Aquaman

Directed By James Wan

Starring – Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Bumblebee

Directed By Travis Knight

Starring – Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Mortal Engines

Directed By Christian Rivers

Starring – Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Jihae

The Plot – A mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop a giant, predator city on wheels devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang, a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action

POSITIVES

– Poignancy in politics. One thing that I wasn’t expecting in a movie that takes place decades ahead of our own, is the similarities in government that truly transcends the screen. Aside from Weaving’s power hungry antagonist being one who believes in a wall separating kind, the very ideal of this bigger, more advanced vehicle being a bully of sorts to its contemporaries is something that certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. There are these kind of a tiny sprinkles of thought throughout the film, and prove that “Mortal Engines” never settles for being another Young Adult conventional offering, instead going the route of thought-provoking social commentary that certainly gave me something to hand my interest on.

– A duo of delight. Weaving continues to demand bigger roles in movies, carving out an antagonist who is every bit deceitful as he is narcistic. When Weaving isn’t chewing up the scenery in every scene, his presence feels the most valuable, detaching us from this character who you hate to love and vice versa. The real surprise however, might come from Hilmar as the story’s lead. Like the fragile character she plays, the narrative takes its time in getting to know Hilmar, starting off as another dry female badass who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But as the film progressed, I started to notice the layers and nuance that this young actress gave to her character, competently juggling enough tearful remorse and growth in reflection to make you buy into her investment into the character.

– Style eeks out substance. I mentioned earlier that there are some thinking points for the film, but for my money the allure of artistic integrity in the film is too valuable to be topped. During a season when films like “Venom” and “The Possession of Hannah Grace” make the nighttime look like a collection of colorless blobs, here comes a film that completely restores fate to what can be done in the shadows. The airtime battles are vibrant with moonlight ecstasy that radiates ever so smoothly against the fireworks of firepower that play in front of it, and the lighting scheme indoors takes on enough filters and dimensions to truly keep you guessing. If I recommend this film for anything, it’s the third act conflict that features a gala affair of everything I mentioned here.

– Effective camera work. I did have some problems with the concepts inside of the ships themselves, but Rivers as a first time filmmaker showed a lot of tinsel in movie magic in making me believe the immensity of its size. The revolving shots around this moving setting are luxurious and move at just the right speed to never slug down the movie and give the audience ample time to see what is transpiring behind every corner. Likewise, the action sequences are shot with enough urgency and articulate detection that you never struggle in hanging on to the many angles and characters inside.

– There’s certainly enough comparisons with popular films of the genre like “Star Wars” or “Mad Max” that the film evidently borrows from, but there’s also enough variation in the ideas to cement a name of its own. The concept of cities eating smaller towns (a process called Municipal Darwinism that provides an obvious metaphor for capitalism) is stunningly brought to life on screen, thanks to some truly extraordinary production design work never limited by its inflatable budget. The dynamic of land and air is also a unique take, allowing the film to press on through the ever-changing circumstances of the meaty two hour run time that would challenge the audience inside of a lesser quality science fiction film for all of the wrong reasons.

NEGATIVES

– Clumsy subplot juggling. This movie has no fewer than six on-going subplots from what I counted, and not only does this make for a challenging interpretation of who our intended protagonist is supposed to be during the first act, but it also limits certain narratives that easily could’ve used more time in development. My favorite subplot in the film deals with a male android and the relationship he has with Hester, and it just never felt fleshed out enough to warrant the sharp direction change that it takes midway through the film, and how it left this character feeling directionless. When you’re still introducing characters and subplots to the audience more than 80 minutes into the movie, you’ve certainly got problems, and I constantly felt suffocated by how bloated this screenplay truly is. Likewise to “Fantastic Beasts 2”, this film is overflowing with flashback exposition, giving way to many instances where this inevitable one-off film is compressing as much from the source material as humanly possible.

– A predictably convenient macguffin. Early in the film we learn about an object needed to suppress England’s power, and evening out the balance of the ensuing war, and to anyone paying even remote attention, the obviousness of the mystery that the film wanted so badly to present falls flat. It’s clear where this is going from the start, and it didn’t differ even remotely from where someone as inexperienced as I to these books predicted. I hate macguffins in movies enough, but when the movie tries to dumb down the material to cater to the audience, it shows its hand more often than not.

– Poorly rendered C.G effects work. There are instances in up tight camera angles where the computer generated effects feel passable enough, take for instance the visually descriptive depictions of England that I mentioned earlier, but as soon as they’re presented with a dominant live action opposition, you start to see the money was spent in less luxurious places. Take for instance the character of Shrike (live captured by the legendary Stephen Lang), who constantly looks phony with an illuminous green glow. I get that he’s an android character, but the design of his property is something out of an early 2000’s Tim Burton animation, and feels so out of place with everyone and everything he crosses paths with.

– Speaking of editing… It’s easy for Ray Charles to see what could’ve been left on the cutting room floor of this film. Often it’s the scenes and lines of dialogue that add nothing to the unfurling narrative, and stand out as an obvious cater to teenage audiences. One such instance involves our lead male protagonist, who has enough time in the face of life-threatening danger to stop and decide which jacket looks cool enough for him to sport. Keep in mind that this character isn’t self-serving or in love with himself by any stretch of the imagination. What makes it truly aggravating is that it’s instances like this one that makes it difficult to ever truly buy in to the supposedly overwhelming cost of what’s at stake, and twenty minutes less of these worst kind of Blu-Ray deleted scenes would serve the pacing of the movie well enough to not need the artistic merit to keep saving the day.

– Man did this movie want a shoe-horned love triangle like other Young Adult movies. There’s awfully sappy dialogue like “I will take away your pain”, a total lack of chemistry between Hilmar and Sheehan, and not a single scene between them that translates that growth in closeness that is present as the film persists. Maybe it’s the total lack of character build, or the one kissing scene between them feature an obvious stall by Hilmar, but I was never fully convinced, and the necessity to even include this sort of thing feels every bit as unnecessary to the film as it does diminishing to the strength of Hester as the female heroine that so many teenage girls need.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Directed By The Coen Brothers

Starring – Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown

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

Rated R for strong violence

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Robin Hood

Directed By Otto Bathurst

Starring – Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn

The Plot – Robin of Loxley (Egerton), a war-hardened Crusader and his Moorish commander (Foxx) mount an audacious revolt against the corrupt English crown in a thrilling action-adventure packed with gritty battlefield exploits, mind-blowing fight choreography, and a timeless romance.

