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

Gerald’s Game

Seclusion and isolation are the keys to ‘Gerald’s Game’ that sees a woman on the edge for the fight of her life. Based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel of the same name, the film revolves around Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) and his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) as they attempt to rekindle the flames of their marriage with a retreat to their remote lake house. All is hot and heavy, but when a dangerous sex game accidentally kills Gerald and leaves Jessie handcuffed to the bed, the latter is forced to overcome panic and hallucinations from her past if she wants to escape, proving that shackles are only meant to subdue a person and not actually confine. ‘Gerald’s Game’ is written and directed by Mike Flanagan, and was not rated at time of publication, despite having scenes of bloody gore, as well as some minor adult language.

What I think makes director Mike Flanagan and the projects that he chooses to helm stand out as more appealing than that of the typical modern day horror director is that Flanagan realizes the importance of a psychological spin to the horror genre. Simply put, without mental prowess, a horror film is just flashes of mindless gore with nothing appealing behind the wheel. ‘Gerald’s Game’ is perhaps his single greatest accomplishment to date, bringing to life the pages of King’s book in a way that even the sharp tongued critic in Stephen would appreciate. He respects the material that came before him, but crafts it in a way that makes the film his own unique artistic vision, and it’s one that I respect tenfold for its simplicity. This film certainly feels like King’s most faithful adaptation to date based on the source material, offering very few changes in the way of circumstantial negatives for myself or any King enthusiast to balk at. Clocking in at 103 minutes, the pacing is kept appropriately tight, even if this one primary location setting does expectedly hinder what it can do in entertaining value consistently. The production is kept reasonably cheap, and thankfully because of outlets like Netflix, we no longer have to worry about mainstream television standards that chop up King’s films in mini series format for all to wonder what could’ve been.

Because this is a very cerebral screenplay, there’s so much about ‘Gerald’s Game’ that gets inside of the head of its central protagonist, as well as the viewers watching at home, and offers us a glimpse into a tortured woman whose soul never left her dark and abusive past. I do love a slow-burner, and this one feels satisfied cooking its material at 300 degrees, so just to let each square inch of its arresting substance peel back one layer at a time. There’s a very creative take with how Jessie’s character confides and communicates with herself that I feel like really gave the movie a boost of entertainment value towards sarcastic wit, while playing into the adversity of the ever-stacking odds in front of her. The additions of Jessie and Gerald as secondary characters serving as real Jessie’s conscience goes a long way in organizing the strategy that she herself takes to get out of her captivity step by step. This also feels like a therapeutic way to communicate with Gerald from the grave and get out some secrets about herself that she was always too guarded to tell him. Then there’s the dog, who is portrayed as time, the very essence that Jessie herself has limited amount of. These intricate and original takes for their respective positions are what gives this story the kind of personality relevant to a King plot and really maximize the collision of vulnerability when it’s on a course meeting with the inevitable.

The scares in the movie resort more to the psychological torture of one’s past and the role that it plays in shaping the person that stands before us today. There is no need for silly and ill-timed jump scares here, and thankfully Flanagan invests more in what haunts us instead of what stalks us. The difference of course feeding into that age-old theory that the scariest thing that will ever happen to us has indeed already happened, and for Jessie re-living that day brings out the nightmares of her dreams for us to feel warm compassion for her character. There is still the expected blood and gore in the film like there would be any horror film, but they save it for the time when it makes the biggest impact after withholding it for nearly an hour and a half for a finale that had me covering my eyes from the shock factor of it all. From the effect and prop work delivered here, I would expect that this sequence receive no less than Oscar consideration from the academy, as it is every bit believable as it is terrifying from the uncertainty that envelopes its unpredictability.

This is also a very stylish and artistic film at times, even if that vision is kept on the most minimal of terms in majority. The eclipse sequences in the film offer a beautifully decadent red tint that serves as a metaphor for the shackles that envelope Jessie both in and out of her current bedroom setting, and faithfully depict this rare occasion better than any film that I have ever seen with an eclipse in it. The cinematography for the film is impressive considering this is a Netflix first project. There’s many articulate measures that Flanagan and company puppeteer with the natural lighting outside that plays many tricks on the minds of us at home during a film when we never see a clock shown even once in the movie. The camera work offers a very eclectic display of wide angle and close up shots that constantly keeps the pacing of each scene moving fluently, and the establishing shots of the lake and woods area surrounding articulately explore the setting of how secluded these two characters really are, and just what that entails for their current predicaments.

I would be a fool if I didn’t mention the outstanding portrayal of Jessie by Carla Gugino, in her single greatest performance to date. Do they give award consideration for Netflix films? If so, Carla should be at the front of that list, treading the tight rope of the enigmatic Jessie, whom we feel even early on that something terrible has happened to her because of Carla’s tender withdraw from what should be a fun weekend away from it all. The kind of impact in visual storytelling on the face of Gugino touched more than just a nerve with me emotionally, and there’s something to be said about a woman who just witnessed her husband die, and yet that isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to her. Her performance is flawless in execution, and her hypnotic trance kept my focus firmly planted on her even in the most physically restricted of roles that she’s taken on. Bruce Greenwood also offers plenty despite leaving us early on in the film. The chemistry between he and Gugino feels authentically in depicting that of a longtime married couple whose best days are behind them, and Bruce’s Gerald serves as the catalyst behind Jessie’s motivation to defeat the trauma with the will to live.

THE VERDICT – ‘Gerald’s Game’ proves that you don’t need major budgets or buckets of blood to render a mentally haunting tale of despair based on the things we have no control over. Ironically, it is the complexity of a simplistic approach to detail that returns Flanagan yet another winner in imaginative horror tenfold. Gugino is a whirlwind in performing arts that devastates anything and everything in her wake, and this two person show has enough versatility to field two movies. Netflix continues to kill it with their handled approach to cherished properties that makes them only second to Disney in that category. This is one game with serious consequences.

9/10

Strong Island

One family’s testimonial with the judicial system leaves them reeling from racial prejudice and severe incompetence, in the documentary ‘Strong Island’. Winner of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award for Storytelling, the film directed by the victim herself, Yance Ford, takes place In April 1992, on Long Island NY. William Jr., the Ford’s eldest child, a black 24 year-old teacher, was killed by Mark Reilly, a white 19 year-old mechanic. Although Ford was unarmed, he became the prime suspect in his own murder. Ford chronicles the arc of the family across history, geography and tragedy; from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle class suburbs, to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death. A deeply intimate and meditative film, Strong Island asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice. ‘Strong Island’ is not rated.

Whether you’ve ever been subjected to racial bigotry or lawful mishandlings, a film like ‘Strong Island’ shapes the kind of reflective glance at our own world that only seems to be getting worse with time and educates the viewer on perhaps a side of the moral coin that they may not be privy to. The best kind of documentaries are the ones that hold the responsibility of teaching firmly in its grip and doesn’t alienate one side or the other when telling its story. To say that this is the perfect film for the perfect time is kind of a given, but what really throws another log onto the flames of enticement for Ford’s presentation is how she articulately crafts the two subjects hand-in-hand and rapidly erases the line of separation dividing his two subject matters. Every story in life deserves to be told, but Ford’s rushes to the front of the line by presenting unfolding drama from this decades old case that is even still unfurling before our very eyes. In this manner, the film steals a piece of your soul that it has no intention of giving back, and Netflix strikes the hot iron once again with a documentary mystery with all of the fixings.

