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-

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Directed By Brian Lynch

Starring – Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford

The Plot – Max (Oswalt) faces some major changes after his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) gets married and now has a child . On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets a farm dog named Rooster (Ford), and both attempt to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget (Jenny Slate) tries to rescue Max’s favorite toy from a cat-packed apartment, and Snowball (Hart) sets on a mission to free a white tiger named Hu from a circus.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Improvements on all things animation. Illumination Studios has always been a distant third in detailed animation, but thanks to the tightening of illustrations that fills this film, arguably the very best artistic film that the studio has ever produced, they can start to bridge the gap of their opposition. It isn’t just one thing but rather a barrage, as the believability behind stormy weather patterns is beautifully rendered, the expressions of animals during the most extreme occasions adds more to the comedic relief, and even the 3D effects give an immersive quality to everything flowing in frame that warrants paying a little extra to see this film. With time, this studio will hopefully continue this trend, and offer so much more than colorfully vibrant backgrounds against a city skyline that offers plenty of familiar geography to place this story accordingly.

– Talented cast. Oswalt is a more-than enthusiastic fill-in for Louie C.K, but it’s really the work of Slate and Hart who take center stage in incorporating intensity to their often familiar vocal tones. As Gidget, Slate is a force to be reckoned with, juggling an infatuation for Max all the while proving to the audience the extent of her cunning intellect. As to where the first film showed off Slate as a lover, this one cements her as a fighter, and her emoting of Gidget is my very favorite of this entire franchise. Hart should stick with animated properties for a while, because the combination of eccentric deliveries and polar opposite vocal capacity in comparison to that of his furry rendering, makes him perfect for voice range capabilities, and the focus and attention given to his character practically begs for a Snowball spin-off that feels just around the corner. New additions are those from Tiffany Haddish, Dana Carvey, and a wise, weathered dog leader voiced by none other than Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. It rounds off arguably the brightest ensemble of comedic actors in quite some time, and prove that their talents serve a much bigger purpose than just physical humor in sight gags.

– Fluffy run time. This one clocks in at a measly 77 minutes, and with sharing time between three respective story arcs does so in a way that keeps the eagerness and intensity of the storytelling firmly in grip with regards to a youthful audience that sometimes slip away during slow periods of exposition. While this does create some problems for the fluidity of the transitions, which I will get to later, the confidence donated to each vital character receiving their own conflicts in the story gives the movie a three-movie-for-one quality within its pages that practically forces movement in the casual three act structure that can sometimes omit itself invisible in family genre cinema. There was never a time when I was bored or antsy watching this movie, and much credit goes to the producers of the film for knowing just how far to stretch each story before it becomes something in depth that it rightfully shouldn’t.

– Intelligence in gags. I said this about the first film, and it’s something that continues in this movie. The way the film takes real moments of familiarity from the pets in our own lives, and adds a layer of profound poignancy to each situation is something that not only reaches for audience participation, but also does so in a way that will have you intentionally remembering the occasions from this movie once you go home. This gives the film and its material a consistency in shelf life that many films in modern day don’t attain, and speaks volumes to the levels of attention that screenwriters Chris Renaud and Jonathan Del Val engage in to contrast with their audience’s. In that respect, the material itself feels very much fleshed out from real life, and performed in an exaggerated way that works because of its small amounts of truth that derive from these very humorously humbling moments of love from our best friends.

– Pre-credits rap video. I won’t give away much here, but Kevin Hart’s dream to be a rapper comes full circle in a spoof of a familiar rap track from the previous couple years that is given new context thanks to the world surrounding his character. Not since 2006’s “Waiting…” has a post-movie performance left such a lasting impression on me, and the work of creativity in rhymes combined with the sheer lunacy of the situation in mid-day form, makes this moment the one that stands out the most for me in terms of comic lasting power, and non-surprisingly gives the original track, which I hated tremendously, a new lease on life. If this song was heard on the radio even half as much as that original song, then I would be fine with it.

– Strong positive message. As is the case with every kids movie out today, this one has a takeaway message that bonds its respective subplots together for one cohesive beat, and it’s the importance of overcoming fear. Especially with younger audiences, this message will ring true from within them, because it’s at that age where battling adversities prepares them for the war that is adolescence, and it’s something that resonates on-screen in each of the fears that the main character’s have to overcome for the sake of their developments. If an on-screen message is presented strong enough, kids will take even more away from it, and thankfully the film never feels overly preachy or even condescending in the message it sends the next generation of adventure seekers home with.

