Stuber

Directed By Michael Dowse

Starring – Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan

The Plot – A mild-mannered Uber driver named Stu (Nanjiani) picks up a grizzled detective (Bautista) who is hot on the trail of a sadistic, bloodthirsty terrorist and finds himself thrust into a harrowing ordeal where he has to keep his wits, himself unharmed, and work with his passenger while maintaining his high-class rating.

Rated R for violence and adult language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– Strong comical pull. This is really the most important aspect of this film, as it is a comedy before anything else, thanks in part to the combination of Nanjiani and Bautista, who improvise through many awkward situations and exchanges that left my gut busted. The most used device definitely comes from Bautista, who undergoes Lasik eye surgery for the improvement of his character, and it leads to several instances of audible, physical, and slapstick comedy that constantly kept me engaged to the many character dynamics and ever-changing backdrops that the film takes us through. As for the two male leads, their comical chemistry is impeccable, occasionally taking turns on being the straight man who unleashes a sarcastic poke to chew into his counterpart within the car, and setting the stage for the boundaries accordingly that exist between two strangers who are taking in complete polar-opposite directions in lifestyle choices and character demeanor.

– Delightful leads. In addition to the comedy that is top notch, the performances from minority-heritage Nanjiani and Bautista were the perfect display of their respective talents, giving us the same kind of fan service that has gotten us to fall in love with their personalities time and time again. For Bautista, it’s the ability to balance the tough guy action bulldozer that he was born to become with this element of emotional acting that he starts to convey once we eventually break down the walls from his character. Like his turns as Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, Dave once again gives proof to something deeper beneath his registry, and while his ass-kicking is what you came for, it’s the scars his character wears from past parental issues that will make you stay. Nanjiani is also a pleasure once more, with his dry sarcastic delivery and reserved emotional investment that gives him a unique voice in today’s comedy landscape. Some of the best scenes for me were definitely those where Kumail is trying to assert some level of control over a situation that he is entirely incapable of, giving us several examples of scenes where he has to adapt to a world taking place far beyond his luxury sedan. As far as polar opposites go, these two were made for each other, and it’s that bond in chemistry between them that turns the script’s many pot holes into minor speedbumps.

– Joseph Trapanese. Yes, the very same man who musically scored films like “The Greatest Showman”, “Straight Outta Compton”, and “Tron: Legacy” returns for atmospheric work on “Stuber” that is every bit present as it is evolving with the tonal shifts of the movie. Like his work in “Tron”, Joseph’s work here points to a vaporwave encompassing that vibrantly pays homage to the 80’s buddy cop thrillers of yesterday, all the while maintaining a level in volume which never feels obvious or hindering to the integrity of the scene it accompanies. Particularly in the film’s third and final act, Trapanese fleshes out the urgency and intensity in ways that Dowse’s direction often falls flat on, and conjured up an element of surprise for a production that is otherwise blandly conventional on nearly every end of the artistic spectrum.

– Topical for the day. Another surprising element of the film was the dissection of toxic masculinity that gives the narrative a strong helping of emotional weight beneath the table dressing of shoot-out action in modern day Los Angeles. The measure taken with how this film approaches such a touchy subject is one that is as equally profound as it pertains to a real world, where until recently male protagonists were appreciated for the way they degrade everyone surrounding them. I definitely didn’t expect the film to dissect the cultural definitions of what we perceive masculinity to be, but the polar-opposite pulling of two male characters whose personalities colorfully off-set one another, leading to the answer being somewhere in between, not only proves that this casually slapstick comedy is so much more than that dreaded labeling, it’s a commentary on preventable poisons that deconstruct decades of personality building that build up one to tear down many.

– Commercial advertising. This is usually a problem for me, but the film’s inclusion of the Uber product is one that is cleverly more informative than it is a blunt marketing campaign for 88 minutes. Throughout the film, we are told in dialogue the many uses and rules associated with the taxi-cab application that will help fill in the gaps of curiosity for anyone who hasn’t been fortunate enough to use its services. What’s more important here is that the film isn’t out to make Uber anything more appealing than that of a modern day convenience, even going as far as to rarely show the emblem or the app itself to gain profitable interest. Does Uber play a pivotal role in “Stuber”? Absolutely, but the maintained focus on the screenplay, as well as the character-building bond between our male leads, harvests this film as anything other than “The Emoji Movie”, a kids movie that engorged an abundance of vital screen time in order to sell toys.

