The Good Liar

Directed By Bill Condon

Starring – Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey

The Plot – Career con artist Roy Courtnay (McKellen) can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish (Mirren) online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.

Rated R for some strong violence, and for adult language and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Stirring performances. McKellen and Mirren are national treasures. This much certainly isn’t news, but even in the third act of their respective careers, these two immense figures of the silver screen are still providing vastly intriguing directions to their unlimited depth. In this movie, it means the McKellen rivals his turns as Magneto in the “X-Men” franchise, this time reminding us that pure evil resides the strongest in a man with no superpowers. Ian is remarkably vile in this portrayal, using vulnerability as a senior citizen, as well as a soft English demeanor to trap his prey before turning on the conniving intelligence that has made him an unearned millionaire at such a tender age. He meets his rival, however, in Mirren, who brings forth another onion-peeling performance as Betty. Her naivety is easily her most distinguishing feature, but it’s the directions taken with her character during the third act that prove there’s logs of anguish burning deep beneath her reserved furnace of emotional resonance. Both of these leads make the movie a lot better than it rightfully has any business being, and gives us one more glimpse through the keyhole of two careers who share an air of dedication and sophistication that is so rarely found anymore in today’s Hollywood landscape.

– Fitting pieces. This is a film whose devil is in the details, and while we eventually comprehend that a twist is on the horizon, it’s the clever insertion of clues along the way that will make “The Good Liar” better with its second watch. Without giving away anything, I will say that you should pay close attention to the decor and imagery that is focused on throughout, because it’s in those instances where we see the wheel of curiosity turning, but don’t understand how it spins until our closer look is revealed. It helps Condon to get further lost in these characters and their lifestyles, giving a very psychological pulse to the story that is often overlooked from films who don’t invest meaning in set designs. I love a story where the imagery plays a piece into where the direction is headed, and with Bill’s measured level of adaptive direction from the novel, he brings to life those descriptively miniature details to harvest into something pre-established within the conflict.

– Tonal precision. A lesser film would take a plot involving an 80-something con man, and render it to comedic proportions, and while there are instances of pleasurable relief maintained within the air of the deceit, I am thankful than Condon took serious care in fleshing out the danger of the deed, especially during a time when we are so vulnerable with our valuables. Condon maintains a healthy balance of paranoia and urgency in the air, that while nothing as spine-tingling as a spy thriller or a psychological stinger, does the job in illuminating Roy as this no-nonsense danger to society. This atmosphere eventually matures even more by an unraveling third act, which only ups the stakes, and reminds us how our pasts are the only things that can run faster than we can.

– Subtle lighting. There are two aspects to credit Tobias A. Schliessler with, and the first is his incorporation of lacking light to sequences that vividly paint the picture of secrets materializing from below. Tobias uses a lot of dominant shadow-play to present the faces in frame as half dark/half lit to elaborate the double lives that each of them are playing, all the while maintaining the trick that is being presented front-and-center. Also on the colorful spectrum is the scouting of set designs, like the one in the train subway, that preserves a level of European style that is every bit bold as it is foreign to the kind of weathered interiors that we are used to within American cinema. For a movie so dark and deceptive, there’s plenty of substance within the style that Schliessler taps into, giving a lighting scheme that is every bit as reflective of the jaded personalities that bounce from its minimalization of glow.

– Crafty framing. Schliessler’s second praise pays off only if you’re as invested into the narrative as I was. It deals with the duplication of angles between two respective timelines that hint where the story is going long before the words of explanation catch up. During several key sequences in the scene, I noticed not only similarly structured wall designs in certain frames, but also similar imagery and movements of the camera, for how it approaches the clarity of what is obscured. This feeds heavily into the third act state of mind, in how one character has remained confined by their past, stuck in one room on one day where everything changed for the worst. Whether intentional or not, I can’t credit Tobias enough for the way he immerses us seamlessly between two timelines so much that they practically bleed together, and converges them as one cohesive destination that has finally merged together.

– The twists. One thing to understand about this film is that while you will most likely predict the who’s of the story’s pivotal third act plot twist, it’s the why’s that really matter here, and in that regard I had no idea where this film was taking me. I do have problems with its execution that I will get to later, but part of the charm for me was the elaboration of the con that gave the concepts of greed its own two legs to move freely throughout the screenplay. There were moments when I knew what the final result was going to be, but had no clue the amounts of traffic that we would have to navigate through to get there, and it illustrates just how exceptional that Roy is at ironing out the details to push through. Definitely not some of the best surprises that I’ve seen in cinema, but enough sinister sting in the execution to enhance the cinematic experience while watching it.

