Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

The return to a land of chance and consequence gets an upgrade in the form of a popular video game. In ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’, When four high-school kids discover an old video game console with a game they’ve never heard of: Jumanji, they are immediately drawn into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the avatars they chose: gamer Spencer becomes a brawny adventurer (Dwayne Johnson); football jock Fridge loses (in his words) “the top two feet of his body” and becomes an Einstein (Kevin Hart); popular girl Bethany becomes a middle-aged male professor (Jack Black); and wallflower Martha becomes a badass warrior (Karen Gillan). What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji; you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, discover what Alan Parrish left 20 years ago, and change the way they think about themselves–or they’ll be stuck in the game forever… ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ is directed by Jonathan Liebesman and Jake Kasdan, and is rated PG-13 for action, suggestive content, and some adult language.

Hell has officially frozen over. When you asked me what were the slimmest of possibilities for the 2017 movie year, the success for a Jumanji sequel over twenty years later would’ve been the last thing I predicted. Yet here I sit in complete shock that this action/adventure in the safari succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ carves out its own respective chapter in the series, relying very little on extended hand that the 1995 Robin Williams original reaches out. Nope, instead Kasdan honors the original with subtle Easter eggs along the way, keeping the link between the two films at a bit of a distance, allowing this sequel to reach even higher with the creativity that it displays in carving out a completely different beast all together. To even make this a Jumanji film is completely unnecessary, but it works because it reminds us of the adventure in imagination that the original supplied us with, while harvesting a heartfelt message that hints that we only have one life at this thing. No extra lives, and certainly no continues.

At its heart, this is very much a Breakfast Club kind of set-up, in that these are four teenagers (Well, three. I’m not so sure about the actor playing Fridge) who would’ve never been seen together before they encountered a game that will alter their respective futures into becoming this family of sorts. Have we seen this approach before? Absolutely, but why it works here is because the film is very enriched in the teenage fantasy kind of ideal, trading out who they are for the bigger, better deal behind the curtain of curiosity. Once they have immersed themselves in their adult counterparts, the film becomes a video game film that follows the authenticity to a tee, sure to satisfy even the most hardcore gamers. There are extra lives, strategies, and even satire that pokes fun at the sheer lunacy of some of these game ideals. For the most part, this direction is full-proof, as there was very little that I found false about its presentation. Some of the scenes involving Bobby Cannivale’s antagonist seem unnecessary considering this is a story that revolves around this group exclusively. If they are going to show scenes with him on his own, maybe broadcast it in the sky so the characters can approach his evil ways in the same vein they would as a player. Otherwise, these scenes are pointless. The only other thing with the game world that I had a problem with was the graphics being a bit too modern age for this being an Atari-like console. They should’ve just supplanted the game and console with a modern structure, hammering home the reasons why the game looks so surreal, but instead we are given 70’s technology with a 2017 presentation that makes absolutely no sense in the bigger picture.

Much of the pacing is solid, even during the noticeably weak second act that attempts to hold our attention through some lengthy dry-spells of action. It’s nothing that is truly sacrificing in the bigger picture of the film’s finished product, but I wish the middle of this film focused more on the same dramatic tug of the heartstrings that Williams gave us in the original for being locked in a foreign land against his will for so long. There’s certainly a comparison with a surprising cameo character who I won’t give away, but the script never capitalizes fully on making us feel his pain for how much they have given up in being locked inside for twenty years. For my money, the finale really packed a tightly constructed punch that continued to raise the stakes with four different areas of character focus, respectively and never letting the excitement omit itself from the air of tension. When I checked the run time, I was surprised that this is nearly a two hour movie at 114 minutes, but because you are spending it in a film that requires you keep track of the life count, as well as the character strengths and weaknesses, you too will find that the film doesn’t just ask to engage you in its plan, but it forces you to.

The visual effects and C.G animal renderings are surprisingly well done, keeping the enthralling fast-paced action always finely tuned whether it’s on land or air. Because of its unlimited setting as opposed to the first film, there’s endless possibilities in the way that the actors and choreographers can approach each sequence, and thankfully nothing feels watered down with predictability in the grand scheme, giving way to some rising urgency and uncertainty with the developing terror that lurks around the corner that constantly kept me guessing. The animal properties here feel respectively distinguished and very in-sync with the lighting and live action properties around them, in which they respond with great detection. Probably not since ‘The Jungle Book’ have I been this impressed with what studios are doing in bridging the gap between live action and animation, and it makes me wonder what they could’ve done with the original film had they only waited to perfect it.

As for the collective ensemble, there are positives and negatives to this story. First of all, I commend everyone for having to not really only play one character, but two when you consider they must portray their badass alter-ego’s as well as their teenage origins. Because of this stance, some stand out more than others with the dedication to their craft. Jack Black is leaps and bounds away the best of the main four, playing Bethany with a mental tug-of-war between the nerdy middle aged scientist she inherited, and the teenage beauty queen she left behind. Black feels like he leaves his Hollywood personality the most in terms of appreciation for his character, but he’s not the only success story here. Dwayne Johnson also supplants us with some versatility in character traits that makes this something completely different than the roles over the last few years that he’s phoned in. The charismatic charm is still there, but Johnson gives in to his comic side by mimicking a teenage nerd with the focus that wouldn’t change in one day in a game world. My critiques rest with Gillian and Hart’s performances, but not so much their characters. As a female heroine, Gillian’s Martha is as satisfying and empowering as it gets. It’s more in her acting muscle where I felt slightly let down by one-note emotional responses that kept her limited in anything that wasn’t action. Hart plays himself. In fact, it was his character where I felt having the most difficult time remembering who he was in the real world, mainly because none of his jock personality carries over to his new body. It’s almost like he lets the limited tomb shield who he is as a person, and while Hart’s comic genius was greatly appreciated in a few good laughs, I need something different at this point from a guy who I know can do so much.

THE VERDICT – ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ isn’t demeaning or damning of the original film that many look back on with nostalgic glee. It never settles to be anything of equal value, instead motivating itself to be better because of its talented cast and endless thrills that bring the fun back to the expedition subgenre that Indiana Jones left behind decades ago. Kasdan’s chapter swings through the trees with a pulse-setting roar, bringing to life the peak of the video game age with enough nuance for the aspects in gaming that 90’s multiplayer’s were known for. Plug in and plant yourself in front of the screen, it’s just the kind of distraction to remind us how fun movies can be again.

7/10

The Greatest Showman

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Paddington 2

Written and directed by Paul King

Starring – Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw

The Plot – Paddington (Whishaw) is happily settled with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens, where he has become a popular member of the community, spreading joy and marmalade wherever he goes. While searching for the perfect present for his beloved Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, Paddington spots a unique pop-up book in Mr. Gruber’s antique shop, and embarks upon a series of odd jobs to buy it. But when the book is stolen, it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to unmask the thief.

Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor

THE POSITIVES

– Infinite imagination in visual effects, including some awe-inspiring transitional stylings that echo the vibe of colorless page-turning animation in a pop-up book kind of feel.

– Hugh Grant’s energetically over-the-top charge as the antagonist for the film. Omits that feeling of fun from Grant’s usually distinguished reservoir

– A screenplay with an innocent adventure that is equal (If not better) than the original film.

