewise, Shazam’s effects of transformation and teleporting is cut and edited in a way that leaves far too much to the imagination in terms of what we’re actually seeing. Think when you see Superman flying and everything feels so seamless. That isn’t quite the case here, but it’s never so compromising that it soils the integrity of the film as a whole, just a few spare scenes that shake immersion.

– Third act problems. (SPOILERS) Two things bothered me about the film’s final battle that I couldn’t get over, regardless of padded exposition for it. One involves a convenient plot device for the antagonist that allows us to stop them. Not only is the way that our protagonists figure this out far fetched at best, but it also comes out of nowhere for the time when the film finally introduces us to this aspect. My second problem was a shark jumping moment, in which Shazam! shares his powers with other kids in his group home, and I have a problem with it because it breaks the rules that we’ve come to know. Early on, the film says that only one person has the strongest heart, and that person will become Shazam! complete with all of its powers. Now we’re supposed to believe there are six people with the strongest heart. Doesn’t really make it the strongest heart, does it? For my money, I wish it would’ve just been Shazam! overcoming the odds to defeat the opposition, even if it’s to say that family fighting together is a lot stronger. It’s a bit overdone on that narrative, and threw a little too much at the screen in the closing moments.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+ and my favorite film in the modern day D.E.C.U

Us

Directed By Jordan Peele

Starring – Lupita Nyong’o, Elisabeth Moss, Anna Diop

The Plot – In order to get away from their busy lives, the Wilson family takes a vacation to Santa Cruz, California with the plan of spending time with their friends, the Tyler family. On a day at the beach, their young son Jason (Evan Alex) almost wanders off, causing his mother Adelaide (Nyong’o) to become protective of her family. That night, four mysterious people break into Adelaide’s childhood home where they’re staying. The family is shocked to find out that the intruders look like and talk like them, only with grotesque appearances.

Rated R for violence/terror, and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

– Intelligence in horror. What I’ve come to love and expect about Jordan Peele’s level of terror in scaring his audience, is that his material on the surface level is merely table dressing for a much more complex and personally reflective beat of the plot that always sneaks up on us. His newest film offers a combination of social and political commentary that not only brings forth the poignancy in audience discussions after the film, but also breathes life into an edginess in thoughts and ideals that better help establish the worlds he conjures up in his films. Between “Us” and “Get Out”, Peele’s worlds feel very much like a place where your fears and phobias are brought to life, residing a collision between practical and fantasy worlds that move together as one cohesive existence.

– Legend behind the lens. Considering this is only Peele’s second directing effort, it’s incredible the kind of emotions he emits from his actors, as well as the combination of framing and unnerving camera angles that contain the breathless atmosphere without losing so much as a single ounce. Not only does this film feature a barrage of gorgeous photography and articulation with its usage of shadows and over-the-shoulder framing, but Peele as a host constantly masters the most effective camera placements that better manipulate the experienced horror moviegoer from ever catching on. These are fake-outs that prove that jump scares are for the desperate, and each time Peele maintains his distance as being one step ahead, he manages to hold my attention so that I’m practically screaming for resolution by the time it finally appears. As a magician filmmaker, Peele is years above his experience in the game, and establishes that he has just as much style to match the substance that his audience feast on.

– Riveting performances all around. It’s great to see Winston Duke getting more starring roles, because his endless charisma and on-screen grip on the pacing of each scene, make him a bona fide star in the making. Here, Duke’s dual transformation is physically incredible, as his protective father figure spouts corny jokes and feels middle aged when compared to his much more powerful and dangerous doppleganger, whose only similarity is facially. Sadly, Duke will always be second if he acts next to Nyong’O, because Lupita is a revelation of emotional prowess that rumbles the screen constantly throughout. Considering each actor is theoretically playing two roles, it’s interesting to see how each actor gets lost in the psychology of that second character, But it’s Lupita who opens up for us as this deranged, raspy voiced antagonist, who clearly takes the cake. Adelaide by herself would be enough to captivate, if even just for her stirring stare that burns a hole through her opposition, or the endless stream of tears that constantly flood her eyes, but the intensity and entrancing command she holds on the film’s exposition, materializes a lot of angst and insanity that we rarely get to see from her, and brings forth that Academy Award winning actress’s single best performance to date. Quote me.

