Batman and Harley Quinn

The Dark Knight of Gotham returns to the animated silver screen, joining forces with one of his greatest nemesis, in ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’. The city of Gotham comes under grave danger yet again, this time under a poisonous spell from Pamela Isley (Paget Brewster), better known to her enemies as ‘Poison Ivy’, that transforms citizens into plants. Faced with a dire urgency to save the day and find out quick about their powerful foe, Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing (Loren Lester) seek help in the most unlikely of sources; the sinisterly dangerous Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch). The trio collide on more than a few occasions, but learn quickly that they must achieve the common goal of taking down the Poison if they are to return to simpler times. ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ is rated PG-13 for scenes of action and peril, and is directed by Sam Liu, the very same man responsible for some classic animated hits from Marvel and D.C.

It’s become a bit of a tradition to get a new Batman animated feature every year now, with Fathom Events, and ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ continues that tradition with arguably the most clashing of ideals team-up that comes to mind. I was a bit disappointed with last year’s ‘The Killing Joke’, but If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve come to appreciate that film a bit more. That’s not to say that this newest chapter is anything terrible, it just feels so contradictive to what we have come to expect from the legendary D.C Animated Films productions that seem to get things correct when the live action movies do not. This film truly felt like one of those experiences where I myself had a lot of fun with what was transpiring on-screen, it just came at a steep price for those characters and concepts that I grew up, and how some less than stellar liberties were taken with their source materials. There’s some nice Easter Eggs in dialogue with past editions of Batman comics like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, or even the original live action television show, complete with BAM!!! and KAPOWS!!! hitting the screen. But this (like other straight to video releases from D.C) feels like a chapter in itself, and that will undoubtedly divide audiences looking for more of a callback from the 90’s animated series that might just be the single greatest Batman offering that has ever graced a screen.

At least the animation is still carefully detailed, depicting the Gotham skyline with that same crimson red filtering above that reflects that of the blood spilled in these corrupt streets. This is the one aspect where I feel like fans of all Batman walks will agree that D.C continues to amaze. During an age when other studios have moved onto 3D outlines for their presentations, this company remains faithful to the style and traditions that brought it to the dance, echoing a rich vibrancy in color coordination, while never overdoing it into making Gotham somewhere that it isn’t. This definitely feels like a callback to my childhood days of soaking in the colorful personalities and costume designs within this world, but there’s enough experimentation to commend it for never playing things moot. Some of the fire and smoke illustrations are really attention-grabbing, and continue to move even when it feels like a character is in pause because of the next stenciling in page flips. The finale too, sets the stage appropriately once again for the central antagonist, immersing us into an ever-changing swamp that changes the more the situation does.

One thing that I commend these films for is that even though their visual stylings and plots can be considered for younger audiences, the material is anything but. This film has no problems with earning its coveted PG-13 rating, as there is no shortage of adult language exchanges, mature content in both the violent and sexual nature, and reliance upon comedic stick that does overstay its welcome quite often. I understand that this story relies around the Quinn character, but I feel that the campy vibes that radiate from this film are ones that do a disservice instead of an enhancement in creativity. I did laugh a few times, but there are plenty of examples of material that drowns on for far too long, feeling like a comfortable padding for the barely 75 minute presentation that we got. A fine example is a scene that takes place in a gay bar, complete with Harley musical performance and Batman pick-up lines. Awkward? a bit, but it pales in comparison to yet another unwanted sex scene between two characters that is every bit as unnecessary as it is cringe-worthy. Hinting is fine, but when the film stops to subject us through these sequences, I can’t help but feel bad for the youth in the audience who were as embarrassed as I was when I saw my first sex scene at 9 years old in ‘Heavy Metal’.

The script too has its problems, mostly because once again there’s an uneven distribution of plot progression that hinders our antagonists. Based on the title, it’s obvious where the film is focused on, but without that compelling antagonist plot to combat them, their journey of unlikely teammates doesn’t gel the way it rightfully should. I did enjoy seeing the daily life of Harley in her environment, as I feel it offered us a look at the human side of Quinn that we rarely get to see, especially in the day and age of the ‘Suicide Squad’ further diminishing her character origins. One problem for me that picks up in this film where ‘The Killing Joke’ left off was the notable absence of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, or even Bruce Wayne from the fold. On the latter, I feel like it’s important to offer audiences an equal dose of Wayne versus Batman, and doing so only limits the true capabilities that a force like Conroy can convey. More on that later. A scene or two with these characters could certainly do wonders in keeping up the pacing, which does an alright enough job through the minimal runtime, but something great always beats something good. The ending left me slightly disappointed, mainly because one of the two antagonists is defeated in the most eye-rolling of ways, and the other we don’t get much of visually. The film just kind of ends with more of a hint than an actual result, and if this were a live action movie, I would be wondering if the production ran out of cash for a cheap exit like this one. Even the emergence of a D.C favorite hero felt completely unnecessary, especially when poked for fun by Harley herself after his brief cameo. It certainly doesn’t leave you with the greatest taste exiting this thing, and that is unfortunate because it feels like some solid performances were virtually wasted.

Upon them, Kevin Conroy is once again putting on a clinic as the defining Batman for all time. Conroy has been playing the caped crusader for over two decades at least, but he never feels redundant in his portrayals. Here, Batman is every bit as cryptic as he’s been, while playing into the intelligence that renders him a step above his competition. Kevin’s brooding release is everything that we have come to define for this character that was alive long before Conroy walked the Earth. Loren Lester adds up to one truly charismatic Nightwing. Not only was it nice to see this seldom used character depicted on screen, but Lester vocalizes him with the young adult side of the spectrum, falling for good looking girls, as well as fart jokes that he at least committedly plays into. The only performance I wasn’t in love with was Rauch as Quinn. The reason I say this is because she only truly channels one side of Harley, the jester, and leaves the menace in the closet for another actress to pull out. As the comedian Quinn, Rauch is well timed and articulately captures the Bensonhurst accent that is essential to the character. But I never felt the truly deranged side of her performance, and that missing link feels like only a half performance for such a complex antihero.

THE VERDICT – The newest Batman animated adaptation has wings, but quickly gets winded with a thin script, as well as an over-dependency of humorous material that frequently lets the air out of the mystic sails. Conroy and Lester make a solid team, and the animation is as good as it’s ever been. But the ambiguous ending leaves much more to be desired from the ambitious set-up that never quite quenches the thirst of the audience it narrates to. Even still, the nostalgic glee of the animated setting is worth the cost of a DVD evening in with your own Harley or Batman.


The Glass Castle

Author Jeannette Walls best selling memoir is brought to life in the big screen adaptation of ‘The Glass Castle’. A young girl who is the second of four children comes of age in a dysfunctional family of nonconformist nomads with a mother (Naomi Watts) who’s an eccentric artist and an alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson) who would stir the children’s imagination with hope as a distraction to their poverty and crumbling pieces from within. Years later, Jeannette recalls and confronts the past that has shaped the woman who is anything but similar to the ideals that she was raised upon. Now with a loving boyfriend and well paying job, Jeannette looks back with cynicism at a memorable childhood that alluded her. ‘The Glass Castle’ is directed and adapted by Destin Daniel Cretton, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some adult language and smoking.

Very few films feel like they have the kind of personal touch that ‘The Glass Castle’ has on that of its penning author. After all, she experienced these things first-hand, so every kind of experience that the movie takes us through feels dependent upon the cast of characters who soak in the exchange of awkwardness between them, and articulately present and define when that line of wrong has been crossed. As far as family films go, this was a starting, eye-opening experience for the kinds of effects that one person can have on a family, creating a chain reaction that lasts a lifetime. Cretton’s film feels like it speaks volumes to the idea that we only get one chance at this thing, so we better get it straight while we can. Throw in four children on top of it, and the consequences of one man with a load of personal demons inside of him feels even more effective and even valuable because he speaks and acts for all of them. I found this film to be good, but not great, and there’s a few reasons for that final reaction, but most of them deal with the kind of misguided approach that the screenplay takes to adapting the fragile source material.

Attitude is everything in a movie like this, so when a film that has all of these terrible things that these kids have to go through because of their radical parents and their unorthodox style of living, the choice to accommodate them with forced humor feels terribly irresponsible. The whole film isn’t like this of course, but from the very start of this movie I sensed a great danger for these kids and this family even if the family and the movie haven’t figured out that revelation yet. There’s a cheesy musical score by composer Joel P. West that offers these light supple tones that feel so out of place that they couldn’t be any more opposite of what transpires before our eyes. Like i said, this does improve with greater urgency as the film chugs along, but from this intro in the first act early on, too many people could be getting the wrong message about the importance that the right mood plays on this story that if done correctly could send goosebumps into moviegoers and hook them into these problems from the very get-go of this movie.

