Game Night

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

Starring – Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler

The Plot – Bateman and McAdams star as Max and Annie, whose weekly couples game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s charismatic brother, Brooks (Chandler), arranges a murder mystery party, complete with fake thugs and faux federal agents. So when Brooks gets kidnapped, it’s all part of the game – right? But as the six uber-competitive gamers set out to solve the case and win, they begin to discover that neither this game – nor Brooks – are what they seem to be. Over the course of one chaotic night, the friends find themselves increasingly in over their heads as each twist leads to another unexpected turn. With no rules, no points, and no idea who all the players are, this could turn out to be the most fun they’ve ever had… or game over.

Rated R for adult language, sexual references and some violence

THE POSITIVES

– Blending two polar opposite genres together is something that often fails, but ‘Game Night’ conjures up this kind of hybrid playing field where the worlds of horror and comedy merge together soundly. Much of the reason for this is because the humor in this script never takes away, nor sours the mood of the very surreal consequences that these friends are dealing with.

– If a film is called ‘Game Night’ and it isn’t at least fun, you would have an instant fail, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. This film is tightly paced at 95 minutes, richly humorous without anything of the raunchy nature, and packs enough twists in narrative to always keep you guessing.

– Cliff Martinez, how do you do it? Not only does my favorite music composer score this film, but he once again tickles our audible sense with a collection of music that is every bit as transfixing as it is vital to carving out the ominous urgency in his influence of synth-pop game changers.

– There’s much argument for who steals the show here. McAdams and Bateman are of course a delight, harboring a kinetic kind of energy in chemistry that makes their connection evident. But then there’s excellent supporting work from Jesse Plemmons, Lamorne Morris, and probably my personal favorite: Billy Magnussen as the idiot friend whose stupidity is his greatest asset in charm.

– In addition to the well-rounded cast, their characters are each given plenty of scenes to chew up, making each of their voyages on this night of terror equally important to moving one step closer towards the big reveal. I personally will always support a film that caters more to the team aspect than just one or two great leads, and ‘Game Night’ is certainly of that caliber.

– Surprisingly enticing cinematography by Barry Peterson. With the exception of ’22 Jump Street’, Barry hasn’t gotten a chance to really shine in a winner, so it’s a pleasure to see how far his experience has come in gripping a visually enhancing companion piece to the hip script unfolding before us. The chase sequences both in and around the car are shot competently in keeping with the pulse of intensity, and a two minute chase sequence in the house that is manipulated to look like one continuous shot is one that I appreciated for the kind of choreography that you can bend in a setting so immense.

– This is definitely the most I have laughed over the last year of cinema, and that really surprised me because after not laughing at all during the trailer, it saves its best material for the paying customers.

– It goes against the grain in not falling into the trap of a third act conflict between these friends that almost every comedy today must do. Instead, by keeping them constantly on the same page, it enriches their friendship in standing together through arguably the worst or best night of all of their lives.

THE NEGATIVES

– There’s a scene about midway through where Bateman’s character is searching a police database laptop for the identity of a man they are searching for. There’s two things funny about this; 1. There’s a search bar labeled “Alias name”, and 2. He types in “The Bulgarian” and only one person comes up. I guess only one person in the entire world goes by a name as cryptic as “The Bulgarian”.

– The final two shots of the movie are easily the weakness of the entire film. The first involves continuing the story with a kind of sequel bait kind of way that doesn’t make sense with how things concluded, and certainly doesn’t fit in any kind of possible continuing conflict. The second scene is a credit sequence that shows how everything was accomplished by a certain character. Every film mystery needs an answer, yes, but in solving the mystery here and trying to answer so many questions, you only see the glaring plot holes that highlight just how truly impossible this whole thing was to script together by any one person.

8/10

Black Panther

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Starring – Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o

The Plot – After the events of Captain America: Civil War, King T’Challa (Boseman) returns home to the reclusive, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to serve as his country’s new leader. However, T’Challa soon finds that he is challenged for the throne from factions within his own country. When two foes conspire to destroy Wakanda, the hero known as Black Panther must team up with C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and members of the Dora Milaje, Wakandan special forces, to prevent Wakanda from being dragged into a world war.

Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture

THE POSITIVES

– Ryan Coogler’s visual and audible feats in directing that bring to life the technologically advanced world of Wakanda with flare. We’ve certainly seen Marvel astound us with dives into other worlds and galaxies before, but this feels like the first time where they got the flavor of the sizzle complete on every spectrum.

– Behind every great man is several amazing women. There have been films where a female has been my favorite character, but I can’t recall one where my two favorite characters from a film have been of my opposite sex, and that’s completely unintentional. Not only is this a film breathes life into the fight against minority examples in superhero genre films, but also one of female empowerment that invites the ladies along to share in these magnetic personalities.

– Ludwig Goransson’s impeccable blend of 808 drums and percussion edited beats that spin an inspirational movement taking place before our very eyes. Not only does this musical score get your toes tapping, but it also speaks volumes to the kind of consequential landscape that these varying tribes set for themselves.

– Speaking of tribes, the wardrobes all around were very vibrant and full of rich traditionalism that tickles the eyes. What’s even more impressive is that this is not only a film that caters to that historical past, but also one that embraces the future in us all coming together as one tribe.

– Has there been a Marvel film with a collective cast this deep? Boseman was born to play T’Challa, but I can’t help but feel that he is outshined on almost every single scene that he comes into contact with a friend or adversary, relaying just how much meat there is to feast on for everyone here. Lupita Nyongo offers a warm and caring compassion, Danai Gurira amplifies that Michonne burning intensity from ‘The Walking Dead’ to eleven, and my introduction to Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s genius sister, is one that I just couldn’t get enough of.

– A special mention for Michael B Jordan as the film’s antagonist Erik Killmonger. Villains seem to be a continuous problem for Marvel films ever since the success of Loki, but here they instill a level of relatability to Erik that had me even questioning what side I should be rooting on. His motivation in seeking the throne is one that works on all accounts mainly because it feels like a superhero origin story with some twists in personality that allows you to see the shades of grey between good and evil.

– It’s impressive how consistent this screenplay changes up the tempo. During the first act, this very much feels like a James Bond spy thriller of sorts. During the second act, our direction is transformed into a science fiction space odyssey that ironically takes place on Earth. And finally during the last third of the film, we get all out war in a fantasy epic that re-defines the rules of what transpires on a battlefield.

– This panther is its own animal. The decision to make this film stand almost entirely on its own without the inclusion of prior Marvel stories or subplots is one that I greatly valued, and proves that the producers had a lot of faith in this film’s capabilities in seducing its audience with something remarkably fresh for such an overflowing genre of films. It really does feel like a movie that set high standards for itself, but achieved each goal because (like the protagonist) it stayed true to itself the whole time.

THE NEGATIVES

– I was honestly unimpressed with a majority of the overall C.G work in authenticity. The backgrounds especially gave me an exhale of disappointment on more than one occasion, especially during daytime scenes where the layers in shadowing weren’t fully realized. To someone else, this isn’t a big deal, but to me, it takes much of the heartbeat away from a film when everything feels like a cartoon or in this case a contrived sequence that strongly lacks the impact of its physical properties.

– Some of the fight sequences are too overly edited for my taste. Thankfully, they aren’t as bad as say ‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’, but there were some examples where the inclusion of gunfire during nighttime scenes not only made it difficult for me to stay focused on a character, but also made it that much more of a challenge in registering each crushing blow that I could hear and barely see.