– A familiar partnership. Peele isn’t alone in trying to bring forth the same magic and mayhem that made 2017’s “Get Out” the surprise hit of the year, this time bringing along (Once again) musical composer Michael Abels to ring through our ears a score that thunders with the kind of intensity that pay homage to 80’s slasher giants. For my money, it’s Abels mixing during Luniz’s legendary track “I Got 5 On It” that not only mimics the film’s earlier playing of it in the same way that these look-alikes mimic our protagonists, but his sampling is used during the film’s big third act reveal in a way that rivals only “Hello Zep” from the “Saw” soundtrack for delivering such mind-blowing information. Abels himself has only done work in three films now, but it proves that the right man should never be counted out because of what a resume contains, and I for one think these two men should remain on good terms for the foreseeable future.

– Plenty of surprises along the way. One of the things that worried me about the trailer was that its revealing, out-of-context, imagery might reveal far more to the curious audience than we would like, but as a writer Peele has saved his best surprises for when the pieces come together to make the bigger picture, that I promise you didn’t see coming. I worry that too many twists might alienate some audience members, but for me that story was even slightly over-explained, but it allowed me to remain shoulder-to-shoulder with the evolution of a script, and kept things firmly paced in a way that kept the screenplay from ever feeling muddled in redundancy.

– There’s much to be said about the way Peele takes time and care to bring along these characters in a way that makes them every bit as intriguing as their togetherness is essential to the progression of the plot. Funny enough, some of the movie’s best moments for me, was during the first act, when the deconstructions of this modern every day family were being presented, and the elements of horror and suspense hadn’t presented themselves yet. This is of course a testament to Peele’s confidence in his actors, but more than that it proves that Peele would rather establish the connection between these characters before ripping it apart. This in turn will better establish tragedy in the circumstance, which in turn will give you protagonists to root for, a lost art by today’s horror standards.

– An 80’s aesthetic? One of the things that pleasantly surprised me about this film is that part of the movie’s early story takes place during the slasher decade that I mentioned earlier, and what’s even more appreciating is that the use of this gimmick never overstays its welcome, nor does its inclusion dictate suffocating weight on the entirety of the film. Take a film like “Captain Marvel”, a movie that drowns out audiences with poor sound mixing in 90’s musical tracks, and familar fashion trends that never allow the environment to blend synthetically with the story itself. “Us” doesn’t have that problem, instead showing us a few iconic moments from that age, and twisting them in a way that leaves a noticeable weight on the moment from the era itself when you think about it from now on, instead of impacting the creativity of the film itself. This is text-book for how you should use a decade gimmick.

– Clever clues. Much like my review of “Climax”, this film also has an important introduction scene, that oddly enough also involves a shot of a television and some video tapes on the side of it, and much like the movie I previously mentioned, there are subtle clues that key you in to what you should come to expect in this film. I won’t give away anything, but one film on the side of the television certainly feels like a heavy influence now that I’ve seen the movie and know all of the tricks of the trade. One thing I can spoil without any consequences is a sticker on one of those video tapes that reads “1 hour and 44 minutes”, and that is the exact length of “Us”. Small things like these have no impact on the film itself, but it’s creativity that I always give extra points for, because it feels like a secret that only I was clued into because of the studying that I take in learning about a film before I review it.

NEGATIVES

– Things don’t add up with the twist. (MAJOR SPOILERS). Some of the things that bothered me with the third act twist’s big revelation exist with the rules and logic of such establishments that I simply couldn’t overlook. With as many people as there are in the world, this tunnel seems far too small to replicate every single one of them. If the people underground can control those above ground, why wouldn’t they just convince them to kill themselves? Some flashbacks also don’t make sense when you consider this third act switch. Who is remembering this girl’s life before the night that changed her forever? Where did they get the red suits? That’s a lot of suits with a lot of fabric for that small tunnel.

– As much as the humor lands consistently throughout, Peele’s biggest problem as a screenwriter seems to be his ability to know when to subdue it. The comedy is good enough to appreciate it in those breaks in between a suspenseful roar, but it begins to overstep its boundaries through the compelling exposition scenes, which require more focus to instill their impact. Much like “Get Out”, this is one of the biggest problems that Peele hasn’t quite gotten over yet, and while I understand that comedy will always be his first child, there’s a place and a time in horror for it that if done wrong could have serious consequences on the consistency of tonal flow.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Arctic

Directed By Joe Penna

Starring – Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir

The Plot – A man (Mikkelsen) stranded in the Arctic after an airplane crash must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown in hopes of making it out alive.