– Carter Burwell. The very same musical composer who fleshed out a sense of audible identity during academy acclaimed films such as “Carol”, “Fargo”, or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is back to entrance us with another substantial score, this time combining the mystery of a stranger with the heft of a torturous past, to bring forth compositions as dark and rhythmic as they are bold and daring. “A Wire” is certainly one of my favorites, with all of its humming cymbals and articulate bells chiming along next to a typewriter that serves as our introduction into this world, but it’s easily the emotionally devastating “I Went Back Home” that I hummed along with, minutes after I left the theater. Burwell has a skill at encouraging abstraction to his complex themes, and while there’s room to debate which is more fitting on this track, it’s the compromise of tragedy and closure that resonate so soundly.

NEGATIVES

– Convoluted. For my money, the major plot twist of the film, while personal in its incorporation, is clumsily addressed in long-winded execution, which halts the progress of the current day narrative twice for five minutes apiece. Surely there’s an easier way to address this big reveal, but for me, I was fine without it all together. Keeping this film a game of con-men one upmanship feels suited enough for this story, and adding this level of revenge to the story just overthinks what should be clever and sleek. It’s exposition dump 101 with how heavy handed it holds our hands through all of it, all the while these two characters are just paused out of frame while we the audience are sifting through all of it. If you want the backstory added, fine, but surely this method of reveal lets out too much air of momentum that was otherwise leading to an intriguing third act conflict. It highlights why new screenplays have to be adapted properly when transferring to film, because some details just don’t play accordingly on screen like they do in the heft of a novel.

– Pointless timeframe. The film makes a point at the very beginning to establish this story in the year of 2009. Why it does so is beyond me, because never in the film is any social or political instance inflicted to the progression of the narrative, nor are there any spare details of importance needed in tying everything together. Even from a technological vantage point, there’s nothing in the film that explains why this couldn’t be done in 2019 as opposed to a year when damn near everything is identical in this capacity. Why even add a year at all? Just make it a timeless tale that can resonate for years and decades to come.

– Unnecessary rating. I was somewhat surprised to see this given the cherished R-rating that I usually covet for during horror movies or raunchy comedies, especially considering this movie doesn’t do enough to justify why it’s even necessary in the first place. For one, there’s three F-bombs throughout the movie. Remove two of these, and you already have a PG-13 movie. Vulgarity in dialogue to me should have meaning, and while there is one such instance in the film, the other two feel influential off-screen, with a director whispering it into the ear of the actor just to drive a point home. There is one scene of strong visual violence, and it is so extremely rendered that it feels like it comes out of nowhere, and is directed to garner unintentional laughter as opposed to its intended horrific effect. If you’re going to go the R-rating path, make it worth it. The aspects within “The Good Liar”, aren’t enough to add proof to the pudding, and just wastes an opportunity that many other films pine for.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Midway

Directed By Roland Emmerich

Starring – Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans

The Plot – The film centers on the Battle of Midway, a clash between the American fleet and the Imperial Japanese Navy which marked a pivotal turning point in the Pacific Theater during WWII. The film, based on the real-life events of this heroic feat, tells the story of the leaders and soldiers who used their instincts, fortitude and bravery to overcome the odds.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, adult language and smoking

POSITIVES

– Strong direction. Yes, this is me complimenting the very same man who helmed garbage like “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Godzilla (1998)”. I guess experience has finally humbled Emmerich, who’s traded in cheesy comedic banter and logically stretched moments of possibility for in-depth, respectful storytelling to honor these soldiers of war from every possible angle. Roland capitalizes on the patient dissection of a rumbling war and behind the scenes strategy, to illustrate how pivotal each measure of informational gain played in each side’s movements. The one mistake he still makes is his extreme propaganda for America, often overlooking pivotal mistakes in policy for moments of heroism. However, I can’t blame him too much for loving his country, especially considering “Midway” is arguably his finest film since “Independence Day”, and proves that he can still offer compelling filmmaking when it stems from a historical outlet.

– Wide scope. One surprisingly pleasant aspect of the storytelling is it honors people from three different sides; Americans, Japanese, and soldier wives, to not only prove that each of them equally sacrificed, but also to keep the dimension of variety constantly churning out something fresh to add to the developments. In the case of the Japanese enemies, it’s especially refreshing to see a movie that establishes a lot of honor, even in motivations that are primarily sinister. It depicts them as being every bit as human as their American opposition, full of the very same fears and risks taken to get one step up. I love a war movie that equally builds both sides towards an inevitable destination of confrontation, and thanks to these side-by-side comparisons, it’s easier to understand that even despite their political differences, they are a lot psychologically closer than people ever could’ve imagined.

– Riveting war sequences. The special effects are right on their mark here, using reputable green-screen designs and computer generation in planes and artillery that maintain a quality of believability despite the over-indulgence of each. The color coordination is naturally resonant in duplicating the clean design of mid-20th century visuals, but the real story comes from Emmerich’s anxiety-riddled editing, which preserves the same vulnerability and tension that is persistent within the heat of the moment. It could be considered choppy by all accounts, but I feel like the frequency of cuts better adds to the conveying of the detection within the barrage of firepower, as well as working as the best rival against predictability that this film rarely fell victim to.