NEGATIVES

– Incoherent structure. As I mentioned earlier, there are three different subplots competing for time, and while this does wonders in keeping the attention of younger audiences, it does nothing for experienced moviegoers who know how important seamless transitions really are to the progress of a particular narrative. The outline of each story feels episodic, mainly because of unshakeable predictability and adjacent plotting, which does the film no favors in establishing its story as a group effort like the first movie. Because of this triangle of direction, the script itself forgets certain early angles established early on (See Max’s protection of little boy) that would make great films on their own, but are relegated to split screen time with other stories not half as compelling. For my money, the Snowball story could easily be stretched out for his own spin-off, leaving the branches of the other two somewhat connected plots feeling cohesive because of the way one is the effect of the other’s cause.

– Lack of weight. The conflicts from this movie are practically non-existent, thanks in part to resolutions that often come too fast, and a shoe-horned antagonist character who feels completely wrong for this world. On the former, I could’ve used more time for fear or tribulation for the character’s embattled with their respective conflicts. This is where ten or fifteen minutes of additional screen time could’ve further fleshed out the urgency and vulnerability of these small pets in a big world setting, and given way to further audience participation who have shared the struggles that each character has gone through. As for the antagonist, it’s the loudest reminder that this is a cartoon kids movie, complete with bulging eyes, black ensemble, and a hatred for animals for no other reason than the script asked for it. Quick question, how many times have you seen a villain who owns an abusive zoo, where the protagonists have to rescue said animals from his clutches? If you’ve run out of fingers, so have I.

– Plot holes. When you consider that this is virtually a “Toy Story” ripoff, you must consider the rules established within the world that make absolutely no sense when you consider a sprinkle of logic. For one, many of these pets go missing for long periods of time that make me question why no human owner is freaking out about where they’ve gone. In addition to this, there are certain instances in the film where believability is stretched further than a “Fast and Furious” lesson on gravity. Some of my favorite examples are a dog outracing a train, two dogs riding a remote controlled toy car without it tipping over or losing speed, and a psychopathic old woman character who not only commits murder, but also sees no problem with owning a Siberian tiger. Considering much of this film is set-up with real world ideals and consequences, these instances soil the authenticity of the engagement, and disappointed me for how these films are still insulting the intelligence of their youthful audience.

– Additional complaints. While this will only be a problem for people who see advanced screenings of this film, the inclusion of a behind-the-scenes introduction that plays before the film is more than just a little spoiler-filled for the gags it gives away. Why would you include something like these before the film plays? It renders the power of your laughs weak because the audience has already seen it before the movie starts, and just feels redundant once it comes around in the movie itself. The trailers for this film were actually solid, in that they didn’t give much away other than spare instances of familiarity of the pets in our own lives, but this production video did absolutely no favors in those regards, and took away from material that by its own merits was effective at garnering a laugh or two on its original run through.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

A Dog’s Journey

Directed By Gail Mancuso

Starring – Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Kathryn Prescott

The Plot – Bailey (voiced again by Josh Gad) is living the good life on the Michigan farm of his “boy,” Ethan (Quaid) and Ethan’s wife Hannah (Helgenberger). He even has a new playmate: Ethan and Hannah’s baby granddaughter, CJ. The problem is that CJ’s mom, Gloria (Gilpin), decides to take CJ away. As Bailey’s soul prepares to leave this life for a new one, he makes a promise to Ethan to find CJ and protect her at any cost. Thus begins Bailey’s adventure through multiple lives filled with love, friendship and devotion as he, CJ  (Prescott), and CJ’s best friend Trent (Henry Lau) experience joy and heartbreak, music and laughter, and few really good belly rubs.

Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Canine control. These movies more than others have a tight grasp on the often times tricky art known as animal acting, but the crisp editing and grounded stunt work from these furry creatures make each of their influences on the scene feel seamless. It helps that most of these sequences are given ample time between cuts, keeping the cut-and-paste option minimal, all the while allowing the dogs to muscle out the commands they are being given. Never once in the movie did I feel the air of cinema magic for brash difficulty in attainability, and this more than anything is the biggest testament to Mancuso as a leading hand, for the way she brings extraordinary precision out of grounded requests from her four-legged co-stars, closing the gap between human and animal actors with a commitment to craft that goes a long way.

– Speaking of human performances, the work of the collective cast here is a majority solid. Quaid is back with his second film in a week, but this time it’s to showcase the sweet and sensitive side of his demeanor that outweighs the hammy nature of his dialogue. Likewise, Kathryn Prescott also carves out confidence in maintaining roughly 60% of the movie. Mancuso keeps the story firmly in-tow with her character, and throughout a series of dramatic beats and life-altering events, Prescott proves her emotional registry being years above her cinematic inexperience. Also, as Bailey the dog, Josh Gad is once again every bit as infectious as he is connected to the audience he engages with. Gad rarely has trouble emitting the energy that each scene requires, and through a healthy amount of audible narration, we are given ample time with the continued presence over the story, who takes us through all of life’s unique quips and quirks.