The story is presented with two running timelines, past and present, that dive into the kind of cause-and-effects that Jeannette’s current attitude towards her Father in particularly has played into. For me, the more well-rounded and complete aspect of the movie definitely deals with the past, as it is in that part of the story where we not only spend 6/8’s of the movie’s two hour runtime, but also where the long term setups in foreshadowing lie. It feels like we are watching this family who are a danger to themselves play out a worst case scenario every time on the screen, but the disposition of being a kid growing up with an alcoholic Father hit a few notes for me that were all too close to home. Because of the uneven nature of how the past and present are depicted in sequencing, the current timeline with Brie Larson can sometimes feel like the speedbump that chimes in anytime the story is beginning to get good. There is a solid layering of dramatic pull and tension in this film, and those aspects in trauma force these children to grow up a lot quicker than they probably had hoped. The past is thought of like a ghost ravaging in the winds of change here, and it supplants more proof that who we are destined to become relies heavily on the ideals and morals of the way we are raised, something that Walls as an author humbles us with time-and-time again throughout the film’s complex psychological resonance within our leading lady.

With the ending, I feel like too much in the material was contradictory towards the previous 90% of the movie that showed us how appalling that Harrelson’s character was as the Father. The film builds up this repertoire that we know will eventually lead to Jeannette’s emancipation from her struggling family, then spins an unexpected left turn in the film’s closing moments by telling us to cherish the man who for all purposes serves as the film’s antagonist. Because of this, there’s a real taste of Nicolas Sparks films that nauseated me to the point of even the most extremist of surrealistic circumstances. That clinging to family ideals that nods and winks and tries to unsubtly narrate to us that family, above everything else, comes first. Not a lot of damage is done on the overall finished grade, but it left me leaving the theater on kind of an unnatural note for a begging of sympathy that the movie simply didn’t earn. With more earnestness comes more rewards, and ‘The Glass Castle’ could use more tough love on the audience, especially if it is reaching for the tears. Aside from that main grievance, the film is also about twenty minutes too long, and could use some shaving around the early part of the third act, where the film transitions more to the current day format.

As for the performances, it is in this aspect where the film earns enough praise from this critic to give to warrant this a must-see for fans of the book. Brie Larson is probably only in the movie for a total of thirty minutes, but there’s so much anger and retribution that is screaming to get out in her now cool-and-collected exterior that hides the feelings of the story deep down inside. As an Oscar winner, Larson knows how to channel grief, and as Jeannette, we meet a woman who grows up long before her parents ever do. Woody Harrelson is spell-binding in this film, and feels like he gives a performance that is maybe just one grade under Oscar worthy as Rex, the alcoholic dictator of this family. Woody begins playing him with the light-hearted lug of a personality that we have come to love from Woody, but he knows when to turn it off at the switch of greying skies. Considering the character’s expositional backstory is almost ignored entirely in the movie, Harrelson adds layers at a time to a man who feels like he is too proud and stubborn to ever admit his wrongdoings. There’s a moment in the film when Harrelson is battling his alcoholism tied down to a bed, and for me it was as striking a scene as Leonardo Dicaprio in ‘The Basketball Diaries’ when he is fighting to stay off of drugs. Definitely Woody’s best work in a decade, and well worth the price of admission.

THE VERDICT – The glass is half full with this adaptation of a best-selling memoir, but it’s lumbering spilling hinders on the little things wrong with the structure and tone that could’ve made it an early contender for Oscar praise. Larson and Harrelson boost two emotionally layered performances that toe the line of past and present accordingly, and the film’s well-realized drama does impact quite a few scenes before it is too late. In the end, it was catharsis instead of comfort that I needed for the ending, and those ill-timed misfires in direction left this castle with a few cracks in its otherwise smooth surface.


Annabelle: Creation

Everyone’s least favorite doll from The Conjuring series returns, this time to explore the horrors of her origin, in ‘Anabelle: Creation’. Several years after the tragic death of their little girl (Samara Lee), grieving doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony Lapaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the doll maker’s possessed creation, Annabelle, sets her sights on the girls turning their shuttered shelter into a storm of terror. ‘Anabelle: Creation’ is directed by David F. Sandberg, and is rated R for horror violence, terror, and brief adult language.

David F. Sandberg has gotten off to quite the start in the beginning phases of his career, crafting two atmospheric horror films in last year’s ‘Lights Out’, and now being asked to turn around the ‘Annabelle’ sub-franchise. And while I feel that the former is definitely the better film between the two, Sandberg deserves all of the credit in the world for helming a passable entry to the ever-growing Conjuring extended universe that now has four films under its belt. One thing clear to me with this director is that tension is everything, and because of such, we are treated here to a time period piece in which environment is the most important pawn in this game of frights, making the most of every hair-raising moment on the arms of its moviegoers. Does it have problems? Of course. The same horror tropes that often overstay their welcome pop up on more than one occasion here, and prove that even as far as we’ve come from the horribly disappointing first film, we still have a long way to go before it competes with the equally enticing Conjuring chapters in the saga that have played a pivotal role in establishing how greatly anticipated and diverse that this genre can truly be.

Make no mistake about it, this sequel brings out the true technical approach to the many facets of production that went into this movie in supplanting it as something much greater than its predecessor. The sound mixing and editing is precise, echoing very little musical accompaniment, and instead letting the aura and awkwardness of the atmosphere surrounding this terrifying house play into what we’re enveloping. The lighting too is something that feels faithful to the time period, as well as beneficial to setting the mood creatively within the story. Since this is a film that appears to take place during the 50’s, the lighting doesn’t feel as advanced in color or magnifying glare, so even the daytime scenes show off this grainy filter that appropriately timestamps the era that the film had going for it.

The scares are definitely there for the newer and the old school students of the horror game who want to be chilled. Two sequences with grizzly imagery brought a solid wince or two from this longtime horror buff, and that’s saying a lot because I don’t frighten easily. A different approach to nightmare fuel used here is that this film surprisingly doesn’t use a lot of gore or blood in getting across its shocking visual details. Instead, so much of what is used here relies on these long takes that refuse to look away during even the most visceral of circumstances. This is very much a film that earns its coveted R-rating valuably and ethically, doing so without an overabundance of adult language or unnecessary violence that surround these kinds of films. The idea of these helpless children being sucked into something terrifying that they have no idea about is played into over-and-over again, supplanting itself with the kind of vulnerability and uncomfortable nature for our cast of characters that goes a long way in us as an audience seeing what is lurking in the shadows long before these kids ever do. Unfortunately, the jump scares don’t remove themselves from this film, and this movie doubles down on the approach that cheap scares equal lasting scares, a thought process that couldn’t be further from the truth the more that they occur. The movie has terrifying imagery to it, so the involvement of these cheap gags do nothing but cater to the inexperienced audience who know nothing of what it takes to channel true horror.

I greatly enjoyed the entirety of this mostly adolescent dominated cast of characters that carry the load effortlessly throughout. As the two best friends in the story, Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman offered these incredibly layered performances for these two female leads that slowly start to come undone the more that they learn about this doll and spirited presence. Wilson did a great job in last year’s ‘Ouija 2’, but I enjoyed her slightly more here because she is given the ability to show a variety of emotions that she must display over such a brief encounter with evil. In addition, Bateman might just be the stealer of the show here, breathing such helplessness one second and vibrant emptiness the next. As Janice, we meet a girl who is ripe for the picking because of her physical handicap, and it’s certainly not difficult to imagine why this spirit has first dibs on her. Besides the flawless repertoire from the kids, Anthony Lapaglia also does a stellar job as the Father of the deceased Annabelle. In this role, there is only a shadow of a man from the brief opening of the movie that we were growing quite comfortable with, and I felt that the progression of the Annabelle lore only progressed when he was on-screen, relaying the importance of his character for so much of the mystery in this story that had us gripping on.