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references

POSITIVES

– Surprisingly well shot action sequences. One thing that worried me about the trailers was the erratic editing and overcompensating slow motion movements that felt outdated in the year 2000. Thankfully, there’s plenty more to adore here, as the speedy fight choreography and thunderous sound mixing keep audiences glued to the unfolding drama between sides. What’s most important is the blow detection, especially for an action movie in 2018, and the competence of the crew at hand make the most out of these outbursts of action, that couldn’t come at a better time.

– One man above the rest. While most of the cast is easily forgettable for me, the work of Jamie Foxx as John allowed me to hang my investment into one character in the movie. Foxx as a constant professional, seems to have a firm grip on the kind of movie this is, allowing his fiery registry and father figure tutelage to shine throughout the film. If this was a movie about his character, I feel like the noticeable differences in Robin Hood material could’ve worked, but unfortunately we become saddled with a protagonist who doesn’t have a single thing interesting about him.

– This feels like the first Robin Hood film that properly depicts how Robin became so good with a bow. Through the arduous training montages with John that properly prepare him for the sheriff’s men, we come to build not only a delightful chemistry between Egerton and Foxx, but also building our believability for the many physical feats that our title character masters throughout. I commend any screenplay that doesn’t settle for these human characters being born with the ability to capture these astonishing feats, and because of these vital scenes during the early stages of the second act, we etch out an outline of a man who is second to none at weaponry.

NEGATIVES

– Robs from the rich. I’ve seen scenes in “Robin Hood” before, but never in a Robin Hood movie. Yes, this is the second straight week when a property is taken advantage of by making it a superhero genre film, and it never works because it changes the many things about the Robin Hood legend that we’ve come to love. Robin isolates himself in training to become the Hood (Batman Begins), A love triangle for Marianne’s heart takes place (Spider-Man), Robin’s identity is hidden away by an awful disguise (Superman), and Robin is somehow the only man to live through being shot by arrows (Take your pick). There’s even an obviously comic sequel set-up, as well as comic book looking after credits. These elements to the story feel so out of place that it frequently has the film searching for an identity of its own, feeling further from reality the deeper it goes.

– Complete suspense of disbelief. I, nor the narrator knows when this story takes place, but the incorporation of these mind-numbingly unbelievable weapons might help us distinguish. For one, the crusade wars have an automatic machine-gun arrow dispenser, that pumps arrows out ten at a time. This is not only ridiculous for a story that is supposed to take place in the 16th century, but also how this army manages to lose despite having this convenient perk. There’s also a shield that helps the Sheriff’s men move fire like a piece of paper. I know shields are able to protect you from the heat of flames, but not moving them to the point of them feeling like a brief inconvenience. Myself, as well as the audience had a great laugh during these moments, and make me wonder why they don’t exist in modern times.

– Lack of immersion in the costume and set design. Never once during “Robin Hood” did I feel like I was transported to this world that feels far from my own, and a lot of the reason for that are these choices in wardrobe and locations that limit the teleporting appeal that a movie is supposed to have. The leather jackets and camoflage army attire made me scratch my head, but it’s the placement of a casino scene, complete with roulette wheels and poker tables, that constantly reminded me I was watching a film. I’m not going to pretend like I understand what the production team was going for in the design of this movie, but if you wanted it in modern day, just make it in modern day. At least that would be something different for a Robin Hood movie, and would make sense why you shopped at Hot Topic for the costumes in the first place.

– PG-13 limitations……AGAIN. Why do studios do this to themselves? A story that should obviously be adult is anything but, and in this case it’s a scene that limits itself to almost cartoon levels of logic. A central character of our group loses their hand almost as soon as the movie begins, and not only does this actor not react in the way that anyone would by losing their hand, but there isn’t a single drop of blood to make this blow feel believable. I’ve never pretended to be a medical genius or anything, but I think at least a little blood would come from losing something as vital as your hand. But it’s never further elaborated on by any scenes of suffering or urgency to get the wound closed, and because of our rating designation, we’re supposed to forget about it as nothing more than a minor hiccup.

– I can’t understand for the life of me how the Sheriff and his men didn’t know how Robin Hood was Robin of Loxley. Even in the film world where Superman puts on glasses to become an entirely different person, this is far fetched, and left me inching further down in my seat each time they tried to play this off as a compelling mystery. For one, there’s a robbery scene with Hood and Foxx’s John, in which John isn’t masked or concealed by any measure. Following this is a party scene, where Loxley shows up with John as his guest. Did none of the hundreds of guards see this lone black man in the town when they were chasing him on his horse? Even Marianne knows it’s Loxley under the hood, as she makes fun of the lack of disguise that is anything but subtle.

– A truly ugly visual coloring scheme. This movie reminded me a lot of last year’s “Assassin’s Creed” for more reasons than one, mainly the choices used with the cinematography that left everything feeling very rudimentary. Many of the nighttime sequences lack clarity or consistency in their depictions, the daytime scenes have this bland brownish tint to their renderings, and the C.G graphics of the landscapes and rapid fire arrows are comical for all of the wrong reasons. If the intention was to crossover Robin Hood into a world of animated properties, then job well done, but the weight of the effects constantly lacked depth, leaving the most interesting aspects of this story on the digital room floor.

– No name appeal crafts such a mundane project. Otto Bathurst is a television director who obviously felt overwhelmed with such a big budget and important property to showcase. While I have nothing personally against the director, I can say that so much of his work here suffers from derivative sequencing, uninspiring performances, and an overall a lack of urgency in the atmosphere that sells nothing of dramatic tension from within the material. This all falls in the hands of the director, and it’s unfortunate that his first real big screen project will go forgotten, ten minutes after moviegoers leave the theater. Although for Otto’s sake, that’s probably not a bad thing.

My Grade: 3/10 or F

Creed 2

Directed By Steven Caple Jr

Starring – Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

The Plot – Life has become a balancing act for Adonis Creed (Jordan). Between personal obligations and training for his next big fight, he is up against the challenge of his life. Facing an opponent with ties to his family’s past only intensifies his impending battle in the ring. Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is there by his side through it all and, together, Rocky and Adonis will confront their shared legacy, question what’s worth fighting for, and discover that nothing’s more important than family.

Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, adult language, and a scene of sensuality

POSITIVES

– Caple competently picks of the pieces left by Coogler. As a director, Caple’s focus is rooted in life experiences first and boxing second. This doesn’t necessarily take the power of the punch away from the ring, but rather enhances its compelling drama by stirring the ingredients around the ring. Redemption is a big one throughout, but also legacy, and it’s in the impact of that second topic where “Creed 2” evolves beyond the ropes, in presenting us with two fighters who are equally empathetic for similar reasons. These are two sons who feel like their stories were written long before either of them were born, and while their life paths have taken two distant directions, Caple’s execution draws them together in the form of the fight from within that they both take on.

– Electrifying boxing presentation as a whole. The fight sequences are intense, bringing with them a combination of claustrophobic camera angles, brunt force in sound design, and crisp, free-firing fight choreography to keep audiences glued. The spectacle of the sport is also very sharply telegraphed, bringing an extravagance of lasers and television perspective to really draw you into this world of pageantry. If boxing looked this good in real life, I would watch it more.

– Passing of the torch. While I feel that “Creed” was still Stallone’s film, “Creed 2” is Jordan’s sweetest triumph of his young career. Much of the dramatic pulse rests on the shoulders of Michael, and he never gives up the grip, inciting a level of emotionally stirring reads and timely tears to articulately expel the boxer’s conscience from within, where revenge acts as the devil on his left shoulder. Aside from Jordan’s riveting balance, Stallone is again synthetic as Balboa, taking us through the motions of grief and distance for his current family predicaments that broke my heart for my own distant final days with my own father. Tessa Thompson is also granted more screen time in this sequel, and she makes the most of it. The chemistry between her and Jordan is impeccable, treating us to two incredible actors who feel comfortable around themselves, and work just as well as best friends as they do lovers.

– Surprising cameos. There’s no way in good conscience that I can give this away, but the two inclusions in this movie provide the series a level of consistency that has been noticeably absent from the previous installments, and gives me hope for where future sequels may be headed. The first is great for those of us who have read about her off-screen trysts with Stallone, and the second made for such a satisfying and therapeutic finale, that had me fighting off tears. I commend the film for including these measures, and it’s just another example of why the Creed series have adopted the previous seven films in the franchise far beyond just bringing Sly along.

– Evolution of a fighter. Beyond Adonis’s physical transformation, which is so impressive that it demands to be computer generated, the psychology of him as a fighter has clearly matured with more ring experience. More than anything, I noticed his confidence and switch handed boxing have evolved, carving out two less prominent aspects to a fighter that come with time. This is another nod to the physicality of Jordan’s performance, and the astonishing brutality of two impressive training montages more than colorfully illustrate how this actor becomes the title role in more ways than one.

– Props to bringing back Ludwig Goransson, composer of the first film, back to the middle of the ring. I say it like this because most of the film doesn’t require Ludwig to get his hands dirty until the fights themselves, choosing instead to accompany a majority of the scenes outside of the ring with a hip-hop dominated soundtrack that appropriately channels Creed’s personality. This absence did make me remotely nervous, that is until the fights themselves, which Goransson fruitfully takes over, enchanting us with a barrage of rumbling numbers that would inspire a mass army to dive head first into the halls of hell. Goransson collides thunderous drums with volume exceeding trumpets, and just when you think he’s outdone himself, he throws in Bill Conti’s familiar notes to “Gonna Fly Now”, at the perfect moment it means the most.

– It’s impressive when you think about the most fantastical sequel of the Rocky franchise, in the fourth one, and weave it into this rich dramatic tapestry in 2018 that feels authentic. Never once during this film did the material discussed in that movie feel extreme or silly in the least, and it was certainly rewarding to see this weathered side to a man who was once as unstoppable as Ivan Drago was, and tack on top of him a son, who is clearly only fighting for the admiration of his father. Every time the film cut to them, which is unfortunately not enough, the tone remained consistent, and I’m glad that Caple never lets his film get out of hand to feel like a music video movie, like “Rocky 4”.

– Entrancing photography that added artistic merit during Coogler’s noticeable absence. While we won’t get long take fight sequences here, the film makes up for it by supplanting us with what feels like an unlimited amount of breathtaking scenic shots of the desert, Las Vegas, and Russia, to name a few, that encloses the film in this big budget presentation that mirrors the success of its title character. On a singular basis, any one of these landscape depictions could be a background on your laptop, but when you combine them together, you conjure up a need for aesthetics that succeeds in different ways from the first film, ultimately giving this movie great replay value.

NEGATIVES

– Unfortunately, there are moments of familiarity for fans of the franchise, particularly in that of things borrowed from “Rocky 2” and “Rocky 3”, that made the intended direction feel predictable as it transpired. What this does is take away from some of the creativity of the Creed franchise, feeling like an obvious reach for the Rocky series that the film just doesn’t require. These scenes made for the only slow parts of the film for me, because I could sniff them out from a mile away, and the film would be advised to change even something small about them to differentiate.

– Some of the exposition from the boxing commentators felt forced and often intrusive, to the point when they felt like narrators who we couldn’t shake. I get that the characters in the film are watching TV when they pop up, but some of their comments feel more obviously geared towards the movie, and not necessarily something you would hear on a television broadcast. It all comes across as a bit too on-the-nose for my taste, and breathed an air of desperation that the first act couldn’t shake.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

A Private War

Directed By Matthew Heineman

Starring – Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan

The Plot – In a world where journalism is under attack, Marie Colvin (Pike) is one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time. Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontlines of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless, while constantly testing the limits between bravery and bravado. After being hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka, she wears a distinctive eye patch and is still as comfortable sipping martinis with London’s elite as she is confronting dictators. Colvin sacrifices loving relationships, and over time, her personal life starts to unravel as the trauma she’s witnessed takes its toll. Yet, her mission to show the true cost of war leads her, along with renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), to embark on the most dangerous assignment of their lives in the besieged Syrian city of Homs.

Rated R for disturbing violent images, adult language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Pike and Dornan are spell-binding. The former is obviously the bigger pull here, as Pike immerses herself fully into this role, and while it’s a bit of a stretch to compare the physical similarities between Pike and her counterpart, I do say that her stirring performance isn’t hindered because of it. In fact, the vocal range of Pike is very much in tuned with that of Colvin, sounding eerily similar to the point I had to wonder if the film was just playing audio of Colvin and letting Pike lip-sync over it. Pike’s Marie is great as a character because she’s persistent about these big stories in the world, and there’s never a point when she lets fear overtake her from opening the eyes of her audience. Dornan likewise hands in another respectable turn, feeling like the voice of conscience and reasoning that Marie so desperately requires in getting back up to the world of journalism, after a horrendous explosion in the Middle East leaves her permanently blind in one eye. Considering this is the same guy who once played Christian Grey, it’s astonishing to see what Jamie continues to take on with his career, and he’s very much a driving force to the impeccable chemistry between the two leads, that never requires romance to sell their sizzle.