Through 106 minutes of versatility in material, the film surprisingly holds a lot of depth that doesn’t stay rested on just being a one-note intention. Through the first act of the film, we are introduced to this family who while living through segregation in upper New York, are often polarized in demanding more for their circumstance. This area of the film is particularly compelling because it presents an angle that is already easy in understanding the disposition that this family takes in from a society that isn’t changing fast enough. Kind of like being a victim long before the worst has begun. From here, the middle act of the movie lays out the pivotal night in question and what led up to it. This is where the film feels the most informative because there’s lots to understand about this scenario that does and does not play out well for the Vance family. Thankfully enough, he is such a credible filmmaker and supreme storyteller that he never lets something that doesn’t cater to his narrative get in the way. Everything is presented with underlying honesty, and that’s something that I greatly appreciated from this film. What is most surprising perhaps, is how deep this film proceeds through the closing minutes, soaking in the pain and misery of a group of people left behind from a night that changes them all. One scene shows Yance crying into a towel, and the sound the emotes from this scene is shattering to the point that it instantly stirred goosebumps up my arms. I’m honest when I say there are motion picture films that don’t taste as riveting in the thick layer of melodrama that ‘Strong Island’ leans on, proving again that what is real impacts further, an ideal that this film goes to the well on frequently without it ever drying up.

Vance keeps the production simple enough for this presentation, choosing to focus more on strength in story than rich graphics and effects that can sometimes cloud the focus of an informative documentary. The decision to have pictures and letters appear and disappear at the effect of hand movements feeds more into the mentality of the storytelling experience, making us feel within the confines of those who are taking us through the journey. The music by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Craig Sutherland isn’t relied upon too heavily, just really for those scenes when it peaks the shock factor in the true disgust of this case as told, but I would’ve been fine without it for the surrealism that it occasionally breaks within this realm. Without question though, the single best decision that Ford chooses is to shoot these interviews so closely, leaving little room to look away or feel distracted. He does this as a means to an end so that we spot first hand the kind of reactions that our narrators play to, and if it is true that the eyes are the windows into the soul, then the pain and anguish of decades rises to the surface by this truly valuable decision to aim close.

The interviews too, added plenty of emotional firepower in transcribing how the loss of one has rocked a few. The set up of such are always in that one-on-one perspective with the director himself, relating more to an interview feel of authenticity rather than simply having each speaker talk to the camera. While the entirety of these guests are enjoyable enough and add plenty of differing perspectives to the events that they cover, the film definitely sizzles the strongest when Yance himself takes the reigns and commands an emotional rollercoaster of a person who changed more than anyone over the course of this loss. Through that angle, we meet and come to know a born woman who embraced life as a man, a sense of direction for the film that very few were expecting, but one that feels rewarding in reaching through to yet another demographic of African American audience who take this in. Through these eyes, it’s clear that Yance not only lost a brother, but also his lone confidant in his blossoming sexuality. This builds the siblings as something much more, and certainly outlines the light-hearded framing of William Jr that it builds up for itself. Yance’s focus remains unfazed in finding clarity within himself, something that comes at a bit higher of a price for the film itself.

THE VERDICT – ‘Strong Island’ is a gut-wrenching, somber, and hearty depiction about racial divide and segregation that never stops beating its message of injustice. Through its impeccable focus and free-range approach, Vance handcrafts us through a butterfly effect of consequences that stem from one terror-filled night of misunderstanding, questioning what could have been without the fear of racial tensions. Most importantly, it’s an intimate deposition into the kind of paralyzing aftermaths that comes with grief, and will leave you unsettled for pulling back the curtain of truth from those who have been plagued to tell it.

9/10

Stronger

One man’s quest to stand up, forces him to be ‘Stronger’ against the odds of defeat. The film is the inspiring true story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become the symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff, a 27-year-old, working-class Boston man who was at the marathon to try and win back his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Waiting for her at the finish line when the blast occurs, he loses both his legs in the attack. After regaining consciousness in the hospital, Jeff is able to help law enforcement identify one of the bombers, but his own battle has just begun. He tackles months of physical and emotional rehabilitation with the unwavering support of Erin and his family. It is Jeff’s deeply personal account of the heroic journey that tests a family’s bond, defines a community’s pride and inspires his inner courage to overcome devastating adversity. Filled with raw emotion, humanity and humor, Stronger is the inspirational real-life story of the man who became the living embodiment of “Boston Strong.” ‘Stronger is directed by David Gordon Green, and is rated R for adult language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity.

The tragic day of the Boston Bombings of 2013 surely changed the lives of Bostonians everywhere that fateful Tuesday morning, but none more shape-shifting than that of Jeffrey Boudain, and in this harrowing true story we are able to piece together the pieces of the many tribulations of PTSD, as well as being forced into overnight celebrity for something that you haven’t even fully come to terms with yet. What I love about this film is truly how gripping and honest its portrayals feel not only in the characters and performances, but also in learning to adapt to a completely different lifestyle. This is so much more than just a new lease on life for Jeff, and the film depicts this vicious struggle with choosing to focus on those matters that elevate this movie from being just another inspirational tale complete with cinematic tropes that we’ve come to expect. This film is a tale of triumph and tragedy, but it adds context and structure to those few scenes of familiarity and pushes them much further than just something that we have seen in outline more than a few times. ‘Stronger’ earns its tears, and does so with capturing the very essence of Boston Strong.

This screenplay is a bit unorthodox in its structure because it has limited dependency on plot, and instead chooses to focus more on Jeff’s daily routine without sugar-coating it. What I found so enlightening about this direction is that where most movies will ignore or simply never mention how something so life-altering can change you, Green feels like it is in those painful details where the real story resides. Most of the captivating imagery is shot from a tight shot in angles, and this is to visually tell the story of struggle and strive in more ways than audible narration. Through capturing these characters at their best and worst, we feel like it is not only easier to understand their sometimes irrational thinking, but also like we are included into this family of crazies, inserted possibly the tightest with Jeff’s struggles that only we see. The film also focuses so heavily on the physicality that comes with learning the routine, and sometimes it is legitimately painful and redundant in its frequency. If there was one problem that I had overall, it is in the first act pacing where the film feels slightly in a bit of a rush to get to the tragic day, and while I can understand that is where the meat of this story resides, those limited occasions of getting to know Jeff and feeling the very tragedy of a kindred spirit is a bit lost in unnecessary rushing. Thankfully, the rest of the film moves along smoothly, and overall felt like half the time of the nearly two hours that we spend in Boston.

Despite the sobering realities of the dark events, what I commend screenwriter John Pollono for is keeping with a surprising level of humor to correspond with the shock that Jeff’s life entails. It may be perhaps the most difficult thing to bring a laugh to an auditorium of people who are watching something so spellbinding and tragic to comprehend, but I’ll be damned if ‘Stronger’ didn’t supplant me with some legitimately hearty supplies of sarcastic wit and adult personalities to coincide. Where most of it comes from is Jeff’s overly-Boston family who choose to drink and smoke their problems away. Definitely not the best role models for Jeff’s recovery, and Pollono isn’t afraid to explore that avenue in true story fashion. Especially for Jeff’s mother Patty (Played by Miranda Richardson), is a surface matter that her true intentions in all of this might be for the stardom that comes with her son being labeled a hero, and even though her love is definitely there for her only child, you do start to see the gears turning in her head, bringing to light the awkwardness of family that you can’t help but indulge in.

