November Criminals

Two curious teenagers are on the hunt for the killer of their friend’s untimely death, in ‘November Criminals’. Based on Sam Munson’s 2010 of the same name, the story revolves around 18-year-old Addison Schacht (Ansel Elgort), a Jewish high-school senior in Washington D.C with a careless attitude and a beautiful girlfriend (Chloe Moretz) to boot. After a typical routine of coffee and conversation with her, Addison receives the devastating news that one of his closest friends has been gunned down in the very coffee shop that Addison frequented only minutes prior. After the police investigation offers little results, Addison decides to open an investigation of his own, seeking information to anyone who might know the details of this terrible tragedy. What comes of it will have him discovering new details regarding his friend, as well as a self-examination of his own life that has been through recent turmoil. ‘November Criminals’ is written and directed by Sacha Gervasi, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including teen sexuality, drug material, brief violence and strong adult language.

Whether you like or dislike a film, it usually succeeds in leaving a lasting memory with that one watch. Then along comes a film like ‘November Criminals’, and totally swerves the concept of such logic with a movie so inept and ineffective that it fails to garner any kind of remote emotional response that hammers home the proof in its result. This film belongs exclusively on Freeform, a cable television channel geared towards teenagers who embrace a show like ‘Pretty Little Liars’. However, unlike that show, Gervasi’s crime drama comes across with such miniscule effort that drowns it in a sea of obscurity as a result of a tone-deaf atmosphere and entertainingly lagging screenplay. This is a script that knows it suffers from the simplicity of its plain direction, and because the majority of the film rests on Gervasi’s shoulders, he requires the addition of two Hollywood starlets in making it interesting for his teenage audience. But this is one lesson that will mature those moviegoers fruitfully, as ‘November Criminals’ is arguably the most boring film that I have seen this year.

Most of that distinction falls heavily on a script that is all over the place in terms of tonal complexity, as well as firmly planted feet in calculation that keep it from ever reaching above and beyond. Clocking in at 80 measly minutes, ‘November Criminals’ never puts in the time and effort in establishing the unions all around that establish the dramatic circumference of the film’s emotional material. The loss of Addison’s friend comes and goes without much resonance internally because the film rushes through the set-up that anyone who watches the trailer or reads the plot knows is coming from a mile away. On top of this, the film is constantly trying to establish itself as the lost chapter of a John Hughes movie that was never good enough to see the light of day. I say this because the mood of this film feels like it is appealing to a hip perspective that feels parallel to the events that transpire. With a more committed approach to drama, this could’ve benefited not only the versatility of the story that constantly remains on one-layer, but also in the performances of the cast that are often the deer reacting to the bright headlights above.

On the subject of some of those cast members, the chemistry within Elgort and Moretz is certainly evident, but the film’s script gives them such little wiggle room in free range of character deposition that they almost have to approach these people as self-representations. Elgort’s Addison is easily my favorite character of the movie, reeling from an emotional surrender to his own life prior to the loss of his fallen friend that paints a fragile being. My problem is that the film only hints at this blurry past and doesn’t exactly give us a illuminating epiphany in drawing the two events of past and present together to reflective territory that bring to light their ironies. Moretz plays Phoebe in the same way that she has approached every teenage character not named Hit-Girl, with a lack of great concern and gravity that establishes her influence on the role. Moretz warming smile and endearing soft delivery appealed to her tender side, but the character never has the energy or passion from within to ever make this feel like anything other than a paycheck role. It was great to see David Strathairn and Catherine Keener as the parental units of the previously listed, but this is a teen story first and foremost, so the brief offering of adult influence is something that is unfortunately only for the temporary.

Perhaps the strongest in terms of negatives for the movie is in that of its mystery that leaves much more to be desired. This is first and foremost a crime mystery, yet Gervasi as a screenwriter approaches this aspect as uninterested, pursuing the film’s greatest possible strength at nothing more than face value. Tweeking with the aspect of possible suspects and scenarios could’ve done great wonders in enhancing the conundrum of this fallen friend, as well as padded out the runtime to give the film that big screen presentation that it greatly lacked. As a result of no mystery, there also feels like there is this noticeable void of urgency that the film could never find itself on the same side of. There was never a point during this film when I felt like the movie was building to anything bigger, and because of such, it’s often difficult to determine when one act begins and another one ends abruptly.

Not all is a negative however, as Gervasi’s presentational aspects lend themselves to some of the more capable perks within the film’s properties. There is exceptional framing within the film, especially considering there is an array of scenes that involve more than one character. There’s also not a lot of cuts or overdone edits between scenes that build the chemistry of Addison and Phoebe, bridging together what feels like some impressively done long-shots in manipulation that could impress the right kind of film lover. The shooting locations were also eye-catching and quite synthetic to the kind of details in the novel that painted a vivid detail in imagination. The high school itself looks like a college because of its immensity, bringing to mind the ideal that this masked gunman’s identity promote on a wider scale. These aspects didn’t champion in a film that was anywhere near as strong as promoted, but they did make the sometimes enduring challenge of a heartless sit that much more appealing by proxy.

THE VERDICT – It is criminal to think that Gervasi’s film is anywhere up to the kind of intrigue in teenage dramas that are getting smarter with each passing generation. ‘November Criminals’ is a film that is lacking mystery in development, identity in character, and satisfaction in an ending that is every bit as conventional as it is dull. Elgort and Moretz are appealing, but the lack of depth in script hinders them from ever elevating their character’s lasting power. There are certainly worse films this year, but very few as boring as this drama that tries to be smarter than it rightfully is.

4/10

Suburbicon

Matt Damon brings trouble to the once peaceful suburbs in George Clooney’s newest directing effort, ‘Suburbicon’. The miniature housing complex named Suburbicon is home to the town’s elite. It is a peaceful, idyllic suburban community with affordable homes and manicured lawns. Overall, the perfect place to raise a family. But in the summer of 1959, amidst the ever-changing landscape, the Lodge family’s plans of a prospering future go out the window. Under the tranquil surface masks a disturbing reality, as husband and father Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) must navigate the town’s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit, and violence to see what’s bubbling its way to the top at the level of the once friendly neighbors. This is a tale of very flawed people making very bad choices. This is ‘Suburbicon’. ‘Suburbicon’ is directed by George Clooney, and is rated R for scenes of violence, adult language and some sexuality.

It’s certainly easy to comprehend and even appreciate the sincere message being played at hand within ‘Suburbicon’, but its jumbled direction and tone deaf presentation within the ever-changing atmosphere, made for one of the more puzzling experiences with a film that I have had in 2017. As a director, Clooney once again goes all in with the context of his audience either grabbing ahold of this plot, or they simply don’t, and while I can appreciate and value a director whose all-in approach can provide the greatest divedends for the chances that he takes, I cannot under any circumstances overlook the aspects in this production that depreciated the value in something that could’ve provided the sharp sting of social commentary. On that respect, the film’s storytelling medium floats somewhere between the past and the present, bringing together the social politics of two different generations to prove that no matter how far beyond we think we’ve advanced as a society, the bigotry of prejudice still subsides in the very same arguments being made today like a passing of the torch from generation to generation.

This is a film so opposite in approach from the continuity of its contextual trailer that I often wondered if I was indeed watching the same film that I was once promised. But this time something entirely different in material makes itself apparent, as the film juggles two different plots that are purposely being played off of one another simultaneously. The first is the household of this Lodge family, whose lives change entirely over the course of one night that leaves the Mother murdered and the Father and Son scrambling to put the pieces back together psychologically. The second and personally more engaging story for me, is a racial divide between the whitely-dominated community and the new black citizens that move into their territory. By themselves, each of these meaty directions could’ve provided an entertaining enough sit, but when they are attached together at the hip, it becomes obvious that one of them greatly suffers due to time constraints; and that’s the second story. For his money, Clooney really has two appealing angles here, but to have each of them serve the same master feels contradictory not only in the two completely different atmospheres that are being accomplished here, but also sacrificial considering the pieces don’t fit together in flow no matter how much the four screenwriters here want them to.

On that perspective, the thought of too many cooks being in the kitchen at once definitely seems clear here, as the vicious tonal shifts that plague the movie required me often to ask of myself what emotion I should carry for each scene. There’s a lot of seriousness as I already mentioned with the plots, but the way Clooney and company approach it as a depiction makes it feel like nothing is being presented with a serious emphasis to propel its urgency. What’s commendable is the material feeding into that train of thought where the most vicious events happen behind picket fences, but everything included feels so watered down by this train of thought that there’s never a moment that the film capitalizes on its provocative appeal. The quirky domination being displayed here certainly pays homage to Coen Brothers comedies (They co-wrote the script), but the key word there is “Comedy”, and that is a version of tone that should never exist in a film about a little boy’s Mother being murdered, or an entire white community that make the lives of a black family a living nightmare.

