Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed By John McPhail

Starring – Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

The Plot – A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven at Christmas, forcing Anna (Hunt) and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.

Rated R for zombie violence and gore, adult language, and some sexual material

POSITIVES

– Sensational toe-tapping soundtrack. Since this is a musical above everything else, the music better be right on point, and thankfully the combination of Roddy Hart and Tommy Riley gift wrap us a series of spectacles that never trail on personality. The songs in the film are not only catchy, but lyrically cerebral in that they channel the pulse of the character’s inner thoughts at that particular moment. When the music is exceptional during a musical, it pushes a film that much further, and the quality of production and performance in favorite tracks of mine like “Break Away”, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You”, and “Soldier At War” all could easily be played on top 40 radio right now.

– Extremely likeable characters. Most of the reason for the enjoyment of these charming teenagers falls on the shoulders of the exceptionally talented musically trained actors who portray them, but I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention how the film does a remarkable job of displaying their hopes and dreams. Hunt’s Anna is a dreamer we can embrace because we’ve all felt muddled in the shallow waters that we were born into, and seek new adventures somewhere just beyond the rainbow. But despite her name being in the title, this isn’t JUST Anna’s movie, as plenty of time is invested in her surrounding friends and family who the movie values equally. Even more so, the rest of the ensemble harvest a variety of personalities and demeanors about them that make you crave more of the delightful dynamic between them that hits its mark every time because of energetic chemistry.

– Stunning special effects work. It’s clear that the budget isn’t anything of blockbuster level here, as much of the zombie sequences limit the make-up’d actors in frame, however what little we do get provides enough bang for the buck in the areas of make up and prosthetics. None of the patterns of decomposition ever feel like they obviously repeat, nor do they struggle at capturing the scarring of blunt force trauma. On this subject, the film has no shortage of creative kills that surprisingly indulge us in the physical side of the red stuff, instead of computer animated like we’ve been trained to. This gives the film easily its biggest desire to be R-rated because the kills are performed in devastatingly invasive fashion, providing several scenes that will make you wince.

– Not afraid to take chances. Part of the thing that really floored me about the much more riveting third act of the movie is how it’s not afraid to put a price tag on any character who comes into frame. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it’s obvious not everyone makes it out alive here, but who we lose along the way will provide a couple of heartbreaking instances where it pleasantly tries to distance itself from the many survival films that came before it, and successfully so.

– Originality in lighting and set pieces. Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film is the presentation and backdrops that add a lot of fun to the technical aspects of the film. Despite being a brief 87 minute movie, the story takes us through a barrage of town landscapes and institutions like a bowling alley, a Christmas tree store, and of course the auditorium inside of the kid’s high school, and each of these presents a new series of adversities for our group of characters, allowing the ability to keep the action fresh in its creativity. In addition, each of these are highlighted by Christmas light style lighting that gives the scenes they accompany a distinct and familiar glow that effectively channels the Christmas season.

– Post credit animation sequence. Be sure to stay all the way through the closing credits, as we are treated to a few familiar scenes from the movie that are played out in zany animated textures. The animation used is almost pop-up style decor, all the while catering to familiar physical traits of the actors that close the gap between live action and animated renderings otherwise feeling so foreign. It serves as the perfect closed door on a movie that never struggled in capturing the fun and airy atmosphere that only a musical can provide.

– A breakthrough performance. Ella Hunt is no stranger to the silver screen, acting in over twenty films and TV shows to date, but it’s her work here that has allowed her to breakthrough the stratosphere to the other side of inevitable A-list names. As the title character, Hunt instills a combination of grief over the loss of her Mother, and ambition for something different to her predictable existence. Hunt’s angelically deep eyes and tomboy persona make her the kind of girl we all need in our lives, but it’s the transformation into this killing machine where it’s probably best we stay away. Well done Ella.

NEGATIVES

– One big disappointment. If I pointed to one thing weighing this movie down negatively it’s the undercooked humor that missed its mark nearly every time. I laughed twice during this movie, and I blame a lot of that on a film that so desperately wants to be “Shaun Of the Dead” without the confidence in material to understand its audience. I mention that movie because there are uncanny similarities in the two films, from something as small as zombie fake-outs in sound, to something big like near-identical humorous deaths. I wish the movie could’ve developed the humor muscle of the movie a bit tighter, as the lines intended to tickle fall flat at almost embarrassingly bad levels.

– No developed urgency. This of course changes during the pivotal third act, but so much of the film’s first two acts lack the kind of danger or devastation needed to understand the magnitude of this situation. This is where the musical designation might do harm in bringing together music and horror accordingly, as the tracks act as a pause button during the scenes of tension, feeling like an abused pause button by the characters that always allows them motivation in evening the odds. I could’ve used a death or two somewhere early on to keep these leads and the audience on their toes, but unfortunately you will be waiting until the final twenty minutes of the movie for things to get interesting.

– Hammered home final message. This is usually incorporated by spoon-fed narration that the film, nor us the audience need to understand the point, but here the producers of the film repeat a song from earlier on that is so clearly obvious that it made me angry for how little of confidence the crew had for me. The irony of the situation is satisfyingly evident without the assistance, and if they ended it just with that, the film could’ve bottled more of that positive energy that it couldn’t afford to give away.

My Grade: 7/10 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-

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Directed By Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Starring – Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld

The Plot – Miles Morales (Moore) comes across the long-dead Peter Parker (Johnson). This Peter Parker is not from his world though; he’s from somewhere else in the multiverse. With Parker’s guidance, Miles will become Spider-Man: and through that he will become part of the ever-expanding ‘Spider-Verse’.

Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild adult language

POSITIVES

– Comic book magazine come to life. There have been films classified as a comic book movie endlessly before, but “Into the Spider-Verse” is the rare exception that actually lives and breathes by this definition. Aside from the breathtaking cinematography that literally transfers the backdrops and landscapes of the comic book accordingly, the movie also brings with it some unique traits in personality that sets it above its kin of the genre. As an animator turned director, Persichetti instills on-screen text that reacts to sounds, on-screen text boxes that serve as the narrator inside of Morales’s mind, three-cut perspectives that radiate that side-by-side feel of a comic book dynamic, and of course the wind range of animation from each respective Spider-Man in the film, that cohesively bonds to feel smoothly in the same film or in this case universe.

– Entrancing visuals in animation. Everything from the variety of ever-changing set designs, including but not limited to a cyberpunk inspired 2018 New York, to the texture of the animation itself, feels every bit as authentic as it does transcendent of the screen, carving out that layer of comic book euphoria that takes precise expertise to competently master it. Sometimes the animation feels straining, like watching a 3D movie without the glasses, but it’s all intentional, as it echoes the vibes perfectly of comic book pages that sometimes lose a little bit of that focus in being the victim of a copy of a copy. But when it’s smooth in depiction, “Into the Spider-Verse” is not only the most beautiful comic book movie of all time, but easily the most beautifully textured film of the year for the knockout presentation that constantly raises the bar with each passing minute.

– Transformative voice acting from a well rounded cast. Shameik Moore is brilliant as the film’s central protagonist, vocalizing the combination of immaturity, fear, and daring nature that we’ve come to expect in the character, from Miles big screen debut. Moore himself is 23 years old, but excels because of a softer and gentler side to vocalizing that easily allows him to immerse himself in this teenage nerd of sorts. Likewise, Nicolas Cage is delightfully meditated as my favorite Spider-Man offering: Spider-Man Noir. His voice is unmistakable, but the smooth deliveries in the manner that only Cage can deliver makes him perfect for the role, and carves out a second animated role of the year (Teen Titans Go To The Movies) that should provide a rebirth for one of America’s most celebrated actors. Jake Johsnon steals the show as Peter Parker, and does so by giving us an older, depressed side to Peter that movie fans aren’t used to seeing. Johnson’s dry delivery and constant undercutting of Miles made for some of my favorite exchanges of the movie, and carved out a dynamic in chemistry between them that had me begging for more films between just these two characters.

– Like most Spider-Man movies, there is a twist midway through the film, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Between weak underwriting of the antagonists, as well as a story that was starting to lose steam, this reveal comes and sort of adds fuel to Miles’s fire, serving as the catalyst to motivate him to become who he’s destined to be. This twist actually did throw me off, and reminded me repeatedly of the one thing that comic books do better than telvision shows or movies, and that is the capability to make something so small feel so devastating to everyone enveloped in the unraveling narrative.

– Thunderous sound design. Although the narration deliveries are a bit mumbled and hard to hear throughout the film, the rumbling intensity of character perspectives allowed the audience several takes to investing themselves into the shoes of the character. One such example is early on in the film during a ride to school between Miles and his father, and we are treated to the faint sounds of cars whizzing by. Sounds small in effect, but I can’t tell you how many movies bumble this sound design repeatedly, taking something so honest as influence of environment and wiping it away to constantly remind us of studio interference. This of course isn’t the only aspect of this impactful sound scheme throughout, but just an example of how much time and effort went in to establishing an environment and seeing it all the way through to the finish line of the scene’s progression.

– Patience in storytelling. What I appreciate about the story inside is that it never feels rushed or forced to approach the same kind of familiar tropes that so many of these films are about. As much as this is a coming of age story for Miles, it’s also a family drama, and the elements of both of these slow cook, giving time to each to boil to the top once they’ve reached their respective intensities. Likewise, I also appreciated Miles growing into his capabilities as Spider-Man, instead of being great at them right away. This drives me nuts constantly in Spider-Man films because no one should be able to master these gifts without practice, and Morales’s story finally gives us insight, as well as concentration into the one who accepts these responsibilities.

– Doesn’t try to be something that it’s not with time allowance. So many superhero films are encroaching on that two-and-a-half hour mark with very little reason, but “Into the Spider-Verse” stays confidently firm at 108 minutes because that is how much story it has to tell. Because of this, the pacing feels smooth, never giving us an obvious moment of downtime or lag to the progression of the movie, nor the bottling of momentum that never manages to lose even a single drop. I was very much consistently invested in this story and characters, and this feeling gave off the impression that I was being re-introduced to the superhero genre all over again.

– The more you know. The film will appeal to fans young and old of Spider-Man all the same, but if you have followed this legendary character with more dedication, you will be rewarded for your years and dollars invested. Throughout the film, we are treated to an endless offering of inside character jokes, surprising cameo appearances, and a post credits scene that pokes fun at a certain meme that is all the talk of the comic book community. Aside from this, the humor is above average, and more importantly does so by providing observation at the honest, awkward moments of life, instead of catering to a set-up and delivery that can otherwise grow tiresome.

– Thrilling action sequences and set pieces that add to the intensity of the scene. Much of the fresh consistency comes from the variety of villains that adorn the film, but two sequences in particular stood out as fantasy in possibility that remind us why animated is the way to go for comic book lore. One such scene takes place with Peter and Miles swinging throughout the woods of what feels like an endless forest, giving us several intelligent uses of the web that a city setting just can’t accommodate, and the other is the film’s climax fight high above the city limits, at crossroads of the many universes we’ve been told about. Both of these scenes are great for their super quick arsenals of choreography that exchange like dance partners, but the true beauty and consequences of the latter gave us a finale with a familiar antagonist that fully realizes the Miles transformation.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, I could’ve used more development in the relationship between Uncle Aaron (Voiced by Mahershala Ali) and Miles. We’re constantly told what Aaron means to Miles, but rarely shown it, and I could’ve used a few more scenes to flesh out and truly feel the drama of something that goes down between them. Even if this is nit-picking at this point, this stands out like a sore thumb as the film’s most noticeable weakness, and I could’ve used a couple more scenes to magnify Aaron’s importance to the script and give the movie enough reason to reach for that two hour runtime.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Bumblebee

Directed By Travis Knight

Starring – Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr

The Plot – On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence

POSITIVES

– Most of the reason that this film works for me is in the dynamic between Charlie and Bumblebee that transcends the conventional film friendship. These are two outcasts who feel alone in the world they both inhabit, so when they do cross paths it allows each of them to open up and shine to their truest potential. Charlie in particular, is still reeling from the untimely death of her father, while B feels like a prisoner on his new home, so we invest in the friendship between them because in turn each one of them represents what the other is missing. Likewise, this dynamic is something that has been missing from this franchise for a long time, and Knight guides along a movie about relationships that just happen to be on the eve of this robotic day of justice.

