Escape Room

Directed By Adam Robitel

Starring – Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Logan Miller

The Plot – A psychological thriller about six strangers who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control and must use their wits to find the clues or die.

Rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Rich production quality in set designs. Of course a film with this title should put everything they have into the elaboration and eye for detail in the many rooms the game takes us through, and each of the ones inside are every bit as cryptically fun as they are sinisterly condemning. What I like here is that none of the rooms repeat, and one such room even plays tricks on the minds of audience members, offering us a psychological immersion into our character’s current foreboding dispositions.

– Eclectic casting. Fresh faces like Russell and Miller capture the attention of audiences with their breakthrough performances that prove they can sustain the depth associated with a leading role, all the while the inclusion of Woll and Tyler Labine add a layer of big name prestige that constantly throws off your guessing game. The wide variety of personalities is what truly keeps the film fresh and evolving, and instills an ideal of ensemble work that very few films are brave enough to touch on anymore. They work so well together because each is given ample time to shine, and it’s something that doubles their chemistry the longer the film progresses.

– Value towards character exposition. What really impressed me and kept me gripped to the unfolding narrative was the film’s combination of game and backstory that equally did wonders for the other. The film takes valuable time in fleshing out who these people locked in the game are before they agreed to it, and the more you start to learn about each of them, the more you start to understand why certain characters are better suited for certain environments. Even more beneficial, the exposition only shows us a few brief moments and lets us sniff out the rest for ourselves, providing food for thought once more for movies that don’t need to spoon-feed their audience.

– PG-13 and proud of it. This film gets a lot of comparisons to the Saw franchise for obvious reasons, but the line of similarities quickly diminishes when you bare witness to the nature of the torture itself. For one, Saw definitely earns its status as torture porn, as to where “Escape Room” is a psychological bending that doesn’t require the exploitation of blood or gruesome nature to sell its believability in permanency. In fact, there isn’t a single drop of blood spilled until the film’s final fight for survival, with around fifteen minutes left in the movie. It’s impressive when horror can still dazzle under such constrictions, and Robitel’s style for substance never believes in taking two steps back.

– Anxiety for days. The quick cuts in precision editing, combined with the variety of many eye-catching angles brings out the sheer drama and urgency of the game itself, doing wonders for the overall pacing of the ever-changing backdrops along the way. Even at 95 minutes of run time, each location is given plenty of time to engage yourself in its adversities and rules, and every movement of choice feels incredibly heavy on the well-being of the group. Through the use of trial and error by our stumped character’s choices, the screenplay almost dares you to shout out your two cents, and this gives “Escape Room” amazing presence as a group watch with friends over a couple of drinks.

– Evolution of the atmosphere. The tone for the movie is handled in such a way that allows for plenty of laughs early on in the film, to get over the personalities of this extremely likeable group, but eventually matures more when the consequences and brutality of the game comes to the forefront. Likewise, the character’s themselves evolve, for better or worse, and it’s interesting to see where two certain character’s end up by the film’s full-throttle finale. When the material and characters work hand-in-hand smoothly, everything fires on all cylinders, and you have a seamless film that moves together in one cohesive movement.

NEGATIVES

– Condemning introduction scene AGAIN. So this is the new cliche in almost EVERY single going today, huh? The scene that starts out a movie spoils far too much, and unless you’re a braindead noodle, you can piece together everything that is coming by film’s end. Only certain films do this properly, showing less in its depictions, but sadly “Escape Room” is the latest victim of this movie, as a sole survivor is shown going through the last trap of the game, before our linear story begins. If you must do this stupid idea, why not show an instance from the trap where everyone is still alive? Why give away so much in a movie where suspense is so important?

– Easy Solutions. I understand that thinking on your feet is difficult in such predicaments, but when an idiot like me can figure out simple ways to solve three different rooms, I have to start wondering if I’m the smartest person in the movie. SPOILER – There’s one room where six different coasters have to be weighed down into the coffee table for a door to stay open. The group goes through hell and time filling six glasses with water. Why not get the six legged couch behind you? I seriously can’t be the only person yelling this.

– What happened with the prize? Considering the trailer says these six strangers are competing for a million dollars, the film’s delivery of ten thousand dollars feels a lot more anti-climatic. Besides the fact that it’s difficult for me to believe that two characters in particular would even go for this for such a limited payoff, a million dollars just sounds better in the advertising campaign, and clearly the trailer crew felt the same way, as they changed it for audiences because they knew how stupid it sounded.

– The ending. I knew it would be difficult for a movie like this to have a satisfying conclusion, but what transpired in the final ten minutes took a solid film down a peg to nothing other than a glorified rental. If it ends after the final conflict, FINE, but the film keeps dragging along, catering to an inevitable sequel instead of properly concluding the movie that is front-and-center. What’s even worse is the additional material tries to answer far too much, leaving very little meat on the bone for the second installment, and feels like final scenes from an entirely different movie. Did this film seriously just turn into a spy thriller? Really?

My Grade – 6/10 or C+

Bird Box

Directed By Susanne Bier

Starring – Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich

The Plot – In the wake of an unknown global terror, a mother (Bullock) must find the strength to flee with her children down a treacherous river in search of safety. Due to unseen deadly forces, the perilous journey must be made blindly.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, adult language and brief sexuality

POSITIVES

– Kicks off right away. I love a film that wastes little time in getting the pulse of the action going, and the first fifteen minutes of “Bird Box” perfectly set the precedent for what’s to come in the following two hours. We are caught off-guard with the ensuing mayhem in the same way Malorie (Bullock) is, learning things as we go in this unpredictable circumstance. This momentum sticks around permanently throughout, making a challenging runtime feel like half of that because of constantly-evolving challenges and suffocating atmosphere that boil together to produce one electrifying experience.

– Non linear story that actually pleases. It’s a lost art anymore to piece together a story that adds anything of originality to its structure, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer does a solid job of constructing two respective timelines, one in current day and one five years prior, while instilling intrigue to both. What’s impressive is that each arc adds to the other, delivering a series of bombshell deliveries that make certain aspects about the opposite timeline come to light because of the important information. What’s valuable is that neither is more compelling or lagging, building two enthralling stories for the price of one.

– Performances. While I did have many problems with the characterization of the film, there’s a familiar face behind every corner that only adds to the big name atmosphere of the streaming presentation. There are many challengers in the way of Sandra’s domination of screen time, most notably in Malkovich’s stuffy snob, whose conservatism keeps him reserved on the front of human interaction, or in the continuation of “Moonlight’s” soft interior bad boy Trevante Rhodes, who acts as the protector of sorts to Bullock, but it always comes back to her. Bullock captivates the screen frequently, bringing a combination of on-call tears and Motherly instinct that make her an indulging protagonist. Most leads get stronger the more they’re tested, but Bullock’s Malorie feels grounded in reality, etching out a layer of vulnerability with the character that comes with parental instinct.

– Unavoidable weight and consequences. One thing often missing from post-apocalyptic movies is the air of permanence that elevate its conflict and illustrate a line of urgency that resonates with the audience. That’s never a problem here, as stakes are constantly raised between an adapting antagonist and an increasing body count that diminishes the hope of ever going back to the old ways. There is no quick and easy solution to the mayhem that persists throughout, and if a depressing story challenges you negatively, this isn’t the story for you.

– Decaying beauty in the film’s cinematography. Especially is the case during scenes on the river, there’s an overall greying tint and literal fog in the air that make for some exceptional scenes of transfixing focus amongst the gorgeous photography. Salvatore Totino brings with him the same textures and filters of somber ambiance that made his work on “Everest” one of that year’s best, and harvests a big screen level of toxicity in the air of post-apocalyptic backdrop that conjures a big screen stature for Netflix films.

– A gift of anxiety for all. This is one of the things that I hear most about the film, and after watching it I can say that the exhilaration of tense sequencing is clearly the strongest aspect of this film. Between a combination of finely documented camera work whose editing increases between each respective character in frame, and the powerful duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once again providing gas for the proverbial fire, we get a collection of exchanges that constantly ratchet the tension and hang just perfect enough in air to amplify our intrigue without it ever carrying on for far too long. In addition, the periodic use of point-of-view camera work casts the audience in Bullock’s shoes, exerting that feeling of uneasiness that comes with being blindfolded against an adversary you’re so unfamiliar with. In general, there are very few films that can compete with “Bird Box” this year in terms of audience investment, and that constant elevation of the elements at play cook to make a boiling pot of nerves on the audience’s indulgence.

– Interpretive poignancy. As with any movie, there are tons of interpretations at a deeper meaning beneath the material, and “Bird Box” expanded my mind on a couple of self-observations that transcends the table dressing of the plot. SPOILERS AHEAD. The first is the entity’s lack of physicality on humans throughout the film, instead choosing to possess the ones that see so that they can hurt others. I interpreted this as the film believing that we the humans are the ones that are killing everything and everyone around us, and that we are the only ones capable of preserving our future as a race. The second one is really my opinion on the film as a whole. It’s about mental health and depression, and how we as a nation are blind to its effects. This not only explains the influence of suicide throughout the film, but also why it happens to random people instead of everyone, hinting that it can plague anyone at any time. Like I said, these are just my opinions on the material, and certainly nothing that’s concrete. I like a film that makes you think, and this one had no shortage of that.

