The Front Runner

Directed By Jason Reitman

Starring – Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K Simmons

The Plot – The film follows the rise and fall of Senator Hart (Jackman), who captured the imagination of young voters and was considered the overwhelming front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when his campaign was sidelined by the story of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). As tabloid journalism and political journalism merged for the first time, Senator Hart was forced to drop out of the race; events that left a profound and lasting impact on American politics and the world stage.

Rated R for adult language including some sexual references

POSITIVES

– All boys club. While the film regrettably wastes away the talents of Farmiga, the work of Jackman and Simmons are more than enough to keep the entertainment factor of the audience consistent. Jackman’s transformation into Hart shows an empathetic and articulately intelligent side to the politician than we’ve ever seen. As expected, Jackman commits himself freely to the role, echoing off no shortage of long-winded and volume-increasing diatribes that have him commanding the presence of the screen firmly. Simmons is his usual comedic self, but his sharp tongue pierces the scenery of every scene he comes into contact with, because of the overlapping witty banter written by Reitman, Jay Carson, and author Matt Bai. This trio of reputable writers rivals only that of Aaron Sorkin in terms of cool consistency, and it allows Simmons to shine in his best deliveries since 2014’s “Whiplash”.

– Illustrates a poignant approach to political reporting that is relevant now more than ever. When you consider how far from normal we are in our current political landscape, a movie like “The Front Runner” outlines the question when is it too far to dig deeper, and especially when you consider everything positively that Hart had going for him, that moral dilemma feels like more of an obstacle than expected. We might not agree with the process depicted in the film, but the commendable notion that hints that the leader of the country should be the one to lead by example, is something that I couldn’t agree more with.

– The film does a great job of showcasing what it was about Hart that inspired so many. In many ways, this is a family man, who never dressed, walked, or acted like a politician, and many people saw themselves in a man who very rarely spoke at a podium. In the film, Hart often feels like the last of a dying breed, and it’s a breed that went beyond words, and required actions to back up their claims. As an informative piece, the film is strong on the political side of Gary, but leaves a bit more to be desired on the home front. Either way, it’s a timely piece of political intrigue that shouldn’t be understated for its similarities to modern day obstacles.

– As for aesthetics, the film is presented as a mockumentary style of sorts, without the extreme nature of the gimmick. What I mean by this is the camera often weaves in and out of desktop conversations with ease, stopping only to follow a character who moves out of frame to do something in private, and spies on them through books and other objects to stay firmly in grip. These sequences also occasionally throw in a manipulated sense on long take shots, keeping the focus on the importance of issues being discussed.

– In dissecting the story into three week intervals that obviously reflect the three act structure in a film, the movie is able to properly channel the bending of time between things going good and bad in Gary’s campaign. For instance, during week one when things are optimistic, time flies like a train. When things are awful for Gary, the pacing slows down and the days turn into what feels like years. This is quite a unique take on a film’s pacing, and I commend Reitman for positioning the audience into the feel of a whirlwind campaign’s random ups and downs.

– Cinematographer Eric Steelberg’s subtle balance of an 80s realism. Grittiness and production design details with elaborate movement and a genuine mastery over the place and time, are just a couple of the examples of the visual story taking place, and this perk overall elevated the film from feeling like just another imitation of style over substance. It looks and moves like a film that was produced in the 1980s, in spite of the script’s decidedly post-modern beats, and Steelberg’s photographic memory of the place in time cements the believability of the film in ways that documentation of events don’t always do.

NEGATIVES

– Despite the big name cast, credible director, and intriguing real life story, the film comes across as regrettably bland when analyzed in the sum of those parts. The film itself is alright, but considering the release date during Oscar season will inevitably leave us expecting one of the best films of the year, the execution leaves much more to be desired. As far as political biopics go, this one is very mundane and middle of the road, leaving “The Front Runner” campaigning to be something it never attains.

– Too ambiguous on where the film itself stands on the issues. Is Gary wrong? Is the media wrong? You will find that your opinions on both questions aren’t fully fleshed out by the conclusion of the movie. Because of such, the weight of the drama in the screenplay is never fully realized, despite its hefty, urgent material, and over a two year period when films like “The Post” or “Vice” are its competition, there’s much to be forgettable about Reitman’s late season project. Sadly, it’s not even the best Reitman film of 2018.

– Remarkably tone deaf for a movie that deals with such sensitive matter. For my money, I could’ve used an “Ides of March” second act switch with the tone. This would give the film great urgency, that is otherwise noticeably missing from the film, and supplant more emptathy for Hart’s disposition that the film never spends enough time on. It’s difficult to classify this as just one particular genre, and the film’s cautious stature to remain too clean for the subject matter, does it a disservice in the compelling drama department.

– Convenient narrative? How could the film forget to include the legendary National Enquirer photo, involving Donna Rice sitting on the lap of Hart, while on vacation? It’s my belief that Reitman doesn’t include this to make Hart feel like more of a victim of his own respective era, and crafts a layer of deceit for the film’s production that angered me. This might not be a big deal to other people, but to me, without that picture, the evidence against Gary is a stretch at best, and allows the floor to fall out from beneath what was a story of logic and relevance to that point.

My Grade – 6/10 or C+

Creed 2

Directed By Steven Caple Jr

Starring – Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

The Plot – Life has become a balancing act for Adonis Creed (Jordan). Between personal obligations and training for his next big fight, he is up against the challenge of his life. Facing an opponent with ties to his family’s past only intensifies his impending battle in the ring. Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is there by his side through it all and, together, Rocky and Adonis will confront their shared legacy, question what’s worth fighting for, and discover that nothing’s more important than family.

Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, adult language, and a scene of sensuality

POSITIVES

– Caple competently picks of the pieces left by Coogler. As a director, Caple’s focus is rooted in life experiences first and boxing second. This doesn’t necessarily take the power of the punch away from the ring, but rather enhances its compelling drama by stirring the ingredients around the ring. Redemption is a big one throughout, but also legacy, and it’s in the impact of that second topic where “Creed 2” evolves beyond the ropes, in presenting us with two fighters who are equally empathetic for similar reasons. These are two sons who feel like their stories were written long before either of them were born, and while their life paths have taken two distant directions, Caple’s execution draws them together in the form of the fight from within that they both take on.

– Electrifying boxing presentation as a whole. The fight sequences are intense, bringing with them a combination of claustrophobic camera angles, brunt force in sound design, and crisp, free-firing fight choreography to keep audiences glued. The spectacle of the sport is also very sharply telegraphed, bringing an extravagance of lasers and television perspective to really draw you into this world of pageantry. If boxing looked this good in real life, I would watch it more.

– Passing of the torch. While I feel that “Creed” was still Stallone’s film, “Creed 2” is Jordan’s sweetest triumph of his young career. Much of the dramatic pulse rests on the shoulders of Michael, and he never gives up the grip, inciting a level of emotionally stirring reads and timely tears to articulately expel the boxer’s conscience from within, where revenge acts as the devil on his left shoulder. Aside from Jordan’s riveting balance, Stallone is again synthetic as Balboa, taking us through the motions of grief and distance for his current family predicaments that broke my heart for my own distant final days with my own father. Tessa Thompson is also granted more screen time in this sequel, and she makes the most of it. The chemistry between her and Jordan is impeccable, treating us to two incredible actors who feel comfortable around themselves, and work just as well as best friends as they do lovers.

– Surprising cameos. There’s no way in good conscience that I can give this away, but the two inclusions in this movie provide the series a level of consistency that has been noticeably absent from the previous installments, and gives me hope for where future sequels may be headed. The first is great for those of us who have read about her off-screen trysts with Stallone, and the second made for such a satisfying and therapeutic finale, that had me fighting off tears. I commend the film for including these measures, and it’s just another example of why the Creed series have adopted the previous seven films in the franchise far beyond just bringing Sly along.

– Evolution of a fighter. Beyond Adonis’s physical transformation, which is so impressive that it demands to be computer generated, the psychology of him as a fighter has clearly matured with more ring experience. More than anything, I noticed his confidence and switch handed boxing have evolved, carving out two less prominent aspects to a fighter that come with time. This is another nod to the physicality of Jordan’s performance, and the astonishing brutality of two impressive training montages more than colorfully illustrate how this actor becomes the title role in more ways than one.

