Motherless Brooklyn

Directed By Edward Norton

Starring – Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe

The Plot – Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, “Motherless Brooklyn” follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve his friend’s murder. Armed only with a few clues and the powerful engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance.

Rated R for adult language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence

POSITIVES

– Newfound success. In choosing to adapt a novel that takes place in the 90’s, and spin it during the swing of the roaring 50’s, Norton conjures up a crime noir story that establishes his passion for the genre in spades. Absorbing as much as he has from the classics he grew up with, Norton accomplishes a wardrobe consistency of three piece suits and free-flowing gowns, a scintillating musical score with enough horns and trumpets to bring to life the late night think tank feel that many detectives endure, and of course in-depth narration from Norton’s own character, which paints the very complicated line he toes in being a part of so many relationships within the central conflict. It establishes a retro presentation that we unfortunately very rarely see anymore within big screen releases, and provides proof that Norton’s impeccable eye and ear for detail give him an exceptionally gifted presence in transformative cinema, and render him a credible triple threat in acting, directing, and writing.

– Friends in high places. Norton brings along his most famous acquaintances and co-stars from previous films to make his first helmed an impressive assortment of attention-stealing focus in a sea of familiar faces. Aside from the impressive trio that I mentioned above, they are also joined by young Hollywood phenom Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann, and Bobby Cannavale, to name a few. It gives the film a rich feeling of elite star power that most directors have to wait a few films to attain, and proves Norton’s influence over his word of mouth in order to make this collaboration something that is visually impressive. Not every big name has a big presence over the film, but its decision to dispose of one very early on solidifies the unpredictability within this established environment, adding to the gritty surrealism of Brooklyn during a very violent period in the city’s history.

– Script depth. One refreshing element to the progression of the screenplay is in this emerging subplot of racial gentrification within the city’s tenants, which has brought to light some deep-seeded issues from a questionable administration. What’s so rewarding about this aspect of the script is that Norton touches on the very honest circumstance that many minorities actually dealt with during such a period in history, and incorporates it seamlessly into a story that further plays to the heat of its on-going investigative mystery. This in turn allows the storytelling to remain fresh, and opens up the second half of the film to improve on some of the areas during the first half, whose plodding pacing and disjointed editing transitions kept me from investing my interest into any of these characters or table dressing subplots.

– Committed performance. It’s no surprise that Norton is the star here, and whether or not his level of ego has rubbed you the wrong way in his quotes throughout his mystery with the media, one thing is certain; the man’s adaptability is one that never gives less than a hundred percent. In this particular instance, it’s his character’s losing battle with Tourrete’s syndrome, that ruins nearly every public occasion he chooses to invest himself into, for the better of the case. His delve into this undesirable predicament is patient in its influence, appearing during the most spontaneous moments, where it not only gives us more than few surprising laughs during the picture, but also never feels like a dried up well of a gimmick that Norton clings to for too often. Dafoe also gives another heralded turn, this time as a neurotic professor with an addiction to all things food. It brings forth yet another colorful personality to the already award-deserving year that the actor has been having, and treats us to a magical dynamic between he and Norton, which never feels enough in the nearly two-and-a-half hour run time.

– One touching scene. “Motherless Brooklyn” features one of my favorite scenes of 2019, where a slow dance between two characters signifies a poetic resolve in each of them filling what the other is lacking. The jazz music accompanying it is perfectly transfixing, but it’s really the body language of the two actors in frame, and how their connection transcends everyone and everything surrounding them. It’s a scene so peacefully entrancing that is captured by a series of long-take revolving shot composition, keeping the focus solely where it needs to be, and preserving the air of connection between the two characters that establishes this as a breakthrough love interest for the movie’s following third act. It approaches the romantic subplot with an air of class that is often thrown away by an unnecessary sex scene, but here is followed up upon with a touch of patience and reserve that really does preserve this a time-piece story.

– Alluring setting. Brooklyn in the 50’s not only gives us a chance to capture some of the sparkle of the city during a time when so much was being created and established within the city, but also to play irony to the thematic pulse of the movie, which hints at the darker days ahead. This is an interesting juxtaposition, because like the city itself during its heyday, appearances were deceiving, and it all gave way to a racial depression that only began with the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for greener pastures in Los Angeles. To cement this feeling, we’re treated to an abundance of gorgeous establishing shots of the city that approach its conflicts from an aerial level first, giving way to the ideal that bad things happen behind picket fences.

NEGATIVES

– Too long. At 138 grueling minutes, Norton’s biggest negative as a director is the necessity to know what and where to cut within his often times plodding pacing. There are scenes like the ones Norton’s character shares with fellow detectives that goes nowhere, and offers nothing towards the kind of isolation vulnerability associated with most crime noir dramas. In addition to this, the entire first initially begins feeling like we the audience are joining a film that has already been in progress. The introductions are brief, if anything at all, the explanation for what’s transpiring is lost in a sea of metaphors and cop lingo that had me rolling my eyes for its frequency, and the introduction of Norton’s Tourette’s is a strange one because we don’t fully comprehend if it’s there as a gimmick within this sting, or if it is in fact reality for him. A half hour could easily be trimmed from this film, and you would lose nothing. It proves that Norton as a director just has to know when to trim the fat. Without it, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an arduous task that is too simplistic in storytelling direction to be so long.

– Sloppy editing. This is the one area of Norton’s technical spectrum that could certainly use improvement, as the time continuity and scene transitions within the film often feel like they’re jumping ahead abundantly without visual explanation. The former will often cut in the context of the same scene by presenting a character standing up one second, then walking back to their chair with a glass of water immediately one second later. It jumbles the telegraphing necessary to put the audience in the heat of the setting, and makes the characters feel gifted with advanced teleportation.

– Uncomfortably funny. I understand that the film was going for the occasional laugh with Norton’s jaded Tourette’s encompassing, but with honesty for this particular disease comes brutality, as we the audience are essentially laughing at a man who is suffering for our own entertainment. In addition to this, the power of the humor being as strong as it is really does a disservice to the diminishing tension of the scene, leaving us stranded in scenes of drama we’re supposed to care about and invest in, but truly don’t because we’re also being told to laugh at the very same time. For about 70% of the film, it does maintain the tonal consistency needed to feel like one cohesively emotional product, but for the few instances there’s enough damage done to take away from the edge-of-the-seat aspect that the film so desperately requires.

– Generic screenplay. It’s disappointing to say the least where this film ends up. There’s no big shootout, no physical confrontation of any kind, and especially no satisfying climax that ties everything together to justify the time investment. One could argue that this plays into the vibe of a crime noir, where it’s always more assertive dialogue than actions, but the magnitude of this anti-climatic final act is so easily forgettable that it’s sure to take the final grade of any moviegoer down a grade because of how much air of momentum it omits from the finished product. Aside from this, “Motherless Brooklyn” adds nothing to the already overstuffed crime noir genre, with the exception of maybe a Tourette’s-riddled protagonist on the case, but even that wears thin by around the twenty minute mark. It proves that some novels shouldn’t be adapted regardless of the inspirational intention, and gives this particular instance a grave case of underdeveloped dramatic pull that leaves it in search of an identity it never fully finds.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

The Current War

Directed By Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Starring – Michael Shannon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Hoult

The Plot – The epic story of the cutthroat competition that literally lit up the modern world. Cumberbatch is Thomas Edison, the celebrity inventor on the verge of bringing electricity to Manhattan with his radical new DC technology. On the eve of triumph, his plans are upended by charismatic businessman George Westinghouse (Shannon), who believes he and his partner, the upstart genius Nikolai Tesla (Hoult), have a superior idea for how to rapidly electrify America: with AC current. As Edison and Westinghouse grapple for who will power the nation, they spark one of the first and greatest corporate feuds in American history, establishing for future Titans of Industry the need to break all the rules.

Rated PG-13 for some disturbing/violent images, and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Contemporary rendering. Even with this entirely being a time period piece taking place during the late 19th century, the resonance of the social commentary bringing forth one of the original war-of-the-words in the media brought to mind this inescapable notion of how little the world’s celebrities have changed when being orchestrated by the real antagonist; the media. This clever irony that the movie deposits stands as one of those aspects of storytelling that not only elaborates at how these two sides were able to respond to one another without the advances of our modern day technology, but also how dangerous consequences are pushed into overdrive if misunderstandings aren’t given the kind of clarity or responsibility that they so urgently deserve from the pen-holders. When a story from a hundred years ago has a conscience within today’s media-dominated world, you’re able to comprehend how little it has evolved even in an age where social media is meant to somehow bring us closer, conjuring up a humorous irony in that we can create something as monumental as electricity, but not a dual-understanding in consideration.

– Responsible. While the film does take more than a few liberties in the factual area of the real life story, the way it values the three men as equals in the realization of the product is meaningful to their lasting legacies. While these three men didn’t work in unison, each of them had an idea or two that was perfected once all of these sole ideas were brought together to bring forth one powerful product. It not only proves how ahead of their time that each of these geniuses were, but also how much they invested in money, time, and mental capacity to win the high stakes war, an angle the film wastes no opportunity in telling. It brings forth an unforeseen vulnerability to each of them trying to make the world a better place, and proves that they weren’t exactly the biggest reapers when it comes to creating something so timeless and revolutionary.

– Thorough production value. The many artists and visionaries behind the scenes are able to teleport us back to the tail end of the 19th century, all because of an unabashed eye for detail that doesn’t spare a cent of its 30 million dollar budget. The backgrounds and set designs seduce us with intoxicatingly high taste, the wardrobe stretches as far as the eye can see, through some crowd shots that mirror consistency, and the visual aesthetic is one that captures the sleek essence of the particular era, thanks to the dependency on natural lighting that resides in each scene. Consdering this is a film that unfortunately sat on the shelf for two years, it brings forth a tragic aspect to what could’ve been with awards consideration, especially since everything here visually captivates us in a way that feels like combines the best of throwback style with the benefit of modern day film techniques, bringing forth a presentation that visually authenticates the lifestyles of the respective characters.

– Various shot composition. This could be considered a bit inconsistent, especially considering the many different angles and techniques of the lens doesn’t establish presence of one continuous director, but for me the abstraction of many different approaches constantly challenged me to adapt with the artistic pulse of the picture. There’s fish-eye lens tricks, unusual character framing, and no shortage of breathtaking establishing shots that bring us in and out of every room with the same kind of dedication to the focused character that makes us feel shoulder-to-shoulder alongside with them. There are so many more variations on the very art of filmmaking that reside within the movie, and the experimentation is one key that, ironically, finds an alluring identity of its own within the ambiguity it expresses with its randomness.

– Conflicted characters. My favorite kind in a movie, especially one depicting real life visionaries of a bygone era. For Edison, you get a sense of the family-first kind of man, but also a perfectionist who often resides on the conflicting side of business and personal relatioships. His arrogance is often his biggest downfall, making mountains out of anthills for the very people he alienates, which eventually lead to this war’s inception, adding layers to the genius we’ve only read about in text books. Likewise, Westinghouse is a business-first presence, whose only mistakes come in the lack of creativity that he expresses within projects bearing his name. He’s kind of an investing silent partner without the silence, and if nothing else, you should be able to distinguish him as a man who will bet the family farm if it means he can stick it to his adversaries. Tesla himself is a bit of a wild card. He’s a dreamer who lacks the kind of conventional wisdom necessary in comprehending what’s feasible, making him often a danger to himself and his finances, for the way he goes all in when creativity strikes. With these three at the helm of the story, you know there will be no shortage of thematic fireworks or personal conflicts, and while the film’s dynamic shot composition is my favorite aspect of the film, these very grounded and human geniuses is a close second.

