Beirut

Directed by Brad Anderson

Starring – Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino

The Plot – A U.S. diplomat (Hamm) flees Lebanon in 1972 after a tragic incident at his home. Ten years later, he is called back to war-torn Beirut by CIA operatives (Pike) to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind. (Formerly titled High Wire Act)

Rated R for adult language, some violence, and a brief nude image

THE POSITIVES

– Razor Sharp Editing and technical prowess. Much of the scene transitions and man-to-man perspective conversation pieces rattle off of one another with the kind of precision that constantly keeps the audience engaged. In addition to this, I also greatly appreciated the incorporated images of historic Beirut film that cinematographer Bjorn Charpentier pulls from marvelously for visual design work.

– Excellent communication in storytelling. While I felt that the film struggled in informing us of the ugly and dangerous pasts between those at war, I did feel that at least the tone and conscious of the environment was replicated wonderfully. In particular, Hamm’s intro to the film divulges a sad-but-humorously true metaphor for why this place is plagued with the reputation it has garnered for itself.

– Most of the performances come and go, but as a lead Hamm dissects his character as two different people, before and after the incident, and does wonders in cementing the leading man status he’s always yearned for. The most evident difference between these sides is that this now feels like a man scarred by his past and his newfound hatred for what this hostile land has taken from him.

– The characters are written as so much more than good versus evil, and cater more to the shade of grey that allows you to understand every motivation for said action.

– Two supercharged twists that absorb great weight in the overall growing complexity of the story. What matters most of all is that these twists make sense, an art that many films can’t seem to connect when drawing the dots together.

– What’s interesting about this screenplay is how one vivid night that only affects a small group of friends has a butterfly effect with where screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s spy thriller goes. There’s a reason why Hamm’s character is called upon, and everything lines up in a kind of air-tight execution that Gilroy attained in films like The Bourne trilogy.

THE NEGATIVES

– There are impactful, albeit brief action sequences in the very beginning and very end of the film. This makes it difficult to attain the thriller tag in ‘Spy Thriller’, doing nothing but harm to the already tiptoe pacing that is fading away before our eyes.

– Hamm’s character suffers from alcoholism, and this plot device is very seldom used in generating something of a character flaw for him to overcome. It’s a kind of tell-not-show kind of exposition that is rarely if at all explored and never adds any kind of growing concern to the way he performs under pressure.

– I had a major problem with the overall lack of Muslim actors and characters in the film who weren’t terrorists. I get that terrorism is associated with a lot of their people in this instance, but in an era where White-washing is all the craze, maybe offer some examples of diversity for dissection in instilling the thought that not all Muslims are gun-toting terrorists.

– The screenplay was written in 1991, and that’s clearly evident for how the film misuses Rosamund Pike’s leading lady character. Pike makes the most of what limited opportunity, but it’s a shame that in a character who surprisingly has a lot of resolve with this particular plot doesn’t exactly come across as a major player in a male dominated ensemble.

6/10

Blockers

Directed by Kay Cannon

Starring – John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz

The Plot – When three parents stumble upon their daughters’ pact to lose their virginity at prom, they launch a covert one-night operation to stop the teens from sealing the deal.

Rated R for crude and sexual content, and adult language throughout, drug content, teen partying, and some graphic nudity

THE POSITIVES

– Barinholtz once again steals the show with his blend of honest reactions and deadpan deliveries that keep you chuckling constantly. It’s great to see the former Mad TV alum getting his due in films like this and ‘Neighbors’ because there’s something commendable about the guy who takes pride in taking on the dirty jobs in characters.

– What I find creative about this script is that it’s basically taking a time old tradition in narrative of teenagers making a pact to lose their virginity at prom, basically a subgenre at this point, and adding a female perspective on it. Beyond this, there’s a hearty discussion about gender bias that does offer an insightfully educational perspective on the treatment of men versus women that will enlighten you. For a change, the women are the crude ones in this film, while their male suitors are relaxed and even flamboyant to a degree. This proves that anything men can do, women can do better.

– There is equal screen time dedicated to the respective trios in this film, young and adult, who each balance the beam of entertainment competently. While I felt that the adults overall had better chemistry and believability to their characters, the teenagers conflicts were the reason I bought my ticket, and I’m quite satisfied with where this one resolved.

– Incredible pacing. While the film is an easy 97 minutes, it honestly felt about half of that with how consistently it keeps the narrative and these characters moving. Constant change-ups in backdrops are a big key to this benefit, and there certainly is no shortage of situations on this memorable night that keep these characters tested.

– While I did feel like the film occasionally tries too hard with its brand of crude humor, the best gags to me were the ones that feel like they almost happen on accident. Leslie Mann’s encounter with a flat screen, as well as an overzealous limo driver gave me the biggest laughs of the night, proving that sometimes comedy happens without the need to set everything up.

– So much can be said about the debauchery that happens during the film, but there is a surprisingly refreshing amount of warning that comes with the adult themes that these ladies take on. Considering youths are the majority going to see this film, I commend any movie that takes the time to explain that you can have fun just as long as you play it carefully.

THE NEGATIVES

– During heartfelt sequences that could elevate this comedy to soaring heights, it often feels soiled by a forced joke that doesn’t add anything to the unraveling substance before us. Much of this happens during the closing minutes, and sometimes I feel like the intrusion really took away from what these comic veterans like Mann and Barinholtz could prove to the audience.

– As well with the comedy, the film’s dialogue often feels forced in animating the responses for the camera. This takes away the integrity and honesty that the brothers of screenwriters are going for, and instead caters to the film setting and all of its humorous soundbites. The person heavily to blame with this is Cena, who proves he still has a long way to go in making a character his own, and not just a jock who says cute things.

– Comedies are never technical marvels of cinema, but this is easily one of the worst edited movies that I have seen this year. Sequences feel prematurely cut, and the continuity from shot-to-shot character perspective is filled with holes so big that you could drive a Buick through them.