– Props to bringing back Ludwig Goransson, composer of the first film, back to the middle of the ring. I say it like this because most of the film doesn’t require Ludwig to get his hands dirty until the fights themselves, choosing instead to accompany a majority of the scenes outside of the ring with a hip-hop dominated soundtrack that appropriately channels Creed’s personality. This absence did make me remotely nervous, that is until the fights themselves, which Goransson fruitfully takes over, enchanting us with a barrage of rumbling numbers that would inspire a mass army to dive head first into the halls of hell. Goransson collides thunderous drums with volume exceeding trumpets, and just when you think he’s outdone himself, he throws in Bill Conti’s familiar notes to “Gonna Fly Now”, at the perfect moment it means the most.

– It’s impressive when you think about the most fantastical sequel of the Rocky franchise, in the fourth one, and weave it into this rich dramatic tapestry in 2018 that feels authentic. Never once during this film did the material discussed in that movie feel extreme or silly in the least, and it was certainly rewarding to see this weathered side to a man who was once as unstoppable as Ivan Drago was, and tack on top of him a son, who is clearly only fighting for the admiration of his father. Every time the film cut to them, which is unfortunately not enough, the tone remained consistent, and I’m glad that Caple never lets his film get out of hand to feel like a music video movie, like “Rocky 4”.

– Entrancing photography that added artistic merit during Coogler’s noticeable absence. While we won’t get long take fight sequences here, the film makes up for it by supplanting us with what feels like an unlimited amount of breathtaking scenic shots of the desert, Las Vegas, and Russia, to name a few, that encloses the film in this big budget presentation that mirrors the success of its title character. On a singular basis, any one of these landscape depictions could be a background on your laptop, but when you combine them together, you conjure up a need for aesthetics that succeeds in different ways from the first film, ultimately giving this movie great replay value.

NEGATIVES

– Unfortunately, there are moments of familiarity for fans of the franchise, particularly in that of things borrowed from “Rocky 2” and “Rocky 3”, that made the intended direction feel predictable as it transpired. What this does is take away from some of the creativity of the Creed franchise, feeling like an obvious reach for the Rocky series that the film just doesn’t require. These scenes made for the only slow parts of the film for me, because I could sniff them out from a mile away, and the film would be advised to change even something small about them to differentiate.

– Some of the exposition from the boxing commentators felt forced and often intrusive, to the point when they felt like narrators who we couldn’t shake. I get that the characters in the film are watching TV when they pop up, but some of their comments feel more obviously geared towards the movie, and not necessarily something you would hear on a television broadcast. It all comes across as a bit too on-the-nose for my taste, and breathed an air of desperation that the first act couldn’t shake.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

A Private War

Directed By Matthew Heineman

Starring – Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan

The Plot – In a world where journalism is under attack, Marie Colvin (Pike) is one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time. Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontlines of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless, while constantly testing the limits between bravery and bravado. After being hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka, she wears a distinctive eye patch and is still as comfortable sipping martinis with London’s elite as she is confronting dictators. Colvin sacrifices loving relationships, and over time, her personal life starts to unravel as the trauma she’s witnessed takes its toll. Yet, her mission to show the true cost of war leads her, along with renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), to embark on the most dangerous assignment of their lives in the besieged Syrian city of Homs.

Rated R for disturbing violent images, adult language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Pike and Dornan are spell-binding. The former is obviously the bigger pull here, as Pike immerses herself fully into this role, and while it’s a bit of a stretch to compare the physical similarities between Pike and her counterpart, I do say that her stirring performance isn’t hindered because of it. In fact, the vocal range of Pike is very much in tuned with that of Colvin, sounding eerily similar to the point I had to wonder if the film was just playing audio of Colvin and letting Pike lip-sync over it. Pike’s Marie is great as a character because she’s persistent about these big stories in the world, and there’s never a point when she lets fear overtake her from opening the eyes of her audience. Dornan likewise hands in another respectable turn, feeling like the voice of conscience and reasoning that Marie so desperately requires in getting back up to the world of journalism, after a horrendous explosion in the Middle East leaves her permanently blind in one eye. Considering this is the same guy who once played Christian Grey, it’s astonishing to see what Jamie continues to take on with his career, and he’s very much a driving force to the impeccable chemistry between the two leads, that never requires romance to sell their sizzle.

– Sharp in its poignancy about war without ever feeling preachy. This is very much a show-over-tell kind of picture, in that we as an audience are put through the ringer with these traumatizing visuals and suffocating atmospheres. What’s satisfying about this is it lets audience interpret and comprehend matters for themselves without pushing a particular narrative on them. In my experience with the film, Syria feels like a world blaringly different from our own, and unnervingly resonant for the idea that children wake up to this same thing every day of their lives. It really is a reminder of the advantages we have that we take for granted all the time, carving out a feeling of appreciation that films like these champion in.

– A wide variety of shooting style used throughout. This is visual storytelling at its best, as the entrancing war sequences are captured with a handheld style of filming, that weaves us in and out of frame of the devastation, while the scenes in tranquility and safety are rendered with a still-frame direction. Subtly, this vast difference increases the tension in one scene to the other, all the while giving the cinematography an air of creativity that never settles for just one particular style.

– As for the action sequences themselves, they never feel over-styled, keeping with the authenticity of the big budget set pieces at our disposal. The pulse of the battling itself feels spontaneous in its barrage of claustrophobic bullet registry and unpredictable choreography, giving the scenes a blanket of urgency and vulnerability that gives off the impression of an on-the-ground documentary, instead of the independent cinematic experience we’re used to. This is no doubt a credit to Heineman, who himself is known for his work on award winning documentaries, and only occasionally sits in the director’s chair to adapt material. These charged scenes themselves, while spread out wisely, impressed me constantly, and proved that much can sometimes get lost in big budget presentations and ideals.

– I myself am not a supporter of war, but the film is appropriate food for though, in that it illustrates how we as one world should embrace to help those plagued by such ravaging conditions. The graphic imagery involving the poor medical conditions, sacrificed youths, and uncertainty of trust, are just a few of the examples of why action is the key to any change. My opinion overall might have stayed on peaceful grounds, but I learned that to sometimes attain such peace, matters must be dealt with.

– Sheds immense light on the career as a journalist in the field. Aside from the obvious dangers in being an on-the-ground correspondent, the job has a combination of preserving honesty and unshakeable passion that feels important in today’s fake news landscape more than ever. In addition, these valuable assets can’t un-see images that change them forever, and more times than not take their work home with them. It really is a career path that requires you to lay everything on the line, and in doing such bridges the gap between war and strategists in a way that many in ivory towers wouldn’t come close to otherwise.

– Brilliant biopic. This is certainly no love-letter to Marie, and it’s that level of honesty that I appreciate not only from “A Private War”, but also from all kinds of biopics that preserve the complete picture of what made said person tick. As a protagonist, Marie is flawed by a combination of alcoholism and dedication to her work that has sacrificed any semblance of home life that she has going for herself. While there’s nothing condemning about her, the film doesn’t go out of its way to paint her as someone and something that she’s not, and especially coming off of the fluff job that was “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I can’t say enough Heineman as a director, for letting these intricacies shine through in carving out this amazing figure in how we view the news.

– A riveting finale that leaves it all on film. As to where some films would cut away when a movie reaches its unsettling climax, “A Private War” never hesitates for moment, instead choosing to remain true to itself and Marie by refusing to look away when it matters the most. The final shots played repeatedly in my head, long after I left the theater, and I think one of the most important things in a film is the ability to finish when the adrenaline is pumping the highest, and that’s certainly the case with this one.

NEGATIVES

– Uneven pacing. The film has its moments of plodding, especially during the second act, but I was more concerned with the first act of the movie, which whirlwinds some of Marie’s most accomplished moments as a journalist into these compartmentalized scenes that happen too rapidly to leave a lasting impression. The damage isn’t felt especially until that second act that I previously mentioned, slowing things down to endure every sight and sound, and leaving it feeling like a different director between the first two thirds of the film. It’s Heineman’s one weakness here.

