Under the Silver Lake

Directed By David Robert Mitchell

Starring – Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace

The Plot – Sam (Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Keough), frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool. When she vanishes, Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal and conspiracy in the City of Angels.

Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, adult language throughout and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Sparkling style. Considering this is from the same man who helmed 2014’s “It Follows”, the entrancing visuals involving eye-catching color and velocity behind the lens isn’t surprising in the least. While Mitchell’s story itself is something that I had a lot of problems with, the beauty inside of this Lynch-meets-Refn world of color dominated sequences constantly allured me and kept me engaged into the progression of the scene with its unabashed focus. It’s unique how one particular color will take dominance over an entire frame, making everything else surrounding it weak to the lustrous glow that seduces us front-and-center, with the cherry on top being David’s signature slow, stirring close-up pans that conjure up an atmosphere of unnerving tension that conveys something sinister at play in the city of angels.

– Musical Majesticism. Both the variety of tones compiled by Disasterpiece to make another must-buy musical score, as well as the film’s storytelling soundtrack by rock band Silversun Pickups lights the way for an audible presence that sinks its hooks into us with all of its subtle nuance and nostalgia that breathes patiently without feeling like an obvious gimmick. Fresh off of his unsettling stirring that was “It Follows” Disasterpiece once again rivets, combining orchestral cues, beach vibe blues, and 8-bit sound bites to drill out a composition that evolves right along with the story. Disasterpiece rides the waves in tone complexity that the film sometimes rapidly shifts us under, and emits a level of euphoric mystery that competently articulates the inherency of its central protagonist. The new material from Pickups, one of my favorite current rock bands going today, is also appreciated, bringing forth an air of familiarity in the vocals of Brian Aubert to play into this band of characters within the film who thrive more for their pageantry instead of their aspiring talents.

– My interpretation. While the film certainly doesn’t settle for feeding into just one consistent direction of social commentary, the themes of paranoia against conspiracy theorists overwhelmed me, and brought forth an intended level of comical delight that at times elevated the lunacy of the material. The sheer silliness associated with Sam’s investigative measures are as far of a stretch as anything you’ll ever see in cinema, and feed fuel for the fire for the world’s theorists who sometimes look far too deeply in interpreting media. In a sense, you can argue that this is Mitchell’s way of getting back at the masses who interpreted “It Follows” as something far deeper than it rightfully was, spreading it as a completely different monster than the creator intended. Curiosity is an inspiring thing in film, but an audience audacity at searching for clues in the widest margins is clearly present throughout, and elaborates that the best battles are left carefully chosen by intelligent people.

– Direction reflecting performances. David has a way of stirring these never-before-seen performances from his cast, and none is more prominent of than the work of Andrew Garfield as Sam. Garfield’s usual endless charisma is reserved in small doses here, instead bringing along enough neuroticism and quirk to feed into his evolving curiosity, and while there are plenty of moments of laughter from Andrew’s nervous registry, his shining stride comes in the form of fabricated intelligence that lights up his face like a Christmas tree whenever he comes on to some kind of clue. Garfield is given occasional help from reputable turns from Keough, Grace, and especially one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, Jimmi Simpson, but he commands 100% of the scenes that we tail through, so this one man show is perhaps the most emotionally demanding of Garfield’s still-young, storied career.

– Transformative editing technique. You’ll notice something off almost immediately with the editing, and like its material that reflects the beats, gags, and theories associated behind the picket fences of Hollywood, Mitchell’s permanence in editing is a throwback to silver-aged cinema, when dissolving was the majority editing direction over quick-cuts. Not only does this technique maintain the urgency associated with the investigation, but it also transfers time in a way that quick-cuts often leave you scrambling for how much time has passed between cuts. It’s measures like this that keep this from feeling like a completely pretentious presentation, and instead takes viewers with it down the rabbit hole to a setting that feels modern, but a production quality that feels anything but, stitching this collision of crossroads that immerse together as one cohesive quality.

NEGATIVES

– Meandering mystery. There are many in this film. So many in fact that the film feels muddled in its narrative direction long before the halfway point. What happened to this girl? Who is the Dog killer? Who is the Owl killer? Is there truth to there being clues in pop culture ads and products? and so many more. The girl one is obviously the one that sparks Sam’s initial movements, but throughout a majority of the film, the eye on the prize becomes more than slightly blurred, and we start to lose attention towards what is essentially driving him. I did manage to predict one of these mysteries correctly, but taking credit for it would be childish considering the film doesn’t take any time to develop any other characters to make it stir with intrigue. As I mentioned before, there are many ideas for this film…..too many, but what stilts the impact of each of their indulgence is an incoherent, disjointed manner of storytelling that challenges you for all of the wrong reasons, leaving you tossing and turning through a film that is every bit as jumbled as 2015’s “Inherent Vice”.

– Heavy run time. If you’re going to set out to make a 137 minute film, you better outline a script that makes it impossible to turn away from, but thanks to the abundance of drowning dialogue exchanges and repetition of similar scenes despite differences in location, “Under the Silver Lake” keeps burying us under suffocating weight of bumbling exposition, that quite frequently goes nowhere. Beyond this, if you use conventionalism in filmmaking to outline where you are at in the story, you will quickly become disappointed with where you’re at, at any given time. There were a few times during the film when it felt like things were starting to wrap up, only to discover that I still had 90 minutes left in the film. The pacing also does it no favors, building such little momentum between scene transitions, unless you’re half as stupid as Sam is, and believe half of the bullshit that you’re being asked to chew on.

– Sloppy editing. This is perhaps the biggest surprise to me, as “It Follows” was edited in a way that carefully carried over the tension and sense of dread that enveloped every scene and ensuing atmosphere, But with “Under the Silver Lake”, we get no level of consistency or transition with these scenes, jaggedly cutting with several fade-to-black measures that shoe-horn a wedge in between scenes that are supposed to be consistently running together. There are scenes where cuts come long after they were expected, leaving an ample amount of silence before the cut, and there are scenes where dialogue is cut-off in what I can only fathom as being intentional? This is the area of production that certainly could’ve used another measure of tweaking inside of the studio, and thanks to this disjointed nature of what is transpiring on-screen, it occasionally makes the film’s second act feel like two films involving the same characters being trapped in multiple plots, are running simultaneously.

– Lack of female depth. This could be considered intentional because our following of Sam orchestrates a treatment towards women that only values them for their physical attributes, and never psychological stimulation, but a film made in 2018 (It was on the shelf for a year) that only asks its female leads to be naked, or really stand as nothing more than a sexual target for Sam, makes it hard to believe that this intention serves a valid purpose within the film. In fact, even as I sit here typing this review one hour after watching the film, I can’t remember a single female’s name outside of Sarah (Keough), Sam’s increasing obsession, who is only in three scenes during the entire film. Everyone else is easily forgettable, and it’s this level of ignorance that only caters to one side of the audience spectrum, leaving the criminally ignored to be victims of a story that is every bit as tedious as it is condemning to half of its gender audience. Consider that Sam is only interested in Sarah and uncovering her mystery because she’s the only one who he hasn’t been with intimately. It casts a sleazy circumstance to the movie’s hook, and even worse never confronts its protagonist because of such. Progressive ideals, no?

– Abrupt tonal shifts. This is a film that is trying to obtain a level of seedy darkness in its mystery, all the while poking us occasionally with this sharp level of awkward humor that dares you to get lost in the cooky appeal of a place so far from your own. My problem with this is how uneasy the extremes of each direction blend together, frequently feeling like a jagged speed bump that lessens the effectiveness of each polarly opposite quality. If done to perfection, you get something like “Twin Peaks”, a world both wonderful and strange, but if done wrong, you get flat dimensions that leave your film feeling staggered in the ambiguously middle ground, and that’s the case with Mitchell’s compromise. Most sacrificial is the chills, by which this film has none, giving a director known for his piercing moments that transcend the screen nothing in regards to moments to make his audience relate with the uneasiness of the material, etching out this toneless hybrid subgenre that I would prefer never to cross into again.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

A League Of Their Own

Directed By Penny Marshall

Starring – Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty

The Plot – During World War II when all the men are fighting the war, most of the jobs that were left vacant because of their absence were filled in by women. The owners of the baseball teams, not wanting baseball to be dormant indefinitely, decide to form teams with women. So scouts are sent all over the country to find women players. One of the scouts, passes through Oregon and finds a woman named Dottie Hinson (Davis), who is incredible. He approaches her and asks her to try out but she’s not interested. However, her sister, Kit (Petty) who wants to get out of Oregon, offers to go. But he agrees only if she can get her sister to go. When they try out, they’re chosen and are on the same team. Jimmy Dugan (Hanks), a former player, who’s now a drunk, is the team manager. But he doesn’t feel as if it’s a real job so he drinks and is not exactly doing his job. So Dottie steps up. After a few months when it appears the girls are not garnering any attention, the league is facing closure till Dottie does something that grabs attention. And it isn’t long Dottie is the star of the team and Kit feels like she’s living in her shadow.

Rated PG for adult language

POSITIVES

– Lasting legacy. Before “A League Of Their Own”, there really were no shining examples of women’s presence in the sports film world, and thanks to Marshall’s respect and documentation for the subject matter, we receive a film that succeeds as a sports biopic on the surface level, yet transcends that accomplishment in giving us a real taste for the time. In this regard, during the 1940’s, women were left to run the country when the men departed for overseas, thrusting them into the limelight for the first time ever in situations that they otherwise wouldn’t be given a chance for. This is different for a war film because they’re often depicted as depressing and full of grim circumstance, but Marshall’s picture grants us an opportunity at solidifying that anything men can do, women can do better, and enclosed we see many examples of the unshakeable prejudice that an entire gender faced in the immense void left by the previous establishment. This film really was a trail-blazer in attaining a level for women’s sports in films that previously we never dreamed of, and it’s one that hasn’t been topped ever since.

– Production detail. This is arguably Penny’s strongest quality, as her scope for a particular age in American culture radiates ever so vibrantly in the many depictions that the film garners. Dated fashion trends involving flowing gowns and three-piece suits, ideal shooting locations involving non-lighted ballparks, an array of weathered billboards, and especially a grainy presentation from cherished cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek that transforms us accordingly. Ondricek was best known for his work in 1979’s “Hair”, and it’s clear that his absorbing radiance has a distinct advantage towards time pieces, especially during the cloudy uncertainty that was World War I. Everything here vibes synthetically, preserving a level of seamless believability that reaches the level of 40’s stock footage over this being a manufactured production of one.

– Precision in casting. Marshall’s one rule in her casting was that any actress would have to know how to play baseball, and it shows in the physical performances here that are twice as demanding as the emotional ones. Geena Davis, Rosie O’ Donnell, Lori Petty, and even Madonna all master a level of athletic professionalism that prove they aren’t afraid to get dirty to get the job done. Particularly, it’s Geena’s bat grip and choreography behind the plate that especially impressed this critic, and completely transformed this group of lady actresses into a full-fledged baseball team. Beyond this, Hanks is clearly the show stealer as the rundown alcoholic Jimmy Dugan. It’s especially unique to see Hanks in a role like this, as before this he was known as the sophisticated leading man in Hollywood cinema, but Tom’s dirtbag demeanor and unflinching rudeness preserves many iconic one-liners that age as gracefully as a fine wine, and further pertain to the redemption storyline for the character that I invested a lot of empathy into.

– In addition to the level of sports believability that I previously mentioned, Marshall’s flashy stance of crisp editing and montage sequencing play into a side of filmmaking, that while easy in outlining, certainly achieves the job in continuity to keep us firmly invested into the sights and sounds of the game. For my money, I could’ve used more long takes in these scenes to establish the impressive nature of learning a sports routine, but the accommodating narration by the film’s broadcast journalist (Played by Laverne and Shirley’s Squiggy) keeps enough of a grip on a game that practically flies before our eyes in progression. It’s especially surprising that outside of the World Series game seven finale, Marshall doesn’t necessarily focus much on the heat of the game’s environment for the film’s ambitious two hour run time, proving that the film values life experience and spiritual bonding over the perks of the game, which can sometimes feel a bit too demanding on a film’s screenplay direction.