NEGATIVES

– Obvious foreshadowing. One of the film’s biggest adversaries is its inserts of tropes, which makes this film easily predictable to anyone who has ever watched a buddy cop movie. One such example is in the terribly weak antagonist of the movie, who doesn’t have a single scene dedicated to the exposition of his character for a bigger purpose. Almost immediately, you know a bigger swerve is coming, and come it does. A second antagonist develops from a mystery that was every bit as unpredictable as “Men In Black: International”, and as it turns out I accurately predicted from the moment this character was introduced. Beyond this, the film’s heavy focus on a romantic subplot, as well as no shortage of scenes involving convenient plot devices, constantly had me sarcastically saying “Gee, I wonder if that will come into play later”. Subtlety is certainly not Dowse’s bag, baby, and thanks to a series of telegraphed scenes that step over boundaries repeatedly, “Stuber” becomes a film where we are waiting for every character inside to catch up to what we’ve sniffed out in fifteen minutes.

– Uninspiring title. “Stuber” is as lazy of a movie title as you will find in 2019. Considering it stems from a jerk supporting character, who uses it as a combination of Nanjiani’s character’s name (Stu) and the part time job that he endures through (Uber), the studio heads prove that they don’t have a lot of imagination to sell their product, leaving many moviegoers confused heading into a screening of it. It’s not often that I hate on a movie for the title, but considering this is really the first thing that you learn about the film, and it’s supposed to be used as a summary of everything enclosed, the one word noun that isn’t even a word at that, only touches the surface of what the plot, narrative, and characters are building towards, making ambiguity feel like a bumbling curse that dooms it from the opening page of script.

– Shaky-cam action sequences. The biggest hindering for action movies is back, this time in the form of tight-knit compositions and sloppily choreographed camera movements that ruin every single set piece that the movie contains. Not only are these sequences so close that you could recognizes an acne sprouting on the film’s cast, but the intended direction to make us the audience feel like a pawn in the unveiling visual narrative is something that makes it difficult to depict what is actually taking place. If done right, the scene’s intensity can articulate a feeling of presence for our vantage point, but this intention is often done wrong because of commanders who substitute intensity for atmosphere, and try to capitalize on every little aspect of detail that the character’s in frame are going through. If I wanted to be an actor in Hollywood, I would’ve done it the second I graduated from high school in 2003, but my desire to be a moviegoer instead, means I would rather watch and follow a scene from the comforts of my seat, and this film’s supercharged sequences give me neither option to pleasantly chew on.

– Uneven halves. For the first forty minutes of this film, I really found myself invested to one of the more consistent comedies of the 2019 movie year, but the last forty-five minutes made it so obvious why this film isn’t receiving the best reviews globally. For the compromising second half, there are no shortage of violent tonal shifts, redundancy in comic gags, and antagonists who are handled about as easily as nick to the skin when you cut yourself shaving. For my money, “Stuber” is a film that originally takes pride in being what it is; a buddy comedy, but eventually feels ambitious on its way to transforming as a dramatic action thriller that simply hasn’t earned the kind of emotional tug that it asks of its pivotal third act. If it remained more true to the advertising it conveyed in its trailers, then the film would’ve been one of the sleeper hits of the year, and a film that I would be proud to stick up for, but “Stuber’s” resonance to change up the game far too often leaves it scrambling for an identity that is completely unnecessary.

