John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

Directed By Chad Stahelski

Starring – Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian Mcshane

The Plot – In this third installment of the adrenaline-fueled action franchise, skilled assassin John Wick (Reeves) returns with a $14 million price tag on his head and an army of bounty-hunting killers on his trail. After killing a member of the shadowy international assassin’s guild, the High Table, John Wick is excommunicado, but the world’s most ruthless hit men and women await his every turn, looking to cash in on a payday that will set them for the rest of their lives.

Rated R for pervasive strong violence, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– Picture perfect action sequences. The mixture of Tai Kwon Do, amateur wrestling, Martial Arts, Judo, and elements of Brazilian Ju Jitsu make for air tight choreography that went a long way in registering the believability and detection of every bone crunching blow, but it’s really the range of variety in settings and weaponry that really take the creativity in this film to new heights for the franchise. Horses, motorcycles, glass fortresses, and even a library are put to devastating levels of punishment, proving that Wick is adaptable in any surrounding with any object in his hands to use as a tool of terror. The sequences in the film are every bit as enticingly fun as they are brutally humbling, and it certainly makes for one of those cinematic experiences where you’re glad that you’re watching it in the comforts of a theater, as opposed to suffering the impact of John’s will fully realized.

– Invasive sound mixing. Like the visuals of the sequences that I already mentioned, the swift, echoing nature of the noises that reflect from a series of non-stop physical engagements put us front-and-center in the heat of the conflict. In many cases, the sounds create a stinging symphony of suffering that elevate gradually to reflect the intensity of the fight, as well as the urgency of the stakes that constantly hang in the balance, and the work of some brilliant technicians behind the scenes marry the elements of believability and precision with a finished product that audibly kicks your ass in ways that big budget action set pieces don’t cohesively articulate nearly as well. If you can close your eyes and make out everything that is going on in sound, you know you have an exceptionally tuned audible enhancement, and the post production work here should never be understated for the way it reflects the speed and spark of the dynamic.

– New and familiar faces. Halle Berry is an excellent addition to the film, despite her only being in the movie for around fifteen minutes. Berry, like Reeves, endured months of physical training and target practice to capture the essence of the character, and as Sophia we meet a woman who despite being wronged by Wick somewhere in life, knows and appreciates the value of paying your dues. She etches out the female equivalent to Wick’s trilogy of terror in a few spare scenes, and Berry’s cunning intellect and vicious lack of empathy left me wanting a movie of her own to further illustrate the jaded backstory of this character. No surprise however, Keanu continues to be in the driver position. As Wick, Reeves again brings such uneasiness and commanding attention to the cold, blank stare that constantly outweighs the mental chess game he plays with his opposition, and as good as Reeves is in physical combat, it’s the ounce of humanity left in him for the people he loves that is easily the most indulging trait for me personally, and Keanu proves once again that this franchise has plenty of miles to go thanks to a protagonist who literally travels them for the positivity of the picture.

– The story. While not my favorite Wick movie in this regard, it’s nice to know that even three chapters into this saga, we are still learning vital pieces of information about our mysteriously vicious figure. In this regard, the world-building introduced in the second movie is further realized in this one, bringing forth a global domination in expansive scenery that vividly articulates the stakes that Wick’s opposition are guiding against him. Likewise, many elements of Wick’s past, particularly his training and schooling, are further elaborated on, presenting us with the most revealing aspects of John’s life in molding who he has become today. Despite as much screen time being donated to seven different thrilling action sequences, the unraveling of the narrative is the true meat of the story that adds layers of depth to the value of the character, and in just three films, it proves that the best cards about the character are still being played, issuing strong confidence for future chapters that never put anything in front of the character.

– Consequences. This is the overall theme of the movie and really the entire franchise when you think about it. It’s interesting to see what has evolved as a result of a bunch of punks killing a dog in the first movie, and that value for the effect from the cause resonates strongly throughout the many interactions and relationships associated with Wick. This gives the plot a very cerebral setting, in that we, like Wick, must think several moves ahead in the lightning flash industry of hired killers, or risk sealing our fate long before we ever realize it. When you really think about it, this presents an even more elaborate level of unpredictability to the dangerousness instilled by Wick fighting for his life every single second of every single day, and in a Butterfly Effect Dickensian spirit, makes me wonder what kind of roads for John have already been paved in future installments, thanks to the decisions and actions taken in this movie. It’s strange to commend a John Wick film for feeling philosophical, but “Parabellum” gives meaning to the mayhem, all the while conjuring up a profound idea of awareness that will eventually be the means to an end for all of us.

– Lavish imagery. Setting a film in New York is certainly nothing new for cinema, but the Big Apple depicted in “Chapter 3” reaches the heights of “Blade Runner” or “Ghost in the Shell” in terms of these immensely blinding billboards and unshakeable neon influence that soaks the wet streets with a sizzle of style that illustrates a timeless look in cinematography. But not all of the visual seduction is outside, as the interiors of the Continental Hotel, as well as a Casablanca getaway by Wick also charm us with a sophistication in lifestyle that gives luxury to such a devilish business. The former has no shortage of glass, sure to play mind-games on the audience and protagonist similarly, all the while complimenting the glow of illumination that is beaming from the city that doesn’t sleep, and the latter constructs these wide angle depictions that capture the immensity and suffering of being trapped in the desert decay, among the sunbaked sand covering the never-ending hills. It proves how big this once local franchise has evolved, establishing a global presence to the third and most important chapter that spares no expense in contrasting geography.

– More personality. There’s always been laughs sprinkled throughout John Wick’s previous two installments, but the consistency and landing power associated with the awkwardness of piercing dark humor really felt more prominent in this film than any other. What’s vitally important is that the juggling of tones never compromises the integrity of the film, nor does it take away from the intensity and stakes of the moment in hand. Especially considering so much of this film deals with an ever-increasing body count and dark subject matter, the natural flow of these timely sight gags and dry deliveries from Reeves feels like a therapeutic release to a building powder-keg of anxiety-riddled nerves that spring from these very violent exchanges. You won’t mistake this for a comedy in the slightest, but the inclusion of getting the audience further involved is always something that works in the favor for relatability, and proves that Wick doesn’t have to be a constant grump to get over with his people.

NEGATIVES

– Special effects. SPOILERS AHEAD. DON’T READ ON IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED. THIS IS LITERALLY YOUR LAST CHANCE. WHAT ARE YOU STILL DOING HERE? Wick loses a body part towards the middle of the film, and it leads to some computer generated effects that were sketchy at best in establishing the continuity of what’s missing. When something like this happens in a film, you bet your ass that I will be watching for it during the rest of the movie, and at the beginning of the big final war scene, there were more than a few instances where this once disappearing part popped up in more than a few candid frames that show it being fine. This is solely on the production department, as they really should be more careful with what to keep in mind in distinguishing marks, but I can’t give a pass to generation so lacking detail that it ruins the immersive quality of the scene, and this constant blunder became even more obvious the longer the movie progressed.

– Weak antagonists. This is a continued problem not only for this film, but the entire franchise alike, as these one-note, weakly written antagonists don’t manage even an ounce of weight for being able to silence the execution of Wick. In this film, the villains are even slightly over-confident, passing on many occasions to easily kill John, in favor of gushing about how famous he is in this inner circle of dangerous assassins. Likewise, the many stupid decisions by them gives way to one of my favorite cliches in Hollywood cinema, where a villain has to explain every single detail before they kill their opposition and collect the bounty. It leaves very few moments of vulnerability or urgency for our title character, and even worse, it takes away from the paranoia that the humbling final scene of “Chapter 2” gave us, where it felt like a whole city was coming after Wick. Here, the number is actually much less imposing, and we’re left with a barrage of idiots, who can fight, but lack intelligence in the smallest decimal.

– Those last ten minutes. Easily the weakness of the film for me, as the impact of a bad twist (My opinion), as well as the lunacy associated with being fine from an easily paralyzing blow from not one, but two character’s, completely sends the final minutes of this film to cartoonish levels of conclusion for an otherwise near-perfect action film. As to where the last movie was the highpoint for the film, teasing us in ways for the third film that sent your anticipation to a boiling point, the ending for this film stretches the boundaries of what’s possible from a very human character, who otherwise lived and breathed by the laws of gravity to this point. I expect to be alone on my feelings for this one, but I would prefer if this franchise doesn’t become one of those action series where you have to turn off your brain to enjoy. You know, “The Fast and Furious” franchise.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Long Shot

Directed By Jonathan Levine

Starring – Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael

The Plot – Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is a gifted and free-spirited journalist with an affinity for trouble. Charlotte Field (Theron) is one of the most influential women in the world. Smart, sophisticated, and accomplished, she’s a powerhouse diplomat with a talent for mostly everything. The two have nothing in common, except that she was his babysitter and childhood crush. When Fred unexpectedly reconnects with Charlotte, he charms her with his self-deprecating humor and his memories of her youthful idealism. As she prepares to make a run for the Presidency, Charlotte impulsively hires Fred as her speechwriter, much to the dismay of her trusted advisors. A fish out of water on Charlotte’s elite team, Fred is unprepared for her glamourous lifestyle in the limelight. However, sparks fly as their unmistakable chemistry leads to a round-the-world romance and a series of unexpected and dangerous incidents.

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

POSITIVES

– Evolving chemistry between the two leads. What’s so believably fleshed out about the relationship of our protagonists is the way that it’s given ample time to mature throughout a two hour runtime. When they reunite at the beginning of the film, they feel like nothing more than friends, and at that moment lack the noticeable spark that bonds them together. But as the film progresses, and they each help balance what the other one lacks, the distance of inevitability between them draws thinner, and it helps attain this level of earned romance that I felt would be my biggest obstacle going into this film. At their peak, Theron and Rogen blend beautifully well together, and the film goes all the way in cementing that growing connection without ever reversing because of their obvious physical differences.

– Profound political commentary. Aside from the gags and obvious fingers being pointed at one political party only, the film harvests a fine combination of satire in the entertainment and real world that brought more than a few laughs of familiarity to my viewing. There’s a network hosted by braindead anchors that is obviously a stab at Fox News, with all of its unimportant equations that go into discussion. Beyond this, the great Andy Serkis acts his way in a wig and prosthetics that brings former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon to mind. Finally, the film has a very unabashed honesty in the way it depicts female candidates, in how they are relegated to answering demeaning questions and negotiating with power hungry white majorities to house their ambitions. It proves that “Long Shot” has much more to say beneath its plot of opposites attract, and within it offers a social reflection that proves poignant for this romantic comedy.

– Effectiveness of the humor. When this film is in its element and shining as a dual romantic narrative with bits of classy humor ingested into it, the landing power is that much more consistent. This gets away from the kinds of raunch comedies that Rogen is used to, but unfortunately not completely. I will get to that more later. But when the screenplay focuses more on its ironies involved in awkward situations, as well as romance dynamic between its two leads, the film garners a level of being a modern day “The American President”, which it so badly requires to transcend the typical Rogen typecast, and make this a recommendation for all audiences. The crossover value is certainly there, all the while never alienating its Rogen enthusiasts, and landing what I would consider an astonishing 70% of gags that it illustrates. The humor inside succeeds without being entirely political, and proves that it has a bigger scope that the predictable laughs associated with a White House comedy.