– Personal touches on the bots. Knight’s beneficial detail is something that certainly didn’t go unnoticed by this critic, as he gives the robots a more relatable side to human emotion and interaction that sometimes felt strained in past editions. Bumblebee’s facial registries are more clearly defined in this film, emoting happiness, fear, sadness, and worry as well as any of the actors in the film. The fight scenes are also better choreographed and full of more hand-to-hand arsenal than we’ve seen, making for sequences when we telegraph the devastation in each and every blow.

– 80’s aesthetic. It makes sense that this film takes place in the 80’s because that is when the Transformers were brought to life, and its influence over this film is something that makes for some truly enjoyable occasions when it’s done right. One such example is in the subtleties of the housing designs, complete with shag carpet and wood paneling on the walls that remind audiences of the setting of their past accordingly. This angle did sometimes feel a bit too on the nose, like when the movie “The Breakfast Club” pops on the tube, or a box of Mr T cereal non-chalantly pops into frame, but overall I think it’s done with enough vibrancy that rarely takes the attention away from the characters and situations of the screenplay. Which leads to…..

– There’s actual consequences. People died in the other Transformers movies, but we rarely ever saw it. “Bumblebee”, despite its small scale on the number of bots that adorn the film, feels like the most dangerous of the series films because it’s never afraid to get its hands dirty. There are three human deaths in the movie that even I thought were a bit risky for youthful audiences, but I commend a movie for documenting the ferocity and dangerous demeanor of the Decepticons physically. Because of such, there’s a bit of uncertainty to a story that would otherwise be predictably cartoonish, and I welcomed this responsibly stern take on depicting the perils of war without flinching.

– Plenty of laughs for the whole family. In addition to the physical bodily humor that was depicted in the trailers for the film, there’s surprisingly no shortage of hearty laughs between the interaction of our two main characters. What’s even more important is that these instances of humor never soiled the heart or the integrity of the franchise, instead instilling these welcome moments of breath in between the carnage and devastation that were the majority of the movie. My favorite is definitely a car vandalization scene, in which B gets his first taste of revenge against an antagonist who clearly messed with the wrong girl.

– Appropriate run time. This might be the single most important aspect of the film, because the previous Transformers chapters felt like an eternity when I watched them. Clocking in at a respectable 109 minutes, “Bumblebee” carries with it the smooth pacing and frequent transitions to constantly keep the screenplay moving at a pleasurable stride, making it feel unlike anything before. There was never a moment in the film where it felt lagging or derivative of an earlier scene, and because of such, this will certainly be the first Transformers movie that I will have no problem watching again.

– My favorite soundtrack of 2018. This could easily fall into the category of 80’s touches, but I felt it required its own mention because of the impressive collection of assorted artists that will earn my first soundtrack purchase of the year. Some of my favorite tracks of the decade, like “Take on Me” by A-Ha, “I Know It’s Over” by The Smiths, or “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” by Tears For Fears, are just a few of the tasty grooves that shine in their respectable moments, signaling the end of a decade of music that some still argue as the very best that ever graced our speakers. While it’s the 80’s that shines for a majority, stay during the artistic post-film credit sequence for an uplifting track called “Back To Life” from the film’s leading lady Hailee Steinfeld. It proves there’s nothing she can’t do.

NEGATIVES

– One character doesn’t fit. I will probably be in the minority here, and I certainly have nothing against this actor, but I felt Lendeborg Jr’s character didn’t work in the dynamic chemistry of B and Charlie. This is especially the case considering where this forced romance to the plot ends up by film’s end. Not only this, but it kind of takes away from the aspect of Charlie feeling like a loner until she meets this one-of-a-kind robot who completely transforms her world. Do me a favor if you don’t believe me: take every situation that Lendeborg’s character is in, remove him, and see if it changes anything at all.

– Choppy editing. This is sadly still a problem in the franchise, and frankly it’s not the soul reason to blame for some sloppy action sequences. The camera angles themselves are certainly far too close on the immense size of these dueling bots, but too many cuts in the sequencing itself is the most obvious enemy that these big budget battles spoil. The special effects themselves look great in the film, so there’s absolutely no reason why we should be using this ploy that hides negatives so frequently. Everyone wants to be “Saving Private Ryan”, but sometimes less pageantry of the visuals is more.

– Too many endings. There’s a shot on the Golden Gate Bridge that was the perfect conclusion to this film, but sadly it’s ruined by an additional three scenes that frankly don’t add anything more of substance, and doesn’t allow us to hit the credits during the most impactful moment. More than anything, it’s to link itself to the other movies in ways that should go without saying, but I would prefer if a movie this special demolishes any roads that leads it to the awful Michael Bay directed movies that kidnapped a lot of adult’s childhoods.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Directed By The Coen Brothers

Starring – Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown

The Plot – A six-part Western anthology film that acts as a series of tales about the American frontier, as told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen. Each chapter tells a distinct story about the American West.