– Sharp in its poignancy about war without ever feeling preachy. This is very much a show-over-tell kind of picture, in that we as an audience are put through the ringer with these traumatizing visuals and suffocating atmospheres. What’s satisfying about this is it lets audience interpret and comprehend matters for themselves without pushing a particular narrative on them. In my experience with the film, Syria feels like a world blaringly different from our own, and unnervingly resonant for the idea that children wake up to this same thing every day of their lives. It really is a reminder of the advantages we have that we take for granted all the time, carving out a feeling of appreciation that films like these champion in.

– A wide variety of shooting style used throughout. This is visual storytelling at its best, as the entrancing war sequences are captured with a handheld style of filming, that weaves us in and out of frame of the devastation, while the scenes in tranquility and safety are rendered with a still-frame direction. Subtly, this vast difference increases the tension in one scene to the other, all the while giving the cinematography an air of creativity that never settles for just one particular style.

– As for the action sequences themselves, they never feel over-styled, keeping with the authenticity of the big budget set pieces at our disposal. The pulse of the battling itself feels spontaneous in its barrage of claustrophobic bullet registry and unpredictable choreography, giving the scenes a blanket of urgency and vulnerability that gives off the impression of an on-the-ground documentary, instead of the independent cinematic experience we’re used to. This is no doubt a credit to Heineman, who himself is known for his work on award winning documentaries, and only occasionally sits in the director’s chair to adapt material. These charged scenes themselves, while spread out wisely, impressed me constantly, and proved that much can sometimes get lost in big budget presentations and ideals.

– I myself am not a supporter of war, but the film is appropriate food for though, in that it illustrates how we as one world should embrace to help those plagued by such ravaging conditions. The graphic imagery involving the poor medical conditions, sacrificed youths, and uncertainty of trust, are just a few of the examples of why action is the key to any change. My opinion overall might have stayed on peaceful grounds, but I learned that to sometimes attain such peace, matters must be dealt with.

– Sheds immense light on the career as a journalist in the field. Aside from the obvious dangers in being an on-the-ground correspondent, the job has a combination of preserving honesty and unshakeable passion that feels important in today’s fake news landscape more than ever. In addition, these valuable assets can’t un-see images that change them forever, and more times than not take their work home with them. It really is a career path that requires you to lay everything on the line, and in doing such bridges the gap between war and strategists in a way that many in ivory towers wouldn’t come close to otherwise.

– Brilliant biopic. This is certainly no love-letter to Marie, and it’s that level of honesty that I appreciate not only from “A Private War”, but also from all kinds of biopics that preserve the complete picture of what made said person tick. As a protagonist, Marie is flawed by a combination of alcoholism and dedication to her work that has sacrificed any semblance of home life that she has going for herself. While there’s nothing condemning about her, the film doesn’t go out of its way to paint her as someone and something that she’s not, and especially coming off of the fluff job that was “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I can’t say enough Heineman as a director, for letting these intricacies shine through in carving out this amazing figure in how we view the news.

– A riveting finale that leaves it all on film. As to where some films would cut away when a movie reaches its unsettling climax, “A Private War” never hesitates for moment, instead choosing to remain true to itself and Marie by refusing to look away when it matters the most. The final shots played repeatedly in my head, long after I left the theater, and I think one of the most important things in a film is the ability to finish when the adrenaline is pumping the highest, and that’s certainly the case with this one.

NEGATIVES

– Uneven pacing. The film has its moments of plodding, especially during the second act, but I was more concerned with the first act of the movie, which whirlwinds some of Marie’s most accomplished moments as a journalist into these compartmentalized scenes that happen too rapidly to leave a lasting impression. The damage isn’t felt especially until that second act that I previously mentioned, slowing things down to endure every sight and sound, and leaving it feeling like a different director between the first two thirds of the film. It’s Heineman’s one weakness here.

– It’s a difficult sell to believe twelve years passes during the course of this barely 100 minute screenplay, and even more so when nothing of appearance on any of the characters changes, nor ages during that time frame. Therefore, there’s not enough weight between transitions to make this feel reflective of what the on-screen text is telling us. This is always a major cliche in time transition films for me, and unfortunately this one falls into the same trap.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Widows

Directed By Steve McQueen

Starring – Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki

The Plot – The story of four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Davis), Alice (Debicki), Linda (Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Rated R for violence, adult language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity

POSITIVES

– Possibly the best ensemble casting of 2018. Aside from accredited actresses like Viola Davis keeping a firm grip on your attention each time she’s on-screen, because of impeccable range that channels the dynamic between rage and grief, or Robert Duvall’s deep-seeded racism that acts as an outline for the politics played throughout, the film is really a casting call for the underdogs take the reigns. Debicki gets possibly the most focus throughout the film, and it’s interesting and extremely satisfying to see the edginess from this once battered housewife come to life because of the feat she’s tasked with. Also great is Daniel Kaluuya as this dangerously cool gang leader with no remorse for those he hurts. For Daniel, this may be the role that takes his career in a completely different direction, as he makes the most in every scene by chewing up the scenery that he invades.

– McQueen’s unorthodox camera styles. Part of what makes McQueen one of my three favorite directors is his ability to experiment with opposite approaches and unnerving patience when it comes to long takes, and that’s certainly the case here. One such scene involves a car ride, in which none of the characters are shown, only heard, and instead we are focused upon the rapid change in city living, from the slums to the mansions, in a matter of seconds. McQueen uses this to channel not only city official’s hypocrisies by not living somewhere they represent, but also in the dynamic of differences between them visually, and it disturbs us with this unshakeable feeling that these officials could do so much more, yet choose to keep things the way they are. There’s also manipulations and bending with scenes involving mirrors, that allow the audience to keep an eye on the facial registry of each character in frame, during scenes we would otherwise be behind their backs.

– Much more than a heist film. Part of what works for Gillian Flynn’s writing as novelist and screenwriter, is that she understands that it’s the ingredients that go into the pot that make it a much tastier sizzle, giving these ladies an outline of grief, fear, and especially vengeance, that the film focuses so prominently on. In fact, the heist itself takes place in the film’s final fifteen minutes, emphasizing the care and concern for the characters above the mission itself, and never does that decision hinder or corode the material’s deeper meaning. This also feels like much higher stakes than something like “Ocean’s Eight”, in which the ladies didn’t have to do the heist like the women in “Widows” did.

