Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

Directed By Joe Berlinger

Starring – Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Angela Sarafyan

The Plot – Elizabeth Kloepfer (Collins) refused for years to acknowledge that her boyfriend (Efron) was a serial killer. Her partner, Ted Bundy, became famous in the 1980s for committing several heinous crimes against women, despite her disbelief, who watched passively as the murders were unleashed from a very unique perspective.

Rated R for disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A unique perspective. While not satisfying of a viewer’s bloodlust, Berlinger’s film is unique, in that it depicts Bundy from Elizabeth’s point-of-view. Because of this, we rarely see Bundy in the act of violence, instead he seduces us in the same way he did his former lover, with an abundance of charm and wit that make him every bit as psychologically dangerous as it does physically. We don’t see all of the things he is accused of, so we, like Elizabeth, are forced to make a decision only on what we see, and in that direction it makes it very easy to comprehend why accepting Bundy as a killer was such a difficult measure to her and to the many who deemed him innocent. Even more however, I commend the movie for not making him out to be a martyr to anyone learning about him for the first time. The horrendous evidence and Bundy placements are still detailed in a way that pins it all together towards him by film’s end, and depicts him as anything other than the innocent bystander that he was setting himself up to be.

– Right man for the job. So many people cried foul at Efron being cast as Bundy, but I feel his job here radiates the charm and appeal of a dangerous psychopath tenfold, alluding to how dangerous it would be for any of us, especially females, to come into contact with him. While not a transformative performance, Efron hints at a dark and malevolent side just below the surface, but it’s his wit inside of the courtroom that cements why he was one of the first serial killers to become a newsroom celebrity. Aside from Efron, Collins’ mental anguish is well defined and meticulously articulated, proving that there are some situations worse than even that of the many victims. Elizabeth is proof that Bundy’s dominance still persists even years after he’s been taken off of the streets, and it’s her mental clarity that is given ample time for us the audience to get behind and support, regardless of the charm exuberated by our charming protagonist-turned-antagonist.

– Reflective soundtrack for the time. This film takes place in the late 70’s through the late 80’s, so the proper essence in collective audible enhancement is essential. Some of my favorite tracks for the time are featured, like “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James, “Do You Believe in Magic” by The Lovin Spoonful, and of course “We’ll Face This World Together” by The Tommy Smith Band, and they not only help with better placing the timeframe, but also in supplanting a subliminal message that echoes the situation of the couple front-and-center. For a Netflix only film, I am beyond surprised that the production was able to conjure up the budget necessary to include so many timeless favorites, and thanks to the imprint of modern cinema with all of its dark material, you will definitely view these songs in a different light from now on.

– Berlinger’s factual direction. Not only is everything depicted in the film based on factual evidence from the crime scenes and courtrooms alike, but Joe’s directed is commended for playing everything close to the chest. This allows his gimmick of depicting Bundy as this misunderstood soul of sorts to shine fruitfully through the duration of the film, leading to a final confrontation between the two main stars that brings everything full circle. This is how you do an introduction scene beautifully, because not only did I forget that the movie started this way with this examination scene, but it’s a scene that is so vitally important to the climax of the film, especially in how it positively contradicts everything that we’ve come to understand to that point. In addition to this, a credits sequence depicting the real life events showcase just how on-the-nose Berlinger was at mastering the looks of the sets and wardrobe of its real life counterpart, and the overall attention to detail in signifying that he was the right man for the job in handling this picture. Above all else, Berlinger should be applauded for crafting a different direction for the serial killer exploitation genre, and his film breathes newfound life into a haunting period in American history that really brought attention to courtroom proceedings for future telecasts.

– Perhaps my single favorite aspect of the film is the manipulation of lighting used to toy with the audience in all of its shadow play. Particularly in the establishing scenes between Ted and Elizabeth, there’s a darkness that clouds Ted with a sort of ambiguity that speaks volumes to what he is hiding from his significant other at the time, and painting him as this cryptic figure with a lot to hide. There’s also a daydream sequence involving Elizabeth’s first recollection of intimacy with Ted, and it happens with such minimal lighting that we can’t see his face or make out what emotion he is depicting at that particular moment, and it stood out as the one scene of unconventional between them that unnerved me in this film, if only for the uncertainty that lingers in the atmosphere during a scene when the couple should be at their most intimately strongest. It’s a fine use of technical articulation, and continuously hints that something darker and more sinister is beating beneath the table dressing of this master manipulator.

– Juggles many different tones within its atmosphere. It’s funny how well the moments of seriousness like the murders themselves play seamlessly with the audaciousness instilled upon scenes of escape by Ted. In a fictional screenplay, this would come across as hokey or even condemning to the opposite direction, but because these are factual events that played out in real time, we have to respect the art of the irony for its strange-but-true honesty. These scenes never soil the impact of the dramatic weight instilled upon the film’s many character confrontations, and even more beneficial, they hook the attention of the audience during sequences when you think this film is finally evolving into the darkness that we’ve come to expect with Bundy’s documented history.

NEGATIVES

– Stumbling pacing. Easily the film’s biggest weakness, as the first half of the movie is speeding its way through some of the more important building blocks between the relationship of Ted and Elizabeth, as well as virtually ignoring the passage of time. Ultimately, 108 minutes isn’t enough to tell a fully compelling Ted Bundy narrative, as much of the subplots associated with his cryptic parents, or his ability inside of the classroom are rarely elaborated on, giving a noticeable gap between tidbits of knowledge that will come into play during the pivotal third act. Speaking of which, the film’s finale doesn’t move nearly as quick or transcendent as the previous two, as much of the final forty minutes of the film is spent inside of a courtroom. This isn’t a problem for uneducated viewers, but for someone like myself who has studied this case endlessly, I could’ve used more emphasis on the events going on outside of the courtroom. For my money, this film could’ve used another twenty minutes to better solidify the believability of the relationship of the duo during the beginning of the film, as well as flesh out those additional details of subplot that the film rudely tiptoed over.

– Terrible title. I rarely complain about a film’s title, but in this case it is easy to forget, as well as far too lengthy to easily convey to other people. I understand that it has meaning within the context of the courtroom itself, as the judge (Played by John Malkovich) relates these words to Bundy, but they just don’t click for me as a proper title, and even as I type them repeatedly in this review, I still find myself having trouble remembering every word.

– Cheap production value. I can easily understand why the studio went the Netflix direction with this release, as nothing inside of it screams of big screen presentation to me. The cinematography is mundane, the dialogue is too on-the-nose to feel naturally convincing , especially during the initial meeting between Ted and Elizabeth, and the screenplay refusing to stray from the more universally established events structures this film similarly to that of a television movie of the week special. When I watched “Bird Box” a few months ago, there was nothing about the production that ever felt minimally capturing, but with Berlinger’s picture here, there’s instances of gaps where my immersion into the film was broken, reminding me constantly of the miniscule budget that is left to grasp at after Netflix pays a fortune for the right.

– In the shadow of a better film. Berlinger also directed the recently released “Ted Bundy Tapes” on Netflix as well, and this is great in regards to one man knowing the complete picture of this dangerous serial killer, but does this film in particular no favors when the comparison between them is brought to light. As to where the prior film nailed down the details of every single little tidbit of Bundy’s trip of terror, “Extremely Wicked” (Again, I’m not saying that stupid title) feels like the inferior piece for the stumbling execution that leaves too much information omitted from what transpires. It’s possible that this film would’ve gotten a higher grade from me if it didn’t come out within a couple of months of that previous better documentary, but with it still fresh in our minds, the current reviewed film feels like the cliff notes version waste of time when compared to the complete captivating story.

My Grade: 6/10 or C+

The Intruder

Directed By Deon Taylor

Starring – Meagan Good, Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy

The Plot – When a young married couple (Ealy and Good) buys their dream house in the Napa Valley, they think they have found the perfect home to take their next steps as a family. But when the strangely attached seller (Quaid) continues to infiltrate their lives, they begin to suspect that he has hidden motivations beyond a quick sale.

Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality, adult language and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Quaid’s raw energy. A testament to Dennis Quaid’s experience as A grade-A actor for many decades is the grip that he has not only on his role as this landlord of lust, but also in the knowledge of what kind of film tonally will come out as. For my money, Quaid is the only person who feels like he is emoting the proper responses for this particular film, juggling a combination of creepy and hokey in the same vein of something from a villain in a superhero movie. Every other actor feels like they take their roles a bit too seriously, and because of that, it allows Dennis to shine once more in a role that is anything against typecast for the typically protagonist hero that we are used to seeing from him, and reminds us that the leading man still finds ways to evolve as an actor even at the age of 65.

– Shooting location. Roughly 80% of this movie takes place in and around this beautiful countryside mansion, which has no shortage of lavish interiors or immersive scenery to get lost in. What’s vital about the location is the isolation from the rest of the world, particularly the police, that constantly keeps the antagonist of the movie in control. The film’s photography takes every chance to explore the grounds fruitfully, giving us a vivid documentation of every room and hallway to better comprehend our understanding of the character movements and intentions in the heat of the fight. It’s no surprise that the film was shot entirely in British Columbia, Canada, as it’s becoming a tradition for studio’s seeking cheap production costs to shoot there, but it’s nice to see a movie explore some of its more expansive scenery to the integrity of the plot and film, and if nothing else, you will fall in love with the property in the same way that Good and Ealy’s character’s do.

– Prompt pacing. Despite the fact that so much of this movie was predictable, and brought forth very few surprises creatively, this is a very easy sit, thanks in part to the stakes constantly being elevated throughout the progression of the film. 97 minutes is a little challenging for a narrative this minimally profound, but there was never a time during it when I was bored or checking my watch to see how much time remained, serving as a testament to Taylor’s engaging atmosphere that reaches out for the things that go bump in the night.

NEGATIVES

– Blandly predictable. Aside from a terribly revealing trailer that gives away roughly 90% of the movie, the screenplay itself written by David Loughery capitalizes on the very same tropes and cliches of past serial stalker thrillers that have become a right of passage for new installments preserving the mantle. It offers very little in the way of suspense or audience anxiety for us to hang our investment on, and ultimately dooms the picture to these long periods of emptiness that only negatively tests Quaid’s raging influence on the film. What’s even more compromising is that the film doesn’t try to preserve any angle of mystery on the backstory of Charlie (Quaid), instead choosing to keep us the audience one step ahead of the protagonists at all times, as we wait for their bumbling stupidity to tiptoe to a catch-up point.

– Speaking of stupidity, Ealy and Good’s character’s defy human logic even in terms of unrelatable people we’ve come to know in movies. For Good, it’s the typical understanding female presence who is somehow able to overlook deeply concerning traits in Charlie because the film calls for it. It continues a trend in Taylor directed films where females are the subject of nothing deeper than male lust, and really makes me concerned for his views on an evolvingly-progressive world. Not to be outdone however, Ealy’s contradicting directions as time goes on made me wonder if the script was trying to convey this man as a bi-polar character for how he often compromises a previous scene. One second he’s a loving, healthily-infatuated husband who would do anything for his wife, and in the next he’s flirting with a female client. This would be impactful if it actually went somewhere, but the boiling subplot comes and goes with the kind of effectiveness of a dry fart, and reeks of desperation for a character who has so little to do between the growing dynamic of Quaid and Good.

