Phantom Thread

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring – Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

THE PLOT – Set in the glamour of 1950s post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants, and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love.

Rated R for adult language

THE POSITIVES

– Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood with another truly mesmerizing musical score for his friend, Anderson. Greenwood always feels like he has his hands on the pulse of the films he accompanies, but it sounds like his piano-dominant numbers breathe life and narration into the picture, following along our group of characters through their rocky tribulations that heighten our experience. He’s simply needed more here than ever before.

– The trio of performances by Lewis, Krieps, and Manville that all bring their best game to the forefront. If this is Lewis’s rumored final film, then he goes out on top, breathing life into the workaholic Woodcock that depicts a man burdened by his passion. Together with Krieps, the film’s couple feels like the most honest depiction of love on the screen that we have seen in a long time, channeling a kind of childish bickering between them that gives the audience plenty of innocent giggles. Krieps herself has such rendering facial expressions that she could play her part without ever vocalizing a single word.

– Anderson is impeccable as a triple threat, commanding the camera, screenplay, and helming the luxurious cinematography for the first time. On the latter, Paul uses soft, dreamy backdrops to accentuate the vibrancy that the fashions that adorn. This makes the work of Woodcock pop that much more to the naked eye, and blossoms what I feel is Anderson’s best feature of the irreplaceable work that he takes on.

– Costume designer Mark Bridges and his elegant styles that immerse the film with such first class tastes. Bridges uses layers to sell his gifts to the audience, and if there’s any film that appreciates his artistic vision, it’s one that values and depicts what goes into the perfect dress.

– The screenplay hints that every beautiful gift that is bestowed upon someone can in turn be a curse that renders them lost in their work. This gives our protagonist a kind of man-becomes-monster kind of feel, in that it’s great to see him work, but we know it’s a cancer of sorts to his own well-being.

– I greatly appreciated that this film never took the low hanging fruit that was quietly hinted at especially during the second act. There are enough twists and turns that keep this sometimes redundant screenplay infused with the spark needed to get through the dry spots, and it gave the film enough momentum to carry over into hour two.

– There’s a kind of awkwardness in the idiosyncrasies that surround Woodcock’s lifestyle and routines that value this as anything BUT a casual 20th century love tale. Once we delve deeper, we come to understand the reasons behind this abstract man that stands before us.

– One of the messages that I took away from the film was when you’re in love with someone, you must tailor yourselves to each other. There’s further argument that opposites may attract, but those opposites must learn how to merge together to create something beautiful for all to adore. Sounds like one of Woodcock’s creations, eh?

– Because of so many seamless tonal shifts, there’s more uncertainty as to where this film is headed. There are times of laughter, sadness, and even horror that spring to life, and all of it feels like the necessary ingredients needed for the mental game of chess in the finale that will leave you frozen in your seat.

THE NEGATIVES

– It’s a small problem, but I almost wish that the film would’ve explored the secrets that Woodcock stitches in every creation a bit more. I just feel like to bring it up and use it very little for the remainder of the film makes it either a lost opportunity or a pointless conversation piece.

9/10

I, Tonya

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Starring – Margot Robbie, Allison Janey, Sebastian Stan

THE PLOT – Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding (Robbie) rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband (Stan) intervenes, paving a road of faith to this moment that has taken her through a lifetime of mental abuse from her Mom (Janney), and physical abuse from her husband. When all is said and done, Tonya will be one of the most memorable names in the sport….for better or worse.

Rated R for pervasive adult language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity

THE POSITIVES

– The decision for a two hour runtime allows the WHOLE story to be told, feeding into the before, during and after of the famous incident that will label her for a lifetime.

– Even Hollywood writers can’t make up the absurd chain of events depicted in this film. Stories like this are movies before they ever see the light of day on the screen.

– Exceptional production qualities like stage lighting and versatility in camera angles and framing, keep this biopic from ever garnering a typical movie-of-the-week artistic vibe

– The transformative performances of Robbie and Janney that take no prisoners with their audience. Janney is the devil incarnate, channeling the worst parenting job since ‘Mommy Dearest’ with a fiery register behind rimmed glasses as big as her ego. Robbie originally felt too beautiful for this role, but she won me over in juggling the emotional roller-coaster that is Harding, who truly always feels alone in what she endures.

– Presents a refreshing angle to Harding that offers an empathetic take without framing her in innocence. This highlights the idea that she is a product of her environment, and never shook the ideals instilled upon her by her mother.

– Harding’s underdog story of sorts for competing against an entire organization and their precious traditions. Revealing looks at historical events like this one certainly provide insight into the pre-determined mindset of the judges who wanted Tonya to fail before her skates ever hit the ice. This makes it easier to stand behind her.

– The precise editing of the skating sequences, conjuring up an intensity in performance that I never paid attention to for the sport.

– Screenwriter Steven Rogers unshaken direction to leave the truth somewhere in the middle, between what actually happened on that fateful day. The interview style leaves just enough room for there to be skepticism provided by the questionable characters telling it.

THE NEGATIVES

– The facial C.G animation during the skating sequences is jarring. There are often scenes where a huge head feels like it is plastered on a small body, giving the authenticity a cartoonish vibe that is not needed in the otherwise perfect production value.

– Too often the narration cuts in, limiting the story from playing out in real time. Only half a point was taken off here because the problem fixes itself in the third act.

9/10

Molly’s Game

The high stakes gamble of a no limit poker game in Los Angeles, rests in the hands of a confident woman named Molly. ‘Molly’s Game’ is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who learned that there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led us to believe. Over the course of the on-going investigation, Molly is held at threat to give up the names of her clients or face devastating consequences that will ruin her life tenfold. ‘Molly’s Game’ is written by critically acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin who is directing his first film. It is rated R for adult language, drug content, and some violence.

Aaron Sorkin goes all in on ‘Molly’s Game’, the directorial debut from the academy award winning screenplay writer who has crafted some pretty immense presences in on-screen domination. Molly Bloom might be his single greatest achievement to date, echoing the vibes of a female heroine who has a dominating presence over her male clients in a way that you wouldn’t see right away when you hear the basis of her real life story. The film itself in a transfixing dive into the seedy underground world of illegal gambling, complete with the styles and environments that embrace such a closed-off place. With his first time in the directing chair, Sorkin’s detailed writing carries over into lifting straight from the pages vividly, and when you can capitalize on the writer and director being the same person, it benefits the project in spades because there’s no dissention in communication between one direction versus the other. As far as biopics go, this one is every bit as entertaining as it is inclusive to anyone who does or does not have a vast array of knowledge with the game of poker and all of its terminology. Sorkin politely grabs our hands and refuses to ever let us get lost, despite the fact that the sequences are almost as quick as the witty banter that Sorkin has always been known for.

