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

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Directed By Mike Mitchell

Starring – Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett

The Plot – Reunites the heroes of Bricksburg in an all new action-packed adventure to save their beloved city. It’s been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are now facing a huge new threat: LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than it can be rebuilt. The battle to defeat the invaders and restore harmony to the LEGO universe will take Emmet (Pratt), Lucy (Banks), Batman (Will Arnett) and their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds, including a strange galaxy where everything is a musical. It will test their courage, creativity and Master Building skills, and reveal just how special they really are.

Rated PG for mild action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Endless imaginative animation. Since this is a sequel, the stakes and production should be twice as strong, and thanks to a collection of immensely detailed Lego structures and a variety of ever-changing landscapes and scenery, the film’s digitalization refuses to ever grow stale, all the while raising the bar respectively between two different worlds, real life and Lego, that offer enough contrast in character movements to flesh out the rules and engagements of each atmosphere. The color scheme is vibrant in depiction, offering a cornicopia of colorful explosion to constantly hold the attention and amazement of each respective age group.

– Character cameos. The first Lego Movie brought us the introduction to one of my favorite Batman’s of all time, but it’s nothing compared to the intelligence instilled in how the sequel incorporates some familiar faces into the Lego Universe. I won’t spoil anything, but the one that steals the show easily for me is a 90’s action icon who pops up twice in extremely creative and humorous ways, that may or may not be his best performance in years. Aside from him, there are appearances with everyone from superheroes, to sports stars, to teen heartthrobs, and even an easily recognizable actress to play Will Ferrell’s wife, that is just too perfect not to capitalize on.

– A completely brand new earworm of a soundtrack. While nothing reaches the replay value or adventurous spirit of something like “Everything is Awesome”, the musical numbers in the film offer plenty of balance and eclectic instrument progression that will surely craft a favorite for everyone. For my money, it’s definitely the appropriately titled “This Song Will Get Stuck In Your Head”, a building stadium anthem that not only pokes fun at the repetition of chorus used in most modern day pop music, but also speaks volumes to the way a track will inflict pain no matter how bad we try to fight it. It’s the perfect cap on another collection of surefire favorites that won’t relent until they have been played in every family minivan cruising the world.

– The progression of the script. When the film started, the first act felt like a chore to get through, mainly because every scene during this time was given away in the overly-revealing trailer, leaving nothing but predictability in the way, but thankfully the rest of the film builds an intriguing triple-tiered narrative, all the while harvesting something truly conveying for our particular time in history for its heartfelt message. For the last hour of this film, this very much reached the level of the satire and sharp delivery of the first movie, allowing it to serve as that rare example where a movie progresses instead of regresses.

– What a cast. There is simply too much to cover here, but the double duty work of Chris Pratt, the brawn edginess of Elizabeth Banks, the sinister personality of Tiffany Haddish, and of course the dry narcissism of Will Arnett fire on all cylinders, giving us no shortage of vibrant personalities to bounce off of one another. This is an ensemble-first kind of film, in that the sum of its parts equally help boil the pot, and while no one truly loses the familiarity of their one-of-a-kind tones, the infectious energy delivered by some of the most hip actors working today is simply too enticing to ignore.

– Not afraid to get dark with its material. I love a movie that can grow with its following chapters, because this keeps things from getting stale or even far too similar to its predecessors, and in that regard we have a third act psyche-out that was every bit as terrifying for our favorite characters as it was transcendent in capturing the dire dread of the situation. Did I know what was coming during the psyche-out? Absolutely, but I commend a movie greatly for capturing the magnitude of the antagonist’s plan, even rivaling that of “Avengers: Infinity War” in terms of inescapable weight that registers hard with us the audience effectively.

– Actually feels like a sequel. Aside from the film connecting the events of Taco Tuesday to the now weathered and decay look inside of Bricksburg, the very twist associated with the ending of the first Lego Movie more than sets the ground for what we’re seeing transpire before us in this film. Because we know who and what is behind the miniature movements, we feel a need to better trace how all of this is possible, and while I do have more than a few problems with the logic design inside of the gimmick, which I will get to later, I will say that establishing this film as a compendium piece to its original chapter gives the series continuity that is sadly missing from a majority of episodic kids movies.

NEGATIVES

– The percentage of humor. The first Lego Movie was near perfect in this regard. In fact, it was so good with its comedy that the rapid fire delivery of hearty laughter forced me to miss some jokes because I was still laughing from the previous delivery. With this sequel, that sadly isn’t the case, as probably only 40% of the jokes pulled a chuckle out of me, and this is because the film so obviously caters more to a child demographic with this sequel. That is to be expected with a kids-first movie, but part of what I enjoyed so much about the first film is that it was something that kids and adults could take in and equally indulge in, as to where this film left me with a feeling that lacks the consistency or confidence of material that was literally everywhere in its previous chapter.