– It’s a difficult sell to believe twelve years passes during the course of this barely 100 minute screenplay, and even more so when nothing of appearance on any of the characters changes, nor ages during that time frame. Therefore, there’s not enough weight between transitions to make this feel reflective of what the on-screen text is telling us. This is always a major cliche in time transition films for me, and unfortunately this one falls into the same trap.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Widows

Directed By Steve McQueen

Starring – Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki

The Plot – The story of four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Davis), Alice (Debicki), Linda (Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

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

POSITIVES

– Possibly the best ensemble casting of 2018. Aside from accredited actresses like Viola Davis keeping a firm grip on your attention each time she’s on-screen, because of impeccable range that channels the dynamic between rage and grief, or Robert Duvall’s deep-seeded racism that acts as an outline for the politics played throughout, the film is really a casting call for the underdogs take the reigns. Debicki gets possibly the most focus throughout the film, and it’s interesting and extremely satisfying to see the edginess from this once battered housewife come to life because of the feat she’s tasked with. Also great is Daniel Kaluuya as this dangerously cool gang leader with no remorse for those he hurts. For Daniel, this may be the role that takes his career in a completely different direction, as he makes the most in every scene by chewing up the scenery that he invades.

– McQueen’s unorthodox camera styles. Part of what makes McQueen one of my three favorite directors is his ability to experiment with opposite approaches and unnerving patience when it comes to long takes, and that’s certainly the case here. One such scene involves a car ride, in which none of the characters are shown, only heard, and instead we are focused upon the rapid change in city living, from the slums to the mansions, in a matter of seconds. McQueen uses this to channel not only city official’s hypocrisies by not living somewhere they represent, but also in the dynamic of differences between them visually, and it disturbs us with this unshakeable feeling that these officials could do so much more, yet choose to keep things the way they are. There’s also manipulations and bending with scenes involving mirrors, that allow the audience to keep an eye on the facial registry of each character in frame, during scenes we would otherwise be behind their backs.

– Much more than a heist film. Part of what works for Gillian Flynn’s writing as novelist and screenwriter, is that she understands that it’s the ingredients that go into the pot that make it a much tastier sizzle, giving these ladies an outline of grief, fear, and especially vengeance, that the film focuses so prominently on. In fact, the heist itself takes place in the film’s final fifteen minutes, emphasizing the care and concern for the characters above the mission itself, and never does that decision hinder or corode the material’s deeper meaning. This also feels like much higher stakes than something like “Ocean’s Eight”, in which the ladies didn’t have to do the heist like the women in “Widows” did.

– As for the heist itself, it is very much grounded in reality, and capped off with a beautifully layered sound design that rattles and conveys urgency during the film’s climax. As with any heist movie, there is much that goes into the mission itself, but nothing ever feels unbelievable or stretching in logic, and I appreciate that during an era when heist movies embrace the far-fetching, here’s a film that would rather keep it simple by instead indulging in the air of the atmosphere itself. It helps that these ladies have gone over every angle of the plan to a tee, but what really comes to focus is their ability to adapt under pressure, providing a metaphorical reminder of what life has already thrown at them and forced them to deal with on their own.

– McQueen’s presence in guiding this complex narrative. “Widows” uses every bit of its two hour run time to commentate and tackle on the world’s sociological stratosphere instead of feeling like an entertaining film first. This is very much a slow burn kind of movie, and if that’s not your bag, it might feel enduring to you, but for me I appreciated this director’s patience in taking his time not only with the script, but also in giving each of the characters a proving ground amount of time to cement where they stand in this story. Davis is obviously the main character in the film, but in a sense it feels like all of these women are tough in their own way, proving that the many shapes, sizes, and colors of a gender have one thing in common: strength.

– Exceptional editing that really articulates the thought process behind grieving. Many sequences of isolation involving Davis’s character, deal with her channeling these memories of her and her former husband (Played by Liam Neeson), and it’s done in such a way that blends perfectly with the progression of the current day scene. Audio overlaps and quick-cut edits to remove a character, are just a couple of the measures taken in rendering these psychological takes, and the pacing of each sequence replicates the idea that Davis mind is a million miles away, even for a few seconds after someone starts talking to her. Brilliant visual representation that I’ve only seen topped by Jean-Marc Vallet.

– Possibly the most important film during the #MeToo era. Aside from the obvious of women banding together to accomplish a common goal, the film’s ability to put these women in predicaments that are historically male-driven is something that I commend the movie greatly for. There are males in the film, but the focus remains persistent with these hearts of the household, depicting that even the ability to drop it all and decide to engage in this heist is something that isn’t as easily said for women with great responsibilities. “Widows” feels like a movie that alludes that women aren’t to be overlooked or underestimated, and it makes me want more crossover roles for women that doesn’t demean their talents or keep them in the bubble of female confinement that reminds you endlessly of their gender.

– There’s a lot of subtle nuance to the revelations between characters and situations in the film, that cater to the belief that Flynn has in her audience. Most of these are object related, and don’t cater to the kind of screenplay, in which the writer is beating the audience over the head deliberately, with obvious clues and hints as to what they are alluding to. Instead, the movie pays off audiences who have stayed firmly in-grained into the layers of onion that the film has slowly been peeling, and because of such will reap the benefits once the direction takes a different step. Aside from what I already mentioned, I adore this because it feels very much like reality, instead of the distractions that screenplays present. If you watch this film, be sure to pay attention to objects in addition to characters.

NEGATIVES

– There’s a twist midway through the movie, that while it did floor me in surprise for how I didn’t see it coming in the slightest, it doesn’t do much for the remainder of the film in terms of impact. I feel like I will be in the minority here, but it felt tacked on to me to provide an unnecessary final conflict. In my opinion, the motivation of the women were stronger before this twist, and I wish the film felt confident enough to keep rolling with the punches of that original direction, because it makes the vengeance feel more raw and polished, and this new twist takes too much of the focus away from the women and their mission.

– No pay-off to certain subplots. Without spoiling anything, I will say that there are subplots between characters that are mentioned frequently, like there is going to be a major impact to the story, and then just kind of fizzle out when the film finally concludes. This left me with a couple of questions walking out of the film, and upon thinking about them now, I can’t help but point to them as the noticeable distractions to pad this story out. Could the film have been told properly without them? Yes, on most of them, and it would’ve only added to the fluidity of the script, that can sometimes trip itself up with the big conclusion of its properties.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Instant Family

Directed By Sean Anders

Starring – Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner

The Plot – When Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) decide to start a family, they stumble into the world of foster care adoption. They hope to take in one small child but when they meet three siblings, including a rebellious 15 year old girl (Moner), they find themselves speeding from zero to three kids overnight. Now, Pete and Ellie must hilariously try to learn the ropes of instant parenthood in the hopes of becoming a family.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, adult language and some drug references

POSITIVES

– Much of the humor works here, because it is grounded in reality, instead of the screenplay writing that is all but missing a laugh track to accompany its punchlines. The material is very much grounded in parental life experiences, often feeling like a collection of instances that feel like a right of passage for every parent who has ever taken care of children. This is because Anders himself adopted three children, so it’s a project that he feels very passionate about telling, and I found myself laughing frequently throughout the film, even when the consistency of the tone didn’t cater fully to a comedy genre film. More on that later.

– The chemistry bonds between these actors, making them feel authentic as this growing family. While Wahlberg and Byrne easily dominate the screen time as this remotely monotonous couple who are going through the motions, it is actually Moner who steals the screen, giving way to an adolescent who competently channels the ever-changing emotional range of teenage personality. Moner’s Lizzie is easily the glue that holds this family together, and when that glue is tested, it’s easy to see why the rest of the components fall apart. Moner has been in big films before, but this is easily a star-making turn that will earn her many future roles that she will undoubtedly captivate like she does in this film.

– There is very much this late 80’s John Hughes vibe that I get not only from the treading of dramatic content, but also in Michael Andrews presence on the film’s musical score, that channels vibes of a faithful homage. Lots of synth keyboards and gentle tones throughout, carving out a niche to movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “The Breakfast Club”, in which you can easily trace the similarities. When Andrews isn’t orchestrating the tempo of sound, we are given popular tracks like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship, or “What Is Life” by George Harrison to hold us over until the next throwback immersion.

– Entertaining as a stand alone film, but educating in its material. “Instant Family” seems intent on squashing the many perceptions, both good and bad, about adoption that our current environment currently has. Along the way, the film takes ample time to guide us through the many steps necessary not only in signing up, but also in raising said foster kids once they are inside of the home. As you can imagine, a lot transpires, and these adults lives are turned upside down, but through it all they, as well as us the audience, are presented an often ignored perspective of the children themselves, narrating a psychological volume to everything that they endure at such a young and character building time in their lives.