– Despite the additions of many new cast members, the Brown family feel like they are just as necessary as ever in the ever-unfolding mystery of this bear’s quest to get back home

– Seems comfortable in finding an entertaining medium between adults and child audiences that doesn’t alienate either’s experience.

– No fart or bodily humor. This should be a given, but in a kid’s film, it is unassuming.

– The vibrancy of colorful backdrops, especially in that of the Brown’s home that never settles for one choice of color consistency

– Paul King’s strict approach in not relying on any material or familiarities of the first film, crafting an original chapter that stands on its own

THE NEGATIVES

– The humor is noticeably absent. There were moments where I grinned, but nothing that gave me the long-term laughter needed in keeping the atmosphere delightful

– While the overall animation is exceptional, the shading of Paddington’s design still feels hollow to the light and shadows that he comes into contact with. His face gives off a level of being too light to be authentic.

8/10

Ferdinand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

The Shape of Water

The relationship between human and monster comes full circle, in Guillermo Del Toro’s newest adult night-time fairytale, ‘The Shape of Water’. The film is an otherworldly fable set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works as a janitor, lonely and deaf Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment. At the helm is a hard-nosed government doctor (Michael Shannon), who is hell-bent on keeping this devastating secret just that; a secret. As Elisa gets closer, the threat of the unknown becomes even more apparent, setting those closest to her on a trail to discover just what she is hiding. ‘The Shape of Water’ is written and directed by Del Toro, and is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and adult language.

‘The Shape of Water’ is an enchantment under the sea kind of engagement. Through a love for the tinseltown age of Hollywood cinema, Del Toro instills a lover’s kind of tale that challenges all kinds of barriers both mentally and physically that are pre-judged by the kind of society that seems intrusive to judge who they can and can’t love. But far beyond that, this film dazzled me with an insane amount of versatility in its creative structure that caters to many more genre fans than just those who came looking to be charmed by the connection that Hawkins and Doug Jones (The creature) share for one another. Far beyond its gentle touch in crafting an unorthodox love angle, the film is also compelling in the science fiction department for the kind of rules and worlds that it opens up within its pages. Finally, ‘The Shape of Water’ also triumphs as a heist movie for the first half of the picture that questions just how far those of us would be willing to go to live that feeling for the rest of our lives. Del Toro indulges in these many faces and doesn’t require us to ever choose just one, conjuring up his single most inclusive film to date that doesn’t alienate any spectrum of audience members who are taking it in for whatever reason.

In turning back the hands of time to an almost parallel universe of 1961, Del Toro harvests enough confidence of magic in pop culture cinema and teasing of illuminating levels of green in tickling us visually with this adult bedtime story approach. There is a kind of dreamy, spell-binding quality that exudes itself upon introducing us to this dark setting visually, yet compromising in tone for the airy feeling of whimsical that overtakes us thanks to the power of love and how it can trap us whole. This feels like a screenplay where there’s constantly music in the air, echoing vibrantly the toe-tapping sensation that electrifies one’s spirit in overcoming the paralyzing spell of loneliness. Del Toro interjects scenes and moments from past Hollywood pictures to keep this effect consistently, but it’s in his symbolism for the often times color of jealousy that truly enlightened me. Green is definitely the most dominant color and shade used throughout the film, and early on we find out that this is to represent the future. My take on this is that Del Toro feels very progressive in breaking down the shackles of a definition by love that doesn’t and shouldn’t settle for just one singular meaning. The color is everywhere throughout the film, even generating madness from Shannon’s character every time he sees it. This is clearly to prove and cement that his character represents the world that doesn’t move on with the concepts of change, having very much grown up in a world that caters to one sole demographic.

The performances are riveting from a complete ensemble cast that each bring something vital to the table. Hawkins is a revelation as the muted Elisa, holding the emotional prowess of her character solely in her facial features that are meant to display so much. This is a very difficult thing to do because Hawkins never feels confined to just one emotional response, so her range has to be on point in every scene, and she’s no short of Oscar brilliance for what she does with a coy look. Michael Shannon again continues to be one of my favorite actors going today. Shannon is his usual slimy antagonist for the film, but as this doctor, we start to see the line of distinction between human and animal fade away each time he’s on screen. Michael is every bit as menacing as he’s ever been, and it’s through him when we get a few brunt reminders of the R-rated feature that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Doug Jones (like Hawkins) also does so much with a look, but does so under layers of makeup and prosthetics that fade away everything but Jones signature glassy eyes to the forefront. The chemistry between he and Hawkins warmed my heart and effectively removed the pre-conceived fears that I had for how unusual the love between them would look on-screen.

There’s a lot of love that I have for the script and the way that it slowly began to transfix me into this love story that didn’t feel forced or phony by how it was presented. These two people are definitely outcasts by a society that demeans them for their anything-but-handicap. It’s in that comparison where we learn front-and-center why these two share such a tender sentiment that presents them as souls with bodies and not just bodies with souls. In this regard, I felt a strong taste of films like ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ as well as ‘King Kong’. Two films also set-up by this conundrum, but held prisoner from their release dates that kept them from going all the way. ‘The Shape of Water’ goes all the way, and it does it in a way that is unapologetic for what it shows. If you feel awkward, then your stances on love probably need updating. For it’s not the monster, but the depiction of an outcast by society who deserves the same gifts that anyone else does. During this whole thing, there’s also the age of paranoia playing out with the Russians and where they play into this creature. This proved to me that the film wasn’t just resting on the laurels of being a love story, and that Del Toro uses just as much emphasis in the world around them as he does with the couple in their own bubble that no one can touch. What very small problem that I had with the film was during the third act when it feels like it becomes more about Shannon’s character instead of Hawkins and Jones. This inevitably won’t bother much people, but I feel like some more emphasis was needed from Hawkins point of view in the inevitable confrontation that she must face. This isn’t a major problem, but it stands out from the first two acts that are so structurally sound that the first 90 minutes flew by like a gust of wind.

THE VERDICT – If it’s a controversial quote that you want, then it’s one you will get; this is Guillermo Del Toro’s single best film to date. ‘The Shape of Water’ confidently balances enough absorbing style and poignant substance in the ineffective way that his previous few films have petered away with. Hawkins is a whirlwind revolution, offering a slice of innocent humanity to her hushed exterior that makes her unavoidable to not fall in love with. The film is a purified beauty of Del Toro’s visionary compass that proves he can still swim with the best of them.

9/10

Wonder Wheel

The wheel of dramatic tension keeps spinning rapidly for four different people caught in a tail spin on Coney Island in the 1950’s. ‘Wonder Wheel’ tells the story of four characters whose lives intertwine amid the hustle and bustle of the Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s: Ginny (Kate Winslet), an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house; Humpty (Jim Belushi), Ginny’s rough-hewn carousel operator husband with his own mob connections; Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a silver screen playwright; and Caroline (Juno Temple), Humpty’s long-estranged daughter, who is now hiding out from gangsters at her father’s apartment. The four cross-stories intercept and provide a wild and unpredictable Summer under the hot sun of the amusement park. ‘Wonder Wheel’ is written and directed by Woody Allen, and is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, adult language and smoking.