As for the plot, I found most of the questions from the overly ambiguous original to be answered fruitfully here, but there was the occasional setup that didn’t make sense. For one, why this family who suffered a horrific incident with their daughter would bring a bus full of little girls to their house when they know a secret lurks between them. I found this angle to be very illogical, and its intention is never really answered beyond some momentary commotion that doesn’t amount to anything. What is valuable is that we finally get an answer to the importance of the doll in the scenario. Part of what made me angry during the first film was how this object did nothing to warrant the fear that we’re supposed to give, so in this sequel, the screenwriters addressed this topic wonderfully, giving us answers as to who does the killing when this doll doesn’t move for the entire movie. The pacing is solid, but is a little tough to get into from the opening of the film because a lot is kind of rushed by in the first few scenes instead of given time to properly digest, but the good stuff definitely comes to those who wait. The final thirty minutes is everything that you love about these movies because the confrontation between good and evil is a brutal one that keeps on coming. There are several false finishes to the ending that I thought worked magnificently, even if the ending did drag on for a scene too long, leaving that feeling of satisfaction from a solid scary movie removed a degree or two because it felt like the writers didn’t know how to end it properly.

THE VERDICT – Although still riddled with cheap jump scares and the occasional plot hole to its depreciation, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ should’ve been the only prequel to the two cherished Conjuring films that set forth quite the reputation for modern horror. The surprisingly valuable work from a top-notch child cast, as well as a springboard of technical achievements that shouldn’t be overlooked in a mood over gore direction that impresses, even if some familiarity of horror setups tends to rear its ugly head from time to time. Sandberg is definitely a horror director on the up, but this one does take some time for you to witness his exceptional qualities.


Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron returns to the silver screen to kick some more ass, this time as an intelligence agent known as ‘Atomic Blonde’. In 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the shifting of superpower alliances, the dangerous Lorraine Broughton (Theron), a top-level spy for MI6, is dispatched to Berlin to take down a ruthless espionage ring that has just killed an undercover agent for reasons unknown. Lorraine is ordered to cooperate with Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), and the two form an uneasy alliance, unleashing their full arsenal of skills in pursuing a threat that jeopardizes the West’s entire intelligence operation. But someone close is revealed to have set Lorraine up, so now she must take down the entourage while finding her mysterious betrayer. ‘Atomic Blonde’ is directed by David Leitch, and is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.

Being that ‘Atomic Blonde’ is set during the late 80’s, at the dawn of a new era in Russia, there’s much to be said about this distinct setting that clutches itself around the look and feel of Leitch’s picture. The movie features a very weathered kind of look behind the lens of cinematography that faithfully paints the picture of the mundane exterior shots, but also the neon interiors that made up eastern Europe during this age. This film definitely casts an easily immersive experience to surrender yourself to the kind of panic and uncertainty that filled the air during the fall of the Berlin Wall, and If this isn’t enough, a vibrantly echoed soundtrack of 80’s new wave hits more than audibly set the stage for some graphic chaos that never relents on its opposition. Despite the music generating more than a healthy dose of toe-tapping from this critic, I was alarmed at the jarring mixing that was being done to the levels of its volume that would jump from time to time. Most of this can be explained by the music feeling like a tool to increase the intensity of a chase or fight sequence, but I refer more to the toll that it took on my ears as it picks and chooses various times during a single sequence when to increase and decrease the decibals. Picture a child manning the control switches in a car; it is that alarming.

From a storytelling perspective, this is basically an inquisition scene to that of Theron’s Broughton for the chaos that has ensued over the last ten days. There are a lot of problems that I have with this perspective, mainly that the editing of present day and past flashbacks are so jumpy that I often had trouble reminding myself where I was at in the script, but more so in the flaws of storytelling that the writers have no better way to cover up. For example, one of my favorite cliches in this particular kind of setup is how a character can explain in such vivid detail everything that went down during a scene and location where she wasn’t at. Then there’s the chronological sequencing which went off of the rails more than once. There were more than a few scenes in the film where there would be a flashback within a flashback, and it left me aghast at just how overcomplicated these simple tasks performed themselves. Thankfully, the jumpy nature does settle down during a second half, which was definitely the movie’s strengths once it has riddled itself of all of the gimmicks from the first act of the movie that handicapped it at nearly every turn.

A lot of the reason for this is the big twist midway through that does add a much needed dose of intrigue into the redundancy that was muddling the progression. This becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse thriller between Theron and her mysterious antagonist who prefers to work in the shadows of betrayal. The mystery itself isn’t that difficult to figure out thanks to a trailer that was more than slightly revealing, but it is the best case scenario for the many directions that this film could’ve taken us. It’s during this welcome mood change early on in the third act where I gained my biggest appreciation for the film because of its urgency that couldn’t have come at a better moment. As for the finale itself, it does have one too many endings that further prolong and test the patience of the audience who were satisfied with the conclusion ten minutes prior. There is a twist too many that never equals the importance of that of the betrayal twist, but I can at least commend a film that always throws a monkey wrench to its audience who thought this one would again take the easy way out, an avenue that this blonde never takes.

What blew me away was the artistic integrity of the film, particularly in that of the fireworks in front of and behind the camera during some gritty fight scenes. If you’re an action junkie like me, this film has got you completely covered in all of the bone-crunching carnage that keeps on kicking. The fight choreography is superb, showcasing the determination that Theron puts in to become this character. Charlize does perform each and every one of her devastating moves, and it pays off especially well during a stairway fight that is articulately timed. The sound mixing too, during this sequence plays a pivotal role in magnifying the true impact of every hit or kick that our characters in view soak in. The camera work here is a marvel of visual decadence, and being a student of that Inarritu style, I appreciate when a sequence isn’t afraid to leave the camera on during long periods of time before cutting. The stairs scene isn’t one entirely unedited sequence, but it is manipulated in such a way that it never gives you time for breath. It, like the endless number of bodies that stack up, never relents on pulse-setting punishment to kick the adrenaline into overdrive.

Of course all of this would fall apart without the work of an impressive collection of Hollywood heavy hitters at the helm in portraying these vibrant personalities, especially that of Theron and McAvoy who are committed to their roles. The film flows the best with charisma when this duo are on-screen together, as it offers a chance to see two method actors who really play into these outlines and make them their own. Theron as Broughton is everything that female ass-kickers in 2017 are all about. Lorraine is of course beautiful and dangerous, but the film takes valuable time to appreciate her cunning intellect along the way, proving that a woman can have beauty AND brains to get the job done. Theron says so much with a cold stare that there is never really any need for the long-winded threats that follow, but we’re of course happy to oblige on such a commanding presence that only Charlize could hone. McAvoy too equals Theron’s leadership as Percival, a flawed womanizer agent with a personality second to none. James is definitely one of my favorite actors, and while Percival isn’t his most memorable role from 2017, it is the one that allows us to marvel at the man who omits so much charm from a single crooked smile. In addition to these two, the great Toby Jones and John Goodman round out the cast, and add prestige to this cult-like graphic novel to please its droves of longtime fans.

THE VERDICT – Though narratively flawed at nearly every turn, there is enough artistic merit in ‘Atomic Blonde’ to indulge in its ass-kicking romp that constantly keeps the charge moving. Theron and McAvoy are two of the modern day greats, and the inclusion of 80’s pop music Americana at their devastating disposal offers a throwback that is equally as visually enticing. The second half is definitely much better than the banal first half, but I’m not quite ready to call this the next Bond or Wick without some much needed consistency.


The Big Sick

The cultural differences of two smitten lovers gets pushed from-and-center during a trying time known as “The Big Sick”. Based on the real-life courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the movie tells the story of Pakistan-born aspiring comedian Kumail (Nanjiani), who connects with grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) after one of his routine standup sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing after the two find it difficult to be apart from one another, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents. When Emily is beset with a mysterious illness, it forces Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) whom he’s never met, while dealing with the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart. “The Big Sick” is directed by Michael Showalter, and is rated R for adult language, including some vulgar sexual references.

“The Big Sick” is not a Judd Apatow written or directed movie, but it is produced by the critically acclaimed mastermind of movies like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Trainwreck”, and while he holds the minimalist of responsibilities on this production, his stamp is clearly evident in Michael Showalter’s picture. This is the latest in a growing trend of film trailers these days that market a movie one way, only for it to be a totally different animal when you sit down and actually watch it. To say that “The Big Sick” is a comedy, might be completely irresponsible. This is very much a dramedy with a sprinkling of romance thrown in for good measure, and what could be considered a bit of a Frankenstein concoction does have its overall moments of light-hearted warmth and tender compassion that makes this one a worthy date night choice for him and her. Apatow has done this a lot in his career, substituting consistency in comedy for an appreciated level of heart, but Showalter doesn’t seem capable enough of balancing the same elements cohesively, instead opting for one tone at a time in each act. The film for me was decent, But even still, the run time of just over two hours proves to be a comedy’s undoing, and this definitely feels like one of those films where the problems become more evident the longer it rolls on.