– Immersive sound mixing. This was going to be included in my war sequences section, but deserved its own mention for the level of articulation that remains a constant throughout the film. The best kind of sound designs are often the ones that allow you to close your eyes, and still mentally illustrate what is going on, despite not being able to see it. The volume is perfect without being obviously amplified, the direction duplicates the air attack in all of its zooming teleportation, and the tremendous reach is infinite during sequences with a wide scope, where as much as hundreds of ammunition and planes are flying in-and-out of frame at any given second. Good sound mixing is pivotal in a war movie, but for one whose dominance exists in the air, it’s a chance to vividly render much more audible presence in the echoing atmosphere.

– Stretching ensemble. There’s a big name celebrity behind every corner, but it’s the work of the film’s youth that especially dazzled me, and presented a few surprises in actor’s who are usually the weakest element of the movie they star in, but are given a role to sink their teeth into here. In that aspect, Ed Skrein and Luke Evans give the best performances of their young careers. Skrein plays a cocky pilot whose Jersey accent is only exceeded by the on-screen growth that evolves his character throughout, giving him a commander role when the numbers are never in America’s favor. What Evans lacks in personality, he more than makes up for in bravado and courage, giving us insight into the desire of American soldiers who were eager to play their part in the war despite not having a lot of experience with the assigned aircraft. Beyond this, there are appearances from Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhardt, and of course Patrick Wilson, rounding out a presence of big name talent that still prove Roland as a reputable director who many seek out to work with.

– Mostly factual. The facts tend to get strewed in war films like these, but Pearl Harbor enthusiasts have elaborated that this remake of the 1976 original maintains the level of accuracy to make it an educational watch in addition to an entertaining one. Obviously the movements are the truthful side, with the conversations and strategy being understandably ad-libbed. Emmerich clearly has a great respect for this pivotal moment in American and Japanese history, so much so that he maintains the real life names and accolades that made each of them a decorated hero of war, as well as one of many pieces that added up to this bigger picture of success that they each played a hand in. Finally, the film gives us on-screen text at the end of the film to further elaborate on where each of them ended up, and it just makes you appreciate and want to seek out as many historical reports on these people because of your time spent with their adaptive renderings.

– People make mistakes. As to where typical war movies preserve these godly character soldiers who never miss a target, I appreciated “Midway” because it took time to show the many misses that further cement their human qualities. This is something so unimportant to the integrity of the film, but something that I have to appreciate because it plays so wonderfully into the urgency of the scene’s dynamic, spinning what’s originally expected in a way that allows us to feel the disappointment of the character in focus. There’s a tragic aspect to this, of course, considering more lives are lost the longer the target goes unblemished. This too pertains to the urgency factor for obvious reasons, and overall takes something so nuanced, and virtually unnoticed, and makes it the catalyst for the bigger changes that are inescapably prominent.

NEGATIVES

– Characterization. There’s so very little of it throughout this film. In fact, some characters are never given any personality except the ones expressed by the familiarity of the big name actors that we’ve come to expect, giving us no chance to understand and comprehend their noticeable quirks that add a level of detail to their depiction. There’s rarely any opportunity to experience these people in their element without the war, and this takes a devastating toll on character investment to each particular narrative, never earning the kind of empathy that the screenplay so heavily calls upon.

– Audible problems. This comes in the screenplay and post-production, which manufactured no shortage of noticeable cringe opportunities aplenty for the audience. First up is the horrendous A.D.R, which more times than not stretches these mouth movements in a way that makes them painfully not sync-up. As to where you will catch a bad audio deposit once or twice every movie, I found no fewer than six different examples of dialogue that simply didn’t add up, compromising an 80 million dollar budget for no excuse. The other problem is with the dialogue itself, which is a collage of inspirational quotes and movie jargon 101 that we’ve heard in every single Emmerich movie to date. It’s so recycled and glamorized up for movie purposes that it often has trouble maintaining the grounded in reality quality that the film has going for it.

– Too long. 130 minutes isn’t one of the top ten longest sits for 2019, but if you reach that long for your movie, it better have near-flawless pacing within it, which is definitely a problem with this movie. After kicking it off with an impactful opening sequence detailing Pearl Harbor, the film remains grounded for an ambitious amount of minutes, choosing instead to analyze what has already happened, instead of moving forward on the attack. Beyond this, the second act has nearly no action as a whole, replaced by training sequences that can’t even compare to the gripping pulse that Roland entails during his action scene execution. For my money, the strategy could be narrowed down a bit, making this film 105 minutes, all the while losing none of the story or factual importance along the way. At times, it’s a bit too difficult of a sit, and will only fully appeal to history buffs looking to learn about every side, on and off of the field of battle, to war strategy.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Pain and Glory

Directed By Pedro Almodovar

Starring – Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia

The Plot – Salvador Lallo (Banderas) was at the decline of his career. He involuntarily looks back into the past, and a stream of vivid memories falls upon him. He recalls such moments from his youth as tender feelings for his mother (Penelope Cruz), love and separation, the search for happiness and success. All this leads the master of cinema to important thoughts about life and art, building to an epiphany culmination that gives meaning to each pivotal step along the way.