I have never been the patriarch for the Woody Allen fan club. Many historian film lovers eat up every single one of the unlimited supply of filmography that cements his name amongst the Hollywood elite for the past five decades. However for me, Woody’s movies have always felt like a hilarious joke that only I wasn’t understanding the punchline to. A kind of pretentious entrepreneur behind the lens who was making only the kind of films that he wanted to, and never needed to change that aspect. ‘Wonder Wheel’ definitely isn’t going to remove that opinion anytime soon. This is a film that not only abides by the all style and no substance policy, but it practically re-defines it in ways that undercut any opportunity to instill some kind of dramatic pulse to what is unraveling. Allen feels content in letting a reputable A-list cast and remarkably beautiful setting fade with the sun that articulately adorns the amusement park day after day. I could try to argue that this is only because the aging Allen is no longer in the prime of his career, but any remote film buff will debate that he’s been saddled with this degree of laziness for years, and it’s something that hinders his positives as a director for just how mind-numbingly dull of a screenwriter that he truly is.

If Allen were in charge of a New York tourism video, he would’ve not only oversold his property, but he would also receive praise for his focus on some remote details that only an inhabitant would put together in his experience there. Allen again places much of his attention and emphasis on the environment itself that can quite often feel like the boiling pot of emotional response that turns the gears of these characters and their daily routines. Because of this, there should be no surprise when I say that my favorite detail of this film is in the vibrancy in color of the park that surrounds our cast of characters, as well as the way Woody instills that subtle nuance of a Broadway stage play in airing out the dirty laundry of the picture. There are several long takes during the film that offer some long-winded spins of dialogue to impress in our actors what they lack in emotional deposition, and the swerving in and around to keep the focus on only those who talk, distinctly gives off that stage vibe that plays out in real time.

The film’s color scheme also radiates its way into every scene, crafting an almost cartoon-like vibe of surrealism that highlights an outline of amazement. Allen is clearly in love with the 50’s post-war vibes of the big apple, and in the masterful Vittorio Storaro, whom Allen worked with last year in ‘Cafe Society’, he has found the perfect puppeteer in bringing the visions from his childhood to the silver screen. Storaro’s use of light in defense of the emotional versatility that is transpiring in every scene off of the faces of our characters, feels like it reaches for a bigger purpose in symbolism, but the preference is used to simply remind the audience of the very claustrophobic confinements that our protagonists find themselves in with their ever-growing problems. If I was basing this film on look alone, it would no doubt be one of my ten favorite films of 2017, but the designs of creativity aren’t enough to keep it from being weighed down by what underwhelms at nearly every turn.

Anyone watching the trailer can put together the idea that this film surrounds a love triangle that perplexes the movements of our characters, but what is unseen is just how undercooked and dull Allen keeps the temperature of this sizzle. Besides the fact that I couldn’t find myself relating to a single character because these are all remarkably terrible people, the film harvests zero care, concern, or urgency to what is being hinted at for the bigger picture. There are so many chances that ‘Wonder Wheel’ has in conjuring up some truly compelling suspense for what awaits in the future, but these people seem to be satisfied in their uninspiring lives and frankly unhealthy relationships that I couldn’t be bothered to feel pity or remorse for them for a single second. If this wasn’t enough, Allen kind of writes himself into a corner with the conflict of the film that offers two daggers for whatever path he chooses to take. One way is far too predictable to not see coming from ten miles away, and the second option (and the one the film takes) offers no resolution or impact to the building blocks of adversity that were stacking against the trio involved. The end conveyed the thought that this film should continue for a half hour more, even if that very idea felt most harmful to the man writing this very review.

As for performances, there was only one that was truly bad, but not a single one of the central three ever provide themselves a chance to standout. Winslet’s Ginny is definitely the best in my opinion for her unstable past that plays a prominent role in her decaying future. My problem with Winslet’s character is that she’s very detestable and only adds further emphasis to the long-debated idea that Allen doesn’t appreciate, nor does he know how to write a woman with power. Juno Temple is probably my favorite character in the film, but Temple’s deer-in-the-headlights routine robs us of the same kind of chance to fall in love with Caroline in the same manner that Timberlake does. Speaking of Timberlake, he definitely takes home the award for being the person who stands out for all of the wrong reasons. Timberlake’s New York accent is so inconsistent that it becomes kind of a challenge to map out which scenes were filmed on which days, and his usually endless charm disappears in the fog of convoluted dialogue that does him no favors in terms of personality. Timberlake doesn’t have chemistry with Winslet or Temple, so the convincing of trying to make me feel some kind of spark between them goes unfulfilled for 96 agonizing minutes.

THE VERDICT – ‘Wonder Wheel’ never gets its feet off the ground, choosing instead to parlay its audience through a mismanaging drama that lacks anything compelling in airing itself out. Without a single reputable performance to recommend, or a single instance of proof that Allen paid attention to the gorgeous scenery, AS WELL as the people who fill it, his latest romantic swooning spins off of the tracks early on, and never finds the inspiration to pick itself back up. The film settles for being an endless rotation of a self-loathing derivative that swallows your cylinders of pride one quarter at a time, and has you screaming in agony to get off.

4/10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The galaxy far away returns for a ninth silver screen installment, this time promoting the end of the Jedi tradition for the greater good. In ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, Rey (Daisy Ridley) develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of the longtime missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who himself is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Rey seeks to find her place in the bigger galaxy where she lacks a clear and defined fate due to her family’s anonymity. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order after Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) escapes death, and plans a journey en route to crushing the union that is currently being led by his own Mother (Carrie Fischer). ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is written and directed by Rian Johnson, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, including peril.

In its ninth and most explosive chapter, Star Wars continues to re-define itself in ways that George Lucas could’ve only dreamed when he penned the 1975 original. This time, it’s Rian Johnson’s turn, and while Johnson sometimes over-indulges on fan service, there’s plenty here to love for fans young and old that have handed these series of films down as a generational affair. For his capabilities to dabble in twice the involvement with this picture, Johnson constructs a series of different train tracks in plot that each add a rumble of momentum to the continuous pulse that the film continues through an ambitious runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours, the single longest film of the series to date. Each of these tracks twist and turn with enough surprises and jaw-dropping moments to give each of them their own turn at controlling the pacing, but it’s in their crash collision that stacks the suspense accordingly and really drives the endless fun and worthy payoff for the twelve months between that we have to wait for the next one. This isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but the positives of Johnson’s artistic scope and widening of character depth, reminds us that this series is only getting started, and the force is strong with the future.

For how ‘The Force Awakens’ introduced us to these new complex characters in a kind of interviewing for the job type of atmosphere, ‘The Last Jedi’ feels like the hiring process, in that we are seeing what each of them has to offer for the spectrum. The story is divided into three different angles with each of them playing a pivotal role to where the film ends up at the heart of this terrifying and brutally violent war being played out. Rey’s story with Luke is continued from the final scene of ‘The Force Awakens’, and it becomes clear that while Rey seeks Luke’s guidance in maintaining the force, it is the teacher who requires the youthful exubberance of his student in inspiring him to live again. The second tier involves Kylo Ren at a crossroads with his inevitable destiny. It was in this subplot where I felt the film had the most to offer in terms of depth, and it’s refreshing to see that good and evil in this universe can’t always be defined by a color, let alone a single action. The final involves Finn (Played by John Boyega) and his newly formed sidekick Rose (Played by Kelly Marie Tran). There’s been much negativity surrounding this subplot, mainly because of how it fits with the other two, but I found it to be much needed for the impact that it placed in fighting the dark side. Is it convoluted at some points? Absolutely, but the endless energy and distinct adult tone of some adult-like fight scenes complete with consequences, constantly kept the bar of expectations elevated throughout some occasional dragging.

