The Sun Is Also A Star

Directed By Ry Russo-Young

Starring – Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, Faith Logan

The Plot – Natasha (Shahidi) is a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. She is not the type of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when her family is twelve hours away from being deported. Falling in love with him will not be her story. Daniel (Melton) has always been the good son, the good student, living up to his parents’ high expectations. Never a poet. Or a dreamer. But when he sees her, he forgets all that. Something about Natasha makes him think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store for both of them. Every moment has brought them to this single moment. A million futures lie before them. Which one will come true?

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– Articulate photography. If nothing else, this film is a love-letter to the city of New York, in all of its immense architecture and melting pot population that lives and breathes within the city. In capturing such passion, Russo-Young’s blissful strokes of the canvas paint a sunny, serene setting for the world inside of the film to exist in, capturing more than several examples of artistic personality in unflinching focus, which feels like an homage to director Barry Jenkins, in that her setting becomes a character within the film, that surrounds the blossoming of these two love-struck young adults. The Bronx feels clean, poetic, and lived-in to the point of unabashed hope from the light above that continuously shines down on that front-and-center stage.

– Detailed montage sequences. This is where the film authenticates that literary feeling, stopping frequently throughout the progression of the plot to give us these sharply-edited, poignantly-informative flashes of backstory that matches the audible narration cohesively. These scenes are presented in such a crisp and absorbing way that it gives the film these brief moments of feeling documentary-esque, taking great pride in its responsibility to educate the audience not only in the history of the bi-racial cultures represented in the film, but also in the unrivaled path of collision that has set everything we know today in motion. Science is everything for a film that constantly seeks the evidence in matters, and thanks to some expressive montage sequences, we the audience engage in the important specs of information that blur the line between fate and coincidence.

– Speaking of the battle between those two themes, I love that the screenplay isn’t afraid to challenge centuries old debates in philosophy, like those from Carl Sagen, to contrast to the values obtained from choices of love. One line mentioned in the film is that “Love is the only proven thing that can’t be measured from science”. Interesting observation there, and it certainly adds weight and unpredictability to the single greatest emotion in the human stratosphere, for the odds of obtaining that one in a million who you were meant to spend your life with. As a single man myself, the script’s material reminded me not to overlook the smallest details, which may serve as signs for a bigger picture, but as a lover of film, the movie challenged me mentally in ways that romantic genre movies simply don’t in 2019, and it gives the movie a spring of pep in distinguishing itself from the overpopulation of such a territory.

– Surprise cameo. This film earns points just for finding a way to cast one of my all time favorite actors in a role that becomes evidently more important the longer the film proceeds. This guy is not only the most charismatic performance in the film, in all three of his scenes, but he also conveys the kind of presence needed in making you care and invest in anything that he’s involved in. It’s a bit of lesson to the film’s two central character’s, whose shoe-horned exposition against some less-than thrilling aspects about their character’s, brought forth two human beings who couldn’t sell me a bottle of water in a 365 day drought. I commend this actor for reminding me that there is no role too small for him, and that his variety in selected projects continues to expand even at the age of 54.

– Reflection to our own world. The fight for immigration plays a big hand in the developments of the movie, and especially considering this element is so prominent in today’s society, it gives the events a feeling of art-reflecting-life, that makes this movie feel more human than even its discussions on love. One question asked frequently throughout the film is what America means to this woman, an answer adored for its diversity, yet humbled for its honesty. It reminds us that even though this is the land of the free, we truly have a long way to go for everyone to feel the emphasis of that meaning, shedding light on the battle of the current day administration that now more than ever feels ever so urgent. Respect also goes to casting a Korean male and black female to echo those sentiments for the duration of the movie. It goes a long way when you can invest in one aspect; the love story, yet be entirely ripped apart by another; deportation, proving dramatic depth which is anything but timely.

NEGATIVES

– Clunky dialogue. Nope, this didn’t change from the terribly sappy trailers. The lines uttered in the film, mostly by Melton, are every bit as childish as they are meandering to the gullible audiences watching them and wondering why they can’t be romanced in such a way. The answer is simple; this wouldn’t work. Winking and nodding at a girl that you’re waiting for something from her would get you slapped and receiving of a restraining order the very same day. Likewise, the overbearing nature of Melton really made me uncomfortable, especially in the ‘Me Too’ era, where many men like this one manipulated women into thinking their intentions were honorable. LIGHT SPOILER – Melton, like those men I previously mentioned, eventually ends up in a dimly lit room, alone with the girl, and wastes no time making a move. Well, I guess they did wait four hours before they banged. Commendable.

– One PAINFUL song. I was mostly enjoying the soundtrack to this film, which authenticated the musical cultures from each respective family, with songs like “Don’t Stay Away” by Jamaican singer Phyllis Dillon, as well as “Here With Me” from Korean singer Susie Suh. But one performance tore it all down and soil the sanctity of every song that came before it. To anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer, Melton performs a version of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and The Shondells, and to say it’s uninspiring is putting it totally lightly. To say Melton’s voice is every bit as flat as it is reflective of a cat getting its nuts stepped on in the middle of the night, is an honest one. The performance is so bad in fact, that the movie mutes his performance to play us Tommy James version during a fantasy sequence from Shahidi. If this scene didn’t already feel like a stalker’s ploy to command attention, it now feels like that out-of-tune street singer who we must take pity on and spare a dollar if he’s ever going to move forward with his life.

– The performances. While separated, Shahidi and Melton display enough dramatic flare for the benefit of their character’s depth , but when they are together, it deconstructs everything positive up to that point. These two have no chemistry together, despite the film trying ever so obviously to convey that they do, and what’s even worse is that the sequence of events does nothing to issue believability that Shahidi has in fact fallen for him. It just kind of happens with a total lack of subtlety, and the lack of emotional registry from Shahidi frequently reminds us how cryptic it is to get an accurate read from her radar. Nice enough kids, but not who I picture when I think of convincing leading cast.

– Unnecessary padding. This movie is 95 minutes, and feels like it has an additional half hour thanks to plot halting that happens far too often from points A-to-Z. Every time the conflict advances, you can almost time that a convenient plot device or temporary adversity will present itself to further draw out the miniscule depth of this conflict. The good news is that there is a good movie in here somewhere, but it’s buried under too much unnecessary exposition explanation and not enough advancement, dimming the average of returns for dramatic material that is put on pause far too often to maintain audience concern. There were times in this film when I was edge-of-my-seat interested, yet times when I couldn’t be more bored, and when you average these two points out, it leads to average pacing, which shouldn’t be a challenge by hour-and-a-half measures.

– Predictable. If you’ve seen one of these films, you’ve seen them all. When a film is riding positive momentum, you know it will eventually go bad to put one over on the audience. The problem is that this has become a cliche of sorts with Young Adult cinema, so you are able to telegraph what comes next, and that’s the case here. The film, with all of its heavy-handed intentions towards fate, was easily predicted by me about a quarter of the way in, and I ended up batting 100% in that regard, leaving me nothing in the way of surprises or unexpected turns for me to hang my hat on. This film goes about the way you’d be able to pick out after watching the trailer, and for a film so expansively unique in its commentary in material, the people themselves are the least interesting and imaginative aspect in going against the grain.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Tolkien

Directed By Dome Karukoski

Starring – Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Laura Donnelly

The Plot – The film explores the formative years of the orphaned author (Hoult) as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school. This takes him into the outbreak of World War I, which threatens to tear the “fellowship” apart. All of these experiences would inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-Earth novels.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence

POSITIVES

– Thomas Newman’s gripping score. If I didn’t mention my single favorite aspect of this movie first, I would be doing a huge disservice to the maestro of magic, who once again enhances each scene with an element of drama that tinsels in the air from his lucid compositions. Newman’s music rides an emotionally surcharged roller-coaster of goosebumps, eclipsing each arm hill with a wave of enchantment and majestic radiance of “The Lord of the Rings” movies themselves, all the while outlining that invisible line of urgency that much of the movie unfortunately doesn’t capitalize it. Newman’s name for whatever reason is often overlooked when the best composers of the 20th century are talked about, but thanks to the moving renditions that he stirs into a hopeless World War I battlefield, the 21st century are ever in his favor.