– As for the heist itself, it is very much grounded in reality, and capped off with a beautifully layered sound design that rattles and conveys urgency during the film’s climax. As with any heist movie, there is much that goes into the mission itself, but nothing ever feels unbelievable or stretching in logic, and I appreciate that during an era when heist movies embrace the far-fetching, here’s a film that would rather keep it simple by instead indulging in the air of the atmosphere itself. It helps that these ladies have gone over every angle of the plan to a tee, but what really comes to focus is their ability to adapt under pressure, providing a metaphorical reminder of what life has already thrown at them and forced them to deal with on their own.

– McQueen’s presence in guiding this complex narrative. “Widows” uses every bit of its two hour run time to commentate and tackle on the world’s sociological stratosphere instead of feeling like an entertaining film first. This is very much a slow burn kind of movie, and if that’s not your bag, it might feel enduring to you, but for me I appreciated this director’s patience in taking his time not only with the script, but also in giving each of the characters a proving ground amount of time to cement where they stand in this story. Davis is obviously the main character in the film, but in a sense it feels like all of these women are tough in their own way, proving that the many shapes, sizes, and colors of a gender have one thing in common: strength.

– Exceptional editing that really articulates the thought process behind grieving. Many sequences of isolation involving Davis’s character, deal with her channeling these memories of her and her former husband (Played by Liam Neeson), and it’s done in such a way that blends perfectly with the progression of the current day scene. Audio overlaps and quick-cut edits to remove a character, are just a couple of the measures taken in rendering these psychological takes, and the pacing of each sequence replicates the idea that Davis mind is a million miles away, even for a few seconds after someone starts talking to her. Brilliant visual representation that I’ve only seen topped by Jean-Marc Vallet.

– Possibly the most important film during the #MeToo era. Aside from the obvious of women banding together to accomplish a common goal, the film’s ability to put these women in predicaments that are historically male-driven is something that I commend the movie greatly for. There are males in the film, but the focus remains persistent with these hearts of the household, depicting that even the ability to drop it all and decide to engage in this heist is something that isn’t as easily said for women with great responsibilities. “Widows” feels like a movie that alludes that women aren’t to be overlooked or underestimated, and it makes me want more crossover roles for women that doesn’t demean their talents or keep them in the bubble of female confinement that reminds you endlessly of their gender.

– There’s a lot of subtle nuance to the revelations between characters and situations in the film, that cater to the belief that Flynn has in her audience. Most of these are object related, and don’t cater to the kind of screenplay, in which the writer is beating the audience over the head deliberately, with obvious clues and hints as to what they are alluding to. Instead, the movie pays off audiences who have stayed firmly in-grained into the layers of onion that the film has slowly been peeling, and because of such will reap the benefits once the direction takes a different step. Aside from what I already mentioned, I adore this because it feels very much like reality, instead of the distractions that screenplays present. If you watch this film, be sure to pay attention to objects in addition to characters.

NEGATIVES

– There’s a twist midway through the movie, that while it did floor me in surprise for how I didn’t see it coming in the slightest, it doesn’t do much for the remainder of the film in terms of impact. I feel like I will be in the minority here, but it felt tacked on to me to provide an unnecessary final conflict. In my opinion, the motivation of the women were stronger before this twist, and I wish the film felt confident enough to keep rolling with the punches of that original direction, because it makes the vengeance feel more raw and polished, and this new twist takes too much of the focus away from the women and their mission.

– No pay-off to certain subplots. Without spoiling anything, I will say that there are subplots between characters that are mentioned frequently, like there is going to be a major impact to the story, and then just kind of fizzle out when the film finally concludes. This left me with a couple of questions walking out of the film, and upon thinking about them now, I can’t help but point to them as the noticeable distractions to pad this story out. Could the film have been told properly without them? Yes, on most of them, and it would’ve only added to the fluidity of the script, that can sometimes trip itself up with the big conclusion of its properties.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

Directed By David Yates

Starring – Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The Plot – At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy and action

POSITIVES

– From a fantasy perspective, this is still the measuring stick, bringing with it a barrage of richly textured computer generated effects and a fine assortment of fictional creatures that we’ve come to expect. Because of this, it is so easy to get lost in this world of pre-Potter hysteria, and the film’s biggest spell is the one that continues to open itself to new audiences, continuing the charms of this franchise feeling like a generation affair.

– Paris in 1927. This element of the film is often so subtle that you have to constantly remind yourself that the film takes place here. This isn’t to say that it’s a fault for the production, but rather the decision not to carve out the cliche elements of Paris that we’ve come to expect in Hollywood. For my money, the authentic vibe of street cafes and Baroque style buildings is simply too sophisticated not to indulge in, and if there was ever a place to properly channel the rebuilding nature of the world, post World War I, it’s the city of lights.

– New additions to the cast. Jude Law as Dumbeldore is without question my favorite, radiating the familiar character with a dual threat of heart and youthful exuberance to properly fill in the gaps of curiosity. Unfortunately, Law isn’t in the movie more than twenty combined minutes, but his sharing gives way to opportunity for others as well. For instance, Depp goes way above the compartmentalized material, making the most maniacal for the mantle for the film’s title character. Depp too suffers from script fatigue, but his big screen presence is something that can’t be ignored, and serves as yet another chance for the acting chameleon to get lost under a range of make-up and contact lenses. Depp’s Grindelwald is cool, cunning, and calculated, in the same manner a cult leader would feel, and his magnetic embrace of the dark side is something that we certainly need to see more of, especially after the magic that was “Black Mass”.

– James Newton Howard, one of the world’s most notorious musical composers, giving us his most entrancingly immersive tones in years. I realized many times that it’s James impeccable touch of his own wand, in the form of an orchestral baton, that gives the film noticeable emphasis, and overall this is a score that I felt equally captured the immensity of the unfolding drama, as well as audibly took us on a journey that couldn’t have been better articulated with words. You feel the intention in every scene with a composer this talented, and Howard’s grip on this series is equally as important as the events that play out in real time.

– As far as world expanding goes, this sequel has everything to up the stakes of the exceptional first film. Yates and Rowling continues to introduce us to creatures, cultures, and locations throughout the wizarding world that will please even the most passionate of fans of nerd euphoria. This element of the script lends more to the idea that the world of magic in the 20’s spans far outside of the school of Hogwarts, giving way to a wide range of possibility and relatability in these clashing characters that we haven’t even grazed the surface of, in two-two hour movies thus far.