– Considering the entirety of this movie proceeds because of a convenient plot point revolving around the parents stumbling upon a chat between their daughters on a laptop, the creators can’t even get the logic in this instance correct. While it is possible to read phone texts on a laptop VIA Apple, laptops do often go to a screensaver or power down after they have been left on for too long. The scene in which Mann reads these texts happen no sooner than an hour between this pre-prom party that starts with the daughter on the laptop, and concludes with Mann snooping on her laptop. I can’t believe for a second that this computer would still be running. In addition to that, it’s convenient that the sounds the texts make are loud enough to hear from the kitchen.

6/10

Unsane

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring – Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

The Plot – A young woman (Foy) is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear. But is it real or a product of her unraveling delusion?

Rated R for disturbing behavior, violence, adult language, and sex references

THE POSITIVES

– ‘Unsane’ was shot entirely on an Iphone, and I can say with the upmost confidence that none of the artistic integrity of a Soderbergh film is compromised here. While the film will obviously lack that expensive cinematography aspect to it, I felt that the faded coloring and unedited technique gave way to the unnerving and awkward tension that constantly boiled hot throughout the movie. In addition to this, the editing is precise for such cheap technology.

– As usual, Soderbergh is a master of luminous lighting. Here, his yellowish tints feed into the very secluded and secretive set locations within the hospital that communicate to you artistically that something much deeper and disturbing is at play here. However, my personal favorite coloring involved a dreary blue-toned twilight in the forest that is a mesmerizing blanket over a volcano of erupting brutality.

– Strong or solid performances all around. Foy gives a ferocious star-making turn, living through Sawyer as a complex woman with a lot of demons from her past. In doing so, Foy leaves just enough room to make you question her mental stability as a result of it all, making us question if the title of the movie serves to obvious foreshadowing. Beyond Foy, Jay Pharoah is great as her inside man inside of the hospital, and Joshua Leonard’s stone-faced stare paints a very vivid picture of a tortured past for Sawyer.

– I can appreciate a film that isn’t afraid of getting its hands dirty, and this film has no problems with feeding its horror appetites. Soderbergh waits with extreme patience for the moments that the violence will impact the most, playing through the anticipation like a composer just itching to drop that sharp note that will change the complexion of any number.

– There’s a surprising essence burning just under the surface of this film in speaking to a higher material of intelligence than just another experimental B-horror film. Soderbergh’s occasional preaching of the mistreatment of women, as well as the overall limited attention of the medical field, gave way to something remotely heavy handed that could’ve steered this into something more than a rental recommend.

– Steven loves his cameos. Midway through the film, a noticeable A-list actor makes a small one minute appearance, signaling once again this man’s unpredictability in popping up whenever he pleases. In the last few years alone, I can think of no shorter than four films that this actor has made a cameo in, but it’s his work here that feeds into the very definition of cameo; make a presence felt, extend the story, and leave them wanting more.

THE NEGATIVES

– Thomas Newman’s stock music entry here feels underwhelming, adding very little to the complexity or rising tension that a film like this needs. I do enjoy the decision to keep the inclusion of music very sporadic, feeding into a sense of surrealism that films are often afraid to do, but many important scenes go by as a kind of afterthought that with music could’ve done wonders in holding the attention of its audience, instead of testing it further.

– This film has some strong lapses in logic, as well as continuity flaws that serve as an argument for its sloppiness. There’s a dead body that magically transports to different places on its own, the decision to use only one room in this entire huge hospital to bed all of the patients together, and appropriate character stupidity that helps in prolonging this film. On the latter, most of it comes from our own protagonist. Thankfully Foy’s stirring performance radiates because her character is written helplessly naive.

– I mentioned earlier about the dual underlying issues that the film surprisingly takes on, but sadly the second half of the movie reverts its ways once the answer to our question is answered far too early in the film. Because of this, the entirety of the third act settles for being just another slasher thriller instead of the political conversation piece that could’ve presented ‘Unsane’ as the ‘Get Out’ of female commentary.

– The longer the film goes on, the more you start to feel the air being let out of the tires. There’s a scene that would’ve been perfect in ending the movie, but it drowns on for another ten minutes without ever truly finding the momentum that it had just scenes earlier. If this isn’t enough, there is a prologue scene that felt sorely tacked on to feed into the 80’s horror crowd that know where this is obviously heading.

6/10

Red Sparrow

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Starring – Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling

The Plot – A young Russian intelligence officer (Lawrence) is assigned to seduce a first-tour CIA agent (Edgerton) who handles the CIA’s most sensitive penetration of Russian intelligence. The two young officers collide in a charged atmosphere of trade-craft, deception, and inevitably forbidden passion that threatens not just their lives but the lives of others as well.

Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, adult language and some graphic nudity

THE POSITIVES

– Jennifer Lawrence easily steals the show, committing her body and essence to the role of Dominika in spades. Not only does Jennifer take a physical toll with her body throughout the film, but she also stays nearly perfect in her consistency to the Russian accent. As one of the best actresses of her time, Lawrence exemplifies much pain and sorrow in a single stone cold glance that supplants a wall above this burning fire deep.

– The adult material in the film was very surprising. This is a film that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty in the violence and sexual nature of the screenplay, and I commend it for using the most of its coveted rating.

– Exceptional on-site photography by Jo Willems that properly authenticates the gloomy environmental feeling behind this post-Cold War Russia.

– My favorite parts of this film is definitely during the first forty minutes or so. While there, we get an intriguing and educational lesson behind the training of spies, and the biggest leap in depiction for the eventual transformation that Dominika will take.

– This film will constantly keep you guessing. As you start to see the motions being put in place for the concluding third act, Lawrence’s film has no qualms about throwing a wrench in what could easily fall into conventional territory. You may think you know where this one is headed, and I promise you that you don’t.

– While female audiences shouldn’t come to see this film to be empowered, I do feel that the honest depiction of a male dominated world and the capabilities of adapting to it are channeled wonderfully by this main character. This gives ‘Red Sparrow’ a kind of unapologetic and honest outline that other films won’t approach because of a politically correct society that we currently live in.

THE NEGATIVES

– On the other side of those twists, there are far too many of them in such a short period of time. Twists should be used as a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the scenes that are collapsing, but the overabundance of them that are used here riddle the logic to this finale and will take you completely out of the protagonist’s conflict.