Rated R for drug use, some graphic nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– Cinematic intimacy. This is certainly a sentimental story to Almodovar, who not only lived through what transpires on-screen, but also brings along with it an eruption of emotional response so precise that it couldn’t come from anyone except someone so enveloped by the experiences. Because of this, every conversation, conflict, and mental commentary supplanted to the film gives it this proximity with the protagonist that fictional films simply can’t compete with. It helps to better illustrate Salvador’s cryptic actions with a layer of clarity that only materializes once all of the pieces have been formed together, cementing a bigger picture of history playing a pivotal hand on the progression of the future. Most of all, it’s Pedro’s vulnerability within the story that feels every bit as honest as it is therapeutic to the storyteller, paying off years of constricted longing with the audience who have always adored his artform.

– Art imitating life. Aside from this movie being cloaked in so much life experience that it practically transcends itself as a cinematic offering, the personal touches of authenticity that Almodovar incorporates into this fictional rendering is one that utilizes a crossroads between reality and fiction that immerses them beautifully. In this regard, there are more than a couple of clever Easter Eggs inserted into these scenes that fans of Pedro will catch or not, depending on their dedication to the heralded director. First is the conflict between Salvador and Alberto in the film, which is factually based on the emerging rivalry between Pedro and star-of-this-movie Banderas, after their working relationship in “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”. Second is the near identity title of the fictional film within this movie, called “Savor”, which is a play on words for Almodovar’s real life film “Flavour”. Finally, Pedro’s real life apartment currently is used as a shooting location frequently throughout the film, proving the level of inheritance that he donned upon Banderas for his transformation into the role. These are only a couple of the ones I found, and give way to a desire to watch the film once more, in order to find any other articles of incorporation.

– Stacked performances. There’s been a lot of Academy praise for Antonio’s performance here, and it’s certainly easy to comprehend why. Instead of emoting Salvador with a series of long-winded diatribes or emotional complexity in deliveries, he instead captivates audiences in the reverse psychosis he maintains in showing what’s boiling inside on the outside, for everyone to indulge. Thanks to no shortage of weathered reminder on his face, or tearful permanence in his eyes, Banderas’ encapsulating turn comprehends every life event that came before his involvement into the film, and better established the level of believability between the actors of two respective age groups that made up the same person. Aside from him, Penelope Cruz is equally as entrancing, albeit with a much limited scale of scenes that the movie unfortunately donates to her. Cruz’s scenes come with a wide variety of warmth and inspiration for the little boy version of Salvador, which depict her character with such a level of important nourishment that only Penelope supplant. These two actors are veterans within Almodovar’s universe of films, and attain a level of professionalism once more, which has them cutting to the front of the line of deserved academy recognition.

– Unique style. Much credit to Pedro, as well as cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine for manufacturing a series of tastefully meaningful shots and color coordination that gives “Pain and Glory” plenty to chew on. The variation of wide angle lens during entrancing establishing sequences in Paterna or Madrid, and the tight-knit intimacy of sequences during one-on-one interactions, highlight every important aspect of every frame, maintaining audience investment every step of the way. Aside from this, the movie’s value with art is translated atmospherically through a series of eye-fetching interior designs that never duplicate or run together with what characters are wearing in the same shot. It proves that Pedro didn’t just rest on his laurels with the style when comparing to his abundance of substance that feels so close to him. Both are brought into the spectrum, and establish one of Pedro’s more complete films that he has made within the 21st century.

– Patient pacing. This will undoubtedly be a negative to many people who watch this film, but for me it duplicated the movements of life in a naturally satisfying measure. This is a film with nothing exciting beyond the human experience, and while that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it measures authentically if you are going for a film based on true experiences. That’s not to say that this film is boring or even dull at times, just grounded in scene transitions during a couple of instances, especially during the second act. This makes it feel like anything but a movie, which in turn cements the transcendence that the film was reaching for, and makes it a little easier to forgive those downtime moments that test patience for something bigger. It’s only a 108 minute movie, so any feeling of longing will be answered if you just remain with it, I promise.

– Documentation of aging. Decomposition within age progression feels like something that many movies are afraid to address, but Almodovar does it with a level of unabashed focus that springs forth in the most satisfyingly nuanced measures. Aside from the prosthetics department doing a remarkable job at aging Banderas naturally in a way that vividly transforms him into the director, it’s the sparse details in the screenplay that I greatly appreciated in keeping this consistency. Keep your eyes ready each time Banderas kneels down. He places a pillow underneath him to convey the soreness in his knees, giving way to the calcium deterioration that is eventually revealed as one of his many ailments. That brings me to my final point, as the film’s introduction articulates Salvador’s suffering with a visual graphic that feels like a throwback to my days in health class. It informs us extensively in a way that gives meaningful exposition to the lead, all the while paying homage to the fragility of time that catches up to all of us eventually.