NEGATIVES

– Thinly written characters. Outside of Bullock’s central protagonist, the film doesn’t waste any time donating exposition or backstory to the pasts of the group of eclectic survivors who surround her. This is probably why many of their deaths didn’t resonate any kind of emotional feeling from within me, and more than that creates an unintentional highlight of its own for who is expendable, based on the amount of screen time that each of them receive. Some characters die without little impact, some disappear to never show up again, and some I still don’t know the name to. May they rest in peace, forever nameless.

– Unanswered questions and plot holes. There were no shortage of times when I scratched my head at the lack of answers from a movie that clearly didn’t think things out all the way through. SPOILERS AHEAD How were they able to properly determine that sight was the cause of the mayhem? Why not breathing, or hearing? How do only a few people see the thing in an enormous crowd who are all looking in different directions? How did Malorie’s sister see it but she didn’t when they were in the same car, looking the exact same direction? How does a blindfold secure you, but seeing it on a surveillance camera doesn’t? It’s proven that this thing can kick down sturdy structures, so why does a house remain its weakness? It knows people are in there, so why isn’t this thing blowing this house down? What about animals? Why are they safe from seeing it? Wouldn’t there be more animals in the streets than humans if this were the case? During the GPS car scene, there isn’t a single flipped or turned car on the road that would block their path? GPS is never an exact science, so when it tells them to turn? How did the guy know EXACTLY when to turn? How was a guy the size that size able to sneak up on someone in the water? Especially considering the hearing sense of the trio should be at its peak with other senses diminished. These are just a few of the questions that I left the theater with, but I saved my real money for……….

– Lack of believability with the ending. SPOILERS. Why is a village of blind people the safe zone for Malorie and her family? What does them being safe have anything to do with her safety? How has this house stood for this long without some kind of conflict from the monster against it? How were all of them even able to get here? How will blind people defend themselves from someone getting in? It’s happened before, so it’s not crazy to think that it will happen again. Is an ending where the monster is still alive supposed to be satisfying? Are you the audience anymore relieved or confident because Malorie and her family reached this place? This is my problem when I think about the final moments to a story that was so edgy and unpredictable. It’s too neat and tidy to feel believable, and let a lot of momentum out of a film that was otherwise seductively suspenseful.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Welcome To Marwen

Directed By Robert Zemeckis

Starring – Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger

The Plot – When a devastating attack shatters Mark Hogancamp (Carell) and wipes away all memories, no one expected recovery. Putting together pieces from his old and new life, Mark meticulously creates a wondrous town where he can heal and be heroic. As he builds an astonishing art installation, a testament to the most powerful women he knows, through his fantasy world, he draws strength to triumph in the real one.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Vibrancy in art design. While nothing original in terms of its production specifics, the animation in the film free-flows the beauty and attention to detail of a doll’s aesthetics. The actors film these scenes in live action, and in post-production are given a plastic shine filter to emulate them as acting dolls against a live action backdrop. In addition, the lighting of these scenes are beautiful, conjuring up a soft gloss of light that reflects on the smooth plastic exterior of their physical properties. You can say a lot of things about this film, but lacking in the art department will never be one of them.

– Steve Carell dazzles once again. The screenplay does this man zero favors in making his character look presentable to the audience, yet the constant professionalism of one of the strongest dramatic forces working today constantly elevates the material and gives light to another transformative performance. In Carell’s Hogancamp, we taste humor, some anguish, and a lot of fragility, and it’s in the masking of the last term where we really outline a layer of empathy to the character, making his a story of redemption that we are constantly investing ourselves in. Steve delivers a lot of heart for the real life figure, and that commitment to the ball of nerves that dominate his daily routine is something that only an actor of this magnitude can pull off without it feeling humorous every time.

– Believable setting. The boundaries of Mark’s real life town inside of Kingston, New York are tightly shot, preserving that air of a small town quality where everyone knows everything going on. This not only explains why Mark’s situation is the discussion of so many people surrounding him, but also a news broadcast that clues us in on what’s taking place with the men who jumped and beat him down during one fateful night. This is an area of filmmaking that is often overlooked for whatever reason, but in keeping our filming locations limited, and the framing tight, it accurately presents that air of claustrophobia inside of a small town.

NEGATIVES

– Musical miscues. Besides these obvious tracks feeling distracting during the scenes in which they play because of their boisterous volume levels, the overall soundtrack for the film is riddled in such topical convenience for what is playing out on-screen. An example is a sleeping sequence that is being enveloped by The Everly Brothers “Dream” playing out in the most eye-rolling manner. It made for these times of musical incorporation that I dreaded hearing from, and made me wish the remainder of the film was a silent one from the roaring 20’s.

– Cluttered dialogue. There’s nothing subtle or nuanced about the dialogue in the film. From force-feeding of backstories, to obvious metaphorical representations, this film constantly reeked of desperation, and progressed little because of how much explanation it was required to give for the past. Because of such, it feels like two movies are playing out in real time: one for the current narrative, and the one in which the movie has to stop every two minutes to explain something we see in real time or hear about on the news. Who knew in 2018 that biopics can still be this clumsily written?

– Lack of sensitivity for the subject matter. Hogancamp’s story is one that is plagued by mental illness, depression, and especially abuse, and the screenplay tiptoes around these subjects so as not to make anything under Zimeckis’ roof feel risque. For Mark himself, the movie approaches him as this bumbling infant who is part compassionate and part creepy for the demeanor he exerts on others. An example of this is his interaction with Leslie Mann’s character, in which he describes how he collects women’s essences. Keep in mind that all of this is out of Mann’s context, as she just moved to the town, and would otherwise come across as a serial killer who is obsessed with her likeness. In addition, the conflict of mental illness is cleaned up in such a way that is not only insulting to someone like me who has fought his own battles with such adversities, but irresponsible for how easy it is eventually defeated.

– The “Sucker Punch” effect. Zach Snyder’s 2011 fantasy epic is the last film that I ever thought or ever wanted to reference again, but it feels like Zimeckis has watched this film one too many times in his rendering of this project. The fantasy sequences often take far too long to reach their point. As well, they also dominate the time allowance over the live action narrative in a two-to-one ratio, taking far too much focus away from Mark’s confining circumstance. There’s almost too much optimism in a story that should otherwise feel so dark, and I’m not naive enough for a second to believe that the answer to both films conflicts resonate somewhere in the fantasy world. Seriously, fuck you.

– Disjointed continuity. Some character dynamics are dropped and never referenced again, some female doll likenesses are never explained or introduced at all, and some scenes are so miniscule in importance that they were better left on the cutting room floor. It all pressures the pacing of the film into some dire consequences that make 111 minutes feel like three hours of burning wax torture. The main problem is that these scenes never allow themselves to pick up any kind of relative momentum, instead feeling like a collection of instances that don’t gel together as one cohesive unit that is otherwise building towards the bigger picture.

– A talented cast that is completely wasted. Besides what I mentioned earlier about the work of Carell as the film’s central protagonist, the entirety of the female cast is shipped in and shipped off in such a way that makes their value that of their wax counterparts. There just simply isn’t enough time to donate to all of them, so inevitably someone is going to get sacrificed, and the pendulum swings more on Mann and Janelle Monae than anyone else. Mann is Mark’s love interest, and aside from them intentionally lacking chemistry despite Mann and Carell doing three films together, the development constantly feels rushed and unnatural in the way it flows, limiting the film’s one redeeming quality in such a way that gives us the audience nothing to look forward to from the predictably bland third act that comes to fruition.

– Pretentiousness rears its ugly head again. While this isn’t the most pretentious film of 2018 thanks to Lars Von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built”, it does more than its share of Zimeckis referencing to drown out the immersion of the film. I won’t spoil all of them, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention that the Doloreon from “Back to the Future” is prominently featured in the dynamic of an important scene, midway through the final act. Why is this included? Because one of the doll’s require a time machine, and we obviously can’t think of anything other than Robert’s biggest franchise when it comes to that distinction. It stinks of desperation, and emits an air of pretentious filmmaking that reminds us that Zimeckis is leaps and bounds from where he once was.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

Vice

Directed By Adam McKay

Starring – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

The Plot – The story of Dick Cheney (Bale), an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.

Rated R for adult language and some violent images

POSITIVES

– Political commentary of the finest kind. “Vice” is certainly no love-letter to Dick Cheney, nor is it a pulling of the lever execution for what some call the worst thing to happen to the White House. This is a film that lays out all of the facts, for better or worse, allowing the audience to soak everything in with regards to the first man who really re-defined what it means to be a Vice President. Nobody believed for a second that Bush was ever the maker of moves behind his desk, and because of McKay’s air of truth to his story that doesn’t cater to either of the political agendas, we come to understand just how deep Dick’s influence lay with the surrounding courts, parties, and offices in and surrounding Washington D.C. Because of the immense level of detail and information, even someone as politically interested as I am found this movie to be a novel of knowledge that is translated completely to the big screen.