– At 134 minutes, this film is FAR too long. In my opinion, there’s probably a tight, cerebral 105 minute screenplay inside of screenwriter Justin Haythe’s bloated script that repeats itself far too often. One extra cutting room meeting could’ve done wonders in keeping the sizzle on the steak and keep the second half pacing from frequently plodding.

– One scene involving floppy discs is clearly catered to creating manufactured tension that simply isn’t there. The film is set in modern day, so why the need for floppy discs in an age of hard drives and cd’s I couldn’t tell you, but my opinion is to prolong a heist scene that would otherwise fly-by without much emphasis. To me, it doesn’t hold up in modern day logic, and wastes away one of the most important scenes of the film.

– This is NOT the film that was advertised, and I feel that’s more of a negative than a positive in this scenario. Considering so much of the trailer felt like an action thriller, Francis’s film is so dry in between visual sight gags that it could easily throw in a chase scene or two to supplant something of variety to what we’re being fed.

6/10

Early Man

Directed by Nick Park

Starring – Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Eddie Redmayne

The Plot – Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug (Redmayne), along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth (Hiddleston) and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Rated PG for some rude humor and scenes of action

THE POSITIVES

– Steller animation yet again by Aardman Animations. The use of authentic backdrop properties in trees and rocks blends colorfully with that of the claymation characters and their stopmotion animation. In addition, the characters themselves illustrate the evolution between neanderthal and the next step smoothly, leaving enough evidence in physical features between the two sides (Big teeth, misshaped heads) to bridge the gap.

– Immersive vocal performances that engulf our A-list cast whole. I’ve always said that the best animated performances are the ones that make you forget who is vocalizing them, and the trio of leads here nail that in spades. The best for me is definitely Hiddleston’s indistinguishable gangly turn as the evil Lord Nooth.

– At 79 minutes, this is as harmless of a sit as you’re going to encounter this weekend. The pacing never drags or stalls through its narrative, keeping the attention of its audience without having to trim the fat of needless time filler.

– There is a kind of tragic element hanging over the heads of these characters that goes far beyond the conflict of this film. Despite the outcome of this soccer game, we all know the progression from the Stone Age, and that hint of inevitable doom is one that brought an unintentional dramatic layer to what I was watching.

– The observational humor is definitely the winner in the battle with the dialogue, penetrating with enough visual sight gags to throw us a bone of subversive for the adults in the audience, once in a while.

– I’m always one to lend kudos to a screenplay that introduces a prominent female character and doesn’t make her the love interest of anyone in the film. ‘Early Man’ follows this lead, giving little girls an inspiration not only to play sports, but also in carving out just how important she was to the conclusion of the picture.

THE NEGATIVES

– As to where the observational grants more hits than misses, the dialogue itself in the movie is slightly too authentic of its neanderthal foundation. With the exception of a few generous giggles, I found much of the material in the film to be very underwhelming for Aardman and the kind of tummy-ticklers we’re used to leaving the theater with. It’s unusual that this material won’t really cater to adults or kids with confidence.

– The whole film builds to this soccer match that is nothing more than a series of montage sequences in a race to the finish line. Believe me when I say that every shot in this game is to showcase when a team scores, and that’s a bummer because there’s never any inspiring instances when this game can break away from the cliches of previous sports films that have already outlined what we are going to see.

– I’m sure it’s ridiculous to complain about historical accuracy in a film where the pig is the smartest character, but I still wonder why things like toilet paper, speakers, and even a one hundred foot duck are all present in a film that takes place during the Stone Age.

– There is absolutely zero character exposition here. Each and every character runs together, and can’t be dissected any differently than labeling them “Main character” or “Female character”. If a film lacks characters that you feel empathetic towards, a plot about them losing their home won’t have much tug towards your heartstrings.

6/10

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Directed by Paul McGuigan

Starring – Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Julie Walters

The Plot – Based on Peter Turner’s memoir, the film follows the playful but passionate relationship between Turner (Bell) and the eccentric Academy Award winning actress Gloria Grahame (Bening) in 1978 Liverpool. What starts as a vibrant affair between a legendary femme fatale and her young lover quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Turner being the person Gloria turns to for comfort. Their passion and lust for life is tested to the limits by events beyond their control.

Rated R for adult language, some sexual content and brief nudity

THE POSITIVES

– Subliminal truth in advertising. Intentionally fake backdrops and landscapes are used signify not only that particular starlet era of film, but also that the two leads are the only real thing in the other person’s eyes. Beyond this, the film’s actual setting too plays a prominent role. Liverpool, England has always felt like a town that is frozen in time, depicted here with vintage wartime posters and outdated housing detail that feels aged even for the 80’s. This makes the perfect setting in film for two people trying to clear the hurdle of their dramatic age gap. They too have frozen the scope of time.

– Contrasting interpretations. Interestingly enough, the couple visually transcends their difference in age when alone, feeling like two kids who have their whole lives ahead of them, yet when they are out and about with other people, that blurred vision caters to reality and we see them how everyone else does.

– It’s no surprise that Bening steals the show, but as Grahame she sets back the hands of time, juggling the personality of this tender woman with seeds of pep to grow around her otherwise garden of despair. Through a life of heartache in and out of the business, Bening channels an inhabited child of sorts as this free spirit who lives by her own rules.

– The parallels between love and film seem striking. Both hang their prominence respectively on the importance of age, but it only takes one desirable gig to feel inspired again.

– At times, the camera moves between Turner and Gloria like a dreamy tiptoe through the rise and fall of two kindred spirits. This is a visual representation for love’s first steps, feeling like an infinite honeymoon period that never relents.

– Exceptional slow pan long take shots that made for some of my absolute favorite scenes in the film. In leaving the camera running, McGuigan trusts his dual leads in visually encompassing the kind of pain and heartache that comes with love on the rocks, never feeling shy with getting front and center with such anguish.

THE NEGATIVES

– Rough and jagged transition scenes between two timelines that rarely gets distinguished with confidence.

– While the chemistry of Bell and Bening is certainly there, the film misses out on the chance to sizzle the seduction. At times, it can feel like a rushed and undercooked slab of meat that doesn’t satisfy our palate.