– Delightful cast. Theron couldn’t give a bad performance if she studied eight months to give it. As this Secretary of State character, she’s strong, caring, and most of all blinded to the political and physical politics associated with the relationships that surround her, and carves out a refreshing female lead that we just don’t see enough of in 2019. Rogen is his usual stick, but with an air of untypical intelligence to his character that really makes him pop in this kind of elegant environment. Aside from them, there’s appearances from Serkis, Bob Odenkirk (As the President, no less), Alexander Saarsgaard, and my personal favorite, O’Shea Jackson as Rogen’s best friend. Why doesn’t Jackson have his own starring movie yet? This kid combines enough conviction in comedic line reads, as well as an illuminating smile to pay homage to the stars of the tinsel age of Hollywood, and makes any film better that he pops up in.

– Positive messages. Aside from the obvious table dressing in the movie pointing to beauty being skin deep, Levine is all about inclusiveness, and because of such harvests two motivational messages for the price of one. The first is about self-image, in that our leading lady cares too much about what her peers think of her decisions. The film alludes to overcoming those biases by being true to yourself, and only live by the rules set by one person: you. The second message, and more surprisingly compelling to this critic, was the desire to bring both sides of the political spectrum, Republican and Democrat, together to work for the better of the nation. This direction I found refreshing, especially considering the beatdown that Republicans take in satire throughout the film, but it makes me forgive when the script itself realizes the vital importance that coming together casts, hinting especially at not judging someone who doesn’t share the same political beliefs as you. If you put every message together, “Understanding” seems to be the common theme, and it proves that the heart of Levine is in the right place when it comes to the world that he is calling upon.

– Against type performances. Another thing that I find appealing to the dynamic of Theron and Rogen is the fact that each of them are working in a genre that they’re not typically used to. For Theron, it’s the rare comedy casting that we haven’t yet gotten from her until now, bringing forth a new side to her one woman storm that prove she has a distinct timing for intelligent humor. For Rogen, it’s viewing him as the leading man in the romance genre, that would probably be the last direction that I would expect from the lovable goofball. Rogen himself will tell you that he isn’t the first guy he would cast as the dreamy male protagonist in any movie, but his personality gives way to strong male morals like supporting his woman, equal rights among gay relations, and an explosive opening confrontation against Nazi’s that prove he can take a hit. It’s refreshing in films when one actor will walk new ground, but here we get two for the price of one, and it’s a team-up combination that will open up many new avenues for this star-studded duo.

– Levine as a director. One thing that I respect Jonathan for deeply is the fresh spin on a contemporary setting that offers a serving of poignancy within the world that transcends the screen. In setting this film in the current day, Levine signals that much of the film’s ideals, both sociological and political, could in fact be ours if we stop focusing on the pety, and like his previous films like “50/50”, “Warm Bodies”, and “The Night Before”, he challenges the status quo that we cement within our own ideals, and turns them upside down by offering the truth in the dynamic of screen and real life. This is clearly a director who is every bit as ambitious with his world building as he is with his comedy, and like those movies that I previously mentioned, touches on a lot of different aspects creatively that somehow each fit in to the narrative that he ties together wonderfully, and the depth instilled upon “Long Shot” proves that it might be his single greatest film to date.

NEGATIVES

– Tonal tug of war. For my money, the film is a comedy first movie with elements of romance sprinkled in throughout, and this all vibes wonderfully together, until these unnecessary instances of gross-out humor spoil the elegance of its demeanor. In this regard, the film struggles to nail down what it wants to be between a rare romantic comedy without any of the cliches, or a typical Seth Rogen movie, and what we’re left with doesn’t really commit to either side of the equation because it too often contradicts itself one scene after grounding its feet, leaving this film struggling for a directional distinction to get away from the tonal inconsistencies that occasionally feel uneasy from scene to scene transition. If we cut anything away from this film, it should be the gross-out humor that just doesn’t fit with this setting or plot, but somehow keeps finding its way to soil the sanctity of everything inside.

– Hypocritical stances. One flub that the film commits is in its ability to go back on its word in the morals department it establishes for its two leads, and soils them in a way that breeds hypocrisy in the very next scene. For instance, Theron’s character constructs an eco-friendly bill that will ease carbon gases being introduced into the air, yet she drives around this abnormally massive airplane that does exactly that. Not to be left out, Rogen also comes to the parade of hypocrisy thanks to his disdain for major corporations that we hear about on more than one occasion. He says this, and then mentions how much he enjoys watching Marvel movies. Small nitpick? Sure, but it proves that the screenwriters don’t fully value their character’s in a way that makes them practice what they preach, and in doing so make themselves no better than the very same people they criticize.

– Hollow third act conflict. Yep, there has to be another late movie distancing, but this time it is setup in such a way that feels so ineffective when you really consider what’s at stake. Without spoiling much, I will say that the Steve Bannon type that I mentioned earlier blackmails Charlotte with a recording that damns Fred, and he uses it as leverage for her to accept his endorsement. The problem with this is the tape in question is condemning to Fred, and not necessarily Charlotte, so where does it hurt her if it is released to the public? In addition to this, wouldn’t he be held just as accountable if someone tracks the source for how a laptop was hacked into to attain private footage? But it happens because the movie needs a conflict between Theron and Rogen, leaving me scratching my head wondering if this is the best the writers could come up with, why even include a conflict at all?

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

High Life

Directed By Claire Denis

Starring – Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin

The Plot – Deep space outside the solar system. Monte (Pattinson) and his daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey and Jessie Ross, respectively) live together aboard a spacecraft, in complete isolation. A man whose strict self-discipline is a shield against desire, Monte fathered her against his will. His sperm was used to inseminate the young woman (Mia Goth) who gave birth to her. They were members of a crew of prisoners who were death row inmates. Guinea pigs sent on a mission. Now only Monte and Willow remain. Through his daughter, he experiences the birth of an all-powerful love. Together, father and daughter approach their destination: the black hole in which time and space cease to exist.

Rated R for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– Elaborate set designs. It’s clear where the budget went with this one: in the highly detailed set pieces and intricate backdrops where roughly 90% of this movie takes place. Despite being shot with such tightness overall in photography, the variety of rooms and vibrancy in color filters, gives the ship an immense feeling of privacy, where ulterior motives lurk in the shadows of what we’re not seeing with any character at any particular time. Films aboard ships often revel in the claustrophobia of such limited surroundings, but “High Life” embraces the idea that life carries on for these prisoners, despite being virtually held against their will in a mission clouded by uncertainty, and the purpose established in the many different areas on-board proves no deficiency in scientific capabilities or living perks required to silence the sting of isolation.

– Gripping performances. Pattinson has his own gravitational presence in films. No other way to say it. This is once again another transformative performance, but one in the mentality sense, bringing forth a conflicted protagonist who is very much a wild card when it comes to his troubled past, which now leads to the shaky interactions with the crew in the present. Robert’s delivery feels very in-tune with the person spending a lengthy trial far from human civilization, and the nuance delivery that deep down tugs through a war of hopelessness that the character is juggling with within himself. Also in tow is a physically demanding performance from Binoche, who looks on over this cast of misfits as the poke that constantly keeps them in arms. As usual with movies concerning prisoners, it’s the authority that is the true menace, and Juliette’s dry delivery, complimented by an unflinching, blank stare, surrounds her with a sense of dangerous authority that we know we should fear, despite never seeing a single weapon or restrictive object of enforcement throughout the entire film.

– Lack of special effects. My biggest praise of Denis’ direction is her decision to make everything from the gravitational pull that the character’s experience, to the G-force endurance in speed, authentic in its manufacturing, giving the movements throughout the ship a feel of honesty that most space movies made today try to speed through in order to avoid complications. The cast and crew were put through a rigorous test of physical exertion that equally told the story on the facial registries of the actors, and stood as the lone adversary that they couldn’t act their way out of. I admire an immersive production like this for the way the ideal surroundings better engage the intensity of the performances, and Claire’s experienced hand constructs a world that is normally millions of miles away from our own, and grounds it in reality so that we visually convey what is transpiring in the uncertainty of the darkness that lurks outside of their shift, and it proves that some acting jobs require a bit more than audibly becoming a character for a few weeks.

– Revealing introduction scene done right. My biggest pet peeve in modern day films is even done superbly, as the initial images when the film opens visually communicates that the majority of this crew have paid the ultimate price in scientific discoveries, but as what should be expected with a scene like this, there’s more that meets the eyes. A scene this cryptic and ambiguous left construing my own theories about where the story was headed, and as I found out, I was satisfyingly wrong about those assumptions for the better of the film’s shock factor. Once you know the whole story, those early images, as well as Monte’s mental psyche, are given layers of depth to play into our understanding of what transpired, and it proves that even with a scene so revealing in the backs of our minds, that sometimes the truth is something far more unexpected than our minds could even interpret.

– Inescapable sound mixing. Without atmospheric audio overstepping the sanctity of isolation, a space movie is doomed, and thankfully the cutting and pacing done here by some highly qualified technicians remains as consistent as the gravitational rules introduced early on in the first act. My favorite scenes in particular are the ones where Pattinson’s Monte in suited up in a spacesuit, colliding with the audibly immense volume of space, only for us the audience to hear nothing, since Denis instead puts us front-and-center in the shoes of her depicted protagonist, and it gives an immersive quality to the scene that helps us better interpret Monte’s mission without using anything as corny or overdone as Point-of-view sequence. The sound here is the established blanket that continues to smother, no matter how drowning out the events inside of it seem, and its continued presence gives reminder to where we are, even when the depth and space inside of the ship can sometimes fool us into thinking that normal everyday life exists within it.

– Interpretive pallet. Denis herself has commented that the movie is about “Tenderness in space. It’s about truth, fidelity, and sincerity”, and while those themes are certainly evident by the many interior adversities that this crew face for being trapped inside for so long, I found a few others that brought a thought-provoking poignancy to the film’s material. Themes like personal desires, desires, passions, motivations to keep going, and the choices we make having an intended consequence on us because of such. With so many psychological questions like these, it’s no secret that “High Life” compares these themes in a setting so far from our own, and boils them in a pot together to ask the question if they can still exist despite the circumstance. The answer is an overwhelming yes, and it’s unique and even life-affirming to watch each of them play out when everything else we’ve come to know and expect in our own definitions of life has been stripped down and reduced to the bare minimum aboard this ship of no rights and all responsibilities.

– Time distinguishing. “High Life” is told with a non-linear style of storytelling that depicts as many as three different time periods being played off simultaneously, and something that inclusive can get confusing if the right visual steps aren’t taken, an aspect that this film has in spades thanks to some personal touches of production creativity that can be missed if you blink. For one, the plants inside of the ship’s garden double in size during the later scenes, giving an overcrowded feeling to the once maintained eco-life. The second is Monte’s hair color giving way to an aging grey. I do have some problems with the aging process in the film, which I’ll get to later, but it’s clear with how big these grey patches are that an ample amount of time has passed, further allowing us to distinguish what particular timeline we currently exist in. The final is the cinematography inside of the ship. During the earlier timeline aboard, there’s a sense of vibrancy and livelihood aboard, but in the latest timeline imagery of scattered props and a much more visually convoluted atmosphere overtakes our focus, and visually echoes what we slowly learn about the crew and this ship, with how it’s come upon some uphill climbs for each of them respectively. This is very much an artsy film that won’t appeal to mainstream audiences, and if you don’t appreciate the craft of filmmaking, you won’t care much for the technical achievement that is the central focus here.