– Dialogue approach. Director Gomez-Rejon has stated in interviews that he wanted to remove as much of the period piece gimmick from the picture as possible, so that audiences of the modern age could relate and take more away from the character’s intentions, and this is no more prominent than in the film’s language, which feels anything but classical. This could throw some people off considering it breaks the immersive qualities of particular setting, but for me it better approached audiences in a way that constantly kept them engaged to the beats of the smart talk gab that very few of us understand about electricity, and allowed them to better comprehend their movements in the war. There’s nothing time-distinctive or elegant about the deposits, and more importantly, the banter between dual characters bounce freely off of one another without the obviousness of cool emphasis to enhance personalities that aren’t there in reality. It gives the film a feeling of a 1880 narrative that actually takes place in a timeless setting, and makes this approachable for anyone who is or isn’t experienced on the lives of these fascinating people.

NEGATIVES

– The performances. It’s not exactly the faults of the actors, because after all they’re doing the most they can with the material they’re given, but the monotonous direction from Alfonso limits them from ever reaching the academy recognition that the studio wanted for this movie so terribly. Cumberbatch and Shannon are essentially playing themselves. They add no complexity or transformation to the performances they supplant, wasting an opportunity for them to positively benefit the film in a meaningful way. Hoult is a cartoon living in what should be the most compelling character between this trio dynamic. His demeanor is unintentionally humorous, and affords him the negative aspect of standing out like a sore thumb in a movie that takes no time to invest in him. More on him later. Tom Holland as Edison’s secretary is easily the best performance of the film, proving that the boy wonder can break free of the Spider-Man chains that will typecast him for the first few years of his career. This is obviously the problem, because if a supporting secondary character is the best of the movie in terms of performance depth, then it drops the ball on the many big names who are basically inconsequential to the film’s positivity.

– Rushed storytelling. This story could benefit immensely from an 8 episode series on Netflix or Hulu, but because this is merely 97 minutes of allowed time, the screenplay undercuts the dramatic tension that should be prominent of a movie with this high of stakes. It isn’t, and whether it’s the fault of too much being shoe-horned in to such a brief run time, or even the complete lack of long-term storytelling, which takes something like a significant other passing away, and meanders it in a way to where their partner has forgotten about them by the next scene. The worst part of all, however, is definitely the film’s intro, which gives us pivotal information in the form of on-screen text, which proves it values the backstories of these characters as much as they do the difficulty associated with invention, that the movie spends zero time depicting. I guess since these guys are geniuses these ideas spring to them like a word that rhymes with ‘Play’ in a rhyming poem.

– Tesla arc. Easily the biggest disappointment of the film, as Hollywood continues to undervalue the most important character within this war. This time he’s merely a supporting character in a movie based around Edison Vs Westinghouse, leaving so much of the intelligence and angst of the inventor in the dark. There are long periods of screen time where the character isn’t seen or heard from, and then when he’s brought back into frame he’s a raving lunatic who is definitely in the wrong movie tonally. I’ve said for almost two decades that Hollywood needs a good Nicola Tesla movie, because the man is responsible for many modern inventions and constructs that don’t bear his name, and it’s time that we as a society pay respects to a man who was decades ahead of his competition, but was limited because of the lack of funding that always plagued him.

– Missing pieces. As I previously mentioned, this film sat on the shelf for two years because of the controversy of the Harvey Weinstein bombshell breaking, forcing this film and many others to seek new representation with a new edit in the process, and while there is a cohesive narrative that materializes from the finished product of this feature, the obviousness of some missing pieces certainly seems evident. There are many that I could include, but I will spend my time speaking about one dream sequence that left me with more questions unanswered when the movie was over. Westinghouse continues to have these dreams where he’s a confederate soldier on the field of battle, when a northern soldier holds him at gunpoint. Where the hell did this come from? Why is this even in a completely new edit of the film that has very little mention of it when he is awake. The dream itself doesn’t finish, or even reach a level of clarity that justifies its existence, it just comes into frame three times during the movie, and never actually concludes its arc. If there is a two hour cut of this movie lying around some studio, I would be curious to see it, otherwise, this movie’s jumbled pieces leave me longing for more.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Zombieland: Double Tap

Directed By Ruben Fleischer

Starring – Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone

The Plot – Columbus (Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Harrelson), Wichita (Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) move to the American heartland as they face off against evolved zombies, fellow survivors, and the growing pains of their snarky makeshift family.

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

POSITIVES

– Production enhancements. With this being a sequel to a movie that made some serious bank, you knew that the bar had to be raised drastically higher for the sequel’s visual presentation, and satisfies it does. The camera movements are slicker, full of pulse-setting shaky-camera effects that don’t diminish or demean what’s depicted in frame, and the enticement of some long take sequences that move around our family of zombie slayers vividly paints the fun and urgency of slaying from every respective angle of character. In addition to this, the set design and make-up are a much needed upgrade, fleshing out an evident decomposition for our flesh-eaters that subtly gives depth to the distance between the two films without audibly elaborating this point. The variety of ambitious locations gives the film an inescapably higher stakes quality than the first film, all the while granting us more candid observations in globe-trotting storytelling that conveys this sickness on a grand scale.

– World building. Similar to where the first film introduced us to the rules of the hunt, “Double Tap” takes this one step further, extending the list in a way that plays into the experience of the group, all the while educating the audience on the changes inside of this world that has grown ten years before our very eyes. It’s also important for a post-apocalyptic film to convey this decaying sense within society that supplants realism within the effects of its environment, and paints this world as anything but the violent fantasy that two films have produced. Automobile deterioration and zombie classification are two such examples, which prove that Fleischer has very much provided stock and insight into this particular world, giving it a sense of progression even after the virus has taken over. It gives “Double Tap” a rich sense of realism that grounds the fantastical aspects of the film entirely, making it easier to understand the rules and logic of the process because of the way it draws comparisons to our world so seamlessly.

– Comic muscle. While not as consistent as the laughing power of the first “Zombieland”, the barrage of laughs at the hands of some cleverly inserted Easter eggs, as well as Tallahasse being Tallahasse is something that provided the fun that I seeked for this sequel that I was never expecting in the first place. There’s rarely a desire to play off of the nostalgia or familiarity of the first film, proving the intention that Fleischer makes for this film to stand on its own feet respectably, all the while providing the next series of clever quips for fans to quote for the next ten years. It competently maintains the comedy aspects of the film wonderfully, and gave me plenty of laughs to get through scenes that were otherwise running a bit too long for my taste with regards to the movie’s pacing.

– Creative kills. To satisfy the carnage candy nut in all of us, this film comes through in granting us no shortage of gore or innovative torture to put it at the forefront of zombie killing cinema. This is also where the production once again impresses us, as the computer generation for the bigger scale kills comes through in an effective believability that leaves the hollow dimensions of the first film sequences in the past where they rightfully belong. Without spoiling anything, my personal favorite comes at the hands of a spinning hay bailer tractor that results in one of the funniest aftershock results that I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Considering the characters are always fighting for Zombie Kill of the Year, you can bet that the bar constantly gets raised in a way that tops the previous kill, leading to an action packed finale that is visually unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a zombie movie.

– Delightful cast. The only exceptional work here is from newcomer Zoey Deutsch, who plays a bubbly blonde who has miraculously survived the apocalypse to this point. Her character did get on my nerves, but that was the intention of a professional like Deutsch, who pushes all of the right buttons to leave you sinisterly eager for her demise, all the while supporting Stone’s character further for the divide this woman has caused between her and Eisenberg. Beyond Zoey, the main cast all transform into their personalities seamlessly once more, and give us another 95 minute opportunity to soak up as much about their dysfunctional family dynamics as you can possibly yearn for. Harrelson’s seedy hillbilly Tallahassee is easily my favorite character once more, providing a combination of gut-busting one-liners and eye-rolling masogyny that we’ve come to expect from his legendary presence.

– Post credit stingers. Definitely make sure that you stay for the entire credits, as there are two sequences that not only provide a bit of clarity towards a familiar victim, but also paints a general outline for how this virus started in the first place. Is it the most satisfying answer in terms of logic? Absolutely not, but the fulfilment of an earlier Easter egg coming into play during what is arguably the best scene of the entire movie is something that crafts much needed borders for the outline of this general conflict. Unfortunately like Marvel, there is one good stinger and one pointless one, but for my money it was just great to see this familiar face, all the while poking fun at a fictional movie that thankfully never was.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of character growth. This film had a decade between the previous film, and yet none of the characters feel like they’ve grown or expanded in the slightest. I say this in regards to Eisenberg and Stone’s arcs in particular, because without this love triangle playing out on-screen, the movie doesn’t spend a single second alone with either of them, to capture a moment of wall-breaking psychology. In addition to this, Breslin’s character is basically nothing more than a teenage girl who wants a boy. That’s it. If you’re going to make a sequel picking up with the same collection of characters, at least make an attempt to provide us the audience with something important to draw to their respective characters. Without it, the characterization or lack thereof feels very much in-tuned with the very walking dead who chase them all around the globe. Disappointing to say the least.

– Social commentary. I don’t have a problem with incorporating a political stance to something as typically conventional as a zombie movie, but the film’s consistency at dropping the ball towards deeper themes and self-reflection for us the audience made it pointless to include in the first place. Throughout the film, there is an anything-but-subtle wink towards our current president, as well as the current war on firearms that seems everywhere in the news in current day Americana. However, the film lacks never takes the bait to pick a side in the issue, nor does it flesh it out as anything further than a one-off joke deposit. This was a real opportunity for the filmmakers to capitalize on an issue that plagues our own world, and use it for coherence in a world where everything has quite literally gone to hell, but unfortunately it’s nothing more than one of those clever fourth wall breaks used to sell a trailer, and nothing more.

– Repetitive structure. It’s very disappointing that a film with ten years to come up with something compelling settles for the same beats that its predecessor guided us through during the first film. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the similarities are as follows; group is together, members leave group, one member seeks something especially vital from their previous life, and ends up trapped because of it. Other members are left to save said person. These are just a few of the examples, and listing any other ones would be impossible without spoilers, so I will leave it at that. My point is separation is everything in a sequel, especially one as memorable as “Zombieland”, but this sequel plays it safe in giving fans of the franchise what they want, and as a result takes a familiarly predictable direction that is most certainly double-tapped.