– Further developing of human protagonists. This is arguably the biggest difference from the first film, as the sequel sticks closer to this dog’s interaction with just the one family, as opposed to the many it came across in reuniting with its original owner. This allows the script to enhance our investment into their story-time dynamics, as well as cutting out a lot of the unnecessary padding associated with pushing the reset button every time Bailey dies, giving us a natural flow of pacing for the plot that (Lets be honest) is the main thing we care about with these movies. In doing this, I found a strong interest with CJ’s well-being, as well as the tumultuous uneasiness that her family is left with after many instances of dramatic tension formed from misunderstanding. It proves that “A Dog’s Journey” values the human protagonists every bit as much as man’s best friend, and can succeed a lot easier with an audience when it sets them on equal footing.

– Mature themes for family audiences. I value a kids movie so much more when it treats the youths with the respect associated in guiding them through meaty material without truly testing the limits of a PG rating. Likewise, the material itself doesn’t suffer a hinderance in effectiveness because of such, taking us through themes of alcoholism, abandonment, reincarnation, and even cancer that constantly keeps them on their toes. To a certain degree, you could say that each of these are used in manipulative ways that damned the first movie from receiving a passing grade from this critic, but the unraveling of events feels natural here, and not necessarily catering to a meandering cause. It’s all about educating its youths in ordinary circumstances which some of them will someday be confronted with, and it elevates the dramatic tension of the film effectively because of its upping of stakes from the first movie.

– Detailed make-up and prosthetics. While only used for one scene and two character’s in the movie, the film’s use of natural aging enhancements feels naturally convincing and reflective of the time that has passed from when we last saw them. This was one of my biggest concerns with watching the trailers, as the film’s multi-decade progression was depicted without any of the scenes of these actors after their separation, but thankfully the surprise was saved for the film itself, and it does so with a modest amount of wrinkling cream, glasses, and wigs that go a long way where computer graphics aren’t necessary. These kind of effects normally do cost more in studio productions, but the integrity of realistic visual effects is something that I commend it greatly for, and I hope it’s a healthy direction that many more films will follow with it.

– Important life lessons. This is especially, but not limited to, youthful female audiences, as the protagonist of the film becomes embattled with some internal conflicts that ages her well ahead of her years in terms of wisdom. Because of such, the film boosts and a message of resiliency and self-belief to young girls everywhere, educating them on the importance associated with entertaining the right choices in male suitors where looks certainly aren’t everything. In a perfect world, films like these would serve as strong poignancy pieces for the future females of tomorrow, but in the overabundance of intriguing details in the movie, it’s easy to see that it could easily be lost or overlooked in translation. Even still, the script takes an approach especially to adopted little girls, who have to blaze their own path after those they depended on fell off of theirs.

NEGATIVES

– Stilted dialogue. Much of the line reads and dialogue associated with still reek of hokey, obviousness, that occasionally makes this feel like a Hallmark Channel movie, instead of the big screen presentation that we’re supposed to feel. One such example is in the continuity of speech by Gad throughout a time-passing montage, that doesn’t make sense when you consider he’s in the scene he’s supposed to be talking over a passage of ample time. This makes it clearly evident that the film values audience narration over storytelling believability, and I wish I could say it’s the only problem associated with Gad’s narration. As well, it’s every bit as re-affirming as it was in the first movie, explaining to us audibly what we’ve already seen visually. It’s like being told every detail twice, and this occasionally gets irritating with the pacing and progression of scenes that should be shorter than they rightfully are.

– Formulaic redundancy. When I saw the trailer for this film, it felt very much like the first movie narratively, and with the exception of cutting down on multitudes of owners that I mentioned earlier, the film’s general outline feels very much identical to the first movie. This is the biggest argument in terms of why audiences who saw the first movie should see the sequel, and especially if you are against seeing dogs being put to death in movies, you should definitely keep your distance from this one. While only happening three times in this film, as opposed to seven in the previous installment, the death sequences themselves are very hard to engage in, and manipulative for how they focus on the face of the animal each time it’s at its weakest hour.

– Obvious foreshadowing. There’s certainly no shortage of this one, as the barrage of unnecessarily-bitchy supporting characters and out-of-nowhere details in storytelling directions, further flesh out the predictability in a story this minimal on depth. Because our central trio of character’s are such good people, it makes the bad ones feel that much more cartoonish by comparison, and because of this we can easily sniff out that relationships and karma are certainly not going to be on the sides of these miserable people. On the subject of plot foreshadowing, the film introduces a scene of cancer-sniffing dogs midway through the film that comes out of nowhere, and is given such an inordinate amount of focus rendered upon, that we know its elements will come into play at some place during the film, and re-appear they do, as a character becomes plagued in a battle with cancer that definitely benefits the convenience of this earlier inclusion.