NEGATIVES

– Sluggish pacing. In telling this story out of order with the non-linear style fashion that I mentioned earlier, the first act of the film struggles greatly with hooking up from the start, showing us only Monte and his baby daughter as they live life alone on this ship. It’s a dry period of storytelling that takes a lot of time to get you used to conditions in their life, without any use of accommodating information for a good 30 minutes before the rest of the timelines get going. Likewise, the script has difficulty telling multiple plots of suspense simultaneously to build the tension long-range for a big payoff. It seems like the film brings up a conflict, follows through with it, then settles it. Wash, rinse, repeat. It hinders the film from maintaining the consistency of momentum, and makes for a dry transition in between these scenes of extreme graphic detail that feel so forced and foreign from the sum of its parts.

– Uneven aging process. During the third act, we begin to see Monte’s daughter as a teenager, and what this does is establish how many years the duo have been in space, especially considering time is slowed down up there. If she’s arguably fifteen in this timeline, then they’ve probably spent roughly thirty years in space at this point, and it brings forth a problem with her male counterpart that not only lacks believability, but also doesn’t line up with the progression of time inside of the story. Monte has a bigger grey patch, sure, but that’s it. No wrinkles or sagging skin, not even the slightest attempt at production make-up, nothing. It’s a missed opportunity for a film that did its homework up to that point, and would rather deviate from the gravity associated with the passing of time, rather than to make its cute leading man lack familiarity in his physical appearance.

– Anti-climatic ending. This will probably be the biggest grounds for debate in the film, as the ambiguous final images leaves much interpretation for the audience to fill in the blanks. My problem with this particular case is the leaving to imagination never matches up to the build and suspense earned by the last ten minutes of this movie, where these character’s risk it all for a chance at life. Most audiences will wait to see the answer inside of this dimension of mystery, and be disappointed for the note that the film concludes on with providing those answers. Self-interpretation is one thing, but a total lack of resolution with a character (Monte) who I was firmly invested in, feels like a cop-out. Last images are everything to open-ended movies, and the one we’re left with here definitely had me wanting more, but the sudden appearance of post-movie credits forced the air of suspense to diminish slowly with an inescapable feeling of unresolved disappointment.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Teen Spirit

Directed By Max Minghella

Starring – Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe

The Plot – Violet (Fanning) is a shy teenager who dreams of escaping her small town and pursuing her passion to sing. With the help of an unlikely mentor (Grochowska), she enters a local singing competition that will test her integrity, talent and ambition. Driven by a pop-fueled soundtrack, “Teen Spirit” is a visceral and stylish spin on the Cinderella story.

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking

POSITIVES

– Beautifully captured world of pop stardom. The combination of hazy, smoky cinematography by experimental artist Autumn Durald, as well as the well as Minghella behind the lens, gives way to a visual aesthetic that is easily one of my favorite so far in 2019, and left me transfixed for a rendering of a world that feels so far from our own for its consistency of beauty in every frame. The smoke in the air seems to follow Violet throughout her story, establishing a feeling of a stage play come to life, as well as this unshakeable desire to be a star that overlaps into her daily routine. What’s even more effective is how the use of smoke further enhances the volume of neon effects that overtake our screen, and dares us to look away from the hypnotic lure that we embrace in the same way Violet does.

– Deep-seeded material. It would be easy to make a film that serves as your typical rags-to-riches story in teenage pop euphoria, but Minghalla’s screenwriting lends itself to some adult themes and revealing looks into this members only world that is sure to change our views on the price of fame. The film uses ample screen time to invest in the fear associated with young, pretty women and how they’re objectified on-stage, as well as the backstage politics of dealing with an industry that is constantly trying to change who you are and what makes you special. It proves that Minghalla isn’t just resting on the power of his visual laurels, and his power of the pen is sure to move audiences with some thought-provoking strokes of career building that gives respect and pays its dues to every singer who has come before it.

– Stage presence. I knew that Elle Fanning could sing before this film, but the choice to perform all of her songs is something that I give her great respect for, but isn’t the lone surprise that she captivates us with. As Violet, Fanning oozes a level of confidence, sex appeal, and dance choreography that casts her usual reserved demeanor in previous films in remarkably new territory, and it’s easy to understand why she was cast as this overnight superstar, if only for the way she commands the attention of those she sings for, directly into the camera. I do have some problems with the song selections, which I will get to later, but this is a completely vulnerable actress who leaves everything on stage, and never leaves room to question how much she studied for the role, as her moves and eyes mimic modern day singers to a tee in terms of the total package.

– Additional ensemble. Aside from Fanning, who is spectacularly captivating in this role, the work of Rebecca Hall and Agnieszka Grochowska are especially effective in their respective roles, serving as a virtual good and bad angels on the shoulders of Violet, but not on the sides you would expect each of them to be on. Hall is this devilish record executive who has clearly fooled many young kids before Violet into signing their lives away, and it’s every bit as refreshing as it is unnerving to see the kind of grip that Hall has on the slimy demeanor that seeps its way into the wish of every ambitious singer, without her ever feeling cartoonish or cliche’d because of ambiguous direction. Grochowska is however the show-stealer for this critic, harvesting the surprisingly comedic backbone and overall heart of the movie, in a way that makes each scene he’s not in weaker because of it. His interaction with Violet is something that nuanced its way into my heart, and established a two-against-the-world vibe in the film’s second half that instilled great intrigue to their dynamic, and made a star out of this aging veteran, for fans of a new generation.

– Captivating editing. This feeds into the visual presentation, but deserves its own mention for how it visually communicates to the audience in this music video style fashion that doubles as Violet’s psyche. When she’s on stage performing, we cut frequently to events from her past that may be in her head at that particular moment. They could be things we haven’t yet seen as an audience engaging her story, or not, but the cuts are as sharp as glass here, offering us thought for the food that we are feasting on in terms of the music she performs, and the fantastical depiction inside is foreign enough that we immediately pick up on its surrealism. It proves that even during scenes of pause from the usual narrative, the movie never stops feeding us these monumental things that the protagonist has been through, and it taps into Minghalla’s grip on the material that speaks volumes to this being a passion project for him.

– I commend the script for deviating from the familiar beats of the teenage dream formula, and instilling a series of curveballs for the audience to feast on, that challenges Violet to to rise above the adversity that is keeping her from her dream. Without spoiling anything, I will say that making her anything but a sure thing definitely helps materialize the idea of stakes and weight into a film that is about something as silly as pop music, and better fleshes out Violet’s vulnerability to remind us of the little girl inside who has come this far. Despite a familiar outline, this film takes anything but the conventional route, and especially during the social media era, there’s this accountability for actions that could soil everyone’s perception of who they see on the television, and really reminds us how these artists play to the gimmick literally twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

– Perfect setting. What’s effectively nuanced about this small island in the United Kingdom being the foreground for this story is the small town mentality of its citizens, combined with the weathered buildings and almost lack of color on the townhouses that mentally channels Violet’s frustration with living a mundane life with such a rumbling talent, and this, as well as a couple of montage sequences early on in the film, illustrated the struggles not only with a daily routine, but also in the claustrophobia of a place where everyone knows everything, leaving much to be desired with seeing the world and living for today. Because of such, Wight Island feels like so much more than just a location, it feels like a state of mind for the troubled protagonist, who spots an opportunity to rid herself of the condemning associated with simply settling.

NEGATIVES

– Not long enough. At only 87 minutes, “Teen Spirit” is too rushed in pacing and too minimal of an effort to further elaborate on the compelling drama within the third act, that otherwise ties up a bit too neatly to feel believable. For my money, I could’ve easily used another twenty minutes to focus particularly on this area of the film, and further depict the effects that a competition this immense has on Violet’s crumbling psyche. I can appreciate a movie that never lags or feels uneven, but the tease of a darker twist late in this film is simply too seductive to walk away from, and the film is left trying to run through many themes and subplots in the final twenty minutes, that minimalize the trouble.

– Issues with the soundtrack. First of all, let me say that I am a fan of artists like Sia, Ellie Goulding, and Robyn. Their music summarize a complete listing of tracks that feel like a virtual dream team assembly from someone’s Ipod, that they threw together without the fear of lawsuits or cease and desist letters because of such. My problem comes with how they compliment Elle Fanning’s particular tones, and vitally affecting scenes where we’re supposed to feel the power of her performances. With the exception of the final performance from Violet, the other numbers reach for precision in notes from highly unorthodox singers with near-impossible vocal ranges that humble her. The performances aren’t bad, but they leave more to be desired in those convincing moments where Elle falls a bit too flat to add anything of dimension to these familiar heavy-hitters.

– “Flashdance” remake? This is obviously just one of the many genre comparison that I can make, but the similarities with “Flashdance” in particular are endless. Aside from familiar beats and story outlines from the 1983 dance movie, the very song “Flashdance What a Feeling” is re-used in this movie, and it points to the biggest problem that this movie has: finding its own originality to deviate from familiar formulas in the genre. In this regard, it feels like I’ve seen “Teen Spirit” before, and likely will see it again because of the nature of derivative green-lighting, but Minghalla’s greatest feat in visual pallet is also his biggest weakness in terms of narrative redundancy.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Missing Link

Directed By Chris Butler

Starring – Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant

The Plot – The charismatic Sir Lionel Frost (Jackman) considers himself to be the world’s foremost investigator of myths and monsters. The trouble is none of his small-minded high-society peers seems to recognize this. Sir Lionel’s last chance for acceptance by the adventuring elite rests on traveling to America’s Pacific Northwest to prove the existence of a legendary creature. A living remnant of Man’s primitive ancestry. The Missing Link (Zach Galifanakis).

Rated PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor

POSITIVES

– Flawless animation. Laika Studios continues to be my single favorite animation design company, if only for the vibrant dimensions that they add to inspirational stop-motion animation. Aside from the impeccable attention to detail that has been documented at taking hours to frame a single shot, Laika adds weight and reaction to elements of water and cold, that are often overlooked in animation properties. The liquid itself not only splashes with layers of believability, but also affects hair and make-up on character’s that seamlessly transcends this manufactured art form. Likewise, the cold locations in the screenplay thrive with rosy red cheeks and breathing clouds of exertion, that better help contrast the rapid geographical movements that are present in the film. It proves once more that nobody works even half as hard at Laika, and they deserve our money in truckloads.

– Exceptional casting. Everyone meets the mark of desired impact here, but a few in particular stand out above the rest. Jackman and Galifanakis establish in chemistry with vocal work what some duo’s don’t master side-by-side in multiple film installments, and it’s the interaction between them that helps better flesh out the personalities of their character’s that sometimes goes undeveloped. Jackman’s straight man routine and Galifanakis’ bumbling goofball vocal ranges are perfect for the illustration’s of the character’s, establishing an outline of transformation before our eyes that distances your mind from thinking that anyone else’s deliveries could work so fittingly with the combination of sight and sound that is playing out. The big steal for me however, was Timothy Olyphant, as a bounty hunter with a raspy southern drawl. There’s just enough familiarity in his delivery to identify who this is, but Timothy has the time of his life in giving raw, untapped energy to the role, that is sure to open more doors for him in animation opportunities. There isn’t a single actor who didn’t offer something compelling in the way of personality, and what’s more important is that none of the character’s ever rub together in striking similarities.