– Masterful musical score by Hans Zimmer. That’s right, arguably the most well known composer by 2019 standards was still making his mark on a film’s audible impact way back in 1992, and the work he solidifies in the film provides a nuanced nourishment that is every bit reflective for the time as it is distinct for anything else Zimmer has ever produced. The combination of building drum beats, orchestral horns, and echoing vocals brings forth an infectious feel that makes it impossible not to tap your toes, and plays especially hand-in-hand with the pulse of the game, that rides a roller-coaster of many highs and lows for our team protagonists. Zimmer’s usual flow is dark, ominous, and challenging, but considering this was Hans first interaction with the sport (True story), his tempo in pace proves synthetically fused with the movements of the sequences. Beyond this, we are given a new track from Madonna called “This Used To Be My Playground”, that won her an Academy Award and mainstream recognition from elder audiences who previously deemed her flavor of pop music a bit too rebellious for their tastes. It rounds out a musical collection that articulately channels the uncertainty of a newfound world where women’s loss and fears became inspiration for something bigger.

– Rare accomplishment. My first screening of the film came in sixth grade, when my history teacher showed it to our class during our World War I week, and it was then that I realized this film is one of those rare exceptions that is every bit as entertaining as it is educational. While not everything in the film is factual, the script from four different screenwriters does attain a level of homage to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that it so rightfully deserves. Likewise, the 1940’s narrative begins with a montage taking us through the deployment of troops overseas, as well as the government’s dependency on women to pick up the pieces of a country going through an unforeseen adversity. So many films credit the sacrifice made by millions of brave men who fought an evil regime for many years, but this is one that values a completely different sacrifice, and outlines a level of history, both in baseball and this country, that would otherwise be forgotten if not given the proper light to shine under. Aside from this being educational and entertaining, “A League Of Their Own” is important, first and foremost.

– Dramatic progression. The third act is definitely my favorite of the film, as it is during that time when the seeds of redundancy are relieved in favor of some dramatic underlying tension that the film so desperately requires to push it to the finish line. Urgency develops in the form of soldier husband’s dying, a trade between the sister protagonists, and the return of troops home, which in turn leaves the women’s league with a foggy future. When there’s more stakes involved, the film reaches a level of intrigue that truly makes it memorable, and while every plot is sewed up a bit too easily at times (Especially Tom Hanks alcoholism being cured by Coca-Cola), every subplot culminates in a one game winner take all that serves as a volcanic blow to everyone and everything involved, illustrating a much-deserved center stage for the women athletes that continuously reminds us that there is no tomorrow.

NEGATIVES

– A missing voice. One thing that bothers me each time I watch this film is the missing voice of a black female player that could’ve added a new layer of depth to the film’s reservoir. Sure, there’s a scene of a woman in the audience throwing a baseball that amazes all of the players in frame, but I feel like the desire to establish their yearning to play is something that could’ve added more truth to the time, and given female minorities a familiar voice in a film that so obviously deserves it. Black women were banned from the A.A.G.P.B.L for the time, but still played in Negro Leagues all across the country, and considering this film is a work of fictionalized reality, the script could’ve used a few minutes to balance the blessing that the players shouldn’t take for granted.

– Minimal Characterization. Easily the biggest problem of the film, as every character outside of Dottie is given such a one-note description in personality that it reminds us how little we’ve come to know these ladies by film’s end. Madonna and Rosie’s characters are brought in at the same time because they are practically the same woman, Marla never receives a talking line of dialogue anywhere in the film, and Kit is really just Dottie’s jealous sister. It’s a bit of a surprise that the male characters are written better in a female directed movie, but when you consider that we know Jimmy’s entire backstory, his illness that ruined his fame, and the future direction of his character, it alludes us that the movie’s biggest misstep was trying to be anything other than a female-driven movie.

– The deleted scene. If you’ve ever seen the DVD edition of the film, you know of the many deleted scenes shot in the over four hours of film by Marshall, but none more memorable than the glowing scene between Hanks and Davis that hints at an underlying romance. In the scene, the two share a kiss after Dottie sees Jimmy hitting baseballs after a game, furthering the idea that the passion from within him still resides. Why this scene’s inclusion is pivotal for me is because the movie’s finished product alludes to it many times in the scenes the two share, but it feels like it comes out of nowhere because there’s no scene that ties those feelings all together. In addition to this, the scene develops Dottie even more, establishing her passion for the game that the finished product never fully capitalizes on. It allows the juxtaposition in her ‘Home Vs Game’ mentality to be further fleshed out and full of vulnerability to make her decision all the more complicated to us the audience. This scene definitely should’ve been left in, and if you’ve never seen it, Youtube has it in its 5 minute entirety.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Directed By Jon Watts

Starring – Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal

The Plot – Our friendly neighborhood Super Hero (Holland) decides to join his best friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) , MJ (Zendaya), and the rest of the gang on a European vacation. However, Peter’s plan to leave super heroics behind for a few weeks are quickly scrapped when he begrudgingly agrees to help Nick Fury (Jackson) uncover the mystery of several elemental creature attacks, creating havoc across the continent!

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some adult language and brief suggestive comments

POSITIVES

– Maturity of a script. As a tie-over from the previous installment, the film still feels very enriched in this teenage romantic comedy direction that just so happens to take place in a superhero universe, and while this tone was consistently satisfying for me, the film’s evolution during the second half as this cautionary tale for technology heightened my interest for where this film would take us. It certainly didn’t disappoint, as the social commentary of becoming too vulnerable in the devices that guide our every day occasions, as well as difficulty in distinguishing what’s real and what’s manufactured news is something that resonates ever so soundly in the current day landscape of our own political stratosphere. Like Peter, this is a film that matures as it ages, and in turn Marvel maintains the fantasy of a superhero dynamic with this unnerving echo of a world not too far from our own, conjuring up a balance that harvests this very lived-in feeling of patented world building.

– The difference. If there’s one thing that Spider-Man films in this version of the M.C.U does better than its company, it’s the inspiring camera work on-and-off the ground that bring to life the movement of its characters full circle. In this installment, we get a series of long-take, no-cut shots for sequences involving Peter with a pivotal character. These intended delves not only amaze us in the youthful cast’s capabilities in memorizing long exchanges of dialogue, but also allude to the real time that is playing out before Peter’s very eyes that he often doesn’t get enough time to live inside of. To contrast this, the flying and web slinging sequences attain a level of calculated introversion that maximizes the height of the danger without sacrificing the audience’s ability to follow the events of the scenes with their eyes. The editing is used only when necessary, and the POV camera gimmicks aren’t nearly as depended on as they were in “Homecoming”, an aspect that pleases an easily motion-sick moviegoer like myself wholeheartedly.

– Musical Michael. Music continues to be a character in these Spider-Man films, but this time their inclusion feels very much absorbing in attaining the geographical designation that the film often switches up. Because this is a film that takes us through many diverse cultures in country, composer Michael Giacchino wastes no time tuning us into the very pulse of these rich locations with a score that audibly tells the story. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice instruments used during particular scenes that radiate the flavor that we’re used to in our understanding of the environment, and in addition to this the soundtrack itself of assorted pop culture favorites are inserted at the most opportune time to really make them pop. Some of my favorites involve New York-heavy artist The Ramones to channel that big apple state of mind, as well as one of my favorite 80’s tracks “Vacation” by The Go-Go’s narrating through a series of vacation photo stills for the film’s end credit sequence that establishes an infectious vibe that makes it difficult to say you didn’t have a fun time.

– Twists. Many people, including myself, had theories heading into this film, and while I did accurately predict nearly everything that transpired on-screen, it was really where the film took it after the twist that I truly didn’t expect. Without spoiling anything, there was a distinct feeling that I had when this occurred that gave me unnerving chills towards “Iron Man 3”, a film nearly ruined by its direction of an unexpected twist, and while the charms of a gimmick are slowly evaporated in this film alike, the grounded progression associated brought forth an antagonist that was not only easy to invest in and understand, but also brought forth much needed weight to a very localized threat when compared to what these films have faced in dangerous adversity. What I truly loved was this earned feeling of paranoia that persists from within Peter, casting great vulnerability for a character who usually overcomes by expressing his personality. That’s really taken away here, and brings forth an antagonist who succeeds not because of an empathetic backstory, but because of the sharpness of intellect that brings forth power that we surprisingly haven’t yet seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

– Strong leads. Tom Holland continues to amaze, balancing the two sides of this character that no actor has completely enveloped before him. As Peter, Holland very much wraps himself in the awkwardness and nervousness of being a teenager, and we’re treated to a series of firsts for the character that might as well be home movies levels of revealing for his usual code of armor. As Spider-Man, Holland feels every bit believable in combat as he does evolving as a superhero. Throughout the film, the character is forced to deal with these imposing expectations that everyone has for him, and it better fleshed out a performance for Tom that competently articulates those needle-inducing levels of anxiety that all teens must live up to in one way or another. Also great are turns from Zendaya, and especially Jake Gyllenhaal as one of my favorite characters in the Spider-Man universe, Mysterio. On the former, Zendaya’s version of Mary Jane very much soaks in the ideals for women of the time, delivering on a character who is weird, guarded, intelligent, and especially cool. Like “Homecoming”, it took me a while to warm up to her, but I found myself falling for the uniqueness and originality of her version of M.J in the same vein that Peter does, and the chemistry that exists between them accurately moves through the motions of teenage romance to a lump-in-the-throat tee. Gyllenhaal is spectacular in this role, chewing through enough scenery in the scene to make him an unshakeable presence even in a scene that doesn’t include him. He’s one of those characters you just can’t wait to get back to, and while I loved the scenes where he’s the new Tony Stark of sorts to Peter’s open void, Jake’s work when he’s in action really dazzles the complexity of his character’s abilities.

– Costume design. The combination of practical and computer generated are married seamlessly here, sketching an eye for transition in believability that were practically lifted from the pages of a comic book. For Spidey, we get not one suit, but four different ones, taking us through the genius of Tony Stark’s attention to detail. Most of the suit’s movements and artificial shine are obviously manufactured, but there’s no substitute for the grandeur associated with a new suit reveal, that if you’re watching closely will take you through the past, present, and future of Spider-Man sheik. On the material side of design, Mysterio’s suit, especially his neon armor, is possibly my favorite of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Considering how fantastical his suit is in the comics, it’s remarkable what the production team is able to accomplish here, giving us pride that for once a better suit wasn’t make on the Comic Con floor by an adoring fan.

– Crisp pacing. For a film that exceeds the two hour mark (Barely), the surprise of a film that breezes through left me yearning for more. For me, this doesn’t happen often in superhero movies, especially ones where the events from start to finish take us through so much complexity, but the screenplay’s ability to value the two sides of the Parker dynamic respectively equal is enough to pay-off for fans of every Peter spectrum, giving us possibly the single easiest sequel to watch to date. What helps even more is that the film’s strength for me is the second half, elaborating that “Far From Home” will only get better the deeper you invest into it. Along the way, there’s no shortage of valuable action set pieces, intoxicating dialogue that reaches for the one laugh a scene ratio, and alluring characters, lead and supporting, whom we don’t think two hours with is ever enough to satisfy our pallets for them.

– Post credit scenes. NO SPOILERS HERE, but I wanted to mention them because for once BOTH scenes are important not only in the future of Marvel installments, but also for the degree of permanence that exists because of them. The first reminds me of a John Wick direction for Spider-Man that hints that darker days are certainly ahead for the integrity of the character, and the second proves that our once conventional world of occupants will no longer be the same after the Endgame has come and gone. In the past, post-credit Marvel scenes don’t always bat a thousand, in fact, it’s become quite expected that one of these scenes will be a snoozer, but thanks to urgency associated with getting this second volume of the M.C.U off of the ground, the necessity to grab the attention of audiences ensures them that despite so many losses on-screen, the integrity of the name Marvel will still persist in telling a whole new collection of stories involving diverse characters.