– Too many musical numbers. As I mentioned earlier, the musical force behind this film does remain faithful in giving audiences at least one more earworm in unlimited listens, but the pacing of the inclusions themselves could’ve used more restrain, particularly during that of the late second act, which fires off three different tracks in a matter of ten minutes. What’s even more discouraging is that not all of these songs are winners in progressing the plot, nor tickling the tummy of its audience, and instead the failures just feel like unnecessary padding in stretching this run time beyond where it needs to be.

– Twist inconsistencies. There’s many problems that I had with the twist revealed late in the first film that definitely doesn’t make sense here. SPOILERS AHEAD – For one, where do all of these character voices come from if they’re being moved and played for by children? If you don’t have a problem with this aspect, you should consider that Will Ferrell, who plays the father in this family, voices a Lego character in this universe, but apparently the other kids do not. Another problem takes place when the protagonist and antagonist have a fight under the washing machine minutes after the kids have put away their toys. The movements of these Lego characters would make us think that someone must be playing with them if they are moving during this confrontation, so I ask how this is possible in the first place?? If you think this was the only time that an inconsistency like this reared its ugly head, think again, as there were many scenes that simply don’t add up with the rules we’ve been told and run through. If this doesn’t bother you, fine, but you have to at least acknowledge that this movie doesn’t follow the rules that it has taken two movies to establish.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Stan & Ollie

Directed By Jon S. Baird

Starring – John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson

The Plot – The true story of Hollywood’s greatest comedy double act, Laurel and Hardy, is brought to the big screen for the first time. Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the inimitable movie icons, “Stan and Ollie” is the heart-warming story of what would become the pair’s triumphant farewell tour. With their golden era long behind them, the pair embark on a variety hall tour of Britain and Ireland. Despite the pressures of a hectic schedule, and with the support of their wives Lucille (Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda), a formidable double act in their own right, the pair’s love of performing, as well as for each other, endures as they secure their place in the hearts of their adoring public.

Rated PG for some adult language, and for smoking

POSITIVES

– Stage like presentation. The way that Baird frames this film is simply marvelous, combining the elements of the world that our title characters lived and breathed in, and incorporates them for us the audience to feel like we are embracing their show in the same way people did in the post Vaudeville era. The introduction text is complimented by a curtain in the background, feeding us exposition for the past between these two, and the backdrops and props are carved out in a way that echoes hollow interiors, making this all feel like a manipulated presentation for only our eyes.

– Candid reveals about the duo. Without question, my favorite aspect of this film is its approach to matters happening off-stage that equal or even surpass what their audiences perceived because of their stage show. As expected, the bond between them is tested and even strained because of decades on the road together, making their relationship feel like a marriage during confining times. In addition to this, there’s much focus on the significant others of the duo in how each of them unabashedly influence the decisions of their male suitors, providing a sort of fuel for the fire which led to the distance between them. The material nuances much more than the conventional entertainer biopic that we’ve become saddled with, and makes “Stan & Ollie” much more than a series of sight gags to tug at our funny bones.

– Speaking of humor, the dynamic in banter between Coogan and Reilly is fantastic in replicating the many routines that they made famous night after night. I am not a fan of Laurel and Hardy, nor am I a fan of slapstick humor on the whole, but the fine timing between these two simply couldn’t be ignored, and gave me a series of hearty laughs that solidified their impeccable chemistry. Even beyond the stage however, the banter between them in their daily lives felt like it’s serving a greater purpose in perfecting what they bring to their material. Some of my favorite parts of the film are just the small talk scenes between Coogan and Reilly that speaks volumes to two men being involved in the business for far too long.

– Transformative performances. It’s easy to brag about Reilly’s physical transformation here, as he dons a fat suit and multiple prosthetics to make this heralded figure come to life. However, it is Coogan for me who really stole the movie, in that it feels like the first time he has portrayed a character with heart and ambition simultaneously. Coogan channels the gentle side of Laurel that at times gives him the adolescent vibe, and when combined with Reilly’s gruff exterior, the two easily lose themselves in the mold of the characters, cementing my early favorite for perfect casting thus far in 2019. It’s awesome that both actors found their way out of the devastation that was “Holmes and Watson” and managed to get together once more without the confines of immature Will Ferrell comedy to hinder what they bring to the table.