– Oversexualization. This is becoming a growing trait in Deon Taylor’s filmography, a director who seems destined to takeover Michael Bay’s mantle for perverted camera work that focuses on the simpler things in cinema. Here he has the beautifully gifted Megan Good at his disposal, and in doing so wastes no time in documenting her body through two sex scenes, one shower scene, and many revealing outfits during non-sexualized events like Thanksgiving Day dinner. The problem is two-fold, the first is that it obviously only values Megan as this physical presence, instead of carving out an acting side of her that we have yet to see, and two, it conjures repetition in getting the same idea of Charlie’s stalking across, padding out the time to eventually reach 97 minutes. Sex factor should be used to serve a purpose in films, but when that purpose reaches overbearing levels of important plotting, its seedy intentions are further unveiled, and only further cements how audiences engage in sexy people being in trouble.

– Meandering musical score. An early favorite for worst musical enhancement of 2019, composer Geoff Zanelli overly inserts his obvious tones in the middle of every scene, made less seamless by the boisterous command of sound mixing that has it reaching orchestral levels of volume during tension-building sequences. The music itself is synthetic for the kind of tones necessary in a genre like this, but the problem is the way they manipulate audiences into feeling one way, instead of letting the actors master their craft without boost, and for my money it made for one of the more obviously distracting aspects of this movie. If it serves any point, other than to be used during a cheesy Halloween party between you and your friends, it’s the fine line of divide between acting and post production, and what not to do to step on the toes of one or the other.

– Obvious visual foreshadowing. This is one of those visual presentations where the movie has a few counterfeit shots in a sequence early on, that feel out of place when compared to the sum of their parts. The reason for this is a series of revealing foreshadow images that prepare you for where this story’s setting is headed, and once again leave nothing to the idea of imagination in maintaining some level of suspense for audiences seeking thrills. For instance, if a movie focuses on a particular closet for an inordinate amount of screen time, you can bet your last dollar that it will come back into play eventually, and serve as a pivotal moment during an unfolding conflict that will come full circle. If the storyboards are doing their job properly, and the direction is crisp, these elements within the house can work their way into the elevating drama without an unnecessary underlining to them, but unfortunately this movie, in so many ways, uses bells and whistles to signal what’s to come, and for anyone like myself who has seen this no shortage of times, it’s really a waiting game for when it will choose to pop up once again.

– Continuity errors. (Light spoiler) There are many examples of this throughout the film, but my favorite happens during the final conflict, when the two male leads of the film are armed with knives when they walk through the house, but once they come to blows those weapons are nowhere to be seen or used between them. It builds to a fist fight in which these weapons disappear, and only re-appear when the fight subdues, and one of them is forced to get out of the room that they are locked in. It introduces elements to the persistent drama, and then does nothing to enhance the results of such. While certainly not as funny as Quaid’s ever-changing hair growth throughout the film, does signify the kind of hands-on effort that goes virtually unnoticed during the duration of this movie, and garners unintentional laughter when the movie really doesn’t need it.

– Back and forth. There are some scenes in the film where the exposition heavy dialogue alludes to the fact that the only reason for its inclusion is to feed the audience bits of information. I say this because character’s move in and out of this film to never be seen again, and it’s a sloppy transition that doesn’t feel naturally believable in the slightest. To counteract this, there are then aspects of the exposition that are never further touched upon. For instance, Charlie’s backstory with his wife and family. Sure, we find out what happened, but we don’t know why, and it only emits more questions the more you think about it. An on-going subplot with Charlie’s daughter in partular, is hinted at, but never fully realized in a way that could shed more light on the mystery of this obviously mentally challenged antagonist. Too many things just simply don’t add up, and a more detailed screenwriter could better flesh out the holes in a story that everything besides Quaid practically falls right into.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

UglyDolls

Directed By Kelly Asbury

Starring – Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monae

The Plot – In the adorably different town of Uglyville, weird is celebrated, strange is special and beauty is embraced as more than simply meets the eye. Here, the free-spirited Moxy (Clarkson) and her UglyDoll friends live every day in a whirlwind of bliss, letting their freak flags fly in a celebration of life and its endless possibilities. In this all-new story, the UglyDolls will go on a journey beyond the comfortable borders of Uglyville. There, they will confront what it means to be different, struggle with their desire to be loved, and ultimately discover that you don’t have to be perfect to be amazing because who you truly are is what matters most.

Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action

POSITIVES

– Meaningful casting. It’s always baffled me why musical kids movies rarely cast singers in these roles, but “Ugly Dolls” takes advantage of some of pop music’s biggest names, and puts them to work, performing no fewer than ten songs in this film. Transcending the film itself, this merging offers dream collaborations for music fans of every age, and while the music itself leaves more to be desired in terms of addictive beats and catchy hooks, it’s an 80 minute concert none the less, whose infectious energy and familiar accents of the cast bring forth all of the right gifts to musical cinema. Are they the best vocal performances? Outside of Jonas, absolutely not, but in a film with an overwhelming amount of musical influence, they are the way to go in this intended direction.

– Deeper meaning? As my readers know, I love watching a movie on a conventional level, and viewing it as something so much ulterior, and I certainly found a devious one with “UglyDolls”. The villain, Lou, (Jonas) teaches perfect dolls how to be perfect for their future children. It basically establishes him as this toy Hitler that is creating a master race of perfection to rid the world of peace and acceptance. Hitler also viewed blonde hair, blue-eyed boys as the future of the human race, and that is none other than Lou’s physical features, perhaps hiding something much more sinister behind his pearly-white smile. Naturally, a child won’t make this comparison, but it establishes a demented layer of fantasy to a film that needs anything to make it that much more entertaining, and for my money, this is the best I could come up with.

– Craziness in a finale. If you see this movie for any reason, watch the final twenty minutes, which includes a robot dog and baby, a legion of zombie followers, a nightmarish darkening sky, and the world’s biggest washing machine. In a sense, this movie is throwing everything at the screen to see what sticks during this pivotal third act, but to a certain degree it’s in this carefree execution where a sequence this convoluted can present the only scene in the movie that I am sure to remember three months from now. It reminded me somewhat of 90’s Disney finales, when all rules were off, and the setting itself became almost a character of sorts for what was revolving between protagonist and antagonist. If STX were willing to take more chances like this one, then maybe “UglyDolls” could be the anti-animated film that paves its own unpredictable path to infamy, but in the end it’s just a lone kickass finale that spiked my interest from non-existent to remote.

NEGATIVES

– Rips off two different franchises. Between the animation textures and musical similarities of “Trolls”, and the plot structure of “Toy Story”, “UglyDolls” finds no shred of originality to counteract the strokes of familiarity that are all over this picture. Because of this, the film reeks of a cash grab, where a studio once again tries to capitalize on the intake of a popular kids toy line, while throwing together a series of flimsy ideas that never add weight of meaning to the purpose of its inception. Aspects like these truly bother me about kids movies, because studios will often slip in these plagiarizing points of plot because they feel that younger audiences either won’t be aware that they’ve seen this movie before, or won’t care because of the vibrant colors or boisterous noises that come with it, and it gives “UglyDolls” an unmistakable feeling of incomplete that it never manages to shake.

– Stretched screenplay. 80 minutes is the bare minimum of acceptable major motion picture run times, but when we dig deeper to the root of the material, we find that the progressing story could easily be told in a half hour special on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network with some tweaks of edit to better pace the story. I mentioned earlier that there are at least ten songs in the film, each of which are around three minutes, so you have already wiped away thirty minutes in songs alone, leaving fifty minutes to establish character’s, build a conflict, and offer a resolution that satisfies your audience. Needless to say, it doesn’t happen, and it makes this film feel like one of the least ambitious and phoned-in movies from a big budget studio that we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s not just a bad movie, but one lacking a sprinkle of creativity to contend in an age where animated movies are doing ground-breaking things.

– Lack of finesse with the animation. I understand that STX Films is certainly no Pixar or Dreamworks with their animation budget, but the combination of computer generation and live action illustration on our title character’s conjures up a Frankenstein finished product that conveys its inability to compete, leaving us the audience limited in our ability to feel dazzled by the presentation. The backgrounds, particularly in the detail given to the Ugly town are three-dimensional, but the same dedication is never given to character movements or facial registration, which feel as lifeless and incoherent as any animated property in 2019. Mastering a visual feast is half the battle with animated films, and with counterproductive traits in animation styles that make up most of what is front-and-center at all times, STX cuts off their legs before the war of comparison has ever begun.

– Combination of cliches. As a screenwriter, Alison Peck combines enough lukewarm sentimentality and empty-handed motivations to make this the Hallmark Cards of movies, for how truly corny and unearned every inspiration felt in the execution. Themes like “Be yourself” or “Listen to your heart” are good in theory, but so obvious in a film genre that does this sort of thing almost weekly. The screenplay tries to jam in far too many, and eventually it just feels like a game of bingo, where you wait until your motivation meme is called, all the while practically slapping kids across the face with intentional clarity long before they are able to piece it together themselves. Good intentions are one thing, but when a movie uses too many of them, especially with an ending conflict that condemns one character for being true to who he was, makes it all feel like a shallow piece of propaganda that is preached, but rarely practiced in the film.

– Flat humor. It’s hard to even classify this film as a comedy, because not only did I not laugh once in the entirety of the film, but the script often goes too far between in even attempting to gain emotional expression from its youthful viewers. This will be the hardest sell to them, for how little it gets them involved in the process of the plot, as well as the complexity of personalities to grip onto. What little comic opportunity there is speaks to the weirdness of the creatures themselves, and really nothing outside of the box in that regard. I was honestly expecting juvenile laughs in the form of bodily humor, but what I got was somehow less than that, cementing one of the most difficult films that I’ve had to sit through in 2019, thanks to arid material so undercooked that it defies the laws of genre classification.

– Lack of character exposition. I mentioned earlier that this film has roughly fifty minutes to get its feet wet in distinguishing these character’s, and with the exception of a dog played by Pitbull, the rest of the UglyDolls are interchangeable if not for the color of their skin. Seriously, there is nothing between them in personalities or motivations that make them even remotely different, and thanks to the film’s lack of time devoted to bringing each of them along with their own respective conflicts, the line of division is that much more blurred because of such. In addition to this, the dialogue feels very clunky, in that it explains the bare basics of the world and conflict without digging deeper to soak in the atmosphere. This makes the character’s and UglyVille world feel like a prop to a hinted at bigger picture that never truly materializes, and scrambles for focus in a screenplay that constantly struggles with disjointment.

– The music. Not only does the musical accompanyment drop the ball on catchy jingles that parents will wear out their IPOD’S playing, but the music itself fails in progressing the story during the momentary instances where everything else stops. In a musical genre film, the music is often used as a tool to fill in the gaps of unseen backstory and inner character psychology, but the lyrics disappoint on a very topical kind of level, keeping the depth of their inclusion pointless, in that we as an audience have seen what they are further repeating. If I had to pick a favorite, it’s easily “Broken and Beautiful” by Kelly Clarkson, a power ballad about seeing the beauty in something deemed different. But by the time the film is finished, this theme is repeated endlessly in the sequences and situations, rendering the power of its message that much more ineffective because of how much it’s hammered home.

My Grade: 3/10 or F

Booksmart

Directed By Olivia Wilde

Starring – Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd

The Plot – On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends (Feldstein and Dever) realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night.