The technical aesthetics also render a beautiful portrait for the city of Boston, in all of its rich and prideful traditions. The cinematography is gorgeous, issuing us with some breathtaking views of local landscapes like Fenway Park and Long Wharf North that really go a long way in visually rendering us with the impact of an entire city. One such personal touch that moved me miles was the insertion of actual CNN footage into the real time carnage, and play especially well with the coinciding visuals from Green that are horrendous in brutality yet artistically symbolic for the past that can no longer be washed off on the streets or the mind of our protagonist. These impacts give the film a lot of leverage in showcasing Green one more time to the vapid flocks of audiences that he has already proven himself in with serious films like ‘Joe’ or slapstick films like ‘Pineapple Express’.

I want to talk about performances because this film not only has one committed turn, but two in eye-opening male and female leads. Jake Gyllenhaal has been one of the very best and most committed actors walking the planet today for a long time, but Jeff feels like his biggest hurdle in terms of physical performance to compliment his already stellar delivery. Jake inserts so much personality and charisma into this portrayal, making us grateful to hear that this powerful loss for him hasn’t taken away the heart that his family and the audience will come to enjoy throughout the film. Jake throws himself into each devastatingly crunching blow when it comes to falling from heights that feel like so much more for someone strapped to a chair. What really resonated with my even an hour after I left the theater is that of Maslany as the love interest to Jeff in this story. Initially, her character is kind of shy and soft-spoken, but when we start understanding what she lost in the bombing, we start to see the coals burning fire engine red behind these eyes of watered compassion. I found her performance as Erin to be the Adrian to Jeff’s Rocky, relaying the idea that behind every great man is a woman motivating him to get back up and push forward. When these two are on camera, I couldn’t get enough, and one such argument scene late in the second act between them in a car, had this critic wiping his eyes for the first time this year, casting little doubt that Tatiana is a dramatic heavyweight who is here to stay.

THE VERDICT – ‘Stronger’, like its impacted male lead, chooses to constantly get back up and never stay down by the overexposure of biopic tropes that have hindered recent efforts. Instead, David Gordon Green crafts an entertainingly riveting dramedy that supplies the very pulse for a city still reeling, but getting back on its feet one day at a time. The title might be slightly misleading, but I dig a movie that captures the ENTIRE process of difficulties associated with something that we take for granted everyday. Gyllenhaal and Maslany pluck away at our heart strings, and for this one instance, I too will choose to endure the pain of their seamless precision.

9/10

Wind River

The man responsible for last year’s ‘Hell or High Water’ returns to the silver screen to pen and direct the much anticipated follow up ‘Wind River’. In it, US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers a body in the rugged wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The FBI, anxious to solve the case quickly, sends in rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), but she is unprepared for the difficulties created by the oppressive weather and isolation of the Wyoming winter. When she employs Cory as a tracker, the two venture deep into a world ravaged by violence and the elements that will turn their cold, quiet town into an exposing bloodbath that will keep the locals on their toes. ‘Wind River’ is rated R for strong violence, a scene depicting rape, disturbing imagery, and adult language.

Westerns are very much alive deep in the heart of writer/director Taylor Sheridan, and it’s within those elements where ‘Wind River’ gains much of its environmental element in affecting this story. Taking place deep in the mountains of the Wyoming wilderness, this film hinges on the concept of predator and prey, and those kind of necessary evils that we need to keep other evils from getting in. This is very much a detective mystery drama underneath it all, but done so with the kind of twists that Christopher Nolan engaged in 1999’s ‘Insomnia’, in that it explores those often forgotten areas in the American landscape that abides by its own rules. Here, the cold, mountains, and even dangerous creatures living amongst these people play pivotal roles in the way everything is pursued and accomplished. Jeremy Renner’s character echoes towards the end of the film that “this isn’t a place where people live, it’s a place where they survive”, and that concept will tell you everything that you need to know about this chilling setting that often crossed into my comfortable theater surroundings and made me feel the very effects that these actors were feeling.

From the effectively gorgeous cinematography by Ben Richardson, in all of its long shots of the establishing isolated landscapes, to the small contributing factors like Olsen’s character sniffling every few lines of dialogue from her influence of a Southern hometown, it all blends in accordingly, and we feel like these factors present an additional obstacle in solving this already difficult task of matching a face to a heinous crime. There’s also much to be said about the re-occuring snow storms that come and go like the wind, swallowing away the evidence from the brutality that envelopes these once sacred lands. With the storm, comes this lone case of murder fresh out of nowhere, so in a sense the establishing narrative is reflecting that of the bone-chilling elements that are keeping people in doors, comforting for their own safeties alike from the double entendre that keeps them on their toes. This refreshing side of setting proved that there’s still many sides to the world that can still be effective in setting the mood precisely for the kind of themes that a script is trying to capture, and sometimes that very environment can feel like the central antagonist in the race against the clock.

As for narration, what I greatly enjoyed about this film is that we are coming into these families and situations with little to no knowledge about their pasts, but Sheridan’s patience and faith in his audience to fill in the blanks for themselves pays off dearly in subtly pulling the blanket of reveal back even further. Some stories will beat an audience over the head with exposition, but Sheridan’s point of artistic integrity hints that we may already know the answers to what is happening, it is just up to us (like the authorities in the film) to put these pieces together in seeing what shapes the character who we see before us. From a tonal perspective, the film feels like it picks up remarkably where HBO’s ‘True Detective’ left off, presenting a possible season three that feeds into the very adult world of people and places behind closed doors. The mystery of the film does offer some truly compelling twists and turns, but never does so in a way that abandons its plotting or pacing in making the answers feel like anything out of this world. That human element is what truly reigns supreme here, catering to the emotional pull of grievance and what it takes from every one of when we lose someone who cannot be replaced. I was very much on the edge of my seat throughout the entirety of this film, and the ending left me beyond satisfied when the predator finally does catch up to the prey and the hounds of justice sink in for a satisfyingly therapeutic conclusion that couldn’t have gone any better.

What slight problems that I did have with the screenplay were nitpicks at best, but cater more to the usual cliches that you sometimes see in these Westerns. For one, there is a big shootout during the third act of the film, and despite the overload of bullets firing off into the air from these pistols, not one person in the film re-loads their chambers even once. This has always been something that I look for first in these ammunition riddled films, and unfortunately this movie is no different for falling by the wayside of believability. Also during this shootout, we get it played back to us in real time everything that happened with this woman’s murder. The problem is that from a narrative standpoint it is only explaining to us as an audience what happened. The authorities in the movie still haven’t pieced it all together. Yet after the gunfire goes off, the mystery antagonist is being questioned, and Renner’s character comments a line of dialogue that clues in that he knows everything that happened, despite them never figuring it out or being a part of the reveal rundown that caters exclusively to just the audience.