– Riveting wartime sequences. Visually the highlight of the film for me. In addition to Newman’s influence that I just mentioned, we are treated to tight-knit editing, immense weight in impact, and a shot composition that definitely paid homage to “All Quiet On the Western Front” in terms of heavy breathing claustrophobia that gets as close in the trenches as being safe can buy. Never does the sequences feel staged or compromised for the lack of scope associated with both sides, instead using character narration and crisp, sharp sound mixing to audibly immerse us in the unpredictable drama. Even in knowing above average details of Tolkien’s biographical background, there was still much about orchestra of anxiety from Karukoski that left me uncertain about what transpired, and it all eventually leads to a convincing third act that does give you moments of satisfaction for remaining so patient.

– Seamless 1940’s design. From the soft color scheme of Finnish cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen, to the classy wardrobe design, to the consistency of visual likeness that never compromises the time frame, everything here is ideal for the look and feel of England during the time of great war, giving a strong attention to detail for the production that visually fired on all cylinders. Faded coloring filters are always the way to go in replicating the authenticity within an atmosphere of a prior decade, and it all manages to impress in ways that dazzle a level of time travel on the silver screen fluently.

– Effectively informative. I feel like “Tolkien” will at least succeed in outlining the important parts of Tolkien’s life, if literary biographies aren’t your thing. This film covers the rags-to-riches orphan tale of Tolkien’s early up-bringing, the bonds of fellowship in this friendship of boys, the lure that language plays in his stories, and of course the blossoming love between he and eventual wife Edith. If you’re a diehard fan of Tolkien, the film will offer you very little in the way of beneficial reinforcement, but if you’re someone seeking information for a term paper, or just looking to satisfy random curiosity after binge-watching the Rings films, “Tolkien” will educate just enough to fill in the gaps, all the while preserving a general outline for the mind behind the magic of arguably the single most influential series of novels in the English language.

– Special effects poetry. One nuanced aspect from the director that I wish was used a lot more, was a psychological delve into the mind of Tolkien, during which he sees familiar imagery from future books. It was during these scenes when I realized the crossroads of past, present, and future within J.R’s life, and it practically stands as these brief moments of inspiration that never require bloated or obvious dialogue in getting its point across. These are the scenes that will be most satisfying to fans, as we finally get a glimpse of the genius at work, proving that even in the heat of battle with fighting for survival, the execution of a creative mind still lives and breathes within the soul of a writer.

NEGATIVES

– Formulaic exposition. I don’t doubt for a second that artists pull inspiration from every spec of intrigue in their lives, but what I do have a great ounce of disbelief with is that it plays out in such a television soap opera, complete with practically wink-and-nod moments that illuminate for the audience. I have this same problem particularly with modern day musical biopics, as the overabundance of information deposited in a two hour film all but comes with a Wikipedia sign posting that each of the screenplay pages hit on ever so conveniently. Examples of this are scattered throughout the film, traveling through themes of fellowship and incredible journeys that provide material for the gifted writer, but do so in a way that prove in this film to be topical to ever come across as natural.

– Disappointing performances. I’ve been a fan of Hoult’s since I saw him on screen for the first time, and for a majority of his career he constantly elevates the material that sometimes does him no favors in connecting to the audience. But his work as this prestigiously humbling writer provides shoes that are just too big for him to fill, and leave us with a lack of personality in his portrayal that does highlight the genius in intelligence, but sadly leaves much of the twitches in Tolkien that he was well known for, on the floor of omittance. Collins likewise is an equally blank canvas, leaving as much of a lasting impact on the film as background wallpaper. The two exceptional leads try what they can to light the spark of chemistry between them, but it simply isn’t there, and without the love element providing warmth, the movie alludes and reaches to a motivation through war that simply doesn’t feel earned.

– Lack of influence from the source. The Tolkien family themselves have distanced themselves from the making of the film, not because they saw it and hated the movie, but because the production chose not to involve them when crafting a tale about their legendary ancestor. Why I think this is a big mistake is obvious: the movie is crafting a story without the ideals of heart needed to sell the man behind the books, and that’s essentially the common plague with this film. Throughout the movie, I felt like I was watching a cinematic character with very little shade of personality to help me understand and grow with who Tolkien was as a person. This is especially troubling because in a biopic it is important to separate the fame and the life, and draw the comparison between them that links almost magnetically. We don’t understand what drives J.R, and likewise the movie searches for that very same drive, traveling in a directionless fog, with all of the wrong people steering the machine.

– Sludgy pacing. I am not a “Lord of the Rings” fan by any stretch of the imagination. I can know and understand that they are exceptionally made films without personally indulging in them, but I can’t say the same about the quality exchanged in “Tolkien”. For the first hour of this movie, I was nearly falling asleep. The film’s disjointed screenplay that alternates between three different timelines transitions about as smoothly as hitting a pothole at 80 MPH, and does so with very little emphasis or distinction that a jump is coming. The film is able to gain very little momentum because it feels like it’s trying to cram in too many details in each respective age, and even at 107 minutes long, it could use another studio edit to trim the fat of adolescence that has such little bearing on anything other than the formation of his schoolboy fellowship.

– Not enough originality. For a film that preaches the theme of imagination, it’s remarkable how little there is of it throughout. When I see how boggled down and formulaic the screenplay feels for such an exceptional figure, I am reminded of similarly structured films that did it better. Just two years ago, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” depicted an author whose psychological durress with war equated out to making some revolutionary material in children’s literature. Likewise, “Dead Poets Society” managed dialogue and poetic insight better than any film before its time. So where does that leave “Tolkien”? As it turns out, searching for an identity of its own, and that’s what bothers me about a movie that should cast an immense shadow on the silver screen. There’s nothing about it that is remarkably fresh or insightful to have you screaming of its originality. It’s a collection of scenes from other films that can never jumble together to stand at eye level with its imposing title character, and feels like the forgettable secondary film to the bigger Tolkien blockbuster that feels just around the corner when a movie like this doesn’t quite live up.

My Grade: 5/10 or D +

Breakthrough

Directed By Roxann Dawson

Starring – Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas

The Plot – Based on the inspirational true story of one mother’s unfaltering love in the face of impossible odds. When Joyce Smith’s (Metz) adopted son John (Marcel Ruiz) falls through an icy Missouri lake, all hope seems lost. But as John lies lifeless, Joyce refuses to give up. Her steadfast belief inspires those around her to continue to pray for John’s recovery, even in the face of every case history and scientific prediction.

Rated PG for thematic content including peril

POSITIVES

– Mutual respect. “Breakthrough” is the rare exception in religious exploitation films, where the film states its case and its belief in a greater power, and doesn’t shun the cliche atheist character for their contradicting beliefs. The character in question is played by Luke Cage himself, Mike Coulter, and he’s depicted in a way that not only gives a strong combination of dignity and class to the character, but also never tries to change his beliefs or prove that he’s wrong. It’s a world developed that allows both sides to prosper without unnecessary confrontation, and that element alone allows the movie the kind of rare open arms treatment, where everyone is welcome, regardless of spiritual beliefs or lack there of. It’s one of the only times when a movie like this didn’t judge me or make me feel uncomfortable, and that alone brings it a step above the rest in living out God’s message.

– Soundtrack depth. When the movie begins, we are treated to pop culture toe-tappers like “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, or “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore, and it’s enough eye-opening selections to give the film a rich sense in budget, all the while echoing the cultures of its youths. This of course eventually changes into all spiritual offerings, but the eclectic nature of the genre and composition’s inspire creativity to the conventional hymns that we’ve come to know, and instills a sense of creativity to the movie’s compositions that radiate that fresh appeal, and it allows the music to remain true to itself, all the while catering to a bigger audience based on pop culture familiarity.

– A couple of solid performances. Metz is definitely the breadwinner here, emoting Joyce with no shortage of tears or energy to the command that she has on each situation. The problem is that I detested her character, mainly because the movie hints at a transformation that never comes, but all the same, Metz harvests most of the film’s emotional registry. Likewise, Coulter has a strong on-screen presence that captures the attention in each scene that he’s in, and juggles the biggest conflict of the movie, because his own eyes and ears are failing him on everything that he believed to this point. Topher Grace was also a riot to watch, if only for the facial reactions to the movie’s events, which drew more than a few smiles out of me. In terms of likeability, Topher is the movie’s saving grace, and his hip demeanor in freshening up the old testament is something that this world could use more of.