To that degree, the fast paced nature of conversations vibrantly paint a secretive world, while also harvesting the positive entertaining nature in telling a story between us and the title character. Sorkin is clever when it comes to teaching you much about his good or bad characters, making them practically leap over the boundaries as to what translates accordingly to the silver screen, and in his 135 minutes of film, he teaches us everything that there is to know about Bloom without it ever feeling like a slideshow presentation. If there was a weakness that I had in the film, and this is just nit-picking, it would be the dialogue sometimes coming off as too pandering to the entertainment spectrum. What I mean by this is that it can sometimes break the viewer’s immersive benefit within the film to reminding us that this is first-and-foremost a movie, and not the feeling of an actual conversation taking place. It’s almost too cool or hip to be honest, and Sorkin could take great feedback in learning to scale it back a bit, especially between the scenes that Chastain and Elba share that feel like a game of one-upping the other player.

Besides that though, ‘Molly’s Game’ is overall one of my favorite films of 2017 because of its versatile on-going storytelling that never feels counterproductive or plodding because of how much is included. For the entirety of the film, there’s really two different timelines being played out; one in Molly’s present with the unfolding court case ahead of her, and one in her past a few years back when she took up this streaky hosting gig. In addition to this, the film also spans back occasionally to show us a scene or two of Molly’s teenage career as an amateur freestyle skier. It may sound like a lot to take in, but each of these angles are not only pivotal to understanding the kind of environment that trained Molly to thrive under pressure, but also one that makes you fully engage in her character that makes some risky decisions. What’s even better is that Sorkin makes each transition from tier to tier feel seamless, using background locations as well as consistency amongst wardrobe in reminding you where you are at during that point of the script. The film is very well paced despite its ambitious runtime, and there wasn’t a single thing that I would’ve cut from the film to make it run slightly smoother. Everything here appropriately builds the expositional blocks of character tremendously, and it’s a constant reminder that Aaron’s first profession doesn’t go abandoned for his greener pastures at the top of the crew list.

Beyond the story, the technical spectrum here entices the audience fruitfully as well, building a consistency in the combination of lighting and editing that should both be no short of award deserving. The cinematography here is by Danish camera artist Charlotte Christensen, a magician behind the lens who has done work in ‘Fences’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ to name a couple. I say that because like those other films, ‘Molly’s Game’ as well feeds into its luminous environments that articulately absorb for the audience the champagne wishes and caviar dreams that surround the sport. Christensen herself also knows where and how to shoot Molly from the best angles, bringing out the best in visual qualities (wink wink), as well as facial emoting that constantly relate what the character is feeling at all times. As for the editing, this is bar-none the very best that I have seen this year. The trio of Alan Barmgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer all have their hands beautifully full here, inserting a barrage of colorful clips to Chastain’s verbal heavy narration that feeds into the lesson being taught before our very eyes. The differences between telling someone a story and showing them go a long way in how the audience can pick up on an area in knowledge that they aren’t familiar with, leaving them visually stimulated through each transitional edit that bridges the gap smoothly. Beyond that, I also think the trio offer versatility in their direction on when to cut during quick-cut dialogue scenes. Sometimes the quicker cut is better in keeping the consistency flowing in back-and-forth execution, but there are times when they leave the camera on Chastain for just a second longer, to read her reaction to the madness that is unfolding, and its those subtle instances that I approve on for these men never sticking to just one style in the long term.

As for performances, there are two leads and two supporting characters to praise here. On the former, Chastain continues to be a thunderous presence on-screen, commanding Molly with a combination of wits and beauty that make her easy to fall under her commanding spell. That’s not to say that Jessica is all looks, quite the opposite. She’s dangerous because of her beauty, but she’s hypnotizing because of the way she reads the board and gets to know her players one-by-one as they enter the room. If it wasn’t for Frances Macdormand in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, Chastain would be my Oscar favorite for the year, but even still her intimidating presence upon the character is something that shouldn’t be downplayed, and works wonders in inspiring the female audience who seek a credible female lead. Idris Elba is the other lead who I think really comes on in the second half of the film as Molly’s lawyer. Elba’s character feels like the only person who can match Molly for intelligence, and through two scenes of long-winded release that left me breathless, Idris proves that shouting is never necessary in grabbing the attention of the audience who eat out of his hand. His one negative is that his British accent does sometimes seep through, but it’s never enough to ruin the quality of his powerful performance. Likewise, Michael Cera and Kevin Costner are also both vital parts to the film, despite them only being in a few scenes each. For Cera, this is the best that I have ever seen him. As this nameless movie star (Rumored to be Tobey Maguire), he is cunning and persistent, breaking out of the Cera stronghold of characters that have unfairly judged the previous part of his career. This is proof that he has plenty to give to a film, and just when I fell in love with his character, he goes away for good. Finally, Costner again accepts an against-type role as Molly’s hard-nosed father who pushed her to her limits mentally and physically. The chemistry between them is alluring because they don’t have the best relationship. His character isn’t someone you ever support or take wisdom in, but by the end of the film, Kevin’s watery deposition reminds you of the parent who is dying to get out, even if it goes against type for much of Molly’s earlier life. Great performances all around.

THE VERDICT – Through an intriguing protagonist and an intelligent screenplay, Aaron Sorkin not only throws all of his chips in, but he also takes home the pot with one of the most strategically entertaining films of the year. Chastain and Elba dare you to take your eyes off of them, breathing in two characters who can’t be bluffed in all of their stage-feeling focus. Sometimes the dialogue can sour a scene or two too much with its wink-and-nod qualities, but ‘Molly’s Game’ is too snappy and stylish not to indulge in, giving us one game where we all win.