– Choice of time period. Most biopics center around the time frame when an artist hits their prime and really makes it big, but “Stan and Ollie” takes place during those less-flattering years after the fame has worn off, and the two weathered veterans are forced to make some tough decisions moving forward. If you’re invested into the characters like I was, this will make for some truly compelling dramatic elements that come to fruition because of the introduction of some familiar immitators in duo stage shows that are making their mark at the exact same time. It all comes to a head during a post-show dinner gone wrong that vividly paints the picture for past discretions that have solidified their current stance towards one another.

– Manipulated long take sequences. This is especially prominent during the first act of the movie, in which we follow the two leads through a movie studio at the height of their stardom, and what this does is depict the change in the world of pop culture, which feels like it grows with or without the duo’s inclusion. While these of course aren’t one take scenes, the synching of masterful editing by Una Ni Dhonghaile, who did deserve Academy recognition, stitches it together in a way that completely holds your attention, and allows you to take in as much of this duo at their highest fame so that the images of their fall will feel that much more devastating because of it. Brilliant visual storytelling.

– A moving tribute. One unique take in the film involves the duo acting their way through a Robin Hood spoof film that Laurel wrote much of the material for, but sadly the duo never managed to make. The scenes themselves are funny, intelligent in material, and especially beautiful for the time period cinematography, and it crafts a ‘What if?’ element to the screenplay that even Laurel and Hardy themselves would appreciate for the revealing looking into what indeed could’ve been.

NEGATIVES

– Jagged flashback sequences. For my money, there’s not enough definition or subliminal differences in the flashback sequences to not confuse the audience when they appear. These scenes just incorporate themselves like the next scene of the on-going narrative, and forced me several times to stop and accurately define on my own what time period is front-and-center at that particular moment. Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of these instances in the film, as it stays mostly grounded in the current day narrative, but the few instances where it does overtake our story try to do it without text or aging differences from the actors, and it makes for sloppy transitions that feel like speed bumps to important exposition.

– Less than stellar musical choices. Rolfe Kent’s acompanyment here not only misses the mark in channeling the proper vibes in each scene, but it also wants so badly to spoon-feed emotional response down our throats in a way that removes any kind of artistic interpretation. The syrupy orchestral score often feels overwrought and extended, making for a score that feels bigger than where the reserved story takes us, and I wish the producers instead would’ve instead went for a more Vaudevilian-influenced approach in sound to properly replicate the tinge of the particular era.

– Errors….errors everywhere. This falls on the head of Baird, who should’ve used more focus in removing these items that completely ruined my investment into the proper era of film. The first is a modern Canadian flag with the maple leaf that wasn’t adopted until 1965. Likewise, a 50-star American flag that wasn’t adopted until 1960 is shown outside during the Savoy hotel introduction. Finally, a continuity error, in which Stan delivers some eggs to Hardy while he’s in bed. He lays them on the bed, and in the next scene, when Stan lays next to him, they have completely vanished without being moved. Small stuff? sure, but good production focus translates on-screen, and this one could’ve used attention for the things that are easy to reduce.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

The Kid Who Would Be King

Directed By Joe Cornish

Starring – Rebecca Ferguson, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Patrick Stewart

The Plot – Old school magic meets the modern world in this epic adventure. Alex (Serkis) thinks he’s just another nobody, until he stumbles upon the mythical sword in the stone, Excalibur. Now, he must unite his friends and enemies into a band of knights and, together with the legendary wizard Merlin (Stewart), take on the wicked enchantress Morgana (Ferguson). With the future at stake, Alex must become the great leader he never dreamed he could be.

Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Respects the source material. Any time you make a modern day adaptation to something of historical significance, the translation is usually less than stellar. However, what is sure to surprise a few people is that this film is actually a sequel to the Merlin saga we’ve come to understand, therefore it still abides by the same rules and history that we’ve come to enjoy. In addition to this, the film does successfully serve as a welcoming introduction to anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the ages old folk tale, taking valued screen time not only in filling us in about these character’s defining conflicts, but also in the traveled road of the sword itself, which gives whoever holds it a preservation of power that helps bring along their transformation.

– The modern spin. I loved how the very outline of the story, characters, and moments from the tale are translated in a way that makes them feel relatable to modern times. I won’t spoil much, but take for instance Alex’s estranged father, who we’re told heroically fought off many demons in his life before he was able to be an influence in Alex’s life. However, as we come to learn, demons in this context represent personal demons, and the man was anything but heroic because of such. It’s things like these that really gave the film a clever backbone of creativity, all the while grounding the fairy tale in the kind of realities that tell the audience this is anything but make believe. Likewise, the decision to not date this film numerically is one that keeps it from feeling dated, all the while harvesting an air of familiarity to our own world with how the movie frequently highlights the world feeling worse than ever before because of its leaders. I’d make an America joke here, but frankly I’m too depressed.