– Tonally eclipsing. It would be easy to read about everything I previously mentioned and isolate this film as a melodramatic sludge whose somber pacing is only surpassed by its self-loathing atmosphere, but you would be completely wrong. Instead, there’s a level of hope maintained in the film that still makes this as optimistic as any film with heartache and regret as two of its central themes, keeping it from being the downer at the party who nobody associates with. Part of what attains this optimism is the films delving into the drug territory, which throws some extreme circumstances in the way of the suffering protagonist. Also as important is the social commentary with being an artist within the industry that Pedro has no reservations about deconstructing. This again plays especially into the level of vulnerability that he deposits onto the film, allowing him to have a satisfying laugh at his own expense.

NEGATIVES

– Limited appeal. “Pain and Glory” will have a hard time selling itself to its audience, mainly because only a few people will pick up on the nuances and quirks of a director outlining his own life story for the storytelling of the camera. I am not the biggest Almodovar fan in the world, and what little I know of him behind the scenes brings forth many questionable human traits that are a tough sell to anyone looking to pick up a new filmmaker. This is a film purely for the Pedro junkies in the audience. If you aren’t one of these people, I feel like it will compromise your investment into the film, leaving the more important aspects unrealized for what the script intended. Limited audience often means inevitably forgettable, and that’s a shame for a movie that digs so deep into a cherished director’s psyche.

– Love subplot. This is easily my biggest problem with the film, and brings forth a feeling of disjointed storytelling that could’ve used a re-write to feel more effective. Throughout the first act of the movie, we flashback to the past of Salvador in a way that colorfully elaborates at what is taking place in the foreground of the current day narrative. That is until we get to a love story reveal, with a sexual preference and interest that comes out of nowhere, and feels like it deserved much more time in establishing what came to be. It does eventually elaborate further, but it’s nearly at the end of the movie, when the big reveal of that scene could’ve held greater weight of impact on the script if it were done before the adult version runs into his former love. In fact, there are a couple of scenes in the film that I would jumble around for better context fluidity to the narrative. This is a film with a storytelling gimmick of three respective timelines within Salvador’s life, and while the past is meant to fill in the blanks of the present, this love subplot comes into focus with the subtlety of a Sherman tank running through a Nitroglycerine plant.

– Questionable casting. I had no complaints between the believability of Banderas and eight-year-old Asier Flores, mainly because their transformation signals an immense fifty year gap between them, making anything possible within their visual appearances. The one casting I did have a problem with, however, was Penelope Cruz evolving into 86-year-old Julietta Serrano as the same character. From the complete distinction of skin tone, to the vastly different facial structure, everything about these two women couldn’t be any more contradicting, leading to a level of believability that was the biggest stretch for age-progressing that I have seen in 2019. Nothing about them other than their accents are even remotely similar, and if it wasn’t for the use of some clever instances of transition editing, which moved two actors together as the same character simultaneously, I would’ve been lost in figuring out where the correlation is.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Doctor Sleep

Directed By Mike Flanagan

Starring – Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran

The Plot – On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless-mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance (McGregor) knows, and tween Abra Stone (Curran) learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.” Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul.

Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, adult language, nudity and drug use.

POSITIVES

– The real terror. While soul stealing serves as the topical adverse scare for the movie’s themes and ensuing material, it’s the underlying issues associated with Danny’s plight that truly makes his arc gripping in more ways than one. Once again, alcoholism is a big reason for that, finding Danny in the very same parallels and shadows that his father faced during “The Shining”. Pushing this idea one step further is the inescapable terror associated with becoming our parents, which almost feels inescapable the longer our stories continue on. This seems like the one conflict that Danny can’t fight with his shine, requiring him to confront the past if he ever wants to make a future for himself. It’s interesting to see how one side of adversity transcends the other, outlining a battle of demons that Danny fights not only on the outside, but also the ones eating him alive from the inside.

– Credible cast. McGregor was definitely the right man to cast as this older version of Danny, who has worn the scars of anguish as an adult thanks to the things he has seen first-hand because of this gift. Ewan is very much the same introvert that his decades younger counterpart was in the previous installment, but it’s McGregor’s fiery registry that conjures up not only strong empathy for the character, but also inspires Danny in a way that very few other things have since that one fateful night at the Overlook Hotel. In addition to Ewan, Rebecca Ferguson hands in what is possibly the film’s best performance, having so much fun as this against-type antagonist with no shortage of menace or confidence to her personality. Ferguson commands attention each time she’s on camera, and gives proof to the argument that female antagonists in a Stephen King universe can be every bit as sinister as males, if not more for the way they use beauty and gentility to attack their prey. Curran is also reputable here, as this gifted little girl who is so much more than the two sides trophy in the middle. She gets her hands dirty multiple times throughout the film, and maintains her shine with a ferocity that never allows you to forget the peak of her powers.