– It’s somewhat appropriate that a film that reminds us of the many actresses that constantly overshadowed Gloria also shelves her as the supporting role to Bell’s narrative command. This is a major mistake because we often only see the problems and don’t get to indulge in falling in love with her the same way Turner does.

– Inconsistent pacing especially during the second half of the film. The plodding alone made me wish that twenty minutes was trimmed from this 101 minute film, but in doing so we would lose what little exposition we fought so hard to gain with these two. This ultimately leaves the script with the feeling of being written into a corner.

6/10

12 Strong

Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

Starring – Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, William Fichtner

THE PLOT – The True Story of the Army’s Special Forces “Green Berets”, who within weeks responded to the 9-11 attack. Green Berets and AFSOC took over the country and allowed other Special Forces and the rest of the conventional military to begin the more publicly visible war.

Rated R for war violence and adult language throughout

THE POSITIVES

– An impressive introduction sequence that is articulately narrated and edited through the days after America’s darkest hours. This history lesson paints a vivid reality of the eggshells that we as a country were walking on.

– Exceptional camera angles that replicate a soldier’s point-of-view faithfully, through tight and over the back view points. This puts the audience in the moment without it being a gimmick like POV.

– Action sequences while limited, are shot competently enough, with shreds of urgency that trigger the uneasy from the audience watching from beyond the screen.

– Speaking of action, the final twenty minutes pack a vibrating crescendo that never stops pumping. These sequences are so finely paced, and never run short of visual thrills.

– The weaponry and combat versatility compliments a dual blend of traditional (Horseback strikes) and modern (Automatic arms) that superbly bridges the generations of war. We’re so used to seeing tanks and airstrikes that we rarely ever think about the countries who strike by horse.

– Fuglsig’s film never aims to be anything bigger that it rightfully is. While this is a brave and harrowing tale in the war against terror, the film reminds us that it is only the first chapter in a bigger war.

THE NEGATIVES

– There’s too much talk and not enough action during the first half of the film. This is when the movie dragged the most for me, and felt the demands of a 125 minute runtime.

– There’s an attempt to understand the villain’s perspective, but it’s every single Taliban antagonist that CNN has ever painted for you. There’s nothing that makes them standout in a poignant approach.

– This film needs so desperately for someone to take the reigns as a reputable performance, but the underwritting of personality in this script disappointingly wastes what is an early favorite for best ensemble cast of 2018. There’s ultimately no diversity in this brotherhood, so many of the characters rub together without breaking free from their shackles of ambiguity.

– The second half of the film is definitely much more impactful, but it comes at the price of abandoning character exposition. Beyond even the soldiers, Hemsworth’s wife and kids are never brought back up again after the opening ten minutes, leaving behind a chance to finally capitalize on a soldier’s price paid back home that very few war films capitalize on.

6/10

The Commuter

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring – Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

THE PLOT – Michael (Neeson) is an insurance salesman is on his daily commute home, when it quickly becomes anything but routine. After being contacted by a mysterious stranger (Farmiga), Michael is forced to uncover the identity of a hidden passenger on his train before the last stop. As he works against the clock to solve the puzzle, he realizes a deadly plan is unfolding and is unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy. One that carries life and death stakes for himself and his fellow passengers.

Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and adult language

THE POSITIVES

– No matter how many times Neeson has played this particular role in this particularly jaded situation, his everyman routine never loses flavor. As Michael, Neeson’s humanity shines through, depicting the only character that we, as well as the film cares about to put valued exposition into.

– Collet-Serra again adds a shade of weathered atmosphere to play into the real beauty of his picture. For a film that basically feels like it was straight out of 90’s action flicks like ‘Speed’ and ‘Air Force One’, there’s certainly a lot more to look at here that wets the appetite of anyone looking for warmth in personalized touch that rubs off vibrantly in every shot.

– Speaking of shots, the film’s train sequences are shot superbly, catering to a majority of tight-knit angles that speaks volumes to the very claustrophobia of the revealing situation around our protagonist.

– Despite being confined overwhelmingly in stage setting, the fight sequences pack enough brutality in brunt offense to keep the fight lover in all of us at bay. My personal favorite is the inclusion of a guitar that comes into play.

– The pacing for at least the first two acts is something that keeps this train moving at top speed. Sure, the setup cares more about the story and less about the pawns, but the mental gears of the audience continuously turn through a modern day whodunnit? that throws a wrench or two into theories.

– This is one film that isn’t demeaned by a PG-13 setting, keeping the dialogue classy and the violence sporadic to feed into the ‘less is more’ theory.

THE NEGATIVES

– Despite Neeson’s Michael, no other character is given even slightly enough exposition to make the big reveal something jaw-dropping in terms of shock factor. To fix this, I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get to the train, and let his supporting cast respond to this terrible day that Michael was having before he ever boarded. The biggest regret is unfortunately Farmiga’s antagonist character who never feels like an intellectual equal to Michael’s detective background.

– Third act blues. Would it be cliche to say that the final thirty minutes of this film flies off the railings? Well, I’ll just say that between a crash sequence that feels like an afterthought and a final scene that feels every bit as tacked on as it does tidy, there’s an overwhelming feeling that this script was written on an idea and very little else.

– I’m all for paying attention, but the clues used in this film to figuring out the motive are a bit too meandering and scatter-brained for my taste. I figured out Farmiga’s right hand culprit with about a half hour left of the movie, and that’s because I started to see that the obviousness of some events in the first act that stick out like a sore thumb. Convenience of being in the right place at the right time also serves Neeson well in cracking the case.

– The musical score by Roque Banos is disappointingly his worst to date. After riveting tonal capacities in films like ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Don’t Breathe’, Banos here feels out of place, ushering through a strong repetition of tones that wouldn’t be good enough to make his B-sides of a greatest hits compilation. A thriller especially relies on the music to stir the uneasy in its audience, but its underwhelming string sometimes gives these fight scenes a feeling of stock sampling.