What does cover those light nitpicks is the performances from a trilogy of actors who really shared the respective load in communicating these human first kind of people. Jeremy Renner’s character is my lone favorite character of 2017. As Cory, we meet a man who is emotionally weathered by all that he has lost in his past, but the future ahead of possibly earning a way to right his wrongs is what keeps him moving through the cold. Cory doesn’t feel so much like a vigilante as he does a protector to the community that he loves, so there’s very much a lot of empathy to his resilience that makes him the force that everyone calls. Elizabeth Olsen’s character embraces a transformation from start to finish that proves to you that appearances aren’t everything. During her first few scenes, this tight-knit town kind of writes her off as just another FBI snob, but as the film progresses you start to embrace the very heart of this character who most certainly can take a hit and keep on coming. The chemistry between Olsen and Renner is certainly evident from ‘The Avengers’ movies, but it’s so much more than that here. Because of movie expectations, we are led to believe that these two will eventually hook up, but I’m glad that the film chose to ignore this instinct, instead painting them as two characters from different sides of the geological track who can help one another in complicated world of detective work. Besides these two, I also greatly enjoyed my reminder of the great actor that is Graham Greene. If you’ve seen films like ‘The Green Mile’ or ‘Maverick’, he will be familiar to you, but every so often this guy pops up to act out a character who knocks on the door of stealing the movie. This fact caters to Sheridan’s style of putting an elderly veteran in each movie to have him keep the youth on their toes. Here, Graham is a grizzly sheriff who doesn’t take kindly to outsiders stepping on his territory. At first you kind think he’s just a rude know-it-all, but he quickly morphs into the pulse of the movie that narrates the almost foreign environments that we’re embracing here. This trio couldn’t be better plucked, and they vibrate enjoyably rich off of one another.

THE VERDICT – ‘Wind River’ does tackle some rising water in the gruesome and sometimes suffocating tension that Sheridan provides in this character-driven whodunnit?. Renner and Olsen follow suit, assembling two enjoyable leads whose fire burning deep for the sacrifices of justice keep us warm from the deathly cold that envelopes us completely with this isolated setting. This one will stick with you, even if only for the revealing intentional cause during the film’s closing moments that remind us of those forgotten far too often. Whether you’re in the mood for an effective crime thriller or a western with a dramatic pulse, let the wind sweep you away with this one.

9/10

Detroit

One of America’s darkest and most troubling nights is recalled in this part-fact, part-theory depiction of the racist fueled events that terrorized one of the biggest cities in the country. In ‘Detroit’, critically acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow returns to her spot behind the camera, helming a drama recalling the true story of one of the most terrifying moments during the civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the summer of 1967. Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel. 50 years after the events of July 25th, 1967, the question remains: what happened at the motel? and who is to blame? ‘Detroit’ stars John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, and Will Poulter, and is rated R for strong violence and pervasive adult language.

Kathryn Bigelow has always been a master of circumstance within a particular environment for her films, crafting her war films like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, where the talented director has set a precedent for the way settings and atmospheres are to be established for the importance of their stories. For all of its merits on this subject, ‘Detroit’ might be the movie that elevates her already impressive resume to the kind of levels in diversity that prove she can tell a heart-racing story on any continent, during any time in history. ‘Detroit’ is the kind of film where you leave angry, but certainly not because you didn’t enjoy the film. Your displeasure is contributed mostly to the idea that even fifty years later, the war for equality for minorities is still being fought, reminding you just how little has actually progressed when you think about how these same kind of stories are in the news even today. Bigelow transports us back to a time-and-place within this city when racial tensions were already boiling over, but the pride of the patrons within this city wouldn’t let their injustices go unnoticed. It’s a big bang theory that evolves into suffocating tensions by way of the smallest acts being enough to reach a breaking point, and what is unknown about the facts, might be the scariest aspect to the event.

From a narrative perspective, the film’s 138 minute runtime are divided into three different ways; before, during, and after the tragic events at the Algiers Motel. This is a refreshing take because most historical biopics will usually only cover two out of the three, leaving some unanswered questions or motives for the audience to speculate on. Bigelow feels much more responsible in this method because she finds all three angles to be equally as important when contributing to the heart of this story. Yes, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it is a notable investment on the audience, but it is this length of time that is needed to articulately depict a bad situation gone worse over the course of three nights. With that said, there are some small scenes that could’ve used an edit, but I was never taken out of the story completely, just curious to move on to the next confrontation for position between these two sides. As for those sides, the film is also responsible enough to not lash out or overly support either side to the point where the film becomes propaganda. The police force of Detroit are represented in a way that shows (like any other job) there are good and bad eggs that contribute to the cause, and that judging them as a whole (like minorities) is simply not the right kind of message.

What surprised me about the performances is that nobody stands out on a pedestal more than anyone else. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t have a worthy cast, quite the opposite. It means that this feels like an ensemble piece instead, with the city of Detroit being the lone character in the film that is the one constant. Each human character like John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Anthony Mackie to name a few, come in and out of the story in the same manner that stage actors do, and that concept does result to sort of coming across as a stage play that is taking place at this troubled motel. Poulter is probably my favorite performance of the film if I am singling out anyone, and that makes me sick to my stomach to even compliment him for the malicious job he does here. As we know, every good story needs a worthy villain to increase your interest in the film, and Will is definitely the brains and the execution of these dirty police officers who often act with their emotions before they think with their minds. Boyega too is solid enough, but I was slightly disappointed with how little of a presence that he has during the second act. I thought this would be the film for him to carry, but his character just kind of blends into the fold of this bigger ensemble that each carries their own respective load.

Another aspect that shouldn’t be ignored is the beautifully layered cinematography by Barry Ackroyd that single handedly makes the immersive experience that much easier in taking in 1967 Detroit. The film’s overall look has a glossy documentarian kind of style to it, making us feel like we are watching historical footage that we shouldn’t be watching. The inclusion of stock footage shots in between each establishing or transitional scene makes the accuracy that much more appealing, and one that proves this production has definitely done its homework. As for Bigelow, she also commands such a presence behind the camera that includes us personally on each and every character perspective that the film takes us through. The shots are so close and invasive that there were those brief moments of tension within me that made me feel uncomfortable to even be in the same room as these disgusting acts that are happening. That aspect alone is a very difficult one to channel, especially to adult moviegoers, but it’s Bigelow’s ambition for setting and set pieces that spring forth the believability in every movie she helms.

THE VERDICT – ‘Detroit’ is without question the most important film that you will see in 2017. It’s a somberly poignant reminder of the kind of grizzly details from our past that will continue to haunt us until we as a society change for the better. This makes three films in a row that Bigelow has taken a true story and ran with it through artistically decadent and provocatively rich waters that grip onto the pulse of the American subconscious. By putting us right in the heart of the action, Kathryn forces us to take everything in without looking away, an eye-opening concept necessary for the forgetful. This was nearly two-and-a-half hours that shook in ways that horror films don’t do anymore.

9/10

Dunkirk

When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them off of the shores of ‘Dunkirk’. The film that is written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, depicts the dramatic and true story of the Dunkirk evacuations from a war torn beach and harbor in France May 26- June 04, 1940, following the seemingly doomed plight of allied soldiers in World War II. As the immense enemy German soldier forces close in following the evacuation of Operation Dynamo, it seems the troops have nowhere to go, but help is at hand and a fierce battle ensues, forging the ultimate battle of sacrifice among them. ‘Dunkirk’ is rated PG-13 for intense war experience involving brutal violence, and some adult language.