– Characterization. This is especially surprising, because this film spends about 70% of its time with the antagonist characters, in order to build and understand their momentum in stealing gifts from unsuspecting youths. The screenplay values them in a way that almost no other antagonist characters receive in film, and I commended Flanagan endlessly for building an equal to the Danny and Abra combination, who we already understood to be indestructible. In showing these savages in their element, I also grew an enveloping rage from inside of me that wanted to see them suffer for their torture of these kids, capitalizing on a personal investment that very few antagonists capture with me anymore. Because this film is two-and-a-half hours in length, there’s no shortage of exposition or interaction between them, acting as a benefit to the urgency of these two sides eventually meeting for the inevitable confrontation.

– Easter Eggs. These will undoubtedly take a couple of watches to spot them all, but there were a few instances in the movie that paid homage not only to “The Shining” itself, but also to the true King of horror; Stephen King. I won’t spoil much, but keep your eyes open during an introductory scene when Danny meets with a sobriety leader. The scene practically echoes the placements in frame, color in objects, and meaning in conversation similar to the very same one where Jack Torrence meets the owner of the Overlook. In addition to this, numbers play a big running joke in the movie, like the address of Abra (1980), which serves as the very year “The Shining” was released. I could go on for miles with this one, but to summarize, I love a film that gets lost in its own folklore, and allows hardcore fans of the previous installment to study and isolate each frame in a way that gives it the kind of meaning and importance that Flanigan was hoping for.

– Brotherly brude. What a transfixing spell that The Newton Brothers lay at the doorstep of this movie, producing a musical score with such an inescapable presence in its riveting execution. In fact, presence is important when describing it, because these series of compositions maintain a pulse in frequent heartbeats added to the introduction of such, as well as the mixing of voices and chants that can be heard in the distance of this shattering of cymbals. It’s important to note that while each track begins the same, they are in fact anything but repetitious in their progressions. Deviations from familiarity constantly keeps us guessing, and adds to a suffocating atmosphere that allows us to get lost deep in the fog of psychological clarity. These are the same brothers who worked on Flanigan’s exceptional Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House”, and that bond between them is solidified here in a way that makes the Newton’s presence inescapable to the film’s presentation.

– As an adaptation. I usually don’t support when a King adaptation deviates so drastically from the source material, but in following in the shoes of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, “Doctor Sleep” also finds its own unique voice to prosper as its own product. Sure, around 60% of the book is evidently there, mostly in the navigation of the story and disposal of characters, that eventually found its way back to familiarity. But the deviation presents several character deviations that I greatly appreciated, a weight of current day social conscience that wasn’t present in the noval, and an ending that I liked much more in the movie than the book’s tacky closing moments. In that respect, I give the movie a slight advantage over its literary counterpart, but in reality these are two products that each have a satisfying duality to fans looking to get lost in these characters one last time.

– Flanagan’s influence. From the man who articulated so much unnerve in the toxic family narrative from “The Haunting of Hill House”, it’s a bit of a surprise that Mike shows much more restraint over stylistic choices in this film, which keeps the film’s message and story grounded where it needs to be. However, there are certainly some creative leaps throughout, particularly when characters use their shine abilities, taking audiences on a flightful mind-warp of a journey to emphasize the otherworldliness of these moments. Outside of that, the film rests easily on a fairly grounded world, utilizing c.g sparingly and as needed, instead of an abundance. This helps immerse you into the world of “Doctor Sleep” without it ever feeling too fantastical or unbelievable towards its psychological themes. His ability to adapt to the diversity of the world’s that he tackles, makes him one of the most sought-after horror directors of the current day, and “Doctor Sleep” is just one more chance to indulge in such a self-less execution.

NEGATIVES

– Sloppy transitions. This is especially evident during the first act of the film, where the juggling of multiple story arcs and character introductions are edited in a way that makes certain scenes feel pointless. This is evident during scenes that serve as nothing more than a reaction to what ensued previously. This isn’t a problem if the previous scene is maintained throughout the next one, but the new scene establishes its attention dominance over the story in a way that makes it feel like something big is coming, yet never actually does. In addition to this, transitions are usually meant as a tool for the passage of time, yet here there’s no clear consistency or indication for the movements forward, that appear more frequently and spontaneously than a major motion picture is used to. There’s simply too many transitions in such a short period of time, and this impatient level of storytelling kept the film from gaining any momentum until the settled down second act.

– Too long. I hate making this complaint, especially with a lengthy novel with so many great ideas, but the movie version of “Doctor Sleep” is filled with an abundance of scenes that could easily converge together, instead of standing as two individual scenes to pad the time further. Not only can so many of these scenes be merged together to speed up the fluidity of the story, but some more attention could be paid to the very rules of Abra’s shining, which are sometimes so ambiguous that they feel like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, where the rules are made up as we go. This is a 145 minute movie, and for my money you could tell the very same story in two hours flat, and not lose a single ounce of creativity to the benefit of the literary counterpart. This feels every bit of its run time, and that isn’t a compliment.