My biggest problem with the film isn’t just in the excess runtime, because I feel like the film’s pacing stays firmly tight until the final forty minutes, it’s in where the film finishes that left me kind of with a sour taste. For every riveting blow of battle that is felt throughout, the third act ends on what feels like a stalemate, taking the easy way out in the name of fan service to con the audience into thinking a lot was answered. Besides this, there’s much about the second act, particularly that with Finn and Rose’s adventure on her former planet that definitely could’ve used an edit button. It’s weird because the film feels like this dog with an endless appetite who doesn’t know when to stop eating, then feels bloated when time and reaction starts to set in. There was never a point in the film where I was truly bored, but so much of what transpires feels repetitious to the smooth pacing that Johnson overall masters soundly considering it is 147 minutes, and I feel nothing would be sacrificed with an even two hour film that would definitely keep the audience on their toes.

Not all is a loss however, as the involvement of composer John Williams, as well as cinematographer Steve Yedlin combine in establishing the single most beautifully decadent Star Wars film to date. Williams is always someone who feels more in tune (pardon the pun) than anyone else with this universe, and his score here rumbles through our endless enthusiasm with a versatile score that beats to the drum of several diverse and varied atmospheric landscapes faithfully. It’s gotten to the point that I couldn’t imagine this series without the melodic tones by John that cements that big screen feel. As for Yedlin, I was blown away by the breathtaking scope that he and Johnson team up for in articulating the wide range of color and construction of many establishing shots. The wide angles in space deserve a pause button so you can embrace them in all of their immense details. But not to be outdone are the adrenaline-fueled war sequences in all of their fast-paced glory. There’s a sense in the air that if you blink you might miss something vital, but the strategy involved with gaining on your opposition becomes prevalent the more we see force meet object. But even despite the wide range of color and structure involved with the space scenes, it was the interior shots involving Snoke’s layer that perplexed me with their personal touches of color coordination that beautifully decorated each chance to soak it all in.

I mentioned earlier that this feels like an adult oriented chapter in the Star Wars legacy, and nothing could be more evident than some of the eye-catching visuals that will surprise even the most dedicated of fans. I’ll be blunt here without spoiling anything, there are some very graphic death scenes that I can imagine pushed the boundaries of the PG-13 rating that adorns the film. If I have a say, I think the series needs more of this, as the one problem that I’ve constantly had with these films are the lack of consequences involved in some pretty high stakes gambling of lives for all considered. Johnson does enough to place the urgency firmly where it is needed, and I commend Disney for sitting back and letting a master work his magic in feeling confident that he knows his vision better than anyone.

Finally, the performances brought the thunder for the mostly returning cast, but also opened our eyes to some new favorites who are no stranger to the Hollywood A-list. Laura Dern, Benecio Del Toro, and Lupita Nyongo are just a few to be introduced to the Star Wars legacy, and each of them thrive under the pressures of the spotlight of being cast in a series that they grew up with. One cool thing that hit me over and over again was the casting of Carrie Fisher’s real life daughter Billie Lourd as Lieutenant Connix, one of Leia’s coveted right hands on board. It’s very sureal to see the two sharing screens together, and it offers a heartfelt sentiment knowing that in Carrie’s final film she got to share the screen with her own flesh and blood. Daisy Ridley still kicks total ass as Rey, feeling like the female heroine that so many little girls need in embracing their own inspiration. The scenes between her and Hamill are my absolute favorite of the movie, but there was also no denying the magnetic chemistry that she shared with Adam Driver (As Kylo Ren), even if some scenes had a sexual awkwardness to them in the funniest of depictions. Driver is much better here than his dive in ‘The Force Awakens’, and it’s nice when the film lets him toe that line psychologically in a game of head versus heart.

THE VERDICT – Disney’s third take on its legendary property yields energetic force and stylistic ecstacy for fans of any age group who seek the best in visual spectrum to add to its lifetime of personalities. The film sometimes stretches character arc’s for a bit too long, and the ending itself is one of the least satisfying for me in terms of emphasis in conclusion, but there’s no denying the growth in characters as a result of some sharp twists that shape this as the enthralling thrill-ride of the holiday season. It’s a reminder that each chapter (or episode) peels back another layer in the discovery for who we really are.

8/10

I Love You Daddy

One teenager has her buckling father wrapped around her finger with the repeated phrase ‘I Love You Daddy’. Glen Topher (C.K.), who panics when his spoiled 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) starts spending time with 68-year-old Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), a legendary film director with a reputation for dating underage girls. Caught in a writing dry spell, he distracts himself by courting glamorous movie star Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), who is interested in playing the already-cast lead role in the upcoming TV series he hasn’t yet begun writing. Glen’s teetering world is further upended by his interactions with Goodwin, who is both the increasing focus of China’s attentions and the revered idol who devastates Glen by appearing to dismiss him outright as a creative person. Glen’s brash TV actor buddy Ralph (Charlie Day) makes matters worse through rude observations that inflame Glen’s deepest insecurities about his daughter. The real problem, however, is that Glen isn’t sure exactly what is going on between China and Goodwin-and what he should be doing about it. ‘I Love You Daddy’ is written and directed by Louis C.K, and is rated R for crude sexual content, adult language throughout and brief drug use.

Some films fall victim of the wrong place, wrong time scenario. This happens when a movie couldn’t be released at a worse time for the very material that it harvests from within its daring script With much reluctance, I bring you ‘I Love You Daddy’, a film so marred in controversy that it had its big screen release pulled from theaters the week before, only to find a limited audience online from cult movie fans who shell out as much as $1000 on Ebay to finally allow C.K’s film to see the light of day. Is it worth it? I personally don’t think so. After admitting to sexually abusing females, as well as the recent uncovering of abuse cases that have swallowed Hollywood whole, a film like ‘I Love You Daddy’ seems too perfect of a synopsis to be released in such a delicate time for many in front of, and behind the lens. It’s a wannabe poignant approach to pedophilia and the rules that come with such a damning title, challenging us as a society to look at the glass half-full for such a taboo subject that frankly doesn’t offer a lot of room for debate. In my eyes, you either are or you aren’t, and because of such logic in establishing, ‘I Love You Daddy’ loses its lease on responsibility only minutes into the production.

There’s a constant feeling of uneasiness in the air of this picture that goes much further than the colorless scheme of cinematography that I will get to later. The script for instance, holds an obvious center to the kinds of films that Woody Allen has been making for years. coincidentally, C.K even adorns Allen’s famed black-rimmed glasses as the protagonist of the film. For a film that had no sexuality or nudity of any kind, it had me remotely astonished at just how effective that it felt in getting under my skin. In material, the first half of the film did move along quite wonderfully with a somewhat satirical blend of depiction for the very poison that seems to be clouding Hollywood on this touchy subject. It was in this direction where I felt that the film was able to offer something of substantial returns in daring to explore what very few have only able to talk about up to this time. Then the second half of the film comes into focus, and suddenly you’re made aware of a film that is not smart enough to capitalize on its challenging stance, but one that reverses the examination light and tries to convince us that we are wrong. Some of the arguments being made in the film is that women, even those at minor age, are responsible enough to know what they are getting into. This is not only a terribly shallow point to argue, but one that will inevitably come with such consequences that will force audiences to disengage with its new found direction. Could this be more to the satirical approach that I mentioned earlier? I don’t think so, considering the transformation that our lead protagonist embarks on is one of great understanding and leniency for the kind of transpiring details that creeped him out only scenes earlier. Because of this jumbled approach, we get two films for the price of one that doesn’t feel daring enough in exploiting the extremes of either with commitment or exploration that breakout films so desperately require.