Not all is a loss however, as Clooney’s stylistic choices for the movie pay a faithful homage to the 50’s and 60’s decor, when the clothes and housing looked unnaturally new from the radiant sunshine reflecting down from above. With the very first seconds of the film, we open up with a commercial for the Suburbicon community that feels corny and artificial in the same vein that television was decades ago. This establishes not only the backstory of the location, but also the benefit of immersing ourselves within this slice of Heaven that no one watching could wait to see for themselves. The cars and houses reflect a faithful value to setting the stage appropriately, and the camera work by Clooney is certainly no slouch to boot. The more you start to pay attention to the way George shoots tension and unfolding circumstance, the more you start to see the sprinkles of wisdom that he bestows upon things like reactions and pausing with speech patterns that really simulate human confrontation wonderfully. The film was rarely an entertaining one in narrative, but the production value that serves as a callback to a far but not forgotten era, was one that an art lover like me could envelope himself in when I found this 100 minute sit to be taxing through scenes that it felt like no one took seriously.

Before I go on, I will say that there are two credible performances in the film, one from Oscar Isaac, and one from the youngest of the Lodge family, Nicky, played by Noah Jupe. Unfortunately, Isaac is only in the film for a couple of scenes, but his invasion gives the film the kind of prestigious boost needed to get it through the final act. Jupe himself is a revelation though. For someone like me who does grade kid performances, Jupe’s felt stirring and very authentic when challenged with the backbone of human emotion that kids his age usually balk at. Unfortunately, the other characters and performances alike are nothing special for the film. Matt Damon phones this performance in because the film gives him little in the way of psychological perspective for him to hang his chops on. Julianne Moore performs double duty as two sisters of the Lodge family, and neither makes her presence as an award winning actress feel credible by design. I say this because Moore is reduced to nothing but a gentle housewife for the entirety of the film, and it undercuts any chance for her to make the role her own. I mentioned that I hated most of the characters in this film, and that’s because there seems to be no moral clause between any of the adults. I think Clooney does this intentionally to see things through the kid’s eyes, but as to where Jupe was our protagonist of sorts for the first two acts, the screenplay virtually silences him for an important third act that is deemed necessary to remind us what hearty characters can be.

THE VERDICT – Clooney and the Coen’s would’ve been better served by leaving ‘Suburbicon’ on the shelf of monotony three years ago where they found it. While the film isn’t anything bad enough to stake a claim amongst Hollywood’s worst, the forced surgery by these four screenwriters who are anything but on the same page leaves the film’s once honorable intentions feeling hollow when swallowed by conflicting directions in narrative and tone that crush its messages. The vibrancy of artistic integrity proves George was the right man for the job, but his finished product feels like he has watched too many Coen Brothers movies to ever serve as the necessary landlord to make this suburbia flourish.

5/10

The Snowman

The disappearance of a local woman sends a team of investigators on the hunt for a killer with a chilly side, in ‘The Snowman’. Michael Fassbender , Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in this terrifying thriller from director Tomas Alfredson. Based on Jo Nesbø’s global bestseller of the same name, the film begins when an elite crime squad’s lead detective, Harry Hole, yep that’s his name, (Fassbender) investigates the disappearance of a victim on the first snow of winter. Harry fears an elusive serial killer may be active again. With the help of a brilliant new recruit, Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), the cop must connect decades-old cold cases to the brutal new one if he hopes to outwit this unthinkable evil before the next snowfall. ‘The Snowman’ is rated R for grisly imagery, brutal violence, some adult language, and sexuality involving brief nudity.

History has proven that novels are often the winner in their often times inevitable showdowns with the big budget adaptations. More times than not, a book can grant you the kind of freedom from restrictions that hinders a film cold from keeping up the entertaining factor. No sentence will better define ‘The Snowman’, as this jumbled, melted mess that limps its way to a finish that had me questioning where it all went wrong. It is my opinion that much of the problems that screenwriters Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini encounter is in their desire to over-convolute a story that doesn’t require a thinker’s approach. The case within this story is your basic serial thriller, so when the film tries to demand that unnecessary reach to intelligence, it comes up short in its returns that bore you out of your seat. At nearly two hours, so much of ‘The Snowman’ can be trimmed or edited to fit its narrative, but this film is so poorly directed that it makes it easier to understand the negative side of when a film is left in improper hands, the making of such a decision that soils Alfredson’s often prestigious name and leaves him out in the cold for a story that fumbles at nearly every given chance.

The story for the film makes the conscience decision to craft this as a dual narrative for the first half of the movie. This second tier is led by Val Kilmer as an alcoholic detective nine years prior whose own obsession for The Snowman Killer ruined his life. I see the importance of what this arc played to our story in the bigger picture, but its insistence upon eating up valuable minutes of exposition comes at quite a hefty price. This could’ve easily been used in various flashbacks throughout the film, but every fifteen minutes or so, we are reminded of its existence by a brutal shoving in the script that doesn’t distinctly signify when this flashback happens or give any kind of indication of the time switch. Elsewhere, this screenplay feels gobbled up by a series of gaps and holes in sequencing that leave its audience struggling when trying to keep up. Things just kind of happen without any rhyme or reason, leaving me to wonder if a bigger director’s cut is lurking on a shelf somewhere. Either way, I’m not interested. As for the mystery itself, it’s somewhat intriguing, particularly during the early third act when it does start to feed into its ambiguity, but it’s ruined on one brutal shot of spoiler with about twenty minutes left in the film, that gives away everything without reaching a beneficial shock in its reveal. The final fight sequence is so underwhelming in its conclusion that I found myself asking repeatedly if that was it.

Possibly my biggest problem with the film is in the editing that can’t possibly be justified at a professional level. I’ve already mentioned that it feels like this script is subject to holes in progression that make it feel like an entire movie is missing, but the true horror comes in the fact that somewhere someone lacks that kind of personal imprint from the director that tells them when a scene should be shortened or ran longer. With ‘The Snowman’, there are many scenes left in this final cut that had me scratching my head for what pivotal role they played. There are also scenes that I felt were finally getting us somewhere, but were jarringly ripped from the screen with malicious intent. The editing is so devastatingly awful in this film that it in its own way is responsible for the mind-numbingly dull pacing that never bothers to pick up momentum or move cohesively as one continuous movement. Until the third act when things start to somewhat pick up in mystery, I was bored to tears because of the lack of energy or impressionable character that exerted itself into this movie.

On the latter of that concept, the performances within the film are about as good as they could be considering this top notch cast is getting no direction beyond the camera. Considering this is a film that takes place in Oslo, Norway, not one character speaks with the proper accent or even remotely struggles in speaking English. Fassbender can only do so much, despite being one of the most versatile actors working today. As Harry, we hear about a legend that has done so much, but there’s nothing about him that ever makes you understand why he is depended upon so much. To me, I feel like Harry’s biggest positive is that he’s in the right place at the right time, and that’s about as underwhelming with a protagonist as you can get. Val Kilmer is depressing because you can see on-screen how much life has worn him down, and shitty films like this will only make it worse. Kilmer’s painfully obvious ADR voice-dubbing is something that adds a jarring aspect of immersive break for me in each scene, and Kilmer can barely move at this point, let alone invest every emotional muscle to giving a performance for the ages. It’s just not there. J.K Simmons and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wasted in the bigger picture that doesn’t involve their characters holding weight within the complexity of this screenplay, and sadly Chloe Sevingly is only in one scene for the movie. Possibly the only actor who gets away with a passing grade is Rebecca Ferguson. Her performance at least feels like one with the proper kind of motivational pull, and there were times in the film where it feels like this should definitely be more of her movie than Fassbender’s Hole (Sounds terrible) because of this perspective. Ferguson commands Bratt with the kind of intensity in vengeance that has me screaming out to Hollywood and begging them to put this woman in a STARRING role for once, atop her own movie. To make something out of this hodge-podge, we owe her at least that.

Not all was terrible for me however, as the film’s visual compass was stunning in its overall cinematography and tonal volume that visually appealed to me. ‘The Snowman’ is very much an absorbing kind of movie that locks you into its setting almost immediately, and you can’t help but feel transfixed by the seclusion in immensity of the grand scale being depicted in the film’s opening shots. The sound mixing could’ve been better in audibly immersing me tighter in the experience, but the landscape shots and shooting locations were used superbly in setting a stage that unfortunately lacks the fire in material to combat the ever-enveloping cold around us. What this setting does wonderfully is replicating in detail the kind of character response that eats away at our main cast almost entirely. It feels like Harry and company have lived here for too long, becoming a product of their cold, harsh environment that has swallowed them whole and left them bitter.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Snowman’ collapses under a series of devastating plot holes and contrivances that leave it struggling to reach air from its numbing series of unnecessary plot contrivances. This underdeveloped mess of a film wastes its talented cast almost entirely, and leaves itself falling as the latest victim to being inferior to its multimedia predecessor of the same name. Adaptations can be done with excitement, but Alfredson’s dreadful direction here leaves this snowman without a base to prop itself up on.

4/10

Marshall

The rights of black citizens inside of the courtroom falls on the hands of one prominent attorney tasked with presenting perhaps the most important case for equal rights ever. ‘Marshall’, is based on an early trial in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It follows the young Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) to conservative Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) charged with sexual assault and attempted murder of his white socialite employer (Kate Hudson). Muzzled by a segregationist court, Marshall partners with a courageous young Jewish lawyer, Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad). Together they mount the defense in an environment of racism and Anti-Semitism. The high profile case and the partnership with Friedman served as a template for Marshall’s creation of the NAACP legal defense fund. ‘Marshall’ is directed by Reginald Hudland, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong adult language.