Rated R for strong sexual content and adult language throughout, drug use and drinking – all involving teens

POSITIVES

– A Wilde ride. No offense to the wonderfully gifted Olivia, but I feel like she should give up acting and focus more on directing, because her debut effort behind the lens is among the greatest that I’ve ever seen in that regard. Wilde’s combination of energy, anxiety, and especially chaos is something that speaks volumes to the teenage spirit, as well as the infectious indulgence that the audience easily immerses themselves in from start to finish, and commands the biggest laugh from the audience based on where she places the camera at the right particular time. The editing is also sharp as a tack, preserving an absorbing quality in consistency that keeps the pacing stimulating through 100 minutes that seriously felt like half of it. To say that I had a blast with this film is an understatement, as it may very well be my favorite comedy of the past four years for the way it takes an ages old structure like the final party of high school, and boils it down to a story about non-romantic love between two best friends, and it’s a film that rewards by taking the very chances that its subgenre predecessors simply never capitalized on.

– Character’s first mentality. Aside from the exceptional work of its two leading ladies, which I’ll get to in a second, the film crafts and remains committed to its wide range of supporting cast, some of which play bigger roles in their dynamics with Feldstein and Dever, but all of which enhance the landing power of average material elevated by boisterous nature of their complex personalities. Usually when a film drifts away from its important leads, it starts to take away from the consistency in pacing, but Feldstein and Dever are able to confidently progress off-screen, while the focus of the film thrives because of the time and attention dedicated to preserving the world around them. There isn’t a single weak link among the very eclectically vibrant talents used to bounce off of the film’s main character’s, and it made me welcome the transitioning of multi-tiered storytelling because there wasn’t a single aspect that I didn’t want to re-visit as the film went on.

– One for the ladies. Wilde is a director who not only knows how to mold females into typically male stereotyped roles, but she also knows how to document a bond so strong that it often feels like these two character’s run on the same wavelength. A lot of that is in part thanks to the impeccable chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, which many teenage girls will be emulating for years to come. In Feldstein, it’s her cartoonish expressions and the passion displayed in saying lines that would otherwise boil a lesser comedic talent. Dever likewise balances a nuance of nerves towards a sexual awakening, that makes her tender when clashing with the unabashed honesty of Feldstein’s prying words, leading to several long-winded laughs thanks to their precision with the material. In addition to them, Lourd trumps anything that she has done on “American Horror Story” to this point, fleshing out a re-appearing goth character for a new generation. There’s a point in the film when her appearances feel almost angelic in the way they steer the two ladies through each party of debauchery, and Billie’s dry demeanor in getting across some rather stern details makes you almost have to rewind to make sure you heard her correctly.

– Music incorporation. Like more comedies are doing these days, “Booksmart” uses its soundtrack of mostly modern rap recordings as a gimmick, but does so in a way that feels representing of the psychology of the character’s in a particular situation. For instance, when the ladies require a slow motion montage to look cool, the accompanying of free-flowing hip hop casts them in a light that bears sarcasm, considering these two don’t have a rebellious bone in the bodies. When there’s a deeply moving dramatic sequence, like one that takes place under water, the composer slows everything down, and rides the waves of heart-breaking atmosphere to bring forth a feeling that we identify with and sink our teeth into, for the way it plays on our investment and well-being of the character’s. The collective compilation, while filled with tunes that are anything but my style, do a superb job of emulating the kind of attitude that Wilde requires throughout a night of mayhem, and prove that music can be necessary in garnering a much more valuable presence than just background noise.

– Dreamy cinematography. I don’t get to compliment a raunchy comedy often for its lens presentation, but Wilde, as well as cinematographer Jason McCormack, capture our attention with some truly beautiful sequences and movements of the camera that make this the exception to the rule. For visual clarity, Wilde shoots all scenes with Feldstein and Dever together tightly, and scenes apart with a wide angle lens. This is to better convey the connection and closeness that the two ladies share. There’s also two impressively shot long take sequences, one in particular involving a back-and-forth shouting match between the two leads, that is not only impressive for how much they had to memorize, but also in the way that the bouncing camera work takes just long enough to study the words playing off of one another before making its round trip back to the next person forced to listen. It’s clear that Wilde was going for so much more than conventional compositions and mundane framing, and her debut in the director’s chair instills a sense of ambition to the comedy genre that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.

– Another favor to the material is the coveted R-rating, which actually serves a dutiful purpose here. For this film to be given anything less than this rating would do a huge disservice to the teenage speech patterns that we expect. This also allows women the rare chance at being as open in their discussion’s as the men frequently are granted, but it never feels like an obvious gimmick such as it did in last year’s “Blockers”. Here, the material never lowers itself below the impressive intelligence of the two ladies grade point average, and is instead inflicted with patience until the moment in the scene of mayhem practically begs for it. Likewise, the sexual material is a bit testing of younger audiences, but shot tastefully enough, with more left to the imagination of the audience where to fill in the blanks. Part of me still believes this has to do with Hollywood’s uneasiness of seeing a teenage girl dabble in her sexuality, but at the end of the day, it is a part of the daily teenage routine that would otherwise be a huge disservice in overlooking if this film was anything but R-rated.

– Positive message. I pay great respects to the movie for playing against character stereotypes, and instilling a sense of originality in the lesson learned by our protagonists to not judge or assume about anyone else, as well as ourselves. I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything because the basis of this theme was clearly evident in the trailer, and the screenplay by four different female writers does a remarkable job of planting its feet firmly in the meat of the meaning, and illustrating a school that feels very much as progressive as the world outside it has taken to everything from cultural traditions, to sexual orientation. If I could pick one high school to go to from a movie, the one depicted in “Booksmart” might be my pick, if only for the dimensions given to what feels like real people for a change, that often are distributed into convenient clique groups that are often reduced to a single identifying trait.

– Every scene has meaning. This is a film that rewards the dedication of its audience, turning scenes that otherwise feel like miniscule throwaway’s in a conventional narrative, and planting the seeds of storytelling early to watch them bloom later on. There’s two examples of this happening during the film, and what’s important is that each example is given an ample amount of time to allow audiences to forget about the small details, before they incorporate them back in at the most naturally opportune time. It’s the culmination of a third act, which combines enough dramatic pulse, meaningful stakes, and especially storytelling progression to end the film on a high note of creativity.

NEGATIVES

– Familiarity. I mentioned this earlier when I said that the popular tropes of the genre are clearly evident, especially in 2007’s “Superbad”, which the film borrows a bit too heavily from to be coincidental. Aside from the incredible coincidence that Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s real life sister, both films share that Hail Mary party at the end of the year, with each character pining over a love interest, and taking a long and troubling road before finally making it to the party. “Booksmart” never runs from the things it mimics so unabashedly, but in terms of breaking new ground from a narrative standpoint, the film’s biggest hurdle will be in trying to escape the notes of comparison from moviegoing audiences, who feel like they’ve seen it all before, so why is it necessary to see again?

– Plot conveniences. There are quite a few of them. In fact, one deep moment of thinking through scenarios and solutions would bring forth the idea that all of the madness that these two girls go through could be easily resolved if they used even half of the intellect they maintain in being at the top of their class rankings. There’s also certain tidbits dropped especially late in the movie that are there out of convenience for the very next scene being able to proceed. Bits of exposition like these drive me crazy for the laziness they battle against from within, and stand as the only noticeable flaw that I have from a collection of writers that otherwise knew how to progress a story seamlessly.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Shawshank Redemption

Directed By Frank Darabont

Starring – Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton

The Plot – The story of a hot-shot American banker Andrew Dufresne (Robbins) who finds himself to be an inmate at the Shawshank prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit, the murder of his wife and her lover. The movie revolves around Andy’s take on this drastic transformation, his journey as an inmate in the prison during which he befriends Red (Freeman), a fellow inmate as well as gains the respect of his friends.

Rated R for adult language and prison violence

POSITIVES

– On-set location. Prison movies are all about atmosphere, so in casting the closed down Mansfield Reformatory to double as Shawshank, the film spared no expense in scale as the stomping ground for the story’s most dangerous criminals. What’s so perfect about this setting, aside from the gothic architecture that easily made the transition to 1947 that much easier, is the immense size that constantly reminds us of the hopelessness of the troubled souls inside, and it’s made much more impressive when you consider that absolutely nothing was a pre-constructed set. The prison itself feels very much like its own character inside of the movie, and one that took years for Andy Dufresne to overcome its concrete walls and corruption. In addition to this film borrowing the Mansfield Reformatory, other films like “Air Force One” and “Tango and Cash” also shot there, as well as music videos like Godsmack’s “Awake” and Lil Wayne’s “Go DJ”.

– Perfect casting. The requirements between Robbins and Freeman is perfectly defined, and works extremely well because their respective performances is a clashing of ideals that cater to audience balance. For Robbins, he’s the beacon of hope. Long after his incarceration, he still maintains the fire burning inside as an innocent man, and it’s his combination of blank canvas personality and endless wit that keep him sharp as a tack for being an ideal protagonist. In contrast, Freeman is the aging veteran inside of the prison. His decades spent locked up have molded him into a man who declares that hope is a dangerous thing, and it’s only in his introduction to Andy where this frame of mind is complicated, once Andy begins molding the prison as his own list of prided accomplishments. Bob Gunton as the evil warden also deserves a lot of credit, molding a character who borrows the parts from the bible that are appropriate to his questionable teachings. Gunton’s unflinching stare and total lack of personality give an intimidation factor that make this the perfect antagonist to deconstruct Andy’s hopeful circumstance, and it takes the work of an exceptional actor as an antagonist to counteract two intriguingly gifted protagonists, and with the trio of Robbins, Freeman, and Gunton, this film has no shortage of meaty performances, nor uniquely fascinating characters.

– Truth in advertising. When you consider the movie’s title: “The Shawshank Redemption” you might assume upon first viewing that the redemption is Andy’s or Red’s, but the title actually alludes to all of the dynamics inside of the prison. It’s a story about light overcoming darkness, as well as a good old-fashioned good defeating evil story. Before Andy entered Shawshank, it was a story of cycle’s and routine, mainly in the few who were freed, as they realized that surviving on the outside would be tougher than living behind the concrete walls, and because of such established a condemning mentality, where each of the inmates remained put because of this fear. It’s only after Andy’s guidance does the truth eventually begin to seep out and the light begin to seep in, with the truth and ulterior motives of the warden becoming evident to us the audience. So the redemption is really everyone’s associated with the film, as for better or worse Andy’s sentence to the prison changes everyone and everything, giving us the ultimate story about second chances motivating us to seek out the positives in undesirable situations.

– Passage of time. One extremely underrated accomplishment that is often overlooked in reviews I’ve seen is in the passing of time that authentically replicates the prison experience for us the audience. With no visual text or any kind of alluding to, other than the subtle aging make-up used on the cast, great strands of time literally float by in the film’s linear narrative, making it difficult to convey just how much time has passed between the film’s beginning and end that burns through two-and-a-half hours at a consecutive pace. What’s even more deceitful is the endless loop of consistent weather patterns outside of the prison that also offers no reprieve in difference to keep track of. This seems especially strange for a Maine setting, but feeds into the mentality that Darabont was going for, in that confinement really does cut out every other aspect of your life, feeling like one continuous loop that is indistinguishable from day to day.