– Fresh faced cast that I couldn’t get enough of. I didn’t recognize a single one of the five youths that make up these new knights of the round table, but each of them have bright futures ahead because of the way their confidence harvests in each of their performances. For my money, the show-stealers are Serkis (Andy’s son) as the title character, and especially Angus Imrie as young Merlin. Serkis shows a ton of dramatic depth to the unveiling psychological fragility of his character, and Imrie rivets with a combination of finely-timed comedy and energetic hand movements that lead to beneficial spells. Both of them are stars in the making, and captivate the attention of every scene of long-winded dialogue delivery that hints that this film is the first step in bigger, bolder careers.

– Rides the waves of tonal change smoothly. I was expecting a comedy after seeing the trailers for this film, and for the most part that is correct. What surprised me however, was the consistency of each joke landing for a kids movie. Especially during the first act, when the lunacy of this legendary sword shows up for some hilariously awkward situations. In addition to the humor however, the film succeeds in adventure, science fiction, and especially drama, harvesting some gut-punch scenes of character development once the truth comes to light. A film will usually fall apart when it tries to attempt too many changes in tone, but “The Kid Who Would Be King” reigns in royalty because it takes enough time to fully flesh out the directions of where it’s heading, and ultimately it leads to a roller-coaster of mixed emotions that will have you pulling back so much more than you were expecting.

– Electric Wave Bureau’s beautifully immersive musical score. This group have had success with films such as “Lucy”, “Broken”, and the Paddington series, to name a few, but the work done in this film is easily my favorite from them because of the control in sound mixing that makes us the audience reach for something faint in the distance. In my interpretation, the eclectic tones channel a lot of 80’s coming of age flicks, like “Stand By Me” or “The Goonies”, in that they exert enough danger in the wonderment of adventure that you sadly don’t hear much in today’s child movie landscapes. The music fits on the ideals of war and blossoming adolescence that aren’t two of the easiest things to blend together, but E.W.B’s complete score is a taste test of rich flavors and layers that will have you putting your ears before eyes to see what hints become prevalent to you.

– Passion of filmmaking instilled to a kids movie. It would be easy for this film to fail for the fact that it’s released in January, but the combination of shot selection, gorgeous cinematography from the mastermind Bill Pope, and intriguing character arcs, render this one a rare gem to the days when kids movies could be films that looked and felt like award worthy presentations. The detail here to its themes and inspiring message is something that I feel will leave a lasting imprint on the rapid fire list of releases that they endure each year. It’s the perfect introduction for any kid wanting to learn more about film, and seeing the kinds of artistic integrities that expands their horizons, and it’s in bringing along that adult filmmaking mentality to a kids genre where I have the deepest respect for this picture.

– Feels like there is actually weight and stakes to the movie. Part of what I miss in the movies from my childhood are those instances of fright or daring imagery that supply a ball of uneasiness in the pit of my stomach, and this film is an homage to exactly what I’m talking about. Aside from an antagonist who is visually and personally sinister, there’s much to the idea surrounding school bullying and where the evolves with the progression of the story. It’s one of those films where the kids feel alone and legitimately responsible for what transpires, proving age is only a number in the inspiration and ambition to grow into what you’re destined to become.

NEGATIVES

– Misuse of the antagonist character. I have been a fan of Rebecca Ferguson for a few years now, so when I heard she was cast as the film’s central evil enchantress, I looked forward to seeing a side to her acting that I haven’t been privy to before. First of all, Ferguson is NOT the problem. She gives her all in these deliciously devilish takes when she is front-and-center. The problem comes from the lack of energy and time dedicated to her character that make her motivation nothing more than just another villain. Even the confrontation itself comes and goes with very little struggle or psychology to its movements, and it ultimately drops the ball on a character who deserved to have more influence on this group banding together to stop her.

– A bit too long. Clocking in at nearly two hours long, the film does begin to test patience during the third act, in which there are two different final battles. The second confrontation that rendered the first completely pointless and worthy of being edited out, feels like the real ending. This is really the only script disagreement that I had during the film, as the second conflict is bigger, more visually indulgent, and goes on a bit longer. I think without that first battle, the film could’ve trimmed fifteen light and inconsequential minutes that would’ve done wonders in carrying audiences through the home stretch.