– Continuity. Strangely enough, the film suffers the strongest when you remember its ties to the original movie, and the seams of similarity start to come unglued. For one, the decision to cast these unknown actors in the very same roles that Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson adorned gives the scenes a cheap and disruptive quality to the immersive consistency that was improving until these unnecessary scenes popped into frame. To be honest, you don’t even need them. They are just cheap recreations of scenes we’ve already seen and lived through with Danny, so their inclusion only diminishes the energy of the previously more inferior product. Secondly, the hotel itself is kind of a disappointment once you get past the placement of the rooms, and the familiar orange carpet that filled the lobby. If you’re a hardcore fan of “The Shining” like I am, you start to notice that the flooring tiles of Jack’s typing lobby are different, the boilers in the boiler room were painted a completely different color, and the entertainment lobby with the legendary bar looks like it was robbed of its tasteful high-class furniture, and replaced with a college rec room. Considering movies like “Blade Runner 2049” or “Captain America: Civil War” have articulated de-aging and an eye for time-stamped set designs, there is simply no reason for “Doctor Sleep’s” method of laziness. It renders the Overlook Hotel even more lifeless than the script’s intended direction, and adds a reminder of the near 40 years that have passed since the previous film.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Haunt

Directed By Scott Beck and Bryan Woods

Starring – Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain

The Plot – On Halloween, a group of friends encounter an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears. The night turns deadly as they come to the horrifying realization that some nightmares are real.

Rated R for horror violence/gore, and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

– Most bang for the buck. Even for a production budget as minimally obvious as “Haunt” has, the film still manages to conjure up this exceptional side of production value that films worth twice as much can manage. The set pieces are devilishly delightful, spinning on the side of the “Saw” movies in set-up without any of the overbearing exploitation that soiled through a series of eight films. Their cheap rendering is justified in the idea that this is a man-made haunted house with very little monetary investment put into it. In addition, the variety of masks worn by the antagonists are not only contrasting in color schemes and design, but also reminiscent of the characters who wear them. For instance, the pre-dominant clown mask seen on the poster and throughout the film is worn by a guy with more of a humorous personality than the other accomplices, giving their opposition and the audience a taste of what’s hidden deep beneath the surface.

– Simplistic setting. 80% of this movie takes place at the haunted attraction itself, and that direction never limits the intensity of the material, nor does constrain the movements of our jaded protagonists. As far as size in scale goes, the building itself twists and turns in a way that we fully telegraph, allowing us to keep awareness in our minds as to where they are at during all times. Likewise, the diversity of style and decoration in each room never allows the setting to grow stale, keeping the cryptic ambiance constantly flourishing in the atmosphere, and progressing the flow of creativity endlessly. This very much feels like a lived-in realistic attraction that exists deep in the woods of isolation, enriching the film in a grounded approach of expectations that will have us fearing gimmick haunted houses in the same way “Psycho” kept us out of the showers.

– Gripping depth. I love a horror film that isn’t afraid to raise the bar of expectations with its characters and their dark backstories, and “Haunt” is certainly no lightweight in this regard. Our central protagonist is someone who has endured a lot physically and mentally in being someone incapable of escaping a vicious cycle that up until now has defined her life in a way that has mentally paralyzed her. It not only helps enhance the depth of the exposition in the screenplay, but it also contrasts the horror in the film on a level that renders it as only a physical obstacle, and one that our protagonist is certainly capable of handling thanks to everything that she has had to endure throughout her life. It’s proof that something as simple as a few extra minutes in the script can better flesh out characters, all the while outlining the various degrees of horror and their effect on the human psyche.

– No jump scares. How can this be true in a modern day horror film? A movie so confident in its imagery and character phobias that it removes cheap, timely scares from the picture entirely? This element more than any pleased me with this film, and established Beck and Woods as a voice of the minority, who know their audience better than most. Considering I am a 34 year-old grown man, there was nothing in “Haunt” that terrified me or even made me jump in the least, but the unnerving tension and ambiguity of the antagonist group establishes what is best and most defining about horror movies; fear of the unknown. In that element, the film’s gags offer a strong compromise of exceptionally directed anxiety and progressive unpredictability that keeps it fun and above all else committed to what mainstream horror should be about.

– Carnage candy. Despite the fact that a name like Eli Roth is attached as a producer of this movie, the subdued nature of the film’s splatter gore is something that I greatly appreciated, and allowed for those few scenes of incorporation to feel even more effective because of its restrain. What’s vitally important is that everything is done with practical effects, and not computer generated blood, serving as another in a field of positives for its minimal production quality that really allowed the film to prosper on the constrictions of its own merits. Pay-off’s in physical confrontations are squeamishly satisfying, made even more articulate by faithful shot compositions that never stray or look away from the intensity of the action. It casts enough emphasis on the horror elements of the story, giving us enough of the red without it ever going overboard in its exploitative nature, and it makes “Haunt” one of the ideal horror selections during a year when horror has been anything but exceptional.