– Positive life message. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the movie is its obvious intention, that with hard work and determination, there’s an escape from any adversity in our life. This comes in many different forms, some positive and some negative, but all with the same kind of reprieve from the daily darkness that secludes them. Consider Brooks’ freedom or Tommy’s studying for his high school diploma. Both aspects that end tragically, but both with a motivation to rid themselves of the despair that has defined them for a lifetime. In contrast to that, Andy and Red’s wishes are obvious ones: to be free. For one, it takes endless years of planning the proper escape, and for the other it’s decades of interpretation from prison officials that gains him the knowledge of understanding that he can’t be afraid to lose anything further. These are examples of men who grew tired with being patient, and took matters into their own hands, living by my favorite movie quote of all time, which is “Get busy living or get busy dying”, and it’s one of those rare messages that transcends the screen and stands as words of inspiration for an audience who inevitably have their own Shawshank’s to face every day.

– Darabont’s masterful direction. Despite this man creating modern day masterpieces like “The Green Mile” or “The Mist”, “The Shawshank Redemption” is easily his best film to date for how he absorbs the pages of this brief Stephen King story and fleshes out nearly two-and-a-half hours of endlessly compelling cinema. The decisions from Frank are articulate and influential all around. From his collaboration with arguably the best cinematographer working today in Roger Deakins, which brings forth an intoxicating atmosphere of decaying color effects that brought him the first of twelve Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography, to the indulgence of the world Frank creates within the prison, is something that completely sucks you in, and stands as that rare exception where even when all stories and subplots have been resolved and satisfied completely, you still don’t want to say goodbye to these characters. King trusts Darabont with his projects more than any other director, and despite this film winning no Oscars and being deemed a box office failure for its 18 million dollar intake, it has left a lasting impact to legions of fans, especially the website IMDB, which ranks it as the single greatest film of all time.

– Thomas Newman’s haunting musical score. Newman’s film drives this film almost as much as its characters, as his themes and articulate motif’s that he echoes throughout the entirety of this film are very powerful and very fitting to the complexion of each inspiring scene. It stands as the persistent note of conscience that lingers through the toxicity within this environment, made especially louder during the impactful final escape scene. I have seen this film thousands of times, but the triumphant scene where Andy stands in the swamp with his arms outstretched to the sky, complete with deafening orchestral accompanying, still sends goosebumps up my arms, and is the most satisfying of payoff’s that is emphasized even further because of Newman’s rhythmic pulse that alludes to Andy’s satisfaction. As far as movie scores go, this is one of the most underrated in cinema history, and speaks volumes to the scene where Andy describes that “Music is the one thing they can’t get to. It’s in here (points to heart)”.

– The big payoff. Prison escape movies are a dime a dozen anymore, but back in 1994 when this movie came on to the scene, it presented one of the more finely illustrated reveals in the history of cinema. So good in fact, that many films since have borrowed from its combination of shot compositions and constructive blueprint. When you consider that the whole movie shows us hints in the form of the objects that Andy asks for, then coyly deters the idea of escape by establishing how weak they would be when used for this capacity. On top of it, each object is given reason for it to be in Andy’s possession. Consider the rock hammer, and how he explains that he needs it to build the ultimate soapstone chess board. So when we cut to the third act when Andy vanishes in the middle of the night, we, like the warden, are left all the more clueless for how he evaded officials when he was spotted by them every step of the way. It comes as a result of years of planning, and made even more impressive when reviewed with the claustrophobic photography and patience associated in carrying out every step of the plan, making for an anxiety-ridden climax of the film whose extreme measures are grounded in satisfying realism.

– Respect for the source material. This is one of the rare exceptions where I feel that a film transcends the quality of the book, but even with that said, Darabont has enough influence from the literary material to remind audiences of its importance to the screenplay. One such instance happens when the prisoners are watching 1946’s “Gilda”, a film starring Rita Hayworth, and why that’s significant is because Stephen King’s original short story for “The Shawshank Redemption” is actually called “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”. Likewise, the very poster that Andy has in his cell that hides his route of escape goes from Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch in the book, to Rita Hayworth herself in the movie. The obvious reason to not include Welch is obvious, in that this film takes place in 1947, but the decision to rest on Rita falls solely as an homage to the source material, and it’s one of many that are woven conveniently throughout the film.

– One sign of a timeless film is the ability to watch it and gain some new form of knowledge that you didn’t pick up on in previous watches, and even my latest screening for this review brought forth some clever Easter eggs that I am witnessing for the first time. The first is Red’s cell number being 237, and for anyone who knows Stephen King material specifically, they know that this is the very same number that the Torrence family are asked to stay out of in Stephen King’s “The Shining”. The second is the judge’s name that sentences Andy early on in the film being Horton. What’s interesting about that is that there is a Judge Horton in the 1996 Stephen King film “Thinner”, and it’s aspects like these that make the Stephen King universe in his films feel like a living, breathing frame of continuity that continuously holds up, and really makes me want to go back and watch King’s films closer to draw even more parallels.

My Grade: 10/10 or A+ – My all time favorite movie

Avengers: Endgame

Directed By Joe and Anthony Russo

Starring – Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth

The Plot – After the devastating events of “Avengers: Infinity War”, the universe is in ruins. With the help of remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more in order to undo Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) actions and restore order to the universe.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– The evolution of the superhero genre. What the Russo brothers have done here is astonishing. Over the course of eleven years and twenty-two different films, they have helped mature these movies into something that, despite the abnormal feats and character’s, feels very fleshed out and human in its communication to the audience who have remained faithful to them, and none of this more evident than in “Endgame”. This is very much a film that is visually and narratively adult in the way its masterful approaches transcends the genre, and above all else gives us a great technical MOVIE above everything else. It is cerebral, transfixing, profound, and most importantly consequential in helping to keep the weight in stakes higher than it’s ever felt. Considering some of us have quite literally grown up with these films, it’s therapeutic to see that evolution transpired on-screen, and it helps establish “Endgame” as the perfect emphasis on eleven years of continuity, that will most likely never be matched or topped again.

– Happy to be wrong. My biggest fear after “Infinity War” was a clean and convenient fix that would leave our team virtually un-phased from their conflict with Thanos, and thankfully this isn’t the case, as the stakes remain very much gripped with the direction of the Russo’s constant reminder of their powerful antagonist. I won’t spoil anything, but I was left very satisfied with the way Marvel allowed themselves closure on certain characters, all the while teasing the next phase with some fresh faces. It leaves a permanent mark, for better or worse, on this group of superheroes that will keep them from ever forgetting what was lost in the dreaded Infinity War, and keep us as an audience on the edge of anxiety, as unpredictability has finally come into focus in a world that feels as dangerous and unpredictable as our own. It proves that not everything can ever be the same again, and that the fragility of livelihood is something we should cherish each and every day in our lives.

– Fine balance of dramatic and humorous elements. The very amount of laughable moments from richly ironic dialogue, as well as timely physical humor, made for a nice release after the draining that was “Infinity War”, and established early on that this is a return to form for the airy atmospheres that we’ve come to know from Avengers movies. That’s not to say that there aren’t gut-punches in the film, as the entire first act resonates ever so loudly in all of its depressing imagery and newfound disposition’s that the group find themselves on for the first time. What’s vitally important is that neither direction oversteps its boundaries towards the other, and allows enough careful articulation in each to take audiences on a roller-coaster of emotional response like only a flashy, frenzied superhero film can offer. Very few films this year have mastered one or the other, but the testament to the Russo’s brilliance is how they manage to juggle each without it ever compromising the integrity of one or the other, in turn establishing a hybrid subgenre of action, drama, and comedy that perfectly capture the atmosphere of page-turning graphic novels in all of their intrigue.

– Crisp action sequences. This certainly isn’t a film that is overwhelmed with action set pieces, in fact, the near three hour runtime allows enough pacing in anticipation that when it finally does come full circle, we are treated to enough visual fireworks that explode at just the right moment with our patience. The fight choreography is sharp as a tack, with two sides emulating a physical chess match with each move serving value in the fight for control. The editing is precise, instilling enough speed between actors without an over-abundance of them testing our stomach’s. And the variety in camera angles serves well in the battle of telegraphing for the audience, which can sometimes struggle with an area that should be the easiest aspect. Likewise, the set pieces spare no expense, and leave a barrage of debris and smoke flying at the screen that would allow me to recommend audiences spending a little more for the 3D, which has to be completely out of this world.

– Is it worth three hours? This was the biggest concern heading into the film, and for a majority of the scenes I can say that an inflated runtime is definitely needed considering the wide range of character’s and subplots that all need resolved by film’s end. What impressed me was how this film paid ample respect to each respective film franchise, and gave them the kind of closure that you never expect to see in a world run by money and greed, which constantly ask for the next unnecessary installment. As for pacing, with the exception of the first act, which takes slightly more time than I would like in setting up where this chapter is headed, I remained firmly invested for a majority of this film, and only checked my watch once, when the final battle concluded, serving as a testament to the story’s impression on me. There was never a period where I was bored with the movie, and more importantly, the scope involved in the immensity of the script practically demands that this film be treated as anything other than a conventional episodic Marvel installment, granting necessity to the rarity of this lengthy investment.

– Hidden narrative. Marvel apparently does know how to craft a trailer, as the sudden appearance of this plot took shape about thirty minutes into the movie, and remained intact for the better part of the next two hours. It sort of becomes this heist movie, with the remaining Avengers going after something, but not exactly the what or who that you’re thinking of while reading this. What this does is create some unexpected dream conflicts that would usually be impossible, but here are given life in a way that establishes fun, urgency, and most importantly: a underlying layer of tragedy hidden just beneath the surface. When this direction started, I felt that it overlooked a few more important aspects from what “Infinity War” gave us, but as time progressed I found myself feeling less alienated, and more giving in to this refreshing turn that was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the M.C.U to this point, and gave layers to events in the past Avengers timeline that we thought was dead and buried until now.

– The great Alan Silvestri. Music is usually the underlying poke or prod to an audience’s emotional interpretation. It can be manipulative if done wrong, but the work Silvestri has done in this film, as well as the other Avengers films, shouldn’t be underscored when surfing for proper emotional atonement. In “Endgame” Alan takes us through a triumphant nightmare, full of longing and despair, and combining them with the bombastic orchestral accompaniment that echoes in consistency with that of the single biggest war sequence that you have ever seen in film. In a sense, Alan feels like the often overlooked Avenger, but this critic deems him a necessity for the way his absorbing tones feel like an audibly reflective mirror on sometimes cryptic character’s, and if you feel yourself with any kind of goosebumps throughout the film, you will more than likely thank the talented cast, but you should DEFINITELY thank a composer with an immense responsibility of scoring the single biggest movie in pop culture history.

– Speaking of performances, most of the cast hits again in channeling enough heart and endless charisma for their respective character’s, which makes their fantasy interactions with one another all the more of a blessing. There’s still problems, most notably in the work of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, which continues to feel like the furthest thing from human that Marvel has ever channeled. But the positives are aplenty, as Downey, Evans, and surprisingly Jeremy Renner steal the show. For the first two, it’s the expected command of leadership and bravado that etch out the perfect two protagonist’s for this gifted army, and preserve the level of commitment that each of them have given in their seventh and sixth films respectively. For Downey’s Stark, it’s that fearful and traumatic nuance that gives the film layers that was only hinted at in “Iron Man 3”, and given legs to grow here with timely adversity. However, Renner stole the show for me, as this rogue assassin who is hellbent on avenging what he lost in the finger-snap heard around the world. Clint Barton has always been my favorite Avenger, and “Endgame” feels like the lost opportunity that we finally get to see what he can do front-and-center, and he never disappoints. Barton’s rage and unshaken focus are depicted in ways that we’ve never before seen, and it sheds the shield and allows him to don a side of dangerousness that we’ve never seen from Nick Fury’s secret weapon, leaving me all the more desperate for a Hawkeye movie that should’ve already happened.