– Iron production values. While nothing is academy award deserving, it is exceptional in terms of religious movies that sometimes diminish the power of their message with a presentation that looks like it was shot by a high school film class. That simply isn’t the case here, as the neon interiors of the hospital, combined with some breath-stealing scenery of St. Louis, conjure up a visual presentation that confirms a great amount of money was spent in post production, and the editing, while dealing with continuity issues at times, does at least keep the progression of the film smoothly running, to keep us firmly engaged. When you compare “Breakthrough” to a PureFlix movie, you see an immense difference that reminds you how strong a film can be if it has a big studio presence behind it, and it gives us a lot to look at when the film’s plot progression has kind of grinded to a violent halt.

– Big game talents. I was surprised at how much the camera work relied on the skills of the young cast to showcase their basketball skills without manipulating the shot to make them something they’re not. Long take shots offer a balance of choreographed dribbling and long range shot display that came from the hands of the cast themselves, and really impressed me for not only the confidence they display, but the confidence that Dawson has in them to get it right. These are sequences that are such a minimal use of time for the bigger picture, so it would’ve certainly been easy to cut and paste these kids in a way that would fool half of the audience into thinking these kids are something they so obviously are not, but the direction, especially with NBA star Steph Curry serving as a movie producer, commits itself to getting it right, and shows John at work with his finest skill, instead of just telling us.

NEGATIVES

– Predictable. This is the biggest obstacle that the movie faces, as aside from a trailer that gives away nearly everything about this plot, aspects as minimal as lines of dialogue were mimicked by a friend and I, who spoke them seconds before the movie did. It’s expected that the events would be told in completely honest detail, but what’s concerning is how little we learn about the character’s, which could offer some shred of intrigue during the waiting game, which is roughly 80% of this movie. It’s obviously better for people who know less about these true life events, but even then you know there’s only one certain direction that a plot and genre like this can travel, and the fact that “Breakthrough” left me with the ability to telegraph everything scenes before they happen, spoke levels to the entertainment factor of the script, that feels closer to a Wikipedia article for the covering of events.

– Pacing issues. Most of the problems that I discussed directly above this translates to the jagged pacing of the movie, which at nearly two hours feels like a stretch for how much develops during the film. For one, there’s plenty that can be removed with very little impact. Stretched sequences involving throwaway character’s outside of this family, or repetition in scenes that transpire the same way but pivot on character movements, feed into this padding for passage of time that is quite literally that. This movie’s consistency literally did feel like a hospital waiting game at times, and with some more first act exposition before the big splash, the film could ease itself from racing to a red light, which it remains parked at until the final fifteen minutes of the movie.

– Transformation issues. For this movie, there are two character transformations that inspire these character’s to become better people. First is Joyce, an overzealous control freak, whose own insecurities are exposed in the way she devalues those around her. The second is John, as he struggles with feeling the love associated with being adopted. Both of these serve a bigger purpose, but only one of them worked, and it lands in the hands of the person who stays under conscience for most of this movie. Joyce’s supposed transformation didn’t land for me because she isn’t really that different from the person she was before all of this, and even worse, her actions are justified for the sake of John’s progression. She’s a conflicted character who never cures her conflictions, and it says a lot that the kid who doesn’t speak for a huge chunk of this movie attains the things that the film’s central protagonist simply never does.

– Blunders. There were all kinds of errors in believability, continuity, and horrendous line reads that do bring forth some unintentional laughs while watching this. Some of my favorite involve a resuscitation scene where the nurse administering C.P.R is obviously not beating on the chest, nor even doing it on the correct area of the chest for it to work. Likewise during this scene, it’s fairly obvious that John is breathing, especially with the revealing camera angles used, as well as the placing of a tube on his chest, which only makes it easier to detect. This is also one of the worst hospitals in the country apparently, because doctor’s say things like “Think, Gene” to themselves during surgery, or speak negatively in the presence of the boy and mother in their hospital room. If you can get over this believability issue, a musical scene in which students from John’s school sing him to inspiration you simply cannot. The kids are not only singing at a level that would make it difficult to hear from twenty feet away, let alone three floors up on a hospital window that doesn’t open, but it’s even less believable when a piano is heard that simply isn’t there. These are just a few of my favorite things, and don’t reflect the stretches of logic necessary to understand some pretty moronic course of actions that I won’t spoil here.

– Pitiful poignancy. For my money, I could’ve used more discussion aimed at the thought-provoking of its subject matters, that the film slowly steps away from. One such discussion happens late in the film, when a character asks why miracles happen for some people and not the others. Instead of offering up some form of relief for those seeking answers for the awkwardness of the question, the scene uses it as nothing more than a brief hiccup on the way to bigger and better things. If you had no relief in the form of even opinion-based answers, then why bring it up in the first place. This movie is full of solid questions that should be coming from an atheist’s point of view, but the overall lack of energy used to support these queries makes their inclusion feel every bit as temporary as they do pointless. A cop out with no intention of supporting its believers.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Gloria Bell

Directed By Sebastian Lelio

Starring – Julianne Moore, Alanna Ubach, John Turturro

The Plot – Gloria (Moore) is a free-spirited divorcée who spends her days at a straight-laced office job and her nights on the dance floor, joyfully letting loose at clubs around Los Angeles. After meeting Arnold (Turturro) on a night out, she finds herself thrust into an unexpected new romance, filled with both the joys of budding love and the complications of dating, identity and family.

Rated R for sexuality, nudity, adult language and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Pulse-setting cinematography. At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that a woman is doing a woman’s work behind the lens, as cinematographer Natasha Braier gives a consistency of life and energy to the photography of the picture, that beats with each passing second entrancingly. The club scenes, complete with absorbing neon lighting and handheld style of the camera, echo the authenticity in style and flare for the singles scene, that really bring newfound life and appreciation to the visual chances that Lelio took more in this film than the 2011 original of the same name, and it balances a capable consistency with the soft, comfortable color textures during scenes of isolation and self-reflection. It made for an overall presentation that helped fight off some of the anxiety inducing scenes of character interaction with a comfortable medium between soft and vibrancy.

– Articulate musical injections. First of all, credit to the soundtrack director Matthew Herbert for putting together a collective group of 70’s and 80’s artists like Bonnie Tyler, Olivia Newton John, and obviously Laura Branigan’s empowering ballad “Gloria”, that are perfect in acting as a sort of audible conscious to the character that springs creativity. Aside from that however, it’s the placement of the music itself that feels every bit as authentic as it does timely. What I mean by this is that the music support never feels obvious or desperate in a way that waters down the effect of such in that particular film. Instead, the tracks here come at the absolute perfect time, and border the casualty of crossing over to a musical genre for a few seconds, albeit if you ever seek the ability to sing karaoke with Julianne Moore.

– Lack of narration. I couldn’t commend this movie more than for its choice to leave these scenes of honesty and truth untouched, allowing the audience themselves the power to not feel distracted while soaking in the awkwardness of the environment. Films use audible narration to further express a character for audiences who might not interpret things on their own, but Sebastian’s interactions never allows you the ability to look away or feel remotely distanced, therefore it leaves there being no point to counterfeit the authenticity of the engagement. All of Gloria’s emotions are on full display here, and to dig any further would only make the screenplay feel desperate to push a particular narrative.

– Realistic in its depiction of middle aged dating and family dynamics. There were moments during the film when I felt truly anxious to escape a particular scene and group of characters, and that intended design gives the material an edge of honesty that we in the single world can fully embrace and identify with, all the while giving way to this romance that is anything but conventionally blossoming. From the very second that Gloria and Arnold meet, it goes down a path of rapid advancement, unforeseen complications, and about as many make-up and break-ups of a 90’s soap opera. This gives the duo’s relationship a series of rise and falls that better articulate the movements of modern dating in ways that very few other films captivate on, and it gave the film extreme relatability for a 34 year old like me, who couldn’t be further from Gloria’s desired demographic.

