Lizzie

Directed by Craig William Macneill

Starring – Kristen Stewart, Chloe Sevigny, Kim Dickens

The Plot – In 1892, after the Borden family welcomes a new Irish maid called Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), she and Lizzie (Sevigny) become friends. The friendship between these women becomes something more and that is not only falling in love, at the same time they’re are both victims of physical and sexual abuse from Mr. Borden. But tension in the Borden household, leading to a violent breaking point.

Rated R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some adult language

POSITIVES

– A different take. While there are certainly no shortages of Lizzie Borden movies to quench the audiences thirst for answers on the mysterious night in question, ‘Lizzie’ takes an alternate approach in direction and tone that I greatly appreciated. This film is a star-crossed lovers story of sorts, between Lizzie and Bridget, that overrides some of the horror tendencies that you might be preparing yourself for, going in. I found this direction to not only be a fresh take on a century old story, but also one that pays off immensely for the artistic opportunities that the film capitalizes on.

– Macneill has such a subtle tenderness about the way he depicts this blossoming relationship, shooting the romance with more respect than a story like this would normally feel capable of. For one, the moves of affection feel carefully timed, springing to vision an evidence of fear that is evident in both leading ladies, but also enough glow from intimate camera angles that garner a much-needed essence to Lizzie as a character, and not just a hatchet-wielding maniac. Because of this, Craig puts emphasis in the focus of this story revolving around love, and it’s in that investment whether this film will grab you or not.

– Whirlwind performances on every spectrum. This film certainly feels like a group effort, in that every member of the immensely gifted cast bring their best to their respective characters. Sevigny captivates as the title character, with a plentiful combination of longing and menace that helps balance Lizzie’s disposition. It helps that Chloe is an actress who says so much in a single facial reaction, allowing us to soak up more of the suffocating atmosphere that swallows the character whole repeatedly. Stewart maintains the audience’s focus, with a turn as Bridget that has her feeling like the lone conscience of the audience inside of this toxic household, and Jamey Sheridan once again wonders with playing such a detestable lead that reminds us why he’s one of the best in the business at that particular role.

– Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its script, which is hinged in this dialogue that makes you want to constantly pay attention to the character interactions, so as to gauge the many relationships. Like Bridget, we too are new to the engagements inside of this house, but once inside we firmly get a grasp for the troubled family’s environment that have riddled them full of trying secrets and desperate situations, and in this regard ‘Lizzie’ feels like a B-movie that Hitchcock might have helmed if his diminishing health didn’t cut his time in the public eye dramatically short.

– For my money, the nighttime sequences were the most eye-catching, for the way the lack of natural light invites us along to the things that go bump in the night. There’s a serene essence to the darkness that envelopes each scene whole, bringing forth the necessary scares that don’t require jumps or the paranormal to sell its taut, tense environment. The film never goes out of its way to feel like a scary movie gimmick, treating its visual capacity as nothing more than a stage for the madness that follows, and that’s something in patience that I commend this film greatly for.

– Composer Jeff Russo’s subtle ambiance in music that echoed the internal furnace of its title character. What Russo does that shouldn’t be understated is keeping his tones minimal in volume, never allowing his emphasis to exceed that of the situation that is playing out before our eyes. Beyond this, he audibly deciphers Lizzie’s feelings throughout much of what happens to her, allowing us the audience this necessary glance inside not only to comprehend, but also to anticipate what is coming next in her cryptic movements.

– Much of the costume work and designs also hit their desired marks, radiating the fashions of 1892 seamlessly. What’s even more appreciative is that these trends never go out of their way to sell the gimmick in the most extravagant of ways, choosing instead to mirror more of the three-piece Bohemian era suits and gowns that feel slightly outdated even for this particular year of setting. This sounds like a negative, but it actually provides layers for the character’s personalities, in that money will never be the whole picture to their well-being, and that subtle hint is something that I greatly marveled at.

NEGATIVES

– Even for a slow-burn, this film does test your patience repeatedly. There’s this very unnerving imbalance between the first and second halves of the film that divide its entertainment value ferociously, and I felt that with more concern paid to the plodding first half, the film’s final moments wouldn’t feel as much like a shred of lettuce for a starving hunger. The murder itself is satisfying, but ultimately not worth the thrill-less trail to get there.

– Trimmed down. This film originally was written as a four episode HBO series that was supposed to air a couple of years ago, and now that it’s a brief 101 minute feature film you can notice the constrictions to the story that rendered it a cliff notes version. Lizzie’s sister is introduced and barely included again throughout the story, Lizzie’s seizures are only touched upon on the opening ten minutes and then never again, and the backstory of Lizzie’s mother isn’t given enough respect to even be mentioned once in a passing conversation. This and many other tiers give the film an often impatient touch that unfortunately did nothing for its pacing overall, and for my money I think this story works better when it is allowed more time to cater to those side stories that help fill in the blanks slightly more.

– Differences in the real life story. I consider myself knowledgeable enough on the Lizzie Borden front, and because of such it was easy to spot the liberties that this film took with the cherished material. For one, the answers of the murder mystery itself has only been hinted at and never confirmed, so this movie’s ability to chalk it all up with nothing left to chance is a bit misleading and irresponsible. Another example is the film portraying Lizzie as this caring human being who took time to learn her help’s name, when in reality Lizzie was just as guilty as her parents with refusing to say their maid’s real names. This is a big deal to me when you’re speaking in terms of honesty for the material, and because of such, ‘Lizzie’ never feels like the whole story, just the parts that are convenient for its narrative.

7/10

Fahrenheit 11/9

Directed by Michael Moore

Starring – Michael Moore, Donald Trump, David Hogg

The Plot – Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” is a provocative and comedic look at the times in which we live. It will explore the two most important questions of the Trump Era: How the f**k did we get here, and how the f**k do we get out?

Rated R for some adult language and some disturbing material/images

POSITIVES

– No film in theaters currently that is more important. In general, ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ feels like a ferociously unnerving wake-up call to Americans everywhere, and it does so by displaying how we a freedom-seekers have abandoned our own ideals in favor of corporate greed and selfishness. Moore cuts to the heart of the issue, refusing to ever apologize or relent in the focus of his topics, and regardless of how you feel about him as a person, you understand that he’s someone who has more than done his homework of what’s enclosed.

– As a narrator, Moore excels at informing and relating these often cryptic governmental terms and conditions to the audience, allowing even the most inexperienced viewer a chance to keep up. In this regard, Moore feels like an everyman filmmaker who is here, first and foremost, for the people, standing at eye level to meet them every step of the way. There’s never a moment in his newest film that ever felt overwhelming or trailing off, and this sense of persistence within the material allows the audience to keep their attention firmly on the rapid discussion.

– Versatility in footage used. Whether it’s on the ground cell phone coverage, or network stock footage that captures the complete spectrum of what’s depicted, Moore is an editing magician at piecing together enough visual evidence to back up his salty claims. Being that his film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ was so long ago, it’s a welcome approach to involving the benefits of technology, and Moore’s reach for a multitude of angles properly relays the whole story by conjuring up a curtain-peeking perspective.

– No voice goes unnoticed. In Moore’s desire to film and interview citizens in many diverse locations across this country, we are treated to a wide-range of on-ground commentary from the voice of the voiceless. This offers us the audience our most reflective glances of the real truths boiling beneath the fabricated media and hyperbolic headlines that we’re used to. Nothing of which is more somberly crippling than the citizens of Flint who take us through four trying years of heartache and loss. Moore goes front-and-center where most politicians haven’t, and it’s this candid delve that nourished the food for thought that comes with so many living in poisonous conditions.

– Electoral College faults. One of my biggest problems with the themes of democracy has always been the ideal of Electoral College voting. It’s a big business ploy to appeal to the upper one percent that does more damage than good, and the documentary does a solid job of expressing this disposition of compromise. This more than anything is proving to be a voter’s biggest obstacle, because when they figure out that their votes don’t matter, why should they vote? and it’s that thought process that candidates like Trump thrive on, diminishing the left majority of the country that gave him the second most amount of votes in the 2016 election.