– Perfect tone of atmosphere. McKay’s impeccable direction is only surpassed by his sharp tongue wit of screenwriting that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of the events being played out before us. Because this is real life, the only way to approach it is to expose it for the hilarity of the situation, and Adam’s precise timing with sarcasm, as well as his tools for the trade technically (more on this in a minute), give a surprisingly feel-good time to such terrible American events that would otherwise leave a rock in your system. It’s a rare look inside of the over-the-top villain we all love to hate in movies, but this time it’s real life, and that is what makes most of the material astonishing in how it’s supplanted.

– Text book editing and technical merit with the film’s presentation. McKay uses plenty of at-the-time references in pop culture, as well as subtle metaphorical digs to expose character’s seedy ambitions. More than that however, the editing of pasted-in stock footage serves as a look inside the mentality of a politician, teaching us that when the light is on, danger lurks. Some examples are that of a fishing pole reeling in its catch to emulate that of Cheney’s sell to Bush to become his Vice President, as well as predators in the jungle who snatch their prey, echoing that of the government monopoly that allowed Dick to quite literally corner every angle of the game. In addition to these marvelous techniques, the film’s credits play with still nearly an hour-and-a-half left in the film, and the intention is something so magnificently brilliant that I just can’t give it away here.

– Best ensemble cast of 2018. Not only do these not feel like spirited impressions, but each of the big name actors lose themselves whole to the characters they portray, giving me several moments during the film when I had to remind myself who played them. None of this is more evident than that of Bale in the title role. Christian has already won the Oscar, he just doesn’t know it yet, or maybe he does. Maybe it’s his confidence that allowed him to emulate Dick’s very speech patters, to his quivering lip, to even the way the man walks. Every year there’s always that one transformational performance that drops your jaw in how creepily concise it is, and Bale’s storied career will always come back to this heralded revelation, no matter what the man does for the rest of his life. Amy Adams is also brilliant as Lynne, Dick’s longtime significant other. Beyond being just an arm piece for our main character, Adams proves early on that behind every powerful man there’s an even more powerful woman, outlining Lynne as someone who picked up the slack when Dick couldn’t because of failing health concerns. Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Lily Rabe, and even Tyler Perry also bring their best to their respective characters, immersing themselves in such a way that removes doubt of familiarity from these accomplished actors and brings light to just the character gracing us with their presence on our screens for one more day.

– A greater understanding. One of my favorite aspects with “The Big Short” was how it related the housing and stock market terminology and structure with these creative instances of celebrities translating them for a wider audience. Something similar is done here, and once again it doesn’t feel dumbed down or catering with its inclusion. One such instance this time involves a restaurant dinner scene with Dick and pals reading from a menu that has some honest-but-appalling bureaucratic descriptions. It’s something that once again caters to the sarcasm of the humor level, all the while providing us information to actually give us a candid look inside of the moves being made in the ivory tower.

– Surprises with the pacing. I simply couldn’t believe that just over two hours had passed in watching this film, as the rapid fire developments and variety of material constantly kept the film interesting, and more importantly: elevated. What I mean by this is the stakes continue to rise higher, until this feels like no one will get out alive, and by that point the devastating blow can come from any direction that has long since been set up. This all keeps the film moving along smoothly, avoiding the hiccup of a first act that sometimes feels a bit scatter-brained and disjointed in picking up proper momentum. But once the familiar administration comes into play, it makes up for those forgetful first 30 minutes in spades, taking the audience through an education lesson on those we invest our trust in every day.

– A wide spanning of Dick’s entire life and career. If you’re someone like me who loves when a story doesn’t just begin and end on the meat of the material, you’ll enjoy “Vice”. The film begins in Wyoming, where Dick and Lynne meet, fall in love, and begin their push to make something of themselves. It’s funny when you consider the most influential V.P of all time began as a way to impress his wife, but that’s what we get here, and it’s in that unabashed ambition where we get a protagonist who we can sink our teeth into and possibly give us the only time when we the average people can relate to someone so obstructed by opportunity. Far beyond this though, it goes through the highs and lows of his life accordingly, never leaving out one event in the unconventional rags-to-riches story that is promised.

– Brilliant gimmick with the narrator. I again cannot spoil this intelligent aspect of the movie, but I can say that Jessie Plemons voices and appears on screen several times as the narrator to Cheney’s story. What is his connection to Dick, Lynne, or anyone associated with them? That is where the true element of surprise takes form, making for one of the more shockingly fitting twists that I have seen in quite some time. I’m not someone who particularly enjoys narrators or narration in a movie, as I feel it often takes away from the immersion of the story itself, but I can promise you that it’s all building to something devilishly constructed, and may be the single greatest metaphor for McKay’s style of diabolical cynicism that tends to be a character in all of his films.

– Flawless make-up and prosthetics. When a film has over two hours to work with, the make-up team can properly span the aging process fruitfully, and that is what we get here with Dick’s familiar balding grey hair and wrinkled face. When the film begins, we still see Bale because it’s basically just him with a little weight gained on, but as the story expands through different decades, the aging feels every bit as timely as it does transformative, diminishing Bale trademarks in favor of this conjuring of the former Vice President. The make-up itself feels believable and never too over-the-top to turn aging into a cinematic gimmick.

NEGATIVES

– Sometimes during the film, it feels like important details are missing from anyone who isn’t Dick, and that void leaves exposition holes as big as the sun. One such instance involves W’s rise to power from being a fall-down drunk college boy. One second he’s insulted by everyone in the Republican party, then the next scene he’s running for president. What’s missing that evolved him as a front runner? This isn’t the only time the movie treats us like we should already know these details, skimming over the evolution of the world outside of its central protagonist. It might be acceptable to some people because this movie isn’t about them, but I think Bush’s story plays as prominently for Cheney’s opportunistic persona if we know all of the facts of his road as well. They are conjoined for the rest of their time on Earth, so why does the movie try to distance them as much as possible?

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Mary Queen of Scots

Directed By Josie Rourke

Starring – Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden

The Plot – Explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart (Ronan). Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones and change the course of history.

Rated R for some violence and sexuality

POSITIVES

– Fierce Femininity. It’s rare that a film can articulate the ferocity of the male thinktank like this movie can, and it’s something that gave me strong insight into the powers at play against these two women of power, during the 16th century. So much of the interaction between these two queens is in the hands of these dangerous male translators, who for better or worse, use religion as a judge of character for all who pass through their monarchy. The events that take place provided a lot of fuel for the fire for the back and forth in pitting these two women against one another, and for two shameful hours made me regret being born a man, for the silly things that we feel threatened by.

– The mental game. I was surprised that Mary and Elizabeth don’t meet in the movie until there’s twenty minutes left in it, but thankfully the sequence of saucy events from both sides keeps our attention firmly locked into this story without feeling the shackles of poor pacing. There’s so much about these two prominent ladies that I never knew about, and the loads of exposition that the film delivers, all of which is accurately true, establishes this film as the perfect opened door to anyone curious about 16th century politics, as well as the weight that comes with being queen.

– Faithful production values. There’s so much here that hits the mark and really articulates the look and feeling of 16th century England and Scotland that makes for the easiest of immersions. The costume and set designs are seamless, sparing absolutely no expense in transporting us through the visual spectrum of fashions and interiors that were routine for such royal figures. However, it’s the subtlety in make-up work that might be my single favorite aspect of the props department. Especially with that of Queen Elizabeth’s skin pock condition, the details of skin deterioration and scarring stand out firmly without ever feeling intentionally retching, and it takes a beautiful actress like Margot Robbie and strips away everything familiar about her eclipsing appearance.

– Cinematography and photography with a purpose. John Mathieson’s visual focus is in these breathtaking shots of the two countries not only in capturing the immensity to convey the magnitude of its majesty, but also in contrasting the obvious similarities in them visually from afar. These inspiring shots are done exceptionally well with a wide revolving movement that is done with enough patience and time to satisfy our wonder, giving feast for the visual pallet that provide such a close proximity to echo the events of what transpires in this screenplay.

– The performances, what else? If Ronan and Robbie are spared a nomination to the Academy Awards, I simply won’t watch. These are two impeccable performances from two powerful, yet oppositely complex leaders, who the screen so desperately depends on. For Robbie’s Elizabeth, she’s every bit as envious of Mary as she is strategic in her movements. Robbie etches out a loneliness to Elizabeth that other films about her haven’t fully rendered, and even when I didn’t agree with her intentions, I couldn’t help but marvel as Robbie’s single most transformational performance to date. Ronan is equally gifted as the title character. As Mary, Saorise bottles love, anger, and intelligence under the same command, bringing it home with a command that makes Mary a revolutionary in terms of the fearlessness she constantly maintained. This is one of my favorite female heroines of 2018, and provides further proof for why Ronan’s name will be synonymous with Academy recognition for years to come. David Tennant is also devilishly delightful, donning a wig and Rip Van Winkle beard to make him nearly unrecognizable.