The artistic merits of the film keep this one above water, offering a reflective glance of the golden age of cinema. I mentioned earlier that the film is in black and white, and I think this speaks levels to the colorless level of morality that the film associates itself with. Everything in this world is either black or white, and no grey, as a way to feed into the dominant sides that each character associates with. On top of this, C.K’s decision to film everything in 35mm film, gives the movie the rich authenticity of the kind of films that Louis himself grew up entranced in, as a child growing up. The feeling throughout plays like you’re watching something along the lines of ‘I Love Lucy’ with a modern spin of material that is currently plaguing the world. I wish more films would take this stance with an artistic tweaking, and at the very least, ‘I Love You Daddy’ earns the unorthodox approach visually by contributing it to the unapologetic stance that the movie garners for itself.

But in proving that style never flourishes over substance, the over-indulgence of runtime at nearly two hours that undoubtedly requires an edit button that the film never receives. C.K as a screenwriter isn’t terribly underdeveloped here when compared to some other hollow scripts that I have sat through this year, but it’s clear that his screenplay has an essence of pretentiousness to it that makes him feel like he is in love with the environments and dialogues that he engages in. Far too often do scenes duplicate and offer a dragging detour for where the characters and their situations were playing out. Much of the finished product feels like it could’ve used some removal, particularly towards the end of the first act that takes far too long to set up our on-going conflicts. There was never a point in the film where I was bored, but I never felt invested in the shapeless characters that aren’t set up with any kind of depth to make them stand out with pulse.

Despite this, the film did have some meaty performances that are able to escape the shackles of character outlines that do them little favors. Charlie Day for instance, is someone who doesn’t fit in to the mold of this story in atmosphere, but one who I greatly appreciated for adding any kind of emotional firepower to this sagging satire. Day is typically playing himself here, but his proficient comedic timing is something that makes him destined for the taking of every scene that he easily steals. Edie Falco also isn’t bad as C.K’s jaded assistant. Through her, it’s clear that we get the best representation of Glen as a person more so than C.K ever could in soaking up precious screen time, and Falco’s fiery deposition’s gave the movie stamina through lengthy expositions that are telegraphed from miles away. C.K’s lazy performance continues his comfortable stance on where his prolific career has taken him to this point. This feels ideal for how he inspires his other co-stars like Moretz and Malovich who don’t feel the slightest bit of energy to exude here. Sadly enough,  I did feel more uncomfortable with C.K’s character rather than Malovich’s intended pervert, and as far as protagonists go, you would find yourself better suited to follow literally anyone than the man with such a diluted moral compass.

THE VERDICT – ‘I Love You Daddy’ is the equivalent to the drunk uncle who comes over during the Holidays and says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Even when it’s in satirical mode, C.K’s tone-deaf awkward situational lacks the pushing of the envelope in form that it needs in matching a visual compass that is out of this era. Highs and lows aside, it feels like an interpretive litmus test to the kinds of perverted animal instincts that the film world has deemed acceptable for far too long. If this film offends you, it’s probably a good thing.

5/10

Just Getting Started

Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones are ‘Just Getting Started’ on the way to a blossoming rivalry. From writer/director Ron Shelton, comes the new screwball comedy that takes budding heads to a whole new level. Morgan Freeman stars as Duke Diver, the freewheeling manager of the luxury Palm Springs resort, the Villa Capri. Diver may have a mysterious past, but he’s a pro at making sure that life for the high-spirited residents is one big, non-stop party. But the status quo and peaceful existence is challenged when ex-military charmer Leo (Tommy Lee Jones) checks in, triggering a competition between he and Duke for the top spot of Alpha male, as well as for the affections of the newly-arrived Suzie (Rene Russo). When Duke’s past suddenly catches up with him, the rivals put aside their differences and the two men reluctantly team up to stop whoever is trying to kill Duke, and also save the citizens of the Villa Capri. ‘Just Getting Started is rated PG-13 for adult language, suggestive material and brief violence.

If Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were still alive, they would be making movies like ‘Just Getting Started’. Twenty-five years ago, the two struck gold on senior citizen comedy in films like ‘Grumpy Old Men’ and ‘The Odd Couple 2’ because of their endless supply of on and off-screen chemistry that carried over into the magnetic presence within their film projects. But even after their sadly passing, Hollywood is still as eager as ever to find the next group of elderly gentlemen to turn a quick buck, opting to invest in a film like this at least once a year to put critics like myself in a bad mood so close to Christmas. Yes, it’s low hanging fruit to make fun of the elderly, but a film like ‘Just Getting Started’ is fuel for the ever-growing fire of inevitable insults hurled at these kind of movies that transpire about as quickly as this kind of age group moves gingerly. It’s been a couple of months since I have truly hated a film, but Ron Shelton has gift-wrapped a lump of coal that reeks in desperation and laziness to the that it’s instantly forgettable even as you’re sitting down to take in all of its ineffectiveness.

Like a frog jumping from pad to pad, this film too searches for anything of structured substance to carry the weight of wasted minutes that seem to add up the more the film transpires. Everything about Shelton’s screenplay reflects that of a television sitcom script that some cocky executive felt was just not good enough to make it into 100 episodes of material in his own universe. I say this because nothing within the film holds any kind of gravity or depth in terms of the overall bigger picture, settling what little obstacles that it has in a matter of minutes without breaking a sweat. In addition to this, there are so many subplots at play that never feel like they cohesively work together to make one fluent progression, and instead settle for a series of short-term ideas that roughly jumble the gap until the next one comes along. For instance, this film’s setting makes it a Christmas movie, but you would never know it from the trailers that never mention this perk even once. The film deems its importance just as irrelevant, as the very idea of the Christmas season rarely plays into anything than a remote reminder occasionally in the 85 minute presentation. To take away once more from a better film like ‘Grumpy Old Men’, the film of course has a competition for a pretty girl between its two male protagonists, proving that even nearly three decades later women are still nothing more than arm pieces for the macho male ego that never seems to advance in these films.

Perhaps the aspect in story that really blew my mind was the dramatically sharp turn that this film takes in the final act that not only isn’t built even remotely along the way, but also highlights everything wrong with this lazy production. The movie turns into a kind of buddy action hybrid complete with shoot-outs and high-speed chases that feel so foreign to the previous hour of atmosphere that the film seemed destined to follow. This wouldn’t be so bad if it presented us with even a moment of urgency, or something appealing visually in terms of camera work or sequencing. Because of the one location setting between Freeman and Jones in the car, as well as the fact that neither have to change clothes in these scenes, really gives off the feeling that many of these sequences were shot in one day of shooting, complete with C.G green-screen to do most of the work along the way. What’s even more disturbing is that much of the green-screen doesn’t match up to what is transpiring on-screen between our protagonists and antagonist visually. One scene involves Jones spinning the wheel of his truck to keep pace on the tail of his enemy, but in this turn you don’t ever see the other vehicle in the driver’s side window to reflect where a vehicle ahead would be at that certain movement in time to keep up with the consistency of the depiction. How could they be so lazy? Do they treat senior citizens in the same way that they treat kids, in that maybe they’re too stupid to understand what they’re watching?