– A rare presentation. “Missing Link” was shot with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and stands as only the sixth animated film to indulge in such an expansive lens. Aside from properly capturing the depth in scale of these visually compelling territories of the globe, it also allows the character’s to play to the backdrop and never vice versa. The opposite can be said in movies where the people are usually the focus to what’s transpiring in establishing shots, but here the opposite can be said in the form of visual storytelling that better convey the distance traveled for Frost and Link, as well as the vulnerability for the latter, in being out of his comfort zone for his whole life. It’s a striking variation that will go overlooked by the casual film fan, but stands as the first thing you can take note of when you lose yourself in Laika’s visual hypnotic canvas.

– Fluid pacing. “Missing Link” clocks in at a measly 85 minutes. A piece of cake in terms of animated movies in 2019, which are known for overstaying their welcome. That never happens here, as aside from the opening ten minutes, which are used to set-up the central protagonist’s career of choice, the film progresses at a speed that constantly keeps moving without sacrificing the important themes and emotional response triggered by the journey of knowledge. There’s nothing in the film that I would cut or trim to further enhance my unflinching attention to it, and I feel it’s a testament to Butler’s dedication to the project to know just how much juice he can squeeze from a story that has peaks of familiarity as far as road trip movies are concerned.

– Positive hard-hitting message. Without spoiling anything, this is a screenplay that centers around the concepts of identity and acceptance, and it’s in these two themes where I feel that different age brackets will interpret differently, allowing plenty of conversation between generation’s looking for mutual interest. The pull of the surprisingly heavy third act was something that I didn’t fully see coming, especially with the movie’s dedication to humor, but I feel like it stands as a moral epiphany for Frost, all the while solidifying what’s important to Link, in terms of finding a place where he belongs. I always give animated movies extra points for sending youths home with a desire to make the world a better place, and I can’t credit this film enough for such a concept of reminder that digs deeper.

– Badass female lead. Saldana’s Adelina isn’t just a damsel in distress who is looking for a man, she is very much a commanding presence over the story’s movements, that one could argue develops into the strings that ties this trio together on their adventure. Further steps are taken to better flesh out her character, instill a sense of surprise with her movements playing against male counterparts, and even selling to the audience a branch-out sequel that would establish her at the helm of it all. What I found refreshing about this is the movie goes against history, especially in kids movies, where they feel routine in outlining a female character only to be rescued or serve as a love interest for the much further developed lead protagonist, and Adelina is someone who is every bit as intelligent as she is lethal, and I feel will have a bigger hand than anyone or anything else in bringing little girls in search of reflection, to the theater.

– Easter Eggs. Again, there is something for the youth, as well as something for the older audiences, that will get a kick out of connections to other properties that you might miss if you blink. The first one is in connection to Laika’s previous release “The Boxtrolls”, in which Frost has a report on the creatures of that movie. What’s cool about this is it confirms a Laika extended universe, and makes me wonder where other previous installments could play into in terms of the timeline of this story. As for the more obscure reference, 1984’s “A Passage To India” is mentioned in one scene, and even if this doesn’t make sense with the 19th century setting of this story, it is cleverly inserted in its dispersion into the dialogue.

NEGATIVES

– Forceful humor. More than the other four Laika films, there’s this overwhelming desire of comedy that rarely ever fit or connected with the intended reaction. I do think that this film can be funny, but it’s in the small doses of reactions transpiring in the background (See Monty Python), rather than lines of dialogue, which can sometimes feel far too juvenile when compared to the movie it’s playing against. I get that this is a movie that plays to a mostly younger audience, but I would be doing a disservice if I tried to convince my readers for a second that I came out of this film with an ample amount of hearty laughter. It never truly materialized, and I only hope that Laika can get back on track with investing in sight over sound, when it comes to gripping audiences.

– Too many villains. There’s little weight or attention donated to the film’s antagonist, which there are no shortage of. At one point early in the third act, we are dealing with three different antagonist’s sharing the screen at once, and it sort of feeds into the problem that none of them have been fleshed out in a way that makes any of them feel like an essential threat, nor pivotal presence to the entertaining integrity of the rapid-fire pacing. Every time they appear, they just feel like the proverbial conflict in the road to inevitability, and for my money I wish they would’ve removed two-thirds of them, and followed the other one closer, in terms of motives or connection to Frost.

– Uncomfortable stereotypes. This was one of the big problems I had with my favorite Laika film “Kubo and the Two Strings”, in which character’s of a particular geography are depicted in a way that isn’t the most complimentary. For “Missing Link”, it’s even worse, as a Himalayan family eat nothing but Yak to survive, and talk in a way that pushes the envelope to be funny rather than educational about different cultures. I’m not trying to label Laika as insensitive in their intentions, but once is an accident, twice is a shame, and three times is a pattern. If you absolutely require this direction in your movie, do it in a way that honors their traditions while making them comparible to the protagonist.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Mrs. Doubtfire

Directed By Chris Columbus

Starring – Robin Williams, Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan

The Plot – Eccentric actor Daniel Hillard (Williams) is an amusing and caring father. But after a disastrous birthday party for his son, Daniel’s wife Miranda (Field) draws the line and files a divorce. He can see his three children only once a week which doesn’t sit well with him. Daniel also holds a job at a TV studio as a shipping clerk under the recommendation of his liason. But when Miranda puts out an ad for a housekeeper, Daniel takes it upon himself to make a disguise as a Scottish lady named Mrs Doubtfire. And Daniel must also deal with Miranda’s new boyfriend Stu Dunemyer (Brosnan).

Rated PG-13 for some sexual references

POSITIVES

– Taboo subject matter. It’s refreshing, especially in the early 90’s, that a children’s movie takes the time to convey the complications and effects from a distanced marriage that has run its course over many years, and what “Mrs. Doubtfire” preserves in originality, it also brings with it an underlying tug at the heartstrings for compelling drama that every member of the family can enjoy. This is very much a story that is reflective of the kind of things that were going on in my household, and what’s even more commendable is that the film maintains its set of consequences all the way till the end, choosing never to relent on the real problems that originally existed within this marriage for the sake of a happy ending. What’s even more accredited is that my opinion of importance for the film has changed as I’ve gotten older. I used to think it was Williams alone that made the movie, but as I got older I realized it’s the believability of the relationship dynamics that preserve a level of heart rarely seen in a movie for all ages.

– Elevation in the material. The humor in the movie is alright, but made even better by Williams’ endless raw energy to the commitment of the role, that would otherwise stop these gags dead in their tracks. Daniel’s personality transcends that of the animated characters who he voices, juggling a double threat of sarcasm and quick wit that make it easy to depict the perfect father and testing husband in the same breath. For my money, it’s the times of vulnerability over the changing complexity of Daniel’s world, like the Children’s Services interviews, that left more of an impact over me than the physical humor ever could, bringing with it some unforgettable one-liners that couldn’t be quoted or remembered without Williams’ one-of-a-kind familiarity.

– Plenty of material to fill two hours. For a comedy in the 90’s, 120 minutes might be asking a lot, especially in the waning attention span of younger audiences, but “Mrs. Doubtfire” is all about dynamics that ultimately lead to Daniel becoming a better person for himself and his kids. So it’s in the time dedicated to these dynamics that better materialize this transformation, and help better establish the characters surrounding the film’s dual protagonist. My favorites are Doubtfire’s interaction with Stuart, depicting a virtual tug-of-war where only one man sees all of the cards laid out on the table, as well as Daniel’s personal time with his kids, in which each of them displays a different emotion towards their father. It proves that not only is Daniel fighting a physical battle within himself and the Doubtfire persona, but also in many battles surrounding him that demand him to try harder in ways he never could’ve imagined.

– An important lesson. Many people have a favorite line from this movie, but the one throwaway line that I’ve always taken with me in my critic career is the one at the dinner meeting, in which Daniel describes to Mr. Lundy (Played warmly by Robert Prosky) what it takes for kids shows to succeed. He says “Don’t patronize kids. They’re little people, you have to personalize. Make it fun and educational. If it’s something you’d enjoy, they’d enjoy”. What’s so important about this line is it establishes what so many kids movies (Especially in modern day) get wrong about the children’s genre of films. Boisterous explosions and fart noises are on display instead of heart, and this is something that I’ve always tried to communicate to my readers, who think that judging kids movies so personally is ridiculous.

– Firing on all cylinders. This is a very utilized cast on every end of the age spectrum, and far just beyond Williams’ dual threat dedication to the role, that sometimes required as many as twenty takes and multiple cameras per scenes, due to Williams’ constant improvisation, there is much depth as well in the supporting ensemble. Sally Field’s Miranda juggles a complexity of what’s right for her children versus what’s right for her heart, and even though she is the responsible one, we never take anger in the mature decisions that she is forced to make. Likewise, Pierce Brosnan is also an exceptional antagonist for Daniel without becoming a cartoonish version of a character. Brosnan’s charm and articulate demeanor is something that moves him miles in feeling like a perfect suitor for Miranda’s now empty nest, and Columbus masters him with being everything that Daniel is not. The kids are also surprisingly on-point, especially that of 8-year-old Mara Wilson, who was at the height of her career during this picture. Wilson gives some shall we say adult line reads, but is delivered in a way that doesn’t feel forced or manufactured like most kid actors do. Mara’s range is right at eye level with her respective age, and that helps these scenes of engagement feel all the more natural because of it.

– Academy award winning make-up. This is obviously the staple for the movie, as the whole plot is based on the transformation from Daniel to Mrs. Doubtfire. While there are some believability issues on the very size of Doubtfire’s physical profile, particularly in the immense shoulder structure, I can say that the prosthetics involved do a solid job of making Williams familiar face virtually disappear in the role. What’s even more credible is that the movie takes three minutes of a montage sequence to show you everything involved in the behind-the-scenes tweaking of the actor, an aspect on camera that you rarely get to see, if only during DVD additional extras that are never anything but tacking-on for special features. The facial wrinkling feels authentic of the natural aging pattern, and the wig and wardrobe combination are the perfect closing notes on bringing to life this complete elderly immersion. An interesting note is that Robin Williams own real life son didn’t recognize him in the costume until he began speaking, cementing that the work was years ahead of its time in terms of attention to detail.

– As an adaptation. Many people never knew that the movie is based off of a novel by Anne Fine in 1987, called Madame Doubtfire, and when comparing the two forms of media, the movie is around 90% faithful, all the while changing the things necessary to translate it smoothly to film. Of the major differences from the novel, Natalie (Mara Wilson) is the first child to find out it’s her father in costume, the children as a whole are more rebellious and almost always act out in self-interest, and Daniel is an actor, not a voice actor. On the latter, I think the change is necessary because it makes it easier to believe Daniel’s voice distortion as much more versatile when you consider he has been doing it his whole life. Likewise, we would never have such great scenes as the prank calling one to Miranda, in which he sports no fewer than seven different voices while calling.

NEGATIVES

– Third act problems. Aside from the fact that Daniel commits to two different people in the same place on the same night at the same time, the believability in changing four hour prosthetics with such ease in such a confined space is something that I have a great strain in coming to terms with. At the very least, this would take around ten minutes to completely strip off what he’s currently wearing, then another ten minutes to change in to the next costume, and that would seem a bit suspicious to two parties that are patiently awaiting his arrival. This set-up as a whole is a desperate attempt at bringing every on-going plot to a head, for the convenient third act wrap-up Not to mention how not one single person asks a single question as to why Doubtfire is carrying in a gigantic gym bag to an elegant restaurant in the first place.