– Perfect occasion for the entire family to get together. It’s rare to see a film these days where families of every age demographic can feel entertained for nearly two hours of a film, but “Instant Family” bridges the diverse gap, providing plenty of examples along the way for why it might be the perfect holiday movie this year. Some of the light-hearted humor and brief bodily humor will engage youthful audiences enough into believing this is the typical Mark Wahlberg comedy that is par for the course, but the teasing of this PG-13 rating, involving some testy but tasteful material, will cater to parents who are the only ones in on the kind of jokes that I mentioned earlier regarding parental instances.

– The maturity of heartfelt moments that will have you reaching for the tissues. Many times during the film, my cold heart was on the verge of tears through the material by Anders, that does eventually mature and finds itself at the center of some internally stirring moments. This for me gave the film a lot of depth, acting against a trailer that had it feeling limited to being just another Wahlberg parental comedy, which the film is anything but. One such scene involving the combing of hair between mother and daughter feels every bit as sentimental for how it’s intimately shot, as it does therapeutic for the backstory behind it. This is one of many examples of how interested Anders is as a screenwriter to breaking down walls and healing the emotional scarring of these children by giving them a thought-provoking platform to air their side of things.

– Editing is rarely as important as it is when played towards repetition. As to be expected, the film does have a couple of musical montage sequences, but I feel that they work here because they highlight the tedious and often times overbearing nature of parenting that is often glossed over when described. One such scene is focused outside of the bathroom with a one angle take, and shows the frequency of each character moving in and out of frame to destroy and then clean up, and this gives the film an intelligent side of creativity that other films would use-and-abuse without much meaning behind it. If Anders is a magician at just one thing, it’s in his ability to focus on a particular area, and exploit it for all it is worth, and these instances of delight visually narrate the drastic change of environment that these two adults now find themselves in.

NEGATIVES

– Two hours might be a bit too much for this particular story. While the maturity of the material does evolve and refresh the tribulations inside of this family’s daily routine, the boundaries of repetition are a bit stretched, especially during the second act that feels like it is rehashing much of the same material that we already went over in the first forty minutes of the film. Overall, it’s easy to see what could be spared on the editors floor, and I would be far more supportive of a 100 minute film that keeps with the consistency of pacing that started to slug just before the film’s emotional climax.

– Tonal inconsistencies. Most of the film feels like it is engaged in a tug-of-war battle between this “Cheaper By the Dozen” style of family comedy, while playing against some adult themes in material that are played out as comedy, but should be anything but. For instance, there’s a pervert janitor who sends the oldest daughter (15) penis pictures, there’s physical agony for the little boy, who is the butt of constant jokes about him getting hurt around the house, and an overdone joke about “The Blind Side” that probably isn’t the most racially sensitive, in terms of depiction. “Instant Family” feels like there’s a struggle within itself to properly nail down what kind of film it wants to be, and with more consistency developed, the movie could feel more comfortable in how it attacks these important subplots.

– A bit formulaic and predictable. This is especially evident during the third act, when a series of easily telegraphed events distance the family for the same third act distance that we’ve come to expect. It never goes anywhere that is daring or conflicted, instead neatly packaging up the film’s remaining moments with a bit too much clarity in the form of a perfect existence. This felt like the lone betrayal to the otherwise honest side of adoption that the film takes, and I could’ve used some level of spontaneity to pull itself out of familiarity.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Boy Erased

Directed By Joel Edgerton

Starring – Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe

The Plot – Tells the story of Jared (Hedges), the son of a Baptist pastor in a small American town, who is outed to his parents (Kidman and Crowe) at age 19. Jared is faced with an ultimatum: attend a conversion therapy program – or be permanently exiled and shunned by his family, friends, and faith. “Boy Erased” is the true story of one young man’s struggle to find himself while being forced to question every aspect of his identity.

Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some adult language and brief drug use

POSITIVES

– As effective of a film as you’re going to get. Part of the reason that I have enjoyed Edgerton as a screenwriter thus far, is the real life issues in our own world that are often misunderstood and presented with clarity when given the proper time and commentary to enhance the wisdom of his audience, and “Boy Erased” measures up to this in spades. There were many parts in the film that angered me for what so many endure because of who they want to love. There were many parts that made me laugh because of the silliness of Christian ideals when brought into contact with anything that soils the sanctity of what they deem ideal. There were also many parts when I indulged in Jared’s struggle, and wanted to hug him for everything he went through. If you’re looking for a film to invest yourself in, this one will hook you from the moment the first shot goes up.

– Edward Grau’s personality behind the lens. Not only is the film shot beautifully, in all of the soft colors of atmosphere that soak in the very serene and status quo of the American household, but also the examples of gay interaction are shot with such respect and intimacy for those engaged in it, giving the sequence the same kind of structure and merit that we expect every time we see a man and a woman exude levels of passion towards each other. Grau’s scope understands that these are people above everything else, and his tight, informative angles highlight LBGT relations in a way that very few films have succeeded at, sadly.

– Edgerton as a director. “Boy Erased” for me was a much bigger improvement for Joel than his previous movie “Loving”. Not that I hated that film, but one thing missing for me was the proper atmosphere and weight involved in the battles that his protagonists were going through, and that couldn’t be further from the truth for this movie. Just something as simple as a dinner table scene centered around this family grips us with such a feeling of confining anxiety, and the way Edgerton makes sure to focus on the little things, like lack of eye contact, or parental facial registry, goes a long way in accurately articulating Jared’s feeling of isolation for who he really is. Joel masters this, and does it by writing, directing, and starring once again in his picture, and it’s clearly evident that this man is not easily jaded or rattled by overwhelming responsibility.

– Moving performances all around the table. What I love about the work of the three main stars is they’re each given ample timing and patience for the proper moment to take over a scene, and prove their level of depth as long-accomplished actors. Kidman’s love is often her dilemma, often toeing the line between father and son in the same way she now finds herself between love and hate. Crowe’s commitment to this preacher character feels very synthetic, and while he never requires a long line of dialogue to feel award worthy, his intimidating stature as a man of god first and a loving provider second is something that constantly feels unnerving the more you unravel about his character. Hedges is a revolution, plain and simple. This young star continues to take on characters who are every bit as expansive as they are honest to the moviegoers watching at home, and his on-cue delivery for watery eyes and bottled up emotional registry are something that he unleashes like a superpower, giving us frequent goosebumps for the occasion.

– There’s a kind of post-90’s familiarity to the setting, even though the film never mentions when it takes place in. From the soundtrack giving us songs by rock band Seether or soul singer Troye Sivian, or the inclusion of the Sega Genesis classic video game “Mortal Kombat”, the film has an enriched center of culture that surprisingly keep it undated for all of the same reasons it rightfully should be. What’s even more impressive is that none of these things feel out of place or forced upon us, instead generating an outline for teenage sights and sounds that put the fun in nostalgic ambiance.

– As for the musical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, there’s a surprisingly overwhelming feeling of horror tones used for the occasion that appropriately set the mood for what’s transpiring at this disgusting place of gay conversion. Considering the material is every bit as horrifying and shocking in the revelatory sense, the dual composers take advantage of such a feat, echoing these ominous and rattling instrumentals with the kind of ferocity to really make them stand out. There were many times during the film where I felt like I was indeed watching a horror movie, and the composition, that was slightly leading towards this, all but confirmed the suspicions of the devious activity that was taking place. Sometimes the biggest evils are the ones right within the characters of our society that we deem acceptable, and this realization plays hand-in-hand with such a damp delivery from Bensi and Jurriaans.

– Which brings me to my next point: this film carries with it a great sense of urgency and importance. Edgerton never allows anything to feel counterfeit, instead placing all of the pieces together and letting them play out, so the audience gauges their own response from it. At the end of the film, we are reminded by some pre-credit stats how this disgusting practice still takes place today, and for something that feels so prehistoric is actually prevalent now more than ever. This is alarming, but provides a great message supplanted between nearly two hours of film, and that is to love and embrace our children for who they are, not what they are.

– Visually rendering for the real life people the story is based on. A credit picture reveals to us the likeness of these trio of characters, and considering you have some familiarly good looking actors like Crowe and Kidman, the props and wardrobe department busted their asses in bringing the similarities between these two sides closer to light. Part of the thing that bothers me in movies is when an actor doesn’t feel right for a role because of the immense differences in their physical appearances, but the casting agent here deserves great credit for drafting so respectfully close to the story.