– Revenge subplot. (LIGHT SPOILERS) We open up the film with a death involving Bautista’s cop partner, at the hands of the movie’s antagonist, and what’s truly puzzling is how little of weight and focus this impact leaves on the remainder of the film that follows it. Never again is this partner ever brought up again, or further elaborated on what kind of impact psychologically that this has on Bautista, considering the two were practically married at the wheel, and it all just kind of evaporates this personal level of vengeance that Dave’s character has for this antagonist without ever capitalizing on the rivalry that makes this dynamic special. More concerning, as I mentioned previously, the film also drops the ball on following that antagonist, which creates a level of disinterest within the film so deep that we lose sight of the subplot that was driving this whole thing.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Under the Silver Lake

Directed By David Robert Mitchell

Starring – Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Men In Black: International

Directed By F. Gary Gray

Starring – Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Rebecca Ferguson

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Directed By Simon Kinberg

Starring – James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner

The Plot – Jean Grey (Turner) begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Female empowerment. Jean Grey in this film isn’t just powerful, but the attention and focus dedicated to her character helps us understand and reason with the film’s antagonist in ways we’re not especially used to in comic book cinema. The film takes Jean and inserts her into these various dynamics with other X-Men characters in a way that establishes her dominance over them, all the while preserving food for thought with regards to other villains that the group has tangled with, over the last four films. In that respect, this is easily the biggest daunting task that the group-turned-family have ever faced, and helps break down barriers created by decades old cliche cinema that females can’t be believable antagonists. For this film, Jean is fierce, seductive, imposing, and most importantly, human, an aspect in character that the film cherishes every bit as much as it does her maniacal gifts of macabre.

– Performances. Every one here is united and still on top of their game, but for my money it was the work of a dazzling trio that firmly kept me invested in the unveiling of this narrative. The first is Michael Fassbender returning as Magneto. No character has fully evolved over the past four films than Fassbender’s jaded antagonist, and his work here preserves that sentiment, as he very much feels like a man who is searching for meaning within his own life, whose tenacity and fire between the eyes is lit when Grey plays a pivotal point in his resurgence. Also great is the addition of Jessica Chastain as a mysterious villain guiding the darker side of Grey’s pulse. Chastain plays completely against type not only in the comic book regards, but also in being a villain who is anything but limited to being just menacing, and her delivery preserves a fine level of believability to what the film asks of her. The best for me (No surprise) is of course Turner, who competently juggles a double side of Jean that allows the audience to notice the differences on their own, thanks in whole to Sophie’s limitless range that is constantly at play. Turner manages to conjure up every ounce of the emotional spectrum, both good and bad, for the character, and her psychological permanence on the audience further outlines the jaded dilemma that constantly fills her psyche with the walls built by others that she is crumbling one by one.

– Underlying commentary. One of my favorite aspects of the X-Men films is their strong current of political and sociological reflections that allow us to take an air of poignancy away from their often times spectacle of a film, and “Dark Phoenix” is certainly no different in this regard. Throughout the film, I viewed Jean Grey as this constant reminder of biological weaponry that grows more dangerous with each day that those in charge further ignore. To feed into this thought, there are obviously two sides fighting for the advantage that this power conveys, all the while an American government on-screen hanging in the balance who now put their faith firmly in the hands of a group of mutants that they once hunted. This series, despite its anything but human characters and traits, has always felt the most in-tuned with the pulse of our own world for the way Stan Lee and many since him have grasped onto the deep environmental issues that plague our everyday spectrum, and it feeds into a continuous reminder of how powerful the world would be if we work together as one unit for one common goal.

– Strong production design. With balance between locations and costume design, this becomes one of the more visually alluring X-Men movies, and does so without preserving a respective decade setting that has often felt like a required gimmick to the previous three films. Instead here, it’s the things we’ve come to love and expect about this series that is front-and-center, and only instills further reminder of how strong this group of extraordinaries have grown together over time. The costumes, especially those of the matching X-Men spacesuits are every bit as vibrant as they are durable to the kind of physical torture they endure. Likewise, the Xavier School For the Gifted feels as expansive as ever thanks in part to this being the first movie where no structural damage takes place there, as well as the litter of youthful exuberance that now adorn its halls, turning the once innagural class of X-Men into the teachers in a sense of life evolution coming full circle.

– Testing limits. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the screenplay was Xavier’s re-appearing arrogance from “First Class”, which cast he and his hubris in new and shape-shifting light for the first time in this series. This is where you can really invest into Grey’s disposition, for the way Charles has taken the hurt in her jumbled past and replaced it with things that only he sees fit, inspiring the student to break free from the shackles that the teacher have locked her in. I’ve always loved McAvoy’s Xavier for this side effect of fame that comes from the inevitability of being a modern day popstar of the public eye, but it proves that the film isn’t afraid of pointing the finger of blame at the mirror towards itself, and as a result we get to indulge on scenes of confrontation between Xavier and Grey, Xavier and Mystique, and Xavier and Hank, the latter of which being my single favorite scene of the entire movie.