6/10

The Greatest Showman

‘The Greatest Showman’ looks to hammer home the idea that there’s no business like show-business. After being laid off from his longtime job and feeling a regret for the life he once promised those he loves, the charismatic P.T Barnum (Hugh Jackman) does some endless soul-searching, finding an inspiration from those who are labeled as freaks by the society that shuns their talents. Together, with the help of his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) in tow, Barnum organizes the world’s first ever circus, a barrage of death-defying stunts and gravity-defying thrills that has never before been matched. But after suffering the backlash from the townspeople, Barnum will find himself and his show hanging by a bar of survival, trying to prove those wrong who have never seen the spectacle. ‘The Greatest Showman’ is directed by Michael Gracey, and is rated PG for thematic elements that include a fighting brawl.

‘The Greatest Showman’ succeeds with enough flair and untamed energy as a reputable musical, but doesn’t have enough psychology or honesty in its title character to achieve the greatness needed for a revealing biopic. For those who don’t know, P.T Barnum led a double life of sorts. For every great thing that is depicted in Wikipedia summaries, as well as in this picture, there is a steep list full of negatives that took away a bit of the glitz and glamour from a man who supposedly did so much for the silent minorities of the world. This raises a bit of a problem for Gracey as a commander behind the scenes, because in making this film a whimsical musical of sorts, it almost immediately takes away from the honesty of the biography, casting a shadow of betrayal as a storyteller that only feeds us the most noble of character instances. Even in finishing the film, I felt like I found out more about the circus that Barnum himself brought together, and less about the man behind the scenes who was pulling the heavy strings of doubt from a community that shun him and his cast completely. If you’re looking for credibility, this certainly isn’t the film for you, but if you’re looking for a fantasy daydream that fills your heart with magic like only the silver screen can do, ‘The Greatest Showman’ will point you the way.

There are certainly no shortages of negatives from this uneven script, and while speedy pacing might seem like the way to go in keeping the audience’s attention, it ultimately dooms the progression of character arcs and conflicts that go practically unnoticed. For the entire first act of the film, we are sped through Barnum’s childhood, meeting and courting of his future wife, and the loss of his dead end job. The screenplay takes very little time in getting to understand and shape the adult Jackman who we see before us for a majority of the film. Because of this, the script feels so hollow when compared to the song count that overwhelmingly outnumber and take such a huge piece of the pie, that the characters have very little time to win us over and make us feel invested in their temporary adversities. Barnum isn’t alone in this handicap however, as the romance of Efron and Zendaya’s characters, as well as the entire supporting cast of characters are rarely mentioned or presented from in terms of an angle that can appropriately represent their disposition. The only time that progression occurs is during a song, and it’s strange because unless you are paying your most dedicated attention, you might miss how some of these flimsy subplots seek resolving. The third act is a much noticeable improvement, especially in the rare occasion that this reputable cast actually get to stretch some dramatic muscle, but by then the familiar notes of modern musicals closing moments seems limited in offering very little in terms of variety.

As for that cast, it’s no surprise that this is a mostly one man show in Jackman’s ambitious turn as Barnum, but the silenced ensemble does give way to one glittered performance of youth along the way. I am talking of course about Zendaya as one of two trapeze artists that work in Barnum’s circus. ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ might’ve introduced us to Zendaya, but ‘The Greatest Showman’ provides the emphasis necessary in highlighting this girl as a true tear-jerker for decades to come. As I mentioned before, we don’t get a lot of time to get to know her character, so it’s in Zendaya’s emotional register where so much of her emphasis and carefree demeanor carve her out as a one of a kind in this sea of familiar faces. Sadly, Michelle Williams and Zac Efron are completely wasted here, being reduced to baggage handlers of Jackman’s character whenever his act grows stale. This disappoints me extremely for Williams in particular because she has the dramatic pull to move a house on-set, yet the film constantly keeps her grounded from ever opening Barnum’s eyes to the world that he already has. Jackman himself is every bit the charming leading man we’ve come to know, but it’s his singing that is much improved from his days on ‘Les Miserables’. It has been reported that this was Hugh’s passion project, and that all seems evident from the way he captures the screen and holds it in his hand to harvest the energy of the audience watching from beyond.

Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, fresh off of the Oscar winning soundtrack of 2016’s ‘La La Land’, again strike gold with a collective group of songs that definitely put the cart before the horse, in terms of story versus song. To say that this is my favorite soundtrack of 2017 would be a disservice. The songs in ‘The Greatest Showman’ are full of inspirational essence and big stage presence that constantly breathe reaction with anyone they come into contact with. My personal favorite is ‘This Is Me’, a three minute unapologetic stand against any adversity that constricts you because of your appearance. Meandering yes, but there wasn’t a single song inside that didn’t move me to the point of toe-tapping glee. I’m even listening to it right now as I type this, it has that kind of infectious effect. Complimenting the music is also some vibrantly colorful set pieces and faithful wardrobe that capitalized on its fantasy aspect. The circus has rarely looked this vivacious, and if Gracey is restricted to a single compliment, it’s that he knows how to play to being under the lights. My only critique with the presentation is the limited sound editing and mixing that definitely take away the immerse effect needed in making the performances feel believable. ‘La La Land’ was a master at this, but this film definitely feels studio influenced because of the situations that constantly raise doubt. An example of this is when Zendaya and Efron’s duet as they jump around high-and-low across the stage. There’s no shortage of breath or distort in their vocals that puts us front-and-center in the moment with these lovebirds. This kind of thing always takes me out, and with the exception of a few acapella sequences that are in the moment, I kept finding myself having difficulty in crediting the syncing nature from scene to song.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Greatest Showman’ as a story feels like the most conniving piece of 19th century propaganda, in that it ignores much of the complexity behind Barnum’s dark past that beg to be told. Through a very shaky first act, the consequences of a rushed plot and underdeveloped characters boils to the top, leaving very little room to be inspired by Barnum’s life of chances taken. Beyond this crucial mistake, this ‘Showman’ swings because of its endless spectacle of song and dance, as well as a magical stage that thrives under the lights of showcase for us to soak in. Middle of the road muster for the musical genre.