‘Marshall’ is one of those bittersweet pills to swallow with cinema, not because the film is done terribly or anything of that nature, but it serves as a constant reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go for minorities to receive their entitled justice in this country. In the same ways that this Summer’s ‘Detroit’ offered an original take on racism and the kind of injustices that this disease instills by law and order, ‘Marshall’ too finds its original stance on the subject by pitting us in the heart of the battle with the judicial system, right where it belongs. This certainly isn’t anything original for the subject matter, but what compelled me further with this film where others have failed is in its ability to speak directly to the audience, catering towards the kinds of depictions of events that put us in the chair as a juror and lets us decide our own verdict piece by piece. The cause and effect’s of this film take place in the 40’s, but so much of what Marshall and Friedman deal with in terms of opposition in this film is sadly still present today, proving that many more building blocks must still be stacked, and that its title character was only the first in the much bigger picture.

The screenplay rides heavily on the courtroom drama procedurals, residing an overwhelming majority of its screenplay on the very grounds where these battles are fought and won. If these kind of procedurals don’t do anything for you in film, then ‘Marshall’ might be a difficult sell right off of the bat. For me, I indulge in these kinds of mental chess matches because it shows you that the biggest battles are won in the smallest of margins, giving way to the glaring holes in logic that were in their cases from the very beginning. The marvelous screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff signifies the importance of jury selection, courtroom location, and even lawyer/client relationships that can determine how you choose to hide the negatives of those you serve. Marshall was a student of the game in this perspective, and the film has enough leverage to dabble in the cerebral of one of the truly great minds of the game without becoming silly. There’s something beyond intelligent about the way the Koskoff’s depict this courtroom, leaving just enough room for the theatrics within a deposition to leave the audience watching glued to the screen.

As a biopic, there is a healthy offering of what makes Thurgood the kind of modern day legend that he has become. He’s a constant workaholic who the movie points out “Is depended upon by thirteen million African Americans”, and what this establishes within this particular story is that this man is rarely ever home, sacrificing a life with his beautiful wife to serve as the profit to wake this world up. I found him to be easily respectable on this sacrifice alone, but even more so for the way the Koskoff’s instill that at the end of the day he is only human. There are some adversities and challenges with being on the road so much that don’t garner him in the most appealing of lights, but it proves that the film isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty in valuing the truth of the material. If I did have some slight problems with the film, it’s in the early minutes of the third act that do come across as sluggish. At 113 minutes, this is a lengthy sit, but there’s nothing that can easily be cut without doing more harm to the integrity of the case. This is a problem because the minutes do start to catch up later when it feels like this film should be wrapping up, only to have another twenty minutes. Beyond this, the only other problem I had were with some of the longshots in logic that the people around Thurgood open his eyes to that play just as important into his case. We’ve all seen these scenes where a character will speak a throwaway line, only for a lightbulb to go off in the main character that makes him rush out of bed to tie everything together. In this instance, the scene is just a little too big of a leap for me in tying it all together, and it’s in those brief examples where the film sometimes sacrifices so much of the intelligence that it pieced together patiently.

I want to talk about presentation as well, because so much of the value within this picture is in the smooth transitions that Hudland and company preserve in replicating the style of its title character, as well as production that give it the authentic spin of the age. The musical score by composer Marcus Miller echoes the vibes of the jazz music age with such soft and tender focus on horns, cello’s, and of course the importance of piano that add class to any circumstance. In these tones, Thurgood walks with an air of confidence that makes his character anything but unlikeable, preserving him with the kind of swagger known to overtake a room. The visual compass as well sparks some original dabs in editing that give the movie character to play into the procedural stance. This isn’t a consistent thing, but early on in the film when the two lawyers meet and start to study the case, the scene transitions are given a typewriting sound of keys clicking that establishes smoothly the hours that are being put in around the clock. The lighting is soft within the courtroom scenes, and thankfully it never overrides its authentic influence by too much technological enhancement, making it stand out as something that feels manufactured to what the movie’s production team contend for themselves.

These trio of performances involved also instill a lot of weight to the depth in this screenplay, highlighting a fresh cast of male energy that strike all for their own respective reasons. Chadwick Boseman is someone who has taken on a few of these legendary figures from our past in movies, but in Thurgood we get a possible sleeper contender for some academy recognition. Boseman might lack the visual similarities to the title character, but he more than makes up for it in his dedication to vocal tones and attitude that ring true with Marshall. Boseman is so unlimited with charm and appeal that it’s impossible not to perk up any time he enters a scene, and the chemistry with Gad might be my pick for the best one-two punch in cinema this year. On the subject of Gad, he’s rarely someone who appeals to me in films, but ‘Marshall’ proves that he has what it takes to spice to instill his brand of sarcastic wit to any film without ruining the consistency of its atmosphere. Samuel is someone who faces the kind of serious backlash from his community in ways that Marshall does as well, but with more to lose to feed into the empathy of his character. This gives Gad’s Friedman a much deserved chair at the table in this story where he rightfully belongs. Dan Stevens is also solid, playing the antagonist lawyer of sorts to combat the team of Marshall and Friedman. Stevens is menacing, deceitful, and most importantly; determined to do what he has to for the victory. This sometimes can cast him as a superhero villain of sorts with the structure of his character coming out of nowhere, but Stevens calm delivery casts great fear in the kinds of things he says that you know he believes, and it’s further proof that every good conflict needs a beneficial antagonist.

THE VERDICT – ‘Marshall’ harbors two equally compelling directions in its courtroom procedural, as well as the biopic centering around its title character that gives you two pleasures for the price of one. With a rich vibe in tone and texture, the film objects to ever being deemed under a ‘Movie of the week’ kind of classification, and the value of three electrifying performances on top of it makes the verdict of Hudland’s latest guilty of being an effective drama with lots of historical pull.

9/10

American Made

An airline pilot will have to fly above the clouds in order to escape the feds who are hot on his trail, in ‘American Made’. Director Doug Liman and Tom Cruise team together one more time, this time centering around the story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a TWA pilot in 1978 who is recruited by the CIA, specifically a seedy mastermind deep within the department named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to provide reconnaissance on the burgeoning communist threat in Central America. Barry soon finds himself in charge of one of the biggest covert CIA operations in the history of the United States, smuggling in hundreds of pounds of cocaine to the Southern territories. This story spawned the birth of the Medellin cartel and eventually almost brought down the Reagan White House with the Iran Contra scandal that rocked nations across the globe. ‘American Made’ is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.

Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious drug trafficker ever, so there’s certainly no shortage of screenplays based on his controversial life as a smuggler. ‘American Made’ is yet another of those chapters, but with a bit of the twist that supplants the domestic side of its surreal storytelling. The film itself features Escobar for all of about twenty minutes, choosing instead to focus on an original narrative to the story by centering it around one of his pivotal chess pieces when it comes to moving his product in. When you think about the harsh realities of how drugs have shaped and poisoned our society, guys like Barry Seal shouldn’t come to mind, but the green of dollar bills will make even our own citizens do the most irrational of things, and that is what we have here. ‘American Made’ feels like a take on entrepreneurship post ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, and while I do feel like those comparisons in structure and the complementary breaking of the fourth wall are completely justified from Liman’s film, this one does fall remotely short in capturing the same kind of immersive essence that kept me on the edge of my seat for nearly three hours with its predecessor.

Many things do however compliment this as a strongly put together piece of cinema, pushing authentic vibes in cinematography and direction that craft this as something so much more than just an entertaining film. We are treated to some intricate levels of artistic merit throughout the presentation that really establishes the kind of setting in time that showcase just how different and untested the laws were then. Many films anymore include the choices of authentic 70’s grainy footage during that era for its establishing shots and narrative storytelling, but it’s in those same grainy filters and cheap style choices that Liman brings along with us to keep its visual enticement fresh and consistent. From the guerilla style shooting, to the tight-knit camera angles, there were many times during the film when I felt like I was watching government footage that I just happened to stumble across. In addition to this, the beautiful and breathtaking cinematography is aplenty, focusing on the depiction in differences between the landscapes of Arkansas and South America that figuratively and literally fly by with our protagonist’s plot.

On the subject of style alone, this film is a ten, but some of the lasting power of the screenplay by Gary Spinelli does leave slightly more to be desired. This isn’t a boring film at all, and there was never a point when I wasn’t invested in the unfolding series of uphill climbs that Barry faces, but the film takes very little time, especially early on, to get to know the man when he isn’t in the cockpit. To that degree, this feels like a one-sided effort that focuses entirely on his missions and less with what makes him such a protagonist to get behind. What I did enjoy is Barry’s breaking of the fourth wall by narrating to a video camera to us who are watching. Narration is always a slippery slope, but because the career of drug-smuggling is one that requires further elaboration, there’s plenty of chances for Barry to get personal, and it works in furthering the exposition that are skimmed but not scanned in the first act. Besides this, there is also a great overall attitude to the film that does poke fun at the cynicism and mounting tension of this once prosperous pilot being in over his head in a world where he knows very little. This kept the film at a light-hearted atmosphere while playing up plenty of the consequences that shock and level Barry and his surrounding set-up. Because of this, I feel that ‘American Made’ does have solid replay value because it chooses to never weigh to heavily on conscience, instead remaining focused on just having a good time.