– One question. MINOR SPOILERS. Early on in the second half, there’s a killing scene involving a character being gunned down. It makes it even more difficult to believe when this shot character then shows up a couple of scenes later, with no bullet or no explanation or alluding to what transpired between them in the woods. Not only does this make their confrontation essentially pointless from the previous scene, it also emits such an enormous screenplay hole moving forward that the story itself knows it can’t explain, and would rather use it to craft another laugh. It’s the constant unexplained question that I have yet to see explained by anyone who has seen the movie.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

Directed By Kevin Smith

Starring – Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck

The Plot – Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) return to Hollywood to stop a reboot of ‘Bluntman and Chronic’ movie from getting made.

Rated R for pervasive strong crude sexual content, adult language throughout, drug use and some nudity

POSITIVES

– Collective cast. There are no shortage of celebrity cameos within the film, in fact, Smith calls on all of his friends and show business acquaintances to collectively assemble the Avengers of all Kevin Smith movie universes, and it offers us a reflective trip down memory road with a continuance of many favorite character arcs. In terms of meaningful performances, it is great once more to see Smith and Mewes don their familiar threads and immerse themselves in the world’s favorite stoner duo since Cheech and Chong blazed onto the scene many decades ago. Mewes in particular is called upon to explore surprisingly deep character directions than we are used to from him, and his growth and evolving maturity for the character’s responsibility proves that Jason is every bit the heart for the film’s capabilities. However, it’s Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith who stole the show for me, echoing the angst and longing of a teenager seamlessly, all the while bringing a sharpness for comedic timing that proved “Yoga Hosers” horrors were purely in the script.

– Production value. This is a surprise for me, as the lack of big budget studio influence to the picture allows this crew of professionals to make every cent count, and detail is the name of the game for this picture. Not only are the set designs precise in conjuring up the air of nostalgia through the many scene locations that many of us grew up with in this universe, but the filmmaking itself balances an integral look in its cinematography, all the while preserving patience in the film’s editing design. It outlines the first Fathom Events screening that has maintained that level of cinematic luster that I expect from seeing a movie on the big screen, and proves that Smith’s stripped down approach to returning to the stories and characters who made him famous was the first concrete decision that he has made in over a decade.

– Witty dialogue. Sure, there are the cringe moments when it comes to stoner puns that are so far on-the-nose that they might as well be snorting, but the majority of the personality associated with the banter cherishes a consistency to speed and detail so fast that you will definitely require second watches to catch every clever instance. Some deal with actors poking fun at their own trivial filmographies, some are refreshing call-backs to humiliating instances that have since defined certain characters, and some are Smith himself attacking the very same media that have been the source of some of this vicious mud-slinging. This all feels therapeutic for Kevin, and done so in a way that flows smoothly between human interaction, and not obvious in regards to cool cinematic edginess where every line packs a punch.

– Cinematic commentary. The biggest gain that audiences will receive from Smith’s commentary is the way that he takes time to breakdown the meandering from studios, whose only intention is to cash in on people’s nostalgia, and vividly distinguish the difference between the terms “Sequel”, “Reboot”, and “Remake”. Oddly enough, this film is guilty of being all three, but it does so in a way that uses the mirror of reflection to be able spot the tropes for future examination, and coming from someone who is sick of Hollywood unoriginality, I appreciate a movie that uses ridiculousness to capture a complete lack of studio imagination. Will it change cinema for better? Probably not, but it’s daring when a director can challenge what is conventionalism during the 21st century, and weave it in a way that practices what they preach, giving us a spotlight of satirical clarity that could certainly go a long way in the next sequel, reboot, or remake that you see.

– Dramatic depth. Part of what makes movies like “Clerks” or “Chasing Amy” staples of 90’s cinema is the way they present a comedy, then insert meaningful life experiences to further flesh out the importance of the characters and their stories, and this reboot is a fine return to form for Smith in this regard. Towards the end of the second act, we start to see an epiphany for Jay in particular, and it’s one that forces him to confront his ways of life that have kept him from someone so important all of this time. We the audience know the truth from the get-go, but it’s this road trip that allows Jay the maturity needed to confront these demons, and finally take something of permanence and consistency for his own otherwise incoherent life. While nothing made me tear up or strain my breathing, I can say that Smith’s finger as a director is firmly on the pulse of emotional resonance, and it’s an aspect of the film that many of his fans will take comfort in, for the way the director trusts his instincts for his own experiences as a family man.

– Comic value. This is kind of half and half for me. The problems come with typical sequelitis amongst comedies, in that they repeat the very same jokes from previous chapter installments. Where I can overlook that here is the fact that this is an intentional reboot, so therefore that repetition is less harmful when you consider from a logical standpoint the previous film isn’t supposed to exist to us the audience. Beyond this, there’s a fine combination of physical and intellectual humor that doesn’t require coherence for the minority in the audience who aren’t stoners, offering a comfortable medium that brings the two sides together wonderfully. There are some jokes that don’t land, or even result horribly, but with a landing power of around 60%, it proves that Smith as a screenwriter still has a lot of gas in the tank, and more importantly it provides hope for the green-lit “Clerks 3” and “Mallrats 2” that have big shoes to fill from their predecessors.

NEGATIVES

– Story halts. For a 90 minute film, the pacing is a bit treacherous, especially during a second act, where too many brakes in the storytelling fluidity arrive. These come in the form of scenes where everything stops so we can catch up with a certain character, and while I commend the movie for adding continuation to someone so important to a past film, it adds very little in this present film except to remind audiences that they exist. I can say that for the first forty-five minutes of this film, it flew by in a way that made me want more, but the second half of that runtime grinds to a screeching halt so frequently that it starts to feel tedious on the resolution to the conflict that we once were so keen on discovering. It results in the film losing a lot of steam by the eventual finish, during a finale where an unlikely antagonist with the single worst French accent that I’ve ever heard is introduced to an already cluttered foreground of celebrity cameos and respective subplots.

– Cultural insensitivity. I hate to be a stickler during a Kevin Smith movie, but there are two foreign characters in the film who are highlighted for their weirdness and more importantly, stereotypes that have defied their cultures in cinema permanently. One is Middle Eastern, given the typical scarf of her people, as well as a huge knife that she keeps in her pocket, which is defined as being “A trait of your people”. Beyond this, there is also an Asian character, who despite living in America as long as she has, doesn’t speak a lick of English, and also is thought of as the strange, quiet girl of the group. Maybe I would be more accepting if there was a minority in the film who was presented on equal footing with their white co-stars. I’m not accusing Smith of anything in particular, but he should be making wiser decisions for ethnic diversity in his film.

– Illogical plot points. There are two of these that I point to in particularly. One is obviously the more important considering it is what the whole second act bombshell revolves around. When you consider the inconsistencies of this aspect from the previous “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” movie, you will know how impossible this newfound relationship between two characters even is. In addition to this, there’s a scene early on that contends likeness rights from Jay and Silent Bob, similar to the aforementioned film, where they weren’t given any royalties for their identities being stolen. The problem in this instance is that the paperwork from that previous film has already been signed, and anyone who knows media legalities will know that royalties are a continuous benefit that you can’t just sign over. Even if you can overlook this ridiculous inconsistency, the film never manages to bring it up again. It’s essentially a one scene conflict that lasts equally as long.

– Lens flares. The lone complaint that I have with the otherwise strong production value is in one scene involving a barrage of lens flares, that makes this feel like a Paul Thomas Anderson or J.J Abrams movie. The last name mentioned there is funny enough, because even Jason Mewes mentions that during a deleted scene that plays post-credits. While this problem is only evident during the final twenty minutes of the film, for shooting in an area filled with flash photography and variety in lighting schemes, the lasting impact of such soured a visual presentation that lived up to the big boys up until that time. With some light post-production work in color correcting and frame editing, this problem can easily be solved. Failure to do so gives the sequence of scenes a rushed quality of rendering that does no favors for its visual consistency.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Rambo: Last Blood

Directed By Adrian Grunberg

Starring – Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Yvette Monreal

The Plot – Almost four decades after they drew first blood, Sylvester Stallone is back as one of the greatest action heroes of all time, John Rambo. Now, Rambo must confront his past and unearth his ruthless combat skills to exact revenge in a final mission. A deadly journey of vengeance, the film marks the last chapter of the legendary series.

Rated R for strong graphic violence, grisly images, drug use and adult language

POSITIVES

– Vicious violence. For anyone like myself looking to shut off their mind for a couple of hours, and just indulge in John Rambo’s devilish delight of macabre, look no further than “Last Blood”. As a send-off to the character credited with some of the most brutal and impactful deaths in all of cinema history, this movie adds to his already triple digit kill count, spiking us with a series of blunt force trauma’s that are calculated and realized through a set-up that I viewed as an R-rated “Home Alone”. Are some of the impacts silly? Sure, but the force and rumble of a man hell-bent on revenge is felt thoroughly throughout a series of violent visual sight gags that combine creativity and menace accordingly, and make this a must-see for anyone wondering if age has calmed this weapon of mass destruction who constantly brings the pain.

– Breezy pacing. “Last Blood” clocks in at a mere 84 minutes, but its pacing never feels stilted or even rushed because of the movements of the script that keeps its audience engaged. Slight deviations from the conventional direction of revenge flicks is highly valued here, as the aftermath of this terrifying group that Rambo is trailing really get the better of him for the entire first half of this film, leading to an uncertain second half that could’ve easily went either way. This also further establishes the setting as the very deadly unpredictable element that Rambo alludes to early on in the first act. When the final confrontation is set-up, I was floored to realize that there was only twenty minutes left in the film, and a barrage of baddies left to dispose of, which further elaborated that the best parts were still to come. As far as easy sits go, “Last Blood” would easily be in my top ten films of 2019. There’s little waste to remove, an evolution in plot that rises because of spontaneity, and a thirst for vengeance that really helps you empathize even more with the title protagonist.

– Weathered Rambo. Age and decades of physical and psychological trauma have finally caught up to John, and the movie’s desire to humble him with a cloud of vulnerability firmly kept me invested to the beats of the character, where this level of permanence adds further emphasis on the impact of the previous films. In particular, there’s a scene early on where Rambo has horrific flashbacks of his time in the armed forces, leaving this shell of a once unstoppable man further fleshed-out for the sake of cinematic urgency. If this character was unstoppable one hundred percent of the time, it would eventually get boring, and lead to a series of redundancy in the conflict and resolution, but Grunberg’s decision to level the playing field is one that pays off immensely not only for the relatability of the character, but also in the weight of the antagonists, which may be the match that we’ve all been waiting for with regards to Rambo.

– Sly fox. Even at the age of 73, Sylvester Stallone continues to rivet us with a variety of complexities in his performances, that prove he isn’t sleeping through another sequel. In distinguishing the personalities between Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, the latter doesn’t possess a soft-spoken nature, nor does his bumbling demeanor with words overcome his thought process. Instead, Rambo is stern in speech, heavy in his movements, and persistent of a facial scowl that renders him constantly intimidating. This comparison would be easy to overlook, especially at such an age, but Stallone’s method as an actor to divide them in ways that is clearly evident once you see them on-screen for five minutes, deems age as nothing more than a meaningless number. As far as performances go, Stallone gives his all to this fifth installment, painting a blank canvas with a combination of love, confidence, and especially unlimited rage, that allows us to colorfully interpret just what about this character has been endearing to audiences for nearly forty years. It’s the most depth that we’ve seen from Rambo’s personality in the entire series, and makes me wish we could’ve seen maybe one more film where this weathered Rambo is present.