Is there any doubt left that Christopher Nolan is one of the elite masterful filmmakers of our generation? Throughout his storied career, the man has made some of the most articulately crafted gems of the past two decades, but ‘Dunkirk’ might very well grow with time to be his magnum opus. From a scope perspective, this is the kind of film that was made for the IMAX screen with enhanced sound system to craft an out-of-this-world experience that is second to none. I myself have never served in war, but I can imagine that Nolan hits the mark with the kind of triumphant precision that pays homage to those men during this particular war who paid the ultimate sacrifice in standing up for what they believed in. So none of this of course comes as any surprise that ‘Dunkirk’ riveted me in ways that very few war films before it have with such unapologetic circumstance. It’s a technical marvel that is easily immersive through tight camera work that follows our soldiers through the most compact of situations, a trait that sometimes brought out the worst in this critic’s claustrophobia. That’s not to demean his breathtaking sequences, but to say that Christopher knows what it takes in capturing the essence of this week of war that will leave every man involved in it changed forever.

Time has always played such a pivotal role in past Nolan films, and once again the director bends the very notion of minutes and seconds to play to the unpredictability factor of this story. The film is presented through three different time periods, each involving different characters involved in their particular angle from this immense devastation that is crumbling everything around them. This is a huge risk for Nolan because it has the chance in backfiring against clouding the usually narrow timeline of events that take place in war genre flicks, but he pulls it off brilliantly because it is involving the viewer watching at home to always think six moves ahead to see how each respective plot will eventually overlap the others. It’s an original take for chronological sequencing similar to that of his earlier film ‘Memento’, and it’s measures like this that prove that Nolan is playing on a psychological ball field that many haven’t even sniffed the grass to. My only lone problem with this aspect and the entire film as a whole was the ‘one week away’ perspective that lacked any kind of nighttime scenes to relate the passing of time that eventually meets up with another perspective. It just didn’t feel like a week had passed for me, and I felt that additional scenes could’ve helped not only in believability, but also in beefing up the runtime which is surprisingly thin at 102 minutes.

The presentation here is almost as scene stealing as the violent outbursts that are happening within its walls. It is incredible what Nolan is able to pull off with IMAX cameras, in that way that he twists and bends each angle to offer us a perspective of what that character is experiencing without settling for the POV angles that have grown stale in 2017. The sound is crisp and should earn no less than an Oscar for its achievements in mixing and editing that carefully commentate everything even when it becomes too much to keep your eyes open at the horrors. An impressive aspect to this is that Nolan doesn’t need blood or gore to get across the barbaric sacrifices of war, he instead plays to the volume of water, as well as the burdens of captivity that slowly reaches for the vulnerability in each and every character involved. My favorite aspect of the technical however, was that of a gorgeous cinematography coloring by Hoyte Van Hoytema. Hoyt captivated in collaboration with Nolan in 2014’s ‘Interstellar’, and his usual pale greys and aqua blue shadings are exerted again in ‘Dunkirk’, but this time with more symbolic meaning. Most Nolan films have similar palates in cinematography, but here is feels warranted because of the inevitable cloud of dread that has overcome not only the abandoned landscape, but also the soldiers who feel that their time is numbered. The altering on this grand of a stage by Hoyt visually feels what we can feel so heavily in the water, on the land, and even in the air; the scent of death that follows this army everywhere.

Musical composer Hans Zimmer again crafts a must-own collection of ominous tones and building tension numbers that faithfully narrates hand-in-hand with the terrifying visuals. Being my favorite composer going today, I could speak for hours about Zimmer’s masterful touch on the films he musically enhances, but for now we’ll stick to ‘Dunkirk’. It feels like Zimmer is the most valuable player in this ensemble production because his tones barely ever leave the screen, more so because the film surprisingly doesn’t have a lot of long-winded dialogue to it. The music is constantly blaring and increasing with each passing second, and boy does it payoff in leaving the audience on the edge of their seats. Some of his tones here are as simple as repeating the same few notes, but adding a slight orchestral accompany with each passing verse to really trigger the impact that it has with what is being depicted. At an age when most composers start falling into obscurity, Zimmer continues to be the most familiar name associated with musical score because he wraps himself up in these unfolding stories, setting the stage for inevitable confrontation and a spring of goosebumps that repeatedly spring to life on the arms of those leveled by their enhancing pitches.

There is a great lack of character building within the film, but I confess that this aspect didn’t bother me in the slightest because I took it with great reasoning. There is no one person bigger than war, so when someone dies, the next person comes along to continue it. Sure there are some notable exceptions in actors like Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead, and Kenneth Branagh being featured so repeatedly, but when you really think about it, you learn very little about each character’s backstories, and it’s in that fact where I give Nolan great respect as a screenwriter because he is essentially building a great film without so much as a single shadow of character between them. The performances are solid from this ensemble cast, but I’d have to say that my favorite of the three different stories involved that of Rylance commanding a small boat on his way to Dunkirk to help with his kids in any way he can. There’s great sense of pride in his character, and sometimes the biggest changes come from the smallest of places, and even though his group isn’t actually involved within the war until the third act, their stark contrasts to that of a soldier they pick up (Played by Cillian Murphy) reminds us why war, no matter how paralyzing, does serve a purpose.

THE VERDICT – Nolan once again blows away our minds and our ears with the most impactful war film of the last twenty five years, undertaking this important memory in history with terrifying immediacy. ‘Dunkirk’ is a technical masterpiece that rivets us in all of its atmospheric horror on land, sea, and air, mimicking the moniker that never quits or surrenders. The movie never feels weighed down by the immense responsibility, nor the narrative gimmick that it adopts, establishing itself at the forefront of the 2017 Summer blockbuster season with an homage that honors the forgotten on a scope that feels like the next most terrifying thing to being there.

9/10

War For the Planet of the Apes

The third and final chapter of this apocalyptic trilogy lays it all on the line between humans and apes, in the “War For the Planet of the Apes”. Two years after the events of the previous film, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who will stop at nothing to wipe out their kind in devastating fashion. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his breed. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the dying planet Earth. “War For the Planet of the Apes” is written and directed by Matt Reeves, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.

It’s rare, especially in this day and age, that a trilogy of films will not only be entirely excellent in their individual efforts, but also as a whole when you step back and look at the complete picture. The trilogy of apes movies changed all of that for me, and let me believe again that a series can be done with such precision if it is under the proper guidance, and Reeves very much directs his magnum opus while offering a film that is every bit as provocative as it is endearing. To take a film like 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” and give it an entire prequel universe surrounding how this takeover came to be, was quite the risk, especially with its passionate fanbase, but these films became the single greatest trilogy of the 21st century by the contrast and decay of this world through each chapter. This story did become bigger ironically as the world got smaller, and to me, this series allows us to take a step back and examine the actions in our own world that could very much lead to our demise, much in the same way that George Romero did during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s with his trilogy of zombie horror films. If a film can entertain you AND teach you, its material with flourish as so much more than a movie. ‘War’ takes this challenge and runs with it for over two hours.