Considering this is a comedy-first kind of movie, the laughs too offered very little positive returns in at least trying to convince me that I was having a good time. To say that I only laughed once in this entire film shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the lack of attempts overall really should. In addition to the final act of the movie that is definitely an action dominated genre during these minutes, there’s a noticeable gap of around twenty minutes in the middle of the second act where the film almost forgets that it is supposed to be a comedy, crafting scenes that come and go without any establishing of what the desired punchline was supposed to be. On top of this, the second act is littered with unfunny musical montage scenes between Freeman and Jones in a five event competition to determine who has to leave the Villa. It’s hard enough to sit through this without enjoying yourself comically, but made even worse considering the outcome has absolutely zero effect on the loser who is supposed to agree to walk away, but doesn’t.

The performances as well offer little in the way of energy to at least make this sitting tolerable. Matthau and Lemmon were in some pretty bad films in the later part of their careers (‘Out To Sea’ comes to mind), but they were always tolerable because you couldn’t ignore the chemistry between them that omitted some irresistible one-liners. Here, Freeman is working a one man show, as he feels like the only actor who brought anything of substance to his character. Everyone else is simply phoning this in, including Rene Russo’s character who might be one of my absolute least favorite of the year. Morgan continues the air of charisma that warms the heart of his fans everywhere. In Duke, we see a different side of Freeman’s reservoir that writes him as a con artist of sorts to everyone he comes across. It’s refreshing to see Morgan play this kind of coward character who has to cheat to keep up, but the screenplay does so very little with an important first act for setting what is so full proof about this middle of the desert scheme. Tommy Lee Jones continues the same role that he has played for the better part of two decades. I say that because you could tell me that this is the same character from a sharply opposite toned movie like ‘No Country For Old Men’ and I would believe you. The chemistry between he and Freeman is remotely there, but the final scenes doesn’t offer a shred of reflection to the blossoming friendship that we all knew was coming from the revealing trailers. The movie tells us about this blossoming development, but never shows us in expositional form, and it’s the final note of an otherwise easily forgettable slug of a script.

THE VERDICT – The film may be ‘Just Getting Started’, but the lack of clearly defined comedy, as well as a screenplay that is all over the place creatively, left me inching towards the exit with each passing moment. Freeman’s twinkling personality does shine occasionally, but even it can’t escape the poorly structured roots of exposition along the way, as well as the inescapable taste of mediocrity in a gift-wrapped final sequence leaves this film retiring itself long before it rightfully should.

3/10

The Disaster Artist

James and Dave Franco step into ‘The Room’, with a behind the scenes look at arguably the most infamously bad film of all time. Based on Greg Sestero’s best-selling tell-all about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult–classic disaster piece ‘The Room’ (“The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”), ‘The Disaster Artist’ depicts the meeting and early friendship of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). The duo of aspiring actors are shunned by everyone in Hollywood, until it becomes apparent that if you want something done right, you must do it yourself. The actors set out to pen and helm a film called ‘The Room’, a film often hailed as the Citizen Kane of bad movies, but the troubles making it, as well as the cost of fame, good or bad, afterwards is only the start of the dream for notoriety that comes with quite a steep price tag. ‘The Disaster Artist’ is directed by James Franco, and is rated R for adult language throughout, as well as some sexuality involving nudity.

It would’ve been easy enough for James Franco and his crew of long-standing friendships to simply use ‘The Disaster Artist’ as nothing more than a reason to imitate the most notoriously bad film of all time, but the surprisingly poignant approach to telling this story won me over completely and gave me back that ounce of dignity for him that I have lost in some questionable career decisions prior. It’s clear that Franco has definitely done his homework on this story and production, mimicking ‘The Room’ in such a way that feels like this film closes the gap seamlessly of the more than fourteen years that has passed since its infamous debut screening in Los Angeles. Considering we know so little about Wiseau or even aspects surrounding his screenplay, the film attacks this uncertainty in a way that gives us an undefined perspective in offering some subtle suggestions to further enhance our creativity in filling in the lines. This not only caters to new generations of fans who are somehow embracing ‘The Room’ folklore for the first time, but also gives back to those faithful worshippers of Wiseau looking for the next chapter in this storied career, and it turns out that it comes from exploring the past once more.

The screenplay that is co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber offers a healthy dissection of Hollywood logic that comes with creating fame. This is certainly no love letter to the city of angels, and instead depicts the brutal and unforgiving nature that comes with rejection of the silver screen in its cruelest form. It’s in this angle that crafts Wiseau and Sestaro as the ultimate underdog story, inspiring them not to live by someone else’s definition of fame, and instead blazing their own respective trail to the eyes of the world. Because of this, the film does beg the question of just what the cost of such universal praise is, and is any kind of fame worth it in the long run when so much of your heart and soul is invested in your work? Beyond this, it’s a story first and foremost about friendship, and how the unlikely pairing of two complete strangers balances out what the other needs, under an almost romanticized lighting. Greg is the guy who is all talk and no walk, and Wiseau is the complete opposite. So Tommy inspires Greg to finally attack his dreams with no regrets, and it’s in that fearless attitude where we understand how easy it is for Greg, as well as us, to fall under Wiseau’s mumbling spell. In Greg, Tommy’s poking loneliness is reduced dramatically, giving our leading character a feeling of belonging for what feels like the first time ever in his life.

Much of the look and feel of the production feels authentic to what they are covering from the low quality original film, even if some aspects stick out like sore thumbs to dedicated fans like myself who can’t easily turn a blind eye. If Franco is going for authenticity, there are a few things that misses the boat tremendously and drops the ball in garnering the greatest reaction in terms of laughs from his audience. The set pieces are mostly reflective to that of the green-screen work that adorned ‘The Room’ endlessly, but there are a couple of scenes (mainly Denny’s famous gun scene with Chris) where the green-screen is nowhere to be found, and this is a big mistake considering the scene takes place on the rooftop where the majority of that effect is displayed. Besides this, the biggest problem that I had was in the absence of A.D.R from the film that was the single biggest reason that I laughed in ‘The Room’. To play these scenes audibly in live action form is a huge mistake, and I feel like a ball dropped by Franco who up until this point felt like an extra on the original production for how tightly he nailed everything.

As a director, it’s clear that Franco is definitely getting better, as there’s nothing of extreme distaste here, but his limited style can sometimes feel like more emphasis was taken with his on-screen performance. I feel like Franco was the wrong person to direct this film because too many camera angles and sequences feel foreign in terms of consistency to the fluidity of the 98 minute entirety. For some scenes, we get a handheld look that gives us that impression of being a member of the set, but the scenes of Tommy and Greg alone are illustrated with a traditional quality of angles that honestly doesn’t stick around long enough to warrant its effect. Also, the lack of focus particularly on the romance of Greg and his girlfriend feels like it comes and goes without much weight to the overall bigger picture of the story. What Franco does do well as a director is in sturdy framing work that proves he at least knows where to aim the camera at all times. Particularly that of the bar scene where Greg meets his future girlfriend is one that presents plenty of focus on the foreground, while playing carefully into what is transpiring with Tommy beyond them. This is unquestionably Franco’s biggest growth to date as a filmmaker, but the overwhelming balance in trying to match the work he did as an actor here, proves to be too much, and leaves James work as a director inferior to serving his greater master.