– Audible senses. While most of the production value for this film flounders the opportunity in conjuring up something equally as riveting as the violence factor, the sound mixing for the film, as well as one soundtrack decision kept us firmly engulfed in the heat of the element. In my opinion, I heard a lot of lettuce slicing when it came to the articulation of the brunt brutality, and this is made even more convincing with a capturing microphone that definitely pushed the impact to eleven when registering what is being depicted on screen. As for the song, The Doors’ “Five To One”, which is my favorite from the band, is featured in a way that emits the dread and doom of a certain character’s disposition fruitfully. It’s the only song used in the film, but it makes me want to see it included in past Rambo films to see how it measures up to the inevitability in those movies.

– Stay for the credits. Similar to what “Rocky V” did with the entire series up to that point, we are treated with a timely-edited, vibrantly emotional goodbye to the character through a series of still-frame photography that captures pivotal moments throughout the entire series. What’s truly compelling is this overwhelming sense of nostalgia that I definitely never expected from a Rambo movie, but made even more effective between the shape-shifting nature of Stallone’s appearance, as well as the slight deviated familiarity of the “First Blood” theme playing us off. It left me anxious to return to past installments to relive all of my favorite memorable lines of dialogue and gory kills that made Rambo a mainstay in the action genre, and finished us off with that air of melodramatic permanence that firmly establishes that this is the end. Amazing put together sequence, and definitely worthy of you spending a few more minutes in your seat to appreciate the history of the character.

NEGATIVES

– Poor production. This is definitely the biggest fault with the integrity of the picture, as the complete cinematography of this film made for some underwhelming decisions that highlighted the cheap production value of the film. Horrendous A.D.R deposits in character mouths, lifeless green-screen effects during driving sequences, overly anxious editing, which creates a machine-gun effect of rough transitions that do zero favors in depicting what is transpiring, and a framing device which feels a bit too close for the elaborate nature of what is taking place. There were scenes in this movie where I could’ve easily seen this feeling like a Stallone sequel like “Escape Plan 2 or 3”, where it is relegated to a straight to video release
. The one positive is that it will easily make back its studio investment, but the negative is that such a miniscule investment leaves a lot of artistic integrity on the table, which could’ve better articulated the variety in locations, which should feel worlds further away than what they actually do.

– Storytelling over substance. One common critique with Rambo movies is that there isn’t enough exposition and down time to tell a story outside of the velocity in rampage that decorates the films. This was something that screenwriters Matthew Cirulnick and Stallone have addressed, but it’s something that once again leaves the sides viciously uneven, this time in favor of storyline development that limits the intense action sequences. This may be the most difficult sell for hardcore audiences of past Rambo movies, as they are asked to remain patient before the bloodshed starts to drop, and while I myself appreciate the attempt to realize the characters and story a bit more, it does bring forth a long-winded first act that takes a few minutes too long to set the pieces in motion. When you really think about it, there are two parts in this film where we get Rambo being Rambo. Everything else is movement around him.

– Final conflict problems. I mentioned earlier that the inevitable conflict of this movie is brought to light with “Home Alone” style planning that adds an element of humor to the ferociousness of violence that is knocking on this film’s door, but what needs to be mentioned is how the majority of these scenes are misdirected to take away some of the vulgarity with Rambo’s revenge. Particularly, it’s in the way that this sequence rushes through to the finish line to dispose of a barrage of bodies that are nothing more than inflation for the count. It leaves the elements of tension and surprise on the side, as we speed through these kills without ever truly having much time to enjoy them. In addition to this, the rushed demeanor also stretches logic a bit too often, as Rambo moves throughout this large setting frequently, feeling like a supernatural being who is able to pop up whenever he and gravity deem it acceptable. For my money, I could’ve used a bit more patience with these scenes, especially considering these are therapeutic scenes for the audience to release in.

– More of the same. This is another depiction of a foreign country with nothing but negative indentations in its rendering. It seems strange that so many films in the same franchise up to this point have featured foreign antagonists, and especially considering sex trafficking, a major subplot in the film, an American setting would’ve proven that nowhere in this world is safe from the terror that we as people face every day. On top of this, the Mexican antagonists themselves are completely one-dimensional, and lack anything of substance to make them stand out as anything but eventual victims. This is differing from the past when you consider that the Rambo series has been privy to some memorable, even if over-the-top, villains that have played mental chess with the titular character. It highlights my biggest problem with the Rambo franchise, in that they feel like deceptive American propaganda. This one more than any, as the characters must travel to another country before bad things can find them.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

IT: Chapter Two

Directed By Andy Muschietti

Starring – Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader

The Plot – Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive adult language, and some crude sexual material.

POSITIVES

– Evolution in material. These are certainly two films that converge well together as one cohesive unit of continuity, but perhaps the strongest trait inside of that bond is the maturity of the material, which reflects the growth of the characters it portrays. “IT: Chapter Two” is twice as bloody, twice as gruesome, and twice as expansive as its predecessor. Muschietti ups the stakes in a way that heightens the tension and anxiety within each conflict, giving weight to natural aging in a way that makes our characters all the more vulnerable because of such. From a tonal perspective, the two films seem very similar, but this is only on a surface level of comparison. This sequel has the difficult task of its audience already knowing what to expect, therefore it must think outside of the box for new ways to stimulate and surprise the horror hound in all of us.

– Perfect casting. If casting agents won Oscars, then Rich Delia would be in a class of his own. Visually and personably, these adult actors mimic the feel of their youthful counterparts seamlessly, making the transition between films feel all the more believable because of the attention to detail, down to the tiniest instance. You see actors like James Ransone or Andy Bean, and you think their facial likenesses must be computer generated, but the similarities between these respective ages feel naturally convincing, giving the film a generational approach to its story that actually feels earned for once. On an acting front, Hader and Ransone are easily the favorites for this critic, etching out a friendly rivalry between them that pokes and prods at the neurosis of each character brilliantly. These two certainly steal the attention of the audience each time they’re on screen, and round out a complete cast who all bring their A-games to pay respects to the kids who came before them. Bill Skarsgard once again makes the role of Pennywise his own, balancing creepiness and personality in a way that makes him such an unshakeable presence not only to the town, but our attention on him. Skarsgard’s dead stare in leaps and bounds more unnerving than anything else in the movie, and I wish the film capitalized more on his influence to the picture, but I understand why it did not.

– Elaborate sets. Without question my favorite aspect of the movie comes in the form of backdrops and set pieces that beautifully immerse us into the imagination of reading a Stephen King novel. The props feel three-dimensional, and not just in frames for the sake of establishing meaning to what we’re seeing, and the color schemes vibrantly paint an air of tension to the fear of the inevitable that feels only seconds from materializing. There are many I loved, but my single favorite is easily the carnival funhouse, which sees McAvoy’s character having to save a local child from a room of mirrors. What’s surprising is that this scene was done almost entirely without computer generation, and the mirrors were each constructed and designed in such a way that keeps them from spotting the camera. It’s the kind of attention that a production freak like me gazes at for days, and masters the film itself with extreme re-watchability that horror films of the day mostly don’t attain.

– Run time. I expected this to be the first major problem for the film, but never in the 164 minute run time did I feel bored or tedious, and that’s in part thanks to my investment in the characters. If you’ve never read the book, this will pay off wonderfully for you, as the film takes an episodic approach to filling in the blanks of mystery within each character, that has them each confronting their deepest fears. This establishes each character as important, an aspect the 1990 film didn’t master as easily, pushing the idea that they are equally appreciated to the complexion of the story. Further fleshing out the backstory of Derry, we are also blessed with the story of CHUD, a tribal ritual that takes us back to the infancy of Pennywise, giving the story itself a world-building quality that I honestly wasn’t ever expecting in a translation to film. The ambitious run time has justification from me, and doesn’t contribute to the major problems that I do have towards the film, particularly in the third act.

– Deviations from the source material. Any time a film is remade, I want reasoning for its existence, and this film certainly gave me that in spades. While the general outline of familiarity towards the big events of the story are still present, the tweaking in character revelations, pacing of the reunion itself, and removal of aspects from the 1990 film that didn’t translate well to this particular telling. Even the daydreaming transitions feel all the more warranted because of their natural progression. Part of my problem with these during the original movie is that they sometimes felt forced or jammed to the progression of a scene, but here they seem to transcend the current day narrative superbly for when they transpire. What’s valuable is that nothing offended me to the point of negativity, and the differences for this film allow it to stand out especially from the book and 1990 film that each blazed their own trail as well.

– Tonal balance. One thing that I wasn’t expecting from the movie was its reliance on comedy that consistently meets its mark on its varied age of audience age that will see the picture. Nothing feels too juvenile or meandering to the integrity of the scene, and even more importantly, it coexists with the dramatic elements of the story so wonderfully. Never at any point in the film does the tragic fog of Derry or its lost children alienate itself on any particular scene, keeping our eyes focused on the mission at hand even during much-needed scenes of humor to offer us a release from the building tension. It’s a difficult thing to master these polar opposite directions in a horror movie, but Muschietti proves his confidence in his audience by staying true to course, and giving us more of the personality from the first film that had us craving more time with this group of friends.

NEGATIVES

– C.G hungry. This is particularly prominent during physical conflict scenes, where Pennywise or a respective monster will be done almost entirely with computer generation, framing the scene in a way that makes it unintentionally funny with its intentional scares. In fact, the computer generation is so over-the-top and hokey that I couldn’t ever take them seriously, removing any chance of feeling even remotely moved by the film’s testing imagery. This compromises Pennywise in a way that makes his revenge feel side-tracked, when they deserved to be more focused and less ridiculous to properly translate the menace of his anger towards those who defeated him.

– Scene transitioning. I can’t tell if the editing is a problem or the sequencing, but the way these scenes are laid out stretches geography and believability in a way that made it confusing to depict who was where at any particular time. A character will be shown in a location in one scene, then in the next scene during what feels like the exact same time frame, that previous character will then pop into that second scene to save the others. Attention to detail is greatly important during this, because even a fading cut can establish boundaries between passing time. But the cuts here are too abrupt and confusing for two neighboring scenes that are supposed to happen simultaneously. Even if the film didn’t want to use these methods of editing, at least throw in a scene of different between them to make it feel like more time has passed.

– Meaningless character. If you were to cut anything from this film, a supporting antagonist character is certainly the way to go. Why do I say this? Because he’s in the movie for a couple of scenes, adds nothing of permanence to the scenes and characters he influences, and isn’t even given a proper conclusion to his ark, proving just how meaningless he was even to the filmmakers of the story. It’s one of those examples where if you take him out of the picture all together, the film loses absolutely nothing, and for my money I would’ve rather they left this character buried in the past, where he at least had importance to the dynamic of the story.