NEGATIVES

– Exposition dumping. There are many examples throughout the film where the need to explain too much overwhelms the sequence that accompanies it, making them feel like manufactured inserts instead of this rich level of authenticity that if done right will feel like natural conversation. I point particularly to the big twist scene as the shining example, where the film halts progress to explain far too much about what has transpired to get here, but there’s a collection of scenes like this during the first act that tie itself a bit too tightly to Endgame before allowing itself to break free on this new chapter of life that Marvel is headed towards. I feel that the exposition could spread itself out a little easier to reach its intended purpose, but what we’re left with are a couple of scenes that drown on a bit too long, and are a bit alluding to perfectly tie them in a neat bow for audiences who have difficulty paying attention.

– Same problems. As is the case with an on-going cinematic universe, this film has the same lack of believability that other superheroes wouldn’t come to the rescue to stand alongside their favorite web-slinging superhero, and take down the powerful nemesis. It’s mentioned early on where the big guns like Thor and Captain Marvel are at that particular moment, but what about the other Avengers? What about Hawkeye? What about War Machine? I find it difficult to believe that this madness is transpiring in a major place like Paris, and no one is catching wind of it? In addition to this, convenient plot devices like Stark’s glasses being introduced exactly one scene before Peter needs to wipe away a picture on a phone is clumsy to say the least, but still persist in a world with too many coincidences to feel engulfed in reality. Likewise, the more that I start thinking about the villain’s gimmick with technology, the less it makes sense in all measures of gravity. Can a movie playing on a projection screen touch or cause damage to objects around it?

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Yesterday

Directed By Danny Boyle

Starring – Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon

The Plot – A struggling musician (Patel) realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed. Using it to his advantage, the songwriter takes credit for every Beatles song ever created, but soon the price of fame catches up to him.

Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– The gimmick. There’s much to be commended about this alternate dimension gimmick that the movie’s plot essentially focuses on, but none more credible than what’s left on the bone from what I originally thought was an overly revealing trailer. Aside from the loss of The Beatles here, there’s a series of startling exposition drops for everything from musical artists to soft drinks, that paint the pop culture tragedies within this complex situation that Jack becomes saddled with. In addition to this, the screenplay is wise enough to illustrate these what if scenarios, bringing along a series of smart and well-timed surprises that still persist even if artists like The Beatles actually don’t, and it’s a script that is every bit as profound and challenging as it is unique to the world with pop culture history so inferior to the one we live in.

– Absorbing presentation. Danny Boyle’s one-of-a-kind scope remains consistent in this film, garnering razor sharp editing and metaphorical transitions involving meaningful imagery that really allows us to soak in the atmosphere from all angles. One such example takes place during the initial bus accident, where we are treated to as many as four different perspectives on-and-off of the bus that fruitfully articulates the psychological beat that exists within this Chaos Theory. Likewise, Boyle treats us to a barrage of establishing setting sequences that engage us with vibrancy in color design, as well as big, bold lettering to better paint the big world feel that the pop star life quickly becomes saddled with. When you watch one of Danny’s films, it often feels like as many as two other films are cohesively and simultaneously playing at all times, giving the audience a perspective inside the mind of its protagonist where cameras aren’t often allowed to go, and in this case it reveals the one person who persists within Jack’s mind over the fame, the riches, and the overall popstar lifestyle.

– An emerging interest. While the gimmick of a world without The Beatles is enough to bring butts to the seats, it’s pleasantly remarkable that my interest became further invested in this nourishing love story from beneath that is brought along superbly by screenwriter Richard Curtis. The film values the bond between Jack and Ellie so much that it initially depicts them as friends and even business partners, and it’s in those introductory minutes where we better comprehend that there is enough room to grow in these subliminal romantic feelings between both to evolve into something more. As the film went on, I practically begged for the movie to return to their interesting dynamic that played so tenderly into the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Jack and Ellie are confronted with an evolution in their relationship, and the progression throughout is anything but choreographed in the way you would expect a romantic comedy to stick a bit too close to conventionalism. It challenges them to confront this feeling inside, and demand more not only from themselves, but from the person staring back at them.

– Sturdy performances. For a first-timer, Himesh Patel strikes all of the right chords, balancing life on and off the stage in a way that nearly establishes the two sides as entirely different people. While wrapped in the spotlight, Patel’s Jack feels every bit as anxious as he does let down by all of the things he once craved, yet to the side that navigates through everything, there’s a relaxed and comical side to his demeanor that seems only present when he engages with James’ Ellie. Speaking of which, the chemistry between them is every bit believable as it is tasteful, and for a female lead there’s a lot of gentility and warmth behind Lily’s glowing smile that makes it easy to understand Jack’s falling for her. Notable supporting cast includes Ed Sheeran, Sanjeev Bhaskar, and especially Kate McKinnon as this overbearing manager who serves as a villain if anyone under the film’s cape.

– Musical incorporation. While not a musical itself, the film features 18 different Beatles songs that are played in compact form to keep the pulse of the story firmly in focus. This might upset some people to not hear a whole song in its entirety, but I liked the pacing of these clips because they were able to include more, offering a wide range of catalog that is sure to satisfy all interested parties. As for the performances themselves, Patel does do his own singing, and while his singing is at times inconsistent in attaining certain pitches, the passion that comes from his delivery, as well as altering to a song’s original speed, gives new life to a collection of timeless tracks without alienating audiences from experimentation. The finished products maintain the level of familiarity to their compositions, all the while establishing something fresh with the steep check written by the production that was second to none in the year’s soundtrack offering.

– Fantastical approach to iconic songs. How would a song like “Let It Be” do against today’s landscape of colorful personalities and downloadable content? “Yesterday” answers this in a poignant approach, depicting the difficulties of song writing in a toxic environment, that occasionally feels a bit too influential. In this respect, the material hints that The Beatles were lightning in a bottle not just for the abundance of classics that they produced, but also for them being a product of their time, in an age where music came before marketing. When presented in modern day rendering, we get a series of compelling circumstances that illustrates a mountain of opposition that John, Paul, George, and Ringo never had to embrace, and while we the audience side with Jack for his understanding of why these songs are genius, we can’t help but ask if they would receive the same praise in a decade known for exchanging content.

– Attention to detail. What I give a film like “Yesterday” over movies like “Rocketman” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the dedication to craft in mastering these big scale concert sequences that spare no expense or time to authenticate the experience. Live action audience over computer generation is the intended direction here, and it better masters this level of iconic impact that Boyle’s grandeur cinematography allows to stretch as far as the eye can see. In addition to this, the variety of shot composition camera angles and intensity in sound mixing articulately capture the big stage feel with no gimmicks required, and these intoxicating sequences that never over-complicated their intention restored my faith in cinematic concert footage that hasn’t been inspiring as of late.

NEGATIVES

– Fame fumbled. There’s a point midway through the movie where Jack of course becomes this mega popstar, being constantly mobbed by a barrage of fans that hunt him down to catch a glimpse of their idol. My problem with this stands as a film error of sorts, as for the rest of the film, any time Jack is in a highly public place, he isn’t bothered even in the slightest by an adoring fan. It’s not like his fame decreases. If anything, it increases as the film progresses, and this nagging error in continuity bothered me because I feel it could’ve better been used as a barrier between the love story of Jack and Ellie, that the two could never connect because of. To drop it completely just feels like an obvious oversight in production detail that was flawless until that point.

– Uneven pacing. This isn’t so much the case with the two halves of the film like is usually the case, but rather with an overly-anxious pacing that didn’t link up well with the nearly two hour run time that this story is blessed with. To do this right is to give each chapter of fame proper time to grow with its audience, but what we’re left with gives the film this constant feeling of montage storytelling that never takes advantage of the time it has been given. Particularly with the rising conflict of a new lover being added to Jack and Ellie’s complicated relationship, the screenplay introduces it then rarely addresses it ever again, until it absolutely has to. This film clearly has a lot of ideas, but without the proper execution in attention given, they fall off like B-side tracks that are only there to fill an album quota.

– Strange ending. I won’t spoil much here, but the lack of attention that the film’s alternate reality conclusion receives not only doesn’t explain things, but leaves us feeling like an important scene is missing that we’ve come to expect from movies like these. This could be considered good because it takes an original stance that is anything but conventional, but I feel like a scene of logic is required to better tie things together. For instance, the additional things erased from this world that I mentioned earlier are never elaborated at why those in particular are gone from this world. The Beatles could be connected to Jack’s obsession with them, but what about the other erased things? It’s never revealed, and while “Yesterday” has an interesting idea, its solution feels practically non-existent.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Child’s Play

Directed By Lars Klevberg

Starring – Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Brian Tyree Henry

The Plot – A mother (Plaza) gives her son (Gabriel Bateman) a toy doll for his birthday, unaware of its more sinister nature.

Rated R for bloody horror violence, and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

– 80’s aesthetic. When I first saw trailers for this film, I thought the overall cinematography looked very cheap and uninspiring in finding its artistic integrity, but what I overlooked was its cheap design serving a purpose for a bigger, nuanced idea of 80’s neon that remains consistent throughout the film. This glow of conscience that the film has brings us back to the start when “Child’s Play” was born, but it does so without it being actually set during this influential decade, and instead borrowing the best parts stylistically from it. This gives us many dreamy images during the film in which many different colors collide among each other, bringing us a canvas of colorful expression to influence and enhance the devilish ideals just lurking in the shadows. In addition to this, the child gang in the film feels very much like a delightful trope of 80’s cinema, a-la “The Goonies” or the newfound nostalgia of “Stranger Things”, in that we get a group of profound youthful characters who dominate the foreground of the film’s attention, and feel like the best shot at stopping the madness behind a sadistic doll.

– Blood binge. One of the more surprising aspects of the film was the use of splatter against a series of brutally devastating kills that satisfies even the biggest horror hounds of the genre. This is certainly nothing surprising for a horror film, but is for something like “Child’s Play” that, while known for its gimmick of creative kills, wasn’t always the most satisfying in terms of what it actually showed. This film simply doesn’t have that problem, as a fine combination of practical effects involving prosthetics and computer generation marries a hybrid of young and old enhancement that kept me firmly engaged on the crushing blows that transpired on screen. Also unlike its 1989 original, the film allows the bodies to stack up slightly higher, making Chucky’s reign of terror feel more impactful because of his growing reputation as the film progresses.

– Perfect tone. Klevberg gets it. He understands the ridiculousness of the Chucky character combined with what’s asked of him, therefore it allows him to competently balance this dynamic of terror and tease that makes this one of the more delightfully engaging in the history of horror slasher remakes. Never during the course of the 85 minutes did I feel like this film was taking itself too seriously, nor did it ever feel compromising towards two opposing directions that sometimes fleshes itself out in a movie trying to accomplish far too much. This ones intentions remain firmly grounded in the tonal department, and because of such brought a barrage of laughter and chills that perfectly articulates the kind of effect that only certain horror antagonists bring forth. Chucky is a roaring good time, therefore a film depicting him at his infancy should be as well, and Klevberg never loses the attention of his audience because he never loses focus of what kind of movie this rightfully should be.

– Speaking of remake. On the topic of all time slasher horror remakes, this one is the very best, not only because it manages the consistency of the very best entries of the franchise, but also because it takes a familiar plot and really diverts itself away to make what feels almost like an entirely new film in the series. Aside from this at its roots being the story about a boy who receives a birthday gift from his mom, and that gift turns sinister, the film masters more human impulses for its characters, syke-outs in scares from scenes that felt similar to original entries, more capabilities in tools for what Chucky can do, and many more characters than the original movie that at times felt constrained because of its tight-knit nature of a production. Remakes to me should only be done if they add something unique and original to the material, and this one does it in spades, conjuring up a remake that has enough respect for the original without trying to replicate it.