This is very much a comparison piece between two entities; the humans and the apes, and the opposite roads that each tribe has taken in this lengthy fifteen year battle. One cool aspect when I step back and take it all in, is that I find it astonishing that the apes become more-and-more prevalent in their screen time with each movie, signaling not only their succession in taking over, but also the intended changing of the guard that is subtly taking place before our very eyes. In ‘Rise’, we view apes as kind of the antagonists of sorts because their story isn’t given as much time as the humans in that particular film. Then when you compare it to the exposition in ‘War’, it’s clear that they (like us) just want a place to call their home, and protect their families. In that regards, it makes them an easy shift into protagonists, especially when stood alongside that of the human counterparts that hunt them. In this world, humans have clearly become animalistic in their rage, and Reeves starts to focus on what clearly defines a human as a human, Almost as a reverse in the evolutionary chart that has defined these two sides for so long.

If there’s one theme that defines this film for me, it is in the quote that if we do not learn anything from history, we are doomed to repeat it. This theme, as well as history in general is echoed throughout the movie, and it’s clear that no matter how much our side has lost, we never lose the urge for dominance. This trait alone could solve the war with Caesar and the apes, but as in our own global domination, this colonel too seeks death and devastation anywhere he can find it. There’s nothing beautiful or glamorizing about war in this film, responsibly it is very much a painful retribution with each side suffering immense torture. In that respects, Reeves articulates a tone for the movie that echoes in the air that aura of defeat, yet a springing of hope somewhere off in the distance that signals this world, as well as the individual rights that these apes believe they are entitled to, are worth fighting for. The story constantly kept my eyes glued, even if there is a scene or two when they try to force a bit too much comedy to forcefully remind the audience that they are having a good time. It didn’t sour it completely for me, but these scenes do stick out like a sore thumb when squeezed into these gut-wrenching scenes.

And on that subject, the presentation and overall scope to Reeves world takes its biggest step forward here, signaling a student of the game who has clearly done his homework. ‘War’ for my money felt like it pays homage to the epic studio pictures of the middle 20th century, complete with a roaring musical score by Michael Giacchino, as well as nostalgic camera angles behind the camera that drive the story and its larger-than-life characters. On the former, the music plays to these vibrantly echoing drum beats similar to that of its 68 original. I would have to think back to “The Hateful Eight” when music played this much of an important role in the movie’s tone and capture of imagination with these blending of two worlds that feels anything but natural. The cinematography is breathtaking, and made even more so with these beautiful panning shots of the cold and immense world that these two sides fight for in the balance. I also loved the zoom-in style of close-ups that sprung up early on for a couple of key character introductions. This was done in the past to signify an important character to the movie, and the first meeting between Caesar and the Colonel gave me chills because even if I knew nothing about the latter, the focus on the intensity of the former kept me glued to see who was going to make a move first.

As for performances, I am happy to report that the master of stop motion, Andy Serkis, is back and has never been better. As Caesar, Serkis has clearly put his stamp on the character in personality, but here we find some of Andy’s best work as an actor first. Detailed, careful C.G.I makes his job easier in the visuals department, but the heart of Andy’s dedication goes to displaying some chilling visual acting with his facial movements and clearly defined expressions give his performance spirit even when we know most of the body around him is artificial. Props also goes to one of my favorite actors, Woody Harrelson, as the arrogant colonel with the goal to wipe out apes. In the colonel, we meet a menacing figure who speaks volumes to that of the dictators like Hitler or Stalin, and it’s made even more terrifying when you consider that this similar character rules on our own soil. His backstory is one you can understand and appreciate, but you see the true darkness in his character taking over, lessening the humanity inside of him that he claims to fight for.

THE VERDICT – Matt Reeves closes out a very successful trilogy of films with the series best to date. “War For the Planet of the Apes” is the latest in post-apocalyptic action dramas, but this one is done right with several thought-provoking themes about man being his own gravest enemy, as well as the very best in C.G.I effects going today that bring this fantasy world to life, illuminating the logic that makes these apes move with volume. Reeves and we as an audience finally get to bask in absorbing what his series has built for three movies, and the payoff couldn’t be better. On their own, these are three enticing chapters, but together these apes prequels tap into alluring social commentary while making us take one step back in evolution.

9/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Marvel’s cinematic web-slinger returns to the studio he belongs, in “Spider-Man: Homecoming”. A young Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) begins to navigate his newfound identity as the web-slinging super hero Spider-Man. Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), under the watchful eye of his new mentor, The “Iron Man” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr). Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine, distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but when the Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges as a new villain, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened, pitting Peter as the only option to stop the flying fanatic and save the city. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is directed by Jon Watts, and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some adult language and brief suggestive comments.

After five movies spanning twelve years, Sony has sold the rights back to the original owner, Marvel Studios, and it suddenly feels like Spidey is right back where he belongs, proving that the title is more than just a clever name. For a million different opinions, the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb directed predecessors have their fans and enemies alike, but it’s in Watts newest re-telling of this classic childhood favorite that I feel will nearly unanimously break through the ceiling for superhero movie fans alike. This film is everything that both Spider-Man and Peter Parker should be, basically a teenage genre romantic comedy that takes place with a superhero backdrop. On the grounds of establishing these two themes equally, there are five screenwriters that craft something that even during the age of overabundance from superhero flicks, still offers us something fresh and imaginative in ways that no other film has done before it. It’s a re-vamping origin story that doesn’t necessarily need to tell us about the things that we already know from two different story arcs that have already beaten the concepts of tragedy over the head a bit too much. A Spider-Man for generations young and old that finally gives the movie that they have been waiting decades to see.

The story’s establishing theme centers around the growth of Parker, and in that we get several different variations on the concepts of what it means to be a teenager in 2017. Sure there’s the awkwardness of dating, or the difficulties of trying to fit in at school, but what I commended the movie for were the original tweeks that only Marvel could supplant in a teenage depiction. Most notably, Peter (like most teens) is finding out how much his body is changing in that he is growing with this highly-technological suit made brand new for him by Tony Stark. Throughout the movie, we as an audience get to finally grasp and understand the gadgets and gizmos that make up this glossed-over property in past films. Because Parker is learning, it means he too must grow with the suit, and along with his body, the two properties transform into the person he was destined to be. I also love the subtle ideals of the abandoning father who is never around, in this case Stark to the younger Parker. There’s definitely a sheen, crisp feeling of parental guidance shining over them, and I frankly couldn’t get enough of how their relationship was blurring the lines radiantly of just what is missing from Peter’s daily routine. My favorite part definitely deals with teenage dating, and I won’t ruin anything for you, but a certain meet-the-parents scene was my personal favorite in this entire movie. It will give you goosebumps for how it takes an already awkward situation and adds a layer of suffocation unlike anything you have ever seen in a meet-the-parents kind of plot.

As far as where this fits in to the bigger picture, this film felt kind of small scale when compared to the worldwide wars fought by The Avengers, and that’s ok. The movie prides itself on Spidey living up to the moniker “Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”, and because of such, we get a lot of things played out on the ground, a new concept for this character. In fact, I felt that it was the things that I’ve always thought about that gave this movie longevity well into the second hour. Concepts like how the webbing works, how fast does it take Spider-Man to change, and even who cleans up after devastation like the events in The Avengers movies happens. This film captures all of that, and each of it plays an intricate part into its story. For an antagonist, I appreciate that the Vulture isn’t formed because of some freak accident gone wrong. He’s the everyday working class who lashes out after he’s lost the will to feed his family. I’ve always said the best villains are the ones who are the most understandable to grasp, and Toombs Vulture feels like one of Marvel’s very best. More on him later. The only negative that I had in story was that the film does feel slightly catering to fan service a bit too much. There are more than a few instances of this with characters who virtually go nowhere in this movie, and after a while it felt too pandering. I know that I will be in the minority in that opinion, but if we can call “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2” out for it, so too can “Spider-Man: Homecoming”.