NEGATIVES

– “Flash-Back: The Movie”. I say this because this film has no fewer than six flashback sequences to explain exposition, and none of them are the briefest of explanations in the way we would cut to the chase as storytellers. This element wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t frequented so often, and about halfway into the film, it relates this idea that the progression of the current day narrative isn’t as important or as compelling as those details of things that have already happened.

– Does that time honored pain of building the third movie more than making the second film a stand alone classic. If the friendship between Grindelwald and Dumbeldore isn’t enough, the direction of many characters, especially during the confrontational third act, more than cements an outline for where the next chapter may be heading, but it’s one that comes at a price for the weight of the conclusion of this film, that feels anything but heavy. Ultimately, the second movie feels like the first trailer for a much bigger third film, and because of such, this film will easily be the most forgettable of the Wizarding world franchise thus far.

– Newt is a bad protagonist. Bear with me here. This film exposed for me some pretty serious problems for the series central character, all of which are more prominent than ever in this installment. First, he’s selfish. He doesn’t listen to a friend when he’s confiding in him, and is only occupied with figuring out his own conflicts. Second, Redmayne’s performance and direction from Yates lacks the kind of charisma and focus that cement him as the pivotal character throughout. Watch this movie and tell me that Newt MUST be the main character, and I’ll tell you where millions of dollars are buried. There’s nothing to the film’s conclusion that makes us thankful that Scamander was there to save the day. Third and finally, there is no evolution with the character. This is very much the awkward, mumbling tick, who existed in the first film, and never during this movie does he feel any closer to solving the matters that bother him, nor does it ever feel like he truly will. At this point, it will take 27 films for Newt to even properly talk to the object of his affection, and everything I mentioned will still very much be an issue.

– At 124 minutes, it is far too long of a movie. Don’t get it wrong, it’s not the run time that bothers me, but rather how we got there. The first Fantastic Beasts film was 130 minutes long, but I never felt bored or suffocating from a convoluted script. The problem lies in the element of too many characters with too many perspectives. Far too often, this screenplay morphs from character to character, quite often leaving important ones on the waiting path, inevitably making them forgettable until they pop up violently again. This film should’ve taken a page from the first film and just combined some of these subplots, limiting the down time in pacing that does anything but hold your attention.

– Antagonist angles that go nowhere. Considering how vital the elements of magic are to this series, it’s surprising that there isn’t more of it in this film. Take for instance Grindelwald’s capability of body possession that is only used twice, during the first act, and never mentioned again. It’s easy to understand how this gift could’ve played out in allowing him to understand his enemies when they are hot on his trail, but that would expose the obvious problem of this film being over in an hour, and at the risk of this gift being believable in the first place. Believe me when I say this isn’t the only dropped gift throughout the film, and what’s worse is they only highlight why no one, at least in this universe, should be able to remotely compete with Grindelwald’s power.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Directed By Fede Alvarez

Starring – Claire Foy, Sylvia Hooks, Lakeith Stanfield

The Plot – Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits hacker Lisbeth Salander (Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer program that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide. The download soon draws attention from an NSA agent who traces the activity to Stockholm. Further problems arise when Russian thugs take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work. Now, Lisbeth and an unlikely ally must race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster.

Rated R for violence, adult language and some sexual content/nudity

POSITIVES

– At attempt to fill in the gaps of Salander’s backstory. One thing that always drove me nuts about the previous four films from this series is the lack of attention paid to Lisbeth’s jaded history, that could explain why her interaction with people comes across as tedious, and “Spider’s Web” feels like the first chance at delving deep below the surface. Through flashback scenes that depict the less-than acceptable nature between Lisbeth and her father, as well as the broken bond between her sister, we not only learn the motivation for her life’s work in protecting women, but also the past life she left behind when she faced her life’s important fork in the road. Because this is very much her movie, it would be foolish not to give us some answers in regards to its title character, and it certainly makes a lot of sense when you know more about what she has endured.

– No shortage of characters to keep the narrative fresh. Besides the usual team-up of Salander and Blomkvist, the film introduces us to the firewall creator and son, which provides great urgency for the abundance of chase sequences, as well as a government official, played by Stanfield, who constantly keeps Lisbeth on her toes in the biggest game of cat and mouse. This allows the film to constantly keep moving where other spy thrillers can sometimes start to lag down, and it helps even more when you’re investment into these characters increases with every scene.

– A new side of Salander. Lisbeth’s guarded wall toward human interaction, as well as cunning intelligence that never stalls, is still very much there, but Foy adds a layer of bravery and physicality to the role that was most noticeably absent in Rooney Mara’s recent portrayal of the character. What I love about this is that it really channels the evolution of Salander, proving that a majority of her cases have been anything but pushing the buttons behind her trusty laptop. Foy envelopes the complete package of what Lisbeth should be, and while the visual transformation isn’t as deep for this actress, the durability of her accent, as well as the way she commits herself to the role, proves that she was the right woman for the job.

– Pedro Luque’s beauty in the darkness that envelopes the world of this character. It would be easy to overlook the advantages in shooting a majority of scenes in these dark, cold backgrounds, but Luque takes advantage of the scenery, using it not only to channel Lisbeth’s physical isolation, but also in capturing the very unforgiving nature of Sweden in this winter wonderland. Lesser quality cinematographers won’t know how to shape it for audiences, often times coming across as a bunch of unidentifiable objects moving around in the darkness, but Pedro provides substance to the overwhelming dampness, using it as the stage that lives and breathes with these characters alike.

– Alvarez’s first time shooting an action movie. Considering this is a director whose passion first and foremost is horror movies, it was great to see what kind of visuals and movements he could give with a bigger scope and budget. Fede’s tapestry takes us through many chase sequences, with a versatility in angles, as well as long hallway pans that kept the attention firmly where it needed to be at all times. If the film does anything for this rising off-screen star, it’s proving that he is much more than a one trick pony, and he more than lives up to the shadow cast by previous director, David Fincher, for carrying the torch of this beloved franchise.