Rated R for strong violence

POSITIVES

– Artistic framing with the dreamy backdrops. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is possibly my favorite Coen Brothers movie, so it gives me great pleasure that they brought along cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to provide visual layers with the film’s color pallet, against a gorgeous Wild West landscape. This is the first film that the Coen Brothers have shot in digital film, so there are literally no limits that they and Bruno can take in emitting the true beauty in such a dangerous and unpredictable place. The wide shots during story progression scenes harvest the magic of a refined museum painting, practically begging to be seen on a screen as big as the sky, and the variation of colored lenses throughout the many stories, provided a unique take on the ranging tones in atmosphere that every story took us through. Particularly during the sixth and final story, we are treated to a decaying blue effect that patiently rises as the sun goes down, giving nuance to the very cold shade of discovery that our protagonists are feeling.

– Sharp tongue-and-cheek humor to counterbalance the permanency of the impactful violence. While the film takes us on many bends of tone that would diminish the danger in a lesser directed film, The Coen Brothers instead remain true to their guns, depicting the level of savage, hard-R violence to blend fruitfully with the fantasy of aspects like singing narration, and the strange thing is it all works magically. Never in the film did the latter diminish the quality of the lawless environment, nor did it ever feel out of place with the Coen Brothers usual indulgence of humorous awkwardness during trying times. In fact, there were many times in the film when I was caught off guard with the twists and turns because I was fooled into believing that everything would be alright, with a delightful song and dance.

– Clever uses of the music heard throughout. Particularly during the first two stories in the film, the musical score by Carter Burwell is instilled by aspects that are happening on-screen, that give the music a very realistic shaping to what we’re hearing. Such an example is in a piano during the first story that we hear and don’t see until the camera pans left and our piano player comes into frame. This overall provides a gentle immersion between the road of film and real life that many movies lack anymore, and it’s certainly an ingenious way to bring the elements of music to the forefront of the story.

– Impeccable sound design. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a film to watch with the volume turned up as loud as the set of human ears can physically take, and the reason for this is in the riveting, pulse-setting loads of ammunition that fly by our character’s dreaded dispositions. This gives the unfurling drama a sense of being as close to the devastation as an audience can muster without actually being there, and the screenplay’s unforgiving nature to any character only elevates this tension to fearful levels when you hear a gun come into play during a scene.

– Authentically transformative performances from the entire cast, that etch out a reputation for the Coen Brothers handle over the elements of their film. While there are familiar actors in the film’s ensemble, like Liam Neeson or James Franco, the direction does a strong enough job in getting each actor to lose themselves in roles that are different from their usual comfort zones and roles that we as an audience expect from them. It also doesn’t hurt that the wardrobe and props department fire on all cylinders, forcing you to do many double takes towards each actor that moves in and out of frame. Without question, my favorite is certainly Tim Blake Nelson as the title character. Nelson exuberates a slick demeanor and authentic Western accent with confidence, giving us such an alluring set of welcoming arms into this story, and constantly doubling down on the endless charisma. My only wish is that he played a bigger role in the film, but I will get to that later.

– Brilliant camera drifts that works cohesively with the element of surprise. There’s such a cerebral sense behind the movement of discoveries that constantly built the drama, that I couldn’t get enough of. Such scenes are rare in film, and often give us the feeling that we are actually moving a mile ahead of the characters in the movie at all times, and this movie has no shortage of them. While I could list a few for this film in particular, I will say that my favorite involved a big protagonist character who doesn’t realize he’s been shot in the head until the camera pans down and we see a bloody hole in the front and back of his cowboy hat. Aside from the startling discovery of losing someone so prominent to the film, the sequence is shot in a way that forces you to hold your breath and hope everything that you’re feeling isn’t real, when in focus we find that it is. Rhythmic drama at its finest.

– Storybook style narration that adds nuance to the elements within an anthology genre movie. Beyond the many things I mentioned above, it’s the incredibly small attention to detail that gave the movie a rich sense of production value, and transcended the qualities of being just another set of campfire stories. At the beginning of each story, we are shown an actual storybook, complete with author-style text and vibrant storyboard drawings to accommodate what is transpiring on-screen. It gives the film a great sense of re-watchability for being able to pause it and take it all in, and it’s a reminder of throwback anthology films like “Creepshow” that adhered to the gimmick.

– Little things Part two. There’s this strong authenticity with the dialogue and character accents that fruitfully replicate the particular geography and time period seamlessly, and instill this feeling that many hours were spent on perfecting the craft. Terms are used that you wouldn’t necessarily hear in modern day, and that factor plays prominently in the believability of what we’re seeing and hearing on-screen. Nothing ever feels out of place or wooden to the world the brothers create inside, and I respect a perfectionist’s stance when it comes to hammering home something that could easily go over the head of its audience.

NEGATIVES

– A glaring weakness. For my money, stories four and six were the obvious weaknesses of the movie for me, and gave way to a lot of problems that didn’t exist in the rest of the project. It’s in these stories where the uneven pacing begins to show itself, as the stories up to that point moved with such vicious urgency. For whatever reason, these two stories were given much more ample time with developing their stories, and felt much more redundant in events because of such. In addition to this, I was disappointed a bit with the title of the movie because it doesn’t exactly define what the whole film entails. Instead, the title really only speaks to one-sixth of the story, and provides emphasis for why these stories would’ve worked much better as individual episodes, instead of one cohesive project.