– The film does feature a scene that many moviegoers won’t appreciate, but it should be commended for its brutal honesty and tastefulness in shot composition that leaves much to the imagination. This is again a nod to Edgerton for knowing what little and big he requires out of each individual scene, and for my money the scene felt necessary, but also positively restrained for how bad it really could’ve gotten.

NEGATIVES

– Violent time jumps that can sometimes rattle the transition between scenes. This happens a lot during the first act of the film, when Jared’s past and present day narratives feel like they’re on a converging course. My problem is that it’s done in such a way that feels like a nagging distraction, often taking a few minutes to figure out where in the story we are placed before that connection continues forward. Likewise, the four year time jump towards the end of the film felt unnecessary, and takes us out of the unraveling drama during the time when it feels at its most intense.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

Directed By David Yates

Starring – Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The Plot – At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy and action

POSITIVES

– From a fantasy perspective, this is still the measuring stick, bringing with it a barrage of richly textured computer generated effects and a fine assortment of fictional creatures that we’ve come to expect. Because of this, it is so easy to get lost in this world of pre-Potter hysteria, and the film’s biggest spell is the one that continues to open itself to new audiences, continuing the charms of this franchise feeling like a generation affair.

– Paris in 1927. This element of the film is often so subtle that you have to constantly remind yourself that the film takes place here. This isn’t to say that it’s a fault for the production, but rather the decision not to carve out the cliche elements of Paris that we’ve come to expect in Hollywood. For my money, the authentic vibe of street cafes and Baroque style buildings is simply too sophisticated not to indulge in, and if there was ever a place to properly channel the rebuilding nature of the world, post World War I, it’s the city of lights.

– New additions to the cast. Jude Law as Dumbeldore is without question my favorite, radiating the familiar character with a dual threat of heart and youthful exuberance to properly fill in the gaps of curiosity. Unfortunately, Law isn’t in the movie more than twenty combined minutes, but his sharing gives way to opportunity for others as well. For instance, Depp goes way above the compartmentalized material, making the most maniacal for the mantle for the film’s title character. Depp too suffers from script fatigue, but his big screen presence is something that can’t be ignored, and serves as yet another chance for the acting chameleon to get lost under a range of make-up and contact lenses. Depp’s Grindelwald is cool, cunning, and calculated, in the same manner a cult leader would feel, and his magnetic embrace of the dark side is something that we certainly need to see more of, especially after the magic that was “Black Mass”.

– James Newton Howard, one of the world’s most notorious musical composers, giving us his most entrancingly immersive tones in years. I realized many times that it’s James impeccable touch of his own wand, in the form of an orchestral baton, that gives the film noticeable emphasis, and overall this is a score that I felt equally captured the immensity of the unfolding drama, as well as audibly took us on a journey that couldn’t have been better articulated with words. You feel the intention in every scene with a composer this talented, and Howard’s grip on this series is equally as important as the events that play out in real time.

– As far as world expanding goes, this sequel has everything to up the stakes of the exceptional first film. Yates and Rowling continues to introduce us to creatures, cultures, and locations throughout the wizarding world that will please even the most passionate of fans of nerd euphoria. This element of the script lends more to the idea that the world of magic in the 20’s spans far outside of the school of Hogwarts, giving way to a wide range of possibility and relatability in these clashing characters that we haven’t even grazed the surface of, in two-two hour movies thus far.

NEGATIVES

– “Flash-Back: The Movie”. I say this because this film has no fewer than six flashback sequences to explain exposition, and none of them are the briefest of explanations in the way we would cut to the chase as storytellers. This element wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t frequented so often, and about halfway into the film, it relates this idea that the progression of the current day narrative isn’t as important or as compelling as those details of things that have already happened.

– Does that time honored pain of building the third movie more than making the second film a stand alone classic. If the friendship between Grindelwald and Dumbeldore isn’t enough, the direction of many characters, especially during the confrontational third act, more than cements an outline for where the next chapter may be heading, but it’s one that comes at a price for the weight of the conclusion of this film, that feels anything but heavy. Ultimately, the second movie feels like the first trailer for a much bigger third film, and because of such, this film will easily be the most forgettable of the Wizarding world franchise thus far.

– Newt is a bad protagonist. Bear with me here. This film exposed for me some pretty serious problems for the series central character, all of which are more prominent than ever in this installment. First, he’s selfish. He doesn’t listen to a friend when he’s confiding in him, and is only occupied with figuring out his own conflicts. Second, Redmayne’s performance and direction from Yates lacks the kind of charisma and focus that cement him as the pivotal character throughout. Watch this movie and tell me that Newt MUST be the main character, and I’ll tell you where millions of dollars are buried. There’s nothing to the film’s conclusion that makes us thankful that Scamander was there to save the day. Third and finally, there is no evolution with the character. This is very much the awkward, mumbling tick, who existed in the first film, and never during this movie does he feel any closer to solving the matters that bother him, nor does it ever feel like he truly will. At this point, it will take 27 films for Newt to even properly talk to the object of his affection, and everything I mentioned will still very much be an issue.

– At 124 minutes, it is far too long of a movie. Don’t get it wrong, it’s not the run time that bothers me, but rather how we got there. The first Fantastic Beasts film was 130 minutes long, but I never felt bored or suffocating from a convoluted script. The problem lies in the element of too many characters with too many perspectives. Far too often, this screenplay morphs from character to character, quite often leaving important ones on the waiting path, inevitably making them forgettable until they pop up violently again. This film should’ve taken a page from the first film and just combined some of these subplots, limiting the down time in pacing that does anything but hold your attention.

– Antagonist angles that go nowhere. Considering how vital the elements of magic are to this series, it’s surprising that there isn’t more of it in this film. Take for instance Grindelwald’s capability of body possession that is only used twice, during the first act, and never mentioned again. It’s easy to understand how this gift could’ve played out in allowing him to understand his enemies when they are hot on his trail, but that would expose the obvious problem of this film being over in an hour, and at the risk of this gift being believable in the first place. Believe me when I say this isn’t the only dropped gift throughout the film, and what’s worse is they only highlight why no one, at least in this universe, should be able to remotely compete with Grindelwald’s power.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Directed By Marielle Heller

Starring – Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells

The Plot – Lee Israel (McCarthy) who made her living in the 1970’s and 80’s profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Grant). An adaptation of the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of best-selling celebrity biographer (and friend to cats).

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

POSITIVES

– Above all else, I interpreted this as a film about friendship, and its one between Lee and Jack that makes so much of the film delightful. These are nearly two strangers who meet and soon find out that they balance each other out. It’s refreshing because they aren’t romantic interests, but rather sharing of a deeper soul connection that each of them so desperately needed to fight the depths of loneliness and isolation. The banter between them is so exquisitely polished, forcing you to hang on to every word between them, and the impeccable chemistry cements this as one of, if not the best, duo of the 2018 film year.

– Bad deeds, good people. It’s a difficult task to indulge on characters who do such illegal and condemning activities, but the film’s outlining of Lee’s undesirable disposition showcases a side to crime that certainly any of us could easily fall into. The motivation from her is fighting back against a life that has beaten her down constantly, therefore when the opportunity arises not only to fight back, but fight back against the system, she more than earnestly accepts. Even with all of this however, the film is responsible enough not to support these decisions, informing us of the steep price to forgery that comes with playing the game. Unconditional love and understanding goes a long way.

– Strong humor without the gimmicks. Yes, this is a drama first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean that McCarthy doesn’t get to show off her comedic presence, which is among the most popular in the business currently. Why the humor works so much for me here, instead of films like “The Boss” or “Life of the Party” is because she isn’t amped up to eleven. Her delivery is very much subdued, relying instead upon brilliant script writing and caustic wit to sell her presence on the film. This is the McCarthy we should be getting more of, and with any luck the film will succeed, proving to her that money is only so important.

– A buzzworthy duo of performances. This is definitely the McCarthy and Grant show, as both accomplished actors bring with them not only a faithful visual transformation to their real life counterparts, but also stirring renditions that have them in award season contention. For Grant, it’s his soft demeanor and gleefully dim-witted delivery that make him the perfect compliment to McCarthy’s lead. For her, it’s Israel’s gruff personality, striped down makeup, and rocky interaction with humans (She loves her cat) that offers something of substantial difference for McCarthy as an actress. There’s an element of sadness in her character, in that her whole career as an author has been to represent someone else’s work, and this cements a level of empathy in Melissa’s and the film that is required to invest in both.