9/10

The Shape of Water

The relationship between human and monster comes full circle, in Guillermo Del Toro’s newest adult night-time fairytale, ‘The Shape of Water’. The film is an otherworldly fable set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works as a janitor, lonely and deaf Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment. At the helm is a hard-nosed government doctor (Michael Shannon), who is hell-bent on keeping this devastating secret just that; a secret. As Elisa gets closer, the threat of the unknown becomes even more apparent, setting those closest to her on a trail to discover just what she is hiding. ‘The Shape of Water’ is written and directed by Del Toro, and is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and adult language.

‘The Shape of Water’ is an enchantment under the sea kind of engagement. Through a love for the tinseltown age of Hollywood cinema, Del Toro instills a lover’s kind of tale that challenges all kinds of barriers both mentally and physically that are pre-judged by the kind of society that seems intrusive to judge who they can and can’t love. But far beyond that, this film dazzled me with an insane amount of versatility in its creative structure that caters to many more genre fans than just those who came looking to be charmed by the connection that Hawkins and Doug Jones (The creature) share for one another. Far beyond its gentle touch in crafting an unorthodox love angle, the film is also compelling in the science fiction department for the kind of rules and worlds that it opens up within its pages. Finally, ‘The Shape of Water’ also triumphs as a heist movie for the first half of the picture that questions just how far those of us would be willing to go to live that feeling for the rest of our lives. Del Toro indulges in these many faces and doesn’t require us to ever choose just one, conjuring up his single most inclusive film to date that doesn’t alienate any spectrum of audience members who are taking it in for whatever reason.

In turning back the hands of time to an almost parallel universe of 1961, Del Toro harvests enough confidence of magic in pop culture cinema and teasing of illuminating levels of green in tickling us visually with this adult bedtime story approach. There is a kind of dreamy, spell-binding quality that exudes itself upon introducing us to this dark setting visually, yet compromising in tone for the airy feeling of whimsical that overtakes us thanks to the power of love and how it can trap us whole. This feels like a screenplay where there’s constantly music in the air, echoing vibrantly the toe-tapping sensation that electrifies one’s spirit in overcoming the paralyzing spell of loneliness. Del Toro interjects scenes and moments from past Hollywood pictures to keep this effect consistently, but it’s in his symbolism for the often times color of jealousy that truly enlightened me. Green is definitely the most dominant color and shade used throughout the film, and early on we find out that this is to represent the future. My take on this is that Del Toro feels very progressive in breaking down the shackles of a definition by love that doesn’t and shouldn’t settle for just one singular meaning. The color is everywhere throughout the film, even generating madness from Shannon’s character every time he sees it. This is clearly to prove and cement that his character represents the world that doesn’t move on with the concepts of change, having very much grown up in a world that caters to one sole demographic.

The performances are riveting from a complete ensemble cast that each bring something vital to the table. Hawkins is a revelation as the muted Elisa, holding the emotional prowess of her character solely in her facial features that are meant to display so much. This is a very difficult thing to do because Hawkins never feels confined to just one emotional response, so her range has to be on point in every scene, and she’s no short of Oscar brilliance for what she does with a coy look. Michael Shannon again continues to be one of my favorite actors going today. Shannon is his usual slimy antagonist for the film, but as this doctor, we start to see the line of distinction between human and animal fade away each time he’s on screen. Michael is every bit as menacing as he’s ever been, and it’s through him when we get a few brunt reminders of the R-rated feature that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Doug Jones (like Hawkins) also does so much with a look, but does so under layers of makeup and prosthetics that fade away everything but Jones signature glassy eyes to the forefront. The chemistry between he and Hawkins warmed my heart and effectively removed the pre-conceived fears that I had for how unusual the love between them would look on-screen.

There’s a lot of love that I have for the script and the way that it slowly began to transfix me into this love story that didn’t feel forced or phony by how it was presented. These two people are definitely outcasts by a society that demeans them for their anything-but-handicap. It’s in that comparison where we learn front-and-center why these two share such a tender sentiment that presents them as souls with bodies and not just bodies with souls. In this regard, I felt a strong taste of films like ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ as well as ‘King Kong’. Two films also set-up by this conundrum, but held prisoner from their release dates that kept them from going all the way. ‘The Shape of Water’ goes all the way, and it does it in a way that is unapologetic for what it shows. If you feel awkward, then your stances on love probably need updating. For it’s not the monster, but the depiction of an outcast by society who deserves the same gifts that anyone else does. During this whole thing, there’s also the age of paranoia playing out with the Russians and where they play into this creature. This proved to me that the film wasn’t just resting on the laurels of being a love story, and that Del Toro uses just as much emphasis in the world around them as he does with the couple in their own bubble that no one can touch. What very small problem that I had with the film was during the third act when it feels like it becomes more about Shannon’s character instead of Hawkins and Jones. This inevitably won’t bother much people, but I feel like some more emphasis was needed from Hawkins point of view in the inevitable confrontation that she must face. This isn’t a major problem, but it stands out from the first two acts that are so structurally sound that the first 90 minutes flew by like a gust of wind.

THE VERDICT – If it’s a controversial quote that you want, then it’s one you will get; this is Guillermo Del Toro’s single best film to date. ‘The Shape of Water’ confidently balances enough absorbing style and poignant substance in the ineffective way that his previous few films have petered away with. Hawkins is a whirlwind revolution, offering a slice of innocent humanity to her hushed exterior that makes her unavoidable to not fall in love with. The film is a purified beauty of Del Toro’s visionary compass that proves he can still swim with the best of them.

9/10

Novitiate

A woman’s declaration to faith is tested endlessly when she deals with life’s constant yearning, in Margaret Betts debut writing and directing effort ‘Novitiate’. Spanning over a decade from the early 1950s through to the mid-60s, the film centers around a young girl’s first initiation with love, in this case with God. Raised by a non-religious, single mother in rural Tennessee, a scholarship to Catholic school soon finds Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) drawn into the mystery and romanticism of a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God. With the dawn of the Vatican II era, radical changes in the Church are threatening the course of nuns’ lives. As she progresses from the postulant to the novitiate stage of training, she finds her faith repeatedly confronted and challenged by the harsh, often inhumane realities of being a servant of God. Cathleen soon finds herself struggling with issues of faith, sexuality, and recent changes in life of the Church. ‘Novitiate’ is rated R for adult language, and some sexuality involving nudity.