– Peak special effects. This is as good as money can buy in 2019, as the combination of aging, de-aging, green-screen digitalization, and capture motion technology, transcend what we see and believe as real, and leaves us astonished at how seamlessly it all fits into the frame of live action realism. Marvel has once again taken actors who are aged in current day, and instilled youth into them to make us feel like they were recruited at the prime of their acting careers to shoot for a film that wouldn’t see the light of day for another thirty-five years. Likewise, the capture motion of Mark Ruffalo giving The Hulk a more distinguished feature for the actor who is living and breathing inside, is a reflection of just how far special effects have come, especially since Edward Norton’s delve inside looked anything but believable in the 2008 Hulk film. Ruffalo can move and interact without his depiction feeling distorted or enhanced, and the familiarity of Mark’s more obvious features is reflected in a way that makes his transformation feel like a legitimate actor under make-up and prosthetics kind of performance, which in turn helps better register when something hurts him. It envelopes a complex inspiration of artifical generation that puppeteers time in a way that we as humans simply shouldn’t be able to, and stands as the measuring stick for technical achievements, which will no doubt win the Oscar that it should’ve had with “Infinity War”.

NEGATIVES

– Problems with a gimmick. I wish I could elaborate more, but it would be a spoiler. Instead I will say that some of the laws and rules established within Ant-Man in particularly doesn’t make sense, and when we are given an explanation for it, the film just kind of winks and nods towards past films in pop culture that also had a similar problem with this aspect, without giving us an answer that ties it all together. That’s all I’m going to say. Literally anything would ruin this movie for you guys, and I’m not about that.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

High Life

Directed By Claire Denis

Starring – Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin

The Plot – Deep space outside the solar system. Monte (Pattinson) and his daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey and Jessie Ross, respectively) live together aboard a spacecraft, in complete isolation. A man whose strict self-discipline is a shield against desire, Monte fathered her against his will. His sperm was used to inseminate the young woman (Mia Goth) who gave birth to her. They were members of a crew of prisoners who were death row inmates. Guinea pigs sent on a mission. Now only Monte and Willow remain. Through his daughter, he experiences the birth of an all-powerful love. Together, father and daughter approach their destination: the black hole in which time and space cease to exist.

Rated R for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– Elaborate set designs. It’s clear where the budget went with this one: in the highly detailed set pieces and intricate backdrops where roughly 90% of this movie takes place. Despite being shot with such tightness overall in photography, the variety of rooms and vibrancy in color filters, gives the ship an immense feeling of privacy, where ulterior motives lurk in the shadows of what we’re not seeing with any character at any particular time. Films aboard ships often revel in the claustrophobia of such limited surroundings, but “High Life” embraces the idea that life carries on for these prisoners, despite being virtually held against their will in a mission clouded by uncertainty, and the purpose established in the many different areas on-board proves no deficiency in scientific capabilities or living perks required to silence the sting of isolation.

– Gripping performances. Pattinson has his own gravitational presence in films. No other way to say it. This is once again another transformative performance, but one in the mentality sense, bringing forth a conflicted protagonist who is very much a wild card when it comes to his troubled past, which now leads to the shaky interactions with the crew in the present. Robert’s delivery feels very in-tune with the person spending a lengthy trial far from human civilization, and the nuance delivery that deep down tugs through a war of hopelessness that the character is juggling with within himself. Also in tow is a physically demanding performance from Binoche, who looks on over this cast of misfits as the poke that constantly keeps them in arms. As usual with movies concerning prisoners, it’s the authority that is the true menace, and Juliette’s dry delivery, complimented by an unflinching, blank stare, surrounds her with a sense of dangerous authority that we know we should fear, despite never seeing a single weapon or restrictive object of enforcement throughout the entire film.

– Lack of special effects. My biggest praise of Denis’ direction is her decision to make everything from the gravitational pull that the character’s experience, to the G-force endurance in speed, authentic in its manufacturing, giving the movements throughout the ship a feel of honesty that most space movies made today try to speed through in order to avoid complications. The cast and crew were put through a rigorous test of physical exertion that equally told the story on the facial registries of the actors, and stood as the lone adversary that they couldn’t act their way out of. I admire an immersive production like this for the way the ideal surroundings better engage the intensity of the performances, and Claire’s experienced hand constructs a world that is normally millions of miles away from our own, and grounds it in reality so that we visually convey what is transpiring in the uncertainty of the darkness that lurks outside of their shift, and it proves that some acting jobs require a bit more than audibly becoming a character for a few weeks.

– Revealing introduction scene done right. My biggest pet peeve in modern day films is even done superbly, as the initial images when the film opens visually communicates that the majority of this crew have paid the ultimate price in scientific discoveries, but as what should be expected with a scene like this, there’s more that meets the eyes. A scene this cryptic and ambiguous left construing my own theories about where the story was headed, and as I found out, I was satisfyingly wrong about those assumptions for the better of the film’s shock factor. Once you know the whole story, those early images, as well as Monte’s mental psyche, are given layers of depth to play into our understanding of what transpired, and it proves that even with a scene so revealing in the backs of our minds, that sometimes the truth is something far more unexpected than our minds could even interpret.

– Inescapable sound mixing. Without atmospheric audio overstepping the sanctity of isolation, a space movie is doomed, and thankfully the cutting and pacing done here by some highly qualified technicians remains as consistent as the gravitational rules introduced early on in the first act. My favorite scenes in particular are the ones where Pattinson’s Monte in suited up in a spacesuit, colliding with the audibly immense volume of space, only for us the audience to hear nothing, since Denis instead puts us front-and-center in the shoes of her depicted protagonist, and it gives an immersive quality to the scene that helps us better interpret Monte’s mission without using anything as corny or overdone as Point-of-view sequence. The sound here is the established blanket that continues to smother, no matter how drowning out the events inside of it seem, and its continued presence gives reminder to where we are, even when the depth and space inside of the ship can sometimes fool us into thinking that normal everyday life exists within it.

– Interpretive pallet. Denis herself has commented that the movie is about “Tenderness in space. It’s about truth, fidelity, and sincerity”, and while those themes are certainly evident by the many interior adversities that this crew face for being trapped inside for so long, I found a few others that brought a thought-provoking poignancy to the film’s material. Themes like personal desires, desires, passions, motivations to keep going, and the choices we make having an intended consequence on us because of such. With so many psychological questions like these, it’s no secret that “High Life” compares these themes in a setting so far from our own, and boils them in a pot together to ask the question if they can still exist despite the circumstance. The answer is an overwhelming yes, and it’s unique and even life-affirming to watch each of them play out when everything else we’ve come to know and expect in our own definitions of life has been stripped down and reduced to the bare minimum aboard this ship of no rights and all responsibilities.

– Time distinguishing. “High Life” is told with a non-linear style of storytelling that depicts as many as three different time periods being played off simultaneously, and something that inclusive can get confusing if the right visual steps aren’t taken, an aspect that this film has in spades thanks to some personal touches of production creativity that can be missed if you blink. For one, the plants inside of the ship’s garden double in size during the later scenes, giving an overcrowded feeling to the once maintained eco-life. The second is Monte’s hair color giving way to an aging grey. I do have some problems with the aging process in the film, which I’ll get to later, but it’s clear with how big these grey patches are that an ample amount of time has passed, further allowing us to distinguish what particular timeline we currently exist in. The final is the cinematography inside of the ship. During the earlier timeline aboard, there’s a sense of vibrancy and livelihood aboard, but in the latest timeline imagery of scattered props and a much more visually convoluted atmosphere overtakes our focus, and visually echoes what we slowly learn about the crew and this ship, with how it’s come upon some uphill climbs for each of them respectively. This is very much an artsy film that won’t appeal to mainstream audiences, and if you don’t appreciate the craft of filmmaking, you won’t care much for the technical achievement that is the central focus here.

NEGATIVES

– Sluggish pacing. In telling this story out of order with the non-linear style fashion that I mentioned earlier, the first act of the film struggles greatly with hooking up from the start, showing us only Monte and his baby daughter as they live life alone on this ship. It’s a dry period of storytelling that takes a lot of time to get you used to conditions in their life, without any use of accommodating information for a good 30 minutes before the rest of the timelines get going. Likewise, the script has difficulty telling multiple plots of suspense simultaneously to build the tension long-range for a big payoff. It seems like the film brings up a conflict, follows through with it, then settles it. Wash, rinse, repeat. It hinders the film from maintaining the consistency of momentum, and makes for a dry transition in between these scenes of extreme graphic detail that feel so forced and foreign from the sum of its parts.

– Uneven aging process. During the third act, we begin to see Monte’s daughter as a teenager, and what this does is establish how many years the duo have been in space, especially considering time is slowed down up there. If she’s arguably fifteen in this timeline, then they’ve probably spent roughly thirty years in space at this point, and it brings forth a problem with her male counterpart that not only lacks believability, but also doesn’t line up with the progression of time inside of the story. Monte has a bigger grey patch, sure, but that’s it. No wrinkles or sagging skin, not even the slightest attempt at production make-up, nothing. It’s a missed opportunity for a film that did its homework up to that point, and would rather deviate from the gravity associated with the passing of time, rather than to make its cute leading man lack familiarity in his physical appearance.

– Anti-climatic ending. This will probably be the biggest grounds for debate in the film, as the ambiguous final images leaves much interpretation for the audience to fill in the blanks. My problem with this particular case is the leaving to imagination never matches up to the build and suspense earned by the last ten minutes of this movie, where these character’s risk it all for a chance at life. Most audiences will wait to see the answer inside of this dimension of mystery, and be disappointed for the note that the film concludes on with providing those answers. Self-interpretation is one thing, but a total lack of resolution with a character (Monte) who I was firmly invested in, feels like a cop-out. Last images are everything to open-ended movies, and the one we’re left with here definitely had me wanting more, but the sudden appearance of post-movie credits forced the air of suspense to diminish slowly with an inescapable feeling of unresolved disappointment.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Teen Spirit

Directed By Max Minghella

Starring – Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe

The Plot – Violet (Fanning) is a shy teenager who dreams of escaping her small town and pursuing her passion to sing. With the help of an unlikely mentor (Grochowska), she enters a local singing competition that will test her integrity, talent and ambition. Driven by a pop-fueled soundtrack, “Teen Spirit” is a visceral and stylish spin on the Cinderella story.

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking

POSITIVES

– Beautifully captured world of pop stardom. The combination of hazy, smoky cinematography by experimental artist Autumn Durald, as well as the well as Minghella behind the lens, gives way to a visual aesthetic that is easily one of my favorite so far in 2019, and left me transfixed for a rendering of a world that feels so far from our own for its consistency of beauty in every frame. The smoke in the air seems to follow Violet throughout her story, establishing a feeling of a stage play come to life, as well as this unshakeable desire to be a star that overlaps into her daily routine. What’s even more effective is how the use of smoke further enhances the volume of neon effects that overtake our screen, and dares us to look away from the hypnotic lure that we embrace in the same way Violet does.