Without a doubt, the film’s strongest point for me was during the first act, when we meet and establish the growing chemistry between our two leads that sets up future events. This feels most faithful to the kind of film that we were supposed to get from the trailers, and it definitely serves as a comedy during these peaks, with precision in comedic timing, as well as (thankfully) a minimal offering of improv dialogue. This is clearly a movie in which we know where it’s headed because of the title, as well as it being a real life love story, so I appreciated it so much more when the real life couple who penned this script slowed down and took their time developing the elements that made their union intriguing. The contrast between their traditions and families, with Kumail being from Pakistan, clearly plays an inconvenient entanglement to what he feels he deserves out of life, and the movie is never afraid to back away from our two protagonists to observe and depict what an Indian family considers valuable. Informative, while still being poignantly clever, “The Big Sick” felt like it could only get better from here. Then it happened.

For how much fun and expression that resides within the first half of the film, the second half takes a sharp left turn that has it submerged in too serious of waters to keep up its wit and charm factor. When you look at a film like “Trainwreck”, there is a point where it becomes strictly a romantic movie, but it never completely abandons what brought its butts into the seats in the first place; comedy, and sadly “The Big Sick’s” dry closing moments elated the air slowly out of the inflated tires that kept this film chugging along. Most notably, the stark change in Kumail’s character to one of growing mature decision maker feels like a cop-out on how we got there in the first place, especially considering he has all but moved on from Emily before he gets the call that she is in the hospital. The ending itself feels like it should go on for fifteen more minutes, but the run time tells us otherwise. This leads me to believe that some of the best and most fascinating points to this couple’s story is omitted from the film to instead give us a kind of “While You Were Sleeping” direction with her parents. If this wasn’t enough, the stand-up scenes, while important to Kumail’s backstory, offer very little weight in the overall grand picture with the film’s sudden change in direction. To say there is an overabundance of stand-up scenes is putting it lightly. A couple of scenes are fine, but there’s so much out of this direction of the script that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor, and it feels like the film drags the most during these lesser-sporadic drop-in’s. I’m also not sure if it’s a point that real life is dramatically funnier, but like all Apatow movies in a stand-up club, the comedy inside isn’t funny at all. When the comedians in the film miss their mark, how can we expect the regular every day person to meet it?

One aspect that doesn’t disappoint however, is the unabashed chemistry between Kumail and Zoe Kazan, as well as the all-around performances that kept this movie from the waters that were slowly sinking it. Kazan in particular is starting to get more female leads in her resume, and it’s totally deserving. As Emily, we see a down-to-Earth young adult who lives fast, but knows when to turn on the sweetness to her character. We fall in love with her the same way Kumail does, and her presence on the film is definitely noticeable during her absence. It’s crazy to think that Nanjiani has now done over twenty feature length films in his young career, but this is clearly his best performance because he lived through these events that shaped him. It’s rare that we get the real life figure playing his character in the movie, but Kumail proves that there was no choice better, with a dry stick and stone-faced reactions that will bring a hearty chuckle to your responses each time he’s on. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are also a delight, and speak volumes to the actuality of a married couple that have been together for far too long. Hunter is a firecracker, exuding a tough presence outside, while crumbling inside at the world that is coming down around her. Romano kind of plays to the “Good cop” here, opening up to Kumail a lot warmer than his female counterpart. Together, the two feel authentic based on their speech patterns and arguments about something so little that turns into a mountain.

THE VERDICT – “The Big Sick” wasn’t quite the cinematic explosion for me that critics were raving about, but there is enough laughs and romantic delight from Nanjiani and Kazan during the first half to recommend it during a quiet evening in. Had the second half not fallen so flat in personality and trimmed about fifteen minutes off of its final runtime, then Showalter’s film about appreciating the pleasantries that we have when they’re available to us might have been the perfect project to combat those shallow romantic genre offerings that lay it on too thick. Even still, this true story has enough turns to keep its gears constantly grinding through the thick of stand-up distractions.


Despicable Me 3

The Minions and Gru are back for the third installment in Illumination’s treasured trilogy, simply titled “Despicable Me 3”. After being fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to take down the latest bad guy to threaten humanity, Gru (Steve Carrell) finds himself in the midst of a major identity crisis. But when a mysterious stranger shows up to inform Gru that he has a long-lost twin brother (Also Carrell)-a brother who desperately wishes to follow in his twin’s despicable footsteps-one former super-villain will rediscover just how good it feels to be bad, all the while stopping an incredibly outdated villain named Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), who will stop at nothing to rid the world of its riches. “Despicable Me 3” is directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, and is rated PG for action and rude humor.

I wasn’t much of a fan with 2015’s “Minions”, mainly because it felt like overkill on a one-note joke that doesn’t have enough fuel for an entire motion picture fire. It wasn’t terrible, but felt like a noticeable drop-off from the creative quality of “Despicable Me 1 and 2”, lacking much of the original firepower in energy and comedic timing that we’ve come to know and love from these lovable lugs. And now with “Despicable Me 3” on the horizon, we return front-and-center to the world of Gru, The Minions, Lucy, and the rest of the adorable family, on a mission to re-claim Gru’s name as one of the best villains in the world. This movie does improve itself slightly from that of “Minions”, in that its humor does work better when there are two types of characters to bounce off of; ones that are human and ones that are not, but sadly, this franchise is starting to feel the sting of a series that has overstayed its welcome, especially with the many variety of subplots that this film throws at the screen in hopes that something useful will stick. Very little does, and because of such, we’re left with a picture that is decent for laughs and bubble-gum entertainment, but far from the studio-building features of the first two movies that set a respectable measuring stick for Illimination Pictures.

Over the course of four films, we’ve certainly gathered up no shortage of characters along the way, but the decision to give each of them their own respective subplot comes at quite a creative price for the brief 83 minutes of runtime that adorns this film. I kid you not when I say that there are no fewer than five subplots that make up the bulk of this script, a majority of which don’t go very far in the long term building of conclusions that happen during the final act. What does work is the brother angle here. There’s a real heartfelt center to Coffin and Balda’s material that put family first ahead of anything else going on, and you have to respect that. Because these Brothers are so different in their past upbringings, we as an audience get to indulge in the little quirks and ticks that make each of them different in character traits, but real when it comes to the twin instincts that makes two hearts beat as one. This is where the film worked for me, but everything else was very hollow garbage. The movie feels like a fight for survival amongst the other four subplots in the movie, all with very little progression or screen time to make them anything memorable. The saddest of all for me is in the plot and building of Bratt, the supposed antagonist of the movie who lacks a significant weight in the finished product. Considering most of the trailers are decorated around him, it’s a big letdown to find out that 90% of his material is just that; IN THE TRAILERS.

This movie did create some decent laughs for me, but nothing in terms of a hearty laughter to overtake my audible hearing. The Bratt 80’s cliches are decent, but so overdone in their repetition that it almost becomes one of those things that you wish would just cut to the point. His soundtrack 80’s hits are a great collection of Top 40 favorites though, and it does impress me that Illumination managed to buy the rights to the big name selections that occasionally pop in to play-to these scenes. The Minions do their usual yelling in non-English that people have come to either love or hate, and this movie will do nothing to change your stances on either of those sides. For me, I laughed the most when there are those observations to matters like parenting or the awkward struggle in a reunion with someone whom you have never even met before. Those to me are the kind of things that could set this apart as being just a typical kids movie, but then we would be forgetting what kind of audience partakes in this series.

The animation is probably the single biggest improvement from the past films, lighting a luminous torch for this ambitious company that rivals the masters of Dreamworks and Pixar Films respectively. Everything feels slightly more crisp here, echoing off an artistic integrity that reminds you that you are constantly watching a cartoon, but to never be letdown by such a fact. I made an observation earlier that this was bubble gum entertainment, and that couldn’t be more correct figuratively or literally with the eye-enhancing visuals that overtake the screen. There’s a lot of expression in that of the colorful buildings or the animated personality traits of each character, but for my money the shading and lighting of this film is a delightful improvement from the sometimes plain-Jane backdrops that Illumination hasn’t been able to thrive on. Most won’t notice the extra emphasis on these matters, but shadows and reflections are often a thing that I’m always examining in animated kids movies, and this one passes with flying colors on that perspective.