“There can not be love without sacrifice”, this is an on-going theme throughout the film that tenders ‘Novitate’ as being one of the most unnerving sits that I have experienced over the past twelve months. As to where a film like ‘Silence’ valued the very same devotional quality to its men who adopt the cloth, Betts film does the same for females that questions the very intentions of feminist empowerment. That’s not to say that ‘Novitate’ shouldn’t be absorbed by a female audience, quite the opposite actually. This is a grueling test of love and even mental endurance for just how important it is to give and receive love in physical form, and it’s in that perspective where the film casts an overwhelming amount of empathy in approach to those kneeling at the cross. What I admire about Betts abilities as a screenwriter, especially one that is a first-timer, is that she never feels like she is pushing her audience into one direction or the other, and instead would rather let the atmospheres and treatments speak for themselves in the bigger picture that was every bit as frightening for me as it was enlightening for the valuable price paid that has only been hinted at in passing, to this point.

This is a screenplay that doesn’t just follow our soul protagonist, but also the sisters around her who are training to take the vows, and who each strive through it in their own temperaments. Some feel as strong about this decision as anything they have ever taken on, some know in their hearts that it is a big mistake, and some seek it just for the need to be desired at anything in their lives. On the latter, the film definitely casts an overwhelming sentiment to the feeling that many of these women are just lost souls who have never experienced the best of what life has to offer. Some inherit this teaching because of a family tradition, but it’s in Cathleen’s story that feels like an unpaved path to the lord because of her unorthodox background. Coming from an agnostic Mother and a Father who was never there to begin with, it’s easy to see why Cathleen reached to the dark for something, anything that would bridge the gap to finding something to live for, and it’s in the angle where Betts focuses on; the lost souls that the church greatly take advantage of in their reprimanding with the benefits selfishly of mind control and all of its virtues.

At nearly two hours long, the film is a bit of an endurance test, not because of the ambitious runtime, but because of the minimal level of atmospheric tension that the film doesn’t always capitalize on. If I was in charge of penning this script, I wouldn’t remove a single thing from the screenplay, even if some sequences tend to repeat themselves in less desirable fashion. I took this repetition as intentional because the boredom of routine plays a pivotal role in displaying just how unappealing this lifestyle is to our pledging youth. There is definitely uneasiness from start to finish of this movie, but it always feels like the film is building to something constantly bigger, and the air of momentum eventually surrounds itself in the fog that grows too thick to see through. There are moments of payoff that any blind person can see coming from miles away, but the most evident absence of unpredictability from within can sometimes fumble away the chance at drawing out that strong semblance of feminist entendre that the movie so desperately requires.

As for visual displays, this is a very beautifully looking, closely shot movie that focuses solely on the greyish shading that echoes the questionable lessons that are being taught at this institution. Even when the sun shines, there’s a constant feeling of dread that engulfs the production and its characters whole, and feeds into the colorless lifestyles that these young women have adopted upon themselves, so as to remove any kind of temptation. Most of the style in camera work is vibrantly shot with claustrophobic angles, ringing true a feeling of enclosing freedom that removes itself with each passing day. What’s commendable coming from cinematographer Kat Westergaard’s presence behind the lens, is the capability to take such practical shots and churn them into something that is gorgeously decaying in channeling the very consistency that the atmosphere is going for. I say practical because there’s nothing truly experimental here, but Kat’s harbor of creativity shouldn’t be overlooked, for it’s in her capable hands where she presents the bland as something bold, and I never once felt that her resonation on this project ever lacked or distorted my fluent absorbing of the crumbling walls that were figuratively coming down with each passing minute.

These performances are right on as well, echoing a female dominated cast that mirrors the female production team. With the exception of two males that come into frame for about two minutes each, the film harvests the strongest circumference of female force that I have seen in recent memory. But the numbers game isn’t enough to just let this one skate by, as a trio of deliveries constantly raised the stakes in getting this story over. Margaret Qualley is riveting, channeling Catherine with a confidence that is slowly transformed into panic when everything she thought she knew is questioned. There’s a scene between her and another actress when Catherine needs comforting later on in the film, and it is among the most enthralling displays of anguish that I have ever seen. Dianna Agron is also commendable, despite only being in about half of this movie. Agron is someone who continues to grow with more big screen credits to her name, and as Sister Mary, Dianna presents a rare empathetic side to the convent that offers a welcoming breath of fresh air to these pledges, and more importantly a shining example of sisterhood to us the audience that this film very much required. Without a doubt though, the stealer of this show is once again Melissa Leo as the trivially jaded Reverend Mother. Leo stimulates with enough compromising soft tones and manipulative presence to really feed into her power play that she feeds on, but it’s in her ability to tear it all down and present some hearty vulnerability during the earthquake third act that earns her the most praise in terms of versatility that I can compliment. This woman can truly do no wrong in my eyes, and the last five years specifically of her career has shown us that she will be an emotional heavyweight for decades to come.

THE VERDICT – Taut, mesmerizing, and impactful. ‘Novitiate’ outlasts some of its brief moments of repetition with a compelling screenplay by the debuting Betts that questions the value of what you can feel physically. Through this female adorned production and cast, we get a methodically challenging melodrama that serves a higher power of profound than we’re used to for these movies. Put your faith in the lord, your ass belongs to Leo and all of her stirring passion on a narrow path to righteousness.

9/10

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig makes her directing debut and pens the new indie comedy about a teenage girl known as ‘Lady Bird’. Set in Sacramento over the 2002–03 school year, the story focuses on a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saorise Ronan), who prefers to go by the name “Lady Bird”, who is fighting against but is exactly like her wildly loving, deeply opinionated and strong-willed mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse working tirelessly to keep her family afloat after Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) loses his job. With the west coast backdrop serving as a dead end environment for Christine, amidst a rapidly shifting American economic landscape, “Lady Bird” attempts to get out of Sacramento by applying to colleges in New York behind her mother’s back, setting up an inevitable clash between Mother and Daughter unlike anything before. ‘Lady Bird’ is rated R for adult language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying.