The Extra

– I vow to never watch a Marvel trailer again. Once again, one scene in particular during the beginning of the third act was ruined because whoever cut the trailer is a major asshole and decided to include this compromising visual in the finished two minute piece. This not only took out my suspension of disbelief for the conflict that develops with T’Challa and Killmonger, but also spoiled to me what happened before they ever touched fists.

8/10

Hostiles

Directed by Scott Cooper

Starring – Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi

THE PLOT – Set in 1892, Hostiles tells the story of a legendary Army Captain (Bale), who after stern resistance, reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. Making the harrowing and perilous journey from Fort Berringer, an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico, to the grasslands of Montana, the former rivals encounter a young widow (Pike), whose family was murdered on the plains. Together, they must join forces to overcome the punishing landscape, hostile Comanche and vicious outliers that they encounter along the way.

Rated R for strong violence and adult language

THE POSITIVES

– What a breathtaking cinematic scope that cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi helms beautifully. Western genre films are all about these immense landscape depictions that stretch out as far as they eyes can see, and ‘Hostiles’ certainly doesn’t lack this feature in the mesmerizing establishing shots that articulate the Northwest Passage on a big, beautiful screen.

– The Oscars screwed up. How Bale or Pike didn’t get nominated for their dedicated work is beyond me. Pike is my personal favorite, commanding a woman whose transformation after the devastation of loss left me riddled with goosebumps. Bale as well goes through a transformation of his own, but for toeing the line of a life that looks different now that he sees the glass as half full.

– Cooper doesn’t get enough credit for his writing. Here, he exerts himself endlessly as a master storyteller in supplanting us with the important details that paint an ever so vivid picture in understanding the different shade of characters that adorn his film.

– Not for the weak. This film surprised me time and time again with its endless string of brutality and consequential aftermath, but none the more appropriate for setting the tone than the opening ten minute scene that left my jaw hitting the floor with impact.

– Composer Max Richter constructs perhaps an even more dire musical score than even his work on ‘Shutter Island’. What’s more ironic here is not necessarily the pieces themselves, which are all stirring violin-instilled ranges that pay ode to the classic western genre of films intently, but how subtle their influences are. The accompanying music echoes lowly in the background, choosing to never overstep the boundaries of an audience absorbing the ever-changing range of scenery.

– There are many themes throughout the film, but the two important and resonating ones that I found were “When is killing appropriate?” and “How does killing change a person?”. These two directions make up so much of Cooper’s script, and does so in a way that pays homage to the centuries old oppression of Indian tribes, while opening up a poignant approach to modern times with those we deem as different.

– For a 130 minute film, much of the movie blows by and is paced smoothly because of my emotional attachment to the uncertainty of these characters and their dangerous journey ahead.

– The budding romance between Bale and Pike’s characters is certainly evident, yet never used in a way that feels familiar in how Hollywood depicts the emergence of romance between them. To me, I sensed more of a spiritual bond between them, bringing to life a chemistry that unravels as something much more important than bed buddies.

THE NEGATIVES

– Far too often, the film caters to a tell-and-not-show approach with many of its death scenes. I counted three instances when we’re told something that wasn’t shown on screen, and these were important details that bridged the gap in understanding what we’re seeing in front of us.

– The first half of the film is definitely the better half. There’s no more evidence of this than the final twenty minutes in which a new antagonist pops up out of nowhere to give in to that desire of a final shootout. Not only do I think this was unnecessary, but it feels like tacked on dramatic effect to make up for disposing of an original enemy so early in the film.

8/10

Call Me By Your Name

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Starring – Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg

The Plot – A sensual and transcendent tale of first love, based on the acclaimed novel by André Aciman. It’s the summer of 1983 in the north of Italy, and Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian, spends his days in his family’s 17th century villa transcribing and playing classical music, reading, and flirting with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel). Elio enjoys a close relationship with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an eminent professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture, and his mother Annella (Amira Casar), a translator, who favor him with the fruits of high culture in a setting that overflows with natural delights. While Elio’s sophistication and intellectual gifts suggest he is already a fully-fledged adult, there is much that yet remains innocent and unformed about him, particularly about matters of the heart. One day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), a charming American scholar working on his doctorate, arrives as the annual summer intern tasked with helping Elio’s father. Amid the sun-drenched splendor of the setting, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will alter their lives forever.

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, and adult language

THE POSITIVES

– Guadagnino’s sensual, yet sexual approach to the coming-of-age genre that transforms Chalamet before our very eyes from start to finish. You get a distinct sense of maturity that developes inside of him that makes him stronger for what he’s faced.

– The gorgeous Italian countryside that is highlighted by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s glossy scope. This makes the seduction that envelopes our two characters whole feel easier to intepret by the intoxicating visuals of food and scenery that invite you in

– An 80’s setting that actually plays into matters within the plot. Here, it represents the thought process within a sour taste forcing our protagonists to hide away their love from a world not quite mature enough to understand the lack of prejudice within such a concept.

– This soundtrack is electric, radiating enough new age narration in classic ballads like ‘Love My Way’ by The Psychadelic Furs, as well new pieces like ‘Visions of Gideon’ by critically acclaimed composer Sufjan Stevens that moved me to tears.

– The patience in script development that the film takes in slowly unwrapping what we already know is there. So much is psychological about the head games being displayed between Hammer and Chalamet, making their untouchable feats of intelligence for the history of the world they discuss the kind of starting ground for what transpires between them.

– James Ivory’s very nuanced manner of writing that strains dialogue for the better. In many ways, the looks of his characters say much more than words ever could, and I value greatly the decision to instead absorb as much of the atmosphere in the air that he allows us.

– Hammer and Chalamet’s piercing performances deserving of Oscar consideration at the very least. This is much more than a coming out party on screen for Chalamet, it’s also one amongst for him in opening moviegoer’s eyes to a true volcano of emotional resonance that subdues inside of him. Make damn sure you stay until the credits are over, as a long framing of Chalamet’s face tells us everything that he’s feeling at that moment.

– Exceptional editing that bends and even subdues time when the two distance themselves from everyone else. Sometimes the shots go long with our characters long out of focus, giving us the overwhelming feeling of awkwardness that lingers between them. Most edits will remove this lingering effect, but Guadagnino embraces it.

THE NEGATIVES

– There’s not enough material here creatively to span two plus hours, and the pacing sometimes grinds to a devastating halt.

– The sex scenes aren’t terribly graphic in their depictions, but it’s the material of the things you don’t see that can be a little too over the top. See the peach scene for further elaboration.

THE UNCERTAIN??

– What’s the deal with the fly symbolism in the film? I must know more

8/10

Paddington 2

Written and directed by Paul King

Starring – Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw

The Plot – Paddington (Whishaw) is happily settled with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens, where he has become a popular member of the community, spreading joy and marmalade wherever he goes. While searching for the perfect present for his beloved Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, Paddington spots a unique pop-up book in Mr. Gruber’s antique shop, and embarks upon a series of odd jobs to buy it. But when the book is stolen, it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to unmask the thief.

Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor

THE POSITIVES

– Infinite imagination in visual effects, including some awe-inspiring transitional stylings that echo the vibe of colorless page-turning animation in a pop-up book kind of feel.