The action is riveting, pulsing through one scene after another of beautifully decorated properties that play a vital role in each stunning sequence. Despite this film playing more to the smaller on-the-ground type of scale, the movie has some very epic set pieces in grand vision, and its fast movements really conjure up the idea of just how powerful Spidey can be when he has to be. These sequences bring out the best in his character because you understand that unlike most superheroes who can only do one or two things well, Parker’s Spidey is quick, intelligent, powerful, and reactive, traits that shape and mold a boy-turning-man who thrives as a protector. As for special effects, everything is mostly solid here and done to believable depths, minus a ferry scene that breaks a boat in half and puts it back together just as easily. I’m not looking for logic in a superhero movie, but the properties of cracks and how they form isn’t something that takes a holiday in imagination. Considering it is one sequence in a variety of ground-shaking offerings that would make Michael Bay cream in his pants, I can’t be mad at this lone discrepancy, as it was just a speed bump on the road to the entertaining core of this movie.

And on that front, I commend Homecoming for being bold among its many tonal shifts when it needs to be. There’s something impressive about a film that can make you laugh with consistently juggling the corny and embarrassing, yet still grab you attention in urgency when it needs to. This film pulled this trigger on more than one occasion, creating a kind of mold for two different movies in one with each of them merging together so smoothly. The comedy in this film gave me more than a few hearty laughs, and it’s clear that it never needs to take itself too seriously to get its biggest strength across; personality. If this inevitable franchise has one thing that sets itself apart from the rest, it’s that its spunk feels like it does wonders for the characters, as well as the scenarios that pits each and every one of them together. For Homecoming, it’s definitely the representation of being a teenager and how that by itself would be enough to drive someone crazy, then you add on the fact that you’re the neighborhood hero who is responsible for many. We realize the immensity of it, but I don’t think Peter quite does, and it’s in his ignorance that makes his emotional growth a delight to embrace because this really is all the weirdest and coolest thing that could ever happen to a kid, at the same time.

Props as well to a grade-A cast that nearly feels perfect. Tom Holland displays a great Spidey, but more importantly he accurately captures the complexity of the Parker character that I don’t think Maguire or Garfield garnered in their portrayals; earnestness. True, Parker is cocky when he needs to be, but when the suit is off, we get the impression that he is vulnerable for once, like a shield that de-activates. Michael Keaton definitely stole the show for me, showing off the single greatest Marvel movie villain since Loki. Keaton could read the phone book in this role and I would be on the edge of my seat. Toombs is very much a human antagonist and that is his single biggest positive. For Keaton, he approaches the role with cool calm, but engaging in menacing grips (like a vulture) when he is challenged. Marisa Tomei was also a breath of fresh air even if her scenes were limited. Lots of people balked at the idea of Aunt May being this young, but I always felt it made sense. She’s AUNT May, not Grandma May, so an Aunt naturally should be closer in age to a teenage boy. Tomei is loving and compassionate, but never loses the edge of being a cool parent, possibly commuting a woman who had to grow up too fast to help her family. My only problem with the casting was in Tony Revoli as Flash Thompson. I get that this is the progressive day-and-age with characters, and the need to switch things up should always be welcomed, but Revoli (Someone I enjoy greatly in other films) isn’t someone I would consider the cool kid in school, and his material doesn’t do him any favors in this area either. His character at times feels like it’s trying too hard to live up to some stereotype, and it feeds into more of the fan service idea that I proposed earlier. I frankly could do without him in this film, as his character adds zero weight to the film’s pulse.

THE VERDICT – The streets are safe again now that Parker has returned home to Marvel, where he rightfully belonged all along. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a breezy breath of fresh air that keeps on flowing with breathtaking action, as well as a two-for-one story that brings out the best in superhero and teenage dramas accordingly. It’s a seamless charmer that caters more to the smaller moments in crime-fighting, and that miniscule scale takes things back to the beginning where this all started, long before these movies tookover a worldwide stage. Watts world is brash, funny, and honest, three traits that have been missing from this franchise for a long time.

9/10

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

Lady Macbeth

Rural England 1865 is the place and time for this sizzling spin on the classic tale of “Lady Macbeth”. Catherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman locked in a loveless arranged marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), begins a passionate affair with one of the servants on the estate named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Alexander and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank) attempt to put an end to the lovers infidelity, but the couple are willing to go to great lengths in order to keep their relationship alive. The situation becomes increasingly complicated, and Catherine is forced to make a difficult decision to save her reputation and her privileged life. “Lady Macbeth” is directed by first time helming, William Oldroyd, and is rated R for sexual situations involving nudity, violent material involving gore, adult language, scenes of drug use, and frightening scenes of intensity.

Movies centering around the kind of coming into power storylines are often depicted in such a way that feels inspiring or at the very least beneficial to the audience at home in propelling a character who they can get behind regardless of their morals. Cue “Lady Macbeth”, an hour-and-a-half of greed and seduction for what could essentially be considered the dawn of the modern age woman, and her rise to power that comes at such a cost. For such a brief film that flies by like a jet engine, this movie filled me with a vast array of emotions that left me reeling for hours after I saw the film. The movie’s screenplay is loosely based on the book “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, and while the movie hangs tight with the general outline of its literary counterpart, there’s so much about it that screenwriter Alice Birch updates to infuse its often times dull page-turner into a millennial twist that leaves its audience on the edge of its seat through each and every transpiring event that polarizes our central protagonist.

The very style of this picture goes a long way not only in defining human response and atmosphere, but also in the very isolated depiction that this film focuses on for treatment of the female specimen during such a long and forgotten age. The shot selection is gorgeous, focusing on shot framing that singles out Catherine and makes us focus solely on the pain surrounding her dreary routine. She stands front and center at every scene that plays out before her, and often times is our voice of digestion for the life that tends to move on without her consent. It’s true that this movie is focused almost entirely on one character, and kind of leaves everyone else to steer their own course, but I think it’s important to frame Catherine while these unspeakable acts are happening around her, so as to inform and incite the curiosity of the viewer who takes it all in. The film has a refreshing way of not commending the concepts of infidelity, nor singling out Catherine for the decisions that she makes, and I find that impartial direction to be one of great taste for Oldroyd, who feels like he has accomplished so much in only his first time behind the lens. I was flabbergasted to discover that a man directed this movie, as there’s such an overwhelming feeling of female revolutionary that encapsulates the picture, a sign that we’re headed in the right direction for both sides of the polished human gender coin.