– Without question, Moore’s strongest ability as a filmmaker is his ability to stay bi-partisan on issues and circumstances that are a reaction of so many things done wrong by the right and left. If you think this is a film that is just about what Trump has done wrong, then you’re sorely mistaken, as ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ highlights the many insensitive and consequential decisions that negated the Obama presidency that often many left-wingers conveniently overlook. Michael, while a long time democratic voter, thrives as a reporter without influence, and because of such it allows him to be the curious party necessary to uncovering these shocking truths from two respective sides that have gotten us to this moment.

– While I had some problems with the pacing and linking of such deep-seeded issues that Moore discusses, I can commend him for touching base and giving attention to many important issues that require an eye of curiosity. Particularly in the subplots of the Flint Water Crisis, big bank meandering upon political parties, and my personal favorite: the new generation of blue-collar candidates who aren’t lifetime politicians. Moore tends to hint that if we want something done, WE have to do it ourselves, and this layer of optimism in seeing so many everymen and women from our own communities, is something that gave me great pleasure within the film.

– Lasting power. I believe this film’s greatest accolades have yet to be written, and that it will stand as a welcome mat for the next twenty years for how it shapes and re-defines what it means to vote. Films like these are inspiring for how they prove not only that politicians are regular people like you and me, but also how they prescribe the notion that one voice moves miles. If you don’t stand up for what you want, someone will come along and shape America in the way they see fit, and through Moore’s ever-changing ball caps and citizen arrests of high-ranking officials, we are treated to the man who practices what he preaches.

NEGATIVES

– Manipulative musical score. For my money, it’s a bit over-the-top when Moore accommodates people like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders with these popular tracks in pop-culture, yet narrates Trump with these darkly ominous Italian choirs, signaling something of Damien levels of terror. I see the intended purpose, but it feels too desperate and meandering over the facts that more than equate the problems. As I mentioned above, Moore does mostly a great job of staying in the middle, but this one example was something that had me rolling my eyes for how truly unnecessary and repetitive it was.

– Much of the material is etched in fact, but there is that occasional slip-up when Moore oversteps his boundaries in his hatred of Trump for what feels like mud-slinging. To know the problem, you must know the difference, with one being based on fact while the other is opinion, and it’s in the matters with the latter that I wish were left on the cutting room floor of a film that already exceeds two hours. Particularly the material involving Trump’s questionable affection of his daughter added nothing to the bigger picture of problems that feel leap years above this angle.

– Scattered second half. It doesn’t hurt to attack these many subplots one at a time, but when you step back and stare at the entire bigger picture, Moore’s anticipated sequel can come across as a bit disjointed. Particularly in how he transitions the material from one arc to the next requires a little more helming of the transitional bridging that smooths it all out. Because of such, it constantly feels like the film is in appropriately convenient DVD chapters instead of one cohesive project that works together.

7/10

Assassination Nation

Directed by Sam Levinson

Starring – Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

The Plot – High school senior Lily (Young) and her group of friends live in a haze of texts, posts, selfies and chats just like the rest of the world. So, when an anonymous hacker starts posting details from the private lives of everyone in their small town, the result is absolute madness leaving Lily and her friends questioning whether they’ll live through the night.

Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use, all involving teens

POSITIVES

– Stylish introduction sequence that sets the precedent. The film opens with this stylish sequence that reminded me of exploitation movies of the 70’s, complete with audible narration and visual likenesses to tell you what’s behind its creative content. In this regard, it pretty much runs through every reason why this film is rated R, giving you a taste of the material before the storytelling has truly begun. This not only showed me that this film had a sense of humor, ala Quentin Tarrantino vibes, but also that it values style every bit as much as substance, welcoming us into a world where law and order has been reduced to civilian measures.

– Authentic dialogue. As a screenwriter, Levinson channels rich honesty in the way he mimics the speech patterns and conversations of today’s youth, bringing forth a level of realism that proves that the man has done his homework. But it isn’t just in the way that this group of free-spirited women communicate personally with each other, it’s also in the articulation and abbreviation of texting that really hammers this positive home. The amount of times that these characters reach for their phones is a constant reminder of how attached at the hips they are to social media, luring them with the cheese that will eventually trap them whole.

– As for the film’s camera work, there’s a documentary vibe that elicits itself from the experimentation in angles and movements that sets itself apart from the rest of the pack. Levinson cashes in quick edits for manipulated long takes, and this decision pays off immensely with some of my favorite scenes that keeps the grip on tension firmly. One such scene involves a house break-in by a masked group of guys, and we the audience are taken through each room of the house from the outside, pasting together the stream of madness that is spreading like a cancer inside. It is definitely one of my favorite sequences of the year, and magnificent for how it’s cut together to feel like it’s playing out in real time.

– Fresh-faced cast. While the film does have some big name long-time actors like Jennifer Morrison, Joel McHale, and even Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard, the decision to hire actresses who are majorly inexperienced is one that pays off greatly for immersing yourself in them as characters. What’s equally more endearing is that each of them steal the show in their own ways, carving out four star-studded breakthrough performances that will undoubtedly bring them to the spectrum of bigger pictures. More than anyone, it’s Young’s nightmarish transformation of Lily that keeps your attention, experiencing a growing reaction to the town that puts her at the forefront of the growing panic.

– Going into this film, I felt that this was going to solely rest as a study of harrowing feminism across a post-Trump elected environment, and while it thrives as that, it doesn’t just rest on those laurels. This is also very much a warning to the kind of stock and security that we put into technology, opening our eyes to how truly vulnerable every one of us are when we think this four inch device shields what’s boiling underneath. We are treated to the fragility of hormone-drive males and how respond to female nudity, and how often women are condemned for doing what they want with their own bodies. All of this echoes these small seeds of truth that we can pull from our own society, allowing the fears that are homegrown within the film to grow with the light of audience eyes firmly focused upon them.

– Reflective storytelling. While I already mentioned the transformation of Lily and what it does to the significance of her character, it also shouldn’t be understated what this does to the movie itself that so faithfully follows her. About halfway through the film, this turns into the scariest Purge horror movie that you’ve ever seen, bringing with it more seeds of honesty than that series could ever attain with satire. The unnerving movements and actions of the townspeople are very effective, and the movie’s thirst for blood is fully realized in the way the angles play with your imagination.

– Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film was the mesmerizing lighting scheme that radiated throughout much of the first act. These unorthodox coloring measures are every bit euphoric as they are absorbing, often embracing the mood of the room and characters respectively with its neon tints. As the film progresses, we are given subtle reminders of this scheme, but never as obvious or as influential as it was during those pivotal first twenty minutes, and I believe this is because there’s something to be said about shaking this almost angelic and dreary perception that the townsfolk have on these girls, in seeing them how THEY want them to be.

NEGATIVES

– Not a major problem, but calling the town Salem was a bit over the top for me. If you know anything about the Salem Witch Trials, you know what I’m referring to, and this not only gives off an unsubtle hint at what’s to inevitably come within our story and main protagonists, but also takes away from the audience relating itself even further to the material. For my money, I wish they would’ve not even mentioned the town name. Mentally, this would be food-for-thought in that it could happen anywhere, and doesn’t limit its message of urgency to one specific place.

– Second act spills. Without a doubt, the second act is the weakness of the film for me, often feeling like its narration is trailing off on character shaping and residential panic to properly bring along its progression. Because of the latter, it greatly feels like the response from the town jumps two steps with little or no warning, exceeding believability a bit with such drastic jumps, and I would prefer Levinson focus slightly more on what’s going on outside of these temporarily protected walls that our group of ladies secure themselves in.

– Principal subplot? One such instance of the sloppy grip that Levinson occasionally stumbles at with his materialistic agenda, is the subplot involving a principal’s secret being revealed. This goes virtually nowhere after the news breaks, and what’s even worse is the lack of involvement from this actor/character as the film goes on, reminds us just how much fat the film could’ve trimmed for itself, in ridding itself of these distracting subplots that take us absolutely nowhere. Another such example is the FBI supposedly tracking Lily’s online movements, but then never actually appearing in the film. Surely something this big would have government workers all over the place, but all we ever get is a goofy sheriff twice removed from a Dukes of Hazzard movie.