– Hugh Grant’s energetically over-the-top charge as the antagonist for the film. Omits that feeling of fun from Grant’s usually distinguished reservoir

– A screenplay with an innocent adventure that is equal (If not better) than the original film.

– Despite the additions of many new cast members, the Brown family feel like they are just as necessary as ever in the ever-unfolding mystery of this bear’s quest to get back home

– Seems comfortable in finding an entertaining medium between adults and child audiences that doesn’t alienate either’s experience.

– No fart or bodily humor. This should be a given, but in a kid’s film, it is unassuming.

– The vibrancy of colorful backdrops, especially in that of the Brown’s home that never settles for one choice of color consistency

– Paul King’s strict approach in not relying on any material or familiarities of the first film, crafting an original chapter that stands on its own

THE NEGATIVES

– The humor is noticeably absent. There were moments where I grinned, but nothing that gave me the long-term laughter needed in keeping the atmosphere delightful

– While the overall animation is exceptional, the shading of Paddington’s design still feels hollow to the light and shadows that he comes into contact with. His face gives off a level of being too light to be authentic.

8/10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The galaxy far away returns for a ninth silver screen installment, this time promoting the end of the Jedi tradition for the greater good. In ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, Rey (Daisy Ridley) develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of the longtime missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who himself is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Rey seeks to find her place in the bigger galaxy where she lacks a clear and defined fate due to her family’s anonymity. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order after Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) escapes death, and plans a journey en route to crushing the union that is currently being led by his own Mother (Carrie Fischer). ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is written and directed by Rian Johnson, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, including peril.

In its ninth and most explosive chapter, Star Wars continues to re-define itself in ways that George Lucas could’ve only dreamed when he penned the 1975 original. This time, it’s Rian Johnson’s turn, and while Johnson sometimes over-indulges on fan service, there’s plenty here to love for fans young and old that have handed these series of films down as a generational affair. For his capabilities to dabble in twice the involvement with this picture, Johnson constructs a series of different train tracks in plot that each add a rumble of momentum to the continuous pulse that the film continues through an ambitious runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours, the single longest film of the series to date. Each of these tracks twist and turn with enough surprises and jaw-dropping moments to give each of them their own turn at controlling the pacing, but it’s in their crash collision that stacks the suspense accordingly and really drives the endless fun and worthy payoff for the twelve months between that we have to wait for the next one. This isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but the positives of Johnson’s artistic scope and widening of character depth, reminds us that this series is only getting started, and the force is strong with the future.

For how ‘The Force Awakens’ introduced us to these new complex characters in a kind of interviewing for the job type of atmosphere, ‘The Last Jedi’ feels like the hiring process, in that we are seeing what each of them has to offer for the spectrum. The story is divided into three different angles with each of them playing a pivotal role to where the film ends up at the heart of this terrifying and brutally violent war being played out. Rey’s story with Luke is continued from the final scene of ‘The Force Awakens’, and it becomes clear that while Rey seeks Luke’s guidance in maintaining the force, it is the teacher who requires the youthful exubberance of his student in inspiring him to live again. The second tier involves Kylo Ren at a crossroads with his inevitable destiny. It was in this subplot where I felt the film had the most to offer in terms of depth, and it’s refreshing to see that good and evil in this universe can’t always be defined by a color, let alone a single action. The final involves Finn (Played by John Boyega) and his newly formed sidekick Rose (Played by Kelly Marie Tran). There’s been much negativity surrounding this subplot, mainly because of how it fits with the other two, but I found it to be much needed for the impact that it placed in fighting the dark side. Is it convoluted at some points? Absolutely, but the endless energy and distinct adult tone of some adult-like fight scenes complete with consequences, constantly kept the bar of expectations elevated throughout some occasional dragging.

My biggest problem with the film isn’t just in the excess runtime, because I feel like the film’s pacing stays firmly tight until the final forty minutes, it’s in where the film finishes that left me kind of with a sour taste. For every riveting blow of battle that is felt throughout, the third act ends on what feels like a stalemate, taking the easy way out in the name of fan service to con the audience into thinking a lot was answered. Besides this, there’s much about the second act, particularly that with Finn and Rose’s adventure on her former planet that definitely could’ve used an edit button. It’s weird because the film feels like this dog with an endless appetite who doesn’t know when to stop eating, then feels bloated when time and reaction starts to set in. There was never a point in the film where I was truly bored, but so much of what transpires feels repetitious to the smooth pacing that Johnson overall masters soundly considering it is 147 minutes, and I feel nothing would be sacrificed with an even two hour film that would definitely keep the audience on their toes.

Not all is a loss however, as the involvement of composer John Williams, as well as cinematographer Steve Yedlin combine in establishing the single most beautifully decadent Star Wars film to date. Williams is always someone who feels more in tune (pardon the pun) than anyone else with this universe, and his score here rumbles through our endless enthusiasm with a versatile score that beats to the drum of several diverse and varied atmospheric landscapes faithfully. It’s gotten to the point that I couldn’t imagine this series without the melodic tones by John that cements that big screen feel. As for Yedlin, I was blown away by the breathtaking scope that he and Johnson team up for in articulating the wide range of color and construction of many establishing shots. The wide angles in space deserve a pause button so you can embrace them in all of their immense details. But not to be outdone are the adrenaline-fueled war sequences in all of their fast-paced glory. There’s a sense in the air that if you blink you might miss something vital, but the strategy involved with gaining on your opposition becomes prevalent the more we see force meet object. But even despite the wide range of color and structure involved with the space scenes, it was the interior shots involving Snoke’s layer that perplexed me with their personal touches of color coordination that beautifully decorated each chance to soak it all in.

I mentioned earlier that this feels like an adult oriented chapter in the Star Wars legacy, and nothing could be more evident than some of the eye-catching visuals that will surprise even the most dedicated of fans. I’ll be blunt here without spoiling anything, there are some very graphic death scenes that I can imagine pushed the boundaries of the PG-13 rating that adorns the film. If I have a say, I think the series needs more of this, as the one problem that I’ve constantly had with these films are the lack of consequences involved in some pretty high stakes gambling of lives for all considered. Johnson does enough to place the urgency firmly where it is needed, and I commend Disney for sitting back and letting a master work his magic in feeling confident that he knows his vision better than anyone.

Finally, the performances brought the thunder for the mostly returning cast, but also opened our eyes to some new favorites who are no stranger to the Hollywood A-list. Laura Dern, Benecio Del Toro, and Lupita Nyongo are just a few to be introduced to the Star Wars legacy, and each of them thrive under the pressures of the spotlight of being cast in a series that they grew up with. One cool thing that hit me over and over again was the casting of Carrie Fisher’s real life daughter Billie Lourd as Lieutenant Connix, one of Leia’s coveted right hands on board. It’s very sureal to see the two sharing screens together, and it offers a heartfelt sentiment knowing that in Carrie’s final film she got to share the screen with her own flesh and blood. Daisy Ridley still kicks total ass as Rey, feeling like the female heroine that so many little girls need in embracing their own inspiration. The scenes between her and Hamill are my absolute favorite of the movie, but there was also no denying the magnetic chemistry that she shared with Adam Driver (As Kylo Ren), even if some scenes had a sexual awkwardness to them in the funniest of depictions. Driver is much better here than his dive in ‘The Force Awakens’, and it’s nice when the film lets him toe that line psychologically in a game of head versus heart.