For Greta Gerwig’s first dive into the director’s chair, ‘Lady Bird’ is very much a hands-on approach to the teenage coming-of-age story that values her pen just as much as her presence behind the camera. Not since ‘Juno’ has there been such a refreshing blend of honesty and personality in teenage dissection, but Gerwig understands how to let her leading lady breathe with calculated movements. There’s been much said about this being a possible autobiographical connection to Gerwig’s real life stories, with all of the subtlety of a highway crash in the comparisons that mimic her own life closely. Whether that is true or not, I can say that Gerwig has a tight grip on the pulse of post-millenial teenagers and all of the cures for boredom that riddle them to tears of depression. This is a film with a lot of spunk to its unapologetic personalities, catering to Gerwig’s own brand of humor that radiates the irony in each and every awkward situation. For this being someone’s first helming of a major motion picture, there’s plenty of proof in the executional pudding that cements this girl not only as a well educated student of the game, but also one that gives powerful female characters a prominent voice for decades to come.

From a technical standpoint, ‘Lady Bird’ echoes the vibes of early Wes Anderson, in all of his brunt quick-cuts and quicker-witted humor that carves out some truly memorable characters for us to feast on. For Gerwig, her stance rests firmly on the reflection of a teenager’s life feeling like solitary to him or her in the moment, but in reality spinning by with little reservation in terms of continuous life movements for us as an audience to take in. Because of this, the film can at times feel like it is racing to a red light, but in all reality it’s just the depiction of life’s many opportunities that are quickly passing up our title character, and giving her little to reflect on in the bigger overall picture. The editing itself is precise, faithfully depicting the humor of repetition in boredom that the students in this school endure in what feels like without ending. Her framing too, brings out the beauty and girth of the Sacramento landscape in size when compared to that of the teenage protagonists and their lives in the grand scheme of things. To them, their mistrials feel like the end of the world, but to those of us who already lived through teenage angst and gotten out alive, we can embrace in the visual representation that Gerwig harvests here, and harvest she does well with a clean visual stimulation that breeds that independent comedy kind of vibe that she has been known for in her acting career.

The script and overall tonal shifts for the film are right on point, echoing Gerwig’s attention to even the smallest detail for the many changes in a young woman’s life. I myself am obviously not a female, but what I can say that floored me about Greta’s atmospheric resonation is that she gets what outsiders of a Catholic school will bark at the loudest in terms of laughter, and she exploits this bluntly in a series of montages that sarcastically poke fun at the outdated concepts of these charter schools. Being that I myself went to one for nine years, I can tell you that Gerwig hits the nail with enough force and aptitude that she simply cannot go wrong on, and carries that ball of momentum all the way through to the dramatic circumference of the second half. The film doesn’t abandon the comedic aspect entirely, but the drama is definitely more invasive as the film progresses, and I think it was the right decision. There’s a kind of parental feeling that I felt as Lady Bird was going through these events that are supposed to feel special to a young girl, but end up being just another in the long list of regrets that spans longer with age. The film feels so honest in this depiction that it feels like a must-watch for any teenage girl who needs comfort in the solace that she is never alone, and that every girl is Lady Bird in their own individual adventure.

My favorite aspect of the film however, is definitely the collective performances of a female dominated cast, with a little extra room for male inclusion. Ronan gives a performance that solidifies her as the next generation of great actresses. As Christine (or Lady Bird), Saorise embraces her character with the ignorance of her age, but the exuberance of her inspiring personality that never quits, and Lady Bird as a summarization is one of my absolute favorite characters of the year. Saorise is more than capable of commanding the screen alone, but I feel the best moments are between her and Laurie Metcalf, whom herself channels an unorthodox approach to a Motherly dominated household. It’s certainly clear that this story was written by a female perspective because there’s so much authenticity in speech patterns and constant nagging-turned-confiding conversation pieces that sparks a feeling of attention deficit between them, and gives way to a Mother/Daughter relationship that lasts a lifetime. Tracy Letts also breathes great life into the few scenes that we are fortunate enough to see him steal. As Lady Bird’s father, Letts is definitely the household presence to Metcalf’s workaholic doctor character, but it’s in those shining examples of talks between he and Christine where the film earns an honest and burning presence of heart that is sure to touch anyone in the audience with at least one, if not two of these kinds of parents.

What problems that I did have with this film are the very definition of nit-picking, and weren’t even considered for my overall final grade, but some tips of advice that Gerwig might need for her next presentation. For one, the pacing can slightly feel uneven. I mentioned earlier that the purpose of quick pacing was to feel the constant moving of the world around Lady Bird, but when compared to the final act of the film, there is definitely an off-beat path that is taken in closing this thing out before the final somber blow. In addition to this, I feel like the film tried slightly too hard in the musical soundtrack that constantly beats you over the head with its 2003 setting. A way to maximize this better would be to include songs that aren’t as obvious as ones used in the top 40 hits of that year, that way they don’t feel like a gimmick that is constantly reminding us of this time in era that honestly has very little to do with the film’s overall presence of setting. I felt that this film could’ve easily been set in modern day and not lost a single thing, but it’s obvious that Gerwig wanted to hit home during her age of adolescence.

THE VERDICT – Gerwig’s responsibly honest approach to teenage maturity is one that keeps ‘Lady Bird’ flying high above the clouds. With the power of Oscar worthy performances from Ronan and Metcalf at the disposal of this first time director, the film harvests two emotionally complex female characters with the kind of care and strength needed by a woman’s touch. During a year when ladies voices are needed louder than ever before, Lady Bird feels like the front line figure necessary to lead us to a new age of much-needed female depiction. Proving that the best stories are told on the wrong side of the tracks.

9/10

Coco

The striking chords of music separate a boy and his deceased family to The Land of the Dead, in Pixar Animation’s newest ‘Coco’. Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Through daily viewings of video tapes and a shrine dedicated to Cruz, Miguel puts in the hours to becoming a signature guitar player with very little luck along the way. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history. ‘Coco’ is written and directed by Adrian Molina, and is rated PG for thematic elements.

Music can serve and narrate the link between the past and present in ways that can tenderly preserve our memories. This was my biggest takeaway from ‘Coco’, the newest grand slam strike from a company that continues to amaze and raise the bar with each passing year; Disney Pixar. Once again, this company strikes gold in emulating the very traditions and lifestyles of a foreign land in a way that is not only educational for youths with a thirst for exploration, but also intelligent for the way that it carefully juggles the tone of every scene. Like only a couple of films before it, ‘Coco’ took me on a high speed rush of emotional versatility that made me feel bi-polar because of how much can resonate from within in a single 100 minute sitting. Besides the moral of the story that I took away, there’s so much more to this film that provides the perfect family gathering this Thanksgiving weekend, harvesting an urgency for life, as well as a celebration for the deceased that vibrantly decodes the link between these two entirely vast worlds. This is very much a movie that makes you feel enlightened when you leave the theater, and that’s a feat that I feel a lot of films (especially kids movies) are missing from this current day and age. This proves that Pixar isn’t just crafting kids films, but films that cater to every age spectrum that never limits their profound voice.