7/10

Life Itself

Directed by Dan Fogelman

Starring – Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening

The Plot – As a young New York couple (Isaac, Wilde) goes from college romance to marriage and the birth of their first child, the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and through lifetimes within Life Itself.

Rated R for adult language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use

POSITIVES

– Immersive shot composition. While I had loads of problems with this film’s psychology overall, one thing that can’t be debated is Dan’s visual compass for depicting these very tender moments. He uses a lot of soft lighting to compliment the very intimate and claustrophobic angles, and what this does is not only engage us into the atmosphere of this loving couple, but also forces us to focus on a particular facial reaction that is played for an entirely different reaction the more we know about the story. It’s about the only dose of warmth and compassion that you will get from this film, and it does so without feeling like a gimmick, where the characters look into the lens to speak to us directly.

– One valid performance in a field of complete trash. It’s a shame that a majority of this prestigiously stacked ensemble cast are repeatedly under-directed and ineptly utilized, but one such man in Antonio Banderas overcame all of the odds to give us a valid amount of substance to his character. Maybe it’s saying something bad when Antonio Banderas is the best actor in your film, but the sadness that haunted his eyes made for some truly gripping dialogue exchanges that were easily the highlight of the film for me.

NEGATIVES

– Protagonists? These are insulting lead characters, who go for personable in their sarcastically naive deliveries, but it comes across more as dastardly unsympathetic when you really break it down. This film accomplished the insurmountable task of making me hate an Oscar Isaac character, in all of his rude and obnoxious communication that wears itself out after five minutes. He is only topped by Olivia Cooke’s emotionally vapid drone of a human being, who feels like she could accomplish more if she were dead. These are the kind of characters you don’t want to spend 108 minutes with, and you’re reminded of it redundantly, each time the story reboots itself to a new subplot. Hell is repetition.

– Minimal plot. In writing the synopsis up top, I squeezed a martini from sand. In general, this film has no plot. It’s a derivatively wretched country song of human misery that never has the capability of building an inch of momentum for itself, ridding itself of positivity the same way a cat does with fleas. What’s even worse is because it’s one of those stitched together films, with new additions every twenty minutes, the film never allows you the comfort in getting settled with what little develops. It’s every bit as forgettable as it is crass.

– Aims for a bigger picture in life meaning, but never earns what it doesn’t stride for. I compare the material enclosed to a depressed teenager who claims their life is over, but then turns their thought process around when they get a new Iphone, and I say this because ‘Life Itself’ is a constant self-wallowing mess that misses the beauty in the true spontaneity of life. Its grief and despair vastly overshadows those fast-forwarded moments of light that feel like the proper nourishment during a film that otherwise starves us of what we need to balance it out.

– To a certain degree, this film, as well as Fogelman’s writing, feels sadistic. It’s a word that I don’t often use in critiquing films, but how else can you describe a man who inevitably sets his characters up for doom in the most unapologetic of ways. Fogelman would want you to believe this accurately depicts life, but the overly-exaggerated depiction feels so unfamiliar from our own world, that it gives it this feeling of an emerging villain. Death from the Final Destination series of films doesn’t have shit on life in ‘Life Itself’.

– Television quality. This film proves to me what I already knew about Fogelman as a writer; he feels better suited for the television world of pacing that appropriately allows a writer to spread those impactful moments out. That’s not to say that Dan hasn’t made good movies, it’s just that with the recent success of his award-winning TV show “This Is Us”, it’s clear to spot where to compartmentalize his style of writing. In particularly, it’s in the redundancy of events so closely stitched together to ever allow us a welcome period of breath. Because of such, if you want to see this film, just don’t see it in theaters. Allow yourself the decency of being able to pause in between material that never relents for all of the wrong reasons.

– We get it!!!. This film has such an erection for the concept of unreliable narrator, bringing it up every five minutes, that it often feels like Fogelman just discovered this conveniently placed plot device. What’s funny is that his inclusion of the perk doesn’t enhance the dramatic pulse, nor does it satisfyingly surprise us in any method. As mentioned above, the bigger moments of this film are those sadistic ones, and nothing ever feels remotely satisfying because of such. Then there’s the problem with Fogelman’s definition of characters in an unreliable narrative that don’t match up even closely to what’s depicted front-and-center here. These characters are too bluntly honest to ever be unreliable, and it’s probably the only time in film that I wish I were lied to.

– Disjointed and contrived. This film is told in four different chapters from four different character’s perspectives, and this angle of storytelling doesn’t work here in the way it does other films because that connection feels between the arcs feels coincidental at best. When you divide this film into two halves, it often feels like you’re watching two completely different films, even two completely different languages, and that imbalance constantly asks us to start over before we have received closure from the previous offering. Because you’re dividing this film into quarters, none of the subplots ever receive ample enough time to feel properly effective, nor does their allowance of time ever feel remotely equal to what necessarily required more development.

– How did this end up being the script approved final ending? It’s clear that the intention is to go for something sweet and metaphorical, but these closing developments are truly morbid when you take even ten seconds to truly think about it, and dissect how awkward this family’s gatherings will really be when their two sides come together. Also, it’s kind of a betrayal of its material when said big message is told through the Spanish speaking characters in English, when the entire rest of the movie they spoke in Spanish, with subtitles being displayed underneath. It’s not a big deal creatively, it just doesn’t apply to what we already knew about one of these characters in particular, in that she was born, raised, and only spoke in her native language.

2/10

The House With A Clock In Its Walls

Directed by Eli Roth

Starring – Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccard

The Plot – Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccard), after losing his parents, is sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black). He discovers his uncle is a warlock, and enters a world of magic and sorcery. But this power is not limited to good people: Lewis learns of Isaac Izard (Kyle Maclachlan), an evil wizard who wanted to cause the Apocalypse so that he could see what happened afterwards. To do this, he constructed a magical clock with black magic, as long as it exists it will keep ticking, counting down to doomsday. He died before he could finish the clock, but he hid the clock in his house, where Uncle Jonathan now lives. Now Lewis and Jonathan must find the clock before it’s too late, and before Isaac’s wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry), gets to it.

Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and adult language

POSITIVES

– Zany production designs on every level. This is a film that takes place in the 1950’s, and what I appreciate about that is it gives the film a one-of-a-kind style in wardrobe and architecture to compliment the special effects that are constantly flying at us on-screen. The wardrobe in particular is a delightful throwback to the days of faded gowns and dusty blue jeans, and the lighting scheme inside of the house vibrates well off of the gothic style set pieces, that all of which perfectly capture the mood of the material in spades.

– Strong crossover appeal with Harry Potter fans. Whether you know it or not, the book of the same name for which this film is based on was actually an inspiration for J.K Rowling and her series of novels that have re-defined the young adult genre respectfully, so it’s certainly easy to see the appeal for kids in particular, who will easily immerse themselves in this world of similarity. I do have problems with some of the magic itself, which I will get to later on, but there’s clearly enough paranormal instances depicted here that will give the less-picky audience members a roaring good time.

– Black and Blanchett steal the stage. What I appreciated about their relationship more than anything is that the film doesn’t forcefully paint them as this romantic coupling just because every film seems to require that. These are very much two friends with devilishly delicious banter back-and-forth, who colorfully narrate the bond between them that transcends romance. In that way, they very much feel like outcast soulmates who have grown together because of their inability to fit in anywhere else in society, and the duo constantly keep this film on the railings of positivity thanks to their portrayals never feeling like this is a basic paycheck job.

– Sentimentality. Beneath the complexions of spells and warlocks, what won me over for this film immensely was the subplot involving Lewis’s remorse for his parents, and how it crafted and underlying layer of sensitivity for the film that I wasn’t expecting. Early on especially, we feel a sense of great isolation for Lewis that overrides the actor’s lack of focus on emotional resonance, keeping our investment in the character firmly for wanting to see him achieve the greatness he is destined for. Where the film ends especially hammers this angle home, and proves that this film has the heart required to counterbalance the scares, that could or could not test the younger audience.