– Conventional filmmaking constantly on display. Part of what has always bothered me about Columbus as a director is his complete inability to include any form of excitement or experimentation to his presentations, and “Mrs. Doubtfire” is surely no different. The camera work is mundane, operating at the usual character eye level frame that we’re used to, as well as nothing of tantalization with long takes or unorthodox editing style in pasting everything together. Likewise, the musical score from Howard Shore is about as uninspiring and par for the course as you can imagine, garnering a balance between flute and piano music that is sure to be playing the next time you are fortunate enough to spend more than ten seconds in an elevator or dental office. For me, lack of style is the one glaring negative that the movie features, and if it managed to even attempt to carve out a 90’s niche in cinematography personality, then I think it would better prove that not just anyone could’ve helmed Robin Williams in drag.

– Too many liberties with the final cut. I watched the DVD special edition of this film, and was shocked and dismayed to see that some of the most important and character-driven scenes were left on the cutting room floor, leaving some obvious holes in development once you’ve seen them. For one, there isn’t a scene in the movie where we truly witness Daniel’s misery without being around his kids, but the deleted scenes features such a scene, and on top of it does a strong job in displaying the case for Williams as a serious actor, a fact that was unknown in 1993. We also rarely get enough opportunities at seeing the negatives of divorce from a child perspective, and that too is included in a scene that primarily focuses on the effect of the kids hearing the cause of parental squabbles. Scenes like these could’ve better supplanted “Mrs. Doubtfire” with more of a much-needed dramatic pulse to better illustrate that real lives were hanging in the balance here. Without them, there’s the unshakeable conclusion that no matter what, everything will be alright, and I think it’s a huge disservice to the paralyzing nature of a child’s world crumbling down.

EXTRA

– Robin Williams in real life divorced his wife to marry his nanny. In the film, his wife divorces him, and he becomes her nanny. Strange.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Five Feet Apart

Directed By Justin Baldoni

Starring – Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani

The Plot – Stella Grant (Richardson) is every bit a seventeen-year-old. She’s attached to her laptop and loves her best friends. But unlike most teenagers, she spends much of her time living in a hospital as a cystic fibrosis patient. Her life is full of routines, boundaries and self-control – all of which is put to the test when she meets an impossibly charming fellow CF patient named Will Newman (Sprouse). There’s an instant flirtation, though restrictions dictate that they must maintain a safe distance between them. As their connection intensifies, so does the temptation to throw the rules out the window and embrace that attraction. Further complicating matters is Will’s potentially dangerous rebellion against his ongoing medical treatment. Stella gradually inspires Will to live life to the fullest, but can she ultimately save the person she loves when even a single touch is off limits?

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, adult language and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Familiar premise. An aspect with the romantic genre is that you often have these two people in love who simply can’t be together because of contrasting worlds tearing them apart, and as to where that plot is redundant for this particular genre of film, the necessity of it here makes sense more than ever. Considering these are two people suffering from a very dangerous strain of CF, it forces them to keep their distance so as to avoid possible death, and what this does is not only give the premise reason for its existence, but it also gives it immense weight in the form of the conflict itself. To be together means that these two will sacrifice touch, and it really begs the question if a relationship can survive without such intimacy.

– Responsible approach with its subject matter. Aside from this being a mostly entertaining film in whole, the task of educating its audience on the specifics of Cystic Fibrosis is taken with enough tender care in explanation that makes it so much more than just another movie. The director and actors spent ample time with a Cystic Fibrosis foundation in order to capitalize on accuracy, as well as the hopelessness of the care given to the medical staff themselves. What’s vital here is that nothing is glossed over or fancied up for the screen itself. The depictions in the film can look and sound grueling and dejecting for its audience, but without those valuable depictions, the film would be doing an extreme disservice to the impact of living with a disease that cuts literally everything short.

– Method of exposition insertion. Stella’s character has her own Youtube channel, and aside from this aspect of the film inevitably feeling someday dated, the aspect of it allows the film to tell some pivotal moments in her life that the screenplay might otherwise have difficulty conquering. Through her daily VLOG’s, Stella explains what impact the disease has on her, some of her favorite tastes in her otherwise limited world, and the importance of a missing family member that has weighed heavily on her development. This gimmick hasn’t worked in other films because of how much it’s often trying to convey in such a small window, but the details here feel natural and synthetic to the kind of videos and conversations that are prominent on video sharing websites in modern times, and allows us the audience to pick up on things at the exact same time that our co-protagonist Will is.

– Cute, charming lead cast. This is definitely a leading cast kind of film, as the supporting characters are kind of reduced to keep them front-and-center, but it allows the chemistry of Richardson and Sprouse to shine because of the care given to the progression of their relationship. The movie takes ample time in preserving them as friends first before dropping the romantic star-crossed lovers angle that was promised, and I appreciated this because it does sort of depict how love is a progress that sometimes doesn’t fit right away. As for performances, Richardson is given her first meaty dramatic role and thrives with ample colors. Stella has no shortage of running tears or vibrancy in personality, and for Haley’s first dramatic lead it really opens your eyes to how the young actress can captivate audiences with an arrangement of emotions that are brought out and returned like Mister Rogers suit jackets. Sprouse also has plenty to be grateful for, mostly in the form of precise comedic timing and a conflicted character who feels like the responsible shoulder that the story so desperately requires. Sprouse’s Will walks that fine line of responsibility on the eve of his 18th birthday no less, and his honest outlook on life gave his character many miles for his age, and actually turned out to be my favorite character in the film.

– Intimacy in camera work. While I wasn’t blown away with the complete presentation of the movie’s cinematography and movements behind the lens, I can say that the variety in handheld and still-frame pageantry shows great responsibility from Baldoni’s nurturing hands. The framing here is exceptional, bringing with it a necessity to focus on the facial registry of the actors respectively, and giving us the audience and immersive quality to what is transpiring. This allows the film to frame its two leads close in ways that the disease inside of the story keeps them conflicted, conjuring up a feeling of satisfying fantasy in ways that we know will rarely ever pay off in real time.

– Elements of the novel coming to life. Like most successful films in 2019, this film is based off of a book with its own artistic vibes that the movie felt necessary to bring along. Featured in the movie are drawings that were prominent in the first run editions of the novel itself, and these portraits can be seen and mentioned not only in the artistic capabilities of Will’s ever-trusting notebook, but also in Stella’s hospital room home away from home. Each of these hold strong merit to their inclusion to the film, and adds a wink-and-nod element to longtime fans of the novel, who are otherwise tired of the originality of such stories being forgotten for movies that take more than a few liberties. That isn’t such the case here, as “Five Feet Apart” proves that a book and movie can live together in near perfect harmony, without one infringing on the benefits of the other.

– One stage setting. I’m a sucker for movies that exist in one continuous place, so much so that I commend the movie for illustrating the claustrophobia for these kids being forced to live without much escape, as well as its ability to stay mostly entertaining considering its landscapes stay almost entirely grounded. It helps that the film stays faithful to the two leads instead of depicting the reactions of parents or supporting family. This not only allows the film to set up this world inside of a world, but it remains a testament to the movie’s confidence for how it’s able to constantly maintain my interest considering visually it is going nowhere. You don’t see one stage setting films often anymore, but “Five Feet Apart” proves that this angle can succeed if the story is gripping enough, and the characters are easily engaging.

NEGATIVES

– Prolonged dramatic tension. Right around the beginning of the third act, the wear of redundancy in the screenplay feels evident, and it forces the story to take some forceful directions in logic to grip the audience in their seats and push forward towards the two hour run time that Baldoni so desperately wants. For one, most of the typical third act distancing that we’ve become saddled with in movies feels particularly unnecessary here, and could easily be resolved with much-needed communication. One such occasion with Will distancing himself from Stella comes out of nowhere, and had me scratching my head because of things about his disease that we must believe he is learning for the first time in his life. In addition, the third act scene away from the hospital is not only ridiculous for how many red herrings it forces against us the audience that takes away from the dramatic elements of the scene, but Stella herself goes against established directions in her character with a decision that could easily help her. Instead, a simple decision leads to irresponsibility on one character that costs two, and only brings forth a visible line of desperation that this story couldn’t escape from.

– This might be the worst hospital ever. In addition to having no security cameras of any kind to keep an eye on its patients who just might interact with one another, there are nurses who ignore monitors going off and dismissing it as nothing more than a patient sitting on a button. I get that the reason this angle happened is because this very thing does happen earlier on in the film, but there isn’t a nurse on this planet who asks questions first and takes action later, and it just made me question how many lawsuits this place may have fought through along the way. In fact, the one nurse explains that a couple already died on her watch for them interacting behind staff’s back. Maybe that incident might lead to some tougher safety precautions, but no, we need it for the plot device, darling.

– Unnecessary opening monologue. Once again, we are treated to narration by an actor that is every bit pointless as it is spoiling to what it gives away. When you think about it, you know this character will probably live considering they are talking in the past tense. Not only this, but it doesn’t add to any particular scene or established plot because it is stating the obvious to anyone who has already seen the trailer. This is one of those major flaws that I hate in films, and it only further convolutes the relationship that a movie this cerebral establishes with the audience it conveys to. If it is indeed purposeful, take it out of the movie and see what it changes.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Big Lebowski

Directed By Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring – Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore

The Plot – When Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Bridges) is mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski (David Huddleston), two thugs urinate on his rug to coerce him into paying a debt he knows nothing about. While attempting to gain recompense for the ruined rug from his wealthy counterpart, he accepts a one-time job with high pay-off. He enlists the help of his bowling buddy, Walter (Goodman), a gun-toting Jewish-convert with anger issues. Deception leads to more trouble, and it soon seems that everyone from porn empire tycoons to nihilists want something from The Dude.

Rated R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence

POSITIVES

– Coen’s off brand style of humor. What is so redeeming about the material used in “The Big Lebowski” is it’s unapologetic nature in such a lazy, practical execution with its audiences. That may sound like a negative, but I feel that for the godfather of stoner comedy movies, this really is a script that lives and breathes by its own rules, refusing to ever cater to any outsider audiences for the convenience of cross brand promotion. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a stoner to understand the humor, but just that the material itself doesn’t feel counterfeit when compared to the personalities and tone of the film that surrounds it. Aside from this, the laughs themselves remain consistent because of the total level of incompetence by the characters in trying to solve something much bigger and intelligent than what they can ever fathom, and it’s a complete and total testament to films like “Barton Fink” and “Fargo”, where we indulge in this world that personality-wise feels planets away from our own, yet thrives in a location of familiarity (Los Angeles).

– Dedicated performances all around. Goodman is easily my favorite in the film, emoting Walter, a Vietnam war veteran, with a nervous tick that eventually explodes into a volcano of untimely expression that forces him to stick out like a sore thumb in any environment he comes into. Bridges Dude is the role that people have tied to him for a lifetime. Everything from the structure of the speech patterns to the lack of coordination associated with the wardrobe, which Bridges himself brought to the set, masters a level of 20th century Taoism, where no one or nothing ruins the vibe of his careless demeanor that he wears proudly. When these two interact with one another, it makes for my favorite exchanges of the movie, often with Walter alienating himself from The Dude because of him taking matters into his own hands and often over-complicating a situation that is otherwise easy to maintain. Throw in a mumbling Steve Buscemi as the third tier to their bowling league trio, and you have a collision of throw polar opposite characters that bounce off of one another with the chemistry of soldiers stuck in battle. Likewise, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, and the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman also chew up enough scenery to make their supporting roles beg for more screen time, all the while generating appearances that add another level of prestige to the Coen’s never-ending list of A-list celebrities who adorn their films.