The pacing for the film is slightly uneven during the first act, mainly because it feels like it is in a rush to get to the good stuff, but the later acts smooth things out by feeling like it is taking what necessary time it needs to educate. On the subject of that first act, it was flooring to see how quickly this plan all came together, and I do wish that more precious minutes were used to hammer home who Barry was before it all went down. This could give us reasoning to side with Barry and understand his desire to do something that he himself knows is illegal, but pushes forward. The runtime too is valuable in this aspect. At 105 minutes, ‘American Made’ can feel like some angles are being glossed over, but the focus remains firm in supplanting the audience with the kind of insurmountable odds that Barry and crew now have to overcome. This could all of course fall behind with redundancy before the grand finale, but the tempo of this direction always keeps us one step ahead by giving us an easy sit in the face of all of the mayhem.

As for performances, this is all kind of a one man show, but that doesn’t mean that one man doesn’t commit himself to a role that doesn’t cast him in the most admirable of lights. Cruise is of course that guy, and as Barry we see a man who is a bit rude, a bit careless, and even a bit lost in something bigger than him. Through his usual endless energy, Cruise commands Barry to dizzying distress and an unflinching southern accent that grants him a nosedive into this charismatic side. Tom seems to be accepting these roles in the later part of his career that don’t highlight him as the flawless hero, and that embracing of the vulnerability that has garnered him some acclaimed attention over the past few years, has granted him staying power decade after decade. Despite this being a one man show mostly, Gleeson is also sneakily terrific as the boss of sorts for Barry. Domhnall is quickly carving away a reputation for versatility in the jobs he undertakes, and the spin of Schafer here is certainly no different, as Gleeson feels conniving and brash in a race for riches that is unlike anything we’ve seen him in yet in his blossoming career.

THE VERDICT – The success of ‘American Made’ is based solely on its impeccably authentic artistic expression, as well as the fiery wild card performance of its male lead that feels fine on Cruise control. Doug Liman’s cautionary tale about 70’s greed and corruption feels rushed in some spots early on, and overall lacks the kind of permanent, poignant humbling that better films in the genre unleash upon, but there’s enough charm in the air from the familiar off-screen dance partners here to leave it on auto-pilot and just let it fly.

7/10

American Assassin

One man’s devastating loss results in the molding of the single greatest weapon in the fight against terrorism. ‘American Assassin’ tells the story of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), A 23 year old who lost his parents to a tragic car accident at the tender age of 14, as well as his girlfriend to a terrorist attack just as they were recently engaged. Seeking revenge in the most punishing of ways, Mitch is enlisted by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) as a black ops recruit. Kennedy then assigns Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to train Mitch. Together they will later on investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on military and civilian targets. The discovery of a pattern in the violence leads them to a joint mission with a lethal Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar), to stop a mysterious operative, nicknamed “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), intent on starting A world war in the Middle East. ‘American Assassin’ is directed by Michael Cuesta, and is rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, adult language and brief nudity.

‘American Assassin’ feels like the search for the next great action hero to follow in the steps of James Bond, Jason Bourne, or John Wick, but never reaching the potential of those physically gifted heavyweights. Instead, we get a taut spy thriller that unfortunately underachieves in A lot of possible potential, especially in that of its title character. As an action protagonist, there was very little for me in Rapp that ever made him stand out as something extraordinary. His biggest dominating trait is that he is disobeying, a ploy that the movie isn’t afraid to hammer home on multiple occasions. Aside from that, he’s small, borderline racist, and at times lacking extraordinary personality to make him at least appealing in the audible sense. I get that size isn’t everything, but to take down these mammoth men who clearly outweigh him by at least forty pounds is something that weighed heavily on my thought process watching the many action sequences in the movie. But to understand the problems with Rapp, let alone every other character in the movie, you have to first understand where they are getting their instructions from.

Look, I don’t know much about Michael Cuesta as a filmmaker, and there’s certainly the arguments for the aspects in film that he does do well, but character direction simply isn’t one of them. There’s no soft way to put it, these characters are as one-dimensional as you can possibly be in a movie that needs boastful exposition in getting them over. In terms of Rapp, this story feels like it abandons him about halfway through, opting instead for the mysterious link between Ghost and where he fits in to his American heritage. This isn’t something I’m necessarily against if done correctly, but Ghost himself vibrantly lives up to his name because his one-off scenes do nothing in shaping a worthy opponent who he himself did present some brief flashes of brilliances. This is kind of the story for all of these characters; it often feels like Cuesta wants their real life personas to over-extend to their on-screen characters, and it just isn’t enough. Where there’s smoke, there is often fire, and the flames burning through the expense of some much needed character for the movie negates every one of them to bland tough guy personalities who are missing that link to make them relatable to anyone but the fraternity brotherhoods that will see this movie in droves.

The film clocks in at 106 minutes, not terribly unexpected for an action origin story, especially since this one stays firmly paced, but one that sometimes weighs heavily on the thought process in shaping out a vital first act of the movie that slips on banana peels in reaching for a dramatic pulse. The idea is there, mostly because I am a huge Punisher fan, and the backstory of Rapp’s conveniently matches that of Frank Castle on more than one occurance, but the girlfriend death scene happens right away at the beginning of the film, giving us little time to appreciate our couple or invest in their union before it all goes south. And right when you think we would see a grieving period from Rapp, the character moves straight on to vengeance without ever second guessing himself. To miss this opportunity really blew my mind because if you can’t get behind a guy who lost something so important to him, your attachment to the character or story will float away like tears in the rain. The death isn’t used for anything except cheap manipulation towards the end when it makes little sense because of another surprise that flourished about fifteen minutes into the film. We all know that Taylor Kitsch is our central antagonist in the movie, but to find out that he isn’t the character who ended the life of Rapp’s girlfriend, and then to see that killing terrorist dealt with early on in the movie, makes it very difficult to ever reach that peak again. Imagine John Wick killing the person who shot his dog within the first half hour of the movie, and then asking the audience to care about some totally unrelated guy on the side.

It’s not all bad for Cuesta however, as the man definitely knows how to hold a camera for some pretty decadent sequences in devastating destruction. This can at least pack a vibrant punch for the film when all other areas are lacking. The fight sequences are crisp, moving in fluidity and depiction with such articulation because the camera work of Cuesta knows to never get too close and outshine the brutality. It stays right on the side and decides to let our characters dictate the direction of where it’s headed without it getting to jerky on the movements. The chase sequences, as well as the major blowout finale revealed to me that the producers definitely weren’t afraid to shell out the extra cash in order to enlighten the audience to how dangerous plutonium is. The gore as well impressed me to no end, pushing hard on that R-rating that proves it is the only way to do a film of this caliber. For the carnage candy nut in all of us, ‘American Assassin’ can at least play with the big boys, and its graphic material supplants itself at the head of the highlights for the film’s positives.

I mentioned earlier that the direction is poor for the character outlines, but the performances hint that something greater could’ve been met with an enjoyable cast. O’Brien is the only actor who I feel is miscast here because of his physical limitations and dry personality. I liked Dylan in ‘The Maze Runner’ series, but the transition to adult roles takes three HUGE steps with a role like Rapp, and maybe a few more years down the line he could’ve grown into it. Keaton was the most enjoyable for me even if his character is basically just an off-the-wall counterpart to everything that he has ever played. The madness in macho American toughness within him made me laugh unintentionally on more than one occasion, but at least it did give me something to enjoy in regards to the characters. Kitsch as a villain could be great. In the earlier years of his career, he’s kind of found it difficult in being a lead protagonist, but the waters of villain might be where his heart truly lies. There are spry occasions when we see Ghost as an intelligent mental chess player who always thinks a move ahead, but the script’s investment in him is too slim for his portrayal to ever imprint something memorable on the audience who are already sour on him.

THE VERDICT – ‘American Assassin’ more often than not misses its target in compelling spy thrills with a dramatic twang, but there’s plenty to appreciate in graphic brutality and high stakes action sequences for it to possibly gain cult status someday. The painful underwriting of these hollow characters, complete with protagonist without a pulse, drops the bar on every rule of audience investment since the dawn of time, and the first act mistakes in storytelling left me without a vest to succumb to the devastating blows that the bullets of logic spun at me. A bomb went off in the theater, but no one was there to hear it.

5/10

Good Time

The brothers Nikas seek a devilishly ‘Good Time’ even if it kills them. After a botched bank robbery lands his younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) in prison, Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) embarks on a twisted odyssey through New York City’s seedy crime underworld in an increasingly desperate-and dangerous-attempt to get his brother out of jail. Over the course of one adrenalized night full of booze, drugs, and off-the-wall characters, Constantine finds himself on a high-speed mad descent into brutal violence and mayhem as he races against the clock to save his brother and himself, knowing their lives hang in the balance, which up until now has been an everyday waste. ‘Good Time’ is directed by the brotherly duo of Joshua and Ben Safdie, and is rated R for adult language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content.