– The symbolism of Los Angeles versus Las Vegas. It’s interesting to comprehend Sebastian’s depiction of two vastly different cities and what they each represent in Gloria’s entanglement of emptiness in order to fill a void. In L.A, we not only get a lot of energy from a soundtrack that feels synonymous with the beats of Gloria’s every day routine, but a maintained demeanor from her that keeps her guarded at all time. In Vegas, it’s entirely different, as Gloria is every bit as reckless as she is ambiguous to the woman we’ve come to know from the prior city. Likewise, the musical score brings with it a sense of modern day techno music that feels so far out of Gloria’s comfort level, and even shows in the way she dances awkwardly and so unaware to it. This is one of those visual storytelling metaphors that better help distinguish the confidence and security of the character, and only supplants more food for thought in the ages old comparison of the city of angels to that of sin city.

NEGATIVES

– Dry pacing. The story sequencing and lack of dramatic impact made for such an insurmountable toll on the overall pacing of the film, and took an average 97 minute run time and made it feel like twice of that. This is more prominent than ever during the first two acts, in which the first is rapid fire developments, while the second feels like the longest funeral ever for the dearly departed drama, that is virtually non-existent in this film. There have definitely been worse films than “Gloria Bell” this year, but none that have left me as bored as this one did, and it’s easily the biggest obstacle that audience will face when seeing it. Speaking of which, two middle aged people walked out midway through our showing.

– Romantic disinterest. Besides the stilted dialogue, which does no favors for Moore or Turturro’s complete void of romantic chemistry, the total lack of characterization makes the two leads feel like mindless drones who fight for a single reason to seem interesting to us the audience. The line reads in this film are as good as they could possibly be from actors who give a look of lunacy at their romantic counterpart in speaking them aloud, and if it wasn’t for the blessing of being able to laugh at lines so immature and incompetent of conveying human feelings, I would’ve probably taken away two points for the pounding that my ears took in hearing them. This is “Twilight” levels of sweet. YUCK!!!

– Completely unnecessary R-rating. I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw that this film was given the coveted R-rating that so many films need, but don’t receive, and its use of such made me even more clueless by the end of the film. There’s very little adult language, and what there is never felt necessary to include the occasional F-word to sell its point. What does make this an R is the inclusion of four different nude and sex scenes for Julianne Moore, which might be a tad bit over-indulgent for driving the point home. Moore looks incredible, don’t get me wrong, but the lack of fireworks from her and Turturro, as well as scenes feeling repetitious quite often, made me feel like so much of this could’ve been trimmed from the finished product, and even one sex scene could be shot in a way that shows dignity to both of the actors and the eyes of its audience.

– What’s with the cat? Being a cat owner myself, I can appreciate any film that involves our furry little loved ones in a way that strikes my curiosity, but this film never even attempts to explain a question that it asks itself frequently. Moore’s character keeps coming home to a cat in her apartment that isn’t hers, so where did it come from? How does it keep getting in there? Don’t worry about all of that. Instead, we’re going to bring this up three different times in hopes that the audience are too stupid to ask a couple of legitimately good questions about the security of her home.

– Ludicrous resolution. At the end of everything I previously mentioned, we get a conflict resolution that is every bit as ridiculous in believability as it is tonally inconsistent with everything else from the film that is surrounding it. (SPOILERS) A paintball gun comes into frame, and I guess this is supposed to count as revenge for a character who has felt wronged up to this point. At least the foreign version’s resolution never reached childish levels of cringeworthy material, wrapping everything up in a way that, while not closed up air tight, does allow the protagonist therepeutic resolution while staying in the realm of reality that the film has maintained for itself. I’m not sure if I was supposed to laugh at this scene, but I had no probelm exerting myself to the audience surrounding me.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Captive State

Directed By Rupert Wyatt

Starring – Ashton Sanders, John Goodman, Vera Farmiga

The Plot – Set in a Chicago neighborhood nearly a decade after an occupation by an extra-terrestrial force, “Captive State” explores the lives on both sides of the conflict; the collaborators and dissidents.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief adult language and drug material

POSITIVES

– A great sense of weight and world building. When science fiction is done right, you can feel the change in tone from environmental differences contrasted so differently from our own world, and “Captive State” rattled me with the hell that our once familiar world has become, at the hands of an unforeseen army watching from above. George Orwell frequently warned us against this kind of thing in “1984”, and like that movie, Wyatt’s world conjures up the kind of feelings in hopelessness and helplessness that invoke the biggest scares from the science fiction genre. To me, once you see how an event has changed a barrage of people, only then will you realize true terror, and the movie’s brand of science fiction terror is held competently in its grasp because it takes something so far fetched and grounds it in reality, so that we the audience can comprehend how our world became this way.

– The genius that is Rob Simonsen. This composer has been lighting up our ears for years, most notably with some of his best work in 2014’s “Foxcatcher” and 2016’s “Nerve”, but his influence in this film echoes constantly throughout, in a musical score that stays with the story un-flinched. Simonsen attains distress in the form of repetition in a single piece of music, and slightly alternating its composition each time through. It reminds me a lot of Cliff Martinez, particularly in his work in Soderbergh films, in that it’s asked repeatedly to amplify the tension of the action-less sequences transpiring, and masters it any and every time. Even though redundancy is the tool used most effectively for Simonsen, the entirety of his work on the score alters so frequently that it never tests the nerves of the audience who are engaged in it, often switching up the tempo alongside the movie when it switches scenery’s.

– Surprises behind every turn. While the screenplay does tend to get away from the general interest of the audience who were promised one particular film and given another, it does reward patience in the form of third rug pulls that do prominently pay-off. Constantly throughout the film, you’re wondering what the correlation is between these many different characters we’re seeing, and the unique way that it ties them all together is something that I admit I didn’t see coming, and made for the tightest of bows in combining truth and logic effortlessly. Aside from this, there’s much respect to be given for introducing us to a subgenre that I’m confident I’ve never seen before, and that is “Alien political thriller”.

– Stirring performances front and back. It’s exhilarating to see Ashton Sanders leading a genre film, especially as he offers up enough heart below the surface to play against what we see front-and-center: a bundle of anxiety, anger, and occasional hope. Goodman is also brilliantly duplicitous, offering an against-type turn as an alien enforcer and Chicago police officer, who thrives within the deepest parts of the new foreign planet leadership, when everyone else around him strives for daily survival. The film dazzles the brightest when these two are on-screen together, but the added intensity of supporting turns from familiar faces like Alan Ruck, Kevin Dunn, Ben Daniels, and of course Akron’s own Vera Farmiga, adds a layer of prestige to a film so unpredictable that any one of them could easily be labeled expendable.

– Unmistakable social commentary. During an age when our own freedoms are being encroached upon, the film’s raw material speaks volumes to the concept of social revolt, and just how long and how much has to be lost before someone is willing to risk it all to change the system. While “Captive State” is certainly a dystopian worst case scenario at best, the seeds of similarity ring true when vital exposition drops hints at walls being set up across major cities around the world, as well as a questionable mayor being criticized for his ties to the newfound leaders of the once free world. Whether or not writers Wyatt and Erica Beeney intended for this haunting story to ring so true with our own trials and tribulations, the fact remains that “Captive State” feels like the bombastic warning to inspire a stern message that if we give an inch, someone else will take a mile.

NEGATIVES

– Better suited for television. Aside from this film just trying to cram far too much story in a brief 104 minute run time, the cheap production value in effects and set pieces, as well as the episodic roller coaster of pacing, makes this feel like it would be better served on a media platform without such limitations. It’s certainly easy to see the clearly visible book ends with each respective act during the film, where one episode ends and another begins, but the dialogue heavy exchanges sacrificing the promised big budget action sequences more than pay homage to binge-worthy television, and makes this a difficult one to stay focused on when the confines of a theater start to feel testing. If “Captive State” were on Netflix, this would be a guaranteed gold mine, but the silver screen isn’t as kind to something that virtually glosses over important details, like how we even got here in the first place, in favor of a computer screen that tells-and-not-shows in a one minute over-stuffed vacuum bag.

– Doesn’t have a central protagonist. One could argue this point in favor of Sanders, but that debate is easy to dispute, especially when you consider that his character goes missing for twenty minutes at a time, multiple times during the film. Is it possibly Goodman? Well, he’s more of an antagonist at times, so the debate to mold him into even a redeeming protagonist with conflictions is something that is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. With so many characters and sections of this story being fleshed out, there’s a severe jockeying for position in screen time that does nothing in managing the kind of consistency required for indulgence and investment. Did I feel for these characters? Absolutely, but the biggest hurdle to jump over is the fact that there’s not enough moments of self-reflection to allow me to see myself in any of their predicaments.