Rated PG-13 for adult language and some bloody images

POSITIVES

– A complete immersive experience. “Arctic” is a survival movie whose elements push the limits of theatrical watches, placing you right in the cold of the moment within this frozen hostile wasteland. The sound mixing, while slightly too low to authenticate the atmosphere seamlessly, does do a fine enough job in constantly reminding you of the conditions that are brewing surrounding our protagonist. The visual camera work is easily my favorite aspect of the film, harvesting a majority of wide angle lens depictions that not only convey the realities of isolation, but also instill a sense of weight to a journey that exponentially tests the will of human strength. Likewise, the absorbing color textures reflect the desperation and hopelessness of the situation, and constantly remind us the audience of the situation if even we forget for a single solitary second. These perks combine enough emphasis of the bone-chilling cold that transcends the screen, making for a combination of sight and sound presentation that is exceptionally impressive for a first time filmmaker.

– Visual storytelling throughout. What I love about this screenplay is the minimal amount of dialogue and exposition delivered that highlight how the characters service the film and never vice versa. There are no conversations, nor past flashbacks that provide insight into how this guy came to be in this predicament, but if you pay attention closely enough you can notice abilities that he would only master if he has been forced to live that way for a while, and that’s what I took away from how the film depicts him. Likewise, props and objects used in the film are frequently inserted, and it isn’t till later on when we learn what they elaborate towards, proving that the puzzle is complete when you can understand how all of the pieces vibrantly fit together. In certain aspects, this is a modern day silent film that visually communicates to its audience instead of beating them over the head with heavy details, and I admire the kind of confidence that comes with outlining a story where we begin right in the middle of this thing without much thought as to what came before it.

– Pleasantly paced. I sat through what only felt like the first act of this movie, and was surprised when I checked my watch to see that only 40 minutes remained in the film. This isn’t an insult to the film, but instead complimentary for a script that is so grounded in reality that we as an audience find ourselves lost in the redundancy of something mundane as a daily routine. Perhaps it’s a testament to Mikkelsen’s persistent presence on the film, who I will definitely get to later, but I feel bigger credit derives from beneficial editing that never hangs on or relents for too long on a particular scene. The splicing on this film is wonderfully done, inspiring subtle humor in redundancy, all the while giving grave focus to each task he must endure to stay alive, and the introduction of a map that comes into play gives us something to keep tabs on in our man reaching his goal.

– Speaking of grounded in reality, “Arctic” maintains real life dramatic tension and situations that gives the film anything but a par-for-the-course Hollywood survivalist movie. There’s plenty of adversity in the way of predatory animals, increasing heights, and even sleeping arrangements, that never stretched or removed the visible line of what’s possible, and if anything it proves that real life drama can still be compelling without reminding us every ten minutes that this is a movie. While not an action movie first, this is the kind of action that I crave in a film, combining the dangerousness of environment against man’s desire to live, and what we’re left with is a confrontation that never exceeds the boundaries of the human spirit.

– Dedication to the craft. This movie was filmed on location in Iceland, and what Penna pulled from such a decision made for some specific challenges in filmmaking that, while difficult to maintain professionalism, does solidify the intensity of the destination. Front-and-center in the lens of the great Tomas Orn Tomasson, we see sequences involving hurricane-like winds increasing the ferocity of a blizzard, as well as the many peaks of the mountainsides, which treats us to claustrophobic scenes involving caves. As well, Mikkelsen himself gets in on the fun, gutting and devouring more than one fish to colorfully illustrate one man’s unabashed hunger. When what we’re seeing before us is real, it pays off in believability and integrity, and I commend the crew immensely for taking nearly three weeks to film in such an undesirable location that pays off valuably for the production of the film.

– One kickass Easter Egg. This is only known if you’ve read the production notes, but Mikkelsen’s character name in the movie is briefly shown as H. Overgard on his I.D photo. What’s funny about this is not only did Penna use a picture of Mikkelsen from the amazing TV show “Hannibal”, but he also hints that the “H” in his name is a nod to his breakthrough performance as the show’s title character. From someone who has adored that show endlessly, and was pissed when it was cancelled, it brought a smile to my face that some will never forget the time Mikkelsen spent in the role, re-defining Hannibal Lechter for an entirely new generation.

– Once again, Mads Mikkelsen proves why he is one of the very best actors working today, providing a committed performance from having very little to work from. When it all boils down, Mikkelsen is basically just emulating human emotion, and it’s his honesty and drive that preserve such intrigue for the character with no exposition or backstory to work from. Mikkelsen’s greatest strength in the movie is the physicality that he must endure in order to reach his goal in mind, and throughout it all we see a man who gets beaten down over-and-over, only to persevere and keep moving. Mikkelsen’s grip on the audience is so tight that we often know what’s to come from crytpic facial responses, carving out a telepathic link to an otherwise ambiguous character, that only serves as a testament to just how gifted Mads is.