THE VERDICT – Disney’s third take on its legendary property yields energetic force and stylistic ecstacy for fans of any age group who seek the best in visual spectrum to add to its lifetime of personalities. The film sometimes stretches character arc’s for a bit too long, and the ending itself is one of the least satisfying for me in terms of emphasis in conclusion, but there’s no denying the growth in characters as a result of some sharp twists that shape this as the enthralling thrill-ride of the holiday season. It’s a reminder that each chapter (or episode) peels back another layer in the discovery for who we really are.

8/10

The Disaster Artist

James and Dave Franco step into ‘The Room’, with a behind the scenes look at arguably the most infamously bad film of all time. Based on Greg Sestero’s best-selling tell-all about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult–classic disaster piece ‘The Room’ (“The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”), ‘The Disaster Artist’ depicts the meeting and early friendship of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). The duo of aspiring actors are shunned by everyone in Hollywood, until it becomes apparent that if you want something done right, you must do it yourself. The actors set out to pen and helm a film called ‘The Room’, a film often hailed as the Citizen Kane of bad movies, but the troubles making it, as well as the cost of fame, good or bad, afterwards is only the start of the dream for notoriety that comes with quite a steep price tag. ‘The Disaster Artist’ is directed by James Franco, and is rated R for adult language throughout, as well as some sexuality involving nudity.

It would’ve been easy enough for James Franco and his crew of long-standing friendships to simply use ‘The Disaster Artist’ as nothing more than a reason to imitate the most notoriously bad film of all time, but the surprisingly poignant approach to telling this story won me over completely and gave me back that ounce of dignity for him that I have lost in some questionable career decisions prior. It’s clear that Franco has definitely done his homework on this story and production, mimicking ‘The Room’ in such a way that feels like this film closes the gap seamlessly of the more than fourteen years that has passed since its infamous debut screening in Los Angeles. Considering we know so little about Wiseau or even aspects surrounding his screenplay, the film attacks this uncertainty in a way that gives us an undefined perspective in offering some subtle suggestions to further enhance our creativity in filling in the lines. This not only caters to new generations of fans who are somehow embracing ‘The Room’ folklore for the first time, but also gives back to those faithful worshippers of Wiseau looking for the next chapter in this storied career, and it turns out that it comes from exploring the past once more.

The screenplay that is co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber offers a healthy dissection of Hollywood logic that comes with creating fame. This is certainly no love letter to the city of angels, and instead depicts the brutal and unforgiving nature that comes with rejection of the silver screen in its cruelest form. It’s in this angle that crafts Wiseau and Sestaro as the ultimate underdog story, inspiring them not to live by someone else’s definition of fame, and instead blazing their own respective trail to the eyes of the world. Because of this, the film does beg the question of just what the cost of such universal praise is, and is any kind of fame worth it in the long run when so much of your heart and soul is invested in your work? Beyond this, it’s a story first and foremost about friendship, and how the unlikely pairing of two complete strangers balances out what the other needs, under an almost romanticized lighting. Greg is the guy who is all talk and no walk, and Wiseau is the complete opposite. So Tommy inspires Greg to finally attack his dreams with no regrets, and it’s in that fearless attitude where we understand how easy it is for Greg, as well as us, to fall under Wiseau’s mumbling spell. In Greg, Tommy’s poking loneliness is reduced dramatically, giving our leading character a feeling of belonging for what feels like the first time ever in his life.

Much of the look and feel of the production feels authentic to what they are covering from the low quality original film, even if some aspects stick out like sore thumbs to dedicated fans like myself who can’t easily turn a blind eye. If Franco is going for authenticity, there are a few things that misses the boat tremendously and drops the ball in garnering the greatest reaction in terms of laughs from his audience. The set pieces are mostly reflective to that of the green-screen work that adorned ‘The Room’ endlessly, but there are a couple of scenes (mainly Denny’s famous gun scene with Chris) where the green-screen is nowhere to be found, and this is a big mistake considering the scene takes place on the rooftop where the majority of that effect is displayed. Besides this, the biggest problem that I had was in the absence of A.D.R from the film that was the single biggest reason that I laughed in ‘The Room’. To play these scenes audibly in live action form is a huge mistake, and I feel like a ball dropped by Franco who up until this point felt like an extra on the original production for how tightly he nailed everything.

As a director, it’s clear that Franco is definitely getting better, as there’s nothing of extreme distaste here, but his limited style can sometimes feel like more emphasis was taken with his on-screen performance. I feel like Franco was the wrong person to direct this film because too many camera angles and sequences feel foreign in terms of consistency to the fluidity of the 98 minute entirety. For some scenes, we get a handheld look that gives us that impression of being a member of the set, but the scenes of Tommy and Greg alone are illustrated with a traditional quality of angles that honestly doesn’t stick around long enough to warrant its effect. Also, the lack of focus particularly on the romance of Greg and his girlfriend feels like it comes and goes without much weight to the overall bigger picture of the story. What Franco does do well as a director is in sturdy framing work that proves he at least knows where to aim the camera at all times. Particularly that of the bar scene where Greg meets his future girlfriend is one that presents plenty of focus on the foreground, while playing carefully into what is transpiring with Tommy beyond them. This is unquestionably Franco’s biggest growth to date as a filmmaker, but the overwhelming balance in trying to match the work he did as an actor here, proves to be too much, and leaves James work as a director inferior to serving his greater master.

On that account, Franco transforms himself wonderfully as Wiseau, and hints that no one else could play this character with such respect and conviction. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything truly demanding of what James is doing in taking on Tommy here, but with closer focus you will soon see an actor’s craft at heart. In keeping the consistency and vocal range of Wiseau well in hand at all times, Franco immerses himself and eases the suspension of disbelief in a matter of minutes once he is on screen. The best kind of adaptions of real life figures are the ones that never feel like an impression, allowing you to forget that you aren’t watching the real thing. In addition to this, once the laughter settles down from Wiseau’s larger-than-life personality, you start to feel great empathy for his portrayal because this is a man who doesn’t know the world isn’t laughing at him, instead of with him. Besides James, brother Dave also wows as Greg, a wannabe actor who confronts fear in every opportunity he’s ever given. Dave visually captures Greg’s likeness without much prop work, but its his childlike innocence that offers the ideal counterbalance to his brother, and reminds us that there is no substitute in chemistry for blood-born kin.

THE VERDICT – As to where ‘The Room’ was so bad that it’s good, ‘The Disaster Artist’ abides by a higher standard, depicting the former with enough respect and dignity that values Tommy’s rise above just playing dress-up. Franco’s directing leaves slightly more to be desired in creativity, but he makes up for it with a lead performance as Tommy that allows pretty boy James to get lost audibly and visually in the cellar of Wiseau with his widest range of performance to date. Most importantly, it gives fans another reason to open the door once more into this room and indulge in what made it a lightning in a bottle offering to begin with.

8/10

Darkest Hour

Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’ involves standing in the way of Adolf Hitler’s worldwide domination, in this biopic detailing the famed Prime Minister. Set during the early days of World War II, with the fall of France imminent, Britain faces its darkest hour as the threat of invasion looms. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). While maneuvering his political rivals, he must confront the ultimate choice: negotiate with Hitler and save the British people at a terrible cost or rally the nation and fight on against incredible odds. Directed by Joe Wright, the film is the dramatic and inspiring story of four weeks in 1940 during which Churchill’s courage to lead changed the course of world history forever. ‘Darkest Hour’ is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.