– Deep-seeded material. It would be easy to make a film that serves as your typical rags-to-riches story in teenage pop euphoria, but Minghalla’s screenwriting lends itself to some adult themes and revealing looks into this members only world that is sure to change our views on the price of fame. The film uses ample screen time to invest in the fear associated with young, pretty women and how they’re objectified on-stage, as well as the backstage politics of dealing with an industry that is constantly trying to change who you are and what makes you special. It proves that Minghalla isn’t just resting on the power of his visual laurels, and his power of the pen is sure to move audiences with some thought-provoking strokes of career building that gives respect and pays its dues to every singer who has come before it.

– Stage presence. I knew that Elle Fanning could sing before this film, but the choice to perform all of her songs is something that I give her great respect for, but isn’t the lone surprise that she captivates us with. As Violet, Fanning oozes a level of confidence, sex appeal, and dance choreography that casts her usual reserved demeanor in previous films in remarkably new territory, and it’s easy to understand why she was cast as this overnight superstar, if only for the way she commands the attention of those she sings for, directly into the camera. I do have some problems with the song selections, which I will get to later, but this is a completely vulnerable actress who leaves everything on stage, and never leaves room to question how much she studied for the role, as her moves and eyes mimic modern day singers to a tee in terms of the total package.

– Additional ensemble. Aside from Fanning, who is spectacularly captivating in this role, the work of Rebecca Hall and Agnieszka Grochowska are especially effective in their respective roles, serving as a virtual good and bad angels on the shoulders of Violet, but not on the sides you would expect each of them to be on. Hall is this devilish record executive who has clearly fooled many young kids before Violet into signing their lives away, and it’s every bit as refreshing as it is unnerving to see the kind of grip that Hall has on the slimy demeanor that seeps its way into the wish of every ambitious singer, without her ever feeling cartoonish or cliche’d because of ambiguous direction. Grochowska is however the show-stealer for this critic, harvesting the surprisingly comedic backbone and overall heart of the movie, in a way that makes each scene he’s not in weaker because of it. His interaction with Violet is something that nuanced its way into my heart, and established a two-against-the-world vibe in the film’s second half that instilled great intrigue to their dynamic, and made a star out of this aging veteran, for fans of a new generation.

– Captivating editing. This feeds into the visual presentation, but deserves its own mention for how it visually communicates to the audience in this music video style fashion that doubles as Violet’s psyche. When she’s on stage performing, we cut frequently to events from her past that may be in her head at that particular moment. They could be things we haven’t yet seen as an audience engaging her story, or not, but the cuts are as sharp as glass here, offering us thought for the food that we are feasting on in terms of the music she performs, and the fantastical depiction inside is foreign enough that we immediately pick up on its surrealism. It proves that even during scenes of pause from the usual narrative, the movie never stops feeding us these monumental things that the protagonist has been through, and it taps into Minghalla’s grip on the material that speaks volumes to this being a passion project for him.

– I commend the script for deviating from the familiar beats of the teenage dream formula, and instilling a series of curveballs for the audience to feast on, that challenges Violet to to rise above the adversity that is keeping her from her dream. Without spoiling anything, I will say that making her anything but a sure thing definitely helps materialize the idea of stakes and weight into a film that is about something as silly as pop music, and better fleshes out Violet’s vulnerability to remind us of the little girl inside who has come this far. Despite a familiar outline, this film takes anything but the conventional route, and especially during the social media era, there’s this accountability for actions that could soil everyone’s perception of who they see on the television, and really reminds us how these artists play to the gimmick literally twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

– Perfect setting. What’s effectively nuanced about this small island in the United Kingdom being the foreground for this story is the small town mentality of its citizens, combined with the weathered buildings and almost lack of color on the townhouses that mentally channels Violet’s frustration with living a mundane life with such a rumbling talent, and this, as well as a couple of montage sequences early on in the film, illustrated the struggles not only with a daily routine, but also in the claustrophobia of a place where everyone knows everything, leaving much to be desired with seeing the world and living for today. Because of such, Wight Island feels like so much more than just a location, it feels like a state of mind for the troubled protagonist, who spots an opportunity to rid herself of the condemning associated with simply settling.

NEGATIVES

– Not long enough. At only 87 minutes, “Teen Spirit” is too rushed in pacing and too minimal of an effort to further elaborate on the compelling drama within the third act, that otherwise ties up a bit too neatly to feel believable. For my money, I could’ve easily used another twenty minutes to focus particularly on this area of the film, and further depict the effects that a competition this immense has on Violet’s crumbling psyche. I can appreciate a movie that never lags or feels uneven, but the tease of a darker twist late in this film is simply too seductive to walk away from, and the film is left trying to run through many themes and subplots in the final twenty minutes, that minimalize the trouble.

– Issues with the soundtrack. First of all, let me say that I am a fan of artists like Sia, Ellie Goulding, and Robyn. Their music summarize a complete listing of tracks that feel like a virtual dream team assembly from someone’s Ipod, that they threw together without the fear of lawsuits or cease and desist letters because of such. My problem comes with how they compliment Elle Fanning’s particular tones, and vitally affecting scenes where we’re supposed to feel the power of her performances. With the exception of the final performance from Violet, the other numbers reach for precision in notes from highly unorthodox singers with near-impossible vocal ranges that humble her. The performances aren’t bad, but they leave more to be desired in those convincing moments where Elle falls a bit too flat to add anything of dimension to these familiar heavy-hitters.

– “Flashdance” remake? This is obviously just one of the many genre comparison that I can make, but the similarities with “Flashdance” in particular are endless. Aside from familiar beats and story outlines from the 1983 dance movie, the very song “Flashdance What a Feeling” is re-used in this movie, and it points to the biggest problem that this movie has: finding its own originality to deviate from familiar formulas in the genre. In this regard, it feels like I’ve seen “Teen Spirit” before, and likely will see it again because of the nature of derivative green-lighting, but Minghalla’s greatest feat in visual pallet is also his biggest weakness in terms of narrative redundancy.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Curse of La Llorona

Directed By Michael Chaves

Starring – Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez

The Plot – Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker (Cardellini) and her own small kids (Cruz, Velasquez) are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm. Their only hope to survive La Llorona’s deadly wrath may be a disillusioned priest and the mysticism he practices to keep evil at bay, on the fringes where fear and faith collide.

Rated R for violence and terror

POSITIVES

– Visual aesthetic. Chaves does a solid job of unnerving audiences with an atmosphere as thick as fog, as well as a particular time period that appeals to the western landscape setting. To my surprise the film is set during 1973, a time when possession and exorcism’s were all the rage with our world, and that level of uncertainty that much of the La Llorona folklore is based on more than translates to the ominous feeling that is constantly present in this house. Chaves uses a fine combination of lighting manipulation to make outlines play tricks on the audience’s eyes, as well as unorthodox character framing that elaborates what the audience should be focused on in staying one step ahead of the character’s.

– Use of jump scares. I almost hate crediting something that usually bothers me so dearly, but the technique associated with inserting jump scares here works for what it does to enhance the scares. Instead of paying off in the predictable moments, the most overdone use of jump scares today, Chaves misleads with sound mixing and timing to throw us off, prolonging the anxiety-riddled tension in ways that really keeps you on the edge of your seat at all times. Sure, there are still predictable jump scares that exist frequently in the movie, but the law of averages established by Chaves early on, helps to throw off the certainty of when the explosion of expression will rightfully land, and above all else it proves that he’s trying to send audiences home with a jumping good time.

– Performances. It’s great to see Cardellini getting more starring roles, and her work here as an adaptive one-parent leader of the household is something that comes across fruitfully in the compassion and protection that she instills in their constant well-being. Her character is a social worker, so it’s easy to draw the line of contrast in this woman taking her work home with her and vice versa, and it brings forth an admirable lead protagonist who we can invest in to maintain our interest. As for the children, they are solid for what the role demanded, but it’s really the facial reactions of the 4’4″ phenom Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen whose facial reactions help better distinguish the lunacy of what’s transpiring in this newly-formed possessed household. The show stealer for me however, is that of Raymond Cruz, whose third act introduction brings forth some much needed levity and humor and for the film that was otherwise ignored to that point. Cruz has always been a talented actor whose career I have followed closely, and it’s nice to see him play a protagonist for once, especially one whose character relies so heavily in the progression of the conflict. He brings a sense of caution to the dynamic of the film, and I simply couldn’t get enough of his character in the final battle.

– Major Easter egg. Without spoiling anything, I will say that a bombshell announcement at the end of the second act changed the world within this film, and brought ties to a familiar modern day horror franchise that I totally did not see coming. What’s important is the film doesn’t force too much in making this believable, nor does its inclusion take away anything from this film itself. It’s just a revelation that will offer a poignancy about the timeline of this franchise, all the while preparing us for future installments that should prove anything is indeed possible at this point.

NEGATIVES

– Stupid kids. The kids themselves serve as a convenient plot device in this film, in that the irresponsibility of their pee-brain decisions is the only reason why this film ever reaches 85 minutes. These kids get physically harmed by this mysterious ghost, and don’t tell their parent or anyone anything about it. This of course leads later on to a scene where guests feel that the Mother is responsible, and if these shitheads just spoke up, we could conclude this scene and get back to what truly matters. Beyond this, the choices that they make during the big confrontation with La Llorona made me practically yell at the screen for how desperate these screenwriters were to keep it going. Even for children, these are actions that bring forth a brain-dead quality to their demeanor’s, and if I were their mother, I would consider them as good as gone for the things they do that don’t help anyone in fighting off this presence.

– Pointless rating. This is perhaps the single biggest misstep by the M.P.A.A in quite sometime, as there’s no genuine reason why this film needs or attains the coveted R-rating, that is often used to enhance the mature subject matter. Here, there’s no blood, absolutely no adult language, and nothing that even comes close to the PG-13 renderings of “Insidious” or “The Conjuring” franchises in terms of risky material. It’s also inevitably going to hinder the profits made by the film, as only audiences of a certain age will be able to see it, and all for what exactly? Scenes of children being whisked back and forth throughout the house? This is pointless even for a group as conflicted as the M.P.A.A, and if “The Curse of La Llorona” is rated R, then Stephen King’s “It” should be a rated X.

– Antagonist outline. As a horror icon, La Llorona leaves a bit more to be desired when compared to her predecessor’s. It’s great to see another female horror villain, especially one with Mexican heritage, but as a threat she’s about as harmful as Babs Bunny. The only thing that this movie proves is that she’s good at moving character’s around the place. Her body count is weak, her character design lacks any kind of originality, especially now that this movie exists in a popular franchise, and her backstory doesn’t make you feel any kind of empathy or misunderstanding about the character for us to justify her existence. In fact, there’s such an overall lack of exposition donated to the character, that it often feels like she’s a supporting character in a movie with her own name in the title, and it feels like a missed opportunity for creating nightmare fuel for an entirely new generation.