– No special effects used for anything. This could be categorized in the dedication to the craft section, but I felt it deserved its own mention. During a couple of scenes during the film, we are shown a Polar Bear that frequently makes its presence felt through scenes of rash urgency. What’s incredible about this is the production doesn’t use C.G or any other form of incorporation for what we see front-and-center. This is very much a live action real walking, breathing bear, paying homage to a forgotten era of filmmaking that preserved calculated risk to the integrity of its film. Live action property in this instance pays off immensely, keeping the budget of the film maintained respectably, all the while bringing the most genuine of reactions from Mikkelsen when put in these dire situations.

NEGATIVES

– MINOR SPOILERS. There’s a female character introduced around fifteen minutes into the film, and I kept waiting for something big to happen with her, and it simply never does. Aside from her being a convenient plot device in regards to people looking for her, she serves no purpose or holds no bearing on the consequences of the story itself, instead serving as an unnecessary weight for Overgard’s quest that is already tough enough. For my money, I could’ve used a scene of connection between her and Overgard. If not, just keep this as a one man survivalist film, in turn making his isolation that much more complex considering he is quite literally all alone.

– While this is a beautiful looking and well acted film overall, the movie will do nothing to change or revitalize the sub-genre for the lack of chances it took with the condensed story. When you step back and look at the complete picture, long after the film has completed, you will notice more of the similarities to the competition more than the fresh takes, and if there’s anything that I wish this film would’ve done to rectify that it’s invest more into emotional character arcs with Overgard in particular. Mikkelsen pulls a diamond out of the rough, but the screenplay does him no favors in meeting him halfway with a layer that emits the drama from intended conflict. Take chances, swing the bat, and don’t be afraid to take your film to never before seen heights.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Princess Bride

Directed By Rob Reiner

Starring – Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright

The Plot – A kindly grandfather (Peter Falk) sits down with his ill grandson (Fred Savage) and reads him a story. The story is one that has been passed down from father to son for generations. As the grandfather reads the story, the action comes alive. The story is a classic tale of love and adventure as the beautiful Buttercup (Wright), engaged to the odious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), is kidnapped and held against her will in order to start a war, It is up to Westley (Elwes), her childhood beau, now returned as the Dread Pirate Roberts, to save her. On the way he meets a thief and his hired helpers, an accomplished swordsman and a huge, super strong giant, both of whom become Westley’s companions in his quest.

Rated PG for adult situations and language.

POSITIVES

– Practicality all around. A refreshing aspect in watching a film that is 32 years old is the collection of set designs and special effects that speak levels about a now forgotten age of creativity. Most of the set visuals in the film authenticate that stage presence, in that everything sticks out especially, giving each prop sufficient weight in the movement and influence of each scene. Likewise, all creature special effects are done with animatronics, and while this decision looks obvious by today’s standards, there’s no substitute for time devoted to craft. It gives focus to distinct features of each creature that would easily be glossed over with computer animation, as well as gives the actor something lively to interact with during scenes of tension.

– The magic of the lens. Many of the establishing shots here are GORGEOUS and full of wide angle immensity that would make you think much of it was shot on location, but in reality pay homage to the immersion of studio filmmaking that suspends disbelief. In particular, it’s the shots on the water, with a sprinkle of moonlight used to illuminate the ships in focus that peaked my interest and outlined a layer of focus to the importance of this storybook tale that is established in each capture. None of these scenes lack believability in scale, but are made that much more impressive when you consider they were done inside of a backlot studio, instilling distance in a stage with only water and a single light to inspire believability.

– One legendary line. While everyone has a favorite line of dialogue for the movie, my personal favorite has always been Inigo’s threatening menace behind “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die”, and as I’ve recently learned there’s quite a story behind it. Patankin, who played Inigo, had just recently lost his father to cancer in real life, and used the dramatic pull of the loss to channel the vengeance in delivering the line. What I love about this line is that it repeats throughout the film and manages to feel more focused the closer Inigo gets to his enemy, all the while standing out in a way tonally that feels other-worldly to the rest of the romantic comedy taking place around it.

– Stellar cast performances all around. Elwes is every little girl’s prince charming, exuberating a combination of confidence in swordplay and cool demeanor that make him irresistible as a protagonist. Patankin also commands the attention, riding this story arc of redemption that is equally as intriguing as the central plot rescuing of Robin Wright’s Buttercup. Patankin’s transformation throughout teaches us a lot about his tortured past, all the while never diminishing the intensity of Patankin’s roguish appeal. Aside from the two leading men, there are charming appearances from Billy Crystal, Andre The Giant, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, and of course Wallace Shawn, who gives my single favorite laugh of the film when laughing gets the best of him. Overall, it cements an ensemble effort that fires on every cylinder, giving ample time for each of the big names to shine with each character introduction.