NEGATIVES

– No surprises. Thanks to a trailer that not only spoiled every big reveal in the film, but also left so very little in terms of scenic screenplay transformation, we are now left with a movie that leaves so little meat on the bone of revelations that this film so desperately required. This not only took away from a major X-Men death that everyone could now see coming from a mile away, but it also left this film feeling so much more conventional than the previous installments that gave us at least one moment of mind-blowing awesomeness to send us home anticipating the next sequel. Considering this is the final film before Disney introduces the X-Men to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps Kinberg felt none of that was necessary. Either way, “Dark Phoenix” is a telegraphed string of evolving backgrounds that lack anything or surprise or intrigue to sell their impact.

– All around copout. I have to be careful not to spoil here, but considering the film’s title and way it’s marketed around the globe, the third act switch that this movie pulls on its central conflict is one that I found every bit as disappointing as it was inconclusive to what transpired previously. In addition to this, there’s a point in a movie called “Dark Phoenix” where Jean Grey herself becomes a supporting character in her own movie, not only for the lack of lines she receives in the second half of this movie, but also for how the film keeps her contained in ways that the other X-Men never could. Because of this, I can say that the Jean Grey storyline still hasn’t been done to pleasing levels of comic book nerds like me who grew up with its compelling storytelling and vibrancy in illustrations that still hasn’t been touched in terms of depth, in my opinion.

– For his first time behind the director’s chair of a feature length film, there’s much left to be desired about Simon Kinberg’s work on this movie. For one, the photography is horrendous, using a combination of close angles and hollow computer generation that takes out the fun and impact of every action set piece. Beyond this, there are some set pieces that come into focus that serve no purpose to the fight or anything in focus, other than to establish that character could do something powerful. One example of this takes place at a fight in New York City between two sides, and Magneto resurrects a train from underground that does nothing but sit there. He doesn’t hurl it at Jean, he doesn’t ride it to get away from her, nothing. This is expected for a first time director, but in terms of consistency for the rest of the series it is an obvious downgrade, hurting the serious most during the pivotal chapter when all elements of filmmaking should grow as one to match its learning of the craft over the last ten years.

– Convoluted. I appreciate that this is the shortest of X-Men films, clocking in at 108 minutes total, but what’s sacrificed in translation is a smooth and steady pacing of exposition that rarely ever exists in this movie. For my money, “Dark Phoenix” feels like a stitching of two different movies with two different antagonists, that never breathe together as one cohesive unit. Many times throughout the film, the two sides are quite literally sprawling with one another for dominance over the attention of the story, and it does a huge disservice to two compelling story arcs that each deserve a candid amount of time to properly engage the audience in its conflicts. If it were up to me, I would keep this purely as a Jean Grey story, and erase Chastain’s involvement all together. Especially considering this is the final chapter of the series, you have to establish the biggest stakes possible, and because Grey is sacrificed for time in her own movie, the world’s urgency because of her influence never reaches the levels of Apocalypse from the previous film.

– Rating limitations. How could this movie not be rated R? Especially considering how restrained the lumpy dialogue and emphasis in death scenes lack during its entirety. There is one F-bomb in the movie, but it’s said at the most laughably bad delivery throughout the movie, and only further establishes the missed opportunity and raising of the stakes that this movie could’ve established in a film where all bets are off. There’s very little blood, absolutely no gore, and somehow even less believability to a world with a walking timebomb hellbent on destruction and devastation. “Logan” most recently showed us that an R-rating can work smoothly in this world, but because the production behind Fox lacks any kind of fortitude for anything that would limit their purse intake, the material has to suffer by giving us more of the same, and it could’ve taken an already legendary character in the pages, and made her an icon on-screen.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Dead Don’t Die

Directed By Jim Jarmusch

Starring – Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Danny Glover

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The 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