– Horrendous camera work. Much of the fast-paced sequences, especially those of on-foot chases, felt every bit as distorted as they did cropping. What I mean by this is every depiction feels zoomed in far too close, or rumbled with such gimmick shaking cam that leaves it difficult to focus for our eyes or the integrity of the shot respectively. This is one gimmick that I wish would die a horrible death in fast-paced action sequences, because it takes away from the stellar job of the editing, which is surprisingly well reserved here, as well as the impactful sound mixing that narrates the devastation, but thanks to the compact angles we don’t see.

– False advertising. This is without a doubt the biggest obstacle that the movie will face, as the trailer promises us this big budget action blockbuster that is never remotely realized with what transpires. In reality, “Captive State” is a strategic political thriller, the majority of which is spent on the ground building the plans. If this is your thing, fine, but the aliens themselves are shown for probably five combined minutes throughout the film, and even then only crack the glass of potential in terms of what they can actually do. Deceitful trailers raise expectations, and then slowly diminish them with a finished product that is anything but what was advertised, and I can see this unfortunate aspect being something severely compromising to people who paid to see it for a particular reason.

– Poor lighting serves a purpose. This might sound like a positive, but the lack of overall style associated with the film is clearly only used as a convenience to hide the lack of dimensions and rendering with the alien creatures, that makes them indistinguishable. I mentioned earlier that the aliens are barely in this movie, and even when they are we get these ugly depictions in the worst kind of lighting that makes it difficult to register what is taking place. This feeds into the uninspiring production quality of the movie, but the noticeably darker lighting scheme when these monsters show up is every bit as obvious as it is compromising, and gives those brief scenes of payoff yet another test of patience with an audience who have already had enough.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Greta

Directed By Neil Jordan

Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe

The Plot – A sweet, naïve young woman trying to make it on her own in New York City, Frances (Moretz) doesn’t think twice about returning the handbag she finds on the subway to its rightful owner. That owner is Greta (Huppert), an eccentric French piano teacher with a love for classical music and an aching loneliness. Having recently lost her mother, Frances quickly grows closer to widowed Greta. The two become fast friends, but Greta’s maternal charms begin to dissolve and grow increasingly disturbing as Frances discovers that nothing in Greta’s life is what it seems.

Rated R for some violence and disturbing images

POSITIVES

– Refreshing stylistic choices. “Greta” is a horror thriller of sorts, but that distinct direction doesn’t limit or condemn the visual feast for the film, which echoes vibes of a romantic comedy at heart. The cinematography involves these soft, subtle lighting schemes, which makes it difficult to convey what kind of film creatively that this will be, and the accompanying soundtrack of female-sung Indie ballads gives it a seal of French-new wave hipster sheik that is anything but conventional for a thriller of this magnitude.

– Ladies night. Each of the female performances are comparatively complex, but work wonders in each role they’re asked to carry. For Moretz, it’s a slow unraveling as this character with an already complicated past, who now sees her world turned upside down by this stranger she has met and fell in love with. Chloe isn’t given many chances to show off her acting chops, but as Frances she maintains her finger on the psychological pulse of her character, and it makes for her best work of dramatic delivery in well over a decade. Huppert, no surprise, is stirringly unnerving as the film’s deranged title character. Huppert by herself is intimidating, with her cold, damp, and unflinching stare burning a hole through the object of her focus, but it’s when she’s allowed to open up and let these quirks and ticks shine through where she combines enough confidence in menace and mental command to overcome the adversity in any situation. While both of these two are great, it was actually the work of Maika Monroe as Frances’ best friend, who stole the show for me. Besides having fun with some (Honestly) awful lines of dialogue, Monroe’s closing moments in the film develop a co-protagonist in a way that I truly didn’t see coming with how much time is devoted to her character. She’s the breath of fresh air that this film so desperately needed as it started to become stale and redundant, and proves why this young phenom should be granted more starring roles.

– Patience with its gore and violence. This is an aspect that I honestly didn’t expect much from, but the film sternly earns its coveted R-rating, saving some scenes of effective violence for the times when their impact will ring the loudest. One scene in particular involves the removal of a body part, and the way it’s edited, combined with its quick precision, made for a devastating blow that reminds us what is missing from the tired jump scare gimmick. While there isn’t a lot of gore in the film, the screenplay is wise enough to use them in scattered sequences that maintains that seal of freshness to their inclusion, and it brought sporadic satisfaction for a gore hound like me, who chuckled in delight.

– The dynamic between Greta and Frances. Unlike most protagonist/antagonist relationships that often lack deeper meaning, the vibe surrounding this one speaks levels to the things in each of their lives that they are missing. Without spoiling anything, I will say that both characters have experienced vital loss in their lives, and this angle gives them plenty of believability to seek comfort in one another, all the while preserving this ability to use this loss against either one of them if the situation calls for such. Vulnerability is your worst enemy in a film like this, and thanks to the trust that each of them exert in one another, the inevitability of such weapons will most definitely always come into play.

– Precise pacing. There was never a point in the movie where I was bored or checking my watch, and a lot of that capability has to do with the script’s balance on spreading these important moments all across the 93 minute run time. The first act is pretty much everything we got in the trailer. We know the set-up and where it’s headed, but once the second act comes into play, we’re pulled into the mystery surrounding Greta’s big secret that was promised in the trailer, and while it’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of big reveals, it does add layers to the complexity of her character. The finale is by far my favorite part of the film, because it’s then when the movie finally feels like it’s having fun with itself, a measure that the first half could’ve used more of. More on that in a second.

NEGATIVES

– Opposing directions. I mentioned a minute ago that the last half hour of this film is really when it forgets all of the rules, and goes off the wall bonkers in giving audiences something to remember. The problem is that as a sum of its parts, the film feels disjointed, marrying these two compromising directions in a way that ushers in the desperation of that exciting second half instead of its seamless progression. I’ve read that most people prefer the serious side of this film, but for me it’s when the film is utterly ridiculous where it’s living up to its far-fetched rules that never stop brewing.

– Stagnant dialogue. There are reactionary lines that are pointless, there are lines of personality that feel forced to attain a level of hip notoriety with its characters, and there are quotes from famous people in history that prove the movie has very little to say in regards of originality. For my money, it’s the dialogue that tests audiences into staying gripped into each scene, and if not for the commitment to the craft hand-delivered by its trio of talented leading ladies, the preserving cringe that resides inside would kill us if Greta didn’t.

– Confusion in character outlines. This is what bothered me the most about the film, as the entirety of the first hour of the movie had me rooting on Greta, instead of the protagonist we should embrace. The screenplay does little favors in this regard, as every time Frances gives a reaction to Greta, she contradicts herself in the next scene that endangers that previous motion. For instance, Frances issues a restraining order against Greta, yet in the next scene she’s snooping around at Greta’s house to gain clues about how she could use it against her. Even with the big bag reveal that is vibrantly shown in the trailer, I still was behind Greta because I understood her loneliness and what desperation forces us to do. If anything Frances jump in logic was the thing that made her feel like the raging psychopath, and it’s something that I think audiences will have difficulty distinguishing when it comes to the character they side with.

– Inconsequential scenes. The first is is in a dream sequence that lasts nearly ten whole minutes of screen time and pans through two different elaborate dreams that return us to where we started. This is every bit as unnecessary as it is improbable for the things in the dream that the dreamer never even saw and preserved in their memory in the first place. The other time this happens is in the film’s conclusion, which unfortunately mares the fun that I had in the final ten minutes by shameless sequel baiting. What this does is forget to establish a line of satisfaction for the audience and characters who have come so far by this point, and almost feels like it forgets to wrap things up in a way that is satisfying for them narratively.