– Uneven pacing. Between the film’s two halves, it feels like two people are at the helm of the film, especially considering how polar opposite they are when stitched together to make the same cohesive property. The first half moves by at a cyclone’s pace, blowing by scenes of personal backstory, as well as experiences with La Llorona that are often slowly elevated with each passing night in movies like these. As for the second half, it feels like the screenwriter realized that so little is known about the rules or weaknesses of La Llorona, so we better slow everything down and establish a scene and character where we can kill two birds with one convenient stone, making the inevitability of our final confrontation feel every bit as strained as it does momentum-omitting.

– Lack of experimenting. For a movie that opened up with arguably one of the best horror sequences of the past decade, in a tracking sequence that follows this family around the house through one of their daily routines, the rest of the camera work lacks the kind of inspiration that could’ve allowed the cinematography for charms to gimmick with the character. I mentioned earlier that I did enjoy the character framing, but the scenes of physical conflict are often shot with too many visual effects like rampant lightning to make them distinguishable. Likewise, the handheld style is an endurance test for the eyes, that gives off a feeling of constant shaking and imbalance, which added yet even more difficulty to the dissection of each scene.

– Inconsistencies. La Llorona can apparently turn off flashlights and move heavy sets of furniture, but when it comes to breaking through a cheap $5 lock from a hardware store, she’s rendered weak. In addition to this, she is able to move character’s who are never touched or commanded by her, the power associated with transfixing kids to do things against their will, come and go like the wind, and her biggest power is used only when it’s convenient. In this regard, the film’s final moments involving the kids running away from her made zero sense when you consider she could flick her fingers like Thanos, and bring them to her in a split second. It only further adds to the inescapability of her as an antagonist that I mentioned earlier, and brings a level of logic that could fertilize the lawn if drawn out properly.

My Grade: 4/10 or D

Breakthrough

Directed By Roxann Dawson

Starring – Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas

The Plot – Based on the inspirational true story of one mother’s unfaltering love in the face of impossible odds. When Joyce Smith’s (Metz) adopted son John (Marcel Ruiz) falls through an icy Missouri lake, all hope seems lost. But as John lies lifeless, Joyce refuses to give up. Her steadfast belief inspires those around her to continue to pray for John’s recovery, even in the face of every case history and scientific prediction.

Rated PG for thematic content including peril

POSITIVES

– Mutual respect. “Breakthrough” is the rare exception in religious exploitation films, where the film states its case and its belief in a greater power, and doesn’t shun the cliche atheist character for their contradicting beliefs. The character in question is played by Luke Cage himself, Mike Coulter, and he’s depicted in a way that not only gives a strong combination of dignity and class to the character, but also never tries to change his beliefs or prove that he’s wrong. It’s a world developed that allows both sides to prosper without unnecessary confrontation, and that element alone allows the movie the kind of rare open arms treatment, where everyone is welcome, regardless of spiritual beliefs or lack there of. It’s one of the only times when a movie like this didn’t judge me or make me feel uncomfortable, and that alone brings it a step above the rest in living out God’s message.

– Soundtrack depth. When the movie begins, we are treated to pop culture toe-tappers like “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, or “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore, and it’s enough eye-opening selections to give the film a rich sense in budget, all the while echoing the cultures of its youths. This of course eventually changes into all spiritual offerings, but the eclectic nature of the genre and composition’s inspire creativity to the conventional hymns that we’ve come to know, and instills a sense of creativity to the movie’s compositions that radiate that fresh appeal, and it allows the music to remain true to itself, all the while catering to a bigger audience based on pop culture familiarity.

– A couple of solid performances. Metz is definitely the breadwinner here, emoting Joyce with no shortage of tears or energy to the command that she has on each situation. The problem is that I detested her character, mainly because the movie hints at a transformation that never comes, but all the same, Metz harvests most of the film’s emotional registry. Likewise, Coulter has a strong on-screen presence that captures the attention in each scene that he’s in, and juggles the biggest conflict of the movie, because his own eyes and ears are failing him on everything that he believed to this point. Topher Grace was also a riot to watch, if only for the facial reactions to the movie’s events, which drew more than a few smiles out of me. In terms of likeability, Topher is the movie’s saving grace, and his hip demeanor in freshening up the old testament is something that this world could use more of.

– Iron production values. While nothing is academy award deserving, it is exceptional in terms of religious movies that sometimes diminish the power of their message with a presentation that looks like it was shot by a high school film class. That simply isn’t the case here, as the neon interiors of the hospital, combined with some breath-stealing scenery of St. Louis, conjure up a visual presentation that confirms a great amount of money was spent in post production, and the editing, while dealing with continuity issues at times, does at least keep the progression of the film smoothly running, to keep us firmly engaged. When you compare “Breakthrough” to a PureFlix movie, you see an immense difference that reminds you how strong a film can be if it has a big studio presence behind it, and it gives us a lot to look at when the film’s plot progression has kind of grinded to a violent halt.

– Big game talents. I was surprised at how much the camera work relied on the skills of the young cast to showcase their basketball skills without manipulating the shot to make them something they’re not. Long take shots offer a balance of choreographed dribbling and long range shot display that came from the hands of the cast themselves, and really impressed me for not only the confidence they display, but the confidence that Dawson has in them to get it right. These are sequences that are such a minimal use of time for the bigger picture, so it would’ve certainly been easy to cut and paste these kids in a way that would fool half of the audience into thinking these kids are something they so obviously are not, but the direction, especially with NBA star Steph Curry serving as a movie producer, commits itself to getting it right, and shows John at work with his finest skill, instead of just telling us.

NEGATIVES

– Predictable. This is the biggest obstacle that the movie faces, as aside from a trailer that gives away nearly everything about this plot, aspects as minimal as lines of dialogue were mimicked by a friend and I, who spoke them seconds before the movie did. It’s expected that the events would be told in completely honest detail, but what’s concerning is how little we learn about the character’s, which could offer some shred of intrigue during the waiting game, which is roughly 80% of this movie. It’s obviously better for people who know less about these true life events, but even then you know there’s only one certain direction that a plot and genre like this can travel, and the fact that “Breakthrough” left me with the ability to telegraph everything scenes before they happen, spoke levels to the entertainment factor of the script, that feels closer to a Wikipedia article for the covering of events.

– Pacing issues. Most of the problems that I discussed directly above this translates to the jagged pacing of the movie, which at nearly two hours feels like a stretch for how much develops during the film. For one, there’s plenty that can be removed with very little impact. Stretched sequences involving throwaway character’s outside of this family, or repetition in scenes that transpire the same way but pivot on character movements, feed into this padding for passage of time that is quite literally that. This movie’s consistency literally did feel like a hospital waiting game at times, and with some more first act exposition before the big splash, the film could ease itself from racing to a red light, which it remains parked at until the final fifteen minutes of the movie.

– Transformation issues. For this movie, there are two character transformations that inspire these character’s to become better people. First is Joyce, an overzealous control freak, whose own insecurities are exposed in the way she devalues those around her. The second is John, as he struggles with feeling the love associated with being adopted. Both of these serve a bigger purpose, but only one of them worked, and it lands in the hands of the person who stays under conscience for most of this movie. Joyce’s supposed transformation didn’t land for me because she isn’t really that different from the person she was before all of this, and even worse, her actions are justified for the sake of John’s progression. She’s a conflicted character who never cures her conflictions, and it says a lot that the kid who doesn’t speak for a huge chunk of this movie attains the things that the film’s central protagonist simply never does.

– Blunders. There were all kinds of errors in believability, continuity, and horrendous line reads that do bring forth some unintentional laughs while watching this. Some of my favorite involve a resuscitation scene where the nurse administering C.P.R is obviously not beating on the chest, nor even doing it on the correct area of the chest for it to work. Likewise during this scene, it’s fairly obvious that John is breathing, especially with the revealing camera angles used, as well as the placing of a tube on his chest, which only makes it easier to detect. This is also one of the worst hospitals in the country apparently, because doctor’s say things like “Think, Gene” to themselves during surgery, or speak negatively in the presence of the boy and mother in their hospital room. If you can get over this believability issue, a musical scene in which students from John’s school sing him to inspiration you simply cannot. The kids are not only singing at a level that would make it difficult to hear from twenty feet away, let alone three floors up on a hospital window that doesn’t open, but it’s even less believable when a piano is heard that simply isn’t there. These are just a few of my favorite things, and don’t reflect the stretches of logic necessary to understand some pretty moronic course of actions that I won’t spoil here.

– Pitiful poignancy. For my money, I could’ve used more discussion aimed at the thought-provoking of its subject matters, that the film slowly steps away from. One such discussion happens late in the film, when a character asks why miracles happen for some people and not the others. Instead of offering up some form of relief for those seeking answers for the awkwardness of the question, the scene uses it as nothing more than a brief hiccup on the way to bigger and better things. If you had no relief in the form of even opinion-based answers, then why bring it up in the first place. This movie is full of solid questions that should be coming from an atheist’s point of view, but the overall lack of energy used to support these queries makes their inclusion feel every bit as temporary as they do pointless. A cop out with no intention of supporting its believers.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Mustang

Directed By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring – Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern

The Plot – Roman (Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an “outdoor maintenance” program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang.

Rated R for adult language, some violence and drug content

POSITIVES

– A wide range of emotional response. Very few films, especially today, have the kind of depth in screenplay that connects with the audience on such a personal level. To this degree, “The Mustang” brought forth, laughter, sadness, anger, and an overall sense of inspiration in me, for what I call the modern day rendering of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ending. If films can invest you in a way that makes you feel one of these emotions, then it’s done a good job at connecting to its audience, but when you have a film touch you in a way that allows your own registry to ride hand-in-hand with those of the character’s, then you have something that transcends the screen, and gives us a sense of the vital importance of connection, even beyond that of a human level.

– The Roman/horse dynamic. When you compare these two lost souls coming together, you discover that they have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both of them are captured and imprisoned in ways that take them away from familiarity. Both are well reserved in their demeanor’s, requiring the bond of the other to open up and invest in something important to feel free again. Likewise, they both come together during a time when the lives surrounding them have crumbled, leaving them leaning on the dependency of the other to get by, and redeem the level of trust that they are both capable of. I also found it interesting how Roman’s engagement with the horse is reflected upon the brief visitation interaction’s that he shares with his daughter. The first one is very well reserved and full of anger, but by the third one he seeks forgiveness and redemption for the missteps taken in his handling of the situation. It’s not accidental that Laure depicts these two living, breathing creatures so closely in movements, and it all leads to the final shots of the film, where I interpret that these two become one almost metaphorically, bringing forth a back-handed triumph in the closing moments that makes sense the more you think about it.

– Heavy-hitting turns. This is easily Schoenaerts single best performance to date, transforming himself physically and personally to becoming this shell of a convict who remains to himself. Matthias’ ability to say so little throughout the movie, yet speak so loudly in facial reactions is something that establishes a line of immersive acting that he hasn’t been saddled with until now, and despite this character being a bit of a terrible person, you engage in him because his eyes are the windows of this tortured soul that is living with a fine combination of grief and regret. It builds to a third act transformation that gives way to him being able to open up the closer he gets to his trusty four-legged companion. In addition to him, it’s always charming to see Bruce Dern’s dry delivery of wit that commands respect if only for its stern enveloping. Young phenom Gideon Adlon is also a revelation, making the most of a few scenes with unabashed anger in streaming tears, that really forces you to turn against our central protagonist. I saw Adlon in last year’s so-so raunchy comedy “Blockers”, but her turn here shows that there’s a lot of fire burning in this furnace, and with any luck in casting, we will see her coals burning for a long time to come.