– Synthetic conversations and language that feed into the time frame smoothly. This is one of the biggest things I look for in period pieces, as the dialogue can sometimes break mental investment into a movie if even the slightest of speech patterns don’t ring true with their era designation, but that’s never the problem with the combination of Beau Willimon and John Guy, who translate the book of the same name terrifically. The accents are perfect, there’s minimal adult language so to show respect for the throne, and the threats are done in such an intelligent manner that makes them sometimes feel like a back-handed compliment.

– The much anticipated meeting. For those who saw the trailer, with the banter between Mary and Elizabeth, the one scene they share together made the 100 minute wait worth it in more ways than one. For one, it slowly builds this tension around it, bringing forth a confrontation that bottles every adversity that we’ve seen each of them go through to this point, and it’s shot in such a beautifully hypnotic way that serves as a metaphor for the struggle of power between them. There are many curtains throughout the room that they meet in, making it difficult for them to connect, yet easier for Elizabeth to conceal her inferior visual appearance, and the tiptoe throughout is done so exceptionally timely that it makes us yearn for this face-to-face encounter that (Believe me) pays off in spades.

– Josie Rourke, welcome to the world. Considering this is Josie’s first big screen direction, it’s astonishing the kinds of things she managed to accomplish. Rourke has a distinct eye for the camera that radiates the tone and look of the film consistently, and soaking in the most of the suffocating atmosphere in the story that we’ve ever gotten. Likewise, the way she emits the most out of her leading ladies is beyond commendable. She gives this intensity to both ladies without it ever feeling obvious or reeking of desperation to make them equal, and it all sums up why if you want this story done, you require a woman’s touch, and the trio of Rourke, Robbie, and Ronan reign, rivet, and roar. Try saying that three times fast.

NEGATIVES

– Poor documentation of the passing time. It’s difficult to say just how much time passes throughout this story from beginning to end, and the reason for that is the lack of definition between events that has a lot of this rubbing together. One such instance shows a child character who is a baby in one scene and then a young child in another, and it constantly had me feeling like I was playing catch-up to the unraveling narrative that couldn’t be bothered to include a date for reference.

– Damn foreshadowing intros AGAIN. This is far and away my least favorite cliche to any film going today, and here we have it again in the form of an introduction scene that shows us what’s coming by the end of this film. What this does is give away far too much, diminishing any kind of hope or moment of momentum for them because we know what’s waiting right around the corner. Could screenwriters just pretend that people might not know everything about the biopics that they are producing? It would make for a more intriguing time for someone like me who could use that element of surprise for where the story takes us. Enough already.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Ben Is Back

Directed By Peter Hedges

Starring – Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance

The Plot – Follows the charming yet troubled Ben Burns (Hedges), who returns home to his unsuspecting family one fateful Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother Holly Burns (Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return, but soon learns he is still very much in harm’s way. During the 24 hours that may change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family’s downfall.

Rated R for adult language throughout and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Stuart Dryburgh’s expressionist approach to the cold strokes of cinematography he’s painting. In setting this film in the countryside of New York, not only do we get the right kind of vibe and feel for the family atmosphere, complete with snowy and isolated setting, but we also get Stuart’s masterful greying color pallet that warms like a fog throughout the film. Beyond this presentation feeling unforgiving and shallow, you really conjure up the immense weight that lies on this family’s shoulders, and makes the past a very prominent character of its own for where the story currently stands.

– Detailed direction from Hedges that demands more of its audience. I appreciate any film where the small matters of a scene, or something that is taking place in the background, is more important than it comes across in real time, and that’s surely what we have here. Throughout the picture, we the audience are able to watch a scene play out and interpret it in our own ways, and it may be right or it may be wrong, but the point is that Hedges opens the door to discussion, periodically slipping you in further and further to the compelling nature of this slow-burn drama. Hedges has always been a director who refuses to spoon-fed his audience the details, and it’s more effective when the actors themselves can play out the intention of a scene without giving away the password that links it all together.

– Speaking of performances…. Roberts and Hedges give riveting and committed turns as their respective characters. Not that the supporting cast is particularly bad, but this is clearly a two person show, as the duo take us through enough fallen tears and repressed aggression about the torture they’ve endured to constantly command the stage. Roberts continues her legendary career without ever losing a step, and her greatest quality is in the undying love that she expresses constantly for the child who has given her no reason to. Hedges gives the best performance of his young career, serving as a very troubled and haunted protagonist by the decisions that have followed him repeatedly. The best parts of the film are definitely when these two share the screen with little distraction elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them are in the conversation for academy recognition.

– Mother/Son dynamic. The biggest positive for me in terms of my enjoyment from this movie is definitely the relationship between protector and cub that is tested endlessly. If anything, this is a testament to a Mother’s will, reminding us that no matter what her love will pursue, and as the film evolves into that search mystery in the second half, the bond is illustrated in such a way that brings them closer with each startling revelation she learns about him. It makes me almost wish that this film was released on Mother’s Day weekend, as the film colorfully illustrates this important job without hesitation, providing a surefire must-see for Mothers everywhere. On a side note, it’s interesting and extremely rare that Hedges cast his own son in the title role, and I feel like this allows him to feel those impacts and tender moments more exclusively when it’s his own kin experiencing them first-hand.

– A candid look inside of life as an addict. There have been a few films that cover the topic of addiction amongst adolescence this year, but none with the kind of conviction and focus as that of “Ben Is Back”. Far beyond this documenting the shame and mistrust that Ben endures in being re-introduced to society, it’s also the little things like the way people look at him and follow him to the oddest corners that offer insight into the uphill climb that they will face every day for the rest of their lives. This side of the material gave Peter Hedges as a screenwriter a very psychological sense, and puts us the viewer in the shoes of them frequently to taste the very bitter taste of alienation that only they must endure.

– My favorite scene. There’s an instance early on in the first act, where Roberts runs into the doctor who prescribed Ben painkillers, thus enabling him into the world of drugs that have torn her family apart. It is every bit as therapeutic as it is blunt with honesty, as Holly utters the line “I hope you die a horrible death”, leaving to a shock not only on the face of the man she’s talking to, but also to the delight of the audience, who are still seeing these new sides to Roberts personality. It’s rare that we ever get a face for the problem, and that’s why I found this scene rewarding. It allows Roberts the chance to be that unspoken majority who have been affected by mis-prescribing, and give us a scene to vent said frustrations. Funny, menacing, and even poignant.

– Conventional but unpredictable. Despite the fact that other films have touched on these familiar instances before, there are enough twists and turns in the material to constantly keep the audience engaged in what’s transpiring. More than anything, it’s in the genre twist of the second act that elevates this film from a family drama to a midnight search party. What follows is a barrage of uncertainty and cat-and-mouse leverage between Mother and Son that plays wonderfully with the pacing of this 98 minute gut-wrenching.

NEGATIVES

– Pedestrian photography. Despite the cinematography in the movie looking so beautifully haunting and anything but transparent, the movement of the camera, as well as camera lens used for the picture are constantly distracting to the unfolding narrative. One such instance of the former is in a fight sequence that is sloppily telegraphed and thoroughly out of frame. This is Resident Evil levels of photography, and it’s disappointing to say the least considering everything else is top notch on the production value. On the lens switch, there’s this obvious texture change for certain scenes, one such involving a cell phone rendering, that feels completely foreign from the rest of the depictions. If a film has a valuable reason for doing this, it’s acceptable, but a change this different makes the transitions lacking syntheticism, and I think it’s a mistake to include them three times during the film.

– Honest criminals? One of my biggest problems with the character outlines of this film is this constant manipulation that these criminals being questioned give up valuable information on their dealer without hesitation. Keep in mind that this is just a Mother and Son asking these people these questions, and they repeatedly provide them the honest, correct answer neatly gift-wrapped. It’s not a big problem, it just doesn’t feel honest considering other scenes of questioning in movies often involve a struggle or a backlash of some kind that is never present once during the many scenes in this movie.

– One major problem. Miscommunication is the constant plague in a film that is fighting for frequent urgency. What little it does manage to emit is in the form of these misunderstandings between characters that could easily be trimmed in a world other than film. One such example takes place when Ben repeatedly tells his Mother that he’s in trouble, only for her to overlook it every single time. The ending scene as well could easily be fixed and suffer no worry if a character just takes the time to return a certain matter of importance to the family’s house, instead of leaving their location cryptic for them to worry. I’m sorry I can’t explain that better because it will give away the scene, but you’ll understand what I mean when you watch it.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Second Act

Directed By Peter Segal

Starring – Jennifer Lopez, Milo Ventimiglia, Leah Remini

The Plot – Lopez stars as Maya, a 40-year-old woman struggling with frustrations from unfulfilled dreams. Until, that is, she gets the chance to prove to Madison Avenue that street smarts are as valuable as book smarts, and that it is never too late for a Second Act.