‘Good Time’ is more than just a clever name, it’s a gritty, hostile, and often entertaining run-all-night that brings to life my memories of 2006’s ‘Running Scared’, starring Paul Walker. While that film is A better overall presentation, it’s easy to see how the brothers Safdie could certainly feel influenced by that previous picture, in presenting this film based in a neon-fueled nightmare world where every solution feels like it’s getting worse for our brother protagonists. Despite some stretching in situational logic that does require the occasional suspension of disbelief, this is A film that merits vital consequences responsibly, speaking to the theme that no good deed in this world goes unpunished. The film for me was A lot of fun to just kind of entertain myself for 95 minutes without thinking about what pertains to how easy and simple-minded some of these escape plans likely should’ve been for these characters. When you think about it too much, you’re likely to miss the point of this crime drama; and that is that we would commit terribly stupid measures to assure the well-being of those we love. That concept alone gave ‘Good Time’ plenty of heart in an otherwise dismal landscape of robberies, drugs, and even underage sex.

For my money, the set-up to this film is brilliant. I love the idea that Constantine very much feels responsible for his brother landing in jail because of an irresponsible goal that was in fact his idea alone. Constantine feels like the terrible influence to Nick, not only because the latter is mentally handicap, but also because he’s kind of the shit-stirrer that often jumps when he realizes a sinking ship. Throughout the film, Constantine has only one other alli, and that is in his relationship with a female character whom he uses and throws away at his discretion, so it feels like this guy seems aware of who he has to betray to get what he wants, but there’s definitely a family bond that moves this script miles in terms of its urgency. The second act is very much elevating the tension, taking Constantine through the overnight lunacy of the New York streets. The film does kind of forget about Nick during this time, bringing him up only when it’s important to serve A reminder to the audience, but this doesn’t mean the film rests from its ambitions, keeping the eye on the prize firmly until about the film’s final half hour when all else becomes a bit too convoluted amongst what is important here.

And that is where this film seems to blur the lines of moral clause that it was presenting in the film’s finale. Loose ends are tied up yes, and the wrong are left to suffer, but it does leave me with this unshakeable feeling of disappointment considering how this powder-keg continued to build and build until it felt like it was going to blow. The absence of a noticeable antagonist does feel greatly impactful to the plot because there are A lot of scenes when Constantine should be looking behind him waiting for something to catch up, instead of looking forward to the next big score, and there’s rarely enough peak in dramatic pull to ever top this tension off to edge-of-the-seat levels for the audience. The third act also makes A great mistake in introducing too many subplots to the film far too late in the film. A bag of money that has nothing to do with our main characters pops up in A park, and that seems to warrant more of the film’s attention than the mentally handicap brother who could be dead at any moment, rotting away in prison. Suddenly that human element that I mentioned earlier feels so absent from the film, and the movie’s closing moments don’t pack the kind of emotional punch that a far superior first half built up.

It’s not all bad however, as the film’s aesthetic department played vicariously well in conjuring up the imagination of this adult playground. The neon-inspired cinematography always does wonders in a red light district sort of feel, but it also caters to 80’s cop thrillers that uses this method of style to heighten the scary landscapes. The camera work here is exceptional, displaying the articulate method in using handheld camera direction without shaking the camera too much or dissolving what is playing out firmly before us. My favorite aspect of the presentation however is in the heart-pounding and alluring musical score by composer Daniel Lopatin. This is simply put my favorite musical score of the year, mainly because it is used at ear-shattering levels to heighten the impact of each establishing shot, and because it dips its synth/chillwave tones in 80’s 8-bit euphoria to bring a marriage to film that serves as A callback to 80’s action films. It’s definitely one that I plan on buying, and this film will have outstanding replay value for me even if just to listen to these elevating plateaus in audio perfection.

As for performances, there isn’t A wide range of cast here, instead ‘Good Time’ feels focused on a one man tour de force that brings out the best in Pattinson and stands him at the forefront of acting ardor. This is the same man who stole the show in possibly my favorite film of the year in ‘The Lost City of Z’, and thankfully he doesn’t have to fight as viciously for that spot here. As Constantine, we meet A flawed individual whose humanity feels like the one contributing factor to his madness. It’s true that he isn’t the smartest character in the world, but Robert’s eyes commute the idea that his brain’s wheel never stops moving, shifting for the next position of power to get him and his brother out of this deal. I gave Robert a lot of shit early in his career for taking the ‘Twilight’ roles, but he’s done an exceptional job in silencing the doubters like me with against-type performances that make his movies a notable watch to see a real actor hone his craft. The film also has A guest cameo from Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is solid in the five minutes that she’s in this movie, but unfortunately it doesn’t amount to much to the importance of this script. I wish her character could’ve come into focus more towards the ending, but it’s clear that she’s only A spoke on Constantine’s wheels of self destruction.

THE VERDICT – This ‘Good Time’ comes with a lethal dose of dizzying entertainment and A jaw-droppingly transfixing performance from Pattinson at the helm. The film’s closing minutes are definitely the weakness, forgetting about its commitment to family for A cliche heist effort that underwhelms all the way to the finish line. Thankfully the aesthetic touch is as pure as paint, combining illuminating lighting and A nostalgic 80’s action musical score to present an overall gritty visual graze that proves desert is still to come in this already overwhelming Summer platter.

7/10

Logan Lucky

The down-and-out luck of two loser brothers hinge on the theft of millions that will earn them the tag ‘Logan Lucky’. Trying to reverse a family curse, brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum), who is recently unemployed, and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), who is forever with one arm, set out to execute an elaborate robbery during the legendary Coca-Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To do so, they will need the help of a crime mastermind Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) who himself is behind bars. The brothers ban together to construct a plan to get Joe out of the hole, as well as construct the step-by-step procedure in ripping off the Nascar circuit without getting caught or even losing their lives. ‘Logan Lucky’ is the comeback movie from critically acclaimed retired director Steven Soderbergh, and is rated PG-13 for adult language and some crude comments.

Thank the movie cinema lord above that Steven Soderbergh is back behind the camera where he belongs. Following an impressive career with box office hits like ‘Traffic’, ‘Contagion’, and of course the ‘Oceans’ trilogy, Steven opted to take a break from the silver screen to front success in the television market, and while I wish him all of the luck in any kind of media that he attempts, it is clear that the man has not lost his touch with visual storytelling that fronts arguably the best narrative in a Soderbergh film that I have ever seen. ‘Logan Lucky’ is definitely not without its problems. At nearly two hours long, the film does start to overstay its welcome with a third act that presents some unnecessary tension and dramatic pull during a time when it feels like the movie should be wrapping up. But on the overall spectrum, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a fun time with the wacky hijinks surrounding this historically unlucky family, and their quest to restore their good name amongst a town that has practically written them off a long time ago. To that degree, Steven too feels like the right man for the job, and his latest is proof that this critically heralded director still has some strong days ahead, even if he is venturing back to familiar territory.

With four heist movies now under his belt, it’s difficult not to credit Soderbergh with being the best heist movie director of all time, if such an award truly exists. For ‘Logan Lucky’, I will credit him as a director and writer because we all know Steven plays with pseudonyms in his cast when he chooses to do things incognito. With helming this script, he manages to add some original flares in narration to keep it fresh along the way, pointing to the belief that he has in his audience to be patient with this developing plot and characters. There are aspects to the story that immediately will feel like throwaway dialogue or one-off scenes to pad time, but what I found astonishing was that each and every little piece connects to a bigger picture, and once you start to understand how the grinds turn in this giant machine, you start to truly appreciate what the movie is trying to communicate in if you’re still paying attention. Like most heist films, it does take a degree or two of sustaining disbelief, being that some of these methods to get the cash rely on faith at best, so it’s in those aspects of the film that I feel people will either be on board or not when it finishes their overall dissection on the picture.

The film is very funny and responsible with its dialogue and depiction of Southern U.S.A without feeling too truly overbearing on stereotypes or cultural perception to an insulting degree. I feel like Soderbergh understands these small towns and the conversations alike, so much so that he conveys between these colorfully animated characters that he orchestrates with a light-hearted element of focus on family and the importance that it plays into every decision.. I compare it a lot to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, in that so much of their disconnect from the rest of the world isn’t seen so much as something that is lacking, but rather an educational spin on atmosphere that could help everyone outside of the bubble understand their knowledge of the way the world spins tri-fold. Steven’s award winning cinematography behind the lens is also important in said atmosphere, mainly because his exceptional work in editing and pasting keeps the air fresh with movement to feed into these vulnerable angles. Some scenes will have you wondering why they were depicted in such a manner, mainly the crotch shot of Daniel Craig doing push-ups, but it’s to constantly remind audiences that this is a comedy first, and it is one that goes hand-in-hand with juggling such extreme consequences that come with laying it all on the line for one wealthy score.