– The ending. It’s ironic that the movie often pokes fun at Bill, the author, or Stephen King as he’s so obviously been compared to over time, for the way he can’t end his stories satisfyingly. I say this because Muschietti follows in the footsteps of King, as well as 1990 “IT” director Tommy Lee Wallace in crafting an ending that is every bit anti-climatic as it is downright silly. In fact, we can no longer insult the 1990 film ending, because at least that one felt satisfying for the way the remaining members of the Losers Club band together to take one last deposition of emotion for their fallen friends, and destroy Pennywise with their bare hands. In this version, I find it hard to believe that someone never came up with this idea, and closes things up in a way that can’t be described even as neat and tidy, because the lack of emphasis never made anything messy to begin with. To say I hate this ending would be an understatement. It’s an insult to everything positive that I mentioned above, and deserves to be ridiculed every bit as much as the 1990 film that at least had the handicap of a TV showcase to use as a valid excuse.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Overcomer

Directed By Alex Kendrick

Starring – Alex Kendrick, Shari Rigby, Pricilla C. Shirer

The Plot – Life changes overnight for Coach John Harrison (Kendrick) when his high school basketball team and state championship dreams are crushed under the weight of unexpected news. When the largest manufacturing plant shuts down and hundreds of families leave their town, John questions how he and his family will face an uncertain future. After reluctantly agreeing to coach cross-country, John and his wife, Amy (Rigby), meet an aspiring athlete (Shirer) who’s pushing her limits on a journey toward discovery. Inspired by the words and prayers of a new-found friend, John becomes the least likely coach helping the least likely runner attempt the impossible in the biggest race of the year.

Rated PG for some thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Not preachy. As an atheist, when I watch a religious movie, I brace myself for the endless amounts of propaganda and childish reality checks towards on-screen Atheists that proves their heart of God was in the right place. Thankfully with “Overcomer”, this isn’t fully the case, as the movie is professional enough to keep its focus on the development of the movie, instead of pushing an agenda. Sure, the religious talk in the film still feels overly shoe-horned in, and further convolutes a third act that already had its own problems, but the discussion on faith is one that remains respectable and knowledgeable for its kind, etching out a respectable side of believers that we unfortunately don’t get enough of, thanks to production companies like Pureflix.

– Humorous. This one I totally wasn’t expecting, as not only was this movie’s first half geared almost entirely towards the comedy genre offering, but it actually connects with an intended laugh more times than not. This is especially refreshing for religious movies, as their characters don’t often beat to the drum of human impulse, yet here these characters feel every bit as fleshed out in personalities as they do transparent in their overall lack of god-like shield. It’s sitcom humor, but effective none the less, and it springs forth this enticing introduction to characters that helped with our overall investment towards them, giving us delightful humiliation along the way that proves Kendrick as a screenwriter and lead protagonist isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

– Gut-wrenching performances. For a mostly amateur cast of actors, each of them possess the gift of gab not only through committing to the dialogue, but also through some dramatic heft that they transfer through to seamlessly. For my money, the show-stealer is easily Shirer, whose combination of free-flowing tears and fragile vulnerability cast her decades ahead of her experience, and cements a control over the meat of the story that depended on her so endlessly. Also great is Kendrick, who outlines a blue collar values husband, father, and teacher, who may be my single most favorite character ever in a religious film. The reason for this is his timely deposits in humor, as well as the gripping unraveling that he takes throughout this town of his that is falling apart at the seams. Alex seems like the chain that is holding so many aspects together, and never does his character completely fold under the pressure, proving wonderfully how one person can have such an impact on a dire situation.

– Economics 101. I give this script a lot of respect for focusing on the trickle down effects of a small town losing its vital resource, and the way it diminishes so many other institutions. As mentioned in the plot, the town plant closes down, which in turn takes away jobs from many parents, which in turn forces them to move elsewhere to seek work, which in turn removes the talented athletes from the school where they made their names. Not only does this angle depict the fragility of a small town so vividly, but it also plays beautifully into the central conflict of the film, which finds so many characters seeking new identities. As far as thought-provoking material goes, “Overcomer” gives a microphone to those lower populated towns, and turns up the volume when the confines of economic claustrophobia starts to weigh in, giving thought to a scenario that sadly isn’t covered as much as the big cities are on 24-hour news networks.

– As a sports film. Cross Country isn’t exactly a sport that intrigues me, but the film does a solid job in coming down to my level of inexperience to teach, all the while remaining truthful to the purists who, like Hannah, grew up playing the sport. It embodies it for what it truly is; an endearing marathon that every other sport athlete shudders at when they even think of attempting it. As for Hannah, it transforms her in a commitment that requires her to change her eating habits, build her endurance one mile at a time, and take one butt-kicking after another when it comes to competing with other girls who have done the sport all of their life. In the heat of the moment, the film documents it with several long-take camera shots and a barrage of pulse-setting audio that contrast believability to the actors in focus, and reminds the audience of the intensity in the moment.

– Spreading value. “Overcomer” was filmed on a budget of only five million dollars, and while that may sound like a lot on the surface level, the reality is that it’s an independent film budget for something receiving a big screen release. So how do they make up for it? Well, the camera work, especially in the adrenaline-pumping races feel very calculated, and full of personality that doesn’t come from conventional shot compositions of the genre. In addition to this, Kendrick has stated in interviews that the actual cameras themselves were the very same ones that filmed the original Avengers movie. This could be the catalyst for change in the genre, and it’s one that is needed, considering I am instantaneously taken out of these movies on presentational value alone.

NEGATIVES

– Predictability. This comes in the form of two twists and a series of genre tropes that make it easy to telegraph within the first half hour of the movie. Not only did I accurately predict the two twists in question, mainly for how every black character in these movies have to be related in some way, but never once did the film deviate even slightly from the most conventionally cliche’d television offering. Even the final race itself turns out in the exact way that you would expect it to, where everything that made the movie grounded in its approach turns to fairytales in sewing everything up all neat and tidy so the audience doesn’t head home with even an ounce of life reality.

– Mundane music. The musical score from composer Paul Mills is boisterous and completely meandering when it comes to triggering its sensitive audience. To say this is manipulative is an understatement, but the volume increases by Mills don’t feel natural in the slightest, nor do they offer the slightest increment of depth or complexity for its tones. This is every emotion bottled down to its smallest and inconsequential form, even going so far as to serenade us with ominous numbers when a bad character comes into focus. If this isn’t enough, the film also samples the current day pop hit “You Say” from Lauren Daigle, shaping particular lyrics in a way that makes them sound like they were made to compliment faith. This is as dirty as a film could get, and even despite the paycheck, if I were Daigle, I would be livid to have a song about physical love reduced to this propaganda.

– Fake cinematography. Even with this being a better overall film than 95% of religious offerings, the consistency in artificial cinematography that lacks any kind of artistic merit is carried over in this film. You’ve seen it before, it’s the same hazy, outline that is cemented with a feeling of God looking down from above in the form of a warm glow that radiates as subtly as a Sherman tank going through a nitro glycerine plant. It capitalizes on an aspect of visual storytelling that has been done hundreds of times before it, and stitches itself to films that are beneath it in nearly every productional category but this one, because it finds unnecessary visual metaphors alluring. If you’re going to spoof religious films, this is easily the first thing that you must capture.

– Third act issues. For roughly the first 70 minutes of this film, everything is running smoothly. Even the near two hour run time is paced in a manner that allows it to flow with urgency in storytelling movements. But the second half begins, and particularly in the third act, this once compelling piece of dramatic cinema converts itself to a religious romp that never relents. Until this point, there was very little mention of God, but it’s thrown into overdrive in four straight scenes where the same thing is being said by four different characters, pounding the pacing in a way that makes the last thirty minutes of the movie feel like you’re running in the very same marathon that Hannah is. Aside from repetition, there’s the mountain of predictability that I previously mentioned, and it turns what could’ve easily been a good late summer surprise into a barely passing final grade.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Brian Banks

Directed By Tom Shadyac

Starring – Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Melanie Liburd

The Plot – The inspirational true story of Brian Banks (Hodge), an All-American high school football star committed to USC who finds his life upended when he is wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Despite lack of evidence, Banks is railroaded through a broken justice system and sentenced to a decade of prison and probation. Years later, with the support of Justin Brooks (Kinnear) and the California Innocence Project, Banks fights to reclaim his life and fulfill his dreams of playing in the NFL.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– A pleasant surprise. Heading into this film, I simply wasn’t ready to see another religious film, and thankfully “Brian Banks”, despite dabbling in religious production companies, doesn’t rely too heavily on religious subtext. Not that I have a problem overall with religious movies, but more times than not, they try to overly sell a point that not everyone in the audience can relate to, but this film is one of the best in that category if it can even be considered one. There are moments of religious aspects, mainly in the idea of Morgan Freeman playing a god-like figure to Brian (Imagine that), inspiring him to constantly get up and keep on pushing forward. The film is solid enough, but made even better when you treat it like the unintentional “Bruce Almighty” sequel that it should be.

– Eye-opening. The most important stance that this movie commits to is the poignancy in details that it submits on behalf of the many who are wrongfully imprisoned everyday. The film alludes us to the idea that many on trial are coerced into accepting pleas for the sake of a lesser sentence, and not taking into consideration what they’re accepting as a result of it. In addition to this, the lack of digging with the investigation that often overlooks pivotal points in the state’s argument that could easily dismiss it all, and save a man from possibly losing his life for something he did not do. In Brian’s case, a new lease on life as this sexual predator, who can’t gain a decent job, or catch up with any new friends because he is constantly judged on this one dark day that isn’t even true in the first place. It proves that our justice system is still as faulty as ever, and brings to life a true American horror story that unfortunately so many face in an uphill climb every single day.

– Dubious duo. The work of Hodge and Kinnear easily made the movie for me, in terms of credible performances. For Hodge, the title character is one that is equally as challenging in the physical capacity as it is endearing in the mental one. Brian is a fighter in life, and sometimes his greatest strength in hope also serves as the devastating blow that is constantly taken away from him, and Aldis perseveres with a buzzworthy performance that proves that many more dramatic castings are clearly in his future. Greg Kinnear continues to be one of the coolest on-screen actors that I’ve still ever seen, but it’s not his cool factor that makes his character so compelling, but the responsibility in constantly playing both sides of the field in this mental debate about Brian’s innocence. It pushes him to the limits of finding that one extraordinary piece of evidence in this case, and Kinnear’s unraveling easiness outlines a layer of urgency for the picture that isn’t always as dependable within inconsistent production value.

– Proper framing. I had doubts about telling a story so big with so many character dynamics in a mostly flashback device, but the film nearly pulls everything off, complete with precise pacing that never lags or implodes on the weight of many directions. Shadyac begins the film with a current day narrative, then goes back two years to show us the audience how we got to this point. Where this is usually faulty in film is it creates a barrier of pause in between every jump forward and backward in the plot, instead of continuously building within this straight line of real time events. It works here however, because it’s Brian’s current struggles that the film values more in exposited time, donating a majority of the storytelling within this time frame. Convolution problems do stem during aspects of a flashback being told inside of another flashback, but the communication to the audience is easy enough to never lose or confuse them, adding simplicity to something that is usually so complex in transitioning exposition.