– Outdated soundtrack. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible that teenage characters are listening to fifteen year old music at a hip high school house party, but the majority of such big numbers surely flock more to what’s current and fresh at the moment. In this regard, the inclusion of The All American Rejects, Phillip Phillips, and Matt Nathanson feel about a decade too late in marketing to the soundtrack hounds that attend these movies. In addition to this, the musical score by composer Mark Isham feels completely uninspiring and piano-repetitive throughout the length of the film. If I could watch this film on mute, I really would, but the importance of details shouldn’t suffer because the musical choices associated with the film feel like they are from a middle aged woman’s IPOD on shuffle.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Poms

Directed By Zara Hayes

Starring – Diane Keaton, Pam Grier, Jacki Weaver

The Plot – A comedy about a group of women who form a cheer leading squad at their retirement community, proving that you’re never too old to ‘bring it!’

Rated PG-13 for some adult language/sexual references.

POSITIVES

– Enjoyable cast. Keaton’s usual May fare is exceptional this time around, investing in a character who actually has a bit of flare and attitude to the usual types she has unfortunately become saddled with. In addition to this, the role has an unordinary amount of physicality to it, proving that age is only a number, and that Keaton’s persistent filmography is all about the way she feels in the roles she consistently takes on. As good as Keaton is however, it’s actually Weaver who steals the show as her sexually active neighbor/best friend. Jacki has had a resurgence of late in Hollywood, but Sheryl is a role that feels like she has invested the most of herself into, combining dry sarcasm and a no-nonsense demeanor that keeps the people around her constantly on their toes. These two are a delight to watch interact on-screen, and it makes me wish that the film, especially in the second half, would’ve donated a bit more to watching their unfolding drama play out with the attention that it rightfully deserves.

– Snappy comic dialogue. I’m not ashamed to say that I laughed a lot in this film, despite the fact that its outline is typical set-up for adult comic sitcoms. Hayes biggest strength as a director is in the polished timing that each of ladies exert on the conversations, allowing enough time to soak the punchline of the material in without taking away from the pacing and progression of the scene, and it conjured up an effectiveness that struck a funny bone within me around 70% of the time. Perhaps it’s the awkwardness of seeing senior citizens in these unconventional situations, or the fact that Hayes knows her audience very well. Either way, “Poms” infectious material is a pep rally of timely dialogue and classy sight gags that is easily one of the more feel good films of the spring movie season.

– Crisp editing. This accomplishment is two-fold. The first is its enhancement of the dual scene jokes that require a sharp slice between to truly sell them. An example of this is a character who is repeatedly told by her husband that she can join the cheerleading group over his dead body, and then cuts to his funeral. While morbid in its punchline, the editing does convey the point with blunt force that reaches for the laugh as quick as it can. The second thing the editing is used for is the dance routines themselves, which attain a level of professionalism to them, thanks to a barrage of quick-cut edits that help maintain the intensity of the number. When you especially consider how little edits were used early on in the group’s routines, and how inexperienced they looked, it’s remarkable that the closing number establishes a feeling of the group growing together as a unit, making what they accomplish that much more believable because of talented editing that is always one step ahead.

– Profound examples of senior treatment. This is perhaps the biggest reason to see this film, as the depictions by higher authority and youthful outsiders feels every bit as honest as it does absorbing. As someone who works in a senior citizens community, I can say that the transition into assisted living isn’t always the easiest. It leads to a loss of freedoms that they never choose to happen, but are relegated to thanks to the effects of aging. For where that plays in “Poms” is the interaction with high-schoolers, who are often too immature to understand that these are people who were once where they now stand. As well, the overprotective family member, who often oversteps his boundaries for better of the person in question. Hayes touches on this multiple times in the film, and I appreciate the focus given to such an often overlooked plague that hinders the spirit in senior citizens long before anything else sets in. These are people who wish to live their lives as similar as they did before they moved into this community, so the best we can do is support that yearning for routine.

– An easy sit. At 86 flimsy minutes, “Poms” is one of the easier watches that I have had in quite sometime, and this is in part due to the progression in scenes that rarely stalls or remains in place for too long. This is a movie that continuously shifts from one setting to the next, and I feel that movement helps vitally in keeping this film from being something that it doesn’t necessarily need to be, in the idea of unnecessary padding. Each act here is given ample time to prove its weight to the progression of the story, and it helps even more that Martha (Keaton) is a protagonist who we can get behind, especially for the secret conflict that she is keeping from her friends. We, like the pacing of the film, embraces her growing connection between them, allowing us to invest in the group’s dynamic thoroughly while maintaining the care-free attitude of the minutes that are passing off-screen.