This is very much a script that takes its time in getting to know our characters pasts respectively, but it moves along so sharp that I never felt bored or dragged down by the endless exposition. The first half Molina’s script follows near the casual setups of a protagonist who is searching to find his voice in more ways than one, but what evolved proves that the information in the trailers is only table dressing to the much tastier main course. The film is a mystery at times, and crosses into the theme of needing to invest in our pasts if we are to continue forth with our futures. This provides plenty of surprises along the way, including a plot twist midway through that takes its cues from the ‘Blade Runner 2049’ school of storytelling that this film even did slightly better. There’s also great thought and imagination invested into the very world building that Molina confidently casts upon his shoulders. The kinds of themes and rules are a throwback to the very legends of Mexican tradition that are past down from one generation to the next, feeding into the finely tuned engine of intelligence that ‘Coco’ carves out for itself. Believe me when I say that this is a screenplay that will at the very least touch your heart, but for the select few, it will resonate in a way that transfixes you with the music that serenades your soul.

On that topic, we have a spirited contender for best musical soundtrack of 2017. At this point, Disney is turning out earworms that live and breed inside of our heads, and the best decision is not to fight it, but go with irresistible melodies that get your toes tapping. Michael Giacchnino’s collection of songs moves at many tempos fast and slow, highlighting the many moments that require an essence of song in the air, but what impressed me most was the insertion of these inevitable hits that built their deliveries. As to where most musicals insert songs every five minutes of the movie, often creating scenes of song that don’t feel authentic in their dissertation, ‘Coco’ carefully reserves the proper moment in time to deliver these numbers. The most important thing here is that the music is working hand-in-hand with the story, firing on double cylinders that brings out the most in terms of confidence for both aspects. Songs have been important in films, but in this movie it feels like breathing for this family of personalities that have either thrived or been left to rot because of it. Either way, I see a lot of Itunes purchases being made for Giacchino’s stirring audible revelation that struck more than just a chord with my heart and ensuing tears that followed.

The performances were all around incredible by this big name group of actors young and old that carve out something far beyond the one-dimensional protagonists that we’ve come to sadly expect. My favorite is definitely Bernal as Hector, the antsy wild card of the film that steers a bit to close to ever be forgotten. What makes Bernal’s voicing so memorable here is that he allows himself to get lost in the character, channeling a sadness and longing because of being forgotten that has paralyzed his time in the afterlife. The chemistry between the tag team of he and Gonzalez leaves nothing to be desired in the very way that it establishes two characters who we yearn to spend more time with, and soon it becomes evident how desperately they need each other. Speaking of which, the little boy himself commands the film with such innocence and wonder that make him feel years ahead of his young age in real life. Anthony himself is certainly no rookie when it comes to acting or singing, but his grasp of both firmly exceeded my wildest expectations for how a child can command a crowd both on and off of screen. Benjamin Bratt also leaves a lasting impression as charmingly arrogant De La Cruz. Behind every immense pop star, there’s a personality a mile long, and Bratt is happy to oblige with such suave debonair that makes it easy to fall to his musical seduction.

Without question though, my single favorite aspect of the film is in the endlessly intense attention to detail that fronts an artistic flow that crushes any other animated film this year in its path. When I see an animated film, I always speak of rendering, shading, and color palate, and this film hits the mark with precision on all of them. The backdrops and landscapes in this Land of the Dead provided so many awestruck moments when it feels like their luminous lights and high-stacked houses stretch further than the eye can see, but how is the character detail? My answer is PERFECTLY. It’s getting to the point where it is truly scary how much Pixar is mastering every small detail to make a character stand out. What I mean by this is just how many differences in bone structure that the film goes through for its hundreds of the dead that get even a second of screen time, as well as spots or moles on skin for those in the living. The hair threads themselves on character heads feel like you can reach out and touch them at any time, only to be topped by the design of Grandma Coco that better win the production an Oscar or I will scream my lungs out in anger. The wrinkle patterns and rendering of this aging woman confined to a chair had me demanding to pause the film just to soak in how fluently she moved to that of her respective age and situation, and I’ve never seen anything so jaw-dropping illustration when it comes to matching that of a live action counterpart.

What small problems I had with the film were so miniscule that it barely requires mentioning, but two things stand-out like a cancer in an overall production that is nearly perfect. The first is the one roadblock in the animation from a group of flying beast characters (they look like tigers) that alienated the consistency of every person or property around them. The beasts have a strange color design to their characters, but my concern is more in the outline of their designs that screams computer animation. If it were up to me, I wish they weren’t even in the film, as their inclusion even feels like it stretches the rules that were carefully constructed in this other world. The other (and much bigger) problem involved the rules provided in the exposition that doesn’t make sense later on. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will just say that a character in the Land of the Dead is slowly deteriorating because his loved ones can’t remember him. This of course makes no sense because one of his loved ones is indeed with him throughout the film walking, talking, and all else communicating with him. If I spoke to my Mother directly, IT MEANS I DID NOT FORGET ABOUT HER. My point is that this character should never be deteriorating, and it otherwise feels like an obvious ploy to dramatic pulse in a film that was otherwise dealing with death and its themes maturely.

THE VERDICT – Coco will remind you that you have a pulse, in all of its heartwarming family pleasantries and endless ambition to follow your dreams that will provide inspiration aplenty to those who seek it. The animation feels three-dimensional without the need for eye-cramping glasses, and an energetically spirited musical score by Giacchino brings it all home with a tempo-building final performance that concludes with electricity. It’s a responsibly refreshing story that bridges the worlds of the living and the dead impeccably, bringing to light the importance of family that can’t be diminished by either.