– Return to form. Shadyac as a director of the 90’s was always a product of cheeseball comedies like “Bruce Almighty” (There it is again) and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”, but most recently with this film and 2015’s “Racing Extinction”, his priorities seem to be within the air of sentimentality, expressing a rich maturity in importance the longer he helms his pictures. Even with this maturity however, the 90’s vibes remain prominent in his films, with this one’s visuals and shot composition feeling like something that was practically lifted from the decade. What I love about this is it transforms its cinematography to feel reflective of an age that is almost twenty years in the past, instead of feeling like a movie that lives and breathes within this 2019 bubble of reality beyond the lens of the camera. Shadyac’s filmography is as eclectic as anyone in Hollywood, and it will certainly be interesting to see what he is doing ten years down the line.

– The less you know, the better. This is a film that is more rewarding for the people like me, who knew very few of the details associated within the case. This is anything but a courtroom drama of a movie, residing inside of the judge’s chambers for only about ten minutes of the 95 minute run time, so really it’s the angles behind closed doors that the movie takes immense importance in. Because of this, we get a lot of twists and turns within proving Brian’s innocence, and establishing a layer of intrigue and uncertainty that really kept me glued to how far Brian and his lawyer would have to go to prove his innocence. The film is frustrating, but in a good way that inspires people to get involved, especially as is the case with another innocent woman on death row for over twenty years, who Kinnear’s character is still battling through.

NEGATIVES

– Dual responsibility. The problem with believability rears its ugly head during the high school scenes, where the decision to remain consistent with Hodge playing the role becomes a laughably bad problem to the integrity of the film. Hodge looks about as believable as a high school student as James Van Der Beek did in “Dawson’s Creek”, and in my opinion there should’ve been multiple actors used during particular ages in Brian’s multiple timelines. To leave it with one consistent actor brings forth some unintentional laughs in the form of comparison with other classmates, bumbling hip dialogue that elaborates the teenage experience as easy as khaki dads can, and absolutely no make-up or prosthetics included to transform the age of our actor.

– Television production values. There are many things to point to in this section, but the main ones deal with delayed editing, obvious dialogue, and rating limitations which keep it from telling the compelling part of a character arc. On the latter of that triple thud, the prison part of the story doesn’t focus enough for long enough on the adversities of prison that better establish his strength for remaining positive in such a dire situation. There’s a hint at a prison rape storyline, which never materializes after Brian fights back, and his opponent vanishes in thin air. As for the other two, the editing constantly pulls away from a transition scene about a second too late, losing spans of momentum frequently, and keeping it from carrying over to the following scene. Finally, the dialogue in the film, especially late in the third act, is so on-the-nose and full of re-affirmations that beat us over the head with what we already know from the previous hour of the movie. Mostly, it’s in the hands of protagonists or antagonists who lay on their respective opinions hard, fighting against any layer of complexity or originality to make them vital to what’s transpiring in the scene. Really it’s just endless repetition, and weighs down a true life story that was done entertainingly enough until then.

– Cheap villain device. I think the focus is completely wrong here. Instead of focusing on the perils of flaws in the justice system, the film is given a face late in the second act to unload all of our ill feelings against. These two character’s, especially the victim, are so completely over the top that I couldn’t take them seriously each time they’re on screen, and if it wasn’t for the horrendous acting that they never commit to even remotely, I wouldn’t have felt even a shred of empathy for either one of them. This device is too easy to be satisfying, and doesn’t reach for the bigger, more responsible target that the screenplay doesn’t have the guts to reach for, which in turn could’ve set it apart from other criminal injustice films with the production to make up for such faults.

– NFL aspect. I commend the film for going the extra mile to pay for the rights not only of professional NFL teams, but also in factual names, who played a pivotal role in Brian’s story. Where my problem lies is in the casting of Pete Carroll, the coach of U.S.C, who recruited Brian to play for his team. There’s an actor who plays him, who not only looks nothing like Pete, but is only really in one scene in the movie, which could’ve easily been kept out of the finished product. It gets sketchy towards the end, when Pete is shown on the sidelines hosting the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, with every scene showing him with his back turned to the camera, to so evidently keep the consistency of the actor’s face playing Pete front-and-center in the minds of the audience. It casts such an obvious unnecessity of a distraction to anyone who knows football, which would only be roughly 90% of the audience who go to see this movie in the first place.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

The Art of Racing In the Rain

Directed By Simon Curtis

Starring – Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kevin Costner

The Plot – Dog lovers believe their canine family members understand language, comprehend events, have opinions, exude loyalty. In “The Art of Racing In The Rain”, wise old dog Enzo Swift shares thoughts about the life experiences which prepared him to protect his family in times of greatest need.

Rated PG for thematic material

POSITIVES

– Refreshing changes. For a film surrounding a dog as its central protagonist, the lack of meandering emotional manipulation and pointless narration was something that was much appreciated from the drivel of canine films of the past three years, that sometimes beat us over the head with what we’re already seeing. There is narration from Costner all over this movie, but his incorporation vividly fills in the blanks for the psychology of Enzo, choosing to attack his character from a mental level instead of a physical one, which as I said, can sometimes feels reflective of what’s transpiring on-screen. This is also a film that takes its time to earn the many tonal shifts that the story takes us through, giving us ample time with both the human and canine elements of this environment, that succeeds in allowing us to invest on every character dynamic.

– The drama. It’s difficult to make a cold heart like me tear-up, but this film saves its impactful ammunition for the moments it hits the hardest, giving us a balance of human and canine conflicts that sting ever so effectively. This doesn’t make the story unpredictable by any stretch of the imagination, but rather caters to life’s many unpleasant twists and turns that throw a wrench during the occasions when everything feels perfect. To anyone who read the book, you should know that the film’s ending is very similar, and does tread the unpleasant waters that clutched this critic’s rhythmic breathing into an explosion of emotional downpour. Without buying into the characters, this element wouldn’t stand on its four legs, but we really do wish for the well-being of this evolving family, who feel constantly tested behind every act that the film navigates through.

– Make-up/prosthetics. I certainly didn’t expect this out of “The Art of Racing In the Rain”, but one of its strongest qualities visually comes from the decaying influence on one particular character, that progresses naturally from a believable standpoint. Nothing is truly extraordinary in terms of tools for the trade, but the subtle pale glow of cosmetics given to drastically alter a character’s skin tone, as well as the decision to go practical with hair loss, instead of using head caps, is something that not only benefits the dedication of craft from this particular actor, but also allows the appearance of them to not feel gimmicked up to the point of the feelings of the scene getting lost in the obviousness of the costume. It keeps the focus solely where it belongs, and proves that less is more when articulating aging or decaying in a character’s appearance.

– Show-stealer. Who else but Costner could do more in a gruff vocal range than any of the actors and actresses do with valuable screen time? But the work of this grizzled vet adds a degree of personality to the dog without settling for silly to compromise the majesticism of the character. Kevin’s Enzo is a protector, a thrill-seeker, and most of all a student of life, and throughout a series of learning experiences for the dog, Costner’s familiar sentimentality rings true in highlighting the love preserved in the atmosphere of the story. Ventimiglia and Seyfried hand in solid turns as well, but with Costner in the forefront, his dedicated grip on the film becomes a necessity, and we quickly start to comprehend how Costner made this role his own, instead of using it as another clown job to orchestrate how dogs are mischievous.

– A different approach. What I love about Enzo is this degree of tragedy to his character, which outlines dogs as being cursed in the shell of their abilities. Throughout the film, Enzo mentions how he’s unable to say or do what should be needed in the heat of a particular event, and it keeps the film’s expectations grounded in reality, instead of another dog trying to be Lassie, and saving little Timmy in a well. Beyond this, it’s thought-provoking in the way we view animals, because our actions towards them do in fact have a consequence in how they interpret them, and it made for one scene in particular that might just explain why your house is destroyed when you leave your pets alone for a long time. “The Art of Racing In the Rain” explores creativity, and does so with several point-of-view perspectives that hint at the nagging disconnect between dog and owner, that makes miscommunication an inevitability.

– Not a kids movie. From Curtis’ sense of sadness that perseveres throughout the tonal capacity of the picture, to the underlying sense of optimism attained even after these moments of sadness, the film feels mature (Minus one poop joke with sounds and unflattering visual) in its desire to craft a dog film that requires a few more years of wisdom from its audience to properly sell its poignant themes. Keep in mind, this is a PG rated movie, so the material itself isn’t testing or even remotely daring in its approach, but I do feel that older audiences who understand the frailty and emotional attachment to an animal better will gain more from a movie like this.

NEGATIVES

– Horrible Green-screen. What a glaring negative for a movie whose production values worked during an array of racing sequences. The benefit comes from these beautiful long-takes that show Italian automobiles weaving in and out of the race track, but the negatives come each time the film cuts to inside of the car, showing a lack of direction not only on the weight instilled by the actors in what they’re reacting to, but also on this obvious texture of difference in color pallet that is depicted behind him. If this were once or twice, I could overlook it, but the same unappealing manipulation is a stable of these otherwise intense race sequences, relying too often in the muddling of cinematic effects instead of putting the actor front-and-center in the heat of the moment.

– Sappy dialogue. The over-abundance of racing metaphors throughout the film made me constantly roll my eyes, and soiled scenes of sentimentality with this poisonous cloud of Hallmark sap that overstays its welcome about a half hour into the film. At first it’s unique how the screenwriter compares life to a race track, with all of its twists and turns, as well as desire to keep driving through the rain, but after it’s repeated so much, I nearly shouted out in the theater “I GET IT!!!”. I haven’t had a problem with sports metaphors this badly since “Why Did I Get Married Too” from 2014, and while this film doesn’t stretch its metaphors nearly as far as Kevin Hart did in that film, it goes to the well far too often in reminding audiences of its sport in focus, supplanting a frustrating amount of track quips that tried their hardest to ruin the film’s heavy drama.

– Uneven pacing. This film moves like a breeze during the first half, taking us through Enzo’s initial years and family additions in a way that practically makes them an afterthought on what’s important. As for the second half, the film dramatically slows down and takes too much time on a particular court case, that while is a huge conflict for this man trying to keep everything together, does take up far too many minutes, cutting into the ending, which returns to the first half progression in terms of being rushed. What’s worse is this major conflict introduces us to an antagonist grandfather, who screams of cinematic obviousness in the same way Thanos did when he showed up at the end of an Avengers movie. He has these outlandish lines and abrupt character judgments that don’t feel believable in the least, and take away too often from the honesty of life that so much of the movie felt concerned with illustrating.

– Small things. There are a couple of things that play out in scenes that bothered me from a logical perspective. The first, a duo of cop characters who arrest a character without reading them their Miranda Rights or even addressing to them why they are under arrest in the first place. These are either the worst cops ever, or things are run dramatically different in Seattle, Washington. In addition to this, the film suffers from that overall lack of lived-in feeling from a series of pictures within the houses that show nothing of an aging process to make these feel something other than photographs that were taken merely moments before the director yelled “Action!!”. The last one involves spoilers, so I will say SPOILERS. DO NOT GO FORWARD. In the thought process of reincarnation, does names carry over from one life to the next. I knew a character would be reincarnated because the movie mentions it frequently throughout, but I didn’t expect this character to have the exact same name in their next life. Even for a coincidence, this is stretched further than Ventimiglia’s quivering lip in scenes of anger.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Hobbs & Shaw

Directed By David Leitch

Starring – Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba

The Plot – Lawman Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and outcast Deckard Shaw (Statham) form an unlikely alliance when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain (Elba) threatens the future of humanity.

Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Signature Style. As opposed to the cinematography of the previous franchise installments, “Hobbs & Shaw” is privy to a combination of geographic variety and intense shot compositions that vividly pay homage to the 90’s action thrillers that practically defied gravity. The chase sequences are easy to register, and more importantly don’t rely on shaking camera effects to sell the appeal of its adrenaline, and the music video style of neon lighting and absorbing cultural qualities constantly gives the movie a big stage presence that our colorful protagonists must adapt to frequently.

– Speaking of which, the action set pieces in the film are every bit as challenging in dynamic as they are diverse in props and creativity. This not only keeps the set designs fresh for innovation when it comes to methods of torture for our leading duo, but also allows them plenty of moments to chew the scenery when it comes to reacting to what they are being put through. It’s also important that no conflict or solution repeats itself, and this benefit helps us to see the intelligence factor between Hobbs and Shaw, as well as continue to build the chemistry between them, which grows before our very eyes. Some of these sequences are a little long for my taste, but the movie’s never-slow-down mentality continuously keeps our blood pumping throughout scenes of destruction and total chaos, leaving us very few moments of breath along the way.

– Bonding buddies. To say the work of Johnson and Statham is electric would be an understatement. Without question, the film’s biggest strength is the on-going rivalry between the two, which gives us plenty of laugh-out-loud moments of digs at one another, as well as plenty of moments of vulnerability that broke down the walls of masculinity that we the audience have become conditioned to. Both articulately balance this level of brute and humor exceptionally, and carve out two characters who are not only equal in storytelling importance, but also in the capabilities that each one has when the proper situation calls for it. Aside from these two, I also loved the work of Vanessa Kirby as this kick-ass M-I-6 agent gone rogue. It’s not often in this series that we get a hard-nosed female protagonist to counterbalance the testosterone that sometimes smothers these films, but Kirby’s snappy speed in execution and unintentional sexuality makes her a devilishly dangerous force to be reckoned with.

– Surprising cameos. In addition to the main cast that provide endlessly, the incorporation of some pretty big names in cameo roles were a pleasant gift that forced me to keep my eyes open at all times. I won’t spoil who they are, but one has been in a previous Fast and Furious film, and the two new ones are two of the biggest celebrities working in Hollywood today. What’s essential about their inclusions is that they aren’t their for facial fan service, but instead provide pivotal links to Hobbs and Shaw, both in and out of the field of danger. Even the case with one surprise star, it gives me a taste at this guy being in a movie with Johnson that I’ve always wanted, and proves that their chemistry is every bit as strong as the duo we’re left to spend over two hours with.

– Self-aware. This is a film that knows what it’s trying to be, and even more respectful, has no shame in the batshit evolution that its franchise has taken to this point. My measure for this is in some awfully cheesy dialogue, which allude to the point that this installment is the measuring stick for crossing over to the other side of sanity, giving us a series of crazy scenarios and big dumb fun that practically oozes out of every pore of the movie. Whether you like or hate this movie, you won’t be able to shake yourself of the intentionally fun time that this story and characters have with one another, and from the opening split-screen introduction to our two leads, we are shown the diversity between their backgrounds, which allow them to clash heads through no shortage of one-upmanship.

– Perfect director. David Leitch is someone who perfected his uniqueness in the 2016 film “Deadpool”, and that sense of personality in the heat of the moment, as well as his capabilities with shooting action sequences is definitely carried over to his latest work here. As I mentioned earlier, the camera angle versatility showcasing some crisp, believable fight choreography dazzles, and his ability to instill moments of awkwardness to the dynamic of this friendly rivalry that exists within these moments of saving the world allows it to break the fourth wall of conflict in the same manner that “Deadpool” did so unapologetically. While not as big of a slam dunk as that movie was, “Hobbs & Shaw” demanded and received a director who values action and humor hand-in-hand, and it’s in that desire to know what it wants that allows the most off-the-rails movie of the franchise to also feel like the most precise in terms of where it should be in tone.

NEGATIVES

– Plodding pacing. This starts to catch up around the halfway mark in the movie, as the abundance of action sequences start to catch up to the fluidity of the story’s minimal exposition script. It’s not that there’s even too many action scenes, but just that too much time is devoted to each of them, erasing the lines of the three act structure in a way that minimalizes the momentum that the movie continuously must start over building for itself. Likewise, the film’s 133 minute run time ends prematurely so four different post credit scenes can play out to shop another Hobbs and Shaw movie. If it were up to me, I would cut the break-in scene in the middle of the second act, and just spend more time on further fleshing out Hobbs return to Samoa, and the effect that his vanishing had on the members of his family.

– It’s a cartoon superhero film. Debating logic in a Fast and Furious movie is like counting calories at Mcdonalds; there’s no point. But the lack of logic associated with elements in the film is such a stretch that there’s simply some things I couldn’t overlook. Why is it a cartoon? gravity practically disappears from this world, giving us scenes of a helicopter pulling five pick-up trucks, no consequences in the world of law enforcement or injuries, despite some insanely devastating crashes for the latter, and voice-only antagonist leader, which inadvertantly pays homage to Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw. Why is it a superhero film? Genetic altering. Elba’s antagonist is made superior by a serum that makes him quicker and more dangerous. The problem is we aren’t told how this serum works or where it was even created in the first place. Beyond this, Johnson seems to be infected with it as well, as a scene involving him clotheslining a biker coming from the opposite direction apparently doesn’t snap his arm like a twig. This definitely feels like The Rock’s response to The Avengers not picking him for their team, so why get mad when you can get even?

– No urgency. The problem with making your heroes so cool is that it not only demeans the power of your antagonist, but conjures up no scenes of tension for the audience watching at home. This is the problem with Elba’s antagonist, as despite Idris doing the most he can for the role, the script simply doesn’t value him enough to make him anything other than a world-dominating baddie whose soul defining trait is his gruff vocal range that every antagonist seems to have. Johnson and Statham can’t be bothered in the least with feeling intimidated by their opposition. So much so that I feel the “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions” song by The Lonely Island was written exclusively for them.

– Plot convenience. It’s pretty cool that Johnson’s character conveniently knew not only where Elba’s gang of thugs were going to strike big during the third act conflict, but also what time they were going to be there, giving him ample time to prepare for such a force. Likewise, I’m thankful that all of his elite governmental group’s computers are so easy to hack into that three different non-governmental workers manage to do so in this film. If I went into the virus itself, this review would be 2000 words easily, so instead I will say this (SPOILERS…..YOU’VE BEEN WARNED) Viruses can’t be removed from a vaccuum. Once they are introduced to a body, removing them completely is impossible.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

The Lion King (2019)

Directed By Jon Favreau

Starring – Donald Glover, Beyonce, Seth Rogen

The Plot – The movie journeys to the African savanna where a future king is born. Simba (Glover) idolizes his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s brother-and former heir to the throne-has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.

Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Jon Favreau. Once again, Favreau instills a personal touch to a Disney classic, this time in the form of intense camera movements and character personality that give way to the more light-hearted, carefree atmosphere this time around. On the former, there are quite a few sequences where we the audience behind the camera are constantly in front of a particular character, engaged in a chase sequence that maximizes the urgency of the situation, and cements Jon as articulate in his captivation of this very dangerous world in ways the animated original simply never could. As for the humor, not everything lands (Especially unnecessary fart humor), but the abundance of comedic characters, as well as colorful ironies, gives way to an indulgence that makes it difficult for any cinematic snob not to embrace.

– Pacing. This Lion King remake is twenty-six minutes longer than the previous animated classic, and while that may feel like unnecessary padding in the form of storytelling, the few additionally original scenes that we are treated to better help earn the feelings and situations that come with Simba’s tale of vengeance. One of my few problems with the animated original is that it felt like it was constantly in a rush to get to the inevitable predictability of the third act conclusion, but here the sorrow of those damned to Scar’s reign of terror, as well as Simba’s time away from home, better capture the dread of this dire situation. This time, we are actually treated to examples of Scar’s authority in the form of specie extinction, and not only does this further flesh him out as an intolerable antagonist, but it also gives much needed attention to the victims of this story, who were otherwise forgotten in the previous film.

– Female empowerment. Speaking of characters forgotten, the lack of female influence was also something that greatly bothered me from the original film, but here is given great importance to everything that transpires. Particularly in the form of Nala and Sarabi, they play a much more pivotal role in the combat of Scar, with the former being a motivator of sorts to this army of misfits who come together as a family. I knew someone like Beyonce certainly wouldn’t be relegated to virtual arm candy to the male protagonist, and this much needed level of gender inclusion will undoubtedly inspire female audiences, young and old, in ways that very few 20th century Disney films captured. Say what you will about Disney live action remakes, but their finger of creativity is constantly on the pulse of modern day social commentary, and the way it’s done is accomplished in a classy way that doesn’t feel preachy in the slightest.

– Endearing cast. While the limitations of script condemn any of these exceptionally talented actors from making any of these roles their own, there are a few notable deliveries who I greatly enjoyed. The ones who come to mind immediately is the duo of Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as the lovable duo, Timon and Pumba. To anyone who knows these two colorful personalities, the transformations of their on-screen counterparts isn’t a stretch in the slightest, balancing vibrancy in comical range and elevated vocal capacities that really bring their character designs to life in a much-needed shot of adrenaline for the film’s second act. Also buzzworthy is John Oliver’s sarcastic wit behind Zazu that further outlines a serious character living in a care-free world. Considering in real life Oliver hosts a weekly news show, it’s perfect that he serves as the branch of airborne news for the film’s protagonists, and just as he does on TV, Oliver’s wordy dialogue constantly puts him a step above the game in terms of intelligence. It was also great to hear James Earl Jones vocalizing Mufasa again, as even at 88-years-old, the man still commands enough bravado and stern emphasis in demeanor to demand your attention like he does Simba in the movie.

– Transformations in set design. The one aspect that is live action is the dreamy backdrops of the African safari that are practically lifted from the pages of ambitious animation, and brought to life with an attention for detail that constantly impresses. The rock cliff is the easy part, as the familiarity of those stones would point to a huge tragedy in production if not captured authentically, but what amazed me were the shapes and designs of the small objects in frame that prove no spare detail was left on the creative room floor. For my money, the scenes of Rafiki’s cave, as well as Timon and Pumba’s home really impressed me, and served as a virtual checklist in creature and object extras that only further cemented the lasting power of the scene in the animated original. When a production is really good in a remake, you can point to a familiar object and know what is about to transpire, and the eye-catching three-dimensional quality to the lively sets and background props serve as episodic chapters in this modern day rendering of Hamlet stripped down to its bare bones.