– Social commentary. The last thing I expected from a Chucky movie was a profoundly poignant observation about society, but this film gave it to me in a series of scenes that not only establish some level of empathy for the character, but also supplant food for thought in where psycho killers originate. Chucky is victim to a series of angry exchanges and violent cinema (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, YESSSSS!!!) that falls at his doorstep because of his close ties to Andy, and while soaking all of this up we get a tease for the rage that developes from being a product of the environment around him, giving us complex layers of exposition that Charles Lee Ray never found in seven Chucky movies. It proves that horror films are still capable of delivering an attention-grabbing scene, all the while never backing down from the point that it makes against its own material. It’s clever writing that metaphorically casts Chucky in the role of our kids, and allows us to step back for a second and soak in how strange we look as a species that craves all things violent.

– Technology incorporation. “Blair Witch” take notes. This is a film that introduces modern day technological advancements to its killer and makes full use of the gimmick in a creatively menacing manner. Because of such, Chucky’s eye for his future victims feels wider than ever before (Especially thanks to a Jack Black look-a-like that serves as his biggest ali), and the thought process that went into illustrating some unique kills supplanted a level of purpose for the incorporation. Everything feels like a series of believable bad ideas that we as outsiders can see the negatives of long before our characters do, yet remaining faithful to real life, in that not every modern day idea is a well thought out one. Likewise, the commercials that constantly fill the screen, and even open up the film to give us our first dose of valued exposition, give the android design this kind of lived-in believability with its marketing that really seduces us the audience immediately with its tantalizing of the newest gadget that we must buy regardless of price.

– Delightful cast. Plaza and Henry are especially brilliant, outlining two sides of Andy’s adult intake that balance love and paranoia respectively. Henry is someone I’ve been watching for a while now, and his on-point delivery of sarcasm among a glowing child-like twinkle in his eyes made for constant scene-stealing, that brought forth my single favorite character in the film. Plaza sadly doesn’t get enough time to further flesh out her character, but her mom character establishes the human aspect that I mentioned earlier better than the prophet Catherine Hicks ever even attempted to. Plaza’s dry delivery and distant facial registry still persists in this film, but it’s her abilities under fire from Chucky that bring forth a scrubbing of typecast roles for her that will hopefully spring her in different movie directions going forward. Mark Hamill is good enough as Chucky, but his familiar vocal tones to Brad Douriff never allow him to make the role his own, nor does the lack of memorable one-liners from the iconic figure do him any additional favors in this department. The attention falls solely on the shoulders of 13-year-old Gabriel Bateman, who was a whirlwind of emotional dynamics for the film. Bateman’s line delivery and emotional evolution feel very much earned and soaked in believability, and his character’s personality feels especially refreshing from the original Andy if only for how the doll must win him over before he falls under his spell. I don’t often commend child actors, but Bateman is leagues ahead of the competition for the immense task he is asked to juggle with being the focused protagonist for roughly 85% of this movie, and I certainly can’t wait to see where his career takes him from here.

NEGATIVES

– Chucky design. I hated the visual and character building for this character, mainly because it takes something so perfect and boggles it up with a series of plot contrivances that feel more obvious the longer the film runs. On the latter, the serial killer Charles Lee Ray is traded in for an android that is the creation of an angered employee, and it just doesn’t feel as personal or effectively tragic as a curse for the man locked into this laughable body. As for the appearance, the computer generation is a bit too influential here, garnering an overall design that is creepy from the get-go, and doesn’t feel believable as a product that families would actually purchase. The original Chucky design looks friendly on the surface, and only becomes evil as the film unravels. I also didn’t care for the blue-to-red color transitions that the doll constantly conveyed to obviously channel its evil side. This is essentially exposition for idiots. It’s a bit too obvious and on-the-nose for something that should require the toy being brought to life.

– Episodic pacing. It’s a bit aggravating to me when a film will edit and paste scenes together that feel like no time has passed, but that’s totally the case with this one. A mess on the post-production department, “Child’s Play” often looks and feels like an episode of “Black Mirror” for how long spans of time will pass with very little leverage on our attention, and instead of feeling like one cohesive unit that balances many subplots simultaneously, stumbles with repeat setting scenes back-to-back in a way that constantly jarred me and brought me out of focus in questioning repeatedly how much time has passed. With more attention given to Henry’s character, especially in the refreshing dynamic with his Mother, the Andy/Mom side of things could be given proper time to age to better establish not only the bond between them, but also Andy’s dependability on Chucky when no one else has time for him. The friends subplot is also especially unearned with how little time is devoted to it, and it screams for around 20 additional minutes to better supplant the supporting characters.

– Poor special effects. The budget for this film, despite using C.G influence, somehow feels cheaper than its 30 year prior original, and I point particularly to the movement of the doll in this regard. Close camera angles and choppy editing are to be expected in a film with a doll antagonist, but that’s maybe the best thing that this production does for Chucky, because his wide angle scenes where he’s running feel very weightless and even counterfeit to the believability that allows this to flow naturally in our vision and imagination. The original “Child’s Play” used child actors in the costume to make its movements feel seamless, and I think that stroke of brilliance and authenticity in choosing computer generation over live action really limits its potential in what they are able to accomplish in real time.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Toy Story 4

Directed By Josh Cooley

Starring – Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Keanu Reeves

The Plot – Woody (Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Allen) and the rest of the gang embark on a road trip with Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) and a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale). The adventurous journey turns into an unexpected reunion as Woody’s slight detour leads him to his long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts). As Woody and Bo discuss the old days, they soon start to realize that they’re two worlds apart when it comes to what they want from life as a toy.

Rated G

POSITIVES

– Evolving animation. While the computer graphics associated with character designs and appearances have remained consistent throughout four films spanning 24 years, the opportunity to blend them with some richly authentic backdrops is what establishes as the most beautifully rendered of the Toy Story franchise. Pixar once again masters this seamless immersion of weather design in the form of raindrops and natural sunlight, and ups it further with a series of objects in frame that make the animated toys feel like they are living and breathing inside of this real life world that feels continuously like our own. There were several times during the film when I had to legitimately stop and focus on a cat or a slab of concrete for how visually striking it conveyed its realism, and overall its evolving dimensions in animation have allowed this series to adapt to the times in ways that never compromises the believability of the visual continuity.

– New personalities. More than anything, what keeps this franchise fresh is the constant addition of new toys that not only give us a chance to enjoy some big name cameo appearances off-screen, but also delightfully feed into the gift of their gimmicks. In this regard, none are as gifted as Keanu Reeves Canadian stuntman Duke Kaboom, who takes pleasure in the thrill of crashing. Reeves unusually excited demeanor in the film gives way to many scene-stealers and insanely quotable dialogue, but it’s the duo of Key and Peele who stole the show for me. As a duck and bear combo who are quite literally joined at the hand, the two embark on an adventure that allows them to bring along the sinister side to their personalities, bringing forth no shortage of laughter for this critic each time they had an idea to add to the conversation. Between these three, I could easily watch another three Toy Story movies without getting tired, and the precision in casting these very vibrant personalities not only brings to life the passion of the characters, but also dazzles us in ways that makes them unique to the dynamics of such a crowded cast in the foreground.

– Funny bone. Nobody does G-rated humor better than Disney/Pixar, and thanks to a consistency rate that was truly out of this world for a kids movie, “Toy Story 4” became one of my favorite comedies of the 2019 film year. What’s commendable is that nothing feels strained or confined because of the dominant audience age, and the material therefore is able to balance awkward pratfalls and timely deliveries in a way that practically dares you not to laugh. Likewise, the material itself never feels geared single-handedly towards youthful audiences, instead extending its hand not only to the newer generation, but also those who, like their kids now, were that age when they first delighted from Woody yelling at Buzz that he is a “CHILD’S PLAY THING”. “Toy Story 4” truly is one of those crossing of the generation moments, and thanks to no shortage of comic firepower, the film manages to keep our attention firmly in its grasp for many belly-tugs.

– Complexity of material. This one works in subplots and tone for the film, as the roller-coaster of emotional pulse makes this easily the most emotionally expansive of the franchise. Dealing with issues of abandonment, lost love, fitting in, and especially past trauma, the film respects its audience in conjuring up enough profound parallels to teach and learn all at the same time. It’s rare that a film can do this all the while transpiring the tone so smoothly, and even though this film has the depth of three or four different movies of comedy, drama, romance, and even horror, the pacing never felt like an arduous task. “Toy Story 4” teaches many lessons simultaneously, and the method of its madness constantly feels earned through twists and turns that honestly I didn’t see coming in the slightest. I probably should have because the hints are there all along the way, but they’re inserted in a way that doesn’t require strained focus or obviousness to sell its purpose, planting the seeds of progression that truly does grow into some beautiful and heartfelt.

– Prominent performances. In addition to the couple of rookies that I previously mentioned, the returning cast of Hanks, Allen, and especially Annie Potts gives way to some compelling dimensions of character that tell the story of their pasts. Allen is easily the least used between the three, but without the direction of Woody he is left to lead by example, and it gives us a few Allen performances for the price of one, thanks to him searching for his inner voice in ways that are anything than what is intended. Potts has evolved into this badass of sorts that is only rivaled by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” in terms of female heroine. Thanks to an introduction that tells the story of her abrupt departure from Andy’s household, we are able to see what comes from living out nature over nurture, illustrating her as a take-no-prisoners kind of protagonist. Finally, Hanks emotes Woody in a way that not only hints at a deteriorating psyche, but also a vast amount of vulnerability that has him reflecting on a lifetime of shifts and changes. Woody is realizing for the first time that his best days are clearly behind him, and for the first time ever it has him questioning his purpose in a way that adds a refreshing uncertainty to his moral compass for being the one who always puts things back together.

– Randy Newman. The legendary musical composer is back again, but this time his level of vocal familiarity is exchanged for nuanced tones that better establish a scene’s tonal consistency without kidnapping the volume controls. The level of their incorporation feels subtle enough to constantly remind you of its existence, yet mature enough to never take away from the dramatic tension of the scene, and if one thing is for certain it’s that Newman has lived life through every avenue of the blues, and his level of somber resonance knows no boundaries in garnering the perfect poke to prod at tears from the audience. Sure, “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” as well as the new track “Don’t Put Me In The Trash” are there to remind us of Randy’s one of a kind raspy enveloping, but my appreciation here is more for his compulsion in mastering the fruits of the environment so effectively that the music itself is the one character that outlasts all of the others, very rarely leaving our ears if only to change to the next orchestral influence that highlights what’s to come.

– A gentle hand. For a first time filmmaker, the things that Josh Cooley is able to accomplish is nothing short of phenomenal, landing a consistency and fitting place for this film with the others that establishes him as the perfect man for the job. Cooley’s chase scenes are rapidly full of energy and urgency, using many magnetic movements of the camera to perfectly articulate the range in speed and direction masterfully, and his dedication to capturing the perfect resonating moment is something that can only be learned through moments of a director immersing himself into the shoes of the audience, who he knows he can’t let down. This film could’ve easily fell apart after the immense task of picking up the pieces on a finale that left so many ringing from buckets of tears, but his influence breathes new life into the character’s and franchise, inspiring us to seek more from this franchise to continue pursuing the grasp of human commentary from the smallest angles.

– Hidden Easter Eggs. How much can I even talk about this one? There is a specific Hitchcock reference in the film from one of his biggest film accomplishments that was every bit as sinisterly alluring as it was effective in capturing the essence that both films were trying to attain in their respective scenes. Obviously, children won’t interpret this in the same ways, but it gives the sequence a measure of twisted wink-and-nod to horror hounds like myself who simply can’t ignore the comparisons that are so obviously mirrored right down to the familiarity in musical notes. There’s also an entirely different Easter Egg that reaches into Disney’s growing library of properties, and inserts it into the middle of a wild county fair where all rules go out of the window. This truly is one of those blink-and-miss-it moments that could easily be Disney flexing its bulging muscles, but I liked it because it further captures the realism of the world around it, depicting heroes from other movie universes in a way that feels believable because of the way they clash in frame.