6/10

Ferdinand

Blue Sky Studios delivers a Christmas gift to families in the form of a lovable bull, named ‘Ferdinand’. Based on Robert Lawson’s children’s book ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, the film revolves around Ferdinand (John Cena), a Spanish Fighting Bull who prefers smelling the intoxicating scents of flowers and practicing non-violence rather than chasing red cloths held by matadors in arenas. Because of this, Ferdinand lacks the kind of inspiration that comes with being proud in a career of choice. But when disaster comes to him, he is taken to a fighting stadium, and Ferdinand needs to decide if he is a fighting bull or a flower smelling, generous bull, in order to earn his freedom. Along the way, Ferdinand meets and befriends some colorful characters who inspire him to become all who he was destined to be. ‘Ferdinand’ is directed by Carlos Saldanha, and is rated PG for rude humor, action, and some thematic elements.

During a year when animated film is kind of having an off year, the door to the hearts of its youthful audience is certainly open for a bull of this magnitude to come charging through. Even still, ‘Coco’ warmed the souls of many a few weeks ago with its unwinding spin of Mexican tradition that enlightened many of its viewers. In the same vein, ‘Ferdinand’ tries to do the same, but with only about half of the success. Blue Sky Studios is definitely getting better overall in their big screen productions, as ‘Ferdinand’ is arguably their best film yet. It proves that this company can turn a profit long-term if they tighten up the rendering of their artistic probe and drive it home with enough heartfelt sentiment to boot. Currently however, there’s still a lack of importance in story direction that limits the adventure aspect of this movie terribly. For family holiday cinema, it’s pretty much a sure thing, but for addition replay value, I worry that something like this will get lost in the fold amongst forgettable animated features that will inevitably only be remembered for its overabundance of zany characters that far too often rub together and offer nothing of variety to feast on.

This is a film that is based off of a very tight children’s book, so in adapting it for a 97 minute feature, the screenwriters definitely had their work cut out for them. Immediately, we are treated to an impactful and dramatic introduction to Ferdinand and his surrounding friends in the way of the sport of bull-fighting. What the script does so well here and eventually midway through the film, is that it takes a very responsible and educative form of storytelling with animal cruelty and the kind of consequences from a sport this violent being nothing more than a form of human entertainment. I like this because it really tugs at your heartstrings and feeds into Ferdinand’s approach at not wanting to fight for the rest of his life. In addition to this, there’s a solid dual-message being played out that preaches you to be who you want to be in a world that is trying to command you in the wrong direction, as well as appearances not being everything. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of low fruit to be hanging here, as the film’s second act opens itself up to the personality of too many characters that offer very little to the value of this script. On this direction, the film kind of becomes more about the characters and less about the journey of Ferdinand himself, who is limited with many pause buttons along the way to keep him from reaching his destiny. One question that I had between Ferdinand’s two settings in the film is how human characters in each knew his name despite him not having a name tag and there not being any correspondence between them. I guess it’s one of life’s many mysteries.

As for some of these characters, they are basically amped up versions of the personalities that their live action counterparts conjure up. Kate McKinnon as Ferdinand’s calming goat is so irritating that I found myself cringing any time she is on-screen. David Tennant’s Angus is basically an Irish stereotype, working in enough puns and digs at Irish culture that distinguish just how one note he is. There’s also no shortage of comedic cast. As the rule for any animated film these days, there is also a trio of supporting characters who serve as the minions of sorts to Ferdinand, except this time the film is generous enough in giving us two different versions of this angle, with a trio of hedgehogs and horses harvesting the comedic energy for the film. Frankly, the only things I found funny about this film is when Cena is the central focus and being allowed to improvise against the observational humor that is being targeted with Ferdinand’s size in focus. Cena himself offers a strong delve into his debut starring role, and there’s much about his animated personality that crafts the title character into the lovable lug that we become saddled with. John himself sounds like he’s having so much fun under this title character, and that charismatic exuberance rubbed off on me throughout the film, making me wish for more of Ferdinand and less of the animals that he meets along the way.

Without question the biggest improvement for Blue Sky Studios is in their animated stylings in presenting us with arguably their most expansive rendering of backdrops to date. The hills filled with flowers stretch as far as the imagination allows them, and the Mexican town-side supplies an array of shops and horticulture that any mental traveler can indulge in despite possibly having never been there. My personal favorite perk of the animation here is definitely in the facial depictions that hammer home the emotional response in versatility that each scene is going for. Is it on the level of Pixar? Absolutely not, but for a studio whose usual animated characters feel like lifeless puppets, the inspiration in ‘Ferdinand’ feels much appreciated for the sleeping giant that may finally be coming awake. So much about Ferdinand’s desire and energy for what inspires him rests in the baby blue eyes that burn a hole into the reflection of the eyes off-screen that stare into them, and even the fluidity of fur movements on the animals is starting to look up. ‘Ferdinand’ could be the first step in getting Blue Sky to where it needs to be to compete, matching the layers of shadow and pixelation accordingly with the vibrancy of color that adorn their pictures.

The last thing that I wanted to talk about was the film’s musical accompaniment because it definitely deserves its own section. As for musical score, composer John Powell whips up an immersive journey through the hills of this foreign land that captures the essence beautifully. With so much influence from Spanish culture blending its way throughout Ferdinand’s adventure, the musical notes that Powell triggers offer a solid compromise of fiery energy and downtrodden dramatic pulse when the film requires it. There is simply no problem that I have with it. The film’s music soundtrack however? That’s another story. It’s true that there is only three songs that play throughout the film, but the decision for them all to be Pitbull songs is still something that makes me scratch my head. I myself am not a Pitbull fan, but that’s not the problem that I have. In trying to capture the Spanish sound of choice, a Puerto-Rican probably wouldn’t be my first choice. That’s not to be prejudice for one distinct direction or the other, but it’s clear with three out of three choices that they felt Pitbull would be the articulate measure in reflecting the vibe of the bull-fighting culture, and it couldn’t be any more wrong on that degree. Instead, his inclusion feels like once again an animated film’s cheap ploy at advertising some Top 40 favorites to sell Itunes downloads, and it’s what soils the sentiment in ways that a film like ‘Coco’ never fell for.