– Delightful cast. It’s surprising to me how invested I was into each character, despite knowing very little about them other than their respective phobias that play into particular rooms in the haunted house. Aside from Katie Stevens central protagonist, who the film spends an abundance of time documenting the psychological trauma of her past, the rest of the ensemble is equally as intriguing, each balancing the typical haunted house crowd that anyone who has endured one has become accustomed to. There’s the quiet guy, the two girls who are there only to scream at the excitement of the situation, and of course the one talking tough guy who serves as the brave muscle for the group. All of them are believable in the requirements of their respective roles, and none of their personalities grated on me to the degree that I was happy when they were quite literally cut-free from the movie.

– Tight direction. It would be rude not to commend the two men who made last year’s “A Quiet Place” the rousing success that it was, who have now done the haunted house setting better than “Hell Fest” ever could. Most of what I enjoy about the duo of Beck and Woods is their harvesting of the atmospheric elements, which better illustrate the environment they are trying to convey. Like “A Quiet Place” last year, sound becomes a pivotal documentation in this film as well, and soon the blowing of the leaves, the chirping of the bugs surrounding our setting, and the echoing quality to the haunted house itself brings forth an attention to detail rarely seen in horror or any other kind of genre cinema. Throw this in with exceptional pacing that continues to build throughout many rooms and scenes, as well as several misdirection’s on what would otherwise be predictable sight gags, and you have cinematic gold in the form of two men who understand that subtleties matter in horror movies.

NEGATIVES

– Horror cliches. Yes, unfortunately even a movie of this caliber can’t escape predictability in tropes that hardcore fans can distinguish from a mile away. It’s not a major deal during the first half of the movie, but the third act in particular settles for decisions with its characters, as well as logical inconsistencies that leave it stumbling towards the finish line. Aside from this, the characters themselves each fit their conventional modes without even a slight attempt to escape these constrictions. On a performance level, each of them are great, but on a character outline level, you can easily piece together who will survive, and who is there to fill the body quota.

– Frustrations with clues. I don’t get them. If this is in fact a killing house in the woods meant to satisfy these deviants, why is there even an inkling to help them escape? This is easily the most frustrating aspect with the third act of the movie, as text on walls more than alludes to what these helpless victims need to escape their pursuers, and considering this is a setting where the antagonists should have all of the home field advantage, I didn’t understand why they would then be in favor of throwing them a security blanket. Call it poor writing or logical inconsistencies, but I felt and still feel that it rewards the protagonists more if they can outsmart their captors, and reach freedom based on their intelligence. It acts as the biggest hole in what was otherwise a tense powder-keg to that point, and reverts our masked antagonists back to feeling like the gimmick side of their intimidation during the most convenient moment.

– Faulty editing. Probably my lone critique in the visual presentation deals with a protruding editing style that unapologetically takes us out of the heat of the moment during the worst time possible. For a majority of the film, the characters are split up into two groups to fight the adversity of the house’s operators, creating a good amount of parallel action to balance simultaneously. This can usually be effective if the two sides are mimicking each other beat for beat, but the manner of abrasive cuts drifts away from a scene, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks while we cut to the other group. When it cuts back to the original group, they are then in a completely different situation or room than when we last left off, and while it’s not entirely difficult to fill in what has since transpired, the frequency in over-zealous cutaways gives the film a very disjointed feeling because of the repetition that diminishes its quality.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Judy

Directed By Rupert Goold

Starring – Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock

The Plot – Winter 1968 and showbiz legend Judy Garland (Zellweger) arrives in Swinging London to perform a five-week sold-out run at The Talk of the Town. It is 30 years since she shot to global stardom in “The Wizard of Oz”, but if her voice has weakened, its dramatic intensity has only grown. As she prepares for the show, battles with management, charms musicians and reminisces with friends and adoring fans, her wit and warmth shine through. Even her dreams of love seem undimmed as she embarks on a whirlwind romance with Mickey Deans (Wittrock), her soon-to-be fifth husband. Featuring some of her best-known songs, the film celebrates the voice, the capacity for love, and the sheer pizzazz of “the world’s greatest entertainer.”

Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong adult language, and smoking

POSITIVES

– Informative. “Judy” has an unabashed approach when it comes to conveying the audience the kind of pressures behind the scenes that Garland dealt with as a result of her rising stardom. Sure, there’s the expected aspects, like the mental duress caused from a constricted and commanded life, but what’s truly compelling here is the series of bad decisions, some Judy’s fault and some not, that carved out this woman who we see front and center as our jaded protagonist of the movie, giving us a recipe for disaster for child stars that is every bit as bad as anything I’ve ever heard. I myself knew very little about Garland before the movie, and the film did more than enough to satisfy my curiosity, choosing to astound its audience with the entire truth regardless of who it hurts in the process, and I commend a film with