– Colorfully illustrated New York in 1991. Most films would depict this as an excuse to get distractive with the gimmick of the setting, but Heller incorporates a subtle nuance to the big apple that never gets in the way of the unfolding events. It’s almost like you have to look closely to spot the time frame’s dated references, like IBM computers and classic automobiles to name a few, but they’re most certainly there. The cinematography as well, caters to a somberly yellowish faded design of coloring that gives the film that distinct feel of a particular era.

– Can you seriously remember the last time when two gay characters were a film’s two leading protagonists? Points for a film set in the past with such progressive ideals, that does so in a way that is neither insulting, nor incredibly over-the-top for revealing this fact. The orientation of these characters is important enough to the story, but feels secondary to outlining them as people first, and the sooner that we as a society blur the line of similarities to someone with a difference in orientation, the more likely we are to see more stories like them.

– Heller as a director does a superbly, fast-paced job that is responsible for nearly everything that I mentioned above. Aside from her film feeling incredibly engaging from the very start, the film doesn’t have a single scene in it that doesn’t harvest some level of importance to what is unfolding, and that speaks levels to a director who makes the most of her allowance of time. On the commentary side, it’s clear that Heller values Israel as a figure that time sort of forgot, but does so without diminishing the faults that make her an equally compelling antagonist as she is a protagonist. This is a director whose filmography is every bit as expansive in genre offerings as you can ask, and it’s got me curious to see what she will tackle next.

– A family affair with an extremely underrated musical score. Composed by Marielle’s brother Nate, there’s a strong reflection of this film being a character study, reflected by some heavily influenced jazz tunes that are incorporated into the serenity of this picture. It’s never overbearing, nor out of synth when compared to what transpires on screen, and that sense of light-hearted atmosphere in music ages well as the film takes us through some heavy threats that come the way of Lee’s newfound hobby.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of urgency with the third act weight of consequences. While the repercussions of Lee’s choices are inevitable, there’s an overall absence of anxiety missing from the film that would really elevate the tension of getting caught. It’s not a major problem, it just keeps us, and Lee for that matter, free from the kind of motivation required to quit. I could’ve used slightly more teasing within the script to warn Lee to back off. Without it, the final act of the movie feels slightly rushed, and really stands out at the only problem with the screenplay.

– No surprises beyond what is shown in the trailer. The trailer itself isn’t full of spoilers like other terribly constructed ones these days, but rather it paves and easy path to predicting what will transpire here. The sequence of real life events itself are limited, so there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for bombshell announcements or surprises, so it feels remotely pedestrian as a compelling drama. For my money, the film succeeds more as a comedy, and that’s a bit of a letdown because the performances feel very dramatic when the script doesn’t fully meet up with them.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Directed By Fede Alvarez

Starring – Claire Foy, Sylvia Hooks, Lakeith Stanfield

The Plot – Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits hacker Lisbeth Salander (Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer program that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide. The download soon draws attention from an NSA agent who traces the activity to Stockholm. Further problems arise when Russian thugs take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work. Now, Lisbeth and an unlikely ally must race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster.

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

POSITIVES

– At attempt to fill in the gaps of Salander’s backstory. One thing that always drove me nuts about the previous four films from this series is the lack of attention paid to Lisbeth’s jaded history, that could explain why her interaction with people comes across as tedious, and “Spider’s Web” feels like the first chance at delving deep below the surface. Through flashback scenes that depict the less-than acceptable nature between Lisbeth and her father, as well as the broken bond between her sister, we not only learn the motivation for her life’s work in protecting women, but also the past life she left behind when she faced her life’s important fork in the road. Because this is very much her movie, it would be foolish not to give us some answers in regards to its title character, and it certainly makes a lot of sense when you know more about what she has endured.

– No shortage of characters to keep the narrative fresh. Besides the usual team-up of Salander and Blomkvist, the film introduces us to the firewall creator and son, which provides great urgency for the abundance of chase sequences, as well as a government official, played by Stanfield, who constantly keeps Lisbeth on her toes in the biggest game of cat and mouse. This allows the film to constantly keep moving where other spy thrillers can sometimes start to lag down, and it helps even more when you’re investment into these characters increases with every scene.

– A new side of Salander. Lisbeth’s guarded wall toward human interaction, as well as cunning intelligence that never stalls, is still very much there, but Foy adds a layer of bravery and physicality to the role that was most noticeably absent in Rooney Mara’s recent portrayal of the character. What I love about this is that it really channels the evolution of Salander, proving that a majority of her cases have been anything but pushing the buttons behind her trusty laptop. Foy envelopes the complete package of what Lisbeth should be, and while the visual transformation isn’t as deep for this actress, the durability of her accent, as well as the way she commits herself to the role, proves that she was the right woman for the job.

– Pedro Luque’s beauty in the darkness that envelopes the world of this character. It would be easy to overlook the advantages in shooting a majority of scenes in these dark, cold backgrounds, but Luque takes advantage of the scenery, using it not only to channel Lisbeth’s physical isolation, but also in capturing the very unforgiving nature of Sweden in this winter wonderland. Lesser quality cinematographers won’t know how to shape it for audiences, often times coming across as a bunch of unidentifiable objects moving around in the darkness, but Pedro provides substance to the overwhelming dampness, using it as the stage that lives and breathes with these characters alike.

– Alvarez’s first time shooting an action movie. Considering this is a director whose passion first and foremost is horror movies, it was great to see what kind of visuals and movements he could give with a bigger scope and budget. Fede’s tapestry takes us through many chase sequences, with a versatility in angles, as well as long hallway pans that kept the attention firmly where it needed to be at all times. If the film does anything for this rising off-screen star, it’s proving that he is much more than a one trick pony, and he more than lives up to the shadow cast by previous director, David Fincher, for carrying the torch of this beloved franchise.

NEGATIVES

– Unsubtly a superhero narrative. Sony’s thirst to make this something its not, hinders the story at nearly every possible angle, further blurring the lines as a supposed sequel that Sony so badly wants you to believe. Salander herself has freakish abilities in her power, there’s an over-the-top villain whose only motive is to take over the world, a child kidnapped midway through who needs saving, pointless white makeup and posing for the camera of its protagonist, and high risk stunts that would kill a lesser person. Sound familiar? It should. Salander is apparently the second coming of Wonder Woman, and this thoughtless direction loses any air of familiarity that the character had for herself.

– Vital miscasting mistake. Blomkvist, for whatever reason, is treated like nothing more than a supporting cast member in this film, and there’s plenty to point to in terms of why this direction was taken. For one, Sverrir Gudnason wipes all forms of energy and personality from the character that Daniel Craig made famous. For two, his distracting lack of chemistry with Salander, that the movie wants so badly to paint, does them no favors in channeling the connection between them as lovers or friends. For a character who is arguably the protagonist of the novels, this demotion renders the character lacking, leaving him with little to do and little answered from where the previous film left off.

– Worst trailer of 2018. Once again, we have an example of a trailer that reveals far too much, and leaves nothing of reveal or excitement for the film to hang its hat on. To anyone who has seen the trailer, you not only find out who the antagonist is to Salander, but also how the final conflict between them ends. It is truly baffling to me how whoever put together this trailer still has a job, and thanks to their neglect and lack of care for audiences, we are given nearly two hours of answers in a two minute clip. Impressive.

– You don’t have to suspend disbelief in this film, you have to run over your brain with a Mack truck. Some of the things that Salander does with a cell phone are ridiculous to say the least, especially when you consider how little of time she is given to complete these tasks. Hacking a car’s electrical panel, an airport security system, and individual cell phones within seconds are just a few of her talents. Should we come to know Lisbeth as God at this point? Surely the authorities would be looking for someone as well known for hacking as she is. If you don’t believe me, look up Snowden, Edward.

– As much as the characters and performances keep the film from falling into boring territory, the film’s undercooked level of human emotion left me with a story with this high of stakes feeling very inconsequential. Because everything is so heavily telegraphed, like I mentioned above, the film’s closing moments won’t leave you as emotionally invested into them as you rightfully should, and the so-called big battle between family feels anti-climatic when it treats the things we already know as this shocking revelation.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Overlord

Directed By Julius Avery

Starring – Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

The Plot – On the eve of D-Day, American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation. They find themselves fighting against supernatural forces, part of a Nazi experiment.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, adult language, and brief sexual content

POSITIVES

– Not your typical horror movie. Considering how this film was marketed, it’s greatly surprising to me that above all else it is an exceptional war film first, with a lot of substance in creative storytelling and filmmaking to match the buckets of blood, to which there is no shortage of. With a combination of grainy footage and propaganda-like introduction and conclusions, it’s clear that time and attention to detail were firmly invested in this finished product. This location of Germany isn’t just one that is approached from on a surface level, we very much live and breathe inside of the dread that feels like a fog over this country, giving depiction to an environment that can only be described as the darkest level of hell, far from anything conventional.