NEGATIVES

– A Familiar formula. Part of the nagging bother for me from this movie was how familiar this screenplay outline felt, even if given different directions for it to flourish. Particularly with the original “Toy Story”, there are many comparisons that I found that I would like to mention. Woody and new toy go on long distance adventure, the duo land in a horrific land of distraught toys, Woody constantly tries to tell new toy that he is in fact a toy, There’s a moment where Woody’s intentions casts a huge feel of isolation from the rest of the group, and a scene where the group is being chased by a four legged companion. These are only a few of the similarities that I noticed. If I wanted to, I could spoil much more, but will choose not to. The point is that the Toy Story franchise has been making the same script outline for four movies now, and it’s insane that they are getting away with it.

– Believability. Should I be complaining about logic in a kids movies where toys come to life? You bet your ass I should, as this film not only forgets about the rules that it set with toys being less obvious to the human eye, but also defies wear-and-tear in a way that I’ve never seen before. On the latter, you mean to tell me that none of these toys are decaying even remotely? You mean to tell me that Woody’s voice box is working as good as it was the first day he came packaged? You mean to tell me that we are STILL getting new catchphrases from both Woody and Buzz? How big is this voice box? On the former, there is simply too much toy interaction in the film that wouldn’t go unnoticed by someone in a classroom or county fair that saw something more. In the first two movies, this gimmick felt believable because the way the toys returned always felt grounded in reality. Here, toys disappear and reappear at the drop of a hat, and no one questions it. There’s also a finale with an RV that couldn’t be more absurd if a pink elephant was pushing it from the rear with no one seeing it.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Late Night

Directed By Nisha Ganatra

Starring – Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow

The Plot – Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women,” she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and…..presto. Molly (Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. But Molly might be too little too late, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her. Molly, wanting to prove she’s not simply a diversity hire who’s disrupting the comfort of the brotherhood, is determine to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career, and possible effect even bigger change at the same time.

Rated R for adult language throughout and some sexual references

POSITIVES

– Best comedy of the year. As a film that is full of audience laughter and participation, this one hits it out of the park quite frequently. There’s a rich blend of varying degrees of entertaining comedy in the script, but the interaction between characters, especially that of the two female leads, conjures up several example of sharp-tongued wit and bold sarcasm, which is completely up my alley for the kind of humor that I appreciate from a comedy. The film also doesn’t stay reserved as just this, eventually evolving into this dramatic crumbling of walls from every side of Katherine’s life, which succeeds at delivering no shortage of dramatic heft, and proving once more that while comedy is the way to get the butts in the seats, it’s rich life experiences that make you invest more into the characters, and every transformation in the screenplay feels every bit as earned as it does necessary to the conflicts springing from all around.

– Wisdom in social commentary. One could expect that a film starring an Indian actress getting a job in a male caucasian dominated workplace would be full of poignancy about the uphill climb that minorities and women face when inserted into this environment, and the film does have this unapologetic stance on depicting this cold, callous world, what truly surprised me was how it speaks on both sides of the coin in this regard. The film doesn’t make Molly a flat-out victim as much as it makes her an equal in the problem of hiring, explaining to us that she was only picked in the first place to fill a workplace quota. While this could be condemning for a 21st century politically correct landscape full of sensitivity, I commend it for its honesty in valuing both sides of the debate, highlighting that we as a society are still a long way out from making it a level sided playing field for all to contend with.

– Strong characterization. What I love about the screenplay is that it very much feels episodic in the way it brings along several on-going subplots at a time, as well as values each character in frame for being someone so much more than an occasional cameo. Instead of following just Thompson and Kaling, the film values rich supporting cast members like Hugh Dancy, Dennis O’ Hare, John Lithgow, and the legions of other familiar faces that fill this board room of testosterone that a majority of the film takes place in. This is huge for the film because it allows us the audience several dynamics to establish between this group to give the dominant plot in the foreground time to age and pace accordingly, and it’s entirely successful, as there wasn’t one side of the spectrum that I didn’t enjoy spending time with and feeling firmly invested in. This is a film that values all of its cast, big or small, and with plenty of time invested, we really get to see this team grow together and understand what makes each of the tick in regards to workplace interaction.

– Surprising performances. Thompson and Kaling are both national treasures, but what amazed me was the undeterred energy that each brought to their respective roles in making this feel like a big stakes drama. For Kaling, it’s finally the chance to shed some of that comic muscle and establish her as a watery-eyed kindred spirit, who we the audience engage and invest into. Mindy shows a soft side that makes her a shoe-in for future romantic comedies, and balances a fine line of intelligence, wit, and a radiant smile to make us fall for the positivity of her character. Thompson deserves academy recognition, and I’m not kidding. Katherine is a powder keg of emotional response, feeling her way through a fierce tug-of-war between a network ready to pull the plug on her show, as well as a husband feeling the same constraints thanks to a battle with Parkinson’s. Thompson’s earnesty and flawed protagonist is something that gives her dimensions from a character like Meryl Streep’s in “The Devil Wears Prada”, all the while preserving this side of vulnerability that transforms her for us, as well as the audience on-screen who keep the ratings going. Emma gives us many powerful gut-punches during scenes of pain, as well as a damp blanket of cynicism during initial meetings with her team, and it led to this bigger picture for the character that kept her maintained as this enigma of sorts, which in turn made it easier to understand why her show has been the stable that it’s been for so many decades.

– Informative. In the same vein as “Spotlight” did for newsrooms, “Late Night” presents a vivid rendering of a television writers room, complete with thinktank discussions and fast-paced confrontations, which feel authentic in their progressions. To absorb as much in this room as possible is understanding how conventionalism played such a pivotal foe in Katherine’s diminishing returns with her audience, with this broken link in communication between them being this obvious adversity to understanding what makes the host so endearing. Years of experience prescribes arrogance, and conjures up this difficult pill of truth for each of them to swallow with regards to the failing reputation of the show. Being the writer of this film, Kaling definitely has the experience and wisdom to accurately portray these kind of dire situations, and it’s why much of the material encased feels authentic in its wisdom.

– Dane Cook. No, he’s not in the film, but to anyone who was an avid MadTV watcher like me, will remember Ike Barinholtz’s near perfect impression of the infamous stand-up comic, and in certain elements it returns in this film. Barinholtz plays this popular stand-up comic who is shamed by Katherine because his material feels very degrading and thirsty for attention. In addition to this, Ike’s deliveries feel very fast paced, crude in dialogue, and flimsy for depth in material. Sound familiar? If I didn’t list this on the positives, I would be doing my final grade a disservice, because I could watch Ike portray this character for years, and never get tired of it. Beyond the debate of who he is impersonating, the character reminds us of everything that is wrong with today’s comedy landscape, where audiences trade in intelligence of storytelling for vulgarity and cheap sound effects that should be marketed towards an infant.

– Art imitating life? There are many situations in the film that feel plucked from real life, and establish a sense of humanity within these celebrities who we view as anything but human, thanks to their infamy. Some examples that I found were definitely the pushing of a fresh, new host to the decades old show (Jay Leno), a network pressuring a classic host to adapt with the times (David Letterman), and a ratings slump despite being prestigious in awards recognition (Conan O’ Brien). What I love about this is it summarizes the best of every world in favor of this one lone embodiment, then makes that figure a woman, which is something that we haven’t quite yet had hosting a late night show on a major network. So we get to blend the reality with fantasy for a result that proves the human similarities of men and women, in hopes to erase this line of separation once and for all in every facet of entertainment.

– Costume design. For a movie so grounded in reality, there is a strong use of fashion in the film, specifically within the two female leads, that fruitfully delves into the contrast in each of their personalities. For Katherine, the use of pantsuits and lack of skin shown speaks volumes to the strict demeanor that has earned her intimidating presence among her staff. For Kaling’s Molly, it’s a combination of free-flowing sundresses and vibrancy in colors that illustrates her bubbly personality front-and-center, allowing her to visually convey her as this colorful breath of fresh air that this team so desperately needs. The flare of fashion persists throughout the film, hinting at something deeper beneath its intention, and does so without feeling like a distraction to what’s transpiring around it.

NEGATIVES

– Romantic subplot. Not only is this the most unnecessary aspect of the script, but its lack of development leaves so much on the bone of curiosity from the lack of what develops. First of all, I don’t think there should’ve been a romantic subplot because it demeans the integrity of a female character, and feeds into her sleeping her way to the top. Secondly, the romance between Dancy and Kaling goes literally nowhere, disappearing for long periods of screen time without further elaboration or exposition to remind us that it is still a thing. Another romantic subplot materializes by the film’s end, and its result is so shoe-horned in to the closing minutes that it’s not only disappointing for how they built these two characters along, but also for how it comes out of nowhere from the lack of previous establishing scenes. It’s the biggest mess to a film that is otherwise written pretty tightly.

– Stilted stand-up. This is a continuous problem with the stand-up comedy world being portrayed in film. It’s rare in a movie where I will laugh during a stand-up comedy scene, and especially in this case coming from someone who is a prophet of that environment, how is the material left on the page so terribly unfunny? Maybe it’s a point to prove that stand-up comedy overall isn’t funny, especially considering it’s mostly ushered in by that Dane Cook character that I mentioned earlier, but this is a repetitive problem in every movie featuring stand-up comedy ever, and while it isn’t enough to ruin the sharp sting of the sword in conversations and casual dialogues, it does take some steam away from what Kaling is capable of as a screenwriter.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Shaft

Directed By Tim Story

Starring – Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse T. Usher, Richard Roundtree

The Plot – JJ, aka John Shaft Jr. (Usher), may be a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, but to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death, he needs an education only his dad can provide. Absent throughout JJ’s youth, the legendary locked-and-loaded John Shaft (Jackson) agrees to help his progeny navigate Harlem’s heroin-infested underbelly. And while JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge may clash with his dad’s trademark leather coat, there’s no denying family. Besides, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that’s professional and personal.

Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– R-rated humor. This is the only aspect of the film where the material feels reminiscent to that of the 1970’s origin story, with a rating designation that gives the gags zero boundaries in terms of what it can rightfully access. From this advantage, much of the actors, especially that of Jackson, feels like they are quipping it up and having fun with the spoofing nature of espionage films that often times take themselves far too seriously, and it brought forth a barrage of laughs for me personally that landed around 60% of the time. For my money, the dynamic between gun-heavy father and tech-savy son garners the film’s biggest means for comparison, and brings forth plenty of audience reactions when the two are contrasted side-by-side.

– Slamming soundtrack. Both sides of the musical spectrum, with the intoxicating musical score from composer Christopher Lennertz, as well as the 70’s heavy influence of soul groove R&B, move mountains in their abilities to emit this feeling of fun in the atmosphere that the screenplay often has difficulty replicating, and establishes the importance of a particular track for the perfect feeling within the moment. Aside from the legendary Shaft theme composed by Isaac Hayes, that pops up at the most opportune times in the film, the soundtrack includes a variety of decade heavy favorites like “Get Up Off of That Thing” by James Brown, “Mary Jane” by Rick James, and “Best of My Love” by The Emotions. Each are articulated in their own unique imagining to what is transpiring around it, and each go far beyond the topical sense in mastering why it feels so essential to these sequences.

– Performances. Jackson is easily the highlight of the film for me, gaining the ability to delve into the blacksploitation icon that is John Shaft one more time, and while I feel like his performance feels more like Samuel L. Jackson instead of Shaft, the results are indulging enough to remind us why he is still one of the most charismatic actors working today. The chemistry between he and Usher do effectively balance the feeling of father and son without it ever feeling condemning to the character, and Jackson’s unfazed confidence and super cool swagger puts the age debate on hold at every opportunity given to prove himself once more. Also solid was Regina Hall as the estranged mother of his son. These two are given many scenes to bounce accordingly off of each other, and it leads to a delightfully sinister war of words that still hints at some love beating just beneath the surface.