On that account, Franco transforms himself wonderfully as Wiseau, and hints that no one else could play this character with such respect and conviction. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything truly demanding of what James is doing in taking on Tommy here, but with closer focus you will soon see an actor’s craft at heart. In keeping the consistency and vocal range of Wiseau well in hand at all times, Franco immerses himself and eases the suspension of disbelief in a matter of minutes once he is on screen. The best kind of adaptions of real life figures are the ones that never feel like an impression, allowing you to forget that you aren’t watching the real thing. In addition to this, once the laughter settles down from Wiseau’s larger-than-life personality, you start to feel great empathy for his portrayal because this is a man who doesn’t know the world isn’t laughing at him, instead of with him. Besides James, brother Dave also wows as Greg, a wannabe actor who confronts fear in every opportunity he’s ever given. Dave visually captures Greg’s likeness without much prop work, but its his childlike innocence that offers the ideal counterbalance to his brother, and reminds us that there is no substitute in chemistry for blood-born kin.

THE VERDICT – As to where ‘The Room’ was so bad that it’s good, ‘The Disaster Artist’ abides by a higher standard, depicting the former with enough respect and dignity that values Tommy’s rise above just playing dress-up. Franco’s directing leaves slightly more to be desired in creativity, but he makes up for it with a lead performance as Tommy that allows pretty boy James to get lost audibly and visually in the cellar of Wiseau with his widest range of performance to date. Most importantly, it gives fans another reason to open the door once more into this room and indulge in what made it a lightning in a bottle offering to begin with.

8/10

Darkest Hour

Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’ involves standing in the way of Adolf Hitler’s worldwide domination, in this biopic detailing the famed Prime Minister. Set during the early days of World War II, with the fall of France imminent, Britain faces its darkest hour as the threat of invasion looms. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). While maneuvering his political rivals, he must confront the ultimate choice: negotiate with Hitler and save the British people at a terrible cost or rally the nation and fight on against incredible odds. Directed by Joe Wright, the film is the dramatic and inspiring story of four weeks in 1940 during which Churchill’s courage to lead changed the course of world history forever. ‘Darkest Hour’ is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.

Winston Churchill was a revolutionary in the office, but merely a frail man outside of it, and it’s in Wright’s tenderly revealing portrait of the legendary figure that we come to understand the parallels of either when combined to elaborate on what made the man tick. Churchill was very much a man who came into office under less-desirable circumstances, facing extreme opposition not only in the face of an evil regime led by Hitler himself, but also in those he considered constituents all around him that made his tenure the more difficult because of it. Yet, Winston as a man who lacks the ability to even fry an egg in his daily routine, so when you consider the immense weight of position and progression from war that continues around him, it’s that much more appealing in screenplay value as it caters to a figure that we are seeing as legitimately human for perhaps the first time in screenplay form. As a Prime Minister, Winston comes to learn that the right decisions aren’t often the easiest, and in a time when everyone is looking to sell their souls to stay above ground, Churchill himself feels passionate about pointing out the necessities of war to those who are already convincing him to taste the agony of defeat.

Coming off of the success of ‘Dunkirk’, this Summer, ‘Darkest Hour’ proves to be a worthy successor to continuing the events of this story once more, but this time from an entirely different angle that caters to the strategist’s side of history and less to the physical side of it. The lack of wartime documentation did puzzle me about this film dearly, choosing only to drop in occasionally for the Wikipedia summary of biggest events, but what did make up for it was the triumphant work of Academy Award nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten who chooses to stay closely hand-in-hand with our male lead. Through two hours of exceptionally paced substance that carefully fills in the blanks, this is a script that more times than not humanizes the spirit of Winston that works out nicely. My very favorite perk of this film was seeing Winston in his time with his loving and supportive wife Clementine (Played wonderfully by Kristen Scott Thomas) who kind of balances the uneasy circumstance within this man who is responsible for hundreds of thousands. But choosing not to rest there, the film does pack a spell-binding punch from some truly compelling dramatic tension that clouds the entirety of this finished product. As I mentioned before, there’s little war sequences to the film, so instead we are treated to the tug-of-war in the battle for power from Churchill’s own cabinet who deem him unfit for such a job.

Perhaps the most evident angle that resides within the film is the concept of relationships and what they mean to Winston in his decisions. I’ve already mentioned the heartfelt center of Winston and his wife Clementine, and what they give the film, but the additional dynamic duo’s of Winston’s embracing of a dedicated typist (Played by Lily James), as well as the developing friendship that he had with King George the 6th (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), sort of carve out this very surreal sense of hope that resided within the country that fuels Winston’s desire to keep proceeding forward. In a weaker written film, this could’ve easily went sour in presenting something that could combat the repetition of meetings that make up a majority of the picture, but I think McCarten knows how to make them stand out for their own reason. For King George, it’s the importance of history and tradition, and for James character, it is in presenting a very harrowing representation of seeing things from a citizen’s perspective. All of these bricks of exposition stack up tremendously in presenting us with the final and often times praised leader that adorns our closing moments with him.

The production value to the film is one that carries it over oceans of length creatively in offering something new to a common Churchill film. The presence of Wright’s stamp of approval here is evident, most notably in the exceptional coloring palate and camera work of Bruno Delbonat that accurately depicts the sense of inevitable dread in the atmosphere. From afar, the film can often times look like it is being shot in black and white, speaking levels to the kind of post-apocalyptic heartbeats that were echoing on our doorstep, but with closer dissection, it’s clear that a necessary shade of grey (Pardon the pun) faithfully illustrate the classic look in film design of yesterday. There’s also some experimental sequencing involved with a slow panning out shot that frequently ends scenes in and around war that reach out to the audience personally and make you feel their dimming disposition of hope. This shot is never overdone to reach levels of cliche within its filmmaking, and offers something different in modern day transitions that we thought have nothing of originality left within them. Finally, the sound editing and mixing spare no expense in their qualities with the film. There are a few sequences in the film in which we get to hear the actual Churchill reside over his increasing audience, and this offers an indulging side to the setting that puts us front-and-center in the seats of many who were searching for anything to hold onto during such an unpredictable time in Britain’s rugged history.

This is without question a one man show, and while that single performance is the very best in a year of phenomenal performances, the lack of inclusion as a whole leaves a negative stamp on an otherwise reputable ensemble cast. For my money, I could’ve used more of Mendelsohn and Scott Thomas in the film, as I felt the few scenes that they invade are made that much more endearing because of their contrast to Churchill. Lily James gives definitely the most moving performance of her young career, but I don’t support the way her character overrides the importance of exposition time to that of his own wife that the film desperately needed. With that out of the way, Gary Oldman is currently polishing the Oscar statue as I write this. Oldman is virtually unrecognizable as Churchill, represented with a balding look and protruding gut that accurately cement his riveting transformation here. But it’s the little things that positively startled me about his dive into Winston. His speech patterns are perfect, mumbling and stuttering through miles of dialogue that feel like they last a lifetime because of it. That may sound like a negative, but that in many ways was how Churchill himself was as a public speaker, and Oldman’s consistency and dedication moved miles in this regard. In addition to this, the exhaustion from Oldman during long walking or scenes in which he walks up stairs is clearly evident in increased breathing patterns that echo that of someone with decaying health. It all summarizes wonderfully the kind of value in returns that you get when you cast an actor like Oldman, who is one of the last true method actors of a prestigious era.