– Gorgeous setting. Sunnyside Acres is a place that I want to live in, if only for the inordinate amount of suburban ranches that stretch as far as the eye can see. Keaton’s character even comes from a New York apartment, so her move is a definite upgrade. In addition to the gorgeous housing quarters, the benefits of multiple heated pools, sports courts and alley’s, and the ideal weather that always lives up to its name, definitely puts the audience in the frame of mind that this place is unlike anywhere else you’ve ever seen, and it better translates the immensity of the change in Martha’s life that now comes at her in every possible direction. It proves that the film definitely took some time in scouting the proper locations to keep this from feeling like a stage-style setting, and the absorbing quality of the film’s desirable setting is one that I seek permanent residency at.

NEGATIVES

– Clunky soundtrack. I hated the soundtrack for two reasons. The first is because the familiar beats of modern day pop music don’t mesh well with the age grouping of the cast and audience that accompany it. I understand that they need dance tracks to sell the dance sequences, but surely there are more timely appropriate measures to be taken with the music director who tied everything together. The second reason is because it feels too desperate and obvious to include any track that has been on the top 40 in recent years. From a personal level, I don’t enjoy one of these songs on the radio, and when I hear them in a film where their inclusion feels completely inappropriate, it culminates in an opportunistic feel that reeks of studio involvement.

– For the sake of it. There are measures taken with a trio of antagonist characters and two dramatic inducing situations that happen for no other reason than the movie calling for it. On the former, the film’s three antagonists have no serious motivation to go after these women, and it almost gets to cartoonish levels of evil by the time is over. What’s even more convincing is if you take these scenes out of the film, you trim about ten minutes from the run time and lose nothing of substantial value because of it. On the subject of the situational drama, these can easily be solved with even a shred of intelligence that so obviously did not go into them. As an example, one scene deals with the ladies creating a diversion to break out one of their crew free from their overbearing son. MINOR SPOILER – It ends with them throwing a rock through his car window, and they sneak around the back of the house to pull her through the window. Couldn’t they have just done this without throwing a rock? Won’t it be even more difficult to accomplish since they have to go back out front to the bus anyway? Then there’s the conflict of them needing a place to practice since a power hungry manager is cutting their time down. There are literally hundreds of places on this campus that they could practice. The film even realizes this midway through, as they start practicing in Martha’s garage.

– No exposition for supporting cast. It’s a bit frustrating that the film really only builds two women throughout the entirety of this film, and it leaves some credible actresses like Grier, Rhea Pearlman, and Phyllis Sommerville appearing without much emphasis behind their inclusion other than to fill a quota. For my money, the film could’ve omitted its antagonist desire in favor of further establishing these ladies for the importance they deserve. It would make your interest in the overall group that much tighter, and cement the screenwriters for having depth in writing beyond just the table dressing of the plot.

– Montage sequence overkill. Everywhere you look in this film, there’s a musical montage to shortcut the values and importance that exposition sets, and it gives the film a frequent feeling of fast-forward that does more harm than value for the believability of the routines. If I’m remembering correctly, I am currently counting eight different musical montages. This would be overkill for a 90’s underdog sports movie, and even worse for a film that doesn’t necessarily require these huge jumps in a time frame that isn’t that immense to begin with. It’s an overdone cliche that reaches ridiculous levels of incorporation by the end of the film, and triples the numbers of times that we actually see the group doing their thing without cut and paste.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Detective Pikachu

Directed By Rob Letterman

Starring – Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton

The Plot – The story begins when ace detective Harry Goodman (Paul Kitson) goes mysteriously missing, prompting his 21-year-old son Tim (Smith) to find out what happened. Aiding in the investigation is Harry’s former Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (Reynolds): a hilariously wise-cracking, adorable super-sleuth who is a puzzlement even to himself. Finding that they are uniquely equipped to communicate with one another, Tim and Pikachu join forces on a thrilling adventure to unravel the tangled mystery. Chasing clues together through the neon-lit streets of Ryme City, a sprawling, modern metropolis where humans and Pokémon live side by side in a hyper-realistic live-action world–they encounter a diverse cast of Pokémon characters and uncover a shocking plot that could destroy this peaceful co-existence and threaten the whole Pokémon universe.

Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements.

POSITIVES

– Easily the most accessible of the Pokemon films. In straying a bit from its conventional roots, “Detective Pikachu” is able to accommodate to a bigger audience, all the while remaining faithful to its world building and rules that have garnered legions of faithful followers for many generations. If you want to see a typical Pokemon movie, there are thousands of those, but putting its familiar furry protagonist in a noir mystery that touches on some surprisingly dark territory in material, gives the franchise new life on screen and in direction, which will inevitably make it all the more adaptable for audiences like myself, who have never been struck by the Pokemon lore. This isn’t the first Pokemon film that I’ve ever seen, but it is the first one that had me leaving the theater with an unshakably positive feeling, all the while solidifying my iron-clad views towards the importance of family, that the film takes with it throughout.