NEGATIVES

– Unsubtly a superhero narrative. Sony’s thirst to make this something its not, hinders the story at nearly every possible angle, further blurring the lines as a supposed sequel that Sony so badly wants you to believe. Salander herself has freakish abilities in her power, there’s an over-the-top villain whose only motive is to take over the world, a child kidnapped midway through who needs saving, pointless white makeup and posing for the camera of its protagonist, and high risk stunts that would kill a lesser person. Sound familiar? It should. Salander is apparently the second coming of Wonder Woman, and this thoughtless direction loses any air of familiarity that the character had for herself.

– Vital miscasting mistake. Blomkvist, for whatever reason, is treated like nothing more than a supporting cast member in this film, and there’s plenty to point to in terms of why this direction was taken. For one, Sverrir Gudnason wipes all forms of energy and personality from the character that Daniel Craig made famous. For two, his distracting lack of chemistry with Salander, that the movie wants so badly to paint, does them no favors in channeling the connection between them as lovers or friends. For a character who is arguably the protagonist of the novels, this demotion renders the character lacking, leaving him with little to do and little answered from where the previous film left off.

– Worst trailer of 2018. Once again, we have an example of a trailer that reveals far too much, and leaves nothing of reveal or excitement for the film to hang its hat on. To anyone who has seen the trailer, you not only find out who the antagonist is to Salander, but also how the final conflict between them ends. It is truly baffling to me how whoever put together this trailer still has a job, and thanks to their neglect and lack of care for audiences, we are given nearly two hours of answers in a two minute clip. Impressive.

– You don’t have to suspend disbelief in this film, you have to run over your brain with a Mack truck. Some of the things that Salander does with a cell phone are ridiculous to say the least, especially when you consider how little of time she is given to complete these tasks. Hacking a car’s electrical panel, an airport security system, and individual cell phones within seconds are just a few of her talents. Should we come to know Lisbeth as God at this point? Surely the authorities would be looking for someone as well known for hacking as she is. If you don’t believe me, look up Snowden, Edward.

– As much as the characters and performances keep the film from falling into boring territory, the film’s undercooked level of human emotion left me with a story with this high of stakes feeling very inconsequential. Because everything is so heavily telegraphed, like I mentioned above, the film’s closing moments won’t leave you as emotionally invested into them as you rightfully should, and the so-called big battle between family feels anti-climatic when it treats the things we already know as this shocking revelation.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Overlord

Directed By Julius Avery

Starring – Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

The Plot – On the eve of D-Day, American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation. They find themselves fighting against supernatural forces, part of a Nazi experiment.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, adult language, and brief sexual content

POSITIVES

– Not your typical horror movie. Considering how this film was marketed, it’s greatly surprising to me that above all else it is an exceptional war film first, with a lot of substance in creative storytelling and filmmaking to match the buckets of blood, to which there is no shortage of. With a combination of grainy footage and propaganda-like introduction and conclusions, it’s clear that time and attention to detail were firmly invested in this finished product. This location of Germany isn’t just one that is approached from on a surface level, we very much live and breathe inside of the dread that feels like a fog over this country, giving depiction to an environment that can only be described as the darkest level of hell, far from anything conventional.

– Bar none, the very best sound mixing in 2018. “Overlord” thrives with the kind of pulse and intensity that leaves little to no suspension of disbelief on the field of battle. I say this because there are many scenes where it’s difficult to hear character’s speaking, especially when combating the aggressive noises of airplanes and gunfire that overcrowd the senses. Through the many war sequences involving what feels like an unlimited amount of rattling explosions, the film’s crisp vibrations rivet you, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the kind of environment that we’re being shown. Watch this one with the very best sound system theater that you can find, because Avery takes no prisoners.

– Jed Kurzel’s best work in years. Considering this is the same man who penned the musical tones in 2014’s “The Babadook”, it comes as no surprise how much he relies on increasing volume to consistently charge the suspense in every scene. Kurzel’s score feels like it never subdues, instead constantly building over a minefield of thrashes and bangs that follow our protagonists down long hallways in the same manner that their opposition does. I can’t give enough credit to Jed’s constant presence throughout the film, elevating the waves of vulnerability in such deep waters that it’s difficult to ever pull yourself out of.

– Last man standing. While I commend the work of Adepo’s character struggle between being this soldier and the man he used to be, I was more glued to the wild card of Russell (Son of Kurt) as the biggest badass these eyes have seen in quite sometime. Considering this is the same man who played a throwaway stoner in “Everybody Wants Some”, I find it impressive how he is able to constantly play against type, and taking on roles that never typecast him or leave him confined to just one genre. His work in this film was a treasure to watch, as he never relents under the mission at hand. He may be conflicted as a protagonist, and even slightly a loose cannon, but it’s that unpredictability that makes him difficult to shake, and his presence proves that Wyatt was having the time of his life with this particular role.

– My favorite scene in the movie. It would usually worry me when the best scene in a movie is the opening ten minutes, that takes us through an arrival into Germany that depicts war in the very gruesome dangerous environment that it rightfully is, but this fact instead tells you everything that you are getting into with the rest of the 105 minute picture. In this sequence, we are given impeccable cinematography that moves through air and water with such persistence to the characters, a stunning series of visuals that capture that anxiety associated with war, and a sense of strategy that articulates how armies move throughout. Avery sucks us right in, and we fall for it like kids taking carnage candy.

– Consistency is the key. What’s impressive about two such genre opposites, like war and horror, is Avery’s ability to keep the consistency of the tone, because after all, war is exactly that. It has the ability to turn men into monsters, like the movie so bluntly does, and never does this sacrifice the smooth pacing or urgency of the elements, instead carving out a maniacal sense to our Nazi antagonists that we already know from history. Other films struggle at a mid-movie switch, but this one feels cohesive in how it matures its material, from a battlefield strategy piece to a zombie splatterfest that never missteps for single second, thriving more the sillier the story takes us.

– Much of the violence, especially in the third act, feels every bit as grimacing as it does cathartic. This element alone gives the film enough audience investment, whether they embrace or wince at the unapologetic nature of the film’s gore. Either way, it is a blast to watch it all go down, and capitalizes on some of those promised Summer blockbuster thrills like “The Meg” or “The Equalizer 2”, that only remotely lived up. This one is a ferocious fall frightener that constantly exceeds even the highest of audience expectations.

– Strong combination of practical and computer generated effects. What’s most impressive is that there were times when this film expert couldn’t tell the difference, and I think that says a lot to the kind of budget devoted to this supposed B-movie that constantly overachieves. For my money, My favorite is in the complete transformation of one Nazi lieutenant, who wears the wounds of torture he has suffered as a badge of reminder against the very same man who gave it to him. It gives the character a Frankenstein style look of permanent reminder to the audience, to play into the transforming effects of the potion that have their own facial altering features.