– Enchanting musical score by Nathan Barr. More often than not, Barr’s tones of temperament ease us through the majestic mystery that resides in this gorgeous house, repeatedly giving that feeling of possibility in the air that the film’s environment requires. Nathan uses a lot of orchestral cues in enhancing the energy of what transpires visually, and offers enough variety in samplings to never feel like each piece is rubbing together or repeating.

– Great world-building in magical spells that will surely satisfy even the most hardcore magic fans. What I like about the spells mentioned and portrayed in the film is that they very much feel like they are ones that are at an introductory level, for the beginner who has recently picked up the skill of magic. Never in the film does Lewis feel like this prodigy who advances without practice, and I appreciate when a film isn’t afraid to document a character’s struggle, especially for something that is anything but easy to pick-up as a casual hobby.

NEGATIVES

– Poor child acting. I’ve already mentioned what worked about Vaccaro’s performance, but his screeching delivery and unbalanced emotional registry made for an uninentional rendering of the character that left him more annoying than indulging. In particular, it’s Owen’s inability to play up the dramatic pulse of the film dealing with his deceased parents that constantly underwhelmed, and left me wondering what could’ve been. Beyond Owen, the extras in the school scene severely lack focus. There are scenes where kids are in frame staring at the camera, that left me wondering how this ever got past the editing room that usually fixes these sort of ordeals.

– Obvious Plot Ploys. As usual in kids movies, there’s a lot of emphasis in the first act objects and subplots that are briefly mentioned, yet quickly diminished, that you know will pop up eventually as the film goes on. It’s terribly distracting for how these drops of exposition force their way into these casual conversations, but one in particular is far worse than the rest. This involves a backstory flashback scene shown to us the audience in film-strips, but doesn’t answer the question of how or who is filming this amazingly edited scene for the time.

– While this isn’t Eli Roth’s best film to date in my opinion, it is definitely the most ambitious of his career. Unfortunately, Eli is only half up to the task of the scope of such a legendary story, feeling the constant nagging of tonal imbalance and lack of overall wonderment that the story so desperately requires. There are interesting aspects that go bump in the night, but the volume of Roth’s magic feels very tamed when compared to a Potter or Goosebumps film that properly emphasized more of the impact and consequences from its delicate pages.

– Underwhelming effects work. While not everything is terrible about the 90% C.G work here, there’s also nothing impressive about it that we haven’t seen from better films. In the era of computer generated effects that often lack weight or heft to their inclusion, here comes another film that finds its way into that dreaded category. The layers of color constantly feel off with their manufactured properties when compared to physical that surrounds them, and the interaction with live actors always feels a step too late to feel surprising.

6/10

Johnny English Strikes Again

Directed by David Kerr

Starring – Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson

The Plot – The third installment of the Johnny English comedy series, with Rowan Atkinson returning as the much loved accidental secret agent. The new adventure begins when a cyber-attack reveals the identity of all active undercover agents in Britain, leaving Johnny English as the Secret Service’s last hope. Called out of retirement, English dives head first into action with the mission to find the mastermind hacker. As a man with few skills and analog methods, Johnny English must overcome the challenges of modern technology to make this mission a success.

Rated PG for some action violence, rude humor, adult language and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Late but purposeful. It has been eight years since the previous Johnny English installment, and fifteen since the original that went on to be a box office smash, bringing 320 million dollars between them. So it’s certainly easy to understand why a third chapter exists, and with the addition of technological nemesis like Cyber-Hacking, Identity Theft, and such, it allows English to explore avenues of antagonists that he hasn’t yet tackled. But it also provides the opportunity in valuing these new toys that help him crack the case a little easier. This gives the third movie proper motivation and deters it from the previous movies, whose environments were a product of their time.

– Stylish, spy thriller cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister. ‘Strikes Again’ is fill of slick car chase sequences through the bending mountainside, as well as never-ending portraits of English countryside that competently articulates the genre’s predecessors in visual likeness. These examples are a constant reminder of how faithful this film sticks with its intended genre purpose, and perfectly sets its audience in the mood for what’s to come.

– Quick run time. The film clocks in at a measly 84 minutes, and this may perhaps be its greatest benefit against a plot that isn’t necessarily substantive or even imaginative. Much of the pacing remained persistent, and never felt like it was sagging or dulling me to the point of checking my watch, particularly with the carefully spread out sight gags that bring enticement to each act.

– Doesn’t require allegiance to the previous films. As a critic, I am a bit ashamed to say that I never saw either of the first two films in this series, but thankfully Kerr’s sequel doesn’t rely at all on Johnny’s past work, just on the very legend of the character that sets him apart from the other spies. In this regard, the movie stands on its own independent feet, catering to a new generation of youthful moviegoers without ever alienating fans of the series, who are now grown-ups.

– Hit or miss performances. Atkinson still gives his all to this character, portraying English with a sort of unaware cool smug about his asinine decisions that make him the proper outcast for any spy character. His best attribute is in his bodily movements that dare you not to laugh each time he dedicates a thorough amount of time to the gag. Likewise, his chemistry with sidekick Bough (Played by Ben Miller) is impeccable, and allows the two cherished English actors great importance to the story’s progression. Unfortunately, the female cast is less opportunistic. Thompson is virtually wasted as the Prime Minister, sprouting her sparse ten total minutes on camera as being the subplot to Johnny’s mayhem. It is unfortunate that the two have such little screen time together to bounce off of one another, as the inclusion of a prestigious actress like Thomposon could’ve added much-needed female dynamic to the film that it just doesn’t master. Kurylenko is also phoning it in, playing Bond girl 27. The film just kind of forgets about her the longer it goes, proving her intention was nothing more than eye-candy that feels dated for the kind of equality we have mastered most recently in films.

NEGATIVES

– Cheap budget for virtually non-existent action sequences. What this film needs is an element of devastation in adding weight or memorability to the movie. One example of this limited perspective is a fire sequence in the opening twenty minutes that not only shies away from depicting the start of the fire, but also only acknowledges it through the facial reactions of our two male leads, with a flicker of light reflecting from their faces. Sadly, this is the highlight for the film in the set pieces department, removing any kind of consequential weight from the irresponsibility of clumsy characters.

– Ineffective humor. This film, perhaps more than anything else, is a blueprint for the differences in English and American comedy that have divided them for decades in terms of intended marks. With the exception of one sequence that stretches the boundaries and believability of virtual reality, I didn’t laugh once in this entire film, and that’s a huge disappointment for someone like Atkinson, whom I’ve adored for decades on the Mr. Bean program. Part of the blame is the juvenile atmosphere created, but I put so much more on punchlines that are skimmed over like just another line read.

– No surprises. Considering this is a spoof on spy thrillers, the lack of overall mystery and motivations within the characters feels like a pivotal misfire against a predictable screenplay full of genre cliches. Pretty much from the opening ten minutes of the movie you can piece it all together where the film’s antagonist, conflict, and resolution will fall, proving that the film’s lack of intelligence within itself stems from so much more than a bumbling protagonist who has never used a cell phone in 2018.

– An idea within. Instead of a plot that more than rubs together with previous films in the series, I preferred an angle that the screenplay only hints at. English is now an espionage teacher of sorts for a school of youths, and I think this original direction could’ve done with its youthful cast the same things that ‘Kingsman’ did for troubled adolescents. Is there any guarantee it would’ve been a better film? Absolutely not, but the desire in crafting a chapter of originality is something I commend any series for, but unfortunately it’s a sequel in plot that never strays far from familiarity.

– In Kerr’s directing, the biggest flaw that I found was his inability in taking chances. Most of the shot compositions, as well as character world-building feels very pedestrian and one-dimensionally confined to the actions of the film. What I mean by this is it doesn’t feel believable in the slightest that this world exists outside of this movie, refusing to explore English when he isn’t donning the three piece suit. This is where screenwriter William Davies takes his share of the blame, because his conflict lacks true complexity in fleshing out the true danger of the profession. These psychological delves could allow us not only to feel more invested in the hollow plot, but also in the range of the character, who hasn’t sprouted much in fifteen years.