– Gutsy. I was more than impressed at the perilous imagery in animal characters that brought back an air of 80’s child cinema that challenged for its gruesome content. That’s not to say that “The Lion King” will blow your mind with violence or gore, but rather if you absolutely dread seeing animals in these kind of situations, the movie will test you in ways that you weren’t expecting, especially from PG-rated cinema. But that ratings jump from G-to-PG has never felt bigger, especially considering the ambush of Mufasa’s downfall, or the camera panning of Scar’s demise, which for better feels a few seconds to late from the mauling that we catch before it pans to shadows. I admire a children’s movie that appreciates the age divide in its audience and finds a healthy compromise somewhere in between for the beats of its material that is easily more testing than any other kids movie in 2019, giving respect to the youth, while rewarding the mature for its evolution in the two films.

NEGATIVES

– Weightless. I say this in the form of computer generated characters that leave this live-action rendering virtually pointless, considering they are basically refined cartoons in the way they are designed. What’s even worse is the C.G is definitely a step below Favreau’s previous work in “The Jungle Book” live action remake, with hollow mouthing captures and overall lack of facial expressions that hinder your ability to connect with the characters. Both of these aspects make the dialogue exchanges feel hokey and lifeless in their enveloping, and quite often brought me out of my investment into this supposed live action story, to remind me of the glaring negatives in post production never immersed themselves smoothly in the progression of the film. I don’t expect actual animals performing in the movie, but it points to perhaps the biggest reason why this animated classic should’ve remained just that, serving as the beacon in a fantastical animated world where anything feels possible.

– Uninspiring. Just as I feared, the film is roughly a 90% shot-for-shot remake of the previous film, and while familiarity is expected in a remake, the level attained by this film is borderline shameless. Not only is the outline of events in the film transferred in the exact same way that it was in the previous movie, but whole lines of dialogue are ripped in a way that prove absolutely no creativity went into making their version stand out with even a shred of originality. While not a bad or even terrible film, “The Lion King” is easily the biggest offender to people like me who ask for something of substance or varied complexity to combat feelings of an obvious cash grab. Even if you haven’t seen this remake, you really have already seen this movie, and before giving Disney one more dollar of the life savings that you have already invested in their company, maybe go back and just watch the 1995 animated original. Key word there is “ORIGINAL”, an aspect this movie never will be.

– It continues. Once again, original screenwriters on the original Lion King movie aren’t credited in the credits of this film, despite writing roughly 90% of the remake’s material. I also pointed this out in the “Aladdin” remake earlier this year, to which a reader so candidly told me I was wrong. Upon a re-watch of the opening and closing credit sequences, I can confidently say that the names of those writers are NOWHERE to be found in that film, as is the case with this picture. As I’ve said before, If you aren’t going to credit screenwriters who are so obviously being ripped off, it is called plagiarism, and while this isn’t a problem to the casual moviegoer, it is the single most offensive thing to a film that is trying to market itself as a new feature length film that you should pump your hard earned dollars into. Only Disney gets away with this crap, and it’s mostly because that mouse touched audiences somewhere vulnerable when they were children. Cute.

– Musical performances. While the singing itself is strong enough in the movie, it was really the lack of fantastical pageantry within the visuals that left me yearning for more. I hate to keep going back to this, but the original animated film presented these in a way that is big and boisterous, catering to the big budget choreography musical nut in all of us. The problem here is that the movie’s grounded approach to realism limits the appeal of what it can capture with the magical essence of the song, leaving a dreaded damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t juxtaposition that will hurt one side of the audience regardless. The truth is, if they wanted a photo-realist story, the music should’ve been left out as a whole, but then you risk alienating the older audiences who grew up with classics like “Just Can’t Wait To Be King” or “Be Prepared”, and look forward to actual musical artists like Glover or Beyonce actually perform them. Speaking of “Be Prepared”, this film destroyed the psychology and momentum of Scar for the way they illustrate and include it into this one. It’s almost an after-note by the time you realize it’s happening before our very eyes.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

The Perfection

Directed By Richard Shepard

Starring – Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber

The Plot – When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences.

Rated R for scenes of brutal violence, adult language, and sexual situations involving nudity.

POSITIVES

– Uniqueness in characters and storytelling. This is a film that is obvious in how everything surrounding it plays to the plot twists, which shake up the direction and character arcs every twenty minutes or so, to keep it from being overly predictable. While no one person in this movie is entirely admirable for who they eventually become, the screenplay feels human in the perspective that the people involved are anything but cookie-cutter, and reflect the idea that society isn’t filled with a barrage of good or evil, but rather a majority of grey somewhere in between. This better helped overcome some of the flaws in minimal character exposition that plagued the film, but also gave way to exposing an interior psychological pulse outside, and constantly reminds us of the damage associated with abuse, in these characters becoming a mere shell of who they once were because of such.

– Gore for days. If you’re like me and appreciate a raining bloodbath of a movie throughout, “The Perfection” will stimulate you ruthlessly for how over-the-top it manages to escalate. This is a Netflix first film, so there are no barriers to the kinds of things the brutality can achieve, and it leads to a series of gashes and gross-out gags that are easily some of the most memorable of the last decade of horror cinema, if only for how the ferocity strikes at the surface of your skin for what we the audience can feel. What’s commendable here is that the editing remains restrained during these pivotal scenes, so as not diminish the attention needed to sell their appalling circumstance, and it reminded me of a bygone era of filmmaking where practicality blood over computer generated splashed with artistic merit, that wasn’t afraid to show its true colors to convey a message of high stakes splash. It’s a bit exploitative, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun for the extreme nature of its depiction.

– Mengege a trois of performances. The three faces that I mentioned above really dominate the spectrum here, and get so lost in the sinister details of their character’s that they constantly adapt to. For my money, Williams is the star pupil, as her combination of subtle unnerving demeanor and hole-burning stare made me feel a determination in her character, who will stop at nothing to attain what she seeks. Likewise, Browning really opened my eyes physically for how she contorts and dedicates her body to mastering this level of vulnerability that made you emphasize with her character, and brought believability to the kinds of things she was enduring. But man oh man, Steven Weber, where have you been? I remember this guy killing it in many films during the 90’s, but his role here as a seedy musical teacher might be his very best to date. Weber’s calculated, brash deposits make him the most important character of the film, and prove that the concepts of obsession don’t just resonate with the unhealthy determination of students, but also in the teacher who paints the environment that the poison emits from.

– Speaking of obsession, the film feels like a hybrid combination of 2014’s “Whiplash” and 2006’s “Black Swan”, for how it centers on this unhealthy objective to be the best in a particular field. Where “The Perfection” sets itself apart from the competition however, is in the underlying social issue burning deep in the modern day ‘Me Too’ world, that fights back with no shortage of expressive exchanges or unabashed vengeance that really made this feel like a fantastical retort in the way it’s presented. In this respect, the female side of moviegoers will definitely get more out of this than the opposition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because the way I see it, “The Perfection” is one of those socially reflective films that demands change from the world that inspires it, and it gives the film a positive message of bravery deep beneath a series of gut-wrenching blows and buckets of blood that really triggers an uplifting level of positivity for reflective filmmaking.

– The setting. I love that this film takes place overseas, because it gives the character’s a level of isolation and vulnerability for being in a land where they feel so void of friends or family to turn to when the shit hits eventually hits the fan. There’s this ominous cloud that fills the room not only with Asia as a whole, but also in this musical academy that accommodates the legion of upper class suits, and these initial shots that introduce us and engage upon the atmosphere are certainly the articulate tool used to measure that everything seen in these classy visuals and elegant lighting scheme are the expected to what’s really unexpected lurking beneath the surface level of soft smiles hiding sinister surroundings. What we’ve come to expect in horror film settings has become a cliche in itself, but the stages that this play takes place on gives an eye-opening approach to what has rarely ever been considered terrifying, and in turn gives food for thought on the ideal of the dirty deeds that take place in a house with a white picket fence.

– Evolving direction. This is the aspect of the film that I felt was so much more unpredictable than the plot twists themselves, as the first act of the movie feels very in-tuned as a seduction thriller, and one that feels provocative with enough tantalizing sexual mystique that lures you in to the lucid body language involved in the two protagonists. The second act eventually evolves into a bodily horror narrative, that will visually test your stomach in ways the provide emphasis for the dramatic tonal shift delivered in this film, but one that you can bet certainly won’t be the last. We settle down in the final act of the movie with an all out slasher tempo that confronts the growing conflict of this movie head-on, all the while preserving the bond of the first two acts that mold into a Frankenstein-fused finale that is every bit as consequential as it is poetic for the ringing social metaphorical power of the impactful final shot.

NEGATIVES

– Plot conveniences. One of the overwhelming aspects of this film to me was the lack of subtlety and overall convenience in storytelling details that so much of the twists rely on. In this respect, nothing in the film feels authentic or believable in terms of the way people interact, or in the way that certain elements are discovered to the knowledge of character’s. One such example happens within the first five minutes of the movie, when Williams’ character is on the phone looking for Browning, and POP!!! a billboard appears at that exact moment that shows she is a major hit in town. More examples could be given, but it would spoil what leads up to the first major twist in the movie. What I will say is that it pushes the boundaries of what could be measured and planned by any logical human being, and only stretches what we as answer seekers can firmly understand in tying loose ends together.

– Boisterous musical score. To say that the musical tones and audible soundtrack for the movie was distracting and invasive is an understatement. Not only is its ear-piercing volume a jarring distraction each time it’s included, but it constantly oversteps its boundaries on letting the dramatic elements of the moment play out without delivering some overly-obvious measure of audience interpretation that the composer feels we couldn’t have garnered without them. This isn’t even the worst audio measure of the film, as a last second rap track included feels so far out of place within the confines and audible tastes in the film that I couldn’t escape cringing for how over-the-top and spoon-fed it feels in the context of the scene it exists in. It was at this point in the film where I gave up all hope of musical nuance that usually immerses itself into a scene, but instead here is one step away from being presented louder than the attention of the actors themselves. Truly dreadful.

– Problems with twists. I was able to properly fetch out two of the film’s three plot twists for reasons I will explain later, but aside from this, I felt that the film gave the audience no capability in figuring things out for themselves because of the manipulative level of storytelling that limited our chances in the first place. Each time something new is revealed to the audience, the scene will halt progress, then jarringly rewind in a way that tells me someone has been watching “Funny Games” a time or two recently, depositing something that wasn’t even in the scene to begin with. My problem with this is two-fold. The first, is that the initial narrative isn’t taking place from any one particular character’s point-of-view, so we should see everything that transpires in real time because we the audience play the environment in this scene. The second is that the twists get sillier with each one that develops, further soiling the sharpness of the film’s beautifully documented brutality, that reaches levels of cartoonish exposition by the end of the film.

– Photography. This is where I picked up on the first twist, thanks in part to a particular frame that focused far too long on an otherwise unimportant object. Ignoring this obvious measure of visual storytelling, the film’s shot selection also suffers from an overly-inflated influence of Hitchcock inspired shots that lack a level of consistency for their involvement in this film. Distracting first act shots that involve a camera placement on an unorthodox object or even actor that doesn’t fit with the sum of its parts. On the latter of that statement, a last act struggle for power is shown from Williams point-of-view in a manner similar to MTV’s throwback show “Fear”, and unfortunately it misses out on the details of the fight, as well as the dramatic tension that never materializes because we have to fill in the blanks of what transpired away from our curious eyes.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-