– Sparkling special effects. Pay attention Sonic, this is how you seamlessly immerse an obviously computer generated property into a live action background, without alienating the texture of color that lacks believability. Every design here is perfectly rendered and exceptionally detailed, illustrating the very fur and facial movements of the Pokemon creatures with an air of consistency that you rarely see in live action computer-generated kids movies. Likewise, the artificial destruction of some pretty intense and heavy action set pieces rumble the screen in ways that make them inescapable from what is transpiring, cementing a beautifully vibrant transition from animated movies that never leave much to the imagination in terms of what it loses in the transfer. If more live action transformations looked like this, I would gladly welcome the string of video game movies that will inevitably leave me braindead from, among other things, phony post production effects work.

– Cohesively juggling tones. What really surprised me about the movie was how it managed to evolve into this drama during pivotal scenes of emotional wrangling. Aside from the opening fifteen minutes, which feel like they set the ground wonderfully for a revenge narrative, the beginning of the film’s final act constructs a conflict within Pikachu, as well as one with Tim that is anything but the typical third act distancing we’ve come to know. Instead, it’s more about the discovery of the role that Pikachu plays in this progressing mystery, establishing a series of twists that add a fine combination of intrigue for the character’s, as well as a somber atmosphere of tension that adapts to being much more than a lazy comedy. With this film having such a resting backbone on the values of family and friendship, and how those aspects tie together perfectly sometimes, it makes this a recommend for the whole family, remembering to instill the profoundly powerful gut-punch literally moments before they walk out of the theater.

– Ryan Reynolds. Simply put, there is nothing that this man can’t do. While Ryan’s familiar vocal tones never experiment with stretching or tweeking to make them sound different, it’s Ryan’s timely delivery and enthusiastic energy in dangerous situations that made him the focus for audiences well beyond being the title character. When Pikachu is at his most vulnerable, which is roughly 80% of the movie, Ryan delivers his best stuff, emoting a cowardice side of the familiar hero, which certainly casts him in newly hilarious light than I’ve ever seen. His influence is felt so much that in the rare occasion when Pikachu isn’t on-screen, that the movie immediately loses the air of momentum that it builds each time his unshakeable sarcasm and endless wit isn’t there to enhance the interaction of his live action counterparts, and it’s one of those performances that will make it difficult to shake free from his voice, every time you watch a Pokemon movie from this point forward.

– The setting. Ryme City is about as cool a place that I’ve seen in cinema since “Blade Runner”, and it’s clear in the details how the current pays a respectable homage to the previous. The neon lights adorned on sky-scraping signs reflect beautifully on the rain-soaked concrete, and the assortment of opportunity-seeking businesses gives a lived-in feeling to capitalism that ranges even in the locations that feel planets away from our own. It juggles this strange juxtaposition, where the technology feels decades ahead of our own, but the similarities in balance for power and current business time fashions gives it a searing reality not far from where we currently stand. Overall, it gives the location a timeless feeling, which in turn will allow it to age gracefully as the years pass by.

– Easter Egg reference. This is about as unexpected as you can get for a hidden Easter Egg, but I tip my hat for a lengthy amount of time, for the way this film managed to include a reference to my favorite Christmas movie of all time. Even more incredible is that this reference within a reference was created especially for that Christmas movie, so the use of its inclusion is obviously an homage to this movie, and plays incredibly for how it plays simultaneously with the crime noir narrative that is playing out before our very eyes in Ryme City. Despite that movie and this one feeling legions apart in terms of similarities, the way it is inserted is every bit as clever as it is commanding of the attention of moviegoers for the way it practically takes over the scene right from our actors in frame.

NEGATIVES

– Exposition heavy dialogue. Sometimes the spring of knowledge feels as forced as a screenplay can make evident, and it stood as the one aspect (Especially during the first act) that weighed this movie down heavily in my final grade. When a new Pokemon comes on-screen, the film almost stops in its tracks to tell us who they are and what power they possess, and while it doesn’t conjure up the cliche of showing a visual stat-sheet like some films do, the overabundance of long-winded delivery isn’t far off either. I can understand teaching audiences about the character’s and backstories accordingly, but when a scene with an amazing actor (Ken Watanabe) is only there to serve a purpose for Tim, you have to wonder if there were easier and more believable ways to introduce this knowledge without the smell of obviousness dimming the potential of said scene, and it happened more times than I would’ve liked.