– Telegraphed surprises. The film does a solid enough job of adding a surprise behind every turn, but they’re framed in such a way that elaborates on it minutes before, allowing audiences to sniff out the magic of the mystery long before our characters do. Beyond this, the immense leaps in logic from character decisions and situations made for something far more frustrating than predictability: lack of believability. Aside from character contradictions that I mentioned, there’s a stalking scene that takes place involving cell phone pictures that forces us to buy that a 60 year old woman could not only keep up with a 20-something, but also do so in a way that allows the pursuer the ability to hide each and every time she turns around. This leads to a cliche in horror that always bothers me, where an antagonist is shown in plain sight for us the audience, only to disappear when the victim turns around. Who are they supposed to be posing for? Remember that we the audience don’t exist in a film world.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Alita: Battle Angel

Directed By Robert Rodriguez

Starring – Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly

The Plot – Alita (Salazar) is a creation from an age of despair. Found by the mysterious Dr. Ido (Waltz) while trolling for cyborg parts, Alita becomes a lethal, dangerous being. She cannot remember who she is, or where she came from. But to Dr. Ido, the truth is all too clear. She is the one being who can break the cycle of death and destruction left behind from Tiphares. But to accomplish her true purpose, she must fight and kill. And that is where Alita’s true significance comes to bear. She is an angel from heaven. She is an angel of death.

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

POSITIVES

– Flawless special effects pallet. Everything from the seamless stop motion capture used to inspire the movements of the title character, to the barrage of computer generated backdrops and character pixelation, especially that of Alita’s huge eyes that authenticate that Japanese Manga design fluently, screams evolution in the art of film, and just as “Avatar” was for the previous decade, James Cameron once again has his finger in the cookie jar of this evolution, this time as a producer to “Alita”. While we know that what we’re seeing before us is purely illustration, the movements and impacts combine enough weight with impact, as well as exceptional color texture in design, to allow yourself to feel immersed into this far away land of dangerous fantasy.

– The dynamic between Alita and Dr. Ido. Aside from the performances of Salazar and Waltz completely carrying the movie for me, the chemistry and bond between these two characters speaks volumes to the concepts of the father and daughter relationship without the link in DNA to prove it. From the very beginning of the movie, Ido is there every step of the way for Alita’s re-introduction of sorts to the world, and it’s in his most obvious traits of worrying and protecting where we feel a missing desire within himself and his past to be fulfilled by this angel who has given his life purpose again. It’s without question my favorite arc of the screenplay, and etches out a lot of heart and concern for the movie to balance these scenes of terrifying devastation.

– Solid structure in world building. While 2553 looks like anything but a place that I would want to live in for the unpredictable mayhem that floods the streets on the daily, the economical push for a world that lives and breathes around a sporting event, as well a place still on the brink of recovery after a paralyzing war, was something that I found great relatability in with our current social climate, and really made the distance in years feel that much more conjoined when you think about what could be if a couple of wrong decisions were made from our own current day. What’s important too, is that wealth still play a very pivotal role in this economy, and the idea with there being nowhere else but the sky to go for this minimal one percent is touched on more than a few times. This is science fiction at its best because everything feels easy to comprehend, the world is anything but a hopeless one, and the ideas associated with the gadgets inside will give unlimited potential in replay value with the more time that passes after this movie.

– An experienced master behind the lens. If I give Robert Rodriguez credit for doing just one thing effectively in the film, it’s in his caption of action sequences that rumble and rip apart the screen. I can imagine that seeing this film in 3D is probably the one rare chance that you want to take in paying extra money for a theater occasion, because the combination of limbs and velocity that rushes towards the screen fires on every cylinder of adrenaline that you can imagine, and spares no expense in doing so. What’s vitally important is that no sequence’s editing feels choppy, nor does the camera movement ever use the shaky-cam gimmick in translating itself to the audience, allowing us enough focus and detection to stay with these overwhelmingly-fast scenes every step of the way.

– One big surprise. I have my displeasures with the entirety of the supporting cast that I will get into later, but the last second reveal of the film’s REAL antagonist was something that really cements the legacy of what it means to work with someone like James Cameron or Robert Rodriguez. This person is nearly unrecognizable, which is a compliment to the practical make-up, not C.G, that adorn this person, and left me literally scratching my head until I looked it up online as to who this character was played by. I am someone who sees over 200 films a year, and when a movie’s production can conceal and hide away the familiar face of one of my favorite actors going today, I have to commend the designs on a completely different level.

NEGATIVES

– Sequel shielding. This is another example of a film that feels far too confined in what satisfaction narratively that it can give us in this introductory chapter. While I’m all for leaving audiences on a cliffhanger, the ending of this movie feels downright insulting, ending it during a time when so little has been established or confirmed for the progression of our title character, and it makes me wish that the studio could just make a great movie with the thought process that we might not get another shot at a second one. Because of such limitations, “Alita” loses so much momentum on its way to the finish line, and the film’s final moments are every bit predictable as they are anti-climatic. If you want to hone a ten hour narrative, shop it to Netflix and tell the whole story. Don’t waste the first hour by hinting at the following nine hours to follow.

– Dream team wasted. Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Casper Van Dien, and I haven’t even listed all of the big name actors who fill these roles. All of these faces come and go without even the slightest lasting impression of personality or impact upon this jumbled screenplay, and it gives them a flashback presence to a time when none of them could get anything better than a cameo appearance in a movie that was anything but them. With so much talent hanging in the balance, how could Rodriguez not take advantage of these once in a lifetime pairings? Their names are used for nothing more than to draw audiences in, and unfortunately those very same audiences will feel betrayed when they realize that only one of them is in the movie for more than ten combined minutes.

– Huge third act action set piece that is entirely inconsequential. This is one that bothers me from a logic standpoint. Towards the end of the film, there is a sort of alliance to finish of Alita once and for all, complete with thousands in attendance and a broadcast equal to that of the Super Bowl, and the way it ends unceremoniously is astounding when you consider the many in attendance who are going home without a defined conclusion. I can’t say a lot because of spoilers, but imagine if Tom Brady left during the third quarter when the Patriots had the ball, and he never comes back again. It’s baffling that anyone with a pen would write such an expensive and pointless sequence, and it only highlights the many faults of a screenplay riddled with chaos.

– Subplots introduced and never followed through. Dr. Ido’s previous daughter, Alita’s past before she was an android, the decaying relationship of Dr. Ido and his ex-wife, what led to said ex-wife taking a vicious personality change towards shallow lifestyles. These are just a couple of the arcs attached to the film that are never fully elaborated on, and stand as the biggest hurdle to getting any of these characters over for the audience to embrace. This screenplay has Attention Deficit Disorder, in that it can’t stop throwing a handful of subplots at us the audience without addressing and resolving what is front-and-center before us, and it overall gave the movie a very jumbled kind of circumstance that shreaded the pacing in ways that never quite got off of the ground.

– Undercooked romantic subplot. If there’s ever a single instance of this movie slipping away from the grip of the three writers who penned it, it’s in the unraveling of Alita’s romantic interest that burned the kind of kinetic energy below similar to the kind you get eating bad Thai food. The two actors lack even the slightest form of chemistry in capturing the kind of spark that the movie so desperately wants to establish, and the brief stint of time that this film takes place across only further muddles it. I get that Alita is essentially living for the first time, so all experiences are brand new to her, but she has known this kid for days and is quite literally willing to give her heart to him. It makes for some sappy, albeit unintentionally hilarious deliveries of dialogue that will have you either laughing or barfing, depending on how you react to artificial sugar.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

The Prodigy

Directed By Nicholas McCarthy

Starring – Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Colm Feore

The Plot – Sarah (Schilling), a mother whose young son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott)’ disturbing behavior signals that an evil, possibly supernatural force has overtaken him. Fearing for her family’s safety, Sarah must choose between her maternal instinct to love and protect Miles and a desperate need to investigate what or who is causing his dark turn. She is forced to look for answers in the past, taking the audience on a wild ride; one where the line between perception and reality becomes frighteningly blurry.

Rated R for violence, disturbing and bloody images, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– A vehicle for Jackson Robert Scott. I was captivated with the sheer look of this kid from the moment I saw him in Stephen King’s “It”, and I’m happy that someone took a chance on him with his own movie, that does pay off in spades. At frequently throughout, Scott is every bit as sinister as he is professional, never stalling or lacking believability in the complexion of the dual characters that he is portraying. This kid says as much in a single unnerving look as an actor who will usually require five lines of dialogue for, and his presence on the events that take place leave a stirring uneasiness within you long after they’ve come and went.