If there was a weakness to the film for me, it was as I mentioned earlier the spotty third act that feels like it prolongs the dramatic pull long after we as an audience have crossed that bridge, as well as a twist during the third act that frankly doesn’t make sense. A certain A-lister is introduced to the film with only twenty minutes left of it, and it all felt like slightly unnecessary tension that honestly goes nowhere with the film’s ending. Just before the credits roll, it’s kind of left in a hinting way that this story is far from finished, and that feels like a cop-out with how cleverly decisive everything was wrapped up in the closing moments from seeing the whole plan play out in real time. It sticks out more evidently because the first two acts of this movie are so crisp and careful in its planning, choosing to focus more on the build-up to the big day, rather than the heist itself, and it’s incredibly smart in this direction. Once we care about the characters and what is going into every measure of this plan, the impact of it all will connect like falling dominos one clap at a time.

This especially well-rounded cast also does a marvelous and committed job to their characters, sticking to details in personal traits that held up astoundingly through two hours. We can all silence the doubt that Channing Tatum cannot act anymore because this kid can lead a film with such heart and empathy that it makes you almost forget you are watching one of the best looking men in Hollywood, and instead seeing a small town hick with a bad knee spitting tar. Tatum’s accent is consistent throughout the film, and I feel that he has always flourished with wacky comedies like this and anything from the Coen Brothers. Adam Driver for me was the true whirlwind of this picture however. We’ve gotten to the point where Driver is so much more than just delightful with his dry delivery, he’s also gravitating an emotional pull under the surface that channels a side to humanity that very few are able to pull off in 21st century cinema, and I credit him for being so much of the movie’s pulse when sometimes the moral fiber is wearing thin. The reason for a lot of that is Daniel Craig and his unforgettable turn as explosives expert Joe Bang. With a name like that, you know you’re destined for a layered wild card of a character, and Craig certainly doesn’t disappoint, exchanging his English accent and Bond tuxedo for a Southern drawl and bleached blonde hair that truly brings out the hick in him. Craig is possibly the last guy I would expect for a role like this, so it makes it all the more mesmerizing when you see a suave actor like him commit and have fun to a role that couldn’t be any more polar opposite of his demeanor. A true hoot.

THE VERDICT – ‘Logan Lucky’ races to the finish line ahead of most of the pack in the overcrowded heist genre, and does so with one of its master drivers at the helm. Soderbergh’s much anticipated return to the silver screen is a fun thrill ride that does skid at the end of the journey, but the entertainment factor of a big list cast, as well as a carefully mapped out script, gives this one enough traction to pace itself through the slick turns of dramatic digestion that sometimes oversells itself. With a successful comeback, perhaps we are the lucky ones.

7/10

Baby Driver

The assistance of a driver simply known as ‘Baby’ is the best case scenario for the criminal underworld, looking for the fastest route out. In “Baby Driver”, the newest from critically acclaimed writer/director Edgar Wright, A young and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) relies on the personal beat of his preferred soundtrack, to be the best in the world of crime, as music heightens his focus and reflexes to extreme levels. A car accident as a child killed both his parents, and left him with permanent tinnitus, which he blocks out using music. He is preferred as a driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a mastermind organizer of bank robberies and other high-earning heists. During the biggest mission of Baby’s career, he finds himself and his loving girlfriend Debora (Lily James) in grave danger at the hands of some rough customers who want him dead when Baby decides to flee town. “Baby Driver” is rated R for adult language and violence throughout.

Edgar Wright, take a bow. After nearly twenty years of directing both feature length films and brilliant cinematic shorts, the master of satirical modern comedy dons his absolute best film to date, in the adrenaline powder-keg known as “Baby Driver”. As far as cinematic experiences go, this is easily the most fun thus far that I have had in a movie in 2017, and is only really matched or topped in my six year critic career by that of “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Wright is the kind of director who always seems to pull one over on his audiences, advertising and marketing a movie one way and then completely peeling it back to show you the never-ending multitude of layers that his stories boost for themselves. To define “Baby Driver” as just a satirical comedy on 70’s speed flicks, or smash-em, crash-em big budget carnage films of modern day, is doing this movie the greatest disservice that I could possibly muster up. It’s a play on a magnitude of genres, never settling for constant direction, and this gives the movie a kind of playground where all of these tonal shifts can meet and play as one, an aspect nearly impossible without suffering compromising damage to the film’s integrity. But it serves as a testament to Wright for not only being a name that makes us perk up when we hear he’s got a new film coming out, but also one that proves his versatility is only getting started.

Even after seeing trailer after trailer for this film, it still manages to have a strong ambiguity quality about its plot that makes it feel like nothing has been spoiled. In the first act of the movie, Wright kind of just introduces all of the essential chess pieces on the board and has them play up to their moral fiber safely, and for a second you feel like you are typically getting the story you were promised. In Baby, we meet a young man who feels stuck in a job that he knows is wrong, but he keeps doing it to pay off a debt to a crime lord boss who took a chance on him. This is probably the lone critique of the movie that you will hear from me, because unfortunately we never really hear much else about this expositional past between Elgort and Spacey’s characters that maximizes the importance of this crossroads that the title character is on. Thankfully, the second half of the movie did more than enough to make me forget about such miniscule negatives. It’s in the second act when you start to understand the evolution of this story and how little you truly know about where it’s headed. With some surprising brutality twists along the way, this one constantly kept my eyes glued to the screen, pacing itself out accordingly across 108 minutes that felt about half of that. The ending itself might sour some audiences, but I found it to be responsible with the dark and twisted alleys that the film’s third act took us down. In Edgar Wright’s world, it’s understood that there are consequences for every action, unlike other crime films that make the existence of cops feel like a joke.

What Wright does with a pen and a pad is impressive, but I would say takes a silver medal to that of his mesmerizing scope behind the camera. This movie doesn’t just play safely to the genre’s standards, it completely re-defines them in how each and every little shot maximizes the potential of each sequence even further. The editing here is textbook, garnering a quality about it that illustrates and combines the importance of quick-cut jabs to reflect the modern age, and a forceful close-up occasionally to reflect that of 70’s chase flicks like “Duel”. This gives the action sequences a monitor for us to tell that it’s fully beating and increasing in pumps with each passing dodge. On top of this, there are some impressive long take shots during character confrontations that proved Wright has a lot of faith in his star-studded cast. Because our view is with the camera’s, we often get to immerse ourselves in each ever-passing environment that has engulfed these unpredictable situations. A credit to this camera work is that we never once see one robbery in the movie, but we feel like we’re with these characters through every bullet fired. The sound mixing is also quite impressive for the kind of tricks that it plays on our own ears, making us feel Baby’s situation front-and-center. Music will occasionally drop out in volume if a shot is taking place outside of the car, and this is respectable because it would otherwise feel fake if we hear the same kind of volume outside that the characters do inside of the car. Edgar also pays attention to Baby’s peculiarity because we get several examples of the muddled “Hum-in-the-drum” that has left him somewhat impared, and it’s in that stance where we feel more personal with a protagonist than other films can get. We’re hearing what he hears, so when the music hits, it sounds so much sweeter.

On the subject of that music, “Baby Driver” boosts a collection of mostly classic ballads and toe-tapper funk grooves that is sure to have you fighting back the urge to mouth the words to some of your favorite jams. The cleverness comes out of how each song shapes not only the tone, but the editing of each and every scene. If there’s a drum beat that is constant in the song Baby is jamming out to, it becomes evident that we too will be treated with the riddling of bullets richocheting to the bass of such a powerful audio level. There’s also some clever Easter eggs along the way that add lyrics to the song that is being listened to at any given moment. For instance, during the scene where Baby walks to the diner for his first meeting with Debora, we see scattered lyrics all around the sidewalk, windows, and street signs that he passes by. This gives the movie some quality re-watches to see just what in the backdrop you may have missed upon initial watches.

But a film this impactful would be nothing without a charismatic cast that guides it through these often entertaining waters, and thankfully this collection of heralded A-listers know a valuable chance when they see one. For anyone who thought Ansel Elgort’s most memorable role would be Augustus Waters in 2014’s “The Fault In Our Stars”, you have no idea the oral crime you just committed. As Baby, Elgort unlocks a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma, and because there’s so much personality to his character, it’s the spunk and likeability of a leading man that he lends his talents to marvelously. Elgort proves he can hang with the big names by giving us a character who constantly evolves into being a product of his environment, and when the tough get going, Baby is no infant. Two other members who I want to praise are Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm for completely stealing the show. Not that either of them need help in their careers, but their roles in this movie are the shot of adrenaline that both need from being typecast into the safe roles that have plagued their careers. Foxx dominates the first half of the movie as a menacing robber who always has his finger on the pulse of everyone involved. Because of such, he’s kind of a leader who always likes to stir the pot, and I found him to be authentic in his push for greed. Hamm too is a worthy opposition, but not until later in the movie do we see his truest of colors. In fact, the movie tells us all we need to know about Hamm’s character when he’s not living up to that immense shadow, but treat this as a warning because you will never look at Don Draper the same way again.

THE VERDICT – “Baby Driver’s” tank never runs close to being empty, taking us on a fast-paced thrill-ride that will have you holding onto your seat, afraid to take that breath of release for fear you might miss a delightful peak on auditory capabilities. There’s enough firepower and unpredictability in the mastery of Edgar Wright’s closely-guided touch to keep it from ever stalling, and the personalities from some of Hollywood’s finest make this one impossible not to want to strap in. Even if you just seek a movie to shut your brain off, “Baby Driver” will take the challenge one step further by astonishing you at every feat of the technical specter. Mister Wright can do no wrong.