– Painful human character’s. There’s no one in “Detective Pikachu” who I related to on a personal level, and that’s a shame considering much of this story’s hidden narrative deals with you indulging and empathizing with these people and their newfound tragedies, and it rendered much of the impact of devastation that much more ambiguous because I couldn’t allow myself to fully invest in their bland personalities. Speaking of which, Smith’s Tim is a sludgy sap of moping reality, and his interaction with Newton romantically felt as cold as arctic temperatures, and about as forced as a spontaneous colonic volcano. The screenplay isn’t interested in developing them individually, so it builds them together in-tow, and as far as lead character’s go, these two aren’t nearly charming or confident in their abilities to get across the magic in their bumbling personas.

– Comedy power. While Reynolds makes miracles out of mirages, the overall landing power of the comedy in this film left slightly more to be desired, especially considering we’ve seen Reynolds at his rudest, in the R-rated duo of the “Deadpool” franchise. For this being a PG movie, it’s clear that PG restrictions were taken, and even despite Reynolds hinting at more adult material from time to time, the film’s firepower remains mostly grounded for what we expect from kids movies that demean their intelligence with sounds and flatulence humor. Aside from this, the film commits the crime of showcasing its best material in the trailer, leaving very little of surprise or payoff in the way of what remains. So if you watched this trailer and weren’t sold on the material, the movie itself won’t provide much other relief in that department.

– Problems with the mystery aspect. There are many here, and unfortunately they are made the more evident the longer the film goes on. The answer is predictable, the interrogations in dialogue and sequencing are repetitive, the plot holes in some aspects are glaring, and there’s simply not enough of a struggle for Tim and Pikachu in solving this case. Most of the latter problem deals with a 95 minute run time, which could use another ten minutes to help stretch the dynamic associated with team thinktank’s to illustrate how thick this mystery really is. The quicker they figure everything out, the more painful it is for the power of the mystery itself, and more alluding to this being a kids-first movie that will do no favors for adults in preserving anything mysterious. For my money, they could’ve targeted somewhere in between these age groups to offer something cryptic to both sides, but unfortunately the youth will get more out of these twists that are visible from a mile away.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

Directed By Joe Berlinger

Starring – Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Angela Sarafyan

The Plot – Elizabeth Kloepfer (Collins) refused for years to acknowledge that her boyfriend (Efron) was a serial killer. Her partner, Ted Bundy, became famous in the 1980s for committing several heinous crimes against women, despite her disbelief, who watched passively as the murders were unleashed from a very unique perspective.

Rated R for disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A unique perspective. While not satisfying of a viewer’s bloodlust, Berlinger’s film is unique, in that it depicts Bundy from Elizabeth’s point-of-view. Because of this, we rarely see Bundy in the act of violence, instead he seduces us in the same way he did his former lover, with an abundance of charm and wit that make him every bit as psychologically dangerous as it does physically. We don’t see all of the things he is accused of, so we, like Elizabeth, are forced to make a decision only on what we see, and in that direction it makes it very easy to comprehend why accepting Bundy as a killer was such a difficult measure to her and to the many who deemed him innocent. Even more however, I commend the movie for not making him out to be a martyr to anyone learning about him for the first time. The horrendous evidence and Bundy placements are still detailed in a way that pins it all together towards him by film’s end, and depicts him as anything other than the innocent bystander that he was setting himself up to be.

– Right man for the job. So many people cried foul at Efron being cast as Bundy, but I feel his job here radiates the charm and appeal of a dangerous psychopath tenfold, alluding to how dangerous it would be for any of us, especially females, to come into contact with him. While not a transformative performance, Efron hints at a dark and malevolent side just below the surface, but it’s his wit inside of the courtroom that cements why he was one of the first serial killers to become a newsroom celebrity. Aside from Efron, Collins’ mental anguish is well defined and meticulously articulated, proving that there are some situations worse than even that of the many victims. Elizabeth is proof that Bundy’s dominance still persists even years after he’s been taken off of the streets, and it’s her mental clarity that is given ample time for us the audience to get behind and support, regardless of the charm exuberated by our charming protagonist-turned-antagonist.

– Reflective soundtrack for the time. This film takes place in the late 70’s through the late 80’s, so the proper essence in collective audible enhancement is essential. Some of my favorite tracks for the time are featured, like “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James, “Do You Believe in Magic” by The Lovin Spoonful, and of course “We’ll Face This World Together” by The Tommy Smith Band, and they not only help with better placing the timeframe, but also in supplanting a subliminal message that echoes the situation of the couple front-and-center. For a Netflix only film, I am beyond surprised that the production was able to conjure up the budget necessary to include so many timeless favorites, and thanks to the imprint of modern cinema with all of its dark material, you will definitely view these songs in a different light from now on.