Winston Churchill was a revolutionary in the office, but merely a frail man outside of it, and it’s in Wright’s tenderly revealing portrait of the legendary figure that we come to understand the parallels of either when combined to elaborate on what made the man tick. Churchill was very much a man who came into office under less-desirable circumstances, facing extreme opposition not only in the face of an evil regime led by Hitler himself, but also in those he considered constituents all around him that made his tenure the more difficult because of it. Yet, Winston as a man who lacks the ability to even fry an egg in his daily routine, so when you consider the immense weight of position and progression from war that continues around him, it’s that much more appealing in screenplay value as it caters to a figure that we are seeing as legitimately human for perhaps the first time in screenplay form. As a Prime Minister, Winston comes to learn that the right decisions aren’t often the easiest, and in a time when everyone is looking to sell their souls to stay above ground, Churchill himself feels passionate about pointing out the necessities of war to those who are already convincing him to taste the agony of defeat.

Coming off of the success of ‘Dunkirk’, this Summer, ‘Darkest Hour’ proves to be a worthy successor to continuing the events of this story once more, but this time from an entirely different angle that caters to the strategist’s side of history and less to the physical side of it. The lack of wartime documentation did puzzle me about this film dearly, choosing only to drop in occasionally for the Wikipedia summary of biggest events, but what did make up for it was the triumphant work of Academy Award nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten who chooses to stay closely hand-in-hand with our male lead. Through two hours of exceptionally paced substance that carefully fills in the blanks, this is a script that more times than not humanizes the spirit of Winston that works out nicely. My very favorite perk of this film was seeing Winston in his time with his loving and supportive wife Clementine (Played wonderfully by Kristen Scott Thomas) who kind of balances the uneasy circumstance within this man who is responsible for hundreds of thousands. But choosing not to rest there, the film does pack a spell-binding punch from some truly compelling dramatic tension that clouds the entirety of this finished product. As I mentioned before, there’s little war sequences to the film, so instead we are treated to the tug-of-war in the battle for power from Churchill’s own cabinet who deem him unfit for such a job.

Perhaps the most evident angle that resides within the film is the concept of relationships and what they mean to Winston in his decisions. I’ve already mentioned the heartfelt center of Winston and his wife Clementine, and what they give the film, but the additional dynamic duo’s of Winston’s embracing of a dedicated typist (Played by Lily James), as well as the developing friendship that he had with King George the 6th (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), sort of carve out this very surreal sense of hope that resided within the country that fuels Winston’s desire to keep proceeding forward. In a weaker written film, this could’ve easily went sour in presenting something that could combat the repetition of meetings that make up a majority of the picture, but I think McCarten knows how to make them stand out for their own reason. For King George, it’s the importance of history and tradition, and for James character, it is in presenting a very harrowing representation of seeing things from a citizen’s perspective. All of these bricks of exposition stack up tremendously in presenting us with the final and often times praised leader that adorns our closing moments with him.

The production value to the film is one that carries it over oceans of length creatively in offering something new to a common Churchill film. The presence of Wright’s stamp of approval here is evident, most notably in the exceptional coloring palate and camera work of Bruno Delbonat that accurately depicts the sense of inevitable dread in the atmosphere. From afar, the film can often times look like it is being shot in black and white, speaking levels to the kind of post-apocalyptic heartbeats that were echoing on our doorstep, but with closer dissection, it’s clear that a necessary shade of grey (Pardon the pun) faithfully illustrate the classic look in film design of yesterday. There’s also some experimental sequencing involved with a slow panning out shot that frequently ends scenes in and around war that reach out to the audience personally and make you feel their dimming disposition of hope. This shot is never overdone to reach levels of cliche within its filmmaking, and offers something different in modern day transitions that we thought have nothing of originality left within them. Finally, the sound editing and mixing spare no expense in their qualities with the film. There are a few sequences in the film in which we get to hear the actual Churchill reside over his increasing audience, and this offers an indulging side to the setting that puts us front-and-center in the seats of many who were searching for anything to hold onto during such an unpredictable time in Britain’s rugged history.

This is without question a one man show, and while that single performance is the very best in a year of phenomenal performances, the lack of inclusion as a whole leaves a negative stamp on an otherwise reputable ensemble cast. For my money, I could’ve used more of Mendelsohn and Scott Thomas in the film, as I felt the few scenes that they invade are made that much more endearing because of their contrast to Churchill. Lily James gives definitely the most moving performance of her young career, but I don’t support the way her character overrides the importance of exposition time to that of his own wife that the film desperately needed. With that out of the way, Gary Oldman is currently polishing the Oscar statue as I write this. Oldman is virtually unrecognizable as Churchill, represented with a balding look and protruding gut that accurately cement his riveting transformation here. But it’s the little things that positively startled me about his dive into Winston. His speech patterns are perfect, mumbling and stuttering through miles of dialogue that feel like they last a lifetime because of it. That may sound like a negative, but that in many ways was how Churchill himself was as a public speaker, and Oldman’s consistency and dedication moved miles in this regard. In addition to this, the exhaustion from Oldman during long walking or scenes in which he walks up stairs is clearly evident in increased breathing patterns that echo that of someone with decaying health. It all summarizes wonderfully the kind of value in returns that you get when you cast an actor like Oldman, who is one of the last true method actors of a prestigious era.

THE VERDICT – Despite this being only a brief period in Churchill’s historic life, ‘Darkest Hour’ feels like the first Churchill film worthy of telling the entire story. Through Oldman’s definitive impeccably perfect performance, as well as Wright’s flashy effects in visual affection, the film is a stirring shape of inspiration that reminds us how different things could’ve been without the love of country that one misunderstood man had. The storytelling could’ve been extensive and more elaborate in its wide scale, but it’s difficult to fault too much away from a film geared towards one man in and out of the costume.

8/10

The Florida Project

Writer/Director Sean Baker adds another human depiction to his credible filmography, this time in ‘The Florida Project’. Halley (Bria Vinaite) lives with her six year old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in a budget motel along one of the commercial strips catering to the Disney World tourist clientele outside Orlando, Florida. Halley, who survives largely on welfare, has little respect for people, especially those who cross her, it an attitude that she has passed down to Moonee, who curses and gives the finger like her mother. Although the motel’s policy is not to allow long term rentals, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager, has made arrangements for people like Halley to live there while not undermining the policy as he realizes that many such tenants have no place to go otherwise. Halley, Moonee and Moonee’s friends, who live in the motel or others like it along the strip and who she often drags into her disruptive pranks, are often the bane of Bobby’s existence, but while dealing with whatever problem arises, Bobby has a soft spot especially for the children and thus, by association, their parents, as he knows that Moonee and others like her. ‘The Florida Project’ is rated R for adult language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.