– What conflict, man? I find it hilarious that The Dude is being pursued by a trio of Nihilists, a kidnapper, and a powerful businessman, yet the movie feels about as much urgency as a leaf blowing in the wind. Instead, the film values and focuses on the engaging friendships and good times over the events themselves, and it helps to further develop the characters while remaining faithful to the outline of dark humor that persists within this world. If you do find yourself engaged by the mystery of the conflict itself, that’s fine, as the first half of this movie conjures up a subtle noir genre structure, complete with Sam Elliot’s raspy overheard narration, unreliable characters, and The Dude being the gumshoe of sorts to solve the crime. The conclusion itself is kind of revealed with such a lack of impact, but as is the case in most noir crime movies, the most simple answer is often the correct answer.

– Dream team production ensemble. One thing I learned in my re-watch of this movie is the alliance of master Cinematographer Roger Deakins and True Detective musical maestro T-Bone Burnett coming together to solidify a presentation that is every bit as enchanting as it is fantastical. Deakins today mostly dabbles with the bleak and grit photography that have helped him attain a serenity within the darkness of his pictures, but here he is giving visual nuance to something so conventional as a bowling alley, and making it pop visually for all of the reasons we’re not used to. Long gone are the smoky atmospheres and mundane designs associated with the weathered lanes. They are replaced with the sleek shine of never-ending lanes, 60’s deco decal with all of its free-range color schemes, and fantasy musical sequences that bring an air of pageantry to the sport that it isn’t used to. Where Burnett comes in is assorting a collection of musical artists and songs that speak volumes to The Dude’s ‘Anything but the Eagles’ mentality. The Coen’s wanted Kenny Rogers and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the soundtrack, but everything else was left up to T-Bone, and boy what a presence he maintains on some of the best scenes in the movie. The music in “The Big Lebowski” very much feels like a character in itself, not just because of how the human characters acknowledge its presence themselves, but because of how it maintains the consistency and variety of each tonal intention. It’s the building blocks for two of the more notorious artists in their respective categories, and stands as a reminder of the star-making power that the Coen’s had.

– Snappy dialogue and banter. Perhaps the Coen’s greatest strength is the ability to get lost in the magnitude of every scene and predicament, all the while remaining faithful to the personalities of characters, so that one never outshines the other. An example is in the scenes where Jeffrey, Walter, and Donnie talk through Jesus’s pedophilia, only to remind you every step of the way through the conversation of the quirks and ticks of each respective character. In this instance, it’s when Donny asks “What’s a pederast?”, and Walter says “Shut the fuck up, Donnie”. Even though we as an audience are being presented new information about an entirely new character, the dialogue still stops to remind us who is telling the story, and it’s a halt that doesn’t feel annoying or redundant, instead adding more complexity to our investment in the exposition.

– An emerging voice. I’ve seen many surprising things in re-watches of films over the years, but the underlying social commentary that now seems painfully obvious in “The Big Lebowski” might be the one that takes the cake. There’s no easy way to say this, but it’s about the examination of modern day masculinity, by way of deconstructing classic cinema. The Coen’s are masters of anti-climatic endings, usually requiring the audience to look deeper in an area of the film that would otherwise be easily glossed over of the collection of scenes that don’t gel together in the way we expect them to. Looking at the film’s aesthetic, it’s impressive that so many of its themes and characters evoke familiar traits of classic film in male dominated genres. Think of the cowboy, the war hero, the bowling, and of course the obvious question uttered in the film: “What makes a man?” What the movie is doing here is deconstructing American masculinity while the question what remains once the shroud has been pushed aside. After all, one scene depicts the Nihilists threatening to cut off Jeffrey’s johnson if they have to come back, and the sentence is repeated in a way that echoes into the ears of audiences intentionally. What’s ironic is many of the men we see in the film are already emasculated in a figurative sense. For instance, the millionaire Lebowski only keeps up an appearance of a self-made man when in reality he is living on a monthly expensive from his self-made deceased wife, Walter is emotionally in chains to his ex-wife’s religion and pets, and The Dude himself is used by Maude as only a donor to her desire to be with child. On the latter, the women in the movie feel empowered and constantly one step ahead of men, all the while expressing that things are the way they are largely because of their own choices and not some tie between sexes that bonds each cultural change. I won’t go much further, as I feel that people should seek this movie out once more with these goggles on to see what becomes evident to them in the evolution of each respective sex, and what the Coen’s are trying to convey with regards to answering its one important question.

– A snowball effect of plotting. It’s funny when you consider that this whole conflict begins because a group of strangers urinate on The Dude’s rug, forcing him to seek out compensation from the man he believes to be responsible for it, and each ensuing step builds the stakes considerably worse for everyone involved. What’s effective about this angle is how easy the elevation in chess movements is to comprehend from both sides, all the while the movie’s tone and talented actors expressing the lunacy of such (honestly) juvenile circumstances. This allows the conflict to build alongside with the consistency in pacing from the narrative itself, keeping matters strategic and not jumping the gun because of how many times this conflict could’ve easily been solved if the millionaire Lebowski just hired an even halfway capable accomplice. It’s simplicity in matters that are otherwise complicated, and only speaks levels to the issues in our own society that gain momentum the longer they shift downhill.

NEGATIVES

– Redundancy tests the pacing of the third act. Without question, the final twenty minutes are the biggest struggle to get through in this movie, mainly because at this point the scenes are repeating the same kind of speech patterns and scenarios that we have already been through, at one point or another in the movie. In addition to this, the film is still introducing throwaway characters at a point when it should be wrapping respective subplots up, further prolonging interaction for the sake of a screenplay that never feels like it knows where to confidently wrap things up. The mention of the Bowling playoffs leave us with two pivotal questions: How could they be considered with only two players, and who won?

– Errors with the particular time setting. Considering the film takes place in 1991, at the edge of Desert Storm, there are far too many instances where the Coen Brothers overlook pivotal contradictions in continuity that soil the sanctimony of a particular time frame. Mid 90’s automobiles, later year model soda pop cans, Elvis Costello’s “My Mood Swings” which came out in 1997, and my personal favorite: a calendar on Francis’ desk that reads 1997 in plain sight. Anachronisms like these stand out as the one roadblock in the way of me fully immersing myself in the world that the Coen’s created, and with a thicker layer of confidence in the production detail of the film, the movie’s visual pallet would excel over the need to keep pointing these vital inconsistencies out.

– I understand that bowling is only a secondary importance in a film like this, but something that has always bothered me was how Donnie is the only one we know of for how good he actually is at the sport. Walter rolls a ball, but we don’t see the end result. Jeffrey, our main character and leader of this group, mind you, never throws a single ball in the movie. Is this a big deal on the weight or importance of the script? Absolutely not, but if it’s character integrity we’re going for, bowling is the most distinguishable common interest between this group, and for us the audience never given the ability to embrace it, makes the mention of them being a great team in the league that much more unbelievable because of it. A scene or two with Jeffrey hitting a strike would do wonders in silencing my doubts of this guy being a clumsy, bone-headed stoner, who were told to believe is this reputable bowler. Not buying it.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Fighting With My Family

Directed By Stephen Merchant

Starring – Florence Pugh, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey

The Plot – A heartwarming comedy based on the incredible true story of WWE Superstar Paige . Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige (Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for World Wrestling Entertainment. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training program, she must leave her family and face this new, cut-throat world alone. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep, fight for her family, and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star.

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, adult language throughout, some violence and drug content

POSITIVES

– Captures the true essence of wrestling, both inside and out of the ring. It’s no surprise that a film like this is a commercial for the WWE brand, but in doing so the film has the right framing in the phenomenon of its product, as well as the passion involved with living this lifestyle that makes it anything but glamorous. At its core, the life of a professional wrestler is lonely, painful, and often times impossible because of the limited few who make it, and Paige’s story is the embodiment of all of these ingredients, fleshing out a narrative in which fans and non-fans of the sport can come together to embrace a true underdog on the silver screen, for only the first time since 2009’s “The Wrestler” brought gravity to a sport that is pre-determined.

– Surreal casting. Props in this department not only go to the director Stephen Merchant for doing his homework on the essential characters in this story, but also to casting director Shaheen Baig for calling on some pretty big names to render the synthetics of their real life counterparts. When I say that Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, and of course Florence Pugh emulate the look and feel of this family perfectly, I mean it in a sense that they immersed themselves in each role, leaving fans who are familiar with the Knight family feeling eerily satisfied with just how deep the film goes to master everything from personalities to movements in the ring. It gives the film a transcendent quality on the screen that was previously seen in the documentary of the same name, but made even more impressive considering this is Hollywood elite who are donning the roles.

– Constant professionalism in performance work. Speaking of this talented cast, the energy they dedicate to the film pays off immensely for the believability, as well as the underlying longing of each sibling that is pulled from them brilliantly by Pugh and Lowden respectively. In Pugh’s Paige, the actress channels enough heart in bravery for being in a foreign land, and blends it superbly with the little girl fan inside her who is screaming in agony for not capitalizing in the way she thought she inevitably would. There’s enough humility to her performance to make this anything but a predictably conventional protagonist, adding layers to pre-conceived notions of wrestlers that give poignancy to unfamiliar audiences with the craft itself. Vince Vaughn is also a scene-stealer here, bringing a stern hand of authority to the humor we’ve come to expect from him, and harvesting it into this character whose intentions are honorable, but is also someone who has no problem breaking a person down mentally to reach their limit. For my money however, it’s Lowden who steals the show, riding Zack’s highs and lows that forces the character through an identity crisis of sorts, in that he swallows through the inevitability of his dream never fully coming true. Lowden’s wave of emotional instability brings a lot of intensity to scenes that would otherwise fall flat, and he’s an actor who I’ve only seen three times, but with each role confirms the lock he has on resiliency that makes him a thrill to watch.

– Juggling tones. The atmosphere in this film masters two exponentially different attitudes for the price of one, in comedy and drama, and accomplishes each of them tremendously without ever combining them as a cliche hybrid that we’ve come to expect. For the first half of the movie, this is very much a comedy, full of snappy dialogue and vibrant personality to bring forth more than a few hearty burst of laughter, but once it all settles down, the impact of dramatic tension lends itself to some very gripping scenes involving envy, isolation, and of course polarization, to give the screenplay depth. What’s important is that neither of these directions ever step on or compromise the other, giving the film plenty of time for you to indulge and feast on this circus under one roof, before the actions of the animals bite you in retaliation, and it proves that “Fighting With My Family” has enough heart and humor to flesh out a surprisingly moving narrative that is too infectious to ignore.

– Anything but a paint-by-numbers biopic. Beyond this feeling like a greatest hits collection of Paige’s most important moments, the film instills enough curveballs in the progression of the protagonist to make her conflict feel anything but temporary. In addition to this, the decision to make this film a sort of dual narrative of sorts, with Zack’s story feeling every bit as important as Paige’s, pays off tremendously for the shelf life of the respective plots, and reminds us of the importance of not only the film’s central protagonist, but that of the people who make her who she is. Imagine if “Bohemian Rhapsody” actually took the time to get to know the members of Queen, instead of just its flamboyant frontman. It would give the screenplay enough variety to keep it far from the outlines of conformity that unfortunately too many biopics become saddled with today, and this gleaming benefit keeps us firmly invested into even the more well known angles of Paige’s story, giving nuance to the kind of emotions and bitter pill’s the 20 year old was forced to taste.