5/10

The Predator

Directed by Shane Black

Starring – Sterling K Brown, Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn

The Plot – From the outer reaches of space to the small-town streets of suburbia, the predator walks again. Now, the universe’s most lethal hunters are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves with DNA from other species. When a young boy accidentally triggers their return to Earth, only a ragtag crew of ex-soldiers and a disgruntled science teacher can prevent the end of the human race.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, adult language throughout, and crude sexual references

POSITIVES

– Coveted R-rating. Thankfully Shane Black knows the kind of adult material required to properly convey the ferocity of the Predator character, and this film makes the most of opportunities that other Predator movies weren’t fortunate enough to get. This latest chapter is bloodier (Albeit C.G blood), cruder, and especially the most violent of the series thus far. Simply put, you can’t succeed in a movie like this if you don’t give yourself the chance, and there’s zero limitations in terms of the influence of those things that I previously mentioned.

– As a writer, Black dabbles a lot in the Predator folklore and ideals for a franchise that six films in still feels very cryptic. This really feels like the first time we’ve ever tried to understand the culture of this alien race, and what their soul purpose is for frequently visiting our planet. Does every idea succeed? Absolutely not, but the layers that Black has given this iconic character certainly opens the door of experimentation for future films to soak in.

– Treasures its past. What I love perhaps the most about this film is that it is a sequel, first and foremost. In the era of reboots and rehashes, ‘The Predator’ continues the thirty year continuity with a chapter that bridges the gaps of the previous films, including many winks and nods to characters and invasions that only hardcore fans of the series would understand. Why reboot a series that frankly hasn’t even tipped the iceberg in terms of its creativity? Instead, cherishing the past will undoubtedly enhance the appeal of the future.

– The Predator’s costume is still one of the coolest in all of horror, and we are treated to several lengthy vantage points of its artistic integrity. The regular Predator has so much practical layers to it, and the new “Super-Predator” simply cannot compete with its ingenuity. What’s even more effective is that the movements of the actor inside the suit doesn’t feel hindered or compromised because of suffocating weight, giving whoever the ability to move as fast as the scene or sequence requires.

NEGATIVES

– Poorly edited. A question arose every ten minutes of my showing for this film, and I feel like a lot of people will suffer a similar fate because of the horrendous job of visual storytelling that this film merits for itself. Character deaths are missed by choppy cuts, certain characters feel like they transport from one room to the next between cuts because there’s no scene in between to bridge the time of travel, and days feel like they rub together because of how a scene taking place on Halloween cut and pasted a daytime and nighttime scene literally back-to-back.

– Do you watch a Predator movie to laugh? I certainly don’t. It’s not that I have a problem with humor being a part of the Predator franchise. Hell, there were great male sex jokes in the original movie. But you have to know where to draw the line, especially when it diminishes the line of suspense that this film goes without throughout its entirety. The comedy for the most part works in generating its intended laughter, but in going to this well far too many times, you start to lose sight of what kind of tone this film should rightfully be.

– One-off scene problem. This question will only be familiar to people who see the film, but how the fuck did the main protagonist swallow that enormous metal object in the beginning of the film? My suspension of disbelief can only go so far, and there’s no physical way that anyone on this planet could swallow or stomach something so abnormally big for the human throat.

– Pedestrian performances. I didn’t hate anyone’s work in this film. After all, poor character direction can only take you so far. But nobody in this movie feels believable in the roles they adopt. Olivia Munn is arguably the least convincing doctor that I have ever seen. A fellow doctor asks her how she got this far, and her reply is “I wrote a note to the president when I was a little girl, that said if an alien race was discovered, I want to examine it”. For a second, I wondered if this was a joke, and that something bigger was coming, but no, that’s the explanation we as an audience are treated to. Beyond this Holbrook’s leading man lacks enough charisma to be the true focus, and is responsible for most of the trouble that his group of misfits encounter. Donald K. Sterling is entirely wasted, being in the film for about fifteen total minutes, only to chime in when the film requires sloppy exposition to counter its minimal storytelling balance. It’s a shame too, because Sterling’s energy does give sagging scenes a much-needed pick-up, but Black never commits himself beyond billing to be a main character.

– Lack of geography or telegraphing within the action sequences. In addition to the various choppy editing that I already mentioned, what makes these scenes of havoc so difficult to interpret is the poor lighting associated with shooting these scenes at night. This pales in comparison to the final fifteen minutes of the movie however, as the last big bang by the two sides at war goes by so lightning quick, yet its pacing somehow feels like it takes a lifetime to get through. This is of course because we as an audience can’t read properly into what is happening to who, therefore diminishing your interest and forcing you to keep checking your watch to see how much is left.

– Takes far too long in getting to the movie that was advertised. To anyone who watched the deceiving trailer, you can put together that this is a film about humans battling a Predator, when a bigger, badder Predator shows up. That’s it. But in getting to that subplot (Yes I said subplot), you must first tread through fifty minutes of government agencies, dismissed soldiers, and scenes so full of dialogue that it would make Quentin Tarrantino say “Enough is enough”. Once we finally get the movie that was promised, it never feels like the most interesting or focused-upon material of the movie. For all of its hype, the super Predator is just a bigger version of the already dangerous model one, and his terrible C.G influence makes me want to cancel the upgrade, and instead stick with the original that is already proven.

4/10

Unbroken: Road To Redemption

Directed by Harold Cronk

Starring – Samuel Hunt, Marritt Patterson, Will Graham

The Plot – Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, the film begins where the previous film concluded, sharing the next amazing chapter of the unbelievable true story of Olympian and World War II hero Louis Zamperini (Hunt). Haunted by nightmares of his torment, Louie sees himself as anything but a hero. Then, he meets Cynthia (Patterson), a young woman who captures his eye-and his heart. Louie’s wrathful quest for revenge drives him deeper into despair, putting the couple on the brink of divorce. Until Cynthia experiences Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Crusade where she finds faith in God and a renewed commitment to her marriage and her husband

Rated PG-13 for thematic content and related disturbing images

POSITIVES

– For a Pure Flix film, this one sure does have a lot of daring material. Usually with these kind of movies, I prepare myself for the kind of provocativeness that comes with singing ‘Old Mcdonald Had a Farm’ in a preschool class, but surprisingly the PG-13 label is tested repeatedly, with an array of spousal abuse and alcoholism that gives the movie actual personal demons that provide our protagonist with plenty of character flaws. I commend the movie for being amongst the most daring from the production company, and hopefully our first R-rated film isn’t far behind.

– Brandon Roberts nostalgic musical compositions. Even during a movie that my interest kept waning in, the musical score served as the shot of much-needed adrenaline to keep me into the grip of the story. What Roberts does is pay homage to the era of Jazz music in the 40’s that paints a vivid portrait of feel-good cinema. On my ears, it reminded me a lot of ‘The Sandlot’, in that it audibly enhances the beauty of the scenery that surrounds us, constantly reminding us of the light-hearted atmosphere that our characters partake in.

– I’m not of the camp who think this film was pointless, in fact I applaud it for telling the story AFTER the heroic event. Most films or franchises rarely ever tell the whole story, refusing to focus on the psychological toll that a haunting event from ones past has on the aftermath of their well-being, but Cronk takes that chance, and while the movie simply doesn’t work for its own reasons, you can’t hate against a director who is hungry to take chances.

NEGATIVES

– Feels like one long musical montage of Zamperini’s life. Perhaps the biggest offense that this film commits is that it’s trying to tell too much in such a short allowance of time (93 minutes). Particularly in that of the first act, Louie’s life flashes by with little ability to stop and soak in the very meaningful moments of his emotional homecoming, choosing instead to rush to a red light of entertainment that isn’t remotely as compelling. Because of this, this movie is a very difficult sit to get through because it’s all these remote tidbits that never add up to form the outline of this wounded man.