9/10

Thor: Ragnarok

The devastation from the ruins of Asgaard brings Thor back home, in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) arrives in Asgard after hearing about trouble within his home world, and when he arrives he finds Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) style of ruling (while impersonating Odin) has led to some lapses in the rules and leads to the freeing of prisoner Hela (Cate Blanchett). Thor and Hela naturally come to blows when they meet, which sees Thor “blasted” to Sakaar, described as “a barbaric planet ruled by the charming but nefarious Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).” There he meets Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who is hiding out on the planet, and brings him to the Grandmaster to make him a gladiator, where he meets the most popular competitor in the arena, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and loses his trademark hair and hammer, giving way to a bigger, badder God of war than ever before. ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is directed by Taika Waititi, and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.

What Taika Waititi has done here for the Thor franchise of films is nothing short of miraculous, and is deserving of all of the praise that only a prestigious director of his caliber can grant. In his re-vitalizing third chapter in this series, Waititi has instilled the fun to a series that frankly was struggling with a mediocre second movie that took itself and its characters a bit too seriously. In his pitch, it was his intention to bring the imagination back to this genre, reminding faithful comic book fans of the kind of antsy anticipation that can only come with bringing these storyboards to life. ‘Ragnarok’ is that breath of fresh air that reminds us how FUN superhero movies are supposed to be, offering a firework of a spectacle in production, as well as a light-hearted atmosphere in material and tone that pushes towards the comedy genre fruitfully with a consistency of laughs that never quit swinging. Even more enriching is the fact that these laughs don’t soil or overstay their welcome at any point in the film. They are well-delivered, well-timed, and well-preserved when you consider that they do no harm to the film’s serious direction when it requires it. Waititi proves that he was the best man for the job, and the many pros of his entertaining installment is deserving of future re-watches that this critic will inevitably hand over the money for.

What ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ did for colorful insertion and artistic stroke in its film, ‘Ragnarok’ ups the ante even further, providing a wondrous stage that beats at the heart of this foreign planet. This impressive series of shots within war sequences are so beautifully decadent that they could all easily be swinging within a picture frame at your local museum, they are that impressive. The film’s usage of slowed down depictions is valued, mainly because it never reaches too often for the gimmick, nor does it feel like it hinders the fluidity in progression of these detailed sequences. The sound mixing and editing throw in two valued cents of thunderous impact for good measure. Hell, Even the style choices for wardrobe sport designs that are entirely out of this world. The film dabbles its commitment to planet building accordingly, and does so with a practical presentation of futuristic ensembles that really treat the eye to some visual candy that can perfectly set the precedent for the landscape faithfully. It all does its part to crafting one of the very best production values that Marvel or any film of this decade can respectfully tip their hats to.

The music deserves its own praise for the subtlety to versatility that has a few tricks of its own up the sleeves of award winning children’s composer Mark Mothersbaugh. Keeping with the miles in parallel locations over the progression of the film, Mark tightly hones his own soundtrack to each of the respective planets with enough opposition in their impacts to feel the differences in each range. While on Asgaard, the orchestral influence of horns and trumpets pay homage to that of battle-cries that feed into this planet of warriors. While on Sakaar, there’s kind of an overthrow of techno break beats and technological sampling to relay the idea of a futuristic prism that is at stake here. I don’t want to say much else besides that because the best treat of all takes place during Thor’s hallucination before meeting The Grandmaster (Played wonderfully by the versatile Jeff Goldblum), and if you pay attention carefully you can see a hinted paying of respects to our favorite lunatic candy maker. I’ve already said too much.

This is also a story that while it does take place in a galaxy far away, does hint on some familiar territory in themes that really strike an honest chord with where the series is heading. Sibling rivalry, self-discovery, and even retribution are all taken paths that the film explores with unshakeable persistence in going a long way to working overtime for this outstanding pacing that runs slightly over two hours. To say I was entertained thoroughly is an understatement. Truth be told, ‘Ragnarok’ is that rare occasion where I gave myself over completely to the roller-coaster within, and was rewarded with some timely surprises and narrative twists that surprised even someone like me who can usually pick these things out of a trailer with ease. The minor problems that I had with the screenplay are barely worth mentioning, but they do knock it down a point when everything else feels so perfect. Mostly it’s the lack of explanation in some key scenes like Loki’s faked death or Thor and Hulk’s fight that is sampled heavily in the trailer. On the latter, it is explained that they must fight to the death, so how could they both possibly get out of this arena with their heads? Besides this, the only other problem I had was with the antagonist. I loved Blanchett’s performance, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but the film realizes that her exposition-heavy appearances are definitely the least interesting aspect of the movie, and as a result kind of forgets about her character midway through the second act. There is a noticeable half hour where her character goes missing, proving that while Marvel might be headed in the right direction with the depth of its villains, they still are leap years away on bottling it up as a perfect formula.

And finally, perhaps the most valuable aspect is in the impressive collection of talented actors who all make a presence felt. The most difficult thing to attain is giving an ensemble this big each a worthy task to appreciate their inclusion, and thankfully Waititi knows the kind of motivation in attaining the best in each of them. Hemsworth definitely feels more open-up in personality and demeanor that reflects a side of his frequent time up to this point on the planet Earth. Hemsworth has such a command over the timing of reactions when it comes to the laughs, making Thor every bit as charismatic as Tony Stark. Cate Blanchett was menacing and able to add an acclaimed side to Marvel villains that has rarely been seen to this point. There’s a big plot twist for her character early on in the film, and thankfully it was setting the motions of equality in plot structure to match her best kind of Malificient impression that beats out even Jolie with ease. Also great to see Hiddleston back again as my favorite low-life Loki. Where Hemsworth commands the time for humor, Hiddleston visually puppeteers it, earning much hearty laughter to the way his straight man reacts to some less than flattering news. I would be lying though, if I said any of these actors were my favorite performance of ‘Ragnarok’, as that belongs to Tessa Thompson commanding the viciously delicious Valkyrie. Thompson provides an air for female moviegoers in this role that they have rarely seen so far in Marvel, and Thompson’s alcoholic-laced anti-hero demands her own movie. What I found so rewarding about her character is that with much exposition, we find this is every bit a revenge plot for her as it is anyone else in the film. Without Valkyrie, much would be lost in the way of the past that comes back to haunt throughout this film, and Tessa is happy to oblige with a performance that proves she can kick ass just as good as she shakes it in that leather number. Mmmm mmmm mmmm

THE VERDICT – ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is a colorfully constructed space opera that swings for the fences because of Taika Waititi’s concentrated direction that results in a fresh reset button for the franchise. There’s an air of spoof on the over-saturation of the superhero genre that may or may not have overstayed its welcome, but the tickling of our senses proves effective none the less, making this easily the best of the Thor franchise, and one of the more versatile comic book plots of the previous decade. If this is where superhero films are headed, strap in and enjoy the ride. Thor has finally earned his throne.