– Management of dual narrative. Considering there are two stories running simultaneously throughout the film, it’s the incredible pacing and structure of each that astounded me in ways that other dual narratives today don’t equally balance out. While a majority of the film is set in the fantasy world itself, the three instances of Savage and Falk’s family characters are placed in a way that gives outline to the three act structure, and really pauses our interest in the fantasy when progression is at its peak. We, like Savage’s grandson character, can’t wait to jump right back into it, and in this regard the film transcends screen, in that we too are held at the mercy of Falk’s luring storytelling, giving us the audience a presence in this fairytale that feels like it’s being told to us exclusively.

– Stunning sword choreography. There’s much to give praise to here, but it all comes at the respect of Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson, who between them had been in the Olympics, Indiana Jones films, and eventually Lord of the Rings films. What’s so impressive is that not only is the swordplay fast between oppositions, but the foot work of the actors engaged manages to evade a barrage of branches, bricks, and rocks that we’re just waiting to see have an influence in this conflict. It never comes, and it’s a testament to the handling that was taken in preserving hand-to-hand authenticity, made even more impressive considering Elwes broke his toe on a four wheeler only hours before the scene was shot. Diamond and Anderson work magic on these big name actors, and because of such juggle enough testosterone and urgency to constantly raise the stakes.

– Constant 80’s nostalgia. One of my favorite aspects in watching a classic movie is the hints of dated pasts that could only reside in a particular decade, and there’s plenty to admire and even pause the film over here. I love the extra props like the all red and white Cheetos bag, as well as Fred Savage playing the Commodore 64 computer game “Hardball”. Each of these items add important perspective into Savage’s close-minded personality at the beginning of the film, coming off as a generation X slacker of sorts, who will eventually become more captivated into material that he condemned before it started. It’s a perk that is totally irrelevant to the film, but something that I like to mention because its objects and focuses have almost become time-stamped in the same way that the medieval age has in the story that Grandfather and Grandson are moving through.

– Meticulous in the humor. While juggling the content of romance, action, and family elements alike, this movie features plenty of hearty laughs in the form of modestly gentle and subordinate deliveries that never step on the straight story evolving around it. Similar to the structure of Mel Brooks (Who is in fact in the film) or Monty Python, the material doesn’t halt the progression of the narrative, an aspect that many modern comedy films could take a lesson from, in that improv humor is used as fluff for a two hour run time designation. Instead, “The Princess Bride” still values these moments of release, but does so in a way that never holds the story hostage, nor does it over-indulge in allowance, proving to us how comedy can work hand-in-hand with fantasy if the two can work as partners instead of adversaries over the screen.

NEGATIVES

– Horrendous sound mixing. One of the things that became obvious with this watch was the sloppy sound manipulation that the film tries to pass off onto the audience as synthetic. Several scenes throughout the film feature overheard dialogue that is said without any of the lips of characters moving, but none more prominent than that of Elwes back-riding scene of Andre The Giant. In just this scene alone, there are a few instances where the mixing takes advantage of a majority of Elwes head being shielded during long winded dialogue, but it flounders because the mouth is still as obvious as any close angle shot, and serves as one of two major problems that I had with the production of this picture.

– The other one. It’s not often that the production is the biggest hurdle for a film that I watch, but once again post-editing brings to light some disastrous decisions as to what’s left in the film. Several instances of production crew’s shadows being in a shot, boom microphones moving in and out of the tops of shots, and a landing pad during the first fight scene which is as obvious as a fart in church. I get that it’s the 80’s, so there’s some room for forgiveness in this respect, but if you’re going to ever deem a film as “A Timeless Classic”, then the production has to stand up to the forth-coming decades that it stands tall through, and sadly amateur mistakes like these keep the film from ever reaching its potential as one of the best films of the decade.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Destroyer

Directed By Karyn Kusama

Starring – Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Directed By Dean Deblois

Starring – Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler

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

Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Score: 8/10 or B+

Mary Queen of Scots

Directed By Josie Rourke

Starring – Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden

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

Rated R for some violence and sexuality

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Mary Poppins Returns

Directed By Rob Marshall

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

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

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Roma

Directed By Alfonso Cuaron

Starring – Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Cortina Aurtrey

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Aquaman

Directed By James Wan

Starring – Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+