– Flawed production values. It isn’t enough that Zoran Popovic’s uninspiring cinematography hinders much of the style and vibe that the backdrops have going for it, but the camera quality and set designs mirror something of a low-budget dramatization show on television. Louie’s horrific flashback sequences are done in the lightning fast depictions because much of the effect work stumbles from low grade green-screen quality and obvious studio room limitations that remind you that these scenes are taking place anywhere but the actual ocean. This aspect alone constantly reminded me of watching a straight-to-DVD sequel, and it’s in Angelina Jolie’s once lucidly imaginative style that forces us through the biggest of all drop-offs.

– While I have no problems with the performances in this movie, other than the romantic leads having zero chemistry with one another, it’s more so in their demeanor and how they’re directed for why I felt they were both terribly miscast. As Louie, Hunt channels a vibe of arrogance on top of smug facial reactions that make him anything but relatable. Patterson is decent when she’s left to deal with being the eyes and ears of the household, but physically there’s nothing about her appearance that tells me she was the right woman for the job. If my words aren’t enough, wait for the film’s credit sequence, which does Patterson zero favors in the authenticity department.

– Constantly reminds you of the better film you should be watching. I get that this is a movie that takes place as a result of something tragically horrific for the protagonist, but this movie went to the well far too many times with this angle, saving its lone intriguing moments for the reminders of what we as an audience have already been through with a far superior film. Take this out of the film, and you start to find out not only how little this film established in terms of originality, but also how truly boring the diminishing laws of return are when the story’s meat has been removed.

– Forgotten subplots. I’m finding this kind of sloppiness a lot in religious films anymore. A series of storylines will be introduced to the unfolding scenario, usually in the second act, and we never hear anything of their conclusions. For ‘Unbroken’, it’s Louie’s emerging career as a possible professional boxer, or a broken ankle that is never mentioned again. Both of these subplots are given valuable attention and screen time during the film, but are abandoned faster than Louie’s atheist ideals, which I’ll get to in a second.

– For a while, I was convinced that the religious propaganda wasn’t going to pop up in this film. It goes roughly an hour with very minimal mention of anything holy. But the final half hour shoe-horns this angle in so forcefully that it transforms this into an entirely different film all together. Reverend Billy Graham is played in this movie by his real life son, and the last ten minutes are this obviously desperate ploy to speak to us the audience, in place of Louie whom he’s actually speaking to. The camera angles during these scenes are creepy to say the least, positioning Graham front-and-center looking at us to manipulate us into believing that matters of alcoholism and psychological duress will disappear if you believe in Christ. It’s all such an A-to-Z direction in terms of where this movie started, and touched on the very same notes that other Pure Flix films do that make all of their films so predictable.

– Clumsily rendered flashback sequences. The fantasy sequences in question lack even the smallest ounce of nuance and subtlety, reaching for shock factor that simply can’t hold a candle to the more horrific points of Jolie’s original film, that did more in a camp than this film could muster with imagination. Nothing ever feels effective to us the audience, and if we can’t feel Louie’s pain during his most trying moments, then it’s a constant reminder of how tragically flawed a story this easily engaging can’t manage to ever peak our interest.

3/10

Mandy

Directed by Panos Cosmatos

Starring – Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache

The Plot – Taking place in 1983, Red (Cage) is a lumberjack who lives in a secluded cabin in the woods. His artist girlfriend Mandy (Riseborough) spends her days reading fantasy paperbacks. Then one day, she catches the eye of a crazed cult leader, who conjures a group of motorcycle-riding demons to kidnap her. Red, armed with a chainsaw and other weapons, stops at nothing to get her back, leaving a bloody, brutal pile of bodies in his wake.

Rated R for scenes of terror, violence, and nudity

POSITIVES

– An invitation into the Panosphere. For only his second film, Panos Cosmatos continues to raise the bar of expectations, bringing to ‘Mandy’ a serene sense of hallucination that is the closest I’ve ever been to feeling on drugs. Visually, this film is a rock and roll fever dream of epic visuals and an over-the-top color pallet that constantly amazes. Shot with a Panavision AL series with an anamorphic lens, Benjamin Loeb’s mesmerizing cinematography is unlike anything that I have seen in such a long time, bringing beauty and euphoria to such nightmarish imagery.

– Marc Engels manipulative presence behind such sharp sound mixing. One sign of great mixing is when a film is able to fool me into hearing something that may very well not in fact be there, and it’s a constant in this film for my eyes to continue wandering, as I heard a barrage of animals and chanting that never appeared once in the film’s vantage point. Even better, it never intrudes on Johan’s sacred territory of scoring this midnight terror.

– Speaking of Johan, the gifted composer’s work in ‘Mandy’ is unfortunately his swan song cap on a legendary career, and he brings his A-game to outlining this other-worldly dimension that feels present in this film. Besides his love for the dark and ominous, it’s Johan’s range in electronic instruments and synth strings that gives this film’s horror and humanity the effective layers needed. Johansson has always been one of my absolute favorite composers, and from this critic and fan I say thank you for the memories. I’m glad you went out with arguably your most evasive and daring work to date.

– On a level of horror, many might be offended by ‘Mandy’ because it doesn’t have jump scares or conventional tropes, but this film does for atmosphere what others can only dream of. Much of this film deals with the devotion to the occult, so in depicting the helplessness and brainwashing, it truly is terrifying how one man’s guidance can be so dangerous based on how he chooses to unleash it. I found the thought process of this group to not be necessarily scary, but more unnerving and disturbing, for how they continue to believe they are doing the right thing.

– Cage unleashed. While Nicolas has never been one of my personal favorite actors, I can say that he is the perfect man for this project, if even just for the pure insanity that he brings to every character he takes on. As Red, Cage’s indulgence for overacting is the status quo, bringing a combination of grief and vengeance to his demeanor that feels animalistic when he reaches his road of revenge. His words are minimal, instead allowing his actions to do the talking. Cage’s crimson mask is worn like a trophy for his savage retaliation, and for the first time in a while, he feels inspired to give his all to a role that deserves him.

– Pays homage to the classic horror films before it that obviously influence this student-of-the-game director. I’m sure there are more than the ones I found, but my first viewing brought obvious dedications to films like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’, ‘Phantasm 2’, and of course ‘Evil Dead 2’. The one common factor here is that they are all sequels, but interesting enough, this is Cosmatos’s second directing effort. It takes two indeed.

– Unintentional humor that speaks volumes for the designated time period. Considering this film takes place in 1983, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the infamous disco versus rock and roll war are prominent in an environment even miles from society, and Panos heart lies with the latter. Our two protagonists don metal t-shirts that bear the obvious pentagram influence, but it’s in the cult’s musical choice of The Carpenters that nearly brought tears to my eyes. In so many words, Panos is relaying the idea that only people under the influence of some higher power can listen to such melodramatic music, and these few instances served as a welcome breath between terror shrieks that were the majority.

– Artistic expression. I know, big shocker right? But far beyond even the variety of colorful vibes associated with the film’s vibrant color scheme, the deposits of animated sequences were also a welcome breath of fresh air. These trippy free-flowing layers represented the dream sequences of those who the focus was on for that particular scene, and echoed accordingly the drug-enhanced vibe that is everywhere throughout the film. Even beyond this, I loved the neon title screens that introduced each character to us the audience. In accordance to this, the film’s title screen doesn’t pop up until halfway through the movie, signaling the start of the movie that was advertised as promised.

– Simplicity in story. What I appreciate about this film most of all is it didn’t require itself to feel cryptic or mythological with where it was headed, despite the first act that sets the stage for some abrasive folklore. At the end of the movie, the decision to hone this as a pretty conventional revenge flick is something that amazes the most, because it’s garners such a gut-punch of an impact from the imagery you partook in. This gives the film such an immense return that doesn’t require poignancy in material to spread the word of its mayhem. The film’s after midnight portal to another world more than takes care of that.

NEGATIVES

– Far too padded out in dialogue and sequencing. This film has no right to be over the 100 minute mark, and it’s unfortunately in its uneven first act where it wears too much of its weight. Dialogue is redundant, editing is testy in its delayed response, and the progression of plot feels most stunted during this period. This aspect will no doubt be the most difficult sell to audiences in terms of pacing, and I can understand it, because this film was one more edit away from being perfect.