THE VERDICT – ‘Ferdinand’ is not all bull, for better or worse, but the visionary spark of some noteworthy animation, as well as some mature exploration for where its story takes us, supplants this as a worthy hour-and-a-half investment for families everywhere, this holiday. Cena grabs the bull by the horns, commanding Ferdinand with enough peppy touch and immense personality that make him ideal for protagonist following. Ultimately, the film’s lack of focus is its almost complete downfall, choosing to build the characters and not the story, but the honorable dual message cements this as a gently subversive sermon for kids and adults alike.

6/10

Breathe

Andy Serkis takes one ambitious step behind the camera, in his debut directing effort ‘Breathe’. In such an effort, his film tells the inspiring true love story between Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy), an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease. When Robin is struck down by polio at the age of 28, he is confined to a hospital bed and given only a few months to live. With the help of Diana’s twin brothers (Tom Hollander) and the groundbreaking ideas of inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana dare to escape the hospital ward to seek out a full and passionate life together; raising their young son, traveling and devoting their lives to helping other polio patients. ‘Breathe’ is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images.

For the first film in Serkis’s promising career in the director’s chair, there’s a lot of proof that he is a valuable asset to telling such remarkable stories. ‘Breathe’, is an overall passing success for Serkis, but does suffer from a lot of growing pains that comes with experience in commanding a presence beyond the screen. This is certainly a story that deserves to be told for just how revolutionary that it was in the benefit of treating bed-ridden patients with the kind of freedom that they rightfully deserve. Behind that freedom is a sufferer of Polio himself, Robin Cavendish, whose own experiences as being locked away like a science experiment by those medical professionals in charge of his daily routine, prompted him to change the game in creating the first ever motorized wheelchair with its own breathing apparatus. This story stays firmly gripped on that thesis, but there’s lots of experimenting from the director himself that displays his experience in being so tightly wrapped in productions that involved his puppeteering for practical and C.G properties that carved out the name of a revolutionary, a lot like Cavendish, and that’s why Serkis feels like the right man for the job here.

From the very beginning, we are treated to a visual presentation that transports us not only on screen, but also off of it for the way it illuminates a taste of yesterday. There’s a feel within ‘Breathe’ that gives off the sense that we’re not only watching a film that takes place over various decades of the past, but also one that was made during those respective eras for the touch in tinsel that you just don’t see anymore. The cinematography is gorgeous in all of its sun-infused depictions. The editing feels patient, letting the audience soak in the most of every establishing environment whether it be inside or out. The musical tones of Nitin Sawhney pay tribute to the age when piano and light orchestral tones filled the air and ears of those immersed in a story, and felt like it establishes many of the moods and themes within the picture without coming off as meandering. Besides all of this, Serkis himself experiments with some very unorthodox methods of camera angles and framing that constantly keeps the pulse of creativity beating with each new sequence of discovery. For me, some of my favorites were those displaying a POV kind of shot for the kinds of feels that Cavendish himself is forced to endure. I also love Serkis’s commitment to supplanting the camera firmly on Garfield here, letting his facials tell the story of the pain and seclusion that he feels from his tragic disposition.

The screenplay is definitely the weakness of the film for me, and that’s because it sets a precedent early on in the first act that leaves very little wiggle room for the obvious paralyzing that’s coming. So much happens between the relationship of Robin and Diana in the opening twenty minutes of this movie that never really grant us that stark contrast of positivity between them before it all flies south. You will take great empathy on characters if you feel like you’ve grown with their relationship, and sadly ‘Breathe’ never allows us this opportunity as the two meet, fall in love, get married, move away together, and have a child within a rushed first act that completely throws off the pacing for the rest of the film. The second and third acts do maintain an air of timely precision to them, and I greatly enjoyed the education lesson that I was being taught here despite knowing nothing about the real life of Robin. This is definitely a must watch for someone who ever wants to learn about the jaded life that he lived, but not one that ever gets cerebral enough to resonate with the audience the psychology of being saddled with such a curse, instilling a mindset within me that kind of reads like a Wikipedia page without ever feeling the heat from the seat.

What did leave a lasting impression on me was the film’s constant theme that hammers home the will to live when all else fails. The script for the film can sometimes get a little heavy handed with the ideas that it hammers home, but I felt that the need to express ones desire for hope played marvelously here, and keeps Robin moving in a way that he not only defies the odds, but also defies those with the face of adversity who scoff at his decision to live with freedom. Early on in the movie, we hear about a group of soldiers in an old wise tale who stood strong until they no longer had the will to live. Once they gave up, their hearts stopped beating, and they became another in the growing statistic. Besides this serving as an obvious foreshadowing of what’s to come for our protagonist, it does communicate what is at stake here for the heart of this young man when the rest of his body has unfortunately already given up on him. His will to live is his strongest muscle, and it provides the air of hope that Robin, as well as us watching beyond the screen need to combat the inevitability of what is coming.

Also adding points to the cause are two valuable lead performances that the movie depends upon repeatedly to get it over the hump of a faulty screenplay. Andrew Garfield continues the role that he has been on with appearances in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘Silence’, but it’s here where he gives perhaps his most physically hindering performance to date. As Robin, Garfield provides enough animated personality in his facial reactions and limited vocal capacity to place this turn right next to those previous two heralded performances. Garfield’s accent also stays committed to detail despite being forced to endure some of the biggest teeth props that I have ever seen in my life. Claire Foy is also a breath of fresh air. Diana defines what a loving wife can and should be, and Foy’s unshakeable perseverance to the love she feels for Robin brings a much-needed soft romantic side to this story that shouldn’t be understated.

THE VERDICT – In more experienced hands, ‘Breathe’ could’ve been an Oscar contender, but because this uneven screenplay does little to benefit Serkis storytelling capabilities, the film just gets by resting on its lazy laurels. The work of Garfield and Foy are among the many highlights, and a refreshing throwback to the golden age of Hollywood romance films gives this director promise for future endeavors, but there’s not enough oxygen in the stuffy atmosphere to ever prolong the life of this familiar true life melodrama.