– Conservative constrictions. While not a problem for everyone, there’s nothing enveloped that challenges the cliche conventions of Western civilization that are decades old. Once again, white men are heroes, even when they’re killers. White women are delicate prizes to be defended and won. Indigenous people are “savages” who exist purely to terrorize the first two groups. The west is a place of shattered dreams, dust, and death. Turn page. Repeat. The end. You’ve seen it before; the Coen’s have no qualms about showing it again. Just one story of female heroism or Indigenous perspective could’ve satisfied me.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Directed By Phil Johnston and Rich Moore

Starring – John C Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot

The Plot – Taking place six years after saving the arcade from Turbo’s vengeance, the Sugar Rush arcade cabinet has broken, forcing Ralph (Reilly) and Vanellope (Silverman) to travel to the Internet via the newly-installed Wi-Fi router in Litwak’s Arcade to retrieve the piece capable of saving the game.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Artistic elevation of the new expanding world. As to where the first film riveted us with pixelated 8-bit goodness, with an air of modern rendering, this sequel as well captivates our imagination, depicting the internet as a creative backdrop to all of the world’s business. While probably not always true, the internet in the film is presented as this beautiful place that stretches as far as your vision can go, blending a strong combination of detailed layers and colorful textures, to make for a visual presentation that is second to none, in terms of animated properties this year. Likewise, the blending of old school hand-drawn animation for characters like Sonic the Hedgehog blend wonderfully with the modern day sheik of computer style animation, that make up a majority of characters within the film, and prove that this is a universe with all kind of shapes, colors, sizes, and even dimensions.

– That surprisingly responsible third act. While this film certainly isn’t stretching the boundaries of its PG rating of limitations, the script does take on enough dark and gritty themes to responsibly educate its youth demographic on the hazards of the internet, personal insecurities, and the rules of friendship. It’s in this poignant punch of material where the film’s tone ages gracefully, packing an unexpected psychological antagonist for the characters and film that I didn’t see coming, and one that proves Ralph can garner substance to go hand-in-hand with its captivating visual features.

– Strong ensemble voice work. Reilly and Silverman once again tap into a lot of raw energy and versatility in the stretching of their range capacity, but this time they’re asked to channel more of that impeccable rapport that made so much of the third act in the previous movie the film’s strong point. Thankfully, the consistency remains prominent, and the two pack a sweet punch combo of chemistry that will make you laugh, cry, or lose yourself to the way they live and breathe these animated properties. As for new additions, the work of Gadot as a badass street racer is one that carves out an unlikely outline for little girls who don’t fit into the Disney princess mold, and Taraji P Henson’s sassy familiarity is nearly unrecognizable as the blue-skinned, energetic Yes.

– Clever sight gags and dialogue quips that breathe intelligence. Where a film like this gets it right over a movie like “The Emoji Movie” is that it takes something as universal as the internet and carves out these ideas within the element that many can draw onto for how familiar it all feels. Some of the film’s best work in this regard engages in pop-up annoyances, auction bidding, and my personal favorite: the Disney expanding universe. On the latter, the interaction of superheroes and Star Wars characters makes for one of those once in a lifetime possibilities, but it’s the Disney princess’s themselves who steal the show, etching out a layer of social commentary for how outdated some of their ideals come across in 2018. It all makes for something that doesn’t settle for being just scenery for the narrative, and brings with it no shortage of witty material that tickled my funny bone more times than not.

– One spectacular musical number. While the Wreck-It Ralph franchise isn’t like other Disney properties, in that it never has to sing about its emotions, there is one number in this movie that I thought fit wonderfully from Vanellope’s downtrodden disposition and Disney princess recommendations. What’s even more important is that it’s actually a good song that does a double service deed of authenticity, depending on how you choose to look at it. The first is for Disney’s usual sporadic lyrics, which sometimes are all over the place in terms of topical consistency, and the second is keeping with the tradition of catchy chorus lines, that will have you humming it long after you leave the theater. Silverman won’t be confused for a singer any time soon, but her infectious vocal deliveries combined with the absurdity of the lyrics, make for three delightful minutes that I greatly enjoyed.

– Perfect timing for a particular cameo. I won’t ruin anything for this person popping up, but when you consider what the entertainment media world has been through in the last two weeks, the appearance of a familiar face to the silver screen feels transcendent for how incredible it played hand-in-hand with this person’s real life passing. It’s only for around two seconds long, but only proves how much of a lasting memory and permanent stamp on pop culture this person made on us all. You truly couldn’t have timed this one any better, and its subtlety as being the only real life person in this world of fantasy proves that they will live on forever.

– I commend a movie where the setting itself is secondary to the characters, and it’s clear that the evolving and straineous friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is what plays front-and-center here. As the film progresses from internet arrival, to money-making campaigns, to a King Kong inspired final conflict, you come to understand that everything we’ve been shown ranges around the adventures of these two people, and I loved that the film, despite educating its youth on the internet, never strayed too far away from the unveiled layers of these two people. An example of this done wrong is in the National Lampoon’s Vacation sequels, in that the Griswolds became almost an experiment of the environments they were being introduced to. Here, Ralph and Vanellope constantly bring the focus home. If they didn’t, the moving closing moments of the third act wouldn’t register, and thankfully they did.

NEGATIVES

– Age boundaries with the humor. While the comedy worked around 70% of the time for me, I feel like it’s because of my age why I was able to grasp onto the clever material with so much success. I noticed in my theater that most of the quips were going over the kids heads, and I think that lack of crossover appeal between age groups may limit Ralph Breaks the Internet’s final judgement. Because of such, I would recommend this more as a home video kind of experience for kids, as the theater is designed to test their attention in ways that isn’t as easy as sitting in front of the tube.

– I hate the title of this movie. I know, it’s stupid to complain about something so minimally important, but in my eyes a title can tell you everything that’s clever and important about a movie, and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is in the shadows of a much more encapsulating title. “Ralph WRECKS the Internet” not only tells you everything that’s to be expected, but also keeps the consistency of its predecessor, that was short, sweet and simple. If you watch the first trailer, even Disney agrees, when Yes asks Ralph why they don’t just call it “Ralph Wrecks the Internet”, during a scene that isn’t even in the final cut of the film.