As for the performances, this talentedly decorated comedic ensemble does do their jobs in bringing to life these large personalities, but the direction falls very flat considering they are all juggling for time in an overcrowded atmosphere, and this stings none more than Bratt. Trey Parker excited me as an addition to this cast, and his overly-hyped deliveries give us an antagonist who we love to hate, but he feels like so much of a supporting character in a film whose events revolve around his actions, a huge mistake for someone as historically triumphant as the animated characters Parker voices on “South Park”. Carrell is probably the one performance that stands out not only because he is voicing two different characters, but because he depicts a clear difference in their speech patterns, despite a similar German accent. This is a difficult thing to do, and often I found myself closing my eyes to hear if I could tell the difference, and it was a success. Carrell’s wide range of emotional releases were made for the animated stage, and in the course of seven short years, Steve has etched his name as one of the very best animated leads going today.

THE VERDICT – “Despicable Me 3” does show its wear-and-tear over the course of its four feature length films that is a rarity for today’s animated sagas. The film’s script is a bit of a scatter-brained mess that feels all over the place in tone and development, but the jaw-dropping visual spectrum, as well as the return of Carrell in one of his most prominent roles, makes this latest chapter just sweet enough to snack on. My suggestion would be to end the series here, or to at least make some supporting characters just that; SUPPORTING. Otherwise, this series will slip on the banana peel that its Minions so viciously chew on.


Rough Night

Scarlett Johansson, Kate Mckinnon, Zoe Kravits, Ilana Glazer, and Jillian Bell are five best friends whose one “Rough Night” puts them on the wrong side of the law. Five best friends from college reunite 10 years later for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami, involving drunken debauchery that is their one last thrill before Jess (Johansson) ties the knot. Their non-stop hard partying takes a hilariously dark turn when they accidentally kill a male stripper during his musical routine, forcing the friends to think fast in order to avoid serious jail time. Amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up, they’re ultimately brought closer together when it matters most, and at the very least should inspire some hilarious bridesmaid speeches in the long run. “Rough Night” is co-written and directed by Lucia Aniello in his first big screen offering, and is rated R for crude sexual content, adult language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images.

Raunch comedies are a dime a dozen these days. Typically you will take a comedy with a bunch of promising talents and combine it with sophomoric humor to test the boundaries of an R-rating. Now the ladies get their turn with “Rough Night”, a film that borders a little too closely to the 1997 Christian Slater film “Very Bad Things”, in that they are both movies that take place over the course of a bachelor party, and a stripper ends up dead. Beyond those identical plots, “Rough Night” paves its own path by taking a so-so script and elevating it even higher than it rightfully should be because of the performances and chemistry of its five leading ladies. The film doesn’t push the sadistic envelope quite as far as its male comparison did two decades ago, but its charms lie in its ability to never take itself too seriously, and focus from square one on the comedy first. This is the kind of film that is easy to just kind of turn your brain off and allow yourself to succumb to the entertaining nature of a R-rated, free from the watered down humor of kids cinema that can wear thin on the intelligence of its audience, and that is where I think this film will resonate best; in its female moviegoers who are seeking comparisons to their own wolfpack of friends for the many wild nights that they have shared. Because of that, this one is full proof for the ladies, and one that they will undoubtedly hand over their cash to see in droves.

What I appreciate about a film like “Rough Night” is that it doesn’t allow itself to be something that it isn’t. Comedies these days can sometimes think that two hours is the way to go, keeping in every bit of sequences that should’ve rightfully been put on the cutting room floor for DVD extras. The script here is written by Paul Downs, a guy who actually portrays the leading male in this movie. If you’re like me, you can smirk at the guts of a guy to not only cast himself as the boyfriend of Scarlett Johansson, but also to promote himself into more than forty minutes of this movie. There are things about Downs style of writing that I appreciate, and the things that are better left to a minimal. On the former, I certainly picked up on the delightful irony that the women portray the men in this film, with all of their drunken debauchery and careless antics, and the men played the women, in all of their subtle and cozy surroundings to embrace bottles of wine. It’s genius because it doesn’t necessarily have to be too overbearing to be obvious, and I think Downs should be commended for giving a voice to this feminist tribe. Where he could use some work however is in the scatterbrains plotting of subplots that can often overstay their welcome. Whenever the film isn’t focused on the females, there is a side story developing for Paul to track down his fiance because he is legitimately worried about her well-being and their relationship. This perspective slowed down the momentum each and every time I felt comfortable to kick back and enjoy myself, and will most likely be the brake pads for those who take this one in. Most of the material falls flat during this time and feels raunchy for the hell of it, without much creativity to push it further.

That is where we get to the comedy of the film, which surprisingly gave me several hearty chuckles, despite not being my go-to brand of humor. The film feels like it flows best when it is sticking to Downs method of mayhem that is unraveling before our very eyes, and less with scenes of long-winded improv that can sometimes drown on for far too long. For my money, the strongest material blossomed when the girls were each getting their respective characters across, and just indulged in a pizza and booze hangout with one another. Honestly, if you didn’t have a plot to go with this film, I would be fine, as these characters (Minus one who I will get to in a second) are just a riot to be around, and the camera serves as that lucky eavesdropping that has served as our invitation to this debauchery that proves the ladies can do it just as well. Because these are human characters, their sometimes stupid decisions can seem genuine, and there were many times when I couldn’t wait to see how a scene played out with what felt like me thinking several minutes ahead of where our girls hadn’t even thought about yet.

On the subject of characters, most are delightful to embrace in their melting pot of differences that make up this clan, leaving only one girl who I couldn’t stand, and that came in the form of Jillian Bell as best friend Alice. Bell is usually one of my favorite parts of any film because her dry stick can sometimes be the wise-cracking sarcastic reality that a blown out scene can rightfully need, Unfortunately for her, Alice is a wreck of a human being, and serves as that one friend who the others complain about when they aren’t around. Don’t act like you don’t know one. If this isn’t enough, Downs writes her into a kind of “Bridesmaids” subplot where her character reeks of jealousy towards Mckinnon’s engaging Pippa. Speaking of which, Kate gives probably her best big screen performance to date, not only carrying much of the comedic backbone to the film, but also in a solid actors performance that showcases her holding an Australian accent for the entirety of the film. The accent can sometimes crack, but as far as accomplishments for her career goes, acting is the next step to take, as she has already proven she can steal laughs from anyone in the audience, during a movie that she is leap years ahead of. Mckinnon doesn’t feel like she is being used as just a reactionary character here like she was in “Ghostbusters” or “Masterminds”, and Pippa often feels like the breath of fresh air for this band of women who have sometimes spent far too much time together.

THE VERDICT – “Rough Night” thankfully is just a clever title, as this R-rated raunch-com offers the perfect 95 minute getaway for the ladies seeking laughs, thrills, and most importantly escape in their female-led comedies. For me, the film works best when its focus is solely on the ladies and less with a male subplot that should’ve been trimmed in favor of building momentum. The script is kind of all over the place in terms of structure, but what settles it down is the off-handed dialogue that constantly made me do a second take, as well as the undeniable chemistry of its female cast who are not afraid to take chances. Nothing of breakthrough for the genre, but a good time to waste the night away.


My Cousin Rachel

The 1951 novel of the same name gets its second big screen treatment, this time more than sixty years after the previous. “My Cousin Rachel” tells the story of a young Englishman named Phillip (Sam Claflin) who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms, and toes a devastating line of temptation as he seeks the clarity beneath it all. The two engage in a mental game for the land, riches, and romance involved in this particularly ugly situation that has developed between them and their neighboring friends of the family. “My Cousin Rachel” is written and directed by South African film director Roger Michell, and is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong adult language.

I myself have never read the literary original that this screenplay is based upon, but with reading reviews of others experiences with the novel has taught me that this is an accurate adaptation. With that said, this is a movie that relies heavily upon a mystery surrounding our central characters that has to do with whether Rachel is or is not the evil temptress that she has been made out to be. The film pushes this narrative because it is the key that unlocks all of the mystery surrounding the untimely death of Phillip’s guardian. The problem with this shaky concept is that this shouldn’t be a mystery at all to the audience who have faithfully paid attention, because most of the proof is in the pudding. Once you figure out the answer to this proverbial question, “My Cousin Rachel” tends to lose a lot of its charms midway through the movie, when you realize that this screenplay is focused on so little else to keep itself moving. Even still, once the answer is made frustratingly apparent during the final scenes, the screenplay did manage to tack on some closing surprises that changed my opinion from the once evident direction that it felt like we were once headed, finishing strong enough to earn itself rightfully back into rental territory.