Rated PG-13 for some crude sexual references, and adult language

POSITIVES

– It’s all in the name. “Second Act” might be the most appropriately titled movie of 2018 because it’s really during that time when the tone and material of the film evolves, all as a result of a twist that I totally didn’t see coming. For a bombshell to come out of nowhere and completely change everything that this film is about is something I greatly commend the screenwriters for, and it takes what could easily be a throwaway comedy and morphs it into a hard-hitting drama that will squeeze the tears from any female moviegoer. Even more important, there are still trailers that don’t ruin the movies that they advertise.

– Thought provoking commentary on book smart versus street smart. I myself am someone who believes that education should never be the single lone argument in determining who is most deserving of a job, and this movie hits on this debate with some strong arguments for the latter that I wish the world would hear. College degrees themselves are catered to the small percentage who can either afford it or go through the first fourth of their lives without so much as a single speed bump to hit them, so there is that feeling that somewhere someone out there is probably a more qualified candidate, and it makes Maya that much more indulging as a protagonist because we’ve all been told that we’re not good enough for something.

– The performances from an eclectic cast. Lopez gives another solid turn as Maya, even if I found her physical appearance throughout the film a little different from what the movie is trying to pursue her as. This is basically a supermodel who everyone treats as nothing special, and after a while the glare from her timeless beauty and extremely revealing outfits kind of shines through. For my money, it’s the supporting cast that really steal the show. Remini gives food for thought as to why she isn’t a bigger star in Hollywood, supplanting much of the film’s best comedic timing throughout. Vanessa Hudgens also gives another dramatic impulsive turn, providing tears on command that prove how far she’s come in her challenging typecast career. I’m glad that she becomes more important to the plot as the film goes on, as her facial registries tug at your heartstrings and hit every time the film needs them to. Also great to see Dave Foley and Larry Miller back on the silver screen, as I feel we just don’t get enough of either comedic icon.

– Strength of humor. It still baffles me that this film is given a PG-13 rating, because there are many instances throughout where the language and ensuing material feels testing for younger audiences. This provided a 33-year-old-man like myself no shortage of laughs, and the landing ratio is surprisingly positive for a movie that I was dreading seeing heading into it. In my opinion, it’s the way the talented cast play out these conventional lines, stretching them to their furthest reactions because of the vibrancy of personality that they invest into each gag. It’s something that constantly reminds audiences of the good times they are having that are helpful in forgetting some of the film’s biggest sins creatively.

– Gorgeous establishing shots of The Big Apple. Segal himself was born and raised in the big city, and his love and passion for the city is clearly evident in some gorgeous photography of New York City that articulately channel the vibe of the setting. Aside from these gorgeous sun-setting shots behind these early 20th century style bridges, we are also treated to frequent shots of the imposing skyline, providing visual emphasis for just how far our protagonist has come, as well as a few moments of reflection sequences inside of the silver bullets that whiz throughout the variety of neighborhoods and cultures alike. Segal, and even his leading lady, have a spot in their hearts for their city, and they’re not afraid to show it with beautiful depictions that constantly capture the beauty from within.

– Has a strong message despite being drowned in lies. I know that sounds completely strange and a bit contradictory, but despite the fact that this woman lies to get this job, and then continues the lie over and over again, the third act of the movie brings home its honorable intentions by explaining the importance of being true to yourself. In doing so, it makes the achievements that you attain that much sweeter because they were done by you….the real you. Whether the film’s conclusion does go the way you think it will or not, I’m a sucker for a feel good story that reflects with respect the kinds of things in our own lives that we take for granted every day, and “Second Act” preserves this quality with dignity.

NEGATIVES

– Recycled dialogue from other obvious films of the genre. Part of the nagging problem with my investment into many of these scenes was the lack of care and concern with dialogue that definitely deserved a second look at the script. There are many instances of films like “Must Love Dogs”, “Sleepless In Seattle”, or even J-Lo’s movie “Main in Manhattan”, but the biggest sinner of all is one of the film’s closing lines that in so many words echoes that of “Field of Dreams” quote “You wanna have a catch?” It basically confirms that these type of movies are starting to rub together, and doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room if the creativity is this limited.

– Nuisance of the gimmick. I believed in this plot for about two minutes, until the blaring voice in my head said how ridiculous this whole thing really is. You’re telling me that a major cosmetics institution based in New York City doesn’t do a deep background check, calling former professors and bosses to confirm that what they read on paper is true? BULLSHIT!!! The movie’s explanation for all of this feeds into that second act plot twist, but the film’s antagonist even has trouble confirming that anything in this application is bogus when he decides to look into Maya. This kind of thing might be believable in the 90’s, but in 2018, during the age of technological advances, it’s not feasible in the least.

– Overlooks vital information about the profession. One of my biggest pet peeves in movies is when a particular job’s specifics are remotely glossed over, leaving you unable to preserve any amount of knowledge gained about the job that would make its characters feel believable. Instead of giving us specifics, we are given a series of montages that are supposed to artistically fill in the blanks, instead of pointing out the weaknesses in Maya taking up a job that she knows absolutely nothing about, other than how it performed in the grocery store she worked at.

– Far too many subplots and side characters. The biggest sacrifice in this formula is the development of a romantic subplot involving Lopez and Ventimiglia that is ignored for almost an entire hour, removing the possibility of gaining some traction for the flailing chemistry and overall lack of weight from consequences that goes virtually unnoticed. There’s far too much at play between the battle for screen time as well, as characters switch sides and personalities at the drop of a hat. The only explanation would be if something was left on the cutting room floor for DVD extras, but as a cohesive narrative, 98 minutes just simply isn’t enough time to juggle this many bowling pins that more times than not crash and burn.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Vox Lux

Directed By Brady Corbet

Starring – Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy

The Plot – Follows the rise of Celeste from the ashes of a major national tragedy to pop super stardom. The film spans 18 years and traces important cultural moments through her eyes, starting in 1999 and concluding in 2017. In 1999, teenage Celeste (Cassidy) survives a violent tragedy. After singing at a memorial service, Celeste transforms into a burgeoning pop star with the help of her songwriter sister (Stacy Martin) and a talent manager (Law). Celeste’s meteoric rise to fame and concurrent loss of innocence dovetails with a shattering terrorist attack on the nation, elevating the young powerhouse to a new kind of celebrity: American icon, secular deity, global superstar. By 2017, adult Celeste (Portman) is mounting a comeback after a scandalous incident that derailed her career. Touring in support of her sixth album, a compendium of sci-fi anthems entitled Vox Lux, the indomitable, foul-mouthed pop savior must overcome her personal and familial struggles.

Rated R for adult language, some strong violence, and drug content

POSITIVES

– From an aesthetic aspect, this might be one of the more grittier and beautiful films of the year. Arronofsky inspired handheld style is on full display, following the movements and directions so tightly of our characters that it never misses a beat. Likewise, the cinematography is cold and callous, outlining a sort of ghost character of its own that follows Celeste every step of the way since this devastating tragedy that has defined her entire life and career. This is subtle exposition in the form of filters, and it’s something that allows the audience to fully grasp the psychological toll of being a sole survivor.

– Finely measured performances everywhere you turn. For the first half of the film, this is easily 16-year-old Raffey Cassidy’s show. Cassidy’s facial registry channels that of a youth who is still trying to grasp why things are the way they are, and feels especially troubled when she’s forced to grow up at such a quick pace at such a very young age. From there, Portman takes the reigns, giving us a glimpse at a personality corrupted by a business of betrayal, with subtle occasional hints at the little girl inside who is still fighting to get out. This isn’t Portman’s best performance, but it might be her most psychologically straining to date. Jude Law is also excellent as Celeste’s uneasy manager, and the chemistry between he and his musical prodigy is something that transcends that of the four films that Law and Portman have acted in together.

– While the musical taste from artist Sia wasn’t my taste of choice, the concert footage and overall spectacle from within dazzle us in a way that truly channels the monster pop icons of the world. Lights, make-up, costumes, and a multitude of angles capture the magnitude of Celeste’s growth as an artist, entertaining thirty thousand fans with a combination of rumbling club tracks and top notch dance choreography to really immerse yourself in the moment. This serves as the only moment when Celeste feels complete without feeling some kind of pain, and it’s clear from the moment she steps on stage that she’s made for the spotlight.

– Gripping social commentary that never relents. The material inside of this screenplay covers a multitude of topics including the insensitivity of turning tragedy to triumph, teenage stardom, and the desire to put sex above music in the order of importance, bringing a bunch of great questions along with each of them. Each of these gives more depth to the unfolding narrative, and etch out that layer of Celeste that helps you understand why she acts the way she does despite not being there to see some of her most trying times. What’s most important is the film never holds back in hitting us with uncomfortable imagery, so if this isn’t your bag, then this simply isn’t the film for you.