– Bar none, the very best sound mixing in 2018. “Overlord” thrives with the kind of pulse and intensity that leaves little to no suspension of disbelief on the field of battle. I say this because there are many scenes where it’s difficult to hear character’s speaking, especially when combating the aggressive noises of airplanes and gunfire that overcrowd the senses. Through the many war sequences involving what feels like an unlimited amount of rattling explosions, the film’s crisp vibrations rivet you, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the kind of environment that we’re being shown. Watch this one with the very best sound system theater that you can find, because Avery takes no prisoners.

– Jed Kurzel’s best work in years. Considering this is the same man who penned the musical tones in 2014’s “The Babadook”, it comes as no surprise how much he relies on increasing volume to consistently charge the suspense in every scene. Kurzel’s score feels like it never subdues, instead constantly building over a minefield of thrashes and bangs that follow our protagonists down long hallways in the same manner that their opposition does. I can’t give enough credit to Jed’s constant presence throughout the film, elevating the waves of vulnerability in such deep waters that it’s difficult to ever pull yourself out of.

– Last man standing. While I commend the work of Adepo’s character struggle between being this soldier and the man he used to be, I was more glued to the wild card of Russell (Son of Kurt) as the biggest badass these eyes have seen in quite sometime. Considering this is the same man who played a throwaway stoner in “Everybody Wants Some”, I find it impressive how he is able to constantly play against type, and taking on roles that never typecast him or leave him confined to just one genre. His work in this film was a treasure to watch, as he never relents under the mission at hand. He may be conflicted as a protagonist, and even slightly a loose cannon, but it’s that unpredictability that makes him difficult to shake, and his presence proves that Wyatt was having the time of his life with this particular role.

– My favorite scene in the movie. It would usually worry me when the best scene in a movie is the opening ten minutes, that takes us through an arrival into Germany that depicts war in the very gruesome dangerous environment that it rightfully is, but this fact instead tells you everything that you are getting into with the rest of the 105 minute picture. In this sequence, we are given impeccable cinematography that moves through air and water with such persistence to the characters, a stunning series of visuals that capture that anxiety associated with war, and a sense of strategy that articulates how armies move throughout. Avery sucks us right in, and we fall for it like kids taking carnage candy.

– Consistency is the key. What’s impressive about two such genre opposites, like war and horror, is Avery’s ability to keep the consistency of the tone, because after all, war is exactly that. It has the ability to turn men into monsters, like the movie so bluntly does, and never does this sacrifice the smooth pacing or urgency of the elements, instead carving out a maniacal sense to our Nazi antagonists that we already know from history. Other films struggle at a mid-movie switch, but this one feels cohesive in how it matures its material, from a battlefield strategy piece to a zombie splatterfest that never missteps for single second, thriving more the sillier the story takes us.

– Much of the violence, especially in the third act, feels every bit as grimacing as it does cathartic. This element alone gives the film enough audience investment, whether they embrace or wince at the unapologetic nature of the film’s gore. Either way, it is a blast to watch it all go down, and capitalizes on some of those promised Summer blockbuster thrills like “The Meg” or “The Equalizer 2”, that only remotely lived up. This one is a ferocious fall frightener that constantly exceeds even the highest of audience expectations.

– Strong combination of practical and computer generated effects. What’s most impressive is that there were times when this film expert couldn’t tell the difference, and I think that says a lot to the kind of budget devoted to this supposed B-movie that constantly overachieves. For my money, My favorite is in the complete transformation of one Nazi lieutenant, who wears the wounds of torture he has suffered as a badge of reminder against the very same man who gave it to him. It gives the character a Frankenstein style look of permanent reminder to the audience, to play into the transforming effects of the potion that have their own facial altering features.

NEGATIVES

– Rushed fight sequences. With so many positives on the presentational aspect of the film, it’s a bit of a letdown that the conflicts in action are so underwritten and thinly developed. With the exception of the very last fight of the movie, the rest around it begins and finish with little emphasis for the burning drama of character well-being. Never does it feel like our protagonists are in trouble, and even worse the resolutions are repeated quite often, so that midway through the movie you can already telegraph what will happen before it does.

– One-dimensional characters. While I had enough enjoyment from the characters in the film, mostly because of the film’s exceptionally talented cast that lift the miniscule backstory into honorable territory, the overbearing sense of neglect that these soldiers receive is alarming. The main character (Played by Adepo) never feels like the focus in his own movie, instead playing second fiddle to Russell’s executioner corporal, who feels like more of the conflicted protagonist necessary to lead by example. The problem is worse with the supporting cast, as some are given objects like a camera and a baseball to fill in the gaps for a lack of attention given to their forgettable presence.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Grinch

Directed By Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier

Starring – Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury

The Plot – Tells the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas, only to have his heart changed by a young girl’s generous holiday spirit. Funny, heartwarming, and visually stunning, it’s a universal story about the spirit of Christmas and the indomitable power of optimism. Cumberbatch lends his voice to the infamous Grinch, who lives a solitary life inside a cave on Mt. Crumpet with only his loyal dog, Max, for company. With a cave rigged with inventions and contraptions for his day-to-day needs, the Grinch only sees his neighbors in Whoville when he runs out of food. Each year at Christmas they disrupt his tranquil solitude with their increasingly bigger, brighter, and louder celebrations. When the Whos declare they are going to make Christmas three times bigger this year, the Grinch …

Rated PG for brief rude humor

POSITIVES

– Even throughout the many on-screen adaptations of The Grinch stealing Christmas, it’s the un-mistakeable message of Christmas that remains persistent, guiding a new generation through what really matters. As to where presents and material matters can be replaced, it is time with loved ones, involving friends, family, and loves, that truly make the holiday season what it is, and especially in 2018, at a time when we might forget such values, a film like “The Grinch” stands the test of time for this direction alone.

– Vibrancy in animation that harvests Illumination’s single best presentation to date. In channeling the articulation of Whoville, the production team use a fruitful combination of shape and color to really capture the pulse of this town that feels so far from our own, giving the set pieces a one of a kind design that prove a lot of time and energy went into them. The outlines of backdrops generate with a pop-up novel kind of stature, and the color pallet itself radiates off of the screen, treating us to several intoxicating visuals that you may need a pause button to properly take in.

– A Cumberbatch of range. In seeing the trailers, it certainly wasn’t a surprise that this was a one man stage show, but rather how much depth that Benedict Cumberbatch has as a vocal actor. Benedict uses these long stretches of delivery that have him sounding like a combination of Moe from “The Simpsons” and the snooty receptionist from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, and after a while you truly get lost in the versatility of his ever-changing tone. In casting him as The Grinch, it not only adds respectable accolades to the taking of the character, but it also gives Cumberbatch depth in the form of a filmography, that above all else proves that this serious actor can deliver on fun when the time calls for it. Beyond this, I also felt SNL’s Keenan Thompson did a great job vocalizing Bricklebaum, and there isn’t a more synthetic pairing of voice matching visual than Thompson’s dry baritone range with the illustration of a husky bearded Christmas junkie. It’s surefire laughs each time he pops up.

– An acceptable time for narration. Considering this film originates from a children’s book, it’s understandable that the producers would include a rhyming narration throughout, read exceptionally by multi-time Grammy winner, Pharrell Williams, but even more than that, it’s acceptable because of Williams positive demeanor being combined with lines that don’t often intrude on what we’re already seeing on camera. It’s true that there are some examples of arguments to be made for this point, but the narration mostly keeps its hands clean, instead serving more as a delve into the mind of a green madman, whose own history with Christmas greatly challenges the on-going narrative.

– While I have problems with the character of The Grinch himself, that I will get to later, one aspect of the film that gave me pleasure was in the kind of justifying that comes with getting an up-close-and-personal depiction of Christmas maniacs, in the town below. There’s certainly nothing wrong with people who enjoy Christmas religiously, but the film takes pleasure in pointing out how overzealous each and every one of these people truly are, and it’s in that passion where you can comprehend why someone would have such a distaste to this. Of course, this isn’t the complete reason for The Grinch’s disdain, but the endless cliches like non-stop Christmas music and commercialism from opportunists, welcome us in to his isolated side, and dare you every step to tell him he’s wrong.