– A love letter to New York. Setting is especially essential in the world of John Shaft, and this newest film wastes no time in immersing us in the heat of the environment, with some establishing shots that puts us at the pulse of the big apple. In a sense, New York itself is a character in the movie, and what proves this idea is the way that the city imagery or skyline finds its way into nearly every shot that our characters move in and out of frame with, establishing great weight in setting to the film’s conscience that makes it difficult to ever forget. Why this matters so much is because John Shaft is New York and vice versa, and this reflection makes it easier to comprehend why he holds such an advantage over every single one of his opposition, casting an inevitable feeling of doom that practically taps them on the shoulder and reminds them that this bad mother (SHUT YOUR MOUTH) is coming to right the wrongs.

NEGATIVES

– Easily forgettable. I have nothing personal against Tim Story as a director, but “Shaft” is a constant reminder of why there’s nothing poignant or elusive about his films that make any studio seek him out. This movie gives us nothing new or refreshing in idealism to counteract the tropes and cliches that are practically around every corner in this movie, and balance absolutely no level of urgency to compliment even a shred of dramatic heft to such dangerous stakes. Story’s movements behind the lens are every bit as conventionally bland as they are redundant in evolution, giving away an opportunity in crafting this beautiful hybrid of 70’s grainy visuals with 2019 technology that the film so desperately required in creating even a shred of anything that makes it stand out visually from its 2000 original chapter, or even its 70’s blacksploitation films, which are somehow more alluring than this film.

– Uninspired. Speaking of those 70’s Blacksploitation films, the lack of influence of them in this film wipes away any opportunity for the film to truly capture the atmosphere needed to fully sell its tone or ridiculousness of its title character. I wish films today would experiment more with hokey sound effects or even jumpy editing that could occasionally repeat. The only thing that has come close recently is Quentin Tarrantino’s work in “Death Proof”, and it’s unfortunate that with so much of these aspects of style and scintillation of visual seduction being lost, we fail to properly identify with what kind of film this is accurately trying to convey. With more fun in the film’s cinematography, the production could’ve gained much needed word of mouth to put the butts in the seats, but instead we’re left with a watered down finished product that doesn’t even measure up to the 2000 version in terms of experimentation.

– Hypocritical. Making a John Shaft movie in 2019 is anything but easy. He’s a well known masoganistic character who doesn’t age well with today’s shift in political or entertainment stratospheres, and while the film does attempt to poke fun and outline everything wrong with John’s idealism within his profession, the results are anything but convincing that it’s fully on-board with growing with the times. For one, there’s a subplot involving an Islam group that is of course played for terrorism throughout the film, yet earlier in the first act the same movie mentioned how its cops are anything but racist when it comes to Islam characters. As I said, it says this, and then commits the very same problem that its commentary mentions. Then there’s the female thing with how it portrays women within this world, with a female character mentioning how she’s a real woman, implying she’s too smart to fall into traps, and then she falls into a trap that gets her kidnapped. As usual, the female is the damsel in distress who is only there to kiss the hero at the end, and is another shining example of why this series has come under much controversy within a world that has aged without it. Whether you support this stance or not, some change and surprise is good in films like these, because predictability is the last thing you want in a movie that is a modern day crime noir of sorts.

– Weak antagonists. Second straight review I have mentioned this, and it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t value what a meaningful villain brings to the psychology of a jaded hero. As is the case with this film, where we get a mystery so easily telegraphed and full of decades old cliches in set-up that the movie practically tells us in the first act. In addition to this, the dialogue within this group feels so unnaturally unnerving that you can practically see the lines within the pages of script that they were typed on. It’s really bad in a movie when the more that a villain talks, the less human they become, and if Shaft was given a villain who felt like anything other than a generic time-filler, then we would see a side of adversity for him to overcome, which would not only feel beneficial to the character’s personal growth but also to us the audience, who would feel more invested in the ways that Shaft must adapt to overcome them.

– By the numbers action sequences. There is nothing of style, substance, or complexity to the film’s action set pieces, which constantly feel like a remote speed bump on the way to more overstuffed exposition between Father and Son. This is Shaft, right? The man who is action first when it comes to his conflicts. Instead, the action sequences are so bland and ineffective in terms of piercing anything eye-catching to us the audience, who are forced to endure sequence after sequence of mundane ammunition exchanges without even a slight hint of creative depth to sell them along the way. One example is in “Deadpool”, a movie with around the same budget as “Shaft”, but uses visual numbers on the bullets fired to articulate to its audience how many shots are left in the merk’s chamber. This is just one example, but something like a Shaft movie should never have problems selling its creativity, but instead it’s just another example of why Story was the wrong man in channeling a new vision for a legendary icon of the ACTION-first spectrum.

– Weak characterization. This is especially prominent with the youthful characters within the movie, who weren’t engaging even in the slightest to this critic. Most of the reason for this is the way they are presented, with John Shaft Jr being so much of an opposite compared to the parental figure we all know and love. We are forced to spend a majority of our time with this character, as he is our visual narrator of sorts, and there’s nothing even slightly intriguing or confirming about his character. We are told frequently throughout that he is this computer genius, but we never get to see this at work besides typical fast-typing that is prominent in every film involving a computer genius. Likewise, his romantic interest (Played by the immensely talented Alexandra Shipp) has these sudden attitude shifts that almost entirely compromise her character set-up as this sweetheart of a girl who has always stood by Junior regardless. She overly dislikes certain characters without even knowing a shred of the backstory behind it, and is depicted as nothing more than the damsel that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Weak characters like these diminish positive returns each time Jackson is given a brief break from screen time.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

Men In Black: International

Directed By F. Gary Gray

Starring – Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Rebecca Ferguson

The Plot – The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest, most global threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some adult language and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Intricacy in action set pieces. While a majority of the backgrounds and action sequence designs are of computer generation descent, the vibrations of their use, as well as a slick, fast paced presentation, makes for an infectious dynamic that often feels too enthralling to not get lost in. The fight choreography here is top notch, but it’s really the energetic use of choppy editing used in a positive light that really kept my eyes glued to the screen, and kept the consistency of urgency locked firmly into the heat of the moment between the two sides in battle. If this film does one thing better than its predecessors, it’s in the way it incorporates the action side into the Science Fiction genre, balancing enough restrain through nearly two hours, then paying off in spades once the stakes get raised.

– Star studded cast. Everything from the fluffy cameos of Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, and Rebecca Ferguson, to the dominance of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, works here, and kept me hooked into the meat of the story where the screenplay often failed it. The chemistry between Chris and Tessa definitely holds over from its charms from two Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and the tease of romance between their characters without fully committing to its cliche reverence is something I greatly appreciated from their dynamic, perhaps leaving room for movement in future installments. Thompson commands a combination of cerebral intelligence, child-like innocence, and a sense of overall pride that burns from the sense of style that she emits from the character. Likewise, Hemsworth continues his comic precision with this slacker mentality that works as the perfect counteract to his rock-hard studly features, giving the audience enough reminder why he will never be limited to just one drama, all the while etching out a character that surprisingly does distance itself from the familiarity of Thor that I was expecting.

– World building. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the MIB franchise is the use of gadgets that breeds charm in arms within a series of films that are four-deep at this point, yet still find ways to astonish in this respect. The typical Cadillac used by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is traded in for a fine line of Lexus land and air attack, like the QZ 618 Galactic Enforcer helicoptor, or the RC.F automobile that preserves a comical side of British craftsmanship. In addition to this, the introduction of all-chrome weaponry and where it sprouts from adds great integral value not only to the vehicle itself, but also to the automobile creativity that derives from their designs. Nothing feels too far-fetched, nor redundant when compared to the other tools of the trade from previous films, and cements the idea that the Men In Black are still at the cusp of arms advancement to better contend with outside world adversity.

– Distancing. This is the hardest sell for fans of the original trilogy, but I commend this film greatly for barely mentioning the events of those previous films, and choosing to blaze its own trail of originality within this secretive world. This allows the film to never feel restrained or conventional from those that came before it, all the while conjuring up this mystery that, for the first time ever, someone within the bureau has deceived them. I also feel that the long distance setting of London and Paris in the film better helps in the distancing, outlining a whole new line of rules and etiquette for the geographic setting that better serves and establishes the supporting characters surrounding the black suits. It would be easy for a sequel to save time and energy with re-heating the same room temperature gags and directions that worked more times than not in early editions, but screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway extend the lifespan for this series by nearly pressing reset on everything we’ve come to know and expect, and it leads to a sequel that creatively feels like the first fresh one of the entire franchise.

– Pacing. Even for nearly two hours long, the film never lagged or stalled for my investment into it, despite me having zero interest in it heading into it. This is not only a testament to the energy in chemistry between Hemsworth and Thompson that I mentioned earlier, but also in the ever-changing geography of the film, that vibrantly feeds into the big world international feel of the MIB promotion. There’s this breezy consistency in scene transitions that keeps the story firmly on its toes, and leaves so little of downtime between scenes of valued exposition, where a screenplay typically loses half of its audience. This was as easy of a two hour sit that I’ve been through this entire year, and while the movie does have a lot of problems in its structure, it’s impossible for me to say that I didn’t at least have fun with the way I fell in love with these characters.

NEGATIVES

– No established villain. Are there antagonists in the movie? Yes, but my biggest problem is that because of the restraints of a weak whodunnit? the villain characters just kind of hang in the balance until their inevitable confrontations with the heroes comes to fruition. This is especially tragic for Ferguson, who we are fortunate enough to see don a Cleopatra wig and free-flowing gown, yet unfortunate enough to only get around ten minutes with her in the entire film. In addition to this, there are twin characters who are on the trail for a mysterious jewel (What else is new?), but never receive any kind of time or exposition to further sell the impact of their invasion. This is again another case of too many cooks in the kitchen, as the work of dual screenwriters and many antagonists feels like a virtual hodgepodge of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, and for a film’s underlying urgency, there’s essentially none in this installment.

– Texture of computer generation. While I did enjoy the weight established from C.G character properties in the film, the designs and vibrancy of their designs counteracted the work of some exceptionally done cinematography from Stuart Dryburgh. Even if intentional, there’s this visually jarring glow emanating from all hollow properties, giving scenes these very distracting and uncomfortably ugly circumstances that not only doesn’t match the boldness in tone from previous movies, but also constantly reminded me of the missed opportunity that this film could’ve attained from make-up and prosthetics work that could’ve earned it awards recognition. This is easily my least offensive problem within the film, but it’s something that came up frequently throughout, and gave off this cheap feeling of quality from the very same company that has visually rendered Spider-Man since 2002.

– Irritating sound design. Here comes the critic in me. Scenes like the one that takes place in the club in this film are ones that standout like a midget hooker in a WNBA game. In this scene, the two MIB agents can communicate with an alien in a club that features loud blaring music by softly talking to them while standing five feet away. Considering I can’t hear what they’re saying, I find it difficult to believe that the characters in the film can either, and these scenes always drive me nuts in a movie where loud music is bombastic. Speaking of bombastic, the overall musical score from Chris Bacon, with traces from Danny Elfman’s original score, are very much effective in delivering the heat of the moment, but are blared at such ear-shattering levels that it gave me a headache only twenty minutes in. If you watch this movie in a theater, maybe do it in one with lesser sound qualities than your big-budget multiplex, because the will of some ruthless asshole in the studio is responsible for this ringing in my ears that seems to be growing louder as I type this.