Director Sean Baker has quite a unique perspective of the world. After presenting us with an original take in 2015’s ‘Tangerine’, in which he shot the entirety of his film on an Iphone, Baker returns with another unorthodox reflection of today’s youth. Through that vantage point, we get perhaps the most unabashed depiction of modern day parenting that goes a long way in pointing out the true value of a shining parental unit. Baker is a filmmaker who values honesty first and foremost in his films, and because of such ‘The Florida Project’ has the ability to take this story as deep as it once to go. The film once again exposes us to the unlimited amount of sunshine in its beautiful landscapes, this time in Florida, hinting at the manufactured illusion that is the Disney World dream, and while the film articulately showcases those illustriously decorated buildings in all of their vibrant colors, there’s certainly enough emphasis below the surface to speak volumes to the audience that something deeper is going on. Almost in a way that is similar to the picket fences theory, in that the most troubling households take place behind the prettiest houses, ‘The Florida Project’ too concludes that hotel lifestyle isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

While shooting a film’s entirety with an Iphone is a tough gimmick to beat, I can say that Baker at least maintains the kind of consistency in his candid photography for the picture that treated my eyes to something tasty behind every corner. This is a handheld camera kind of style, and this decision works wonders in presenting many angles and perspectives to our central characters for the film; the children. So many of the shots are tight-knit with over the shoulder following shots, or single frame luring shots that have our characters walk into what’s already running. Besides this, there are some gorgeously decadent panning shots from side to side that often gave off the illusion of a moving screen in our auditorium. Baker has enough confidence to leave the camera on for these long takes because he believes in his child-dominated ensemble cast that can hold and maintain the attention of the audience without fail, and his faith is rewarded in spades with such sleek style that highlights the domestic landscape with tasty sunshine that covers the properties.

The uniqueness isn’t just in the visual spectrum of the film, but also in the tweeks made in cast and story that cement a feel of documentary filmmaking. I say that because much of the film doesn’t feel like it follows a script towards a particular outline here. Instead, there’s that feel that Baker has stumbled across these everyday people (Minus Dafoe) and decided to turn a camera on to see what springs. The majority of the cast are amateur actors and actresses, some of which are acting in the first role of their careers. This adds weight and believability to the ideal that maybe we are watching something that wasn’t intended to be seen, making you wonder just how truly dramatic it can get at a hotel. If it’s drama they want, it’s drama they will get, because this film never relents on its tight grip upon the audience. Because there are children involved, it’s easy to imagine that this film could get a bit manipulative, but their trials and tribulations feel authentic because of what little adult supervision is cast over them. The film is just shy of two hours, and for the most part paced accordingly, however unlike a Hollywood script that will take the audience on a pre-determined roller-coaster of up and down, ‘The Florida Project’ maintains the balance of life, in that some times are smooth, and some times are unpredictable. In this manner, the screenplay replicates life wonderfully, using boredom as a comparison to excite when something does come to fruition.

Without question, my least favorite aspect of the film and one that Baker still needs help on is his editing transitions. To say the sequencing from scene to scene felt rocky throughout the film is an understatement. There were many times during the movie when I either couldn’t tell how much time had passed between two scenes, or they felt out of place with the plotting of storyboards. The former is great when you’re dealing with montages or scenes that duplicate the certain event that the children are living through, but when it’s used in a way that divides the transitions, it throws you off from where we are in a scene or the script. While this is only an occasional problem, I can say that it brutally throws off the pacing of the second act in particular, feeling like the screenplay is searching for something of equal value to the first and third acts that transpire smoothly because of their fluidity in keeping the entertainment level high. With this fix, Baker could definitely be one of the very best directors going today, but his unorthodox method of transition is sure to alienate some who feel like scenes could be cut far too quickly or not quick enough.

There has also been a lot of commotion about the ending that many have shunned because of its off-the-wall final shots that feel so jarringly foreign from the rest of the film. While I can say that I don’t have this same particular problem with the final scenes, I can say that the ending feels abruptly forced and very bitter when compared to the magnetic pull from the glowing performance of Prince when the film relies on her. My suggestion was that the film ended two minutes prior when it felt like our nerves couldn’t be anymore shattered from the crippling blow of devastation that rivets the inhabitants of the hotel. This wouldn’t have been as pleasing to audiences looking for the lighter side of conclusions, but it would be the glaring example of parental harm to impressionable minds, giving Baker a side of bravery and attitude with his characters that wouldn’t disappoint in profound reliability.

Despite this being a child-led ensemble for 90% of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised at just how effortless these kids were with sinking into some pretty meaty performances. My problem with kid actors is their inexperience that usually hinders a film’s immersion whole, but the value of the youth presented in this film serves as a reminder that even this critic can be wrong. Brooklyn Prince is a wonder of imagination with enough sass and personality that makes her irresistible even when she’s doing things that we know are wrong. Prince’s Moonee is definitely a product of her environment, but the sweet and tender side to her sometimes destructive personality is still in there fighting to get out and salvage this dreaming soul. Willem Dafoe also portrays one of my absolute favorite characters of the fall movie season as Bobby, the sometimes ignorant manager who feels like the best parental figure that these kids got. Bobby sometimes turns an eye for his own good, and there’s definitely a hint of family troubles with his own kin, but Dafoe’s moral stigma and protective shield is a constant reminder of everything that is good and could be again with these struggling people.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Florida Project’ and Sean Baker alike, raise the kind of sobering questions about parental struggles in a world still learning that pleasures with its poignancy. Because so much of its visual appeal springs from the unorthodox approaches of a prestigious stage hand, it’s easy for the production to overlook some glaring problems of sequencing that just doesn’t add up. Dafoe and his rag-tag group of youths remind us of the invincibility associated with being young thanks to some nuanced performances that always maintains the light-hearted adventure of being a child before the rules of society catch up.

8/10

Last Flag Flying

Three friends unite after a long period of distance, on a road to redemption, in ‘Last Flag Flying’. In 2003, 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War, former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with Former Marines Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) on a different type of mission: to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives. Director Richard Linklater and author Darryl Ponicsan collaborated on the screenplay which follows the trio as they wrestle with the pangs of war both past and present. ‘Last Flag Flying’ is written and directed by Richard Linklater, and is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexual references.

At its core, ‘Last Flag Flying’ is a buddy road trip movie that tests the boundaries of friendship. However, unlike those silly raunchy comedies that usually adorn the subgenre, Richard Linklater entertains in spades without any of the unnecessary physical humor or situational gags that dumb down audiences into thinking that there’s a shread of sentimentality. Instead, Linklater and company invest in the dynamics of something far greater than a friendship; the brotherhood of the United States Marine Corps, and it’s in that direction where the film’s journey treads along smoothly without feeling much of the wear-and-tear from the long distance of two very thought-provoking hours spent with this delightful trio. This is very much a love, as well as a Dear John letter to the Marines, as well as every branch of service. The film asks these warranted questions that deal with signing your life away with the utmost respect to the men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice, but does so in a poignant method that should require proper answers for those who are appropriately considered heroes.

Despite this being a drama first and foremost, the film surprised me with just how much I laughed thanks to the impeccable chemistry from three veteran actors who consistently hit their marks in different kind of performances. This is the most unchained that I have ever seen Bryan Cranston, and it’s probably a good thing because his role as Sal totally stole the show for me and proved that Cranston can adapt to any kind of tonal transition with ease. It’s certainly clear that Sal’s best days are behind him, but with the feel good attitude that he takes with him everywhere, he is constantly the life of the party that keeps this film from ever getting too down in the dumps with the downtrodden. Laurence Fishbourne is virtually playing two roles for the price of one, commanding the new Richard who walks the straight and narrow path, while also silencing the old Richard who is a victim of his legends. Fishbourne is definitely the friend who is the most secure in life, and more than a time or two feels like the group’s shoulder of much needed support to get by. Also, Steve Carrell gives another dramatically wrenching performance that alludes this man’s time would be better spent if he stayed out of comedies. That’s not to say that Steve isn’t funny, but it’s roles like Doc that brings the heart out in Carrell, and makes for an uneasy fragility in the film’s central character that comes at an inevitable crossroads with his own feelings towards the government after the leaps that he has to take just to bury his son.