From a scope perspective, this is a very gorgeous production, taking place during the late 19th century in Europe. We are treated to some very surreal establishing shots with endless displays of green landscapes and mountains that tend to accurately depict the kind of backdrops that envelope this picture. The main setting takes place in this enormous mansion that takes on the compliments of atmospheric natural lighting to make it feel more authentic. The night shots use candles to illuminate the property, and this speaks volumes to the kind of darkness and mystery that plagues this bickering family. The camera work too was simply stunning, choosing to focus more on some long take back-and-forth perspectives, instead of using choppy editing that can sometimes come across as too polished of a feature for this place in time. Because we embrace most long-winded dialogue gasps in their entirety, it can accredit so much more to the kind of heavy performances that Weisz and Claflin offer throughout.

On the subject of those roles, Claflin and Weisz create vibrant, albeit treacherous music together, commanding the presence of the screen each time their intentions contrast those of the opposition. Claflin’s Phillip is very much a boy who becomes a man during this picture. His abilities to have seen the world have almost made him brash and slightly arrogant when it comes to returning to his homeland, but he is quickly humbled upon meeting his mysterious cousin. As a whole, Sam does a strong job portraying this character, but Phillip is written in such a way that doesn’t translate well with today’s modern males, and because of such, if you’re like me you will find Phillip to obnoxious and even a little cringe-worthy midway through the movie. As a protagonist, he folds like a cheap suit, and it’s easy to see who commands this mental chess game. That winner of course would be Weisz, who dons Rachel as this strong force despite her ever really having to get her hands dirty. So much of what makes you boil for Rachel is the way Weisz’s long and cold stares appear frequently throughout the movie, and you really get a sense that this is a character who knows how to get what she wants without much effort. Their blossoming romance is something that we as an audience know is bad news, but you won’t believe where these two prized actors take them right before the credits roll.

As a script, I commend “My Cousin Rachel” for evolving with each passing act that changes up the kind of dance that our two characters orchestrate. The first act is probably my personal favorite because it is during this time when they are strangers to one another, and feeling out the other one to understand their ulterior motives. I mentioned earlier that this turns into a mental chess game of sorts, and that’s an entirely accurate representation because there’s a power struggle early on when each character tries to one-up the other, and it leads to some pretty uncomfortable and awkward exchanges that simulate anger, sorrow, and vulnerability so uncanny. The second act switches it up once we start to see the vast change in Phillip’s demeanor towards Rachel, and suddenly we as an audience feel like we are on the wrong side of the moral coin, far from where we once stood in this fight. When you step back to soak it all in, you really have to appreciate the slow unraveling of this metaphorical poison that took over the room. The final act sets up a beautiful confrontation that does pay off….sort of. If you’re someone like me who appreciates the true irony of any situation, you’ll adore it. But if you’re someone who expects physicality in results, “My Cousin Rachel” might not leave you on the best of circumstances. Either way, the script lagged very little for me, and feels appropriate to close it out around the 100 minute mark.

THE VERDICT – “My Cousin Rachel” often tries to float a mystery that simply isn’t there. Even the most mind-wandering of film detectives will fish out the answers to this story long before our central protagonist has, and that’s perhaps the biggest hill to climb for Michell’s slice of sizzle and seduction. It’s a solid representation of its source material, mainly due to the dedicated performances of Claflin and an entrancing Weisz, who both dominate the screen time in getting across two polar opposite characters with the common bond of grief. It’s a stern reminder that where there is smoke, there is often fire, and this is one flame too hot to ignore.


Berlin Syndrome

The impacts of a one night stand prove that sometimes leaving isn’t as easy as opening the door, in the thriller “Berlin Syndrome”. While holidaying in Berlin, Australian photographer, Clare (Teresa Palmer), meets Andi (Max Reimelt), a charismatic local man, and there is an instant attraction and chemistry between them that takes them back to Andi’s apartment. A night of passion ensues between them, but what initially appears to be the start of a blossoming romance, then takes an unexpected and sinister turn when Clare wakes the following morning to discover Andi has left for work and locked her in his apartment without any available methods of escape. An easy mistake to make, of course, so Clare doesn’t initially lose her cool, except Andi has no intention of letting her go again. Ever. “Berlin Syndrome” is directed by Cate Shortland, and is rated R for disturbing violent content, strong sexuality, nudity and some adult language.

As if we needed yet another cautionary tale about how we should never go on vacation alone in a foreign land, along comes “Berlin Syndrome” and re-affirms those beliefs. While the story at surface levels feels rudimentary and even a bit derivative, there are certain alternating measures that screenwriter Shaun Grant takes to deviate this film from those that have depicted the very traumatic experiences within that of the links between being held captive and that of the real-life term known as “Stockholm Syndrome”. These original directions bring out the experimental side to Shortland’s film that embrace this familiar setup in new and entrancing methods. That’s not to say that everything here works. “Berlin Syndrome” inevitably stumbles as it stretches the minimal amount of material that the movie has for all of its entertaining purposes, limiting its emotional resonance in the once suffocating atmospheric tones that now had me feeling as cold and empty midway through the movie as the protagonist in our film.

On the subject of some of those originalities, the narration is surprisingly angled from the perspective more of Andi the captor, rather than that of Clare the victim. This is to be commended because usually this kind of subgenre of film will more times than not leave our villain in the shadows, revealing very little about his motive or his life outside of the box of seclusion that he has inflicted on his prey. The movie shows us that Andi isn’t some unstoppable monster or devastating force. He is very much a human antagonist who has the same kind of wants and needs as that of our protagonist, but goes about getting them in the most unorthodox of methods. What hindered this certain angle in perspective for me was that the film backs away from being about Palmer and this terrific performance that she is emoting, and settles for someone as bland as Andi in narration. If this captor were even remotely fascinating or slightly more developed, I think spending nearly two hours with him wouldn’t feel as much like a chore that it does here, and because of that, so much of the progression in plot stands still. A feeling that becomes evident about halfway through the movie when the pacing feels obviously uneven.

That’s a shame because the first forty minutes or so of this film had me glued to the edge of my seat, preparing me for a cerebral game of chess between the two players that unfortunately rarely surfaced. This is the kind of picture in which we as an audience crave that kind of supremacy in intellect that a favorable female lead can grant us, and even though I mentioned earlier that Palmer’s performance is right on the mark here, so much about her direction and material do her absolutely no favors in making a key ability in her repertoire stand out for her survival. The second half of the film feels like everything is being portrayed in slow motion, and while this could be a reflection of Clare’s life being played out minute-by-minute, it lacks the kind of stimulation in dramatic pull to ever keep us dry through the rains of repetition in her escape attempts. It does pick up in the final twenty minutes of the film, finally getting to the final conflict that we could’ve used thirty minutes earlier. The ending is satisfying enough, even for all of its ploys against predictability.

From a cinematic scope, Cate is certainly a more-than acceptable captain to helm some visionary perspective to this film that would normally be given a conventional spin. The color scheme in particular in the film has a slow robbing effect that drains all of the life out of it from the beginning of the movie to the halfway point, that then turns to bland white and grey coloring to get its point across. This is clearly intentional to mesh with that of Clare’s life, which is now just a shell of what it once was. Cate also embraces a lot of shots that are foggy upon first shot, but then use auto-clear about two seconds into the scene to use the glaring as intentional. The idea here is that Clare’s days are blending together, and one murky day could easily be the same as when she woke up the day before. Because of so reliance on time or dates, this measure in artistic design relays the ideas that this feels like one constant nightmare for Clare that blurs together and never ends.

As mentioned above, Palmer is radiant here, giving away her single greatest performance to date in the young starlet’s career. As Clare, we see the tragedy of a once ambitious youth who learns the hard way that caution is the most important instinct during traveling. Clare’s fragility becomes her lone identifiable trait by the third act of the movie, and it’s a testament to Palmer’s orchestration that she has commanded such a response, despite being in the minority of screen time between her and Reimelt. Speaking of which, Max too is chilling as the antagonist Andi. Because of his human approach, Andi’s unpredictability and cunning deceit is perhaps the most dangerous aspect to his character, and Reimalt’s tip-toeing of subtle paranoia is something that pricks and prods away at us as we learn as much about him on the same speed as that of Clare. Reading the synopsis, it’s easy to know what’s coming, but that doesn’t make Andi’s unchained rage any less menacing. He is ruthless, and Clare finds out over-and-over.

THE VERDICT – “Berlin Syndrome” locks us in a room for nearly two hours with two exceptional performances by its duo of actors that compliment the urgency behind the situation. What will have us scratching at the knob will be the uneven development between the first two acts, whose contrast in fluidity will serve as an obvious step down, as well as the shaky decision to record the antagonist as essentially the main character in this film. Even said, Shortland’s first major step in the public eye is an enigmatic spin about caution that doesn’t require the visceral to taut its gripping European art house vision. Check it out in theaters, but always be careful with the person sitting behind you.