9/10

All Eyez On Me

The legend of arguably the most influential rapper of all time gets the big screen treatment, in the musical biopic “All Eyez On Me”. The story, directed by Benny Boom, tells the true and untold story of prolific rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur. The film follows Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr) from his early days in New York City hustling to make ends meet, to his evolution into being one of the world’s most recognized and influential voices alongside Notorious B.I.G (Jamal Woolard), all before his untimely death at the age of 25 in 1996. Against all odds, Shakur’s raw talent, powerful lyrics and revolutionary mind-set propelled him into becoming a cultural icon whose legacy continues to grow more than twenty years after his passing. “All Eyez On Me” is rated R for adult language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality.

For nearly two-and-a-half hours, Tupac Shakur lives on again in the latest rap music biopic that depicts for fans young and old to embrace the voice of the man who spoke for them. With previous efforts like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Notorious” leading the way for the genre, the idea of Shakur’s life on the big screen seems like a no-brainer, and while “All Eyez On Me” does play to an accurate depiction of the man’s brief time in the public eye, it fails to reach the uncovering satisfaction and production values of the previous two movies. Being a big Tupac fan myself, I was greatly looking forward to this film, but I can’t help but taste a distinct taste of disappointment coming out of the theater from people who were thirsty for a refreshing look at Tupac Shakur the man, not the superstar. For any great musical biopic, you must carry an equal importance of knowledge and entertainment to instill upon your audience. The film has no struggles with the latter, but greatly neglects the former by speeding through some trait defining moments in his life, in favor of fast-forward pacing that cuts short far too much.

On that distinct trait of the movie, the pacing early on feels like it’s in a hurry to get to a certain finishing point, rushing harshly through the earlier points of Tupac’s life living in the slums and searching for a positive male role model like so many other youths who support Tupac can relate to. It was almost surreal how the movie was already at the start of Tupac’s amateur rap career a half hour into the movie, and it begs the question why so many other biopics, both music and non, feel it is important to push through the backstory in exposition so you can see the entire growth of the central protagonist? For a movie that shocked me at being 135 minutes, there is simply no excuse as to why some of these moments and relationships couldn’t use further emphasis early on, as it would touch on more of the sentimental peaks that the film reaches for later on that simply isn’t there. One positive that I can say about this aspect is that the movie never drags, nor slugs along for too long. It constantly keeps getting back up on its feet, and signals one of the easiest two-plus hour sits that I have had in a long time. The third act of the movie is undoubtedly my favorite, as Tupac’s time with Death Row seems to be the established direction that the movie was focusing on for its majority. Everything during this time feels appropriately paced, and finally it doesn’t feel like our backs are up against the wall, despite a hearty run time that should offer no handicaps for storytelling measures.

As far as story goes, the film feels like it is catering more to the casual fans of Tupac, whom occasionally heard through the grapevine some chilling occurrences within the rapper’s past. I say this because so much of what makes up the material in this movie plays to the rhythms of a glorified television movie-of-the-week production, choosing to hit all of the high points in Tupac’s life, and leaving so little for what fills in the gaps along the way. My favorite parts were finally seeing behind the walls of Death Row Records, and the horrors that befell its clients every single day. I found the character of Shug Night to be the snake in the grass that waits for vulnerability to strike, a true villain in the purest definition. I mentioned the pacing earlier, and why it plays such an important role in this film in particular is because not every scene can be a shootout or a high-stakes fight. You need those scenes and sequences of exposition building along the way to fill in the gaps, but the trio of screenwriters that make up this script fire off one round after another at the audience, and after a while it feels muddled in repetition, even to the point of redundancy on this long-winded script that constantly keeps punching. No hardcore fan will take much new away from “All Eyez On Me”, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with opening the eyes to new fans, but I think it’s a huge misstep to ignore the droves of fans who will see this movie to get one step closer to their favorite rapper for one more night knowing that they may never get this chance again.

The editing too showcases possibly my least favorite aspect of editing films that I have mentioned a time or two in my reviews. I have never been a fan of fading to black until the end of the movie, but “All Eyez On Me” repeatedly chooses this route, damaging the cohesiveness of a script that jumps in many avid directions because a majority of it is being told in flashbacks. This often gives the film a bunch of scattered pieces feel, instead of one well-working machine, and I greatly wish that the production of this film would’ve instead ushered for quick cuts, as I feel it would do wonders with keeping up with the story chronologically. One example of such a mess in editing comes in Tupac meeting his eventual girlfriend in the third act. The scene in which they meet has them at odds, but after fading to black, they are immediately together and living together in the next scene. This is a fault on the writers as well, but the editing makes it feel like so much was left out from the night of their meeting that was ommitted from our presentation.

One immensely positive area for the film is in its Oscar-worthy casting direction that single-handedly blew me away for the attention to detail that often left me riveted. Casting director Winsome Sinclair has outdone any and everyone before her, ensembling a cast of mostly fresh faces that chillingly indulges in the likeness of their respective characters. To name just two, Shipp Jr is Tupac Shakur, make no mistakes about it. I don’t believe for a second that Demetrius Shipp Jr is his actual name because there were moments in the film when I actually thought footage from Tupac’s life had been taken to mold into this movie. While we could use a closer look at the person, Shipp Jr does more than enough in radiating the charisma of the rapper, juggling valuably the way he saw the world, as well as the naivity that came with being so young at the time of his death. “The Walking Dead’s” Danai Gurira steals the show however, as Tupac’s Mother Afeni. Early on in the film, Afeni struggles to be the positive adult influence in her children’s lives, and it’s clear the demons within her are often at war for a distilling anger that she feels towards this unfair world. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to watch Gurira steer this character to such a satisfying transformation; she’s essentially playing two halfs that make up this depthful complex African American woman, a theme that is often neglected in modern cinema.

THE VERDICT – “All Eyez On Me” steers a bit too conventionally to the rapper’s well known events in biography to ever open the eyes of anyone seeking a broader canvas of the revolutionary’s life behind the lens of a camera. There’s some truly compelling performances in the work of Shipp Jr, as well as Gurira that prove visually and emotionally that no one better could’ve been cast, but the muddled waters of shoddy editing, as well as a flawed script early on that pushes along without stopping, does very little to value the immense run time given to Boom’s production. The movie flounders this opportunity, but Keep Ya Head Up Tupac fans, the real story is in the lyrics of perhaps the most gifted MC to ever pick up a mic.

5/10

Rough Night

Scarlett Johansson, Kate Mckinnon, Zoe Kravits, Ilana Glazer, and Jillian Bell are five best friends whose one “Rough Night” puts them on the wrong side of the law. Five best friends from college reunite 10 years later for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami, involving drunken debauchery that is their one last thrill before Jess (Johansson) ties the knot. Their non-stop hard partying takes a hilariously dark turn when they accidentally kill a male stripper during his musical routine, forcing the friends to think fast in order to avoid serious jail time. Amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up, they’re ultimately brought closer together when it matters most, and at the very least should inspire some hilarious bridesmaid speeches in the long run. “Rough Night” is co-written and directed by Lucia Aniello in his first big screen offering, and is rated R for crude sexual content, adult language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images.

Raunch comedies are a dime a dozen these days. Typically you will take a comedy with a bunch of promising talents and combine it with sophomoric humor to test the boundaries of an R-rating. Now the ladies get their turn with “Rough Night”, a film that borders a little too closely to the 1997 Christian Slater film “Very Bad Things”, in that they are both movies that take place over the course of a bachelor party, and a stripper ends up dead. Beyond those identical plots, “Rough Night” paves its own path by taking a so-so script and elevating it even higher than it rightfully should be because of the performances and chemistry of its five leading ladies. The film doesn’t push the sadistic envelope quite as far as its male comparison did two decades ago, but its charms lie in its ability to never take itself too seriously, and focus from square one on the comedy first. This is the kind of film that is easy to just kind of turn your brain off and allow yourself to succumb to the entertaining nature of a R-rated, free from the watered down humor of kids cinema that can wear thin on the intelligence of its audience, and that is where I think this film will resonate best; in its female moviegoers who are seeking comparisons to their own wolfpack of friends for the many wild nights that they have shared. Because of that, this one is full proof for the ladies, and one that they will undoubtedly hand over their cash to see in droves.

What I appreciate about a film like “Rough Night” is that it doesn’t allow itself to be something that it isn’t. Comedies these days can sometimes think that two hours is the way to go, keeping in every bit of sequences that should’ve rightfully been put on the cutting room floor for DVD extras. The script here is written by Paul Downs, a guy who actually portrays the leading male in this movie. If you’re like me, you can smirk at the guts of a guy to not only cast himself as the boyfriend of Scarlett Johansson, but also to promote himself into more than forty minutes of this movie. There are things about Downs style of writing that I appreciate, and the things that are better left to a minimal. On the former, I certainly picked up on the delightful irony that the women portray the men in this film, with all of their drunken debauchery and careless antics, and the men played the women, in all of their subtle and cozy surroundings to embrace bottles of wine. It’s genius because it doesn’t necessarily have to be too overbearing to be obvious, and I think Downs should be commended for giving a voice to this feminist tribe. Where he could use some work however is in the scatterbrains plotting of subplots that can often overstay their welcome. Whenever the film isn’t focused on the females, there is a side story developing for Paul to track down his fiance because he is legitimately worried about her well-being and their relationship. This perspective slowed down the momentum each and every time I felt comfortable to kick back and enjoy myself, and will most likely be the brake pads for those who take this one in. Most of the material falls flat during this time and feels raunchy for the hell of it, without much creativity to push it further.