9/10

The Wife

Directed by Bjorn Runge

Starring – Glenn Close, Christian Slater, Jonathan Pryce

The Plot – Behind any great man, there’s always a greater woman – and you’re about to meet her. It is crucial you get to know this woman – many of us already do and don’t even realize it. Joan Castleman (Close): a highly intelligent and still-striking beauty, the perfect devoted wife. Forty years spent sacrificing her own talent, dreams and ambitions to fan the flames of her charismatic husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) and his skyrocketing literary career. Ignoring his infidelities and excuses because of his “art” with grace and humor. Their fateful pact has built a marriage upon uneven compromises. And Joan’s reached her breaking point. On the eve of Joe’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the crown jewel in a spectacular body of work, Joan’s coup de grace is to confront the biggest sacrifice of her life and secret of his career.

Rated R for adult language and some sexual content

POSITIVES

– Made for the stage. ‘The Wife’ has that rich air of authenticity in its volume stirring dialogue and devouring of scenery that transcends the silver screen, allowing audiences the chance to soak up the heat of the moment with such minimal distraction. This is a screenplay that takes its time with each setting, steering us through evocative dialogue between the characters that effortlessly raises the tension in drama, and it’s an aspect that kept my attention through all of its 95 minutes.

– Behind every great man, there’s an even better woman. I have nothing bad to say about Slater or Pryce as far as performances go. They both bring such nuance and intelligence to their respective roles. But this is a one woman show from the get-go, and Close remains a melting pot of dramatic impulse. With Joan, we have a woman defined by one secret that has haunted her for eternity, and it’s in Close’s ferocity screaming out from underneath layers of suppression that makes the character so mesmerizing. Even when her character is background for a conversation between two other characters, you simply can’t take your eyes off of her or her abilities to telecommunicate everything she is feeling in a look or stare.

– Much of the marriage between Joan and Joe felt to me like an abstract painting whose truth became clear the closer you approached it. When the film begins, they feel like two people beating with one cohesive heart, a sheer testament to the unshakeable chemistry between Pryce and Close. But as the film carries on, you start to see chips in the armor of their union, bringing to light aspects and objects that were originally delivered as nothing more than an afterthought but now bring a stimulating charge for what they represent. One such example of this is the walnut that finds its way into more than one pair of hands.

– Dual narrative storytelling. Runge as a director builds the meat of the story in present day from the memories of the past, which play as spicy ingredients when added to what we’re currently tasting. What is so brilliant about this is the side pockets of angst and pain that each character takes with them is on a collision course with one another, opting to finally be confronted when its impact will undoubtedly echo the loudest. It feels like boiling water in a teapot in this regard, in that its pressure becomes too much, forcing it to scream out from all of the building to this point, that becomes too smothering to ignore much further. Scintillating drama at its finest.

– In addition to the marvelous performances, much credit goes to casting agents Elaine Grainger and Susanne Scheel for bridging the gap of believability between two respective timelines. The younger portrayals of Joe and Joan are played by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke respectively, and their likenesses to the older characters they portray is every bit as accurate as it is poetic. I used the last word because Starke is the real life daughter of Glenn Close, feeding food for thought on art imitating life in the most sentimental of measures.

– Upper class imagery. Because this film takes place in Stockholm (Although it was shot in Glasgow), we the audience are treated to these beautiful backdrops and luxurious interior set pieces that radiate the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Metaphorically, these material things add more weight to the constant reminder of the dirty secret between this marriage, but in the literal display, the cleansing of our own personal pallet is simply too exquisite and cozy not to indulge in.

– Great conversation piece for the perfect time. To me, the most meaningful films are always the ones that you can’t wait to get out of the theater and talk about, and ‘The Wife’ will surely join the ranks as the latest in conversation starters for either of the respective sexes. For women, there’s obviously enough enclosed in the repressed past of Joan to nail the thought process of how far we as an equal-seeking society have come, yet still have so far to go, and for men there’s much to be debated on the merits and importance of a household run together by two equally important parents. I could go more into detail, but it would be reaching spoiler territory, and I think that the plot above already is giving away much more than I want people to know going into the film.

– Without question, my favorite scenes of the movie were Slater’s parasitic (Compliment?) writer character probes each character for answers on what they’re hiding. In this regard, Slater’s character feels like a detective who already knows what’s behind the curtain, and just waits for the big reveal that will allow him to pounce all over them. In the one-on-one meeting with Joan, it feels like a psychological game of poker between two champions of the game, who neither of them want to show their hand too early. It’s a fight for leverage that you could argue either side wins, proving as a testament to two actors who hone their craft with such personality.

NEGATIVES

– While I understand the intended purpose of the direction, there were elements about this ending that I found downright detestable. Without revealing too much, I can say that it feels like a regression for Joan, in that the one thing that has defined her life for the worst will remain with her until her dying day. Certainly mudslinging is unnecessary to characters who can’t defend themselves, but I required slightly more of an epiphany for her character than she rightfully received. With that said, I can respect the bonds and merits of marriage, even those that aren’t entirely honest with the perception they are depicting.

– For my money, I could’ve used more artistry behind shot compositions and overall lighting, that felt pedestrian when compared to everything else that is above average with this production. The camera work can be occasionally sloppy in its knee-jerking reactions to characters moving in and out of frame, and the imbalance of proper lighting tone to the camera causes the occasional out-of-focus shot that occasionally distracted me. These aren’t major problems, but a tighter grip on these minor aspects could’ve easily rendered this film as close to a 10/10 for me.

8/10

White Boy Rick

Directed by Yenn Demange

Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richie Merritt

The Plot – Set in 1984 Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, the film is based on the moving true story of a blue-collar father (McConaughey) and his teenage son, Rick Wershe (Merritt), who became an undercover police informant and later a drug dealer, before he was abandoned by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.

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

POSITIVES

– Articulate production value in its respective decade setting. Considering I searched far and wide for something in the film to stand out as illegitimate of its 80’s establishment, the film does a solid job of echoing the very fashion trends and automobiles that were prominent in the Ford city. The males don flashy leisure suits of all shapes and color, but it’s in the furry jackets with gang surroundings where we get perhaps our most vivid take on the defining decade. These were very much the members only jackets of their time, long before it was only acceptable for a woman to wear fur.

– Variation in soundtrack that authentically represents the changing of the guard. For the first half of the movie, we’re treated to several tracks of Motown favorites, but as the film persists it’s the overtaking of rhymes and rhythm that distinguishes the change of voice within the streets. What this does is audibly represent Detroit’s transformative period from doo-wop to hip-hop colorfully enough in a way that echoes the very increase of violence and tension that we’re treated to from our character engagements.

– Presence behind the lens. There’s much to credit in Tat Radcliffe’s impeccable cinematography that unintentionally brings to life the beauty of the slums, but it would be nothing without the inclusion of Andrew Amine’s daring movements that really brings us along into this world of drug and weapon trafficking. The long takes are very persistent, studying the ever-changing locations and situations long enough to get a vibe for its danger and elegance alike, and the revolving shots that surround our cast give off the impression of life constantly moving around them with little reluctance.

– Dedication to Rick Junior. It would certainly be easy for this movie to overlook the importance of this being the youth’s story, especially with the big A-list names that more than make-up the celebrated cast inside, but Demange’s desire to see this as Ricky’s coming of age story is one that I greatly commend the movie for, in that he is the line between law and family that influence his every move as the glue between both. Mconaughey gets top billing, but the film’s unshakeable faith in keeping the focus on his kin is a decision that isn’t always easy, but one that pays off in spades for the integrity of the title and the story that never feels distracted.

– Without the family element, all else would fail. Because of the continued desire of Ricky to put his family back together, the film takes on a much more sentimental direction than I was rightfully expecting, proving itself as so much more than just another infiltration or get-rich-quick film that are currently all the rage in the drama category. In particular, it’s the bittersweet finale of a gut-punching third act that proves how much the dramatic pull was earned throughout, so much so that your heart is engaged in seeing this family outrun the live-fast lifestyle and setting that constantly surrounds them.