– Computer generated saturation. While the generated effects in the film do supplant enough weight and believable color filtering to where they stand out, the percentage of its use becomes too much by film’s end, ridding itself of what simplicity made the movie sweet in the first place. Even for the fantasy genre of film, its imaginary properties don’t theoretically blend well with the whole Arthur folklore, and felt like too much was being thrown at the screen during the most impactful of sequences.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Bird Box

Directed By Susanne Bier

Starring – Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich

The Plot – In the wake of an unknown global terror, a mother (Bullock) must find the strength to flee with her children down a treacherous river in search of safety. Due to unseen deadly forces, the perilous journey must be made blindly.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, adult language and brief sexuality

POSITIVES

– Kicks off right away. I love a film that wastes little time in getting the pulse of the action going, and the first fifteen minutes of “Bird Box” perfectly set the precedent for what’s to come in the following two hours. We are caught off-guard with the ensuing mayhem in the same way Malorie (Bullock) is, learning things as we go in this unpredictable circumstance. This momentum sticks around permanently throughout, making a challenging runtime feel like half of that because of constantly-evolving challenges and suffocating atmosphere that boil together to produce one electrifying experience.

– Non linear story that actually pleases. It’s a lost art anymore to piece together a story that adds anything of originality to its structure, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer does a solid job of constructing two respective timelines, one in current day and one five years prior, while instilling intrigue to both. What’s impressive is that each arc adds to the other, delivering a series of bombshell deliveries that make certain aspects about the opposite timeline come to light because of the important information. What’s valuable is that neither is more compelling or lagging, building two enthralling stories for the price of one.

– Performances. While I did have many problems with the characterization of the film, there’s a familiar face behind every corner that only adds to the big name atmosphere of the streaming presentation. There are many challengers in the way of Sandra’s domination of screen time, most notably in Malkovich’s stuffy snob, whose conservatism keeps him reserved on the front of human interaction, or in the continuation of “Moonlight’s” soft interior bad boy Trevante Rhodes, who acts as the protector of sorts to Bullock, but it always comes back to her. Bullock captivates the screen frequently, bringing a combination of on-call tears and Motherly instinct that make her an indulging protagonist. Most leads get stronger the more they’re tested, but Bullock’s Malorie feels grounded in reality, etching out a layer of vulnerability with the character that comes with parental instinct.

– Unavoidable weight and consequences. One thing often missing from post-apocalyptic movies is the air of permanence that elevate its conflict and illustrate a line of urgency that resonates with the audience. That’s never a problem here, as stakes are constantly raised between an adapting antagonist and an increasing body count that diminishes the hope of ever going back to the old ways. There is no quick and easy solution to the mayhem that persists throughout, and if a depressing story challenges you negatively, this isn’t the story for you.

– Decaying beauty in the film’s cinematography. Especially is the case during scenes on the river, there’s an overall greying tint and literal fog in the air that make for some exceptional scenes of transfixing focus amongst the gorgeous photography. Salvatore Totino brings with him the same textures and filters of somber ambiance that made his work on “Everest” one of that year’s best, and harvests a big screen level of toxicity in the air of post-apocalyptic backdrop that conjures a big screen stature for Netflix films.

– A gift of anxiety for all. This is one of the things that I hear most about the film, and after watching it I can say that the exhilaration of tense sequencing is clearly the strongest aspect of this film. Between a combination of finely documented camera work whose editing increases between each respective character in frame, and the powerful duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once again providing gas for the proverbial fire, we get a collection of exchanges that constantly ratchet the tension and hang just perfect enough in air to amplify our intrigue without it ever carrying on for far too long. In addition, the periodic use of point-of-view camera work casts the audience in Bullock’s shoes, exerting that feeling of uneasiness that comes with being blindfolded against an adversary you’re so unfamiliar with. In general, there are very few films that can compete with “Bird Box” this year in terms of audience investment, and that constant elevation of the elements at play cook to make a boiling pot of nerves on the audience’s indulgence.

– Interpretive poignancy. As with any movie, there are tons of interpretations at a deeper meaning beneath the material, and “Bird Box” expanded my mind on a couple of self-observations that transcends the table dressing of the plot. SPOILERS AHEAD. The first is the entity’s lack of physicality on humans throughout the film, instead choosing to possess the ones that see so that they can hurt others. I interpreted this as the film believing that we the humans are the ones that are killing everything and everyone around us, and that we are the only ones capable of preserving our future as a race. The second one is really my opinion on the film as a whole. It’s about mental health and depression, and how we as a nation are blind to its effects. This not only explains the influence of suicide throughout the film, but also why it happens to random people instead of everyone, hinting that it can plague anyone at any time. Like I said, these are just my opinions on the material, and certainly nothing that’s concrete. I like a film that makes you think, and this one had no shortage of that.