– Berlinger’s factual direction. Not only is everything depicted in the film based on factual evidence from the crime scenes and courtrooms alike, but Joe’s directed is commended for playing everything close to the chest. This allows his gimmick of depicting Bundy as this misunderstood soul of sorts to shine fruitfully through the duration of the film, leading to a final confrontation between the two main stars that brings everything full circle. This is how you do an introduction scene beautifully, because not only did I forget that the movie started this way with this examination scene, but it’s a scene that is so vitally important to the climax of the film, especially in how it positively contradicts everything that we’ve come to understand to that point. In addition to this, a credits sequence depicting the real life events showcase just how on-the-nose Berlinger was at mastering the looks of the sets and wardrobe of its real life counterpart, and the overall attention to detail in signifying that he was the right man for the job in handling this picture. Above all else, Berlinger should be applauded for crafting a different direction for the serial killer exploitation genre, and his film breathes newfound life into a haunting period in American history that really brought attention to courtroom proceedings for future telecasts.

– Perhaps my single favorite aspect of the film is the manipulation of lighting used to toy with the audience in all of its shadow play. Particularly in the establishing scenes between Ted and Elizabeth, there’s a darkness that clouds Ted with a sort of ambiguity that speaks volumes to what he is hiding from his significant other at the time, and painting him as this cryptic figure with a lot to hide. There’s also a daydream sequence involving Elizabeth’s first recollection of intimacy with Ted, and it happens with such minimal lighting that we can’t see his face or make out what emotion he is depicting at that particular moment, and it stood out as the one scene of unconventional between them that unnerved me in this film, if only for the uncertainty that lingers in the atmosphere during a scene when the couple should be at their most intimately strongest. It’s a fine use of technical articulation, and continuously hints that something darker and more sinister is beating beneath the table dressing of this master manipulator.

– Juggles many different tones within its atmosphere. It’s funny how well the moments of seriousness like the murders themselves play seamlessly with the audaciousness instilled upon scenes of escape by Ted. In a fictional screenplay, this would come across as hokey or even condemning to the opposite direction, but because these are factual events that played out in real time, we have to respect the art of the irony for its strange-but-true honesty. These scenes never soil the impact of the dramatic weight instilled upon the film’s many character confrontations, and even more beneficial, they hook the attention of the audience during sequences when you think this film is finally evolving into the darkness that we’ve come to expect with Bundy’s documented history.

NEGATIVES

– Stumbling pacing. Easily the film’s biggest weakness, as the first half of the movie is speeding its way through some of the more important building blocks between the relationship of Ted and Elizabeth, as well as virtually ignoring the passage of time. Ultimately, 108 minutes isn’t enough to tell a fully compelling Ted Bundy narrative, as much of the subplots associated with his cryptic parents, or his ability inside of the classroom are rarely elaborated on, giving a noticeable gap between tidbits of knowledge that will come into play during the pivotal third act. Speaking of which, the film’s finale doesn’t move nearly as quick or transcendent as the previous two, as much of the final forty minutes of the film is spent inside of a courtroom. This isn’t a problem for uneducated viewers, but for someone like myself who has studied this case endlessly, I could’ve used more emphasis on the events going on outside of the courtroom. For my money, this film could’ve used another twenty minutes to better solidify the believability of the relationship of the duo during the beginning of the film, as well as flesh out those additional details of subplot that the film rudely tiptoed over.

– Terrible title. I rarely complain about a film’s title, but in this case it is easy to forget, as well as far too lengthy to easily convey to other people. I understand that it has meaning within the context of the courtroom itself, as the judge (Played by John Malkovich) relates these words to Bundy, but they just don’t click for me as a proper title, and even as I type them repeatedly in this review, I still find myself having trouble remembering every word.

– Cheap production value. I can easily understand why the studio went the Netflix direction with this release, as nothing inside of it screams of big screen presentation to me. The cinematography is mundane, the dialogue is too on-the-nose to feel naturally convincing , especially during the initial meeting between Ted and Elizabeth, and the screenplay refusing to stray from the more universally established events structures this film similarly to that of a television movie of the week special. When I watched “Bird Box” a few months ago, there was nothing about the production that ever felt minimally capturing, but with Berlinger’s picture here, there’s instances of gaps where my immersion into the film was broken, reminding me constantly of the miniscule budget that is left to grasp at after Netflix pays a fortune for the right.

– In the shadow of a better film. Berlinger also directed the recently released “Ted Bundy Tapes” on Netflix as well, and this is great in regards to one man knowing the complete picture of this dangerous serial killer, but does this film in particular no favors when the comparison between them is brought to light. As to where the prior film nailed down the details of every single little tidbit of Bundy’s trip of terror, “Extremely Wicked” (Again, I’m not saying that stupid title) feels like the inferior piece for the stumbling execution that leaves too much information omitted from what transpires. It’s possible that this film would’ve gotten a higher grade from me if it didn’t come out within a couple of months of that previous better documentary, but with it still fresh in our minds, the current reviewed film feels like the cliff notes version waste of time when compared to the complete captivating story.

My Grade: 6/10 or C+