– Unique montage sequences. As to where most films cover a wide range of time with a series of footage cuts, the instances of time flash-forward here are literally that: fast-forward footage in the style of VHS tapes that actually takes us through everything at eight times the speed. Even more commendable is that the direction from Corbet during these sequences is so tight and precise that even at an unusual speed we the audience still get enough time and focus to translate what is transpiring on-screen. This is an idea that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in film with this kind of attention of craft to it, and I commend Corbet for giving us something fresh even after decades of versatile films.

– Creativity with the credit sequence. The long scroll of the expansive name credits that usually just happens at the end of a film actually invades our attention twice during the film. The first of which is about ten minutes into the film, replacing quick cut introduction credits in a strange fashion, that is until I understood its purpose. LIGHT SPOILER ahead. The scroll credits are included here to signify the end of one life and the beginning of another. Once Celeste wakes up, she’s almost an entirely new person from the little girl enjoying school that she was, and this divide felt different in presentational aspects, and only added to the originality of the aesthetics.

NEGATIVES

– Strange casting choices. This is a film that takes place in two respective timelines, with Raffey obviously playing the younger side of Natalie Portman’s Celeste, but Raffey actually plays two characters in this film, portraying Portman’s daughter in the second half of the film. This is a strange decision for many reasons, but mostly because it’s distracting when the two actresses are on-screen together. As they interact, we start to see how differently and unbelievable their portrayals are for emulating the same character, especially with a Brooklyn accent by Portman that wasn’t there for Raffey when she portrayed Celeste. In addition to this, Celeste’s sister Eleanor (Played by Stacy Martin), doesn’t age or switch actresses during the respective timelines. Neither does Jude Law. So we have a protagonist who changes completely, and two characters who haven’t even changed hairstyles or age in 17 years. Interesting

– Abrupt ending to the narrative. While I mentioned earlier that I appreciated the artistic merit of the concert scenes, I will say that their drowning on forces an unusual ending to the movie that just dropped the anticipation. The last twelve minutes of this movie are concert scenes, so already that concept is far too long, but they come at a time when many questions still require answers, leaving us the audience hanging in the balance. I could’ve used an additional ten minutes after the concert to tie loose ends together and manage to garner some of that momentum that dropped like second week record sales.

– Willam Dafoe’s strange narration. Yep, that’s right: The Green Goblin himself voices a couple of parts during the film. My problem is the usual, in that I don’t appreciate when narration tells us too much instead of shows us, and something else entirely that didn’t fit with the pacing of the storytelling. Dafoe just pops in at the most random of times, and it feels like a violent pause button during some of the more interesting confrontations that the screenplay can muster up. I am a big fan of Willam’s work, but I feel like “Vox Lux” would’ve been best left off of his immense filmography, if only so this story didn’t have so many divides between it that do it zero favors in terms of pacing.

– Uninteresting soundtrack. I have no problem with Sia as a performer, as songs like “Chandelier”, “Titanium”, and “Big Girls Cry” were some of my favorite tracks of their respective years. But her work in this soundtrack just isn’t my taste. The sound mixing is noticeably louder for the music than the vocals, the lyrics lack any kind of complexity, and the hooks completely lack that earworm quality that allows the song to get stuck in your head. Thankfully, there’s only four original songs in the movie, but it doesn’t help when we get each song in its entirety (See negative #2).

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Roma

Directed By Alfonso Cuaron

Starring – Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Cortina Aurtrey

The Plot – The most personal project to date from Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” follows Cleo (Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a family in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City. Delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a vivid and emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst political turmoil of the 1970s.

Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and adult language

POSITIVES

– One man rock band. Far beyond just writing and directing this movie, Alfonso Cuaron once again submits another award-worthy effort for best cinematography of the year. Decorated throughout the film with a black-and-white canvas that brings a photographic sense of detail to each and every still frame in the movie, the film radiates with such gorgeous flare and depth for what is ultimately a colorless scheme. I am serious when I say that you could pause the movie at any chance and hang it up as a scenery portrait somewhere in your house, and Cuaron again paints beauty in a world of black and white ideals.

– A love-letter to Cuaron’s second mother. Whether you’ve read the backstory or not on the meaning behind this film, one thing is certain: You get a more than in-depth feel for how Alfonso views this pivotal person in his life and his movie. In his eyes, the caretaker is someone who takes a mental and physical strain, yet still shines as the glue that bonds this family together, putting their needs first above her own. What’s also delightful about this far beyond the surface level of this singular character is that the film serves as a much-needed reminder of a woman’s impeccable value in keeping a family moving. This is something shamefully missing from the majority of Hollywood pictures in 2018, but “Roma” more than documents every kind of struggle that a woman faces in holding down the fort, bringing with it a sense of praise and focus that makes up wonderfully for lost time.

– Cuaron’s channeling of the moment. Presented here for our delightful understanding is a combination of sharp sound mixing and cerebral camera movements that really paint a vivid sense of the environments they cover. Each change of scenery opens up with a collection of sights and sounds that really allow you to immerse yourself in the moment of this unfolding narrative, and give light to the kind of detail that only a person who lived this lifestyle can attest to. There hasn’t been a film like this in recent memory, that gives us presence to a film in the form of footsteps and conversations that resonate within it, carving out a technique of third dimensional sound that is riveting without being rumbling. Cuaron’s slow pan navigation to the left and right also soak up the wide range of emotions present under this one roof where so much is on display. This gives the film great replay value, as the magnitude of what’s taking place in conversation and action feels like too much to ever intercept in one lone sit.

– As for storytelling, this is anything but a conventional script, instead choosing to spend its time on a multitude of life experiences that boil together in one simmering pot. This can be hit or miss to anyone watching because the developing drama is slow and methodical, pacing itself out in episodic methods to make it anything but conventionally predictable. What’s more impressive is the magnitude of topics covered, taking us everywhere from marital troubles to a full blown college riot on the surrounding streets that is a wrong place, wrong time scenario if there ever was one.

– Zero distractions. The decision to include no musical tones or tracks to the film, other than naturally playing music during the scene, is one that I take great pleasure with. Cuaron as a director is someone who has a lot of faith in his audience, therefore he allows them to interpret the moment without requiring manipulative or forceful musical accompaniment that this film simply didn’t require. This also grounds the overall presentation in a strong sense of realism that transcends its designation as entertaining art, making us feel like we are watching a real family and their lives play out before our very eyes.

– Juxtapositions in tone. This is something that I would usually negate a movie for, but the existence of an environment that is every bit as uncomfortable as it is funny, every bit as endearing as it is bizarre, and every bit stressful as it is relaxing, all paint this ambitiously interpretive picture that hints that life is anything but one consistent flow. This proves that the material has many layers, but more than anything it’s in the personal touch with how these characters experience these life and attitude changing revelations where something so simple in material feels so complex in delivery.

– The definition of a passion project. It’s something special to see one of the very best directors going today to feel so inspired by an idea that he puts everything else on the wait list, and that’s what you have here. Alfonso Cuaron marketing this film primarily for Netflix is something that proves it’s not just another movie to make money on. Likewise, the harvested feel of art imitating life is that rare one in a million chance where the writer and director of the film opens up their mind and memory to give the audience a piece of their past that is often times glossed over in Wikipedia biographies. “Roma” is the perfect film for Cuaron’s masterful touch, and it serves as his single greatest work to date because that passion is prominently on display throughout.

– My favorite ending of 2018. There’s no huge explosions or shocking twist, so what did I see that left such a huge imprint on me? Heart. From the bonding of this family against all odds that makes one particular character finally feel whole, to the final shot mirroring that of the first shot of the movie, I left “Roma” with an overall sense of satisfaction and feel-good goosebumps that served as the perfect emphasis for everything I experienced. It’s honest in the fact that life itself still goes on, but it’s appropriate enough in the finality of its conclusion serving as the catalyst for what comes next for all of them.

NEGATIVES

– Badly needs a studio edit. While the film clocking in at 130 minutes wasn’t my main problem in this regards, the lack of intrigue or excitement during the dry and tip-toeing first half of the film certainly is. This makes “Roma” a difficult film to get into right away, as much of the unwinding screenplay feels like Cuaron’s home movies, where lots of excess fat can be trimmed. As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate a director who takes time to study and articulate environments, but this is done in several instances where the camera turns on long before our characters come into frame, making it feel like we are waiting for the movie to catch up to our encroachment of their home.