NEGATIVES

– Thinly written characters. Outside of Bullock’s central protagonist, the film doesn’t waste any time donating exposition or backstory to the pasts of the group of eclectic survivors who surround her. This is probably why many of their deaths didn’t resonate any kind of emotional feeling from within me, and more than that creates an unintentional highlight of its own for who is expendable, based on the amount of screen time that each of them receive. Some characters die without little impact, some disappear to never show up again, and some I still don’t know the name to. May they rest in peace, forever nameless.

– Unanswered questions and plot holes. There were no shortage of times when I scratched my head at the lack of answers from a movie that clearly didn’t think things out all the way through. SPOILERS AHEAD How were they able to properly determine that sight was the cause of the mayhem? Why not breathing, or hearing? How do only a few people see the thing in an enormous crowd who are all looking in different directions? How did Malorie’s sister see it but she didn’t when they were in the same car, looking the exact same direction? How does a blindfold secure you, but seeing it on a surveillance camera doesn’t? It’s proven that this thing can kick down sturdy structures, so why does a house remain its weakness? It knows people are in there, so why isn’t this thing blowing this house down? What about animals? Why are they safe from seeing it? Wouldn’t there be more animals in the streets than humans if this were the case? During the GPS car scene, there isn’t a single flipped or turned car on the road that would block their path? GPS is never an exact science, so when it tells them to turn? How did the guy know EXACTLY when to turn? How was a guy the size that size able to sneak up on someone in the water? Especially considering the hearing sense of the trio should be at its peak with other senses diminished. These are just a few of the questions that I left the theater with, but I saved my real money for……….

– Lack of believability with the ending. SPOILERS. Why is a village of blind people the safe zone for Malorie and her family? What does them being safe have anything to do with her safety? How has this house stood for this long without some kind of conflict from the monster against it? How were all of them even able to get here? How will blind people defend themselves from someone getting in? It’s happened before, so it’s not crazy to think that it will happen again. Is an ending where the monster is still alive supposed to be satisfying? Are you the audience anymore relieved or confident because Malorie and her family reached this place? This is my problem when I think about the final moments to a story that was so edgy and unpredictable. It’s too neat and tidy to feel believable, and let a lot of momentum out of a film that was otherwise seductively suspenseful.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Ben Is Back

Directed By Peter Hedges

Starring – Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance

The Plot – Follows the charming yet troubled Ben Burns (Hedges), who returns home to his unsuspecting family one fateful Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother Holly Burns (Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return, but soon learns he is still very much in harm’s way. During the 24 hours that may change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family’s downfall.

Rated R for adult language throughout and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Stuart Dryburgh’s expressionist approach to the cold strokes of cinematography he’s painting. In setting this film in the countryside of New York, not only do we get the right kind of vibe and feel for the family atmosphere, complete with snowy and isolated setting, but we also get Stuart’s masterful greying color pallet that warms like a fog throughout the film. Beyond this presentation feeling unforgiving and shallow, you really conjure up the immense weight that lies on this family’s shoulders, and makes the past a very prominent character of its own for where the story currently stands.

– Detailed direction from Hedges that demands more of its audience. I appreciate any film where the small matters of a scene, or something that is taking place in the background, is more important than it comes across in real time, and that’s surely what we have here. Throughout the picture, we the audience are able to watch a scene play out and interpret it in our own ways, and it may be right or it may be wrong, but the point is that Hedges opens the door to discussion, periodically slipping you in further and further to the compelling nature of this slow-burn drama. Hedges has always been a director who refuses to spoon-fed his audience the details, and it’s more effective when the actors themselves can play out the intention of a scene without giving away the password that links it all together.

– Speaking of performances…. Roberts and Hedges give riveting and committed turns as their respective characters. Not that the supporting cast is particularly bad, but this is clearly a two person show, as the duo take us through enough fallen tears and repressed aggression about the torture they’ve endured to constantly command the stage. Roberts continues her legendary career without ever losing a step, and her greatest quality is in the undying love that she expresses constantly for the child who has given her no reason to. Hedges gives the best performance of his young career, serving as a very troubled and haunted protagonist by the decisions that have followed him repeatedly. The best parts of the film are definitely when these two share the screen with little distraction elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them are in the conversation for academy recognition.