The Lovers

The impending divorce of a bickering couple could be just what they need to once again be considered ‘The Lovers’. Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, The Lovers is a refreshing, funny look at love, fidelity, and family, starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as a long-married and completely dispassionate husband and wife. Both are in the midst of serious affairs and are increasingly committed to their new adulterous partners. But on the brink of officially calling it quits, a spark between them suddenly and unexpectedly reignites, leading them into an impulsive romance that forces them to navigate the hilarious complications of “cheating” on their once respective lovers. A mixture of humor and powerful emotion, the story is a uniquely honest take on a modern open marriage. The Lovers is rated R for adult sexuality and language.

There’s plenty to be appreciated about Azazel Jacobs and the kind of emotional roller-coaster that his film “The Lovers” takes us on. Considering this is yet again another case where the trailer doesn’t depict anywhere near the kind of pacing or tone that the movie omits, there was enough from what does land in his deconstruction of a marriage to warrant a recommend from this critic. Do not be fooled, this isn’t anywhere close to being a cutesy romantic comedy, and instead speaks to the children-turned-grown-ups who themselves are a product of divorce. To say that there were many times during this film where I felt uneasy and slightly uncomfortable, is an understatement. Jacobs as a director opts for more of the organic sights and sounds surrounding a crippling marriage, instead of trying to create another Hollywood-influenced version of that. It’s commendable for authenticity, but that doesn’t mean it makes the most entertaining of sits, being that this film has more than a few weaknesses that will leave it on the shelf as a one-and-done viewing for the rest of my life.

First of all is the story. It’s refreshing and sometimes even surreal to see how Jacobs sets up his two protagonists on the roads that have led them in opposite directions. As the film begins, this practically feels like a silent picture, circa to the days of Charlie Chaplin, and a lot of that is because of the tension in the room between them that could easily be cut with a knife. There’s little musical accompaniment during this span, and I certainly preferred that as it allowed us to soak up all of the awkward exchanges that happen between them on a daily basis. We find out little about their history as the film goes on, just brief note-drops that help the audience on their own paint a picture that Azazel doesn’t feel is necessary with holding the hands of his viewers. I appreciated this approach, and it leaves the reasoning ambiguous and relatable for the concepts that couples break up for a variety of reasons. I found it funny how similar that their roads to infidelity were from scene-to-scene, but it did feel like a grinding halt each and every time I was ready to move on to the next scene. This is once again signaling the compromise of authenticity for entertainment that a brave director like Jacobs has no problem reaching for, and I think it paid off more times than not in terms of entertaining returns.

This movie also garners the ability to always keep us guessing, despite a trailer that hints at the first of three directions that the third act takes us on. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that our married couple do begin to have feelings for each other again, but it’s certainly not as easy as rolling the credits from there. In fact, I appreciated the durability and tenacity that this film had for pulling the wool over my eyes. Each and every time that I felt I had it pegged, I was surprised yet again, a rare feat considering in 2017 it feels like we have seen everything that the silver screen has to offer. As for the ending itself, I found its original take valuable, even if it feels like fan service at some points. During the third act, it’s clear that any attempts at a comedy are now flushed out the window, in favor of a dramatic pulse that overtakes us to goosebumps. The pacing of these scenes that do run slightly longer than necessary did have me reaching for my watch, but it all picks up by the finale that proved that love takes on so many angles in direction.

As for characters and performances, Letts and Winger toe the difficult task of emoting so much without much narration. This lack of clear direction is sometimes the flaw for the movie, but thankfully the undeniable chemistry between our two leads navigates us through some pretty murky waters midway through the film. There’s never a moment that I despise either of them, despite the fact that they are committing a hurtful deed against the other, but it’s in watching them grow together, as well as apart that makes their reunion that much more of a touching sentiment, because we feel that we have been with them all along. Beyond that, the rest of the material for the actors in the film is a bit limited, wasting very little effort to fully developing their characters. The affairs in question are portrayed by Melora Walters and Aiden Gillen, the latter of whom I am a big fan of. Sadly, the film doesn’t feel the need to make them deeper characters, and that’s unfortunate because I believe that doing so would’ve made the decision that much harder in the end not only for the married couple, but also the audience who could view the supporting characters as something more than “The other lover”. Far and away though, the weak spot of the acting is that of Tyler Ross as the couple’s only child. Listen, I don’t have anything against this guy, but his response is constantly poorly timed and overly-emotional for all of the wrong reasons. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing every time he got angry or stood up to his parents. Considering they are the cheaters here, it’s a testament to how bad Ross is every time I said in my head “Shut up kid, you’re too young to understand anything”.

THE VERDICT – The Lovers pertains two delightfully absorbing performance by that of Letts and Winger, as well as an awkwardly honest portrayal of the tank of love when it’s running near empty. Contrary to another misleading trailer, this is NOT the perfect date movie. This is a sour cautionary tale that elaborates on the concepts of what’s fun is fun and what’s done is done. Jacobs film does sometimes lack the consistency in pacing to keep his audience together as a whole, but as the film proves; you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and The Lovers satisfied just enough in illustrating yet another layer to the idea of a happy ending.


Alien: Covenant

The crew of a colony ship, slash through a dangerous breed of indiginous creatures that inhabit their newfound land, in ‘Alien: Covenant’. Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created, with “Alien: Covenant,” a new chapter in his groundbreaking “Alien” franchise. The crew of the colony ship Covenant (Including Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Billy Crudup), bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their wildest imaginations, they must attempt a harrowing escape, banding together to take out their acid-spitting antagonists hand-in-hand for survival. ‘Alien: Covenant’ is rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.

I’m someone who didn’t care much for Prometheus and the philosophical directions that it took one of the more prominent horror/sci-fi movie franchises, and unfortunately Alien: Covenant steers more in that same direction of where the previous left off. It is a better film in my opinion than that of its predecessor, but still suffers from the same problems revolving around its menacing antagonist that Scott still hasn’t fixed five years later. There are two tones in the film of Covenant, pushing to satisfy the diverse crowds of this series that were split right down the middle in their interest of Prometheus. For the supporters of it, this film does bring back the origin story of the creators, as well as the artistic and ambitious direction that only Scott can accomplish at this magnitude. For fans of the original Alien and Aliens movies, this film shifts back to the pacing of those movies, even so far as to include their increased appetites in brutal violence that reigned supreme during that era. The gore is very satisfying to a horror lover like me, and I felt that this film had some of the best deaths of the series. However, For this kind of juxtaposition in tone, it does often feel like a tug-of-war battle for the creativity of this movie, tightly jamming two different feels of movies into one Frankenstein-like finished product. The film satisfied in many ways, but had nearly as many problems to point out for my final grade of the film.

Ridley Scott still proves that after over forty years of sitting behind the director’s chair that he still has it in the visual presentations that envelope his films. Whether you love or hate Scott as a director, it’s measures like the interior ship designs and lighting of this movie that orchestrate the idea that this man is playing on a totally different ball field. The interiors of this film took me back to Aliens and Alien 3, opting for more of that faded cinematography to accommodate the yellowish tint in lighting that adorned these ships. In addition to this, I greatly adored the decision to film more scenes on the ground, as we very rarely have seen these aliens in their natural habitats. It also fruitfully paints the backdrop in picture for the creators and the kind of epic world that they once lived in, long before they met their genetic match in terms of conflict. These glances offer the kind of answers to the questions that were left anti-climatically in the air during the prior film, and did plenty to satisfy my thirst for foreign worlds that has sadly done very little experimenting before this.

Then there are those decisions by Scott that could’ve used a little more time to develop and mold for the eyes of his passionate viewers. The decision to amplify the tension by making these aliens quicker in this film is one that I do support. Even in zombie films, people often criticize this stance for taking away from the classic movements of the antagonists, but it’s easy to understand that taking away the ability to run away is what makes their actions even more unpredictable. My problem comes in the CGI designs of the aliens themselves. Aside from the fact that there are no practical effects in this movie, I found the computer designs of most of the alien creatures to be laughably bad. The Xenomorphs are fine because they show that of dark skin that makes it difficult to point out the flaws in their designs, but the small white creatures that appeared during the opening act of this movie are so bad that they reminded me of Alien: Resurrection, the stain of the Alien franchise. The shading and texture of their designs feel so foreign to the practical sets that surround them that it makes it very difficult to suspend disbelief for their impacts. By 2017, concept designs shouldn’t lack this much weight, and as a result the gimmick of this creature left me laughing every time it was on screen.