– Weak comedy. If not for the commitment to the craft that Hemsworth gives in shedding his pretty boy persona, the gag material in the film would fail at any and every opportunity possible. The twisted dark humor puns that we’ve come to expect from Men In Black movies are still there, but the line deliveries of conventional comic set-ups land with the kind of power of an ear-hair trimmer, and it fails so bad that it made me forget that this film was ever deemed partly a comedy in the first place. I blame part of this on predictable punchlines, but so much more can be said for limitations felt by its rating that doesn’t test or stretch PG-13 concepts even in the slightest. Don’t go to this movie to laugh, because you’ll be sadly disappointed, and it will only serve as further reminder how terribly this film misses the energetic charm of Will Smith.

– Telegraphed mystery. I figured this out almost immediately after the subplot of a mole in the MIB was introduced to the film, and the film certainly does no favors in making this even remotely climatic for its influence on the rest of the story. Besides the fact that it hardly mentions it again or teases it besides the beginning and end of its mystery, the fact that there are only two lasting characters to the film outside of our central two protagonists (Who it’s obviously not), increases your chances to 50% of getting it right. One of which would be so obvious that it wouldn’t be a mystery at all, so who does it leave? It’s an equation so elementary that a fifth grader could do it on a napkin, and such a disappointment to an aspect of screenplay that should be the enveloping paranoia that is breaking this elusive group apart at the seams.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Dead Don’t Die

Directed By Jim Jarmusch

Starring – Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Danny Glover

The Plot – The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Rated R for zombie violence/gore, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– Entrancing musical score. Jarmusch pulls double duty here, as he and partner Chris Logan (Together known as Squrl) infuse an unnerving presence of moody blues rock to perfectly accentuate the trouble that is persistently brewing beneath this small town, all appropriately narrated by the king of blues rock himself, Tom Waits. Especially obvious is the ominously thick influence of organ music that gives the film the occasional serious tone that it requires so terribly to sell its scares, bringing forth a collection of groovy tunes from a soundtrack that I will inevitably buy with much eagerness to audibly treat myself again. On top of this, the film’s title track, “The Dead Don’t Die” from Sturgill Simpson, has so much more than a topical presence in the film. It’s very much the tie that binds these many off-beat personalities together for one night of chaotic bloody thrills. Jarmusch himself has musical ties all the way back to his days in high school, so it’s nice to see that he believes he doesn’t have to give up one passion for the sake of another, and as it stands, it’s easily the greatest aspect of any in his zom-com.

– Make-up/prosthetics. Not only are the effects work in the film durable for such a cheap production budget overall, but they also spare no details in the gory fashion of some truly cringing death sequences by the hungry undead. What I love about these instances is that they stand as the constant reminder of consequences existing in a world so heavily influenced by dark humor. What’s equally effective is that the graphic depictions never overstay or over-influence the 100 minute screenplay, instead being used sporadically to enhance their appearances at just the right time in impact. In this respect, Jarmusch values their purpose, but chooses to not takeaway from the artistic merit of the film, so as not to turn this into an unnecessary exploitation film that most zombie movies run towards.

– Respect for the genre. A right of passage in zombie movies is to respectfully homage or audibly mention the greats that came before it, educating youthful audiences in a way that seems necessary with the overabundance of undead properties that even in 2019 are still all the craze. Sequences with zombies invasions are given the George Romero style of cinematography, in that they take ample time to capture the very shock factor of the dead walking the Earth again, for the sheer importance of how this changes everything in the setting. Likewise, the film’s various mentions of Romero, his films like “Dawn of the Dead”, or the glaringly obvious homage to “Return of the Living Dead”, with these zombies muttering one word comments like “Coffee” or “Chardonnay” to whet their thirsts. It proves that Jarmusch has done his homework, and has great respect for the genre classics that blazed a trail so wide that we now have no shortage of zombie television shows on mainstream TV.

– An Ohio boy. For those who don’t know, Jarmusch was once a native of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and like many other famous world pop culture icons like The Black Keys, Chrissy Hynde, or Lebron James, Jim cherishes his roots and takes pride in fusing them in to every film he heads, and “The Dead Don’t Die” is certainly no different. For one, the film takes place in Centerville, a real life suburb of Dayton, garnering around 24,000 people within its beautiful city limits. Beyond this, the articulate rendering of small town talk and demeanor’s are captured in a way that only people from the area will truly connect and take connection to, preserving an inside joke that I constantly felt like I was the only one in on. Finally, the mention and fun-poking at the expense of the city of Pittsburgh is something that surely burns on for a native Ohioan who has spent decades being on the humiliating side of comparison to said big city. In many ways, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a reminder of Jim’s ability to never forget who he is or where he came from, and the way he incorporates such a pride into his latest big screen presentation gave me a bountiful amount of pride and conscience for my home that too many simply don’t value.

– Riveting social commentary. Any good zombie film requires something extra simmering just beneath the barrage of blood and brains that reach the surface level, and Jarmusch’s latest proves that he has a lot to talk about in the current Trump landscape. While not feeling overly preachy or disjointed in its boiling issues, the unshakeable combination of immigration, consequential fracking, stock in fake news, and of course an unmistakeable red hat that reads “Make America White Again” does more than enough to register where Jim stands on the debates of the modern day that clearly hit home for this visionary. The sheer creativity associated with how Jim works in these themes to something as polarly opposite as a zombie epidemic is beautifully stitched, and does wonders in depicting a world, that while visually may look so far from those watching, does in fact hit a soft spot for how synonymous their conflicts collide with ours.

NEGATIVES

– Very few laughs. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the movie, as Jarmusch’s usually dark twisted depravity is something I’ve taken strong merit with in his films like “Paterson” or “Only Lovers Left Alive”, is the overwhelming lack of accuracy or consistency in laughs that drain so much of the fun from the picture. The gags here are every bit as telegraphed as they are lazy, and especially with a phenomenal cast that includes the iconic Bill Murray, it’s shocking that so much of the humor involved is one-note, never evolving from the precedent set during the first act that frankly wasn’t convincing to begin with. Did I laugh a few times? Sure, but the film’s biggest obstacle is that so much of the screenplay lacks quotability with audiences who will inevitably give it more than one spin in their DVD player, and coming back with fewer scenes of reward for their funny bones each time. Considering the film is marketed as a comedy first, it’s discouraging that Jarmusch hangs much of his hat on the presence of big name actors to sell lines of dialogue that sound like they originate from a Noah Baumbach movie.

– Sequencing repetition. This film could easily be an even 90 minutes, and lose nothing from the edit of redundancy that overwhelms the set-ups in each scene. For instance, when a character is killed, the three cops will each experience seeing the dead boy. That’s fine enough for a realistic perspective, but what’s troubling is nothing about their reactions is different enough to cement reasoning for why we have to relive the same scene for as many as three different times back-to-back. This isn’t a one and done kind of thing either. I counted three different scenes during the film where this happens, and it’s increasingly more frustrating by that final time because it’s a mistake that translates tragically for the pacing of his film, giving audiences a steep uphill climb in the first half of the movie, if they want to reap the rewards of the zombie euphoria of the second half that they’ve waited patiently for.

– Jarmusch’s directing. As an Akron boy, this more than anything troubles me, because Jim has proven that he’s an incredible actor time and time again, but with this film he doesn’t understand the value of urgency in a post-apocalyptic script. Part of this is the bored environments that Jim himself intentionally creates in his films that are dry of thrills or cinematic revelations to keep the audience hooked. If you don’t get lost in the thickness of the dialogue and diverse conversations in the film, this will be a rough sit. One such troubling direction is the frequent breaking of meta for the audience that is supposed to come off as smart, but just kind of demeans everything set-up before it. Throughout the film, cast members mention reading a script, or Sturgill Simpson’s previously mentioned track being the theme song for the film, or Driver’s character saying an obviously foreshadowing line of dialogue that takes away any and every level of surprise during the pivotal third act. What was he thinking?

– Rules convenience. One clumsy level of storytelling comes from how quickly the humans adapt to their undead counterparts, that defines logic for the way things are interpreted in this particular setting. Character’s who lack the kind of intelligence to accurately interpret the meaning of human emotional response can apparently tell us everything there is to know about a first time invasion that they have no time to prepare for. I guess we can easily file this under the meta format that I mentioned earlier, but it just further adds to everything wrong with that level of disbelief in a genre like this. In order to save time for valuable exposition, we compartmentalize everything in a way that feels like vital scenes are missing from the overwhelming amount of knowledge that Driver’s character in particular conveys throughout the film.

– The performances. What a shame. Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, and Carol Kane, and not one of them are commanded with any kind of emotional depth or physical weight to the story they accompany. With the exception of Tilda Swinton as this badass sword-wielding morgue working heroine, the rest of the appearances of this exceptional ensemble fumble away any kind of measure to have an impact on the story, and none more tragic than Murray. This is a man who oozes charisma in his sleep, yet the lack of inspiration from Jarmusch’s control over him constantly gives his lack of energy in the film a paycheck-first kind of deal, and wastes away a real opportunity to take Bill in a new genre-defining direction that only further elaborates that there’s nothing this man can’t do. If I summarized the work of this cast in one word, it would be “Boring”, as far too much of their performances rely on your already pre-determined interest in them.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Directed By Brian Lynch

Starring – Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford

The Plot – Max (Oswalt) faces some major changes after his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) gets married and now has a child . On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets a farm dog named Rooster (Ford), and both attempt to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget (Jenny Slate) tries to rescue Max’s favorite toy from a cat-packed apartment, and Snowball (Hart) sets on a mission to free a white tiger named Hu from a circus.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Improvements on all things animation. Illumination Studios has always been a distant third in detailed animation, but thanks to the tightening of illustrations that fills this film, arguably the very best artistic film that the studio has ever produced, they can start to bridge the gap of their opposition. It isn’t just one thing but rather a barrage, as the believability behind stormy weather patterns is beautifully rendered, the expressions of animals during the most extreme occasions adds more to the comedic relief, and even the 3D effects give an immersive quality to everything flowing in frame that warrants paying a little extra to see this film. With time, this studio will hopefully continue this trend, and offer so much more than colorfully vibrant backgrounds against a city skyline that offers plenty of familiar geography to place this story accordingly.

– Talented cast. Oswalt is a more-than enthusiastic fill-in for Louie C.K, but it’s really the work of Slate and Hart who take center stage in incorporating intensity to their often familiar vocal tones. As Gidget, Slate is a force to be reckoned with, juggling an infatuation for Max all the while proving to the audience the extent of her cunning intellect. As to where the first film showed off Slate as a lover, this one cements her as a fighter, and her emoting of Gidget is my very favorite of this entire franchise. Hart should stick with animated properties for a while, because the combination of eccentric deliveries and polar opposite vocal capacity in comparison to that of his furry rendering, makes him perfect for voice range capabilities, and the focus and attention given to his character practically begs for a Snowball spin-off that feels just around the corner. New additions are those from Tiffany Haddish, Dana Carvey, and a wise, weathered dog leader voiced by none other than Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. It rounds off arguably the brightest ensemble of comedic actors in quite some time, and prove that their talents serve a much bigger purpose than just physical humor in sight gags.

– Fluffy run time. This one clocks in at a measly 77 minutes, and with sharing time between three respective story arcs does so in a way that keeps the eagerness and intensity of the storytelling firmly in grip with regards to a youthful audience that sometimes slip away during slow periods of exposition. While this does create some problems for the fluidity of the transitions, which I will get to later, the confidence donated to each vital character receiving their own conflicts in the story gives the movie a three-movie-for-one quality within its pages that practically forces movement in the casual three act structure that can sometimes omit itself invisible in family genre cinema. There was never a time when I was bored or antsy watching this movie, and much credit goes to the producers of the film for knowing just how far to stretch each story before it becomes something in depth that it rightfully shouldn’t.

– Intelligence in gags. I said this about the first film, and it’s something that continues in this movie. The way the film takes real moments of familiarity from the pets in our own lives, and adds a layer of profound poignancy to each situation is something that not only reaches for audience participation, but also does so in a way that will have you intentionally remembering the occasions from this movie once you go home. This gives the film and its material a consistency in shelf life that many films in modern day don’t attain, and speaks volumes to the levels of attention that screenwriters Chris Renaud and Jonathan Del Val engage in to contrast with their audience’s. In that respect, the material itself feels very much fleshed out from real life, and performed in an exaggerated way that works because of its small amounts of truth that derive from these very humorously humbling moments of love from our best friends.