– Mother/Son dynamic. The biggest positive for me in terms of my enjoyment from this movie is definitely the relationship between protector and cub that is tested endlessly. If anything, this is a testament to a Mother’s will, reminding us that no matter what her love will pursue, and as the film evolves into that search mystery in the second half, the bond is illustrated in such a way that brings them closer with each startling revelation she learns about him. It makes me almost wish that this film was released on Mother’s Day weekend, as the film colorfully illustrates this important job without hesitation, providing a surefire must-see for Mothers everywhere. On a side note, it’s interesting and extremely rare that Hedges cast his own son in the title role, and I feel like this allows him to feel those impacts and tender moments more exclusively when it’s his own kin experiencing them first-hand.

– A candid look inside of life as an addict. There have been a few films that cover the topic of addiction amongst adolescence this year, but none with the kind of conviction and focus as that of “Ben Is Back”. Far beyond this documenting the shame and mistrust that Ben endures in being re-introduced to society, it’s also the little things like the way people look at him and follow him to the oddest corners that offer insight into the uphill climb that they will face every day for the rest of their lives. This side of the material gave Peter Hedges as a screenwriter a very psychological sense, and puts us the viewer in the shoes of them frequently to taste the very bitter taste of alienation that only they must endure.

– My favorite scene. There’s an instance early on in the first act, where Roberts runs into the doctor who prescribed Ben painkillers, thus enabling him into the world of drugs that have torn her family apart. It is every bit as therapeutic as it is blunt with honesty, as Holly utters the line “I hope you die a horrible death”, leaving to a shock not only on the face of the man she’s talking to, but also to the delight of the audience, who are still seeing these new sides to Roberts personality. It’s rare that we ever get a face for the problem, and that’s why I found this scene rewarding. It allows Roberts the chance to be that unspoken majority who have been affected by mis-prescribing, and give us a scene to vent said frustrations. Funny, menacing, and even poignant.

– Conventional but unpredictable. Despite the fact that other films have touched on these familiar instances before, there are enough twists and turns in the material to constantly keep the audience engaged in what’s transpiring. More than anything, it’s in the genre twist of the second act that elevates this film from a family drama to a midnight search party. What follows is a barrage of uncertainty and cat-and-mouse leverage between Mother and Son that plays wonderfully with the pacing of this 98 minute gut-wrenching.

NEGATIVES

– Pedestrian photography. Despite the cinematography in the movie looking so beautifully haunting and anything but transparent, the movement of the camera, as well as camera lens used for the picture are constantly distracting to the unfolding narrative. One such instance of the former is in a fight sequence that is sloppily telegraphed and thoroughly out of frame. This is Resident Evil levels of photography, and it’s disappointing to say the least considering everything else is top notch on the production value. On the lens switch, there’s this obvious texture change for certain scenes, one such involving a cell phone rendering, that feels completely foreign from the rest of the depictions. If a film has a valuable reason for doing this, it’s acceptable, but a change this different makes the transitions lacking syntheticism, and I think it’s a mistake to include them three times during the film.

– Honest criminals? One of my biggest problems with the character outlines of this film is this constant manipulation that these criminals being questioned give up valuable information on their dealer without hesitation. Keep in mind that this is just a Mother and Son asking these people these questions, and they repeatedly provide them the honest, correct answer neatly gift-wrapped. It’s not a big problem, it just doesn’t feel honest considering other scenes of questioning in movies often involve a struggle or a backlash of some kind that is never present once during the many scenes in this movie.

– One major problem. Miscommunication is the constant plague in a film that is fighting for frequent urgency. What little it does manage to emit is in the form of these misunderstandings between characters that could easily be trimmed in a world other than film. One such example takes place when Ben repeatedly tells his Mother that he’s in trouble, only for her to overlook it every single time. The ending scene as well could easily be fixed and suffer no worry if a character just takes the time to return a certain matter of importance to the family’s house, instead of leaving their location cryptic for them to worry. I’m sorry I can’t explain that better because it will give away the scene, but you’ll understand what I mean when you watch it.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed By John McPhail

Starring – Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

The Plot – A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven at Christmas, forcing Anna (Hunt) and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.

Rated R for zombie violence and gore, adult language, and some sexual material

POSITIVES

– Sensational toe-tapping soundtrack. Since this is a musical above everything else, the music better be right on point, and thankfully the combination of Roddy Hart and Tommy Riley gift wrap us a series of spectacles that never trail on personality. The songs in the film are not only catchy, but lyrically cerebral in that they channel the pulse of the character’s inner thoughts at that particular moment. When the music is exceptional during a musical, it pushes a film that much further, and the quality of production and performance in favorite tracks of mine like “Break Away”, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You”, and “Soldier At War” all could easily be played on top 40 radio right now.