– Rapid fire pacing. If this film has done just one thing better than the other twenty films that I have seen this year, it’s in the fluid pacing of 102 vitally important minutes that never waste an opportunity in adding something to the story. Considering this is a film revolving around something as redundant as wrestling, the film surprisingly masters a lot of complexity not only with its filmmaking, but also in the knowledge of the sport itself, with how it’s very much teaching the audience at the same time it is teaching the students of the game. There was never a point during the film where I was even remotely bored, despite knowing a majority of the results in Paige’s struggle. It caps off a command by Merchant that shows his passion for the sport and filmmaking alike, and it makes for as easy of a sit as you’re going to get for something that never feels the weight of its minutes.

– Production value between worlds. Merchant’s biggest gain as a director in this film deals with his capabilities in comparing and contrasting the worlds of big league and independent wrestling that articulately channel the desperation of the two ambitious students. When we’re in the independent world, the angles are claustrophobic, dimly lit, and full of cheap effect smoke to give the complete picture a very small stage essence. Yet when the WWE appears, we get these beautifully vibrant sets, with no shortage of professional lighting to tie it all together. The greatest strength a film can have in dealing with two worlds is to compare them side-by-side, and in doing so it visually channels the uphill climb, all the while selling the spectacle that many have fallen in love with.

NEGATIVES

– Incorrect sequencing of timeline events. There were a few nagging instances I caught where the film mishandled the years of important events not only in wrestling, but also in pop culture. There are small things from the movie mentioning “The Hunger Games” movie, which came out in 2012, despite the fact that Paige’s story takes place in 2010. There are also big things that only wrestling fans like myself would notice, like a pivotal John Cena title win shown that didn’t take place until 2013. These are the kind of constant time frame errors that I often look for in movies with a particular time designation, and as it turns out this one missed a lot in the mentions that it tries to so cleverly slip by its audience. If you’re going to do something right, check for continuity, otherwise remove any mention of events you’re too lazy to look up.

– Time is a construct. Days, weeks, months, years. I mention these because the film has no need to inform the audience on how much time has passed. Why is that important? Because it helps illustrate not only how long Paige has been apart from her family, but also how long she has fought in winning over her peers during her time in NXT. Speaking of which, the NXT area of the film is so trimmed down and confined that it doesn’t capture Paige’s pivotal Women’s Title win, nor does it articulate how and why she endears herself with the fans. It leaves a noticeable gap late in the movie that makes her jump to WWE feels spontaneous instead of earned, and this is the area more than any that could use more clarity, as well as more time to better convey the passing of time, to which the movie has none of.

– Sloppy final sequence. This will only appeal to wrestling audiences like myself, who are bothered by the little things. In this regard, it’s during Paige’s title match against A.J Lee, where not only are the wardrobe choices by both wrestlers terribly wrong in every imaginable way of fashion, not only is Lee’s bodyguard Tamina missing from the scene, not only is the choreography of the match completely off from the real life match itself, but also the editing is done in a way where Paige wasn’t already extremely popular with audiences before she defeated Lee. This gives the sequence a manipulative presence, orchestrating itself to convenience of a plot device that it strictly didn’t need, and gives a phony feeling to the production during this area of the film that was otherwise remarkable up to this point. Even WWE Films apparently doesn’t watch their product. Can’t say I blame them.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Isn’t It Romantic

Directed By Todd Strauss-Schulson

Starring – Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Priyanka Chopra

The Plot – New York City architect Natalie (Wilson) works hard to get noticed at her job but is more likely to be asked to deliver coffee and bagels than to design the city’s next skyscraper. And if things weren’t bad enough, Natalie, a lifelong cynic when it comes to love, has an encounter with a mugger that renders her unconscious, waking to discover that her life has suddenly become her worst nightmare: a romantic comedy, and she is the leading lady.

Rated PG-13 for adult language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference

POSITIVES

– Plenty of contrast between worlds. With a movie like this depicting the tropes and cliches of the romantic comedy genre, I expected its satirical sense to be satisfied in a script only perspective, but what I got was a visual presentation that had the second act of the movie feeling like an entirely different film. The cinematography is arguably the biggest impact, trading in a horrendous persistent handheld design in favor of a crisp, clean still-frame that captures a wider picture depiction. In addition to this, the color coordination feels more refined, and the use of some finely textured computer generation makes the New York skyline light-up like the fourth of July. Strauss-Schulson is clearly a man who has done his homework, and he brings forth a two-for-one punch of creativity that clearly constructs a line of fantasy to the world within a world.

– Pays homage to some of the greats. Keep your eyes peeled for screenshots, posters, and even borrowed lines of dialogue from some of the most reputable of the romantic comedy genre. In the respect alone, it’s clear that the film is spoofing the top of the line stuff, and not the B-movie bargain bin that pick the scraps of its predecessors for all of the wrong reasons. This is top of the line, feel good rendering that tackles why those films were so infectious in the first place, and with it brings along a personality of its own that is every bit as indulgent as its competition.

– Harvests a strong personal message. One thing I wasn’t expecting in a Rebel Wilson movie was an emerging message of confidence during the third act that casts a bit of a temporary misdirection from this story than we were expecting. In this regard, and especially with this film being released on the Valentine’s Day holiday, the movie actually caters more to single audiences than it does couples, bringing along those parties of one that romantic films tend to forget about around this time of the year. Being in this party myself, I commend a film like this for selling itself to a much bigger audience, and I believe it’s in those spare audiences where the film will see its strongest benefit in terms of returns.

– Expansive romantic comedy soundtrack that thrives on familiarity. Everything from Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to Chris Deburg’s “Lady In Red” is inserted at the most opportune times, and bring with them a series of high-end dance numbers that really spice up the scope of the picture while playing into what’s transpiring creatively. What’s important is that no track ever feels out of plays or foreign to what it’s following, and in the spirit of great toe-tappers this is a complete offering that covers the entire spectrum of the rom-com craze that it audibly narrates.

– The laughs. This isn’t going to be one of the funniest films of the year for me, but the material itself did bring forth some hearty laughter in reactions and physical humor that consistently reach their aim for the most part. For my money, it’s more in the backdrop Easter Eggs where the real treasures lie, illustrating clever coincidences in business names, product advertisements, and energetic extras that more than steal the focus away from time to time. If you’re a student of the game when it comes to this particular genre, then you will feel one step ahead of the game at all times with these visual strokes of satire, picking up the slack in laughs where the PG-13 confines of material occasionally falter.

– Respect to the director. While I have only seen 2015’s “The Final Girls” from Strauss-Schulson’s filmography, a movie that I dearly loved, I can say that he has once again earned a fan out of me for keeping the control on a project that would be easy to float away from. I relate something like this to the Scary Movie franchise, in that it sometimes gets ahead of itself while not knowing when to quit with a joke or story direction. This movie stays firmly grounded in the gimmick, all the while composing an intriguing enough narrative that did maintain my interest. Todd also understands that while this is a spoof, it’s best not to insult the audiences of those movies, so the gags themselves are light-hearted and even factually based when compared to something of the previous film I mentioned, which goes out of its way to thrash and trash every little thing about them. Todd watched 65 romantic comedies in preparation for the film, and wrote down every narrative similarity about them, proving that he was a dedicated student of the game who went the distance to capture the surroundings accordingly.

– There’s something oddly satisfying about the only romantic movie coming out during Valentines Day weekend is a spoof. Considering the last few years have dealt with the dreaded Fifty Shades movies around this time, it gives a finer appreciation for a film like “Isn’t It Romantic”, that doesn’t require extremities or taboo to sell its picture. These are the kind of movies that I love seeing around this time of year, and even if it doesn’t fully satisfy on every angle of the filmmaking, Hollywood’s return to form for romantic comedies in February is a welcome return to form that documents Hollywood’s ever-changing face, thanks to its unorthodox leading lady.

NEGATIVES

– Performances drop the ball on an otherwise talented cast. I don’t mind Rebel Wilson, but her charms aren’t best utilized in this film. She still maintains the comic touch that has bolstered her career, but it’s in the romantic aspect where she falls flat in garnering the audience interest to feel inspired for her character. Her and Adam Devine still have impeccable chemistry from their Pitch Perfect days, but there isn’t enough tease or tantalizing in the flow of their relationship to feel their yearning. Hemsworth is once again flat in his charisma, continuing to stand in the shadows of a much more talented brother whose versatility helps him survive the storm. Aside from this, the best performance in the film is easily the gay best friend of Wilson’s character, portrayed by Brandon Scott Jones, who steals each scene because of his over-eccentric personality that is impossible not to laugh at. That’s really it in terms of compelling performances.

– Sloppy pacing. At 83 measly minutes, I knew the pacing associated with proper subplot development would be a challenge, and as it turns out I was right in that assumption. The characters are thinly written, relationships are rushed to their inevitable conclusions, and the entire second act would almost hold no weight with the narrative if it weren’t for one scene that establishes the rules within this world. While a quick watch is nice, this is a film that could easily use another twenty minutes to tie these issues together, and even for a spoof “Isn’t It Romantic” feels far too breezy to be groundbreaking.

– Falls into its own set traps. I get that this is a spoof and that there are only so many directions this film can take, but the conventionalism associated with the resolves, in addition to committing many of the same tropes that the film mocks, plagues this film into the kind of familiar predictable territory that forces it to border hypocritical circumstances. In my opinion, some further elaborating on the differences of the real world could’ve been used to do things that the fantasy world cannot, and what we’re left with is a third act that finally ties these two contrasting tones together to one cohesive film for once, and while that sounds appealing, it’s for all of the wrong reasons.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Happy Death Day 2U

Directed By Christopher Landon

Starring – Jessica Rothe, Ruby Modine, Israel Broussard

The Plot – This time, our hero Tree Gelbman (Rothe) discovers that dying over and over was surprisingly easier than the dangers that lie ahead.

Rated PG-13 for violence, adult language, sexual material and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– A risky formula. Considering this sequel is convoluting everything about the first movie that was simplistically solid about the narrative, it’s surprising that it works in the best kind of way. The film adds many layers creatively not only in the redundancy of repetition, but also in further enhancing the personalities of supporting characters, who we only got a few instances with during the first movie. It takes something on a small scale and maximizes its potential on a scientific spectrum not only to try to answer how any of this is possible to begin with, but to also show off the increase in budget after a successful first campaign, and it adds a fresh taste to a series based on repetition.

– Speaking of repetition, if you think this is just repeating the same scenes of the first movie, think again. Because this is a parallel dimension of sorts, the writers are able to play with the character relationships and fateful possibilities that the first film wasn’t privy to. As you might imagine, this makes things increasingly difficult for Tree, not only in going through a mostly fresh take all over again, but also in the weight of consequences it finally establishes from her dying so much, giving each passing day urgency in the way a normal life typically would. This is something that bothered me with the first film, because there’s no suspense in the narrative if Tree can simply reset each and every day, and thankfully its much better sequel has addressed this issue to leave audiences more firmly invested.