With this being a Linklater helmed production, there’s plenty to prove that the director has advanced in spades with his unique voice of artistic perspective, but that he also still abides by the tricks of the trade that have garnered him a reputation amongst independent movie legends. The most obvious chair that Richard leans on is his passion for dialogue and conversations that tell stories better than anyone going today. In fact, it’s in his ability to let his characters unload on long-winded spells of dialogue that is the blessing and curse to the man’s madness. There’s no question that these reflections by the characters unfurl that flower of wisdom from the past one pedal at a time, but in usual Linklater fashion, sometimes the scenes can drag on a bit too long, sketching an outline for editing that could’ve easily narrowed this down to 105 minutes without sacrificing a single perk of the story. Thankfully, the scenes that feel long are few and far between, as a majority of the film’s banter authentically scales the boundaries of what feels like a lifelong friendship that has picked up after thirty years without missing a sacrificial beat.

The script very much plays on a crossing of worlds, in which for the friends to embrace the future, they must first deal with the unfinished business of the past. The three of them have forgotten a devastating secret between them that occurs during their last days together in the service, and it’s in that perspective angle where the film adds necessary layers of depth to something that honestly wouldn’t succeed as just a two hour road trip flick. Like any great storyteller, Linklater slowly reveals a piece of the puzzle at a time to his audience, revealing the grand picture when the time is right, and when you know it level the most impact. I was worried that this would be the typical, predictable divide in a group that is present in nearly every film that revolves around friendship these days, but thankfully Linklater doesn’t abide by any rules that he doesn’t make, and constantly keeps his grip firmly on the strength of friendship that doesn’t budge or stand down under any pressure.

Besides the hearty investments of time that I mentioned earlier, the only other real problem that the movie has is Linklater’s heavy-handed commentary to sometimes go off in directions that offer nothing of balance or addition to the plot. A fine example of what I’m saying is a scene early on in the third act in which the group stumbles into a cell phone store and decide to buy cell phones, and since this is 2003, just imagine the kind of humor and naive commentary that we can include to give a nod and wink to the 2017 crowds who are watching this who know how important their cell phones are to them. Sometimes it is in its ability to play a little too cutesy to the crowd for it’s own good, and it left me screaming to get back to the story that got my butt in the seat to begin with. Down time is fine, but what this feels like is nothing more than a distraction to the progression of the film, but I wouldn’t believe for a second that this was a Linklater film if there wasn’t some incoherent rambling that has absolutely nothing to do with the material or central premise of the film.

THE VERDICT – ‘Last Flag Flying’ flies high thanks to the mastery of one of the world’s great storytellers in its writer and director Linklater, but also because of the camaraderie between his three accomplished actors who never waver in the ultimate test of friendship. The film could afford to lose around fifteen minutes of needless exposition, however the modesty of presenting patriotism with a price tag is one that will resonate strongly towards anyone in or out of uniform. Linklater brings to life a sharper focus for the issues that other bloodier war films are afraid to grapple with, and as a result gets his most candid film to date over thirty years into his storied career.

8/10

Mudbound

The muddy landscapes of a Mississippi farm divide two racially diverse families, in the Netflix Oscar contender ‘Mudbound’. Set in the rural American South during World War II, Dee Rees’ written and directed Mudbound is an epic story of two families pitted against one another by a ruthless social hierarchy, yet bound together by the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta. Mudbound follows the McAllan family, newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis and unprepared for the harsh demands of farming. Despite the grandiose dreams of Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture. Meanwhile, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J Blige), sharecroppers who have worked the land for generations struggle bravely to build a small dream of their own despite the rigidly enforced social barriers they face. The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), forge a fast but uneasy friendship that challenges the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South in which they live. ‘Mudbound’ is rated R for disturbing violence, adult language, and nudity.

With a film like ‘Mudbound’, the Oscar statue finally feels within the firm grasp of Netflix capabilities, especially considering how close they have now bridged the gap with reputable production qualities that rival the big screen experience. Not only is Rees adaptation a worthy suitor for the literary counterpart that has since been handed down as a tale of racial inequality for generations, but also one astonishes on nearly every front to being a credible nominee during a year of films that feels completely wide open. I was floored by this film, not because of anything surprising in the material that offers a disturbing view of what has transpired across history, but rather the equality in responsibility that the script takes in presenting a rare side to both angles of the story; black and white. The film is a shining example of two diverse families forced to live in such close proximity of one another, and what that miniscule distance means in the bigger picture for a world that was slowly coming together for the ideals of one complete race; humans.

Rachel Morris’s outstanding visual presence has always made atmospheric advances in setting the stage properly with films like ‘Dope’, ‘Cake’, and my personal favorite ‘Fruitvale Station’, but her work in ‘Mudbound’ far succeeds those prior movies in breaking the fourth wall for the audience to soak in. The cinematography here is what I describe as being “beautifully sooty”, maximizing the appeal of a muddy surrounded territory that reflects on the camera’s overall shading and color palate. There’s a real sense of grime in the air of this picture that can portray dirt for the kind of artistry that can be presented in something so pale and lifeless. This reflects accurately the kind of muddying in the air by these two sides that have been at war for ages, and really feeds into preserving a kind of toxic environment that our characters young and old are breathing in with each passing day that the camera well preserves in its visual compass. There’s beauty in decay, and Morris’s accommodating touch physically immerses us in this fledging mud-bowl that solidifies the murky relationship between our two family protagonists.

The script for this film runs into a few problems that sometimes hinders progress, but for over two consistent hours of constantly raising the stakes of suspense for their on-going working relationship, Rees comes out nearly unscathed in the grander picture. I mentioned earlier how responsible this film is at depicting both sides fruitfully in the epic running time of 128 minutes for the film, but what’s even more enlightening is just how much tender care and ears that Rees lends herself for every angle of the spectrum. No fewer than eight of the central characters narrate us through the entirety of the film, feeding into the kind of mental exposition necessarily needed to define these nearly barbaric movements of communication. This gives the film a novel-like approach to its sequencing that feels so close to the infernal fire that it could easily burn us.  In addition to this, I loved the comparison between the two families scene-to-scene that nearly echoed one another to showcase that no matter how different they may feel in living scenarios, they are one in the same on the beating heart scale that lives and dies through the same surprises of life. Beyond this, the film has an intricate way of getting the most out of its wartime subplot by comparing and contrasting the similarities to war overseas as compared to the war that is transpiring on our own soil. To that degree, America’s war feels much more urgent, especially in this movie, mainly because of how culturally behind we are compared to the rest of the world that doesn’t see the same hinders of color that handicap our progression. This is perhaps the most startling revelation behind Rees credible voice, and one that moved miles in terms of needing those differences elsewhere to highlight what is going on inside of this cancer.