THE VERDICT – Despite this being only a brief period in Churchill’s historic life, ‘Darkest Hour’ feels like the first Churchill film worthy of telling the entire story. Through Oldman’s definitive impeccably perfect performance, as well as Wright’s flashy effects in visual affection, the film is a stirring shape of inspiration that reminds us how different things could’ve been without the love of country that one misunderstood man had. The storytelling could’ve been extensive and more elaborate in its wide scale, but it’s difficult to fault too much away from a film geared towards one man in and out of the costume.

8/10

Novitiate

A woman’s declaration to faith is tested endlessly when she deals with life’s constant yearning, in Margaret Betts debut writing and directing effort ‘Novitiate’. Spanning over a decade from the early 1950s through to the mid-60s, the film centers around a young girl’s first initiation with love, in this case with God. Raised by a non-religious, single mother in rural Tennessee, a scholarship to Catholic school soon finds Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) drawn into the mystery and romanticism of a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God. With the dawn of the Vatican II era, radical changes in the Church are threatening the course of nuns’ lives. As she progresses from the postulant to the novitiate stage of training, she finds her faith repeatedly confronted and challenged by the harsh, often inhumane realities of being a servant of God. Cathleen soon finds herself struggling with issues of faith, sexuality, and recent changes in life of the Church. ‘Novitiate’ is rated R for adult language, and some sexuality involving nudity.

“There can not be love without sacrifice”, this is an on-going theme throughout the film that tenders ‘Novitate’ as being one of the most unnerving sits that I have experienced over the past twelve months. As to where a film like ‘Silence’ valued the very same devotional quality to its men who adopt the cloth, Betts film does the same for females that questions the very intentions of feminist empowerment. That’s not to say that ‘Novitate’ shouldn’t be absorbed by a female audience, quite the opposite actually. This is a grueling test of love and even mental endurance for just how important it is to give and receive love in physical form, and it’s in that perspective where the film casts an overwhelming amount of empathy in approach to those kneeling at the cross. What I admire about Betts abilities as a screenwriter, especially one that is a first-timer, is that she never feels like she is pushing her audience into one direction or the other, and instead would rather let the atmospheres and treatments speak for themselves in the bigger picture that was every bit as frightening for me as it was enlightening for the valuable price paid that has only been hinted at in passing, to this point.

This is a screenplay that doesn’t just follow our soul protagonist, but also the sisters around her who are training to take the vows, and who each strive through it in their own temperaments. Some feel as strong about this decision as anything they have ever taken on, some know in their hearts that it is a big mistake, and some seek it just for the need to be desired at anything in their lives. On the latter, the film definitely casts an overwhelming sentiment to the feeling that many of these women are just lost souls who have never experienced the best of what life has to offer. Some inherit this teaching because of a family tradition, but it’s in Cathleen’s story that feels like an unpaved path to the lord because of her unorthodox background. Coming from an agnostic Mother and a Father who was never there to begin with, it’s easy to see why Cathleen reached to the dark for something, anything that would bridge the gap to finding something to live for, and it’s in the angle where Betts focuses on; the lost souls that the church greatly take advantage of in their reprimanding with the benefits selfishly of mind control and all of its virtues.

At nearly two hours long, the film is a bit of an endurance test, not because of the ambitious runtime, but because of the minimal level of atmospheric tension that the film doesn’t always capitalize on. If I was in charge of penning this script, I wouldn’t remove a single thing from the screenplay, even if some sequences tend to repeat themselves in less desirable fashion. I took this repetition as intentional because the boredom of routine plays a pivotal role in displaying just how unappealing this lifestyle is to our pledging youth. There is definitely uneasiness from start to finish of this movie, but it always feels like the film is building to something constantly bigger, and the air of momentum eventually surrounds itself in the fog that grows too thick to see through. There are moments of payoff that any blind person can see coming from miles away, but the most evident absence of unpredictability from within can sometimes fumble away the chance at drawing out that strong semblance of feminist entendre that the movie so desperately requires.

As for visual displays, this is a very beautifully looking, closely shot movie that focuses solely on the greyish shading that echoes the questionable lessons that are being taught at this institution. Even when the sun shines, there’s a constant feeling of dread that engulfs the production and its characters whole, and feeds into the colorless lifestyles that these young women have adopted upon themselves, so as to remove any kind of temptation. Most of the style in camera work is vibrantly shot with claustrophobic angles, ringing true a feeling of enclosing freedom that removes itself with each passing day. What’s commendable coming from cinematographer Kat Westergaard’s presence behind the lens, is the capability to take such practical shots and churn them into something that is gorgeously decaying in channeling the very consistency that the atmosphere is going for. I say practical because there’s nothing truly experimental here, but Kat’s harbor of creativity shouldn’t be overlooked, for it’s in her capable hands where she presents the bland as something bold, and I never once felt that her resonation on this project ever lacked or distorted my fluent absorbing of the crumbling walls that were figuratively coming down with each passing minute.

These performances are right on as well, echoing a female dominated cast that mirrors the female production team. With the exception of two males that come into frame for about two minutes each, the film harvests the strongest circumference of female force that I have seen in recent memory. But the numbers game isn’t enough to just let this one skate by, as a trio of deliveries constantly raised the stakes in getting this story over. Margaret Qualley is riveting, channeling Catherine with a confidence that is slowly transformed into panic when everything she thought she knew is questioned. There’s a scene between her and another actress when Catherine needs comforting later on in the film, and it is among the most enthralling displays of anguish that I have ever seen. Dianna Agron is also commendable, despite only being in about half of this movie. Agron is someone who continues to grow with more big screen credits to her name, and as Sister Mary, Dianna presents a rare empathetic side to the convent that offers a welcoming breath of fresh air to these pledges, and more importantly a shining example of sisterhood to us the audience that this film very much required. Without a doubt though, the stealer of this show is once again Melissa Leo as the trivially jaded Reverend Mother. Leo stimulates with enough compromising soft tones and manipulative presence to really feed into her power play that she feeds on, but it’s in her ability to tear it all down and present some hearty vulnerability during the earthquake third act that earns her the most praise in terms of versatility that I can compliment. This woman can truly do no wrong in my eyes, and the last five years specifically of her career has shown us that she will be an emotional heavyweight for decades to come.

THE VERDICT – Taut, mesmerizing, and impactful. ‘Novitiate’ outlasts some of its brief moments of repetition with a compelling screenplay by the debuting Betts that questions the value of what you can feel physically. Through this female adorned production and cast, we get a methodically challenging melodrama that serves a higher power of profound than we’re used to for these movies. Put your faith in the lord, your ass belongs to Leo and all of her stirring passion on a narrow path to righteousness.

9/10