– Juggling tone. While this film still has elements of horror in its material, the movie’s dependency on humor, particularly in that of the physical variety made this feel like a completely different film all together, and invested me much further than its predecessor. Most of the intended humor works as constructed, but the tonal evolution doesn’t stop there. It gives way to some third act dramatic pulls similar to those of the things Ashton Kutcher was fighting against in “The Butterfly Effect”, creating an air of unavoidable tragedy to Tree’s life that establishes even more empathy for the already sarcastically sizzling lead protagonist.

– How good is Jessica?. As to where Rothe was easily the best part of the first movie, the further development and attention paid to the supporting ensemble makes her earn it this time, and boy does she ever. Rothe’s energetic impulses and free-range facial canvas of response makes her the perfect leading lady for her particular situation, combining enough fear, aggravation, and trauma to the role to play off each new discovery that is for better or worse helpful. However, it’s in the script’s tugging her to unfamiliar dramatic ground where we see a star in the making. For much of the second half of the movie, Rothe’s character feels fully fleshed out in a matured way where we embrace a psychological connection for the first time, and it only cements that this series would be nothing without a charismatic lead who adapts when everything visually and creatively is changing around her.

– Instrumental throwback. Sadly, modern horror films rarely do musical montages, but the clever way that Paramore’s “Hard Times”, arguably my favorite pop song of the last three years, is used with the material not only adds a reflective take to what’s transpiring before us, but also gives a fun moment of toe-tapping release between the mounting details of scientific formulas. This sequence edits all of the death scenes together crisply, while garnering enough responsibility in documenting the dangers to stay on the safe side of influencing viewers in the wrong ways. This is as Roadrunner and coyote as you can get for something as serious as death, and I devilishly enjoyed every single moment of it and hearing Hayley Williams angelic crescendo in one tasty presentation.

– Synthetic production values. “Happy Death Day” happened two whole years ago, so in duplicating the appearances not only of characters, but also in set pieces and familiar pop-ups can be a difficult task, but it’s one that may be Landon’s single strongest feature as a director. There isn’t a single flaw in the work of believability that would make this movie feel like anything other than a faithful continuation of Tree’s everyday college routine, and it allows the audience the ability to quite literally watch these movies back-to-back as one cohesive film because it bonds to its predecessor so tightly. As to where aspects of other sequels bring to the foreground an air of obviousness to them, Landon has paid his tuition in whole to soak up one more semester at this college setting, and the result is seamless continuity.

– Bear McCreery’s nostalgic influence. The musical score to this film feels every bit as evocative as it does obvious towards a particular film mentioned during the first act, and while this point sounds condemning in terms of originality, it’s in that obvious audible atmosphere where we find the clarity we seek for why this sounds like anything but conventional horror familiarity. There’s plenty of wonderment and majestry during the science fiction scenes, all the while leaving extra room for dessert in terms of mellow, moving compositions that force you to swallow harder while gently tugging at your heartstrings. McCreery’s growing reputation among a variety of genre offerings have etched his name in stone among the best composers going today, but his work in “Happy Death Day 2U” summarizes the complete spectrum in depth that prove genre is only a word.

NEGATIVES

– Undercooked horror element. It’s a bit disappointing that the horror factor of the film is given the least amount of attention, and it shows when you consider the little growth it takes on in this pivotal second chapter. Because everything else is different in the film, so too is the masked killer, and even when I thought the first movie’s killer was completely predictable, it’s got nothing on the asinine obviousness of this film. For one, I don’t believe for a second that this person would go overboard because of what transpires, nor do I buy them as menacing in the slightest. Aside from this, horror is such a limited partner in this film that it almost feels tacked-on every time the film remembers to go there.

– First act miscues. The introduction to the film goes in a completely different direction with a new character, but unfortunately its exploration lasts all of ten minutes, and is resolved in such an easy manner that makes its inclusion feel almost pointless with where the narrative takes us. I can understand the script not wanting to hit on the same beats as the first movie, but surely there were much easier ways to make the connection between what is happening with Tree and another character’s science project to tie it all together. I felt that this character was going to be a bigger part of this film, but he’s only used when Tree’s character needs him, summarizing a first act introduction that speaks very little to the rest of the film it is conjoined to.

– Nonsensical ending. MAJOR SPOILERS. Tree is forced by the end of the movie to basically live in a world between being with the guy she loves or her mom, but what’s hilarious is that she can have both if she just used some of the intellect that supposedly allowed her to remember a dry erase board full of formula. If she just talks to this guy and tells him her feelings, this whole thing could be avoided, and she could live in a world where she has it all. Instead, the film creates a choice that is completely unwarranted, trying to paint a lesson where it just doesn’t apply. What’s even funnier is that Tree and her beau do indeed fall for each other right before she returns to her normal world, proving that a conversation could’ve saved her mother.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Cold Pursuit

Directed By Hans Petter Moland

Starring – Liam Neeson, Emmy Rossum, Laura Dern

The Plot – Quiet family man and hard-working snowplow driver Nels Coxman (Neeson) is the lifeblood of a glitzy resort town in the Rocky Mountains because he is the one who keeps the winter roads clear. He and his wife (Dern) live in a comfortable cabin away from the tourists. The town has just awarded him “Citizen of the Year.” But Nels has to leave his quiet mountain life when his son is murdered by a powerful drug lord. As a man who has nothing to lose he is stoked by a drive for vengeance. This unlikely hero uses his hunting skills and transforms from an ordinary man into a skilled killer as he sets out to dismantle the cartel. Nels’ actions ignite a turf war between a manically unpredictable gangster known as Viking and a rival gang boss. Justice is served in one final spectacular confrontation that will leave no one unscathed.

Rated R for strong violence, drug material, and some adult language including sexual references

POSITIVES

– The harsh elements of the setting. Not since 2017’s “Wind River” has a film established the ingrediants of an environment so fruitfully that easily transcends that of the screen that we the audience are watching it on. Thanks to the immersive shot selection, as well as the various imagery throughout the picture, I found myself feeling the sting of the frost-bitten cold, combined with the isolation and confinement of the overwhelming snow that surrounds our cast of characters. Visually, it outlines a hell-frozen-over kind of vibe to replicate the actions of what is going on in the story, and it frequently gave me chills the longer we are engaged in it.

– Fresh takes on performances all around. I know what you’re thinking: this is the typical Liam Neeson role, in which he saves the day after something horrible is done to a member of his family, but that’s merely a rough take and not the entire picture of his performance. What is so different about Nels as opposed to the other characters that Neeson has portrayed is his sense of vulnerability and the consequences catching up to him with thinking on the fly. Outside of maybe his role in “The Grey”, this feels like the most relatable character of his action movie filmography, balancing enough heart and menace to the role that never forgets this man’s pain through the many dirty deeds he unloads. Aside from Neeson, I also enjoyed the work of Emmy Rossum as an upstart police detective whose soul motivation is to save the town from rival drug gangs, as well as Tom Bateman as the film’s central antagonist, who may or may not be directly out of a superhero movie for his unorthodox movements and over-eccentric personality that constantly keeps things interesting.

– A surprising direction of tone. “Cold Pursuit’s” strongest quality is in its dark and twisted sense of humor, which gives the elements at play a very ironic sense of circumstance behind them. I certainly didn’t expect myself to laugh with a plot like this one, but the film is constantly tugging at the patience of audience in the most devilishly delicious manner, showing it’s not afraid to get silly with a premise as outlandish as this one. One such example involves an incredibly slow and noisy morgue lift that would otherwise be edited for time in a typical movie, but here is played in real time to translate the awkwardness of the situation in the air. Beyond this, the deaths themselves are given a lot of free-range creativity to play around with, satisfying the crave of carnage candy in anyone who values intense revenge in circles like these.

– The immense responsibility cast upon cinematographer Philip Ogaard. Philip himself has done a lot of Danish film projects, including the original film that this movie is based on, and you can see that country of influence translate superbly to the way the film looks and feels. The color pallets have a very absorbing quality to them, in that they soak up the color scheme inside of each and every room, but beyond that they do wonders in depicting the elegance associated with these wealthy families of Denver, giving scenes of chewable scenery for us the audience to sample these extraordinary set designs. There’s also respect to be given for how Denver is presented from the wide lens angle, presenting it as sort of an isolated snowpacalypse that has paused the everyday operations of such a city.

– Unorthodox focus in where it spends its time. It’s interesting that the screenplay spends a majority of its time getting to know our antagonists, but the benefits as a result of such are rewarding in more ways than one. For my money, this creative direction gives the film a more cerebral sense, in that we are seeing the cause and effects of each and every move by each respective side, as well as it taking its time in forcing the audience to understand each calculation along the way. Beyond even this however, it gives light to these horrible people being just that: PEOPLE, and not some hokey, cliche-ridden bad guy who we ourselves can’t relate to in the slightest. It’s a big chance that pays off handsomely in giving us a who for the why, and I wish more films would take this as a much-needed gift to better flesh out the motivations of characters inside of their stories.

– Creativity in visual text. Each time a character dies, and believe me when I say there are many times of it, the film cuts to a black backdrop white text visual that gives the name of the deceased, their nickname, and an icon symbol to match each. It gives each bout of revenge a compartmentalized and almost chapter-esque feel inside of the bigger picture, and only further plays into the personality that the screenplay instills. If a character is seconds away from facing what we realize is an inevitable death, the quick cut to black visually communicates and confirms what we already knew was coming, and no matter how many times this gimmick is used, I never lost my smile because of it.

– Impactful ending. A problem plaguing many films these days is the director not knowing where to end it to leave audiences with the biggest gut-punch right before the credits, and thankfully “Cold Pursuit” never has this problem. Aside from there being some twists with its resolution that I didn’t see coming, there is one last surprise in the final shot of the movie that made me laugh, wince, and only confirmed the awesome time I had with this movie through nearly two hours. It’s one last stinger that reminds audiences of the cold and unforgiving nature of such a place, and does so in a way that the previous scenes thrived at: ironic inevitability.

NEGATIVES

– Obvious plot device introduced midway through. There’s a character who pops up midway through the film who has very little ties to either side, and whose progression and conclusion only appear because the movie needed him to. I won’t give away anything, but without this person, the antagonist would never know the name of the person coming after him, nor would there ever be any form of war between the two sides, since Nels knows his enemy and not vice versa. This character only appears for about ten minutes during the film, and because of such we know that the intention was to draw these two sides together in the most obviously sloppy kind of manner.

– Important character disappearance. One strange directing decision along the way involves Laura Dern’s character vanishing from the screen and never re-appearing or further elaborating on the relationship between her and Neeson. The reason for this to me feels like too many cooks in the kitchen in terms of characters introduced to the on-going narrative, but the mother to the deceased boy is such a pivotal and redeeming quality to a conflict like this, and only further wastes the time and talents of arguably the most talented worker in the entire cast.

– Moland’s broken promise. I am one of few American critics to have seen “In Order of Disappearance”, and director Moland has gone on record as saying he would only remake his previous film if it were completely different from his original film, and that just isn’t the case here. With the exception of different actors, and one minimally unimportant subplot, the only difference is Nels last name, with it in the original being Dickman, and in this one being Coxman. Yes, that is indeed a dick joke. My point however, is that this film is sadly an almost shot-for-shot remake that will do little for people who have seen the original chapter, and only further convolutes the definition of the term “Remake”.

My Grade: 7/10 or B