6/10

Happy Death Day

Blumhouse Pictures is back with another horror story just in time for the Halloween season, with ‘Happy Death Day’. Teenage girl, Tree (Jessica Rothe) requires the simplicities in life around her college existence and her ever-growing number of friends who adore her. While trying to enjoy her birthday, she soon realizes that this will inevitably be her final one. That is, if she can’t figure out who her killer is. For whatever reason, Tree must relive that day, over and over again, dying in a different way each time to place her closer to the killer. Along the way, she will learn more as well about the way her closest friends view her. Can she solve her own murder and live to see another day? ‘Happy Death Day’ is directed by Christopher Landon, and is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, adult language, some drug material and partial nudity.

To anyone longing for the campy 90’s slasher vibes and mysteries within its plot, look no further. ‘Happy Death Day’ is a film that surprisingly has a few lasting positives to take away from it that lifts it from being one of the more dreadful fall films that I wasn’t looking forward to. I compare it to that timeline because this film feels like it could’ve been lifted from that particular era of filmmaking, combining personality and horror together like the kind of humbling marriage that the genre was destined for. This isn’t a film that will win over many faithful fans like myself who are thirsty for frightening atmospheres and bloody gore to boot, but it will keep the masses entertained for a good old fashioned whodunnit? while treating us to a positive message from within that surprisingly comes from the strangest of places. The film does still suffer from a lot of the same tropes and handicaps that keep it from establishing anything new to the overstuffed Blumhouse Productions catalog, but there was never a point in this 91 minute film where I was ever bored, and that should be commended especially for a plot that doesn’t exactly present anything groundbreakingly original.

This is yet again another example of a character living through the events of one day over and over again, similar to ‘Before I Fall’ or ‘Groundhog Day’, and if you’re looking for a reasoning in explanation for how any of this is possible, you’re surely set to be disappointed. ‘Happy Death Day’ has one of those storylines that requires you to shut your brain off just long enough to ignore some of its gaping problems in execution like logical setup or obviousness in mystery, and keep pushing forward with some light-hearted atmosphere that keeps things fun. It’s also great that once again we have a setting of Louisiana, yet no character speaks with a Southern¬† drawl. I guess the producers or director doesn’t care about those important details of immersion.¬† One thing that I positively took away was that in this film the pain of previous days carry over into Tree’s next attempt. This gives the protagonist urgency despite there being no chance of permanent removal from the story. As for the mystery itself, it was something that I figured out in the opening twenty minutes of the movie, mainly because the comparisons of character height and setting made it easier to weed out the many list of possible culprits that we are engaged into early on in the film. A major spoiler scene for me involved a cop pulling Tree over after she thinks she has escaped the clutches of the killer. If you’re paying attention closely here, you’ll notice something that the killer has that only one person could possibly have gotten. If you figure it out, you will be waiting for the film to catch up, but thankfully the heartfelt resonance of living for each day is one that kind of takes over for the film midway through, treating us to the empathetic side that holds Tree prisoner in repetition.

It’s in that aspect where I feel like the performances of this youthful cast keep the film plugging away at making anything about this memorable. No more finer example of this is made than its main star Jessica Rothe, who sports Tree with the kind of energy and magnetic charm late in the film that totally turns around her character’s likeability. To say that I hated this girl during the first act of the movie, is an understatement. At the beginning of the movie, you almost feel that dread of having to be stuck once again with a character like this, but that helpless element in Rothe’s performance starts to take over early into the second act and introduces us to an actual person who has gone through a lot of suffering long before this day from hell came into her routine. Rothe knows especially how to play up the repetition that coils around her day like an inescapable poison, and we start to see more vulnerability in the way that her other defining traits start to widdle away. Rothe is someone who I will definitely be looking for in future roles, but it’s in her uphill climb of peeling back the layers of an arrogant sorority girl that will always earn her a respectable place in my heart, because without her this film is a complete mess.

Some of the biggest problems that ate away at my surprisingly growing enjoyment of this film is in the very tone that keeps the environment fun, but does eat away at the concepts of what establishes this as a horror film. To me, ‘Happy Death Day’s’ presentation felt a lot like watching an ABC Family show on the same grounds as ‘Pretty Little Liars’. Sure, it’s entertaining and even compelling when it wraps you in its mystery, but it comes up roughly short in the horror element that satisfies us with a condemning payoff. For me, the PG-13 labeling is felt especially tight here, limiting our thirst for blood that kind of should go without saying in this kind of plot. The death scenes themselves thrive mostly on imagination, and if they were able to build the tension of something truly horrendous before that cut to the next day takes place, then we might be able to see something truly devastating in our minds without actually visually witnessing it. The death scenes in set-up aren’t anything that hasn’t been done, so there’s nothing other than the handicap of a rating that explains their absence from the torture that Tree goes through. Certainly the idea is to cater to a wider audience that includes the very teens that will shuffle out the cash to see this movie, but if it comes at the mercy of hindering the impact of said product, wouldn’t it just be better to go with artistic integrity?

To counteract some of the limitations of horror, the film’s presentation is capable enough in carrying the workload between editing and camera work to play soundly into the pleasures of pacing that constantly keep this one moving. The chase scenes, particularly the ones in the hospital, are thankfully given the choice to film in standard instead of handheld. I feel like the merits of this decision gives us the ability to capture more of not just Tree and the antagonist roughing each other up, but also the set pieces in environment that play to everything around them. The editing sticks with quick-cuts that present the rapid fire progression of the next day, and I like that because there’s a tight-rope that the editing team walk during a film like this on when to cut into each death scene. If they cut too early, there won’t be enough indulgence for the audience, but if they cut too late it can give away too much of what is left to imagination. This editing ratio is perfect, and I give much praise to the work of Gregory Plotkin for implementing his stamp of precision.

THE VERDICT – ‘Happy Death Day’ is never really scary, but it is campy enough as a comedy to treat viewers to enough entertaining factors to eat away at the horror limitations by its safe rating. The star making performance of Rothe, as well as its hearty message to live each day like it’s your last is one that comes with great eye-opening value for a film that I originally dismissed as just another cheap Blumhouse offering. It’s a lot like Halloween candy that you get every year; it might not be safe or good for you, but the sweet tooth from within demands that you indulge in it for this time of year.

6/10