– Strong performances all around. What a breakthrough for Merritt, who manages roughly 90% of this movie’s story on his own. As Rick Jr, Merritt leaves enough divide in naive adolescence and street-smart hustle to represent how fast this youth is forced to adapt and grow-up to the ever-changing neighborhood around him. On top of that, the casting director couldn’t have chosen a more identical actor to play the real life figure. McConaughey gives another gripping dedicated turn as this father of two, who is trying to change himself for the better during a time when his kids are changing for the worst. Matthew emotes so much love and torture for the way he looks at his blood, and you start to really understand how vulnerable a parent’s responsibility really is, especially when their voice only goes as a far as the door their children go out to enter the world. Bel Powley was also a scene-stealer as Rick’s daughter, who herself has her own personal demons that she’s running from. This girl commands attention every time she enters the screen, and my heart ached for the decisions she made that cost her so much time along the way.

– Seedy setting. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for films that are set in the Motor City, and thankfully ‘White Boy Rick’ doesn’t squander the opportunity at some layered atmosphere that fill in the blanks of the imagery that surround it. Rick’s Detroit stage in the 80’s is one that still feels optimistic enough in the lurid seduction of neon lights and post-disco skating rinks, but it’s in the arrival of a cold, despairing Winter where the air of optimism quickly fades to grey, giving way to a chillingly numbing dose of reality that the characters simply can’t run from.

NEGATIVES

– Treads, but never fully walks through the poignant debate of guns versus drugs, as well as the corruption of the American judicial system. On the former, there’s a brief scene in the film where the father and son discuss their mutual poisons being unleashed onto the community, and what the real difference is between either. Unfortunately, the scene quickly and unfortunately evolves into something of bigger physical magnitude, and we’re left without a conscience for a movie that so desperately needed one. As for the law itself, it never feels like a big enough presence on the screenplay, disappearing halfway through the movie for a long period of time.

– Feels like scenes are missing. Rick moves in with his grandpa immediately after doing something terribly wrong to him? The mentioning of dad’s roommate girlfriend, despite us never seeing or meeting her? The formation of Rick’s gang and how he even met them? These are just a couple of examples of scenes during the movie that came out of nowhere, and feel like they constantly did a disservice to editing that was otherwise on-point for holding down the consistency of storytelling. These examples give off the feeling that this 106 minute movie could easily have a two-and-a-half hour director’s cut lying around somewhere.

– Questionable time transformations. While I mentioned earlier that the music, wardrobe, and production are spot-on for their respective era, the lack of attention to physical character progression is something that deeply troubled me. This film goes through four years of story, and in that time father, son, daughter, nor anyone ever change hairstyles or facial growth, or really anything to articulately translate the many lapses in time. It’s this kind of thing that constantly takes me out of a story, and is the easiest thing to clear up in terms of continuity.

7/10

A Simple Favor

Directed by Paul Feig

Starring – Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding

The Plot – The story centers around Stephanie (Kendrick), a mommy vlogger who seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s (Lively) sudden disappearance from their small town. Stephanie is joined by Emily’s husband Sean (Golding) in this stylish thriller filled with twists and betrayals, secrets and revelations, love and loyalty, murder and revenge.

Rated R for sexual content and adult language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence

POSITIVES

– The greatest Lifetime Channel Movie EVER. What Feig’s direction does is instill that air of self-aware satire that sizzles on a screenplay this scandalous. In doing so, he can bring his variety of humor to a movie that isn’t necessarily deemed a comedy, accentuating the hilarity associated with mom dates and online blogging that can’t escape the occasional laughter after suffocating awkwardness. Female moviegoers will appreciate its serious side for its twists and turns, but they will also appreciate the familiarity associated with friendships that develop because of their children.

– As an adaptation from the book, the screenplay is roughly 80% similar. This is good because it chooses not to deviate much from what made it such a provocative read in the first place, all the while trimming the fat of what doesn’t translate well to screen. Particularly the choice to make Stephanie’s blog a Vlog in this case, as well as to let the events transpire without narration, are two of the decisions that I commend this film greatly for taking, and allow the events transpiring in real time to hold the audience’s captivation. Then there’s the ending. While the book and film endings are both HEAVILY convoluted, I did enjoy the film’s ending so much more, for how it didn’t betray the heart of the characters. The last fifteen minutes of this movie are completely batshit crazy, and I engaged in it because nothing felt familiar from the pages that I already scanned.

– Flavor for the Favor. Blake Lively, where have you been all this time? As Emily, Lively is a walking temperament of shattered glass that catches the skin of everyone she comes into contact with. In conversing with Emily, you very much feel inferior and downright insulted with her vicious vocabulary, giving forth to a personality that is every bit as intimidating as she is unabashed in her deliveries. Kendrick as well breathes the air of timidness that Stephanie requires in channeling that outgoing “Mom” personality. Say what you want about Kendrick’s quirky demeanor eating away at your ears, but everything that she has done in her career has pointed her towards this role of a woman clearly in over her head, who may or may not be wound a bit too tight.

– Snappy soundtrack. In matching the posh set designs and lavish wardrobe choices, the musical tracks for the film envelope a taste for French elegance that gives the movie a seductive pallet. Every song does maintain this direction faithfully, and certainly speaks wonders for the beauty in voice talents when you can’t understand what the lyrics are truly saying.

– Likewise, the decision to shoot this film in Univisium gives it a vibrancy of color and detail in cinematography that would otherwise be underutilized in this particular film. This is possibly what I admire most of all about Feig’s directing, because even the slightest detail in decoration to a shot feels like it serves an artistic merit when played against the rest of the backdrop. Without question, these are some of the best slow motion sequences of the year, presenting the rain in a music video style fashion that glitters and glows with every drop.

– Makes the most of its R-rating. What I commend the film for is that it does have these instances of violence, brief nudity, and adult language, but it uses them in ways that doesn’t feel forced or manufactured by someone sitting in a chair off-screen. These are very much rational conversations, as well as calculated measures that are taken by the characters, and withheld until the moment when their inclusion matters the most, and less like a gimmick. This is an example of adult material done right.

NEGATIVES

– Cheap Youtube templates. As to where I commended a movie like ‘Searching’ for paying the extra few bucks and portraying actual Youtube to its very real world setting, I unfortunately cannot do the same for ‘A Simple Favor’. This is another example of an obvious website intention that feels cheap in its knock-off details that are distracting to say the least. When you view this as a streaming website in 2018, the quality in pixelation on screen, as well as the world’s smallest comment section, makes this feel like the first edition of America Online, long before the blessing of Wi-fi euphoria.

– As my readers know, I have no shame when it comes to calling out child actors, and boy did I have a field day with the two in this movie. Whether it’s their speech patterns that feel anything but believable, or their obvious staring off screen for scene guidance, the duo of Ian Ho and Josh Satine were a baseball bat to my precious eyes and ears. Ho in particular is cringey for his hollow delivery in curse word deliveries, as well as an overall lack of energy in fighting style that echoed that student film vibe in college that we’ve all been missing. I’m not overboard when I say that neither of them should act again, and it’s just a constant reminder of the term “Stay in School” holding more weight.

– Pace race. Despite this film being nearly two hours long, the pacing of exposition drops felt very rushed in their plotting, feeling like one big montage scene that never slows down to let it all sink in. I mentioned earlier that the ending is completely convoluted, despite my enjoying it, but it is a calling card for what is truly wrong with the big impact scenes of this screenplay. The developing relationship between Stephanie and Shawn felt like it happened in a matter of days, contrary to the screenplay telling us that Emily has been missing for months, and I wish the movie would’ve taken more advantage to plod in its generous 111 minute runtime that easily could’ve used more patience.

– Book comparisons part 2. As for what I appreciated about the book more, the characters feel far more developed in their dirty secrets. What I love about that is it adds more weight to the mystery of what happened to Emily, giving way to many more theories and scenarios than this film could ever map out for itself. The book also keeps it between the trio of main characters for the entire film, as to where this movie has a group of supporting cast in classroom parents, who add absolutely nothing to this film. Every time a scene cut to them for reaction or commentary, it weighed down the momentum of what was previously built, and stood out as the one instance where the film’s comedy was anything but subversive.

6/10