– Sloppiness during the first act. It’s strange to speak of a movie that gets better as it progresses, but that’s what you have here. The first thirty minutes of this movie not only feel very rushed to me, but also limit the kind of proper character exposition needed to pull you into its new conflict. This didn’t happen for me until about halfway into the film, once the focus drifts away from the internet and rests on its two central protagonists. As guilty is an out of place exposition line requiring a flashback, that felt completely out of place compared to the rest of the film. This to me is the definition of lazy writing, and there were certainly much more easier ways to work this into the script than halting the progression of our current day narrative.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Green Book

Directed By Peter Farrelly

Starring – Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

The Plot – When Tony Lip (Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism, danger-as well as unexpected humanity and humor-they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, adult language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– The powerful dynamic between the two leads that keeps your attention throughout the film. There are very few scenes when Mortensen and Ali aren’t sharing the screen together, and that dependency speaks volumes to the confidence that the script writers had on their unshakeable chemistry, which is appealing in any and every way you can imagine. Besides their impeccably witty banter that I couldn’t get enough of, and firm grasp that each actor had on their character, the duo each do a positive service to the other, like how Tony breaks down decades old levels of racism in how he was brought up, and Don adapts to the cultures and experiences that have eluded him in his classical music upbringing. Each character opens up the eyes to the other, and it’s refreshing to see two older male leads who work better as a team than they do solely.

– Speaking of those two men, the performances from them are more than deserving of Oscar consideration, and consistently keep pace with each character’s evolution. For Mortensen’s Tony, he’s every bit naive as he is disgusting, and it’s in the unabashed nature of the latter that keeps the former in the range of childhood innocence. He says some pretty offensive things, but you get the feeling that he doesn’t know any better, and Viggo’s charisma is constantly on display. For Don, it’s a classier side of Ali that we unfortunately haven’t seen until now. Mahershala keeps Don bottled up for most of the movie, restrained by the confines of countrywide racism and isolation, as a result of his astonishing talents. Ali continues to build lengthy presence on screen, and his designation as the straight man to Tony’s mayhem never limits him to playing second fiddle.

– In seeing the trailers, I designated this as just another road trip film, with sprinkles of racist tribulations thrown in, and I couldn’t have been more wrong in that assumption. Sure, the elements of that subgenre are certainly there, but they’re only an outline to cater to a much bigger picture. The film’s meaty material guides us through elements of racial stereotypes, police brutality, and obviously the cultural divide between the north and south. This film takes on so many subplots, and yet it succeeds at stirring the pot of conversation in every single one of them. Eventually, it even evolves into one hell of a Christmas movie, during the emotionally stirring third act that warmed my heart in ways that only the Christmas classics have done. I haven’t felt this emotionally satisfied from a film in quite some time, and its important subject matter makes it very time appropriate for our particular age.

– Unorthodox introduction. There are no opening credits or title card in the film. This is done as a way to immerse audiences into the action of the opening scene, and ultimately makes them forget that they’re watching a film. I would like to see more movies taking creative stances like this one, as I feel too much is hung on the conventional introductions that have otherwise become stale in films. With more emphasis on the transcendence of real life, the film can blend into the real story taking place at hand. Beyond this, some of the real life Vallelonga family members are extras during family dinner scenes.

– Peter Farrelly’s strongest work to date. Yes, it’s the same guy who wrote the ear jizz scene in “There’s Something About Mary”, but this is Peter’s welcoming parade into the world of compelling drama and hearty lessons, that audiences can take home with them. What’s most impressive is Farrelly’s ability to incorporate the same kind of comedic material that exists in his previous movies, and balances it with the dramatic pulse in material that adorns the film, and none of it ever misses a step. This keeps the optimism firmly in the air of a consistent tone for the film, and it’s an example that no director in Hollywood should ever be written off before the project is finished.

– The look and feel of 1962 is represented fruitfully with an earnestness to captures that radiates. There wasn’t a single aspect of the vintage automobiles, three piece suits, or throwback hotel interiors that didn’t sync up, and it’s great to see a film that captures the beats of its respective era by properly channeling the vibes of everything prominently familiar about it. Visually, this is an America we’re no longer accustomed to, and it gives food for thought for the picket fences format, in that the most disturbing things are happening in the most ideal looking backdrops.

– We’ve seen this kind of story before, but what transcends the material of the cliches within this screenplay, is the poignancy of it being based on a true story. These were two men who remained best friends until their dying days, only months apart from each other, and the film does a strong enough job of juggling the expectations of a real life story with the entertainment value of a screenplay, only changing about the story what wouldn’t have otherwise translated well on-screen. It’s also got great adaptability as a crossover favorite for mainstream audiences, highlighting a similar track to some recent best picture winners that previously started off as just independent buzzworthy cinema.

– Contrary to what you’re seeing on-screen, Mahershala Ali does not play the piano, but the film does a great enough job in camera manipulation and sound editing to properly attain this believability. Kris Bowers, the film’s musical composer, doubles as Ali in his piano sequences, and in particularly hand close-ups that attain the movements of a reputable pianist superbly. When Ali is obviously in frame, the audio from the piano is muted and replaced with Bowers masterful work, carving out times when I really did question whether Ali took classes as a pianist, leading up to the film.

– One aspect that a lot of road trip movies forget about is properly channeling the distance in miles to properly articulate the distance from home, and thankfully “Green Book” doesn’t fall under this same spell. In addition to its over two hour run time, the majority of which is spent on the road, the film takes us through a variety of landscapes and cultures to echo that of the melting pot known as America. This is a film that takes its time in illustrating the perils of isolation on the road, making the months feel like years, and the appreciation of things absent from sight that much more meaningful once the reunion takes center stage.