9/10

Only the Brave

When it gets too hot inside of the western wild, an elite group of firefighters get the call. ‘Only the Brave’ is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a band of special forces firefighters who smother some of the biggest fires in the world with precision in teamwork. The film is the heroic story of one unit of local firefighters that through hope, determination, sacrifice, and the drive to protect families, communities, and our country become one of the most elite firefighting teams in the country. As most of us run from danger, they run toward it–they watch over our lives, our homes, everything we hold dear, as they forge a unique brotherhood that comes into focus with one fateful fire. The film stars Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jeff Bridges among others. It is directed by Joseph Kosinski, and is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, adult language and drug material.

I didn’t think there were any emotionally enthralling original narratives left in Hollywood, but a film like ‘Only the Brave’ comes along and grips you to the point of tears. This is a movie that I expected to have some somber resonance with its true life story of a group of unsung heroes who never seem to get the credit that they deserve, but I completely had no idea that it would be this story would stick with me over an hour after leaving the theater. ‘Only the Brave’ captivates its heroic material without needing any of the familiar dramatic tropes that make a majority of these films identical when you compare all of their high and low points within their respective scripts. Instead, this is a film that carves its own identity, and does so in a way that takes its time in establishing characters and environment equally, triggering a beneficial appreciation for both that makes this film fire off on all cylinders. The heat constantly rises from the enveloping cloud of tension that swallows these people and their respective subplots whole, bringing to light a respect for another dirty job that you’re either born with the bravery to undertake or you’re not.

In over two hours with this movie, there was never a point when I was bored or losing interest in the film, and I blame that impeccable pacing on a few different aspects. The first is the attention to detail and time dedication in building these characters as a unit first. There’s an honorable chamraderie in brotherhood that is taking place with each minute that we spend with this group of man-children, and the wide range of personalities made it a delight to watch them echo off of one another. The second stance that this film takes is in its background for what goes into such a career decision. As to where most films will briefly skim over this intro to education with a musical montage, ‘Only the Brave’ veers right with unshaken concentration for its career elective that really makes you understand the kind of peak physical shape, as well as sacrificial stance that one with family takes, and that leads me to the third important positive that this film has going for it; the home side. This is usually ignored entirely with dramatic hero plots, but this film values the importance of impact left at home when these immense figures aren’t around. This in turn allows us to get to know some of the female characters a little better, and engages in the negatives that come with being a hero. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows with this group, and screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer have definitely done their homework when it comes to this risky lifestyle that doesn’t come with as many perks as one would believe.

On the side of production value, the film’s consistency in establishing the correct look and feel for these harsh environments really rings true through some gritty action sequences that are articulately spread out across the script. There’s surprisingly not a lot of these scenes in the film, which one might feel is a negative, but to me it made those spare few feel that much more impactful when compared to their normal environments that make up a majority of this movie. The C.G fire looks beautifully authentic, leaving the risk on screen where it belongs, and really garnering with it a movement of fluidity that had me even questioning at times. Most recently I reviewed ‘Geostorm’, and that film could take more than a few lessons from ‘Only the Brave’ on how to faithfully illustrate the layers involved with its artificial properties. Besides the tasteful C.G, the sound mixing done here by David Brownlow is award-worthy. As to where we see the flames coming from miles away, it’s the sound of its sneaky seclusion that tiptoes the volume with ease until it rises to a flaming crescendo. The film also does a valuable job in showing that there’s so much more dangerous with this environment that these men work in than just the fire that they are smothering, this is also home to some deadly creatures. When watching this film, you should imagine that anything can and will hurt our protagonists, it will make it that much easier when the merited jump scare that comes out of nowhere makes its presence felt on more than one occasion.

The performances as well are a whirlwind of emotional response that assemble one of the finest ensemble casts of the year. What I like is that everyone is doing their part in bringing to life some truly lively personalities, and nobody doesn’t belong in their respective roles. For my money though, Jennifer Connolly, Miles Teller, and Josh Brolin steal the show. Teller continues to enhance his dimensional limitations with some challenging roles that have him charging his actor’s batteries. As the humorously named ‘Doughnut’, Teller comes from an immature kid who has made mistakes, and decides to turn his life around when he gets some altering news. His transformation throughout grants him the light of a tightly paced transformation that plays out before our very eyes with the wink of Miles charm still peaking through. Brolin as the leader is a wise choice, and his visual likeness to his real life character couldn’t be more precise. Brolin speaks gently throughout a majority of his lines, but you feel great power and respect in the way he commands his troop with a fatherly brush that motivates accordingly. The best to me however isn’t even a Hotshot, but instead Jennifer Connolly’s radiant fiery register as Brolin’s wife who plays by her own rules. What’s so refreshing about her portrayal is that the film allows her voice to be heard, and Jennifer kindly obliges, ingesting the fuel for some truly heart-stopping moments that remind us of her greatness, and Connolly’s volcanic approach made for a character who I couldn’t spend enough time with.

What small problems that I did have with the film aren’t really worth mentioning, but they do kind of stand out when everything else feels so perfect. The entire third act is predictable, but still has enough gas left to make you realize you’re not fully correct on where it’s headed. The signs are there for the entirety of the film, and I wish the practicality of it all wasn’t as obvious as the previous 90 minutes sets itself up for, but with that said, the film still manages to withhold a surprise or two that proved just how little I was ready for what was approaching. My only other problem is with one subplot involving Miles Teller’s character which was kind of left open even at the end of the movie. I feel like the film sets itself up for a major decision with this character, then never fully commits itself to it, leaving me struggling to understand the significance of even including it in the script.

THE VERDICT – Joseph Kosinski’s gut-wrenching story includes all of the testosterone, heartbreak, and humor that one could ask for in an intensely compelling dramatic plunge. Through a look at a hero’s world inside of the glass, ‘Only the Brave’ connects with its audience in a way that wipes away two action packed hours with ease by zeroing in on the versatile performances and irresistible personalities who breed the iron will of the American spirit every single day. No film this year prior made me shed a tear, but ‘Only the Brave’ left me in shambles.

9/10

Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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