– Kids versus adults. In my opinion, I think there are laughs for both sides of the age spectrum, but I feel like kids will get more from the mostly physical slapstick sight gags that dominated the film’s comic muscle. That’s not to say that nothing is smart about the comedy in the film, but rather the film’s dedication to the bright and bold cater more to those who can be considered attention challenged, and as far as holiday kids movies go, it’s as safe a bet as you can get.

– Modern updates to familiar classics. To go hand-in-hand with Danny Elfman’s ambitious musical score, the collection of songs from assorted artists are given a hip-hop refreshing to not only channel a different sound to familiar lyrics, but also give the title character himself a beat to play against his madness. I’m usually against this particular kind of thing (See hip hop music in the Jesus film “The Star”), but for whatever reason it worked here because of how timeless The Grinch narrative has always been. There’s no yearly designation for when this all takes place, therefore there is no limitation for where any artist can take it in future projects.

NEGATIVES

– Careless subplot. The Cindy story has always been an important part of this story, but why it doesn’t work here is a combination of thinly written characters and overall lack of originality that constantly keep it grounded. I couldn’t of cared less every time the film cut to these characters, and any momentum gained from pacing with its own problems is cut short each time the story shies away from the meat of this plot. On top of that, Cindy and her friends are kind of a bunch of criminals in training, blurring the line between good and bad in a way that wipes protagonists entirely from the picture.

– Stretched screenplay. This film should finally cement the idea that The Grinch story is best suited as a half hour idea, and if this film trimmed itself to a half hour television special, it might be able to compete with the Boris Karloff classic, that is every bit still the measuring stick for this property. To say that the build-up for the heist is stretched is the understatement of the year. This film takes what should be nothing more than a musical montage of training for the big day, and gives each of them five minutes of precious screen time to pad a thinly written 82 minute film. Yes, even with a film that doesn’t reach an hour-and-a-half, there are still these moments of bland that move as slow as syrup, and should be treated as an intro credits scene from Netflix that you can thankfully click skip through.

– Perhaps my biggest problem with this film is in the aspect that The Grinch simply isn’t a grinch. Does he do rude and careless things? Sure, but nothing he does ever feels condemning or personal to the people below. In fact, because of a subplot involving his tortured past, we can justify his actions to an extent, and that’s a major problem for someone described as “Rotten” in song lyrics. Even for a kids movie, this is as safe and inconsequential as it gets, and I wish there were more examples of the detestable side of The Grinch, to make his eventual third act transformation that much more of a distance.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Beautiful Boy

Directed By Felix Van Groeningen

Starring – Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney

The Plot – Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David (Carell) and Nic Sheff (Chalamet), “Beautiful Boy” chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years.

Rated R for drug content throughout, adult language, and brief sexual material

POSITIVES

– An intimate and paralyzing depiction of drug use. It’s no secret that drug addiction doesn’t just hurt the person engaged in the activity, it also hurts those loved ones surrounding the taker, and “Beautiful Boy” targets this effect with a lot of focus on those supporting characters who otherwise wouldn’t have a lot of weight to the unfolding narrative. In particular, it’s the flushed faces of the two child siblings in the film that emotionally drained me, giving way to a thought process from within of two innocent people born into a world where they will be subjected to pain that they have zero control over. It’s a conscious reminder that addictions are like a black hole, in that they take down many people uninvolved, and shape those we love into shadows of their former selves.

– Responsible in its informative stance. When I watch a film about dysfunction of any kind, I like to see a script that takes the time to educate audiences on the feelings and consequences from within. I myself have never done drugs, but the film gave me a layered outline in terms of the effects, as well as the abysmal success rate in curing the disease. What’s even more credible is that it doesn’t ever feel forced or compromising to the scene, treating us instead like Carell’s character, who at the same time is learning about the enemy by getting as close to it as he can.

– A story like this only works if you are invested into the characters, and far beyond some calculated performances that I will get to later, the film tugs at the heart by guiding us through multiple timelines of this family, that include Nic’s character as a younger boy. In comparing and contrasting these respective eras, Groenigen forces us to look deep to the child inside, touching us with this unshakeable feeling of innocence being erased. Beyond this, the similarities in appearance between Chalamet, Kue Lawrence, and Jack Dylan Grazer might be the single most believability in aging process that I’ve ever seen.

– A couple of Oscar worthy performances. Carell and Chalamet are names you’re going to be hearing at the Academy for decades to come, and what’s so captivating about their work here is that they aren’t transforming into a historical figure, or donning loads of makeup to become someone they’re not, instead they are two HUMAN characters whose realness is their most striking quality. For Carell, it’s in his hauntingly stirring facial registries, as well as the gentleness and love he invests into the single most important person in his life. For Chalamet, it’s the ability to play someone so vulnerable, yet conniving when it comes to seeking what he needs to satisfy the craving. It’s evident to see the differences between his Nic as a typical teenager and as what this needle has done in drawing out someone who beyond facial likeness we don’t even recognize. Together, these two are every bit as convincing as they are dedicated to their respective roles, and “Beautiful Boy” gives us these moments of goosebumps because of the mountain of chemistry that they share through the many ups and downs of life.

– Cinematographer Reuben Impens single best work to date. I thought 2016’s “Raw” reveled in the subtlety of color scheme to the graphic material, but it’s his work here that proves he is growing as a master of the lens. In addition to the gorgeously dreary Northern California countryside to catch our attention with all of its firns and mountainside curves, Impens is able to visually seduce us with some soft, serene coloring in atmosphere that metaphorically emits the somber tapestry in such a depressing narrative. Atmosphere is an aspect to filmmaking that doesn’t get enough credit outside of the world of horror, and the benefits of someone as talented as Reuben force you to pay attention during scenes of downtime between the thunder.

– Divisive ending. Coming out of my theater, a few people were moaning at the lack of answers and clarity from a mostly ambiguous ending, but for me it worked in relating the never-ending battle that one endures in shaking addiction. Without spoiling anything, there’s only two honest ways that addiction can end, and I commend a movie’s bravery for leaving us with a final image that, although not satisfying in terms of Hollywood endings, does relate the struggle and uncertainty with sobriety.

– Patient camera work that articulately captured the moment. I commend the editing in the film for sticking with some unnerving long takes during one-on-one conversation scenes, giving us the opportunity to soak in more of the facial souring and building gut-punch within our stomachs that the film so chalantly tampers with. It’s easy to overlook these kind of important sequences if an editor is over-zealous in their work, cutting the heat of the moment in half with far too many cuts, but the work here is commendable, and never looks away from what transpires, no matter how awkward or unpleasant it feels.

– Non-linear storytelling that captures the psychology of the two male leads. What I love about this element of flashing back so frequently, is that it offers us context whether it be in the form of an object or a location, where the two men have shared time. This also gives food for thought, in that we are given a series of possible leads into Nick’s rising habit, offering a conversation starter for what moviegoers could think are the elements of enabling that make it more possible. This angle of storytelling can feel a bit abrupt, especially during the first act of the movie, when the desire to overuse this aspect does feel slightly repetitive, but it slows down and eventually settles in to the pacing of the story, working together with the mounting weight of the film’s progression.

– It’s interesting that even through a screenplay that stays committed to the perils of drug addiction, the film rarely felt repetitive or derivative to me. I think a lot of this is in the constant raising of the stakes through each trial of tribulation that David combats throughout, feeling like he’s pulled in deeper by Nic’s betrayals as the film progresses, but the other thought is in storytelling that constantly keeps the pacing at bay. To say I was firmly locked into this film is the understatement of the year, and it’s a major example of all of the ingredients working together to make something exceptionally nourishing in its poignancy.

NEGATIVES

– Not a fan of the film’s musical score. I have tried to search far and wide for the composer for this film, and have gotten nothing in return. I can only assume that he/she is remaining incognito because of the jarring and instrumentally inconsistent tones in the film, that don’t match the mood or the tempo of the story. Some of these numbers feel like they belong in a horror movie, while others could be background music for the soft piano of “Murder She Wrote”. It simply didn’t work for me, and serves as the only glaring negative because of how distracting it felt every time it popped up.

My grade: 9/10 or A