NEGATIVES

– Rushed fight sequences. With so many positives on the presentational aspect of the film, it’s a bit of a letdown that the conflicts in action are so underwritten and thinly developed. With the exception of the very last fight of the movie, the rest around it begins and finish with little emphasis for the burning drama of character well-being. Never does it feel like our protagonists are in trouble, and even worse the resolutions are repeated quite often, so that midway through the movie you can already telegraph what will happen before it does.

– One-dimensional characters. While I had enough enjoyment from the characters in the film, mostly because of the film’s exceptionally talented cast that lift the miniscule backstory into honorable territory, the overbearing sense of neglect that these soldiers receive is alarming. The main character (Played by Adepo) never feels like the focus in his own movie, instead playing second fiddle to Russell’s executioner corporal, who feels like more of the conflicted protagonist necessary to lead by example. The problem is worse with the supporting cast, as some are given objects like a camera and a baseball to fill in the gaps for a lack of attention given to their forgettable presence.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Directed By Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

Starring – Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman

The Plot – All Clara (Foy) wants is a key; a one-of-a-kind key that will unlock a box that holds a priceless gift from her late mother. A golden thread, presented to her at godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Freeman) annual holiday party, leads her to the coveted key-which promptly disappears into a strange and mysterious parallel world. It’s there that Clara encounters a soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three Realms: Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, and Land of Sweets. Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and hopefully return harmony to the unstable world.

PG for some mild peril

POSITIVES

– Disney’s choice for a 65 mm Kodak format for the presentation. To anyone who has just seen the trailers, it should come as no surprise that this is a beautifully exceptional looking movie, filled with enchanted glimmer that radiates ever-so-gently off of the colorful wardrobes and dreamy landscapes. The team of Hallstrom and Johnston have moved mountains in bringing to life this ballet-turned-film to audiences, and the tinsel of magic that only Disney can emit, is a constant throughout Clara’s wonderous journey.

– Considering this is a ballet with very little exposition between characters and events, it’s a benefit for the film to keep things tight at 89 minutes, leaving the fluff of downtime on the cutting room floor. This is a film that constantly keeps moving, whether you’re into it or not, and I commend the production’s desire to not reach for the low hanging fruit of turning this into an epic, like other Disney live action properties. As far as the burning of an hour-and-a-half goes, it’s as smooth as silk, and keeps the attention of adult and child audiences alike, without a noticeable test of patience.

– Stylishly decadent wardrobes. In emulating the many differences in world, both fantasy and reality, the great Jenny Beavan has her work cut out for her. But with a faithful homage to the nutcracker and toy soldier tinker toy looks of the early 20th century, she wows us in ways that literally transform actors into the characters. For Clara, it’s a second act unveil that grooms her into becoming the woman she is destined to become, and for such an occasion it’s a transfixing gown that greatly compliments her skin, and lends itself to the finer side of class and sophistication.

– My favorite sequence of the film. It’s strange that possibly the only scene that I remember from this film an hour after is the ballet early on in the second act, that depicts Clara’s mother finding the Four Realms, because I myself am not even close to being a ballet fan. But it was in this exceptionally choreographed and wonderfully serenated play that not only built the most in backstory for the film and characters, but also fed into the concepts of majestic, an angle that much of this movie sadly under-developed. It’s a subtle reminder of why this story works on stage in ways that it can only dream of on film.

– No forced humor or cliche supporting cast. You can see it early on. Disney wants so badly to give Clara two dim-witted soldiers to chime in when the movie feels forced to cater to younger audiences. Thankfully, they hold off on this instinct, keeping the film’s tone grounded in expectation, keeping this from becoming a bumbling occasion that would do this story more harm than good. The lack of risk does catch up later on, as I will get to, but the best measures are always those that differ itself from what’s been proven ineffective, and this decision pays off immensely for me.

NEGATIVES

– Terribly miscast ensemble. It’s a disappointment to me, because I love Foy as an actress, and it’s not all on her. Everyone here is recruited for the wrong intentions, feeding into big budget films dreadful 90’s idea of bringing along the biggest name possible, regardless if it works for their personality or not. In this regard, Foy lacks energy as a protagonist we devote ourselves to, Freeman and Helen Mirren are in the film for a matter of minutes, and Knightley brings forth easily her most annoying portrayal to date. To piggyback off of what I said earlier, I enjoy all of these people individually as actors, but their casting here leaves much to be desired in the way they commit to their roles, and even expanding on their range as actors, making this feel like nothing more than a paycheck project.

– Same old same. You’ve seen it every year: a film will come along involving a child being shipped off to a wonderous land, and asked to save it. There’s nothing shocking about “The Nutcracker” taking this ages old troupe, but rather how little it truly does in adding layers of depth to such a tired plot. Because I’ve seen this concept played off in films like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Empire of the Sun”, and most recently “Ready Player One” to name a few, I can telegraph what will happen throughout, leaving little suspense or imagination to a decaying product.

– Considering this is a film with four different realms inside of this adventure, there’s an overall great lack of concern for the world building that goes unnoticed. Attribute this to the minimal runtime if you must, but in films that depict worlds far from our own, I prefer to be brought up to speed on what makes this place so special, and it just isn’t present here. If it’s in the title, you better do a great job of luring the audience inside, and there was never a moment over C.G backdrops where I felt amazed or riveted by what the film presents.

– This is again another example of a movie with so much computer influence that you wonder why it simply isn’t an animated movie. If you’re going to adapt a story into live action, do so in a way that justifies its existence. Instead, we are treated to hollow properties and poorly rendered rodents that make up the majority, and leave much to be desired in terms of reality. It’s no secret that this is the growing trend, especially with Disney remakes, and to me it’s the kind of creativity the production can muster up in bringing to life live action that impresses me. I’m not against C.G, but it should never make up the majority of any single shot in a movie.

– The dad in this film (Played by Matthew Macfadyen) is creepy to say the least. I get that this is a man who is grieving after the untimely death of his wife, and loneliness eventually sets in, but the way he looks at his oldest daughter in her Mother’s dress, as well as obsess over dancing with both of his daughters, made me slightly uncomfortable to say the least. This is the man’s entire story arc, and his intrusion upon these scenes make it stand out even more unnaturally, and if you think I am indeed bluffing on this, I challenge you to take in the movie and see the weirdness of this aspect, live and in living color.

My grade: 5/10 or C-