– No central protagonist. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s easy to see that this is Cleo’s story”, well not so much. While the film does follow her more than anyone, the characters of the film are drawn so thinly that we as an audience just tend to bounce off of all of them in search of someone to take command and floor us with a personality that makes us beg for more. No such person exists like this in “Roma”, and because of such, we’re asking much more from a talented cast, who while happy to oblige at this request, don’t fully make up for the lack of important rendering. Half of the characters are irredeemable, while the other half rub together in ways that had me searching for any slight clues as to how they’re different.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Favourite

Directed By Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

The Plot – Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A trio of award worthy performances. Most films are fortunate enough to contain one breakthrough performance that earns its film recognition, in the form of word of mouth, but “The Favourite” is fortunate enough to have three, a testament to Lanthimos’ tight grip on his characters. Colman adds enough dimension and complexity to this Queen that reaches much further than her being just another spoiled recluse of royalty. There’s an air of sadness and loneliness to her that makes her engaging, despite her endless riches that no audience can relate to. Weisz also marvels as this sternly plotting right hand woman to the Queen’s operations. She does so with very little physical interaction and no yelling during her long-winded threats, and it’s all capped off by Rachel’s cold measuring stare that lets you know an idea is always brewing behind this exterior. The show stealer for me however, is definitely Emma Stone, channeling a transformative performance that adds yet another layer to the young starlet. Abigail knows how to get what she wants, and her sponge-like perception to soak up the boundaries in every situation is what makes her every bit as cunning and deceptive as her counterparts in power.

– The fine use of natural lighting throughout the picture. Aside from Yorgos’ expected cold, greying cinematography that feels more appropriate than ever during 18th century England, the presentational aspect of dimmed lighting and lustrous shadows provides much artistic integrity to the creativity in every shot. This unflinching darkness enveloping these auburn reds and sunlight orange tapestries tend to follow these character for the entirety of the film, visually conveying the ulterior motives behind every act of kindness that only serve as table dressing. This decision articulately channels the cold and insensitive surroundings of the immense mansion, and gives way to filters of colorful expression that never compromise the focus of any shot.

– Lanthimos, the master magician of the lens. In his previous films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, Yorgos used unorthodox camera angles and gimmicks to emit this layer of unsettling atmosphere that really allows the audience to immerse themselves in the interpretation, and we thankfully have more of the same here. Particularly in the use of fish-eye lens, the occasional inclusion feels foreign to the rest of its visual counterparts, allowing us these moments of valued focus to soak up the ever-changing scenery. Aside from this, Yorgos’ movements of the camera are always smooth and patient, never settling for handheld camera work that would otherwise distract from the artistic integrity of the portrait being painted before us. This tells me that this is a man who knows the best bang in every aspect of shooting a film, and “The Favourite” is easily his most technically ambitious film to date.

– A sensational game of cat-and-mouse. The rivalry between Abigail and Sarah in the film is easily the sell of it all for anyone who has seen the trailers, and it more than delivers on its pitch thanks to a combination of unpredictability and consequence that constantly raises the stakes. This provides plenty of examples of psychological and physical displays of power between them, and the film is wise enough to constantly keep them leveled evenly, so as not to sway the audience’s decision for who the Queen is better off with, one way or the other. There are many times during the film when the balance of power switches and unforgivable actions takeover, and it forced me to switch my opinion several times for these two dueling dames, providing emphasis for a circumstance so complex.

– Chapter title screens. The entirety of the 115 minute film is divided into these eight devilishly delicious sections, each numbered by Roman numerals, and supplanted with a pulled cryptic quote from somewhere in the film’s dialogue. Many films have been doing the storybook approach lately, but why it works so well for this story in particular is the ambiguity and double meaning of the quotes themselves, to constantly keep you guessing in terms of where this story will take us. There is nothing mentioned in text that ever remotely serves as a revealing spoiler, preserving the quality to constantly keep us guessing while giving importance to the value of episodic storytelling.

– Accuracy in wardrobe and costume design. Mark my words, “The Favourite” will earn an Oscar nomination in the wardrobe department, and the reason for this is the collection of rich Bohemian gowns and expressive makeup design that durably channel the era of England that it’s depicting. With a series of elegant dinner parties and Parlament courts under the roof of this royal mansion of frequent guests, we learn that no cent is spared in the fashion sense of production design, and more importantly it all stays consistent with the respective time period (Take notes “Robin Hood”).

– One thing that I love about Lanthimos’ tones in his films is his ability to channel this comfortable blend between comedy and drama that breeds a subgenre of its own. Considering the shocking and dramatic pull of the material inside of these twists and turns, I wasn’t expecting to laugh half as much as I did. This dry, caustic kind of wit is made for someone like me, who has always seen the charm in English humor that is otherwise considered strange to my territory. The expressionless deliveries of some of these lines occasionally require double takes to let the punchline reach the heights of the quiet surrounding it, and the lunacy of royalty while eating and dancing is more than approached on to give ridiculous emphasis to something that should otherwise be considered prestigious.

– Johnnie Burn and William Lyons riveting use of classical music. There’s a strong compromise here of soft time-honored pieces combined with modern day production quality that gives new life to the music that adorns the film, and makes for a racketing of tension to flow freely into each scene. There is one such number that got a bit derivative for how long its same three tones are repeated throughout the scene, but everything else is delivered with such thunderous volume and echo to make it feel like the music plays throughout the house, instead of just accompanied in post production incorporation.

– Thought-provoking in the way it incorporates provocative subject matter with historical figures of yesterday. I don’t want to give too much away, but a revelation about the Queen happens thirty minutes into the film, and changes the complexion of this cousin rivalry moving forward. What I liked about this aspect was how it’s approached in terms of its shock factor towards its delicate time period, acting as a sort of weakness for her character during a time period when such personal ideals were anything but progressive. Where it crosses over to psychological for me is thinking about the possibility that many royal figures were just like Anne in this movie, in that they died with their own kind of secrets in their minds.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, the film feels slightly uneven after the incredible pacing and blow-for-blow battle for leverage during the first half of the movie. Once this angle runs out of gas, the second half, and more particularly the third act, is left to close things up in ways that don’t feel satisfying, conclusive to the progression of the narrative itself, nor believable for the Queen considering what we’ve been taught about her. I understand the point of the film’s closing shot intention accurately enough, but it loses so much steam by the redundancy of the final act that you wish it would just cut to the chase already. It stretches out for what feels like miles, and serves as the only point during the film when I wasn’t having a blast.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

The Mule

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring – Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena

The Plot – Earl Stone (Eastwood), a man in his 80s who is broke, alone, and facing foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive. Easy enough, but, unbeknownst to Earl, he’s just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. He does well, so well, in fact, that his cargo increases exponentially, and Earl is assigned a handler. But he isn’t the only one keeping tabs on Earl; the mysterious new drug mule has also hit the radar of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Cooper). And even as his money problems become a thing of the past, Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on him, and it’s uncertain if he’ll have time to right those wrongs before law enforcement, or the cartel’s enforcers, catch up to him.

Rated R for adult language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Great responsibility towards the outlook of Earl as a person. One of the things that worried me during the trailers was the film trying to cast Earl under this light of heroic happenstance that was easily relatable to anyone watching, and while the film certainly gives its central protagonist a lot of unapologetic personality, he is anything but honorable when you consider the things he puts above those who love him unconditionally, as well as some of his unabashed speech patterns that carve out a borderline racist. Especially is the case with Eastwood serving as the director and star of the movie, it gives him great selflessness to take this character in the direction that mirrors that of his real life counterpart.

– A hidden secret. It’s quite intelligent and even remotely poetic that Clint uses his own real life daughter Alison in the role of his on-screen daughter Iris. While the film somewhat drops the ball on this element of the film creatively (More on that later), there’s no mistaking that the fire and chemistry that harvests between them makes for some truly gut-wrenching scenes of dramatic entanglement. I love when a director isn’t afraid to blend the worlds of life and film accordingly, and this instance gives the movie the kind of subtle creative nuance needed to bring out the best in scenes of importance.

– Poignant approach on the value and appreciation of family. There’s nothing subtle about this element even if you’ve seen the trailers, but the underlying value of what grows beneath the phrasing as the story transpires is something that adds great depth and personal identity far beyond that of words uttered in a trailer. No matter how successful Earl is, he can’t escape the magnitude of what he gave up in life to follow his careers, and there’s strong representation with this feeling in a majority of the film being spent with Earl, alone, staring out a window, being isolated from the surrounding world, with all he has to show for his choices. Hard hitting material indeed.

– Eastwood and Cooper carve out two respectably complex characters for completely different reasons. Aside from the film measuring them as equals in terms of importance to the story, each of them are easy to marvel at for how they remarkably play against type roles than they’re used to. For Clint, it’s being depicted as this weakling of sorts, being pushed around by those of higher rank in the cartel, leaving him often the victim instead of the power player we’re used to. For Cooper, he portrays this no-nonsense FBI type that he only hinted at in “American Hustle”, and manages to grip onto with much more confidence in this film. While the film features other big names like Dianne Wiest, Laurence Fishbourne, Michael Pena, and Andy Garcia, it is the work of Eastwood and Cooper presenting us a fresh side of two reputable careers that really keeps their cat-and-mouse game fresh throughout.

– Exceptional photography of the open road. Some of the wide angle lens shots in the film are breathtaking, proving Eastwood has merit when it comes to establishing a setting and vibe comfortably, all the while visually narrating us through Earl’s many journeys. The winding road shots put us right in the frame of mind of Earl without feeling like too obvious of a gimmick, and the in-depth look at some Midwest American landscapes contains food-for-thought in the film’s valued depiction of an old soul in an ever-changing society.