– Pre-credits rap video. I won’t give away much here, but Kevin Hart’s dream to be a rapper comes full circle in a spoof of a familiar rap track from the previous couple years that is given new context thanks to the world surrounding his character. Not since 2006’s “Waiting…” has a post-movie performance left such a lasting impression on me, and the work of creativity in rhymes combined with the sheer lunacy of the situation in mid-day form, makes this moment the one that stands out the most for me in terms of comic lasting power, and non-surprisingly gives the original track, which I hated tremendously, a new lease on life. If this song was heard on the radio even half as much as that original song, then I would be fine with it.

– Strong positive message. As is the case with every kids movie out today, this one has a takeaway message that bonds its respective subplots together for one cohesive beat, and it’s the importance of overcoming fear. Especially with younger audiences, this message will ring true from within them, because it’s at that age where battling adversities prepares them for the war that is adolescence, and it’s something that resonates on-screen in each of the fears that the main character’s have to overcome for the sake of their developments. If an on-screen message is presented strong enough, kids will take even more away from it, and thankfully the film never feels overly preachy or even condescending in the message it sends the next generation of adventure seekers home with.

NEGATIVES

– Incoherent structure. As I mentioned earlier, there are three different subplots competing for time, and while this does wonders in keeping the attention of younger audiences, it does nothing for experienced moviegoers who know how important seamless transitions really are to the progress of a particular narrative. The outline of each story feels episodic, mainly because of unshakeable predictability and adjacent plotting, which does the film no favors in establishing its story as a group effort like the first movie. Because of this triangle of direction, the script itself forgets certain early angles established early on (See Max’s protection of little boy) that would make great films on their own, but are relegated to split screen time with other stories not half as compelling. For my money, the Snowball story could easily be stretched out for his own spin-off, leaving the branches of the other two somewhat connected plots feeling cohesive because of the way one is the effect of the other’s cause.

– Lack of weight. The conflicts from this movie are practically non-existent, thanks in part to resolutions that often come too fast, and a shoe-horned antagonist character who feels completely wrong for this world. On the former, I could’ve used more time for fear or tribulation for the character’s embattled with their respective conflicts. This is where ten or fifteen minutes of additional screen time could’ve further fleshed out the urgency and vulnerability of these small pets in a big world setting, and given way to further audience participation who have shared the struggles that each character has gone through. As for the antagonist, it’s the loudest reminder that this is a cartoon kids movie, complete with bulging eyes, black ensemble, and a hatred for animals for no other reason than the script asked for it. Quick question, how many times have you seen a villain who owns an abusive zoo, where the protagonists have to rescue said animals from his clutches? If you’ve run out of fingers, so have I.

– Plot holes. When you consider that this is virtually a “Toy Story” ripoff, you must consider the rules established within the world that make absolutely no sense when you consider a sprinkle of logic. For one, many of these pets go missing for long periods of time that make me question why no human owner is freaking out about where they’ve gone. In addition to this, there are certain instances in the film where believability is stretched further than a “Fast and Furious” lesson on gravity. Some of my favorite examples are a dog outracing a train, two dogs riding a remote controlled toy car without it tipping over or losing speed, and a psychopathic old woman character who not only commits murder, but also sees no problem with owning a Siberian tiger. Considering much of this film is set-up with real world ideals and consequences, these instances soil the authenticity of the engagement, and disappointed me for how these films are still insulting the intelligence of their youthful audience.

– Additional complaints. While this will only be a problem for people who see advanced screenings of this film, the inclusion of a behind-the-scenes introduction that plays before the film is more than just a little spoiler-filled for the gags it gives away. Why would you include something like these before the film plays? It renders the power of your laughs weak because the audience has already seen it before the movie starts, and just feels redundant once it comes around in the movie itself. The trailers for this film were actually solid, in that they didn’t give much away other than spare instances of familiarity of the pets in our own lives, but this production video did absolutely no favors in those regards, and took away from material that by its own merits was effective at garnering a laugh or two on its original run through.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Rocketman

Directed By Dexter Fletcher

Starring – Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

The Plot – A musical fantasy about the fantastical human story of Elton John’s (Egerton) breakthrough years.

Rated R for adult language throughout, some drug use and sexual content

POSITIVES

– British led cast. Everyone here is on their marks in providing depth to their respective character’s, as well as instilling a sense of value and weight within the story that makes them vital as supporting cast, but it’s clearly the tour-de-force performance by Egerton that everyone will be raving about minutes after they see it. This is not an impression of Elton John, this is Elton John. Taron gives his best performance to date, transforming the look and sound of his familiarity to compliment that of the imposing figure who he’s taking on, and there’s much eye-opening to be complimented about his work in the film. For one, he does all of his own singing, a feat that until the movie ended I had no idea about. While obviously not as strong or passionate as John behind the mic, Egerton has clearly done his homework, establishing the line of variety in genre offerings from John’s catalogue of music that changed with the scenery of pre and post disco influence. In addition to this, Egerton’s psychological delve is one that captures the energy, love, loneliness, and despair of the singer through some of his biggest triumphs and darkest disasters, and Taron’s timely grip on the pulse of the ever-changing dynamic of the character is one that feels earned brilliantly with the tides of the script.

– Breathtaking production value. This is where the film separates itself from other biopics of the genre, as the look and feel of “Rocketman” was made for the big screen. What allows it to spare itself from feelings of TV-movie-of-the-week budget is in the immense scale of choreographed-led musical numbers, practical precision in make-up designs, vibrant boisterousness of costume design, and a feast for fantasy that blurs the line of reality and imagination seamlessly. If every musical biopic had this level of focus and budget expressiveness, then we would be able to emit the fun from all of the raw energy contained inside, but Fletcher knows that John’s story certainly isn’t a cheap one to tell, and it leads to a barrage of lucid surrealism that benefits from the drug-fueled intensity of the cocaine age.

– R-rating. I still don’t comprehend how “Bohemian Rhapsody” could even imagine telling Freddie Mercury’s life story with the limitations set by its studio and the PG-13 tag it was given, but the decision here to travel the adult route with its material pays off in spades for the way it can properly articulate the meat of its material. From the carelessness of Elton’s diverse sex life, to the abuse of illegal drugs and narcotics, to the rapid-fire fury of the English dialogue, everything is covered in vivid detail, giving audiences a no-apologies depiction of a heralded figure for better or worse, and it gave me great appreciation for the screenplay to use Elton’s biggest negatives to craft an enveloping layer of indulgence for the audience, as well as a dramatic layering to the story, which feels far from topical. Nothing ever feels overdone or desperate to fill an R-rating quota, and it keeps the air of honesty to Elton’s engagements on display in the exact manner they took place.

– Wide range of story. As to where most musical biopics only cover a brief sampling of the artist’s fame, “Rocketman” has an appreciation for everything Elton John, as well as Reginald Dwight. Kicking off during his early days as a kid in dealing with two mentally abusive parents, the film eventually takes us through the entire first half of Elton’s immense 40 year career, before settling down during the days in rehab that eventually changed his life for the better. This seems like a lot to cover in nearly two hours of film, but what’s remarkably shocking is how the film gives ample time to each important chapter without alienating the fluidity of pacing that is nearly always smooth in transition. Beyond this, the storytelling tool in narration is one that I found to be very clever, not only for the way it is set-up in the opening scene of the movie, but also for the way it evolves in diminishing wardrobe with every beat of the story. It gives food for thought in the stripped down nature of John starting and ending his career as Reginald, and comforting us with a blanket of clarity as he finally feels comfortable being the man he was born to be.

– Meaning behind the soundtrack. The film has no shortage of Elton favorites to choose from, conjuring up around twenty-five favorites from the musician that take us through the roller-coaster momentum in his trysts with fame, but there’s something more elusive to the way that each song and sequence transition, proving that Elton always used life as a means, and music as a therapy to bind the two world’s. Films make many mistakes in this aspect, because they often depict a popular song being made in the most topically obvious and unintelligent demeanor, but the almost freestyle effort of song writing that John displays feels replicated from the previous scene in a way that naturally harvests from a tortured soul. It was in this area where I learned the most about John that I didn’t previously know before the film, and helps cement an audible reflection to what’s transpiring inside of Elton.

– Passage of time. I hate to bring this film up again, but my biggest problem with “Bohemian Rhapsody” is how it mutilated important dates and events in Freddie’s life for the shaping of the film, but “Rocketman” gives an alluring and poetic design behind the way it collides with the sands of time. No dates or text is featured throughout the film, and even more shocking, huge amounts of time will pass not only for us the audience, but also for John, which results in him feeling like Rip Van Winkle, in that he just woke up from a ten year nap. What’s so cinematically appropriate for this direction is it captures the fragility and sacrifices paid not only to immersing in the live fast lifestyle that booze, drugs, and depression can form, but also in the routine of being a rockstar, which is anything but appealing by this film’s standards. We the audience are merely left to establish a time frame from iconic Elton fashions, as well as the look and feel of the world that changes around him with nuanced subtlty. It proves that the when isn’t nearly as important as the who or the why, and allows us to get lost in the devil of the details instead.

– Backdrop special effects. This is all done on green-screen, but you would never know it because of the impeccable technology associated with visual time travel in the same vein as Marvel’s ability to de-age a particular actor. This gives us time to soak in the glitz and glamor of the Hollywood specter, as the world famous Troubadour bar becomes youthful again, complete with posters in the windows which are no longer present, and an architecture design that reminds people that the location grew just like Elton did once the two were married in rock and roll on that legendary night in August 1970. If this is the direction that production teams are taking us, then soon there won’t be any need for on-site shooting, and while there is an element of tragedy to that circumstance, the believability and texture shading of flawless computer generation will at least help trim production budgets accordingly, all the while articulating past ages in a way that feels far beyond a visual gimmick.

– Juggling of tones. I wasn’t surprised in how much comedy filled the script, but what did surprise me was the landing power of such witty banter all the while the sting of dramatic elements were being felt. These two co-exist simultaneously through Reginald’s loveless home life, to his questioned sexuality in his later years, to the single most romantic non-sexual friendship between Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin, and what’s more important is that neither are compromised because of the other’s influence on the dynamic of a particular scene. This film took me on an emotional registry of laughter, fear, curiosity, and sadness for the evolution of the story, proving that it would rather appeal to a broader spectrum of audience tastes rather than cater to the limitations and cliches of one respective field.

– Fletcher steals the light. This is the very same director who finished “Bohemian Rhapsody” (There I go again) from the disastrous production that hindered it to finishing as just a decent final product, but with “Rocketman” it’s a fresh and complete start for the man at the wheel. What we learn from his stroke is that he values the human side of the heralded superstar, carving out a helping of audience investment that keeps us glued to the unfolding drama and tension within Elton’s life that is more urgent because of that focus. Likewise, the influential photography breathes a light of audience connection that features John singing to us the audience, instead of the grand scale that we have come to expect in cinematic musicals. It cements a feeling of professionalism and on-screen presence in rendered style that garners a developing visionary in Hollywood, thanks in whole to commanding the stories of two of music’s biggest icons.

NEGATIVES

– Technical inconsistencies. This brought forth two noticeable problems, with the first dealing with the uninspiring levels of cinematography established in interior office scenes. The coloring scheme and textures establish a level of generated lighting that does nothing to compliment the appeal of the scene. Likewise, a continued problem for Fletcher’s editing team remains prominent in this film, as the editing is far too choppy during scenes involving two character’s. It made for some highly distracting scenes during moments of heartfelt resonance, which deemed it necessary to show us the same line of dialogue in as many as three different angles for what I guess is towards the better of understanding the essence of the conversation? Either way, less anxiousness in illustrating these casual scenes.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-