As I mentioned earlier, the film flies by, and constantly keeps us moving through ambitious mountain that Catherine must climb to seize the life that she wants. If I have one weakness for the movie, it’s in the first act when everything feels like it zooms through far too quickly, neglecting to soak in the undesired marriage of Catherine and Alexander to its truly barbaric potential. The affair happens quite early on in the movie, and keeps happening, reaching four times of sexual intimacy at only a half hour into the movie to relate how rushed this opening feels, limiting anything to reach its true developmental purpose. Thankfully, it does slow down in the next act, when we truly start to see this woman blossoming into the wolf of sorts who she was destined to become. The final thirty minutes throw a couple of wrenches into the mix, and reminded me that no matter where I thought this film was headed, my guessing was often premature for the pulse-setting finale that left me tingling in speechless release. Because of such, “Lady Macbeth” surely isn’t going to show up on anyone’s feel good films of the year list, but it is one that speaks volumes to the lesson of people not being allowed to love who they love, a stance that even more than two hundred years later still troubles our own society.

Much of that has to do with the performance of Florence Pugh, who is an early favorite for this critic in the Best Actress category. This woman is a force to be reckoned with, and anyone in the way of Catherine will be run over by this steaming bull who fears no man or force of God. Pugh’s portrayal at times feels like we took a woman in 2017 and placed her in the 1800’s to answer the age old question of what these two opposing eras would feel like, to our chagrin it’s everything that you could want in a leading lady who balks at the rules. It takes no time for Catherine to understand the undesirable situation that she has been forced into, so immediately she takes matters into her own hands and spits back what life has presented her with. Florence stays quite stone-faced throughout the movie, but this character direction speaks volumes to her lack of empathy and her cold disdain, which she unleashes with no remorse. I would go further with the cast, but there’s no point. It’s not that the supporting cast are particularly terrible, it’s just that Florence Pugh acts in and constructs the stage for her to shine on. A one woman tour de force who slips under your skin to conjure up more than just one translation.

THE VERDICT – Through bold and dark twists that hold the hands of the audience and press it right up to feel the power, “Lady Macbeth” is an unnerving and often times insinuating intensive from William Oldroyd, who depicts the consequences of privilege and power with such heart-shattering volume to leave all who embrace it devastated within its wake. Pugh herself commands Catherine with the kind of impeccable precision for that silent fire burning within, and it’s when she reaches her boiling point that we know a star has been born. This movie could use about fifteen more minutes to digest some of the rapid fire first act movements, but its unclenching second half of the picture has enough shock-and-awe to make us (like Catherine) forget about meaningless measures in the past.

9/10

Lion

One train ride for a male youth turns into a life-altering event, in Garth Davis’s newest Oscar bait, Lion. Adapted from the non-fiction book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of kilometers across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, Saroo’s (Dev Patel) unwavering determination, and assist from a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home. Lion is rated PG-13 for thematic materials and some sensuality.

For my first feature film experience in Garth Davis’s career, I have to say that he not only grasps the material, but swings the artistic pendulum effortlessly throughout the emotional roller-coaster that is Lion. This is very much a director who I believe will have a promising career because he delves into the psyche and the disposition of the central character here, shooting things faithfully from their respective point of views. This is a movie that is broken up into two age groups in the life of this lost youth, one being a five year old child, and the other being a grown man in his late 20’s. What I found so appealing and so rewarding to Davis’s style is that as a child, we see things from Saroo’s height level, complete with low-to-the-ground aiming and pointing, and what this does is offer situations that are that much easier to grasp for the audience. Something this tragic and even scary needs to be seen through the eyes of a child, and the direction that Garth yields transforms us back to that age when the world was immense and uncertain. This really is as rough of a coming-of-age story as it gets because Saroo is stepping outside of his backyard alone for the first time in his life, and that fear never leaves the overall attitude of this film. The second age bracket for the movie shoots everything like movies we’re used to. This is where everything feels as steady and assuring in Saroo’s confident demeanor, and it’s refreshing to see what kind of adult he has grown into.

Kudos also goes to Luke Davies and the actual Saroo Brierley himself for writing an efficient and harrowing story through the themes of finding your own place in the world. Because this is a real life story, and because Brierley offers his side of things, we are not only able to embark on a great adventure, but also able to step into the mind of the protagonist for those authentic telling’s that only he can do. Lion had me wrapped around the many fingers of its dramatic pulse throughout this movie, and never during the two hour sit did I ever feel poor pacing or dragging. The movie always keeps moving, and that’s a credit to the traumatic experience that this quiet little boy goes through. I do wish his romantic subplot with Rooney Mara was left off of the table in favor of more exposition on some of the brief time periods of his progression in his new home that felt really skimmed over. It’s not a major problem, and the movie’s changing themes do more than enough to bridge the gap in this barely obvious negative. As a kid, Saroo’s emotional release feels very reserved and hushed, but as an adult we get to see how one event can trigger a psychological backlash to everything that this man has been holding in about his past. I loved the feeling of Saroo’s dive into the internet being used as a kind of detective style of memory, complete with a new piece of the puzzle being revealed the further his foggy past becomes clearer. The finale even offered some unexpected surprises in past events that I wasn’t expecting, reminding people first and foremost that time isn’t always forgiving. To me, the best kind of dramas are the ones that might not always go your way in ideal climaxes, but yet you still demand future watches, and that is the case with this movie, as I can’t wait to see it again.

The sound editing and mixing is also precise, especially during some of the earlier scenes that embrace the volcanic panic going through everything being ripped from Saroo’s life. Composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran push the tension one step at a time, slowly lifting the sound to stronger levels that elevate just as our conflict becomes obvious to the realization of Saroo. The duo compose one riveting composition here that is there every step of the way through Saroo’s tortured past, and the musical numbers while he is out on the streets alone felt haunting and dismal to the kind of outlook that we’re feeling for this adorable little boy, while the adult themes felt warm and welcoming as you’re intrigued and embracing the complexity of a man who remembers literally very little about his home.

I’m hoping that this movie garners a lot of Oscar attention, and a lot of that comes from a cast too good to be ignored. Nicole Kidman makes the most out of minimal screen time with long-winded dialogue deliveries that chilled me to the bone in the dispositions of her character. As an adoptive Mother, movies tend to always skip over their side of the story, but I’m glad that Kidman’s Sue flourishes under confined circumstances. Because of Kidman, Sue is very much a woman who is generous and appealing, while holding on to a life that never truly feels ideal to her original plans. Nicole’s trajectory for tears never disappoints, and her somber delivery reminds us that the race for Best Supporting Actress just got A lot more interesting. Dev Patel is also brilliant as the adult version of Saroo. Patel has always been in these grand scale movies, but for the first time in the young actor’s career I genuinely feel like this is a performance that he gave his all for. Patel offers a candid look into the psyche of a child-turned-adult who has been through so much, yet progresses to try to save some semblance of a life for himself in Australia. Through painful flashbacks, Patel’s watery doors to the soul open vibrantly to offer pain and happiness in one instant, an attribute very difficult to accomplish. Without question though, stealing the show is Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar in his theatrical debut. Sunny’s precision with emotional delivery is well beyond his years, and the boy wonder offers as much in guarded fear as he does in admirable innocence. Last year Jacob Tremblay was my child pick for the Oscars, and this year Pawar should lead the youth class in Academy voting.

Lion is an uplifting tale of resiliency and determination that never falters under the pressure of obvious genre cliches. Garth Davis’s close up on the importance of home and family never feels forced or corny, settling instead for worthwhile performances from every age of the acting spectrum. Not many movies make this critic tear-up, but Lion stuck its somber paws into my heart, roaring with undeterred sincerity.

9/10