– R-Rated material. This is a horror film that doesn’t cater to teenagers or youthful moviegoing audiences, instead it focus more on hammering down the shock factor of the material itself, in the form of gruesome imagery and jaw-dropping lines of dialogue. What’s most important is nothing feels excessive or meandering to the lack of boundaries for the sake of a coveted rating, giving us tasteful-but-affirming methods of mayhem for the dangerous antagonist to poke and prod us with. The thrills in this film feel like my preferred level of physical and psychological scares, and proves that a rating does enhance the integrity of your work if done for sizzle and not oversaturation.

– Not your typical possession movie. It’s a little difficult to comprehend the extent of the plot from the cryptic trailer that has sold the movie, but this is anything but the kind of possession movie we’ve become saddled with over the last twenty years, and instead harvests a lore of spiritual philosophy that I didn’t see coming. The whole movie revolves around reincarnation and the consequences of a life’s mission feeling unfulfilled. This is done without involving religion (Thank God) or offending beliefs in the slightest, and I think it really gives a fresh creativity to an ages old formula that literally and figuratively requires a new face to sell it.

– The real fear. For my money, the thing that is most terrifying about “The Prodigy” is its take on parenting that echoes the rumblings of 2014’s “The Babadook”. While not as successful or enthralling as that movie, this film speaks levels to a mother’s commitment, and how the bond used to protect her child could ultimately be her untimely downfall. It sheds light on the ideas of just how little we truly know about the beings who we love the most in this world, and just when is the line crossed when that parental will is stretched. As if parenting wasn’t already the most difficult job in the world, here comes a film that further complicates everything taking place under a single solitary roof.

– Modern horror’s maestro of music. The tones that play and enhance these scenes are done by none other than Joseph Bishara, the very same man who composed music for franchises like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, but it’s his work here that may be his most compelling and immersive to date. I was utterly transfixed at the evocative accompaniments instilled inside of these scenes, and never once does his music feel forced or meandering in the feelings of atmosphere that they are trying to convey. It was without question my single most favorite aspect of the film, and almost deserves two points for its lack of transparency in the way it amplifies tension.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of originality to go with the gimmick. I mentioned earlier the refreshing take on making this a film about reincarnation, but what’s baffling to me is the overwhelming sense of familiarity tacked on to the opening and ending of this film. Without spoiling much, I will say that the beginning of this movie is as close to “Child’s Play” as you will get without straight up ripping off the movie, and the film’s closing moments touch on more than a few familiar directions to the original “Omen” movie. None of these are spoilers, as there’s enough variety in their borrowings to give them just enough difference, but the screenplay’s biggest problem time and time again is how it doesn’t allow itself the ability to crawl out from under the immense shadows of the genre that have already been there and done that.

– Better direction necessary. This is Nicholas McCarthy’s third big screen directing effort, and it’s clear to see that even with growing experience, he still lacks the kind of control necessary in keeping audiences firmly invested to his stories. Two major problems in this film involve his lack of influence over the rest of the cast minus Jackson Scott, as well as his uninspiring movements with the camera that leave nothing to the imagination of horror thinking. To say that the reactions in this film are underwhelming and cold might just be the understatement of the year, but it negates the film into losing focus, giving Miles actions a lack of weight or urgency in the developing drama. As for the angles, there’s just far too many ugly color pallets, as well as too many revealing depictions that give away the jump scares long before they actually happen.

– Lack of mystery with the screenplay. I despise a movie where I know all of the answers long before the characters do, and that is the case with “The Prodigy”, where everything you want to know is revealed in the opening five minutes of the movie. It is a bit out of context when these dual subplots play side by side, but once you’re focused on it for so long you can start to understand what these visuals are referring to, and then the remaining 85 minutes becomes us waiting for everybody else to catch up. I feel if the movie showed us Miles pregnancy with little emphasis for the other on-going narrative, then we would feel more curious as to what is taking place here, but without that mystery there’s no pull into the ambiguity of what’s taking place here.

– Obvious exposition halts. This movie takes time to try to explain everything in excruciating detail, and it gets to a point where you can almost predict it after something pivotal happens along the way. To say this film has no confidence in its audience’s intelligence is easy enough, but the constant hand-holding as it guides us through Miles’ influencer is something that is unnecessary. The story isn’t as complex as the film would like it to be, and as to where you have a film like “The Bye Bye Man” which explains so little, here you have a movie that wastes its time in explaining far too much.

– Pointless run-on ending. The movie had a final shot that you could almost yell out in the theater “CUT!!!”, but instead it carries on with an additional scene that not only didn’t add anything of substance for its inclusion, it also let out far too much of the energy associated with a meaningful final shot. This was undoubtedly to cross the 90 minute threshold used as the measuring stick for horror movies that has become all the rage, but when trying to convince yourself of creative wisdom always remember that less is more.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Upside

Directed By Neil Burger

Starring – Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman

The Plot – Inspired by a true story, the film is a heartfelt comedy about a recently paroled ex-convict (Hart) who strikes up an unusual and unlikely friendship with a paralyzed billionaire (Cranston).

Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use

POSITIVES

– Hart and Cranston are a constant riot. Aside from the impeccable chemistry that provides endless banter between them, the stage proves that there’s enough room to their performances for this to be eye-opening for both. In Hart, we are still saddled with the same comedian that we’ve come to expect in every film, but his temperament feels much more reserved and timely when he instills a laugh to the picture. He also proves that he has some fine dramatic chops, as Burger takes his character through this redemption arc with a family who are at odds with him, and Kevin obliges by providing enough heart to help develop his moral transformation. Cranston’s physical limitations are consistently authentic through two hours of film, and his personality renders that of a man who has lost everything while struggling for a reason to hang on. Being a rich protagonist is a difficult thing to translate in terms of likeability, but Bryan’s timeless smile and dry reactions to Hart’s shenanigans makes the money a backdrop instead of a defining character trait.

– The less you know about the original film, titled “The Intouchables”, the better. I think “The Upside” will charm audiences of a new generation, who aren’t suffering from inevitable comparisons to the original movie. For one, I feel enough time has passed to give this a modern rendering, as well there’s much to be appreciated about a feel good story that doesn’t sugarcoat the material to manipulate them in one way or another. This film is very much a ball of nerves, that like life, will have you riding the highs and lows of a bonding friendship in which these two men desperately need each other for completely different reasons.

– Tons of personality in the overall photography of the picture. What’s commendable about Burger behind the lens is his ability to switch things up and never allow his presentation to feel conventional or stale, and because of such it adds a lot of energy to offset the weight of the dramatic material. Some examples we are treated to involve unnerving close-up angles to represent the awkwardness of something said or done, as well as following self-still frames to represent the lunacy of two characters getting high together. What’s even more important is that these special takes are reserved for the right time, and do wonders in articulating the atmospheric mood that the material sometimes clashes over.

– Charmed by the material in the script. While some scenes did challenge me morally for laughing at them, I do enjoy a film that takes place in the modern P.C era and doesn’t abide by any particular book on what’s acceptable. Instead, it lets the audience interpret things for themselves, and because of such I was treated to an early 2019 favorite in terms of comedic firepower. As well, I’m glad that it was the dialogue that I was laughing at, and not physical or bodily humor like Hart’s other films are known for. The dialogue is rich with a combination of sarcasm and character personality that allows it to thrive from each perspective, and we simply can’t get enough interaction between Hart and Cranston because of it.

– Informative look at the quadriplegic lifestyle. In taking care of people like Cranston’s character in this movie, I can say that the depictions and treatment given warms my heart with a level of honesty and fact that I wasn’t expecting from this movie. Everything from the way we look at paraplegic’s when we speak to them directly, to the sensitivity needed in feeding them, feels enriched because of the knowledge it passes down, allowing it to succeed as so much more than a piece of entertainment.

NEGATIVES

– Production issues. There is no shortage of color correction used, especially during the first act of the film that made for that inauthentic feel that we all get from Lifetime Television movies. One such instance involves sun shining through the windows, when in reality we see that it is a cloudy day outside, and there’s no possible way that this volume of light could possibly be bleeding through the windows. Likewise, the overall cinematography feels a bit too experimental for something that could’ve thrived with more nuance and less painting of the picture for us.