The story too has its problems, even going as far as the actual title of the movie. If this film was called Prometheus 2, or Prometheus with some subtitle after it, I would be fine with it. But to have the actual name ALIEN in the title and only have them in the two hour presentation for a total of twenty minutes (I’m being generous) is a huge mistake. Much of the reason people disliked Prometheus is because they couldn’t find the connection between the two stories. Now we have a movie that connects them, but does it in a way that reduces these creatures to supporting roles in their own film. The movie has an easily predictable plot twist towards the end of the movie that friends will attest to me predicting right away. How did I predict this? Well, a lack of care for what scenes were included leading up to the big reveal, as well as subtle but evident differences in appearance for two characters who are quite similar. It’s tough to explain without spoiling everything, but if you are paying attention even decently, you will easily pick out this flaw from the minute that Scott attempts to accomplish it. Overall, the story to me just fell flat in many long spurts, practically counting down the time when the next attack will happen. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not crazy about this story getting philosophical, and the idea that these aliens can be reasoned with and even controlled is one that treads the hardest on suspending disbelief. I am reminded of Halloween 6 when they introduced the character of The Man In Black to basically be Michael Myers master. I am of the thought that monsters should always stay cryptic. The more we know about them, the less impactful their rage and dominance feels, and the alien creature is one that I feel doesn’t require that backstory to make it any more frightening.

As for the characters, there are two that stick to mind with being effective in this movie, Katherine Waterston as Daniels and Danny Mcbride as Tennessee. Mcbride especially is the standout here, putting aside his comedic charms for a tough-as-nails character with some intelligence to boot. Danny showcases that he is an actually gifted actor here, and I couldn’t get enough of his commanding presence on this ship, and being the lone voice of reasoning for the film. Yes, Danny Mcbride was the voice of reason, weird huh? As for Waterston, there’s certainly a steer in the direction of Ripley and Shaw for her structure, but Daniels serves as a particularly human lead protagonist here because immediately right away in the movie she suffers the most devastating loss of her life. So we get to see the actual metamorphosis of her character as the film progresses, leading into a captain who takes control for the very lives of not just her crew, but also her friends. Besides these two, the rest of the performances and development was very underutilized. You could blame it on fifteen different faces taking up screen time, but I blame it more on the cliche horror movie characters that they all made up. Characters in these movies typically make dumb decisions, but when you really think about how easily the events in Covenant could’ve been avoided, you start to laugh aloud for how very little has changed in this nearly forty year old franchise. At least in the earlier volumes, you had characters who were able to showcase these fleshed-out personalities for us to enjoy or hate. The people in Covenant constantly feel overlooked, and this is a rare flaw for a director in Scott, who has developed some meaty supporting casts.

THE VERDICT – Alien: Covenant is a welcome addition over the last four Aliens movies that have disappointed this critic for how convoluted their easy-to-satisfy plots have become. The film increases the violence and answers many of the questions that were left hanging from the previous film, but still suffers in terms of what definitive direction that this movie is trying to take. Hollow characters, pee-brain decision making, and some shoddy CGI work, still prove that this series has plenty to perfect before it tangles with the days of Alien or Aliens. Even with annoyances aside, Covenant has enough pulse to bite through the underbelly of horror conventionalism, and still prove that this series has teeth.


The Wall

Two American soldiers seek safety and shield behind an unsteady structure that has them fighting for their lives, in Doug Liman’s latest action thriller, The Wall. The movie is a deadly psychological thriller that centers around two soldiers, Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena), who are pinned down by an unforseen Iraqi sniper with extreme precision, with nothing but a crumbling wall between them. Their fight becomes as much a battle of will and wits as it is of lethally accurate marksmanship, thus proving that even the smallest of wars do indeed have grave consequences. The Wall, produced by Amazon Studios, is written by first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell. It landed on the 2014 script Black List, and is rated R for adult language throughout and some war violence, including sequences of peril.

The Wall can be best described as being a strategic impulse thriller that plays to a familiar backdrop in the Iraq War, during the year of 2007. President Bush has since declared victory in the Middle East, yet the opposing sides are still spilling vital blood. Off in the uncertain distance of it all are two soldiers and an ambiguous sniper that wants them dead. There’s something greatly appreciating about what Liman does in scope here to craft this as one of the hardest hitting war films of the last decade. Despite there only being three people in the entirety of this film, it never diminishes the importance or the urgency of its story or winning the war, even when its dangerous game is being played on the smallest of stages. The film feels like a game of chess, with both sides jockeying for position on their opposition, and it’s in that procedural of sorts with army protocol where Worrell’s cunning script thinks the loudest in terms of keeping this interesting for 86 minutes. It does so and proves that the war genre doesn’t necessarily need to be played at the most epic of scopes to be compelling, and that it’s the millions of smaller battles that demand their stories to be told.

The action and sound editing really puppeteer the emotional response from its audience by offering crisp, sudden impact that plays tenderly to the eerie nature of the quiet surrounding our protagonists. t This feels like the kind of movie where these men make every single bullet count, so each time that you hear that long gasp of silence, you can’t help but fear for that whoosh in sound that tells us bullets are on the way. As far as the mystery within the film goes, I felt that the film is best reserved when we don’t know the exact location of our gifted sniper, playing more into the uncertainty that could strike at any and everywhere when he chooses to push the button. This angle of script perspective takes place more during the opening half hour than the rest of the script, but unfortunately gives away this reveal far too early in the movie to play more into keeping the audience guessing. What does work is the two sides being able to communicate on a CB radio that paints more of a vicious shadow for the man who could literally be anywhere. The choice in desert backdrop makes for a location that is every bit as forgiving as it is influential in playing to the advantages and disadvantages of hiding a plan from the oppositions. I thought it was cool to see a sandstorm literally take over certain scenes between characters with their own agendas. It kind of signals that Mother Nature and life in general continue on even in the most dire of situations.

As for script, the film surprisingly offers an array of social commentary on the perils of war and the prices that we pay for democracy. Worrell feels like a writer who chooses not to glorify war, but instead the value of human life and our purpose for others in power making decisions for that value. There were several times during the movie when the thought-provoking question of ‘Why You?’ is wonderfully positioned, and yet we as an audience can’t help but wonder the same thing. With only one chance at this thing called life, are such invasions literally important? Like most responsible movies, this one never steers one way or the other, but I do appreciate that it isn’t afraid to at least challenge the status quo. There’s also a terrific style of execution based on the very exposition within the movie that communicates to its audience what happened before we arrived, without ever needing the introductory montage that feels like it’s everywhere anymore. To begin this film already inside the cloud of danger is quite risky, but as the film goes on, we learn important reveals about Taylor-Johnson’s Isaac, as well as the key events of their mission that reveals why their once prosperous army has been winded down to a party of two. Some of our initial images from the get-go are that of several U.S army soldiers laying dead and spread out all over. This tells us two important things; this sniper is very good at his job, and those still alive are well-versed in that capability and must choose carefully what to do next. An aspect like war can play so beautifully into capturing the peaks of a story long before we’re being narrated through it, and Liman does a terrific job at setting the stage for a battle that will change everything.

This begins my problems for the movie however, as this feels like a movie that starts to show its weaknesses the longer it goes on. The film’s pacing rarely dragged for me, but in the final half hour I started to see how this film painted itself into a corner for how little it truly answered leading into the final few scenes. Because of such, some highly unbelievable aspects happen that took me out of my immersive dive into this dangerous world and continued to remind me just how much a movie this really is. On top of this, I also hated the dialogue within this movie, and this negative plays into the very hollow characters that we are presented with. The performances of Taylor-Johnson and Cena are solid enough, and they certainly give it everything that they have to make this characters appealing protagonists. But unfortunately, these two feel like stereotypical muscle-head soldier types without any of the heart or empathy that makes them compelling. There’s a point towards the end where Isaac is literally crying from all of the mental and physical anguish that his character has taken, and yet I never felt troubled for his character. Where the dialogue plays into this is every other word practically settling for the F Bomb for the hell of it, or an arrogant retort by Isaac as he talks back-and-forth to his enemy. Fear should be the more prominent emotion being portrayed here, and that clumsy decision to always keep our hero jabbing off does damage in illustrating the versatility within his character.

THE VERDICT – The Wall stands strong through a weathered third act that nearly diminishes all of the strong foundation built in the first hour of the movie. Doug Liman’s choice for a smaller scope for his war thriller is just what is needed to instill a fresh outlook on the genre to keep it from sinking under familiar waters. He elevates the handicaps of his one stage setting by focusing on only two characters to make the urgency that much more valued. A minimalist survival plot that hinges on the concept of ambiguous murder and the prices were willing to pay to play.