There are two noticeable problems that can sometimes challenge the attention span of the audience in ways that could divide this experience. For me, it took three different sits to finish this film, not because of the disgusting treatment of minorities that transpires throughout, but rather the plodding exposition of the first act that doesn’t take off running with its feet in the air. It’s normal for set-up’s to feel lengthy because of the introductions to characters and scenarios, but so much of the first half hour of this film could easily be trimmed and combined together in keeping this film confidently under the two hour mark. Around the halfway point, the film’s dramatic pulse does beat a satisfying drum of intensity, but it’s such an investment to get to that point that could drop some moviegoers off along the way. The other problem deals with the predictability of this script that is easily mapped out from the initial engagements. Sadly, this film didn’t surprise me any in the least with its screenplay, and I wish so much of the exposition wasn’t so translucent so as not to see what will eventually come. Because of this, it was like playing the waiting game for this movie to catch up, treading through the muddy waters of progress to reach the emotionally engaging finish line of material that we patiently yearn for.

Every aspect of the cast hits their marks with precision, even including the ones who have never given me anything positive to say until now. Garrett Hedlund is great in this film, and his transformation between his pre-war swinging personality to his post-war traumatic troubles, outline a character who very much matures before our eyes and evolves into a positive male protagonist that this film so desperately needs. On the female side of the spectrum, Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige could easily be their own competition towards an eventual Oscar nomination. Blige for me is the greater sell because her stripped down performance as Florence is the kind of inspiration for future female revolutions to stand up and prosper. She’s almost unrecognizable in this role, and I attribute that to the dedication that Blige has to letting this performance tell itself without needing the familiarity of a pop star’s presence at face value. Mulligan too continues to be one of the very best emotionally distraught actresses working today. That may sound like a negative, but a film as somber as this one requires that kind of emotional registry, and Carey is certainly up to the task, breathing in Laura as a woman who has been subjected to decisions being made for her for the entirety of her existence. While this may be a racial divide story first, it’s Laura’s subplot that provides us with hints of a woman’s revolution eventually taking place and providing many layers to the family household.

THE VERDICT – Considering this a stream-only release, there is absolutely no reason for you not to indulge in the muddy waters of ‘Mudbound’ that tread through the absorbing details of inequality that still reeling us to this very day. This is groundbreaking material for Netflix, a company which up until now has made some reputable documentaries but nothing in the motion picture presence that stood among Hollywood’s best. The performances are raw, and the visual likeness radiates a murky surrounding that treads softly on the surface before engulfing itself whole on what’s bubbling underneath.

8/10

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ that are the key to calling out a murderer who has alluded police. Writer and Director Martin Mcdonagh’s newest black comedy-drama takes place in the heartland of America. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is not only exacerbated, but taken to new levels of heightened tension between both sides. ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ is rated R for violence, adult language throughout, and some sexual references.

Martin Mcdonagh has always been one of my favorite directors because of his humanistic approach to dialogue within awkward situations that offers an abstraction of emotional releases. Martin always manages to get funny and sometimes appalling responses out of these darkly intense situations, so a film like ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Misouri’ shouldn’t be a difficult sell by proxy. Without question, this is Mcdonagh’s single best film to date, and one that I feel will serve as a valuable piece of conversation stimulation that will aggressively divide two sides on the many moral crossroads that envelope the themes within this picture. Inside are bouts with racism, sexism, media manipulation, and of course murder. These devastating issues have always been cancers to our society, but especially prevalent in today’s day and age where it feels like we (similar to the town of Ebbing) are enduring our own moral trial in making so many of these wrongs right within the structure of our own future. Mcdonagh knows this and crafts a movie that feels like our wildest fantasies of grievance coming true in the hands of one emotionally scarred woman who is lashing out against the very system that failed her and cost her arguably the greatest single thing about her life; her daughter.

Behind the wheel of that wrecking ball is the one woman tour de force performance of Mcdormand that silences any doubt that 2017 is her year. As Mildred Hayes, Mcdormand brings to life the sadness, anger, rebellion, and release that is sure to chill anyone who has ever lost someone valuable in their lives, bringing with it a kind of small town superhero who just keeps coming at her opposition. Mcdormand commands the screen because each and every time she appears, she feels like a hurricane that is coming to blow through anything and anyone that gets in her way, and she is simply as good as it gets in a year that features some gritty leading lady performances that are destined to shine. Besides Mcdormand, there are also captivating performances by Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, and Mcdonagh favorite Sam Rockwell like you’ve never seen him. Mcdormand gets a shot at every one of them, but it’s her chemistry with Rockwell that gives the film its greatest example of casualties involved in the face of war. Rockwell’s character goes through a well taut transformation that feels genuinely earned, and his assertion into the movie articulately depicts the truest cancer of ignorance that is slowly eating away at this town of complacency.

The setting for the film feels like a character in itself, demanding the most of small town problems and ideals that appropriately channel the vast personalities in culture. There is a brief feeling of ‘Fargo’ ambiance in the air, echoing the beat of the singular drum that the townspeople alone vibe to, and one that feels so distant from the rest of us in existence. Ebbing feels like a place where anything is possible. A virtual soap opera of a town that caters to the kind of slow news days that CNN is just itching to delve into. There’s an almost engulfing cloud of intimidation by the police department’s grip on this invasive community, but that all is tested like never before when Mildred decides to invest everything she has into exposing their incompetence. What I find so credible is that while this film wasn’t actually shot in Missouri, the doubling from Sylva, North Carolina more than feeds into the small town characteristics that bring to life the fictional town fluently and leave nothing to be desired in terms of bridging the gap of production synching.

In terms of the story, there’s plenty from Mcdonagh as a screenwriter that lends itself accordingly to keeping the pacing of this film moving smoothly. Most notably, the film never loses its sense of humor despite the adult themes that take over the second half of the movie and up the stakes with unnerving uncertainty from the community whole. There are some patches where the script hits some dull spots, but just when you think it is beginning to lose steam, Mcdonagh always seems to throw a wrench into the film that constantly keeps the audience guessing, and I can’s say that ever for a moment that it felt choreographed with where I felt the story was heading. That, in addition to this crumbling family in scenes of the past and present, and I felt like Mcdonagh is a writer who definitely hasn’t lost his stride, valuing the importance of famous last words and what effects that they might have on future bearings. Little moments hold the biggest consequences, and it’s those instances when the truth shines for better or worse.

Up to this point, ‘Three Billboards’ was easily one of my favorite films of 2017, but then the dark cloud of arguably one of my most disappointing endings in recent memory took place and soured my final grade. I didn’t hate the film’s ending, and certainly understand the approach to “anger begets more anger”, but I feel like the ending is too speculative and not satisfying enough in terms of answers to the film’s core mystery. This left me with more questions than answers coming out of the film, and one that I wish would’ve continued at least for ten more minutes, not necessarily for therapeutic release, but rather for emphasis in conclusion from an ending that just kind of trails off. For my theater, the final shot omitted so much air of suspense held in by the audience who were ready to explode to that point, but it just ends on a final direction that has been cemented for the final five minutes of the film, leading us ready for the crushing blow of disappointment that this film couldn’t run away from after being written into a corner. You understand from a character perspective the purpose in this journey, but the tank of consistency runs on empty during the film’s finale, giving up on itself before we ever have a chance to.

THE VERDICT – ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ stands tall under the lights because of a gut-wrenching performance by Mcdormand, as well as the endless puppeteering by Mcdonagh’s empathetic approach to everything that is right and wrong with the world. Though the ending is riddled with a lack of impact for the many satisfying directions of conclusion that this film could’ve given us, the previous 9/10’s blew me away with complexity towards cunning emotional depositions that prove this film is too big for just one respective genre. There’s truth in advertising, and this billboard says poetically profound.

8/10