That is where we get to the comedy of the film, which surprisingly gave me several hearty chuckles, despite not being my go-to brand of humor. The film feels like it flows best when it is sticking to Downs method of mayhem that is unraveling before our very eyes, and less with scenes of long-winded improv that can sometimes drown on for far too long. For my money, the strongest material blossomed when the girls were each getting their respective characters across, and just indulged in a pizza and booze hangout with one another. Honestly, if you didn’t have a plot to go with this film, I would be fine, as these characters (Minus one who I will get to in a second) are just a riot to be around, and the camera serves as that lucky eavesdropping that has served as our invitation to this debauchery that proves the ladies can do it just as well. Because these are human characters, their sometimes stupid decisions can seem genuine, and there were many times when I couldn’t wait to see how a scene played out with what felt like me thinking several minutes ahead of where our girls hadn’t even thought about yet.

On the subject of characters, most are delightful to embrace in their melting pot of differences that make up this clan, leaving only one girl who I couldn’t stand, and that came in the form of Jillian Bell as best friend Alice. Bell is usually one of my favorite parts of any film because her dry stick can sometimes be the wise-cracking sarcastic reality that a blown out scene can rightfully need, Unfortunately for her, Alice is a wreck of a human being, and serves as that one friend who the others complain about when they aren’t around. Don’t act like you don’t know one. If this isn’t enough, Downs writes her into a kind of “Bridesmaids” subplot where her character reeks of jealousy towards Mckinnon’s engaging Pippa. Speaking of which, Kate gives probably her best big screen performance to date, not only carrying much of the comedic backbone to the film, but also in a solid actors performance that showcases her holding an Australian accent for the entirety of the film. The accent can sometimes crack, but as far as accomplishments for her career goes, acting is the next step to take, as she has already proven she can steal laughs from anyone in the audience, during a movie that she is leap years ahead of. Mckinnon doesn’t feel like she is being used as just a reactionary character here like she was in “Ghostbusters” or “Masterminds”, and Pippa often feels like the breath of fresh air for this band of women who have sometimes spent far too much time together.

THE VERDICT – “Rough Night” thankfully is just a clever title, as this R-rated raunch-com offers the perfect 95 minute getaway for the ladies seeking laughs, thrills, and most importantly escape in their female-led comedies. For me, the film works best when its focus is solely on the ladies and less with a male subplot that should’ve been trimmed in favor of building momentum. The script is kind of all over the place in terms of structure, but what settles it down is the off-handed dialogue that constantly made me do a second take, as well as the undeniable chemistry of its female cast who are not afraid to take chances. Nothing of breakthrough for the genre, but a good time to waste the night away.

6/10

Kidnap

Halle Berry races against the clock and the road with anything in her way, as the victim of a “Kidnap”. A single mother named Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) lives a perfect life with her young son Frankie (Sage Correa). One day, upon entering a local park, Karla sees her son suddenly being abducted out of the blue by a savage kidnapper. To save Frankie from abduction, Karla goes out on an unending and thrilling car chase behind Frankie’s abductors. Her steely resolve and determination to save her son at any cost takes her on a dangerous mission, endangering herself, as well as her son who is held captive in the antagonist’s car. With little help from the local law enforcement, Karla realizes that if she wants something done right, she’s going to have to put the pedal to the medal and do it herself. “Kidnap” is directed by Luis Prieto, and is rated R for some adult language, scenes of peril, and automobile devastation.

Prieto’s second directing effort has had a bit of problems en-route to making it to the silver screen. After the closing of Relativity Media, “Kidnap” was one of a few films that sat on the shelf well past its designated release date. Set for debut in December 2016, Prieto’s movie never reached the light of day for whatever reason, being pushed to the end of 2017 for its new possibility. After finally getting my hands on a copy of it, I can once again understand why such decisions get made by big budget studios. “Kidnap” is very much as conventional and underwhelming as it gets with the chase subgenre, mainly because there’s nothing extraordinary or memorable about the 90 minutes that you sit through to reach the predictable ending. If you’re fortunate enough to sit through the trailer, you will already have an idea in your head about the meandering direction and risk-less sequences that play out before our very eyes. Its biggest sin is that it isn’t terrible enough to be laughable, it’s forgettable enough to be wasteful, an idea that too many of these B-90’s films are settling for twenty years after their expiration dates.

Right off of the bat, we are treated to everything that we will come to understand with what follows in this careless picture. A slideshow of Frankie growing up and being narrated by Berry opens the film, but her vocals are clearly inserted in post production. How do I know this? Because her voice never sounds any different in tone from scene-to-scene, nor blurred any in volume when a video takes place outside or around loud circumstances. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much because this is among the only narration that we received for the entirety of the movie. The biggest problem with having a film take place entirely on the road is that there’s very little time to soak things in and allow the audience to follow along with our protagonist. Because of this, Berry is relegated to coming off as a psychopath by continuing to talk to herself and explain her plans in great detail. It’s evident that this is for the audience and not so much for her worry towards the ensuing developments, but because this movie has virtually no evolving plot aside from what you read above, we have to be satisfied with the crash-and-stash mentality that Prieto conjures up.

The story stays faithfully grounded, limiting what happens off of the road with character exposition or plot advancement. If there is one positive, I can safely say that “Kidnap” is everything that it advertises. There’s no manipulation when the movie phones in the emphasis on urgency that films like these need to steal your emotional investment. Despite this, the film’s pacing rarely ever lags or drags due to boredom, but the overly-anxious push to a speedy conclusion throttles to a dead end road full of neatly tucked away conclusions. Believe me when I say that there is nothing remotely fascinating about the ending of this movie, even skimping on the setup for a possible fight scene that could’ve showed the true rage of a Mother protecting her cub. The film’s final fifteen minutes just kind of come and go with very little adversity, and it proved to be the final stamp on a movie that didn’t care enough to offer a satisfying enough poetic justice for those who commit the most unlawful of crimes.

As far as the actual action goes, the stuff on the road is satisfying enough, very rarely slowing down to give us the chance to breathe. The problem comes in the logic of the circumstances that our hero, as well as our villain makes along the way. If one thing was clear to me early on, it was that this film certainly isn’t raising any geniuses, and while there is something to be said about thinking under the pressure of the moment, there’s a louder voice speaking to the depths of just how easy it would be for Karla to defeat her faceless nemesis in minutes, or how said nemesis keeps managing to run into her despite getting several head-starts and immense advantages. Because this isn’t a cerebral chase film on the heels of 90’s thrillers like “Breakdown” or “Highwaymen”, it immediately takes away from how cunning that the mental chess game between these characters could’ve been.

Some more of the technical achievements that I pulled from the movie only added further to the already lackluster approach that handicaps Prieto’s abilities. Each chase sequence is shot in the same formulaic tone that it rarely offers it from different levels of perspective to appreciate what a crew can do with a camera. There were several scenes that embraced the style of shooting Berry’s ridiculously cheesy facial expressions, then cut to the front of the car, then zoom out. Rinse, wash, repeat. It’s only impressive by its generic nature. In addition to this, there was a scene early on when the chase starts that is so ugly in depiction that I find it hard to believe that Ray Charles couldn’t have shot it better. It reminded me eerily of how you will watch a trailer and watch the cliche of everything fading to black scene after scene. That’s fine for a trailer, but when that happens in the movie that you pay hard earned money for, you’ve got a real problem. Thankfully, they only do this the once, but its soul appearance gives off the impression of a different editor who left the job early on.

Thankfully, Halle is a competent actress when it comes to giving it her all, as her performance was one of very few notable positives that I pulled from the movie. Aside from the goofy facials that I expressed about earlier, Berry commands Karla as a mentally unfurling force of one who refuses to ever give up when it comes to the thing she loves most in this world. On that sense, Karla feels like a character that many women will easily get behind, and Berry’s conscious effort behind it seals the deal for a protagonist who grows in doubles by the end of the film. I’ve always thought she was a solid actress, just accepts the leads in movie scripts that are well below her potential in terms of material. Don’t believe me? See “Gothika”, “Catwoman”, and “The Call”, the latter of which is essentially the same movie as “Kidnap”. Berry definitely deserved better antagonists for the film, because if the movie doesn’t even find them interesting enough to focus on until the final act, why should we as an audience?

THE VERDICT – “Kidnap” catches a flat tire of modest ambition early on, and then spins out of control by the end of the film, with stretched logic and lackluster consequence. Berry’s performance proves that she can still bring a tasty center to a meaty delivery, but unfortunately the miniscule scale here is what kept her abilities and the film alike, on the shelf for the past five months. This one steals our childlike dreams of ambition for hopes of an enjoyable hour-and-a-half, and never gives them back. Unlike Berry in the movie, I’m still in search of my time back.

4/10