– Jarring musical score. The tones and music incorporated into the film reeked of 90’s romantic comedy, in that its intrusive nature tried to audibly narrate what the audience should be feeling because of its lack of confidence in the clashing of tones in material. There is no precedent for consistency here, and it makes some of these scenes swell up with a lack of subtlety that constantly pulled me out of the dramatic depth in every scene. It simply tries to accomplish too much, in that it can’t decide if it wants to be heartfelt and emotional or bumbling and funny. Each are fine by themselves, but when stitched together as a cohesive unit lack the kind of solid direction needed in mastering these meaningful moments.

– Needs another edit. “The Upside” is two hours even, and the ambition of that run time just doesn’t match the fluidity of the script that begins to feel its weight around the halfway point. For my money, twenty minutes could easily be removed from this script, as there are scenes involving Hart and Kidman’s characters that could easily be trimmed or cut all together because they add nothing to the developing progress or character dynamics established early on. There’s also an early third act introduction involving a romantic subplot that comes and goes only to force a conventional third act distancing that doesn’t feel believable because of everything that has already transpired. This drags the pacing down violently, and especially so with an ending that feels like it happens ten minutes too late, and builds something climatic that is instead neatly tucked away in predictably bland territory.

– Great imbalance in tone. Films that incorporate both comedy and drama to a movie can work. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t have a subgenre titled “Dramedies”. But the occasional slapstick scene, like Hart being overwhelmed by a technologically advanced shower, don’t blend well with those deeper moments where the integrity of the film needs to resonate with the heartbeat of its audience. For much of the first half, the film feels juggled between these two opposite directions, giving it a feel of multiple cooks in the kitchen to the movie’s development, all before settling down in the final act as a sombering drama completely. Much of the film constantly feels like a juxtaposition of itself, and with more control could’ve balanced these directions seamlessly into feeling like one cohesive unit.

– Racially insensitive? Similar to last year’s “Green Book”, we have another story of trade-offs, where a black and white character give each other something that they were lacking before, but unlike that movie the exchange in “The Upside” feels cringing the minority audiences who will see it. Cranston instills class in Hart’s character in the form of opera music, while Hart gives Cranston weed and Aretha Franklin music. You can kind of see where the representations are a little one sided here, and for a business that claims it is becoming more progressive with each passing film, it certainly drops the ball in leveling the playing field with this exceptionally offensive take.

EXTRAS

– One unique take. Considering this film revolves around an ex-con who is looking to redeem himself to the people who judge him for his past, I guess it’s appropriate that Hart is cast in this role, considering the current controversy of the Oscars with Hart once recruited to host. If we learn anything from this film and particularly Hart in general, it’s that people can change, and shouldn’t just be defined by something from their past that was more than enough time ago to believe they may have changed for the better. It’s a reminder to our own world that people make mistakes, and we can either allow ourselves to become saddled with those mistakes and keep them from redeeming themselves, or we give them the chance to make everything right.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

A Dog’s Way Home

Directed By Charles Martin Smith

Starring – Bryce Dallas Howard, Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp

The Plot – Separated from her owner, a dog sets off on an 400-mile journey to get back to the safety and security of the place she calls home. Along the way, she meets a series of new friends and manages to bring a little bit of comfort and joy to their lives.

Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and adult language

POSITIVES

– For a light-hearted family atmospheric film, this one conquers some dark and challenging material. This is the area of the film that I wish had more time devoted to it, as prejudice against the Pitbull breed, canine abuse on the whole, and even human death are all touched upon in these surprisingly revealing ways, giving the film a bit of much-appreciated social commentary. These are the rare instances where the movie feels like it has something to talk about in addition to the cute and cuddly material that it saddles itself with a bit too comfortably, and with more of a push for the PG-13 rating, could’ve separated more widely from the rest of the pact of subgenre films that are easily forgettable because of their similarities.

– The best actor in the film. It feels strange to talk about this, but the kind of physical performance that Smith emits from his canine protagonist is something that gained an air of astonishment from me. In addition to being thrown in the way of constant danger and conflict, the dog limps his way through a third act that really hammers home the length of this impossible journey with a one legged approach of consistency that you’d have to be a cold-heart not to appreciate.

– Smooth and fluent pacing throughout. One accolade that I give the film is the lack of boredom that these kind of films often radiate with, but this exception works because of the decision to keep it limited to 91 meaningful minutes that never lets the story get away from focus. Because this journey is so expansive and ever-changing in its environmental challenges, it frees itself of repetition or redundancy that would test the patience of its younger audiences, making this as easy of a January watch as you’re going to find.

– Nuance to the passage of time. I can’t believe that I am going to give “A Dog’s Way Home” respect for depth in storytelling, but the use of background pictures to fill in the gaps of character separation is something the film does exceptionally well. One such scene near the end of the film has one character in his bedroom, and long before we see anything or anyone else, we focus on this picture that articulates not only how much time has passed, but where certain characters end up. I love a screenplay that doesn’t need to stop to explain these kind of things, especially when you consider that this is the dog’s story first, and everything else, quite literally and figuratively, are backdrops for the main course.

– Fine combination of engaging cinematography and gorgeous backdrops make for eye candy. Even though this film’s dedication to C.G properties often hinder the immersion of each situation in scene, the breathtaking vantage points of some of South California’s most beautiful landscapes made for a rich and ambitious presentation visually that kept the integrity of the big budget feel preserved. Especially when you consider this as a journey film, you would be doing a huge disservice if you didn’t depict the immensity of these jaw-dropping visuals to counteract the ferocity of the wild, and I give great credit to Smith for knowing constantly where to point the camera to get the most out of every shot.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired C.G animal properties. Simply put, in 2019, artificial animal renderings should not be so obvious to where the outline nor the texture of the animal matches the lighting of the environment that it’s put in. Even worse than that, these laughably bad mountain lions and cougars move so sluggishly in their attacks that the camera has to adjust to how fake everything comes across with interaction. This brings forth camera movements that are the worst I’ve seen since 2016’s “Jason Bourne”, echoing as close to a visual seizure as you’re going to find on camera.

– Minimal plot. I should receive an Academy Award for what I typed in the plot section above, as so much of this film instead feels like a series of events, instead of one cohesive narrative that bends and twists to the three act structure. Not only is this movie completely predictable, but it’s predictable in a way that feels content with walking the same path and pissing on the same trees as the films that came before it. Some people think a movie with a title that tells you everything you need to know about a film is a positive, but it also establishes early on just how empty the sum of its jumbled parts really are.

– Speaking of title. To say I hate the confusing title of this film is an understatement. Why is it confusing? “A Dog’s Purpose”, “A Dog’s Life”, “A Dog’s Tale”, “A Dog Year” Catching my drift? All of these movies have boring, unimaginative titles, and yet none of them are related in the slightest. I get that this film was a book before 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”, but couldn’t you have changed the title because of such similarities? So the next time a friend asks if you’ve seen the sequel to any of these films, called “A Dog’s Way Home”, you can remind them that studios have the imagination to include a line like “Snow do your business”, an actual line of dialogue from this tar pit of terrible.

– Familiarity rears its ugly head. When you really think about it, this movie isn’t anything like those other films I just mentioned, it’s instead a dead ringer for a “Homeward Bound” remake. Think about it: dog meets and falls in love with his adolescent owner, is left with a family member during a trying time, escapes said house, and begins a long distance trip to get home. Sniff what I’m conveying to you? Unfortunately this film has about a fifth of the charm of “Homeward Bound”, and not even that in the regards of narration. Oh the shame of this narration…..

– The shame. The narration is so annoying and pointlessly used in this film that I even still fail to understand why its inclusion was depended upon so frequently. Bryce Dallas Howard voices the inner thoughts of this dog, and when she isn’t piercing our eardrums with this screechy, human repellent voice, she’s intruding constantly on our perception of what’s transpiring. For instance, if this dog finds something to eat, we hear her say “I was so hungry”. Or if the dog is cuddling with her owner, we hear “I love you so much”. Really important stuff movie. I could’ve never interpreted that for myself, thank you. This film would’ve been a lot better if it didn’t go the voice route, and just let the heartfelt story play out for itself. So many of these tender scenes would’ve been much more effective if Howard didn’t articulate what Ray Charles could see about a particular scene, and it serves as the single worst aspect of this film.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Mule

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring – Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena

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

Rated R for adult language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D

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+