– Precise editing. The tight cuts are asked to perform a bit more magic in this film, as the movements of the horses are used to manipulate audiences into thinking that we are seeing them naturally attack. This is done with a fine amount of close angles and fluid continuity in pasting different takes together, to make a presentation that puts us front-and-center with Roman, in the heat of the action. Sequences like these almost give us no time to zero in and focus on even the slightest detection of weakness, but we never find it, and it’s all a testament to Clermont-Tonnerre’s hand of magic, where she only allows you to see what you want to see. For her first feature length film, her consistency never shatters, and it makes me want to see what else she can do on a bigger scale production.

– Seeping-in musical score. The somber ingredients dispersed in the film echo such a cold sadness in the presentation of the movie, that it almost feels somewhat reflective of Roman’s interior compass. What’s impressive is patient level of volume used in post production to never overstep its boundaries on the art of the scene itself, and only becoming audibly obvious during scenes of transition, where the echo of hopelessness begins to evaporate. The man behind the callous tones is Jed Kurzel, the same man who scored “The Babadook”, one of my favorite horror films of the decade, and it was his influence that triggered much of the anxiety-ridden nightmare fuel that film had to offer. For “The Mustang”, he’s able to show a much more intimate side than horror can grant, and the confidence in his music to never strike louder than anything in the scene itself, better allows the elements of drama to simmer with the heat in orchestral engagements that he sprinkles each scene with.

– Ruben Impens. One of my favorite cinematographer’s going today is back, and it’s no surprise that his boldly beautiful frames and color filters are the very best thing that this film has to offer. The wide angles that depict the mountainside and endless deserts convey a sense of freedom being so close, yet so far away for Roman. Likewise, the sunbaked effects that reflect in the camera itself, establishes a visual metaphor for his golden opportunity that he simply can’t let slip away. These things prove that a film doesn’t need a blockbuster budget to present these visually breathtaking enchantments, and these elements better channel the mental location of these characters, in a place that feels so isolated from everyone and everything they love.

– Educative and informative. A fine line of poignancy and human commentary persists in the idea of these horses being taken from their habitat, and sold for devilish greed, and the film never shies away from this inescapable feeling of victimizing that it is truly responsible for taking. Beyond this, I appreciate that the film not only gives us the facts with this disgusting poaching, but it also takes the time to teach us the steps in gaining a horse’s trust that other films may overlook. In this regard, we are able to slip into Roman’s shoes that much easier because we are learning things on the same speed that he is, and can’t escape that feeling of uncertainty and fear that smother the initial confrontations. This film not only told me how similar the breeds of human and horse are truly are, it showed it to me, and it proves that even in a 91 minute film, it’s important for audiences to understand how unpredictable their movements truly can be if you make even one wrong move.

– True story. I appreciate that the movie never got lost in the heat of the “Based on a true story” gimmick, and instead reserved itself for the beginning and end of the movie to relay its information. The end even treats us to some real life pictures of the people that the movie is based on, but doesn’t lose itself to fully telling their stories. This may sound a bit insulting to the real life figures, but when you’re not discussing a historical event of tragedy, the people can become shaped in whatever way the script requires them to be, to further enhance the element of surprise, which this movie has a couple of.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary prison subplot. This angle, which distracts from the intimacy of these stirring subplots, feels every bit as tacked-on as it does compromising to the film’s pacing. This angle involving drug trading and race war’s is something that didn’t feel synonymous with something in this particular prison film, and if it was removed completely, the film would trim ten minutes and lose absolutely nothing. It doesn’t hinder the progress of my score as a whole, but these brief hiccups were the only times when “The Mustang” felt like it was trying to be something and cater to a particular subgenre that it absolutely isn’t, and this element of the script simply doesn’t mesh well with its counterparts.

– Missed opportunities. Even if we do find out the “what” and the “how” of Roman’s incarceration, the “why” seems to be a much more important aspect that the movie never fully exploits for compelling drama. There’s a scene of remorse from Roman, where he speaks to his daughter about one faithful night, but the actions of an angry man come and go with so little understanding of the situation, that it almost feels secondary to the environment surrounding it. The father and daughter do confront one another, but for it being the closing shot between them, the resolution left a little more to be desired, and if it wasn’t for an additional closing narration (Which also feels tacked-on), this subplot would leave many audiences missing the finer points of easily the most engaging material that the movie has to offer.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Little

Directed By Tina Gordon

Starring – Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Marsai Martin

The Plot – A woman (Hall) is transformed into her younger self (Martin) at a point in her life when the pressures of adulthood become too much to bear.

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content

POSITIVES

– Gifted casting. It’s rare that a film in 2019 will have such domination in the form of leading ladies, and even more so that those ladies make the most in elevating such predictable material, but that is the case with the trio of Hall, Rae, and Martin, who each bring their vibrant personalities to the indulgence of the audience. The comparison between Hall and Martin feels seamless for a transformation movie, with each actress sharing identical traits in speech patterns and expressions that would otherwise go unnoticed by incapable directing. Hall is definitely the best part of this film, being as nasty as she wants to be as the boss from hell, and the rest of the movie surrounding her kind of stalls when she’s gone, but the chemistry between Rae and Martin is just enough to tie us over through many scenes of mayhem that the duo get into. It’s in the reactions of these two virtual silver screen newcomers that was a delight to watch, leading to many confrontations between them that is both audibly and visually satisfying when you think about people around them witnessing it all.

– Clean cut comedy. The effectiveness of the humor is greatly surprising, especially considering it’s mostly curse word free, and nothing in this trailer made me giggle even remotely. “Little” is a film that saves its best material for the presentation, juggling a fine compromise of physical and social awkwardness that we the audience can flesh out long before the supporting character’s do, because we constantly remain one step ahead in our wealth of knowledge, and it led to a 60% landing rate for me, that did harvest some solid laughs in the material. In this regard, Rae is definitely the M.V.P, as her bold facial reactions and lewd public demeanor carve out what I describe as a female Chris Tucker, and pack a resounding punch in the area this movie needs the most.

– A second chance. It was strange to me that a kid character who gets bullied when we start the movie is the one who transforms back to learn a lesson. In most cases, it’s the bully who has to redeem themselves, but Martin’s character is one who uses the knowledge that she attained as an adult to give herself another opportunity at a childhood that she had robbed from her, and it not only leads to the contrasts of similarities between the respective era’s that she was a child through, but it also sheds a light on brutal bullying that still persists now as it ever did. This gives way to a positive message that I appreciated for how it could inspire youthful audiences to use in their own lives, and sends audiences home on a feel-good note that was earned because of the depictions of middle school being so restrictive and mentally scarring.

– Unity. It’s refreshing and a rare benefit to see a film indulge in feats that deal with black women being successful and being comfortable in their own skin. Being a woman of color herself, Gordon revels in this positive and airy atmosphere that gives her character’s power, but above all else responsibility in careers and the dependency of the film, which sadly isn’t represented enough in modern day film. From this angle, “Little” manages to transcend the silver screen, with a bunch of progressive ideals for our own corporate world that help break down barriers and give attention to corporate and social commentary where it’s immensely needed.

NEGATIVES

– Forgotten subplots. This is a sloppy script that occasionally introduces elements that are given ample screen time to feel important, yet never are given a satisfying conclusion to tie it all together. The first is the hunky teacher, whose lone scene in the film is the one that audiences are treated to in the trailer. This scene with him lasts around ten minutes, and we never see him again. Likewise, a meaningful plot involving Hall’s love interest is touched upon but never elaborated on with a late act confrontation between them that I felt was needed to satisfy their on-again, off-again relationship. The big problem here is that some scenes are given too much time, while others struggle to get the light needed to further develop them, and it leads to two uneven halves that when compared bring an obvious weak period late in the film that couldn’t hold up to the consistency of the first thirty minutes of the movie.

– Strange observations. Why does the woman’s clothes change sizes in one transformation but not the other? In a school that takes initiative with inclusion during a school play, why is there what’s labeled a “Friend Zone”, where the so-called loser kids eat lunch away from the rest of the cool elite? Why are there not one, but two instances of school bullying and violence depicted in this movie during a big event with a lot of eyes and focus on the stage, and no teacher within shouting distance? Why did the rich client (Played by SNL’s Mikey Day) show up for a pitch meeting three days later instead of the 48 hours that was originally established? Why does Regina Hall’s character have so many kids clothes in her closet, despite not having kids herself? Since the whole plot revolves around a little girl magician who turns Regina Hall younger, does it mean all of her transformations work? What about the white guy during the third act who she wanted to turn into a marshmallow out of frustration?

– Plot halting. There’s a period of about 40 minutes in this movie, where the central plot is put in park for some scenes of question that don’t exactly fit or add anything to the dynamic of the progression. A musical number, as well as the aforementioned hot teacher scene, leave very little lasting impact, and even worse stalls the fluidity of the pacing, which was solid until that point. In fact, when you really think about it, this movie should be over in twenty minutes, especially considering how easy it would be to track down this little girl magician, but because of the plot device we better spread it out for 104 minutes. This is perhaps the biggest fault with Gordon’s directing, as the tabs kept with the central conflict receives minimalist’s attention, and it forces creativity to bring Rae’s character back to the forefront.

– Television production quality. Everything here, from the lack of risks or personality taken with the cinematography, to the routine scale of angles and editing that leaves the presentation lacking inspiration, is presented in a way that screams inexperience, and while Gordon isn’t fully to blame for these decisions, the inexperience of a writer-turned-director recently does limit its capabilities. Likewise, the lack of depth associated with production design also rears its ugly head, during a few scenes when the weight of the stakes in the balance doesn’t feel quite as even as the situation calls for. In fact, the overall presentation of “Little” gave it an obvious comparison to recent films like “Isn’t It Romantic”, “Girls Night”, and “Night School”, but what makes this worse is that it comes on the tail end of those already mundane films and never finds a conscience to branch out above the pack. It’s an uninspiring product that refuses to take chances to dazzle audiences.

– Uncomfortable sexualizing. This is really the biggest bother for me in the movie, as Martin (A 13 year-old) is decked out constantly in tight, body-showing wardrobe, as well as given not one, but two scenes where she flirts with older co-stars, as well as dancing provocatively, and while the film called for it based on the dynamics of the plot, it doesn’t mean that I can accept any kind of glorifying of it. In this regard, it’s almost like they never fully commit to Martin’s youthful transformation, and still long for her to represent the elder side of Hall, which is a misstep for the comedy of the scene. If the posh Hall is reduced to wearing these cheap, ugly youthful threads, then it will better flesh out the desperation of her situation that leaves her feeling so far from the woman she’s fought endlessly to become.

– Far too predictable. This is not breaking news to anyone, but the film is heavily influenced by 1986’s “Big”, in that not only is its title a play on that previous film, but it also lifts identical plot points directly from that film as inspiration. The problem is that its inability to distance itself from the former and overall better film muddles the material down to predictably bland levels that left me being able to sniff out every resolution in plenty of time before it appeared. I can understand that the wiggle room is claustrophobic with a premise this specific, but there’s almost no point in making a film that isn’t labeled as a remake unless you’re going to experiment in ways that allows distance, and while “Little” has sprouts of flavorful delight, the overall whole had me experiencing flashbacks of Tom Hanks in his comical prime.

My Grade: 4/10 or D