NEGATIVES

– Strange social commentary. As is the case with all Eastwood directed films, he deems it necessary to take big amounts of minutes out of the film to discuss matters that are on his mind, that mean nothing to the context of the script. For “The Mule”, it’s poking fun at gay relations, certain words being offensive for minorities, and the difficulty associated with using the internet. Each of these aspects literally come out of nowhere when they’re brought to light, and end up feeling like a series of great debates started by your grandfather. Ya know, the one who never admits when he’s wrong and refuses to grow with the progressing world around him. They are all matters that are never required in the film, and only make Clint himself look like a senile spud, whose filter probably should’ve been left on.

– Sloppy editing transitions. You have to look a little more carefully for this one, but late in the first act there are some horrendous editing sequences with Earl interacting with his newfound employers that feel like a first time job opportunity for someone fresh out of film school. I say this because the continuity of characters in frame is every bit as poorly telegraphed as the variety in angles displayed from scene-to-scene of focus on Earl. What I mean by this is that he will be itching his head in one scene, while pointing at his watch in the very next cut. Teleporting in place is an aspect I never imagined with a film like this, but due to some uninspired cuts in the film, we make the impossible possible.

– Strays too far from the family narrative. There’s a period of around forty minutes in the middle of the film where Earl’s family isn’t seen or heard from amidst all of this unraveling chaos, and this has tremendous impact on the dramatic pull of the movie that feels non-existent. Without Earl saving his money for a greater cause, his intentions feel selfish, leaving nothing of focus for the character hanging in the balance for us to understand his motives. Aside from this, it gives us nothing of breather between the fight for power of the dry driving sequences of Earl singing and the pulse-setting thrill of FBI strategy that are the constant back-and-forth of this grounded screenplay.

– Tonally bankrupt. If you watched the deceitful trailers for “The Mule”, you’ll be excited to see an edge-of-the-seat dramatic thriller with all of the possibilities and none of the predictability. Sadly, this film is anything but, as Eastwood’s direction instead chooses to make 80% of this movie a comedy of all things, leaving any kind of intensity for the vulnerability of drug trafficking on the editing room floor. While the comedy is effective at more times than once, I never wanted to watch this movie to laugh, I wanted to see a cross-country chase with the elements of a western subtly nuanced beneath, but unfortunately Eastwood’s fumbling focus leaves this story feeling miles from its destination. Likewise, the trailer also gives away what few moments of tension the film artfully crafts for itself, showing us the steak before the sizzle that easily goes cold because of the familiarity we are patiently expecting.

– Anti-climatic ending. The most important scene in any film is the closing moments that remind you of the greatness you just experienced, and leaves us with the extra emphasis of driving the intention of its material home. “The Mule” doesn’t have this, in fact its final moments are so remarkably underwhelming and ineffective that the music doesn’t start for five seconds after the credits show, so as to say that even the film crew were expecting more. The only emphasis this ending provided me was an outline for the single biggest disappointment of the Winter movie season, as I was anticipating this film almost more than any other, but was left feeling the wear and tear of a film that felt like a million miles.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Aquaman

Directed By James Wan

Starring – Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe

The Plot – Arthur Curry (Mamoa) learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world. Standing in his way is the leader of a dangerous army, led by Arthur’s brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Will the communicator of underwater life stake his claim, or will the wrath of the Seven Seas provide too much for him?

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

POSITIVES

– James Wan’s immense scope on this decades old property. After you see the film, you will have no doubts that this modern day maestro was the right man for the job, as the variety of geographical set pieces and enhanced world building gives new life to the property many deemed impossible to bring to the big screen. Wan spares zero expense when it comes to capturing the sheer magnitude of the world beneath our feet, bringing with him several rumbling action set pieces and believably textured C.G work as far as the eye can see, that is sure to silence even the loudest doubters.

– Consistency of tone is key. One thing that D.C has failed with at nearly every big screen release until now is the cohesive bond that appropriately measures humor and drama respectively. Thankfully, “Aquaman” feels like the blueprint for future successes here because it keeps each within their boundaries, so as to never encroach on the importance of the other. What’s most commendable is the humor doesn’t feel forced or immature to the kinds of personality that the characters maintain throughout the film. There’s this very accommodating sense within the material that doesn’t just cater to older audiences like in past movies, allowing kids the chance to enjoy the wonderment and light-hearted atmosphere that this company has been under-appreciating in its comic movies.

– Strong ensemble work all around from this talented cast. While this is certainly a breaking out vehicle for its main star, who exuberates enough brawn and bravado behind a crooked smile, I was surprised at the allowance given to the supporting cast as well. Heard possibly steals the movie in my opinion, carving out another female heroine for D.C in ways Marvel can only dream of. Likewise, Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson each turn in impactful dramatic turns, giving the franchise name tremendous value because of the sum of its big name parts. It could be easy for any of them to get lost in the ridiculousness of wearing these costumes or donning these tridents, but each actor brings with them a level of professionalism that makes them believable in their respective roles, transcending the familiarity of their appearances into the characters they are portraying.

– The single most beautiful looking superhero film of all time. Yes, I just gave “Aquaman” the honors over films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor”, mainly because the difficulty in capturing the beauty of something as dark and mysterious as the sea is something film just hasn’t captured until now. Don Burgess’s turquoise filtering reaches an astonishing level of consistency throughout, but it’s his enveloping nature of the above water landscape shots that constantly captured my attention and stretched the boundaries of imagination, making these two worlds truly rub together synthetically. Whether you like or hate this movie, everyone will feel like they just came out of a film where the pages of a comic book came to life, and that above everything else is probably the most important aspect to any comic book adaptation.

– Learning from mistakes. Where “Aquaman” takes perhaps its biggest step forward is the decision not only to not make this an origin story, but also not to cater to a future installment before attaining greatness with this current film. Sure, there’s certainly flashbacks to Arthur’s training growing up, but they actually serve a purpose in echoing the timeline of current day, all the while leading to a big discovery that shakes both timelines immensely. If you’re watching this film for a link to other D.C movies, you will be very disappointed, but I think that’s the proper steps necessary for finally gaining some traction of momentum for this once storied company.

– Hits and misses with the music. While I despised the soundtrack for this movie (A Pitbull cover of Toto’s “Africa”? Seriously?), the compositions of Rupert Gregson Wagner more than carried the load in this particular area. Wagner’s entrancing and wonderous musical score instills enough fantasy to the outline of the picture that really makes those moments of triumph truly pop. In addition, the thunderous audible presentation of the war sequences bring with them a sense of rumbling urgency that frequently hold your attention, and echo that of war genre films like “The Thin Red Line” or “The Patriot” that juxtapose that level of uncertainty on the screen.

– Creative touches in serene camera work. Wan is the culprit here once again, as his revolving scope around these important scenes of dialogue experiment in a way that truly allows the audience to move and immerse themselves in the thick of the water itself. This one-of-a-kind experience gives us several takes of textbook pasting in editing that made even me question several times if what we are seeing was long take sequences of long-winded dialogue delivery. It’s great to see Wan has developed a level of personality behind the lens that constantly evolves with each project, and never distracts or takes away from the beauty within the fantasy of the setting.

– Despite the setting being this fantasy realm of caves and creatures, the material itself is instead grounded in this family hierarchy, debating the bond of blood relatives in a way that everyone watching can relate to. Think “Game of Thrones” set in a world of fantasy and you’re already halfway there. What I love about this dynamic is it takes something as unfamiliar to us as the deepest darkest blue and withdraws from it this level of family drama that everyone has dealt with at one time or another in their lives. More than anything, this makes “Aquaman” certainly the most relatable and accessible to audiences enjoying one of these movies for the first time ever, and highlights yet another layer of brotherly bond that we thought we’ve seen enough of.

NEGATIVES

– Manta, while looking menacingly awesome in a detailed body suit, never feels like an important or vital part of the film because of limitations of time given to his development. This is also the only light pacing issues I have with the film, as every time we cut to his subplot, it all just feels like filler to reach the 130 minute desired run time and breath for the more important war that Arthur is building towards. I would’ve preferred they saved this antagonist for an Aquaman sequel instead, allowing them not only to properly flesh out the revenge associated with the character, but also proper time for Yahya Abdul-Mateen to shine in the role.

– Clunky dialogue. There are still problems in the script with characters speaking these cringing lines with such a lack of conviction. That’s not to say that it’s the actors faults, just that far too often these lines don’t flow as natural conversation, instead catering to the superhero demographic that literally forces these people to say these same tired lines. A great example is “The Dark Knight”, where no one speaks like a superhero or villain, instead sounding like a conversation between HUMAN beings, that transcends its superhero label. “Aquaman” shakes itself of all of these familiar tropes except for this one, and it makes for instances of unintentional humor that were distracting.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+