NEGATIVES

– There’s a subplot twist that happens with Shirley’s character midway through the film, that I wish the movie would’ve further elaborated on. In addition to people’s prejudice against him as an African American man, this would’ve only further enhanced the fight against that hatred, and for a scene that changes much about the way we view Shirley, it’s quickly disposed of, to never be mentioned again. This is the one example when a character needed further fleshed out. I could’ve also used more time devoted to Shirley’s estranged brother, who is occasionally brought up to represent Don’s loneliness.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Instant Family

Directed By Sean Anders

Starring – Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Directed By Marielle Heller

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

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Grinch

Directed By Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier

Starring – Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury

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

Rated PG for brief rude humor

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Nobody’s Fool

Directed By Tyler Perry

Starring – Tiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter, Whoopi Goldberg

The Plot – A woman (Haddish) is released from prison and reunites with her sister (Sumpter). She soon discovers that her sister is in an online relationship with a man who may not be what he seems.

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

POSITIVES

– The REAL leading lady. Leaps and bounds above the comedic timing of Haddish, or the progression of Sumpter as the central protagonist, it is Goldberg who steals the show, with about ten total minutes of screen time. Whoopi was not only responsible for 90% of my laughs with this film, but she also added a much needed boost of sophistication to the film, that otherwise felt juvenile. I definitely could’ve used more scenes with her, and I wish Perry would’ve taken more advantage of his seasoned veteran.

– Definitely the easiest Perry film to watch. This doesn’t mean that I liked the film, it just means that “Nobody’s Fool” is easily the most accessable Tyler Perry film to audiences fearful from the word of mouth reputation that he’s attained. The reason for this is because this movie caters to two different types of genre audiences: comedy and romance, and that evolution to the second one is something that gives the film many unexpected directions, in terms of versatility, paving the way for possibly Tyler’s most ambitious project to date.

– Lavish interior set designs. For a film produced for super cheap (19 million), “Nobody’s Fool” has a taste for the finer things, decorating character’s apartments with sheik, alluring color schemes that radiate the vibe of New York City faithfully. This is the aspect of Perry’s direction that finally feels up to par when compared to his Madea films, that often look like they take place in front of cardboard cutout props and dollar store decorations. It’s a constant reminder of the differences between Sumpter and Haddish’s respective characters, painting a visual representation before our very eyes that constantly tells us everything we need to know.

NEGATIVES

– There goes the mystery. To anyone who has seen the trailer, they will know that the mystery of suitor Charlie is what a lot of the pitch is built around, yet when I saw the film this couldn’t be further from the truth. Attention is given to the mystery for about the first half of the film, before the characters move on from a terribly disappointing cameo reveal that reveals how far this celebrity has fallen. It is such an afterthought with the progression of this film, and only feels like a 40 minute joke that doesn’t pay off for a single second.

– Flat comedy that rarely hits. You can tell that this film is putting all of its chips on an amped up version of Tiffany Haddish, but it comes across more as a drunk, annoying ten-year-old, instead of a grown woman who interacts with people. Perry has also brought along one of his most annoying nags as a director, as his comedy never knows when to cut itself short, often dragging on these scenes of improv for what feels like a decade at a time.

– Incompetent direction. Perry never feels like he has a grasp on this story and characters, often changing his mind back-and-forth on the decisions they make that would otherwise be concrete for real human beings. This is no more prominent than in the final thirty minutes of the film, where two dating characters break up and get back together three separate times, and we’re not talking casual break ups where they both remain friends, we are talking devastatingly hurtful words that would scar stronger people. This arc of the film, to put it lightly, is batshit crazy. It’s the Tyler Perry movie you’re used to, but didn’t think you were going to get because of Haddish’s shining star. Proof that Perry will never change regardless of the situation.

– Uninspired effects work and attention deficit continuity. Whether in the car with some attrocious green-screen visuals to represent what looks like New York in the 70’s, or Sumpter’s high rise apartment windows mirroring the exact same lighting scheme every night, this film feels pedestrian for even the smallest things. Above all that though, is the laughably bad continuity between scenes that prove no one on set was paying attention. One such scene involves Sumpter’s character showing up to work with her hair looking crazy from getting no sleep. She is sent home, and immediately in the next scene has hair that is beautifully natural and flowing. Did she feel inspired to do her hair for the car ride home? Does she prefer to look better at home than she does at work?

– This premise isn’t believable in the slightest. You’re telling me that this grown, beautiful, intelligent executive is exchanging texts with a man she’s never seen before, and the reason given is because he has poor wi-fi? Since when do you need wi-fi to send a picture on your phone? Does he have a Facebook page? At the very least, could he have mailed her a picture in the one year they’ve been speaking? Even for a 1990’s premise, I can’t buy this in the slightest. It’s the same kind of baby back bullshit that Perry has been selling his audiences for over a decade, and they’re just stupid enough to buy into it.

– Crammed into the middle of this already bloated screenplay, is a sex scene that is every bit as awkward and engaging as Tommy Wiseau’s in “The Room”. Not only does this scene go on for what feels like forever, not only are the faces made so ridiculously goofy that you won’t be able to fight back laughter, not only is the chemistry between the actors as natural as a brother and sister getting together, but it all ends with the line “You can go home now”. Keep in mind that this is the romance we as an audience are rooting for. There’s also some speculation as to why Perry shot more of the male anatomy than the female in this particular scene. Sure you can say that he’s catering to his female audience, but my intuition points to another theory of mine that I’ve had for years for a man who has made a career dressing in drag. Just be free, Tyler, please.

– Pointless, unlikeable characters. I mentioned earlier that this is a vehicle for Haddish’s talents, but what’s astounding is how little of weight her character has to the unveiling story. Haddish receives top billing, but it’s actually Sumpter who is the main protagonist of the movie, as everything revolves around her character’s love life. If you think Haddish has any place in this movie, think about how much the story would change if her character was wiped from the film. IT WOULDN’T. On the subject of Sumpter’s character, I’m going to be blunt: she’s a nasty, naive bitch who no person with morals would support or indulge with in the slightest. She complains about her love life, yet won’t give the time of day to the cute barista who she sees everyday who loves her and gives her free things, she says these terrible things about people behind their backs and then seeks forgiveness immediately, and she hurts those who help her constantly. I’m all for conflicted protagonists, but Sumpter’s character is someone who I would never embrace on or off screen, so I can’t in good conscience want her to succeed.