– Extremely likeable characters. Most of the reason for the enjoyment of these charming teenagers falls on the shoulders of the exceptionally talented musically trained actors who portray them, but I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention how the film does a remarkable job of displaying their hopes and dreams. Hunt’s Anna is a dreamer we can embrace because we’ve all felt muddled in the shallow waters that we were born into, and seek new adventures somewhere just beyond the rainbow. But despite her name being in the title, this isn’t JUST Anna’s movie, as plenty of time is invested in her surrounding friends and family who the movie values equally. Even more so, the rest of the ensemble harvest a variety of personalities and demeanors about them that make you crave more of the delightful dynamic between them that hits its mark every time because of energetic chemistry.

– Stunning special effects work. It’s clear that the budget isn’t anything of blockbuster level here, as much of the zombie sequences limit the make-up’d actors in frame, however what little we do get provides enough bang for the buck in the areas of make up and prosthetics. None of the patterns of decomposition ever feel like they obviously repeat, nor do they struggle at capturing the scarring of blunt force trauma. On this subject, the film has no shortage of creative kills that surprisingly indulge us in the physical side of the red stuff, instead of computer animated like we’ve been trained to. This gives the film easily its biggest desire to be R-rated because the kills are performed in devastatingly invasive fashion, providing several scenes that will make you wince.

– Not afraid to take chances. Part of the thing that really floored me about the much more riveting third act of the movie is how it’s not afraid to put a price tag on any character who comes into frame. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it’s obvious not everyone makes it out alive here, but who we lose along the way will provide a couple of heartbreaking instances where it pleasantly tries to distance itself from the many survival films that came before it, and successfully so.

– Originality in lighting and set pieces. Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film is the presentation and backdrops that add a lot of fun to the technical aspects of the film. Despite being a brief 87 minute movie, the story takes us through a barrage of town landscapes and institutions like a bowling alley, a Christmas tree store, and of course the auditorium inside of the kid’s high school, and each of these presents a new series of adversities for our group of characters, allowing the ability to keep the action fresh in its creativity. In addition, each of these are highlighted by Christmas light style lighting that gives the scenes they accompany a distinct and familiar glow that effectively channels the Christmas season.

– Post credit animation sequence. Be sure to stay all the way through the closing credits, as we are treated to a few familiar scenes from the movie that are played out in zany animated textures. The animation used is almost pop-up style decor, all the while catering to familiar physical traits of the actors that close the gap between live action and animated renderings otherwise feeling so foreign. It serves as the perfect closed door on a movie that never struggled in capturing the fun and airy atmosphere that only a musical can provide.

– A breakthrough performance. Ella Hunt is no stranger to the silver screen, acting in over twenty films and TV shows to date, but it’s her work here that has allowed her to breakthrough the stratosphere to the other side of inevitable A-list names. As the title character, Hunt instills a combination of grief over the loss of her Mother, and ambition for something different to her predictable existence. Hunt’s angelically deep eyes and tomboy persona make her the kind of girl we all need in our lives, but it’s the transformation into this killing machine where it’s probably best we stay away. Well done Ella.

NEGATIVES

– One big disappointment. If I pointed to one thing weighing this movie down negatively it’s the undercooked humor that missed its mark nearly every time. I laughed twice during this movie, and I blame a lot of that on a film that so desperately wants to be “Shaun Of the Dead” without the confidence in material to understand its audience. I mention that movie because there are uncanny similarities in the two films, from something as small as zombie fake-outs in sound, to something big like near-identical humorous deaths. I wish the movie could’ve developed the humor muscle of the movie a bit tighter, as the lines intended to tickle fall flat at almost embarrassingly bad levels.

– No developed urgency. This of course changes during the pivotal third act, but so much of the film’s first two acts lack the kind of danger or devastation needed to understand the magnitude of this situation. This is where the musical designation might do harm in bringing together music and horror accordingly, as the tracks act as a pause button during the scenes of tension, feeling like an abused pause button by the characters that always allows them motivation in evening the odds. I could’ve used a death or two somewhere early on to keep these leads and the audience on their toes, but unfortunately you will be waiting until the final twenty minutes of the movie for things to get interesting.

– Hammered home final message. This is usually incorporated by spoon-fed narration that the film, nor us the audience need to understand the point, but here the producers of the film repeat a song from earlier on that is so clearly obvious that it made me angry for how little of confidence the crew had for me. The irony of the situation is satisfyingly evident without the assistance, and if they ended it just with that, the film could’ve bottled more of that positive energy that it couldn’t afford to give away.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-