My grade: 3/10 or F

The Other Side of the Wind

Directed By Orson Welles

Starring – John Huston, Robert Random, Peter Bogdanovich

The Plot – A satire of Hollywood, the story focuses on the last days of a legendary film director named Jake Hannaford (Huston), who is struggling to forge his last great comeback as a major filmmaker. Hannaford is hard at work on his final masterpiece, “The Other Side of The Wind”.

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

POSITIVES

– Time machine effect. Certain films will transport you to a particular era because of articulate production value for intended purpose, but “The Other Side of the Wind” is a film that attains this by quite literally being a film from a different era of filmmaking. This is a movie that has sat on the shelf for over forty years because of bankruptcy, and is just now seeing the light of day, so the ability to watch something from a time when the things we take for granted were in their infancy, is something that gives the film a one-of-a-kind experience, and grants us one more day in the sun with a genius director who unfortunately left us far too early.

– Crime Noir influenced musical score by Michel Legrand. With plenty of rhythmic jazz instrumentals and an enhanced modern age buffering to clean up the sound, Legrand instills a vibrant sense of the golden age of Hollywood that feeds hand-in-hand with the plot and setting of the film. The easy listenings excel at transcending the screen psychologically in a way that a mockumentary like this requires, and establishes a classy outline to the audibility that envelopes the film synthetically, giving an element of cool to Welles final project.

– Although denied by Welles himself, there’s plenty of reasons to suggest that this film is a bit auto-biographical for the director. Considering this was a man who was very much a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma for admirers who studied him for decades, “The Other Side of the Wind” feels like the most revealing look into a man who was prickly and compromising in the same ways that the main protagonist of the story is. Beyond this, experiences of Welles are decorated throughout the film, engaging us in angles like a snobby critic, the intimacy between a director and his leading ladies, and the urgency of a studio-backed project that often feels like a soul-selling deal to the devil. This all feels a bit too precise to be just another project from Orson, and that thought will hit you almost immediately, should you decide to take this film on.

– Surprisingly, a great amount of dependency upon comedy. Not only is the humor for the film necessary in keeping the audience invested into the dialogue heavy banter throughout two hours of the movie, it’s also finely tuned with a strong combination of sarcasm and reveal, to give us the elusive backlot commentary for most productions during the time. While nothing is truly laugh-out-loud in terms of material, the accuracy of its modest deliveries were something that remained consistent, creating an open door for people to hook themselves into these characters and situations.

– Razor sharp editing. Some of Welles best work in film has always been his ahead-of-its-time editing, and that is certainly on display here, through sequences that sometimes juggle two or three on-going narratives. There was over four hundred hours of film shot in total for this film, so the production team had quite the challenge in trimming this to just two hours, but I think old Orson would be proud if he managed to see the exceptional work involving visual psychological twitches, as well as the juggling of cinematography styles, to make a presentation that feels chaotically subversive. Editing like those depicted in the film are thought of as conventional in 2018, but that thought process is because of a visual pioneer who had the vision to try it first.

– Symbolism of life versus film. There’s a film within this film that is also called “The Other Side of the Wind”, and it’s in dissecting the real film’s two sides where you see Orson’s most obvious discoveries. The fictional film is not only shot more beautifully, involving a rich blend of color to compliment the stained-glass feel, but also feels less complicated because of the lack of dialogue used from within. I believe Orson was telling us that real life is anything but the movies, and that the desirable world we seek lies somewhere in the middle of the fantasy and reality that became his artistic expression. I did manage to find much more in the comparison, but I would start reaching spoiler territory, and I’d rather let you experience it for yourself.

– A duo of fully-committed performances. I’d like to see Huston receive an Oscar nomination, for the ink blot test of a character that Hannaford comes across as. There’s an essence of sadness that comes from his unlimited wisdom inside of the game for so long, and Huston’s grizzled face and unabashed nature in tearing down every relationship and honor he’s attained, lend to a trapped personal hell that the director can’t escape. Matching him nearly jab-for-jab, is Bogdanovich, as my favorite character, Brooks. Peter is himself a director in real life, so he knows what it takes to channel a character in a way that makes him essential to the film, and that’s what we have here. When Brooks is off camera, with the noticeable lack of delightful banter between he and Hannaford, as well as his collection of celebrity impressions, the movie stalls. His inclusion is that important, and the chemistry with Huston cements a friendship that hangs in the balance between student/teacher and best friends. It also doesn’t hurt that Bogdanovich is the single best Bill Hicks look-a-like that I’ve ever seen.

NEGATIVES

– This is a tough sell to any kind of audience, mainly because the disjointed nature of these scenes can sometimes come across as hollow and inconsistent. Especially in the first act, there’s a real lack of definition from what transpires, and the collection of scenes feel like just that: a collection of separated instances that don’t necessarily gel as one cohesive unit. If you can make it through this, the film does eventually pick up, but it’s clear that a lot of the heart and instinct that comes with the director of such a passion project is missing from the scene.

– While the film within the film is stylishly provocative and sensually sinister, it takes up far too much of the finished run time, for my taste. This serves as a major distraction to the continuity and progressive flow of the characters we become invested in, leaving them far too often to come across as nothing more than a test of patience that the audience frequently has to endure.

– Certain aspects of the film unfortunately don’t age well. Female abuse treated like a hiccup, free-flowing use of the derogatory term for the gay community, and the main protagonist’s desire for underage women only do damage to a movie that is at least a product of its time, and at most an offensive time stamp that reminds us how far we’ve come as a society. These three things are tied to necessary developments in the plot, but don’t erase the elements that make it difficult to embrace a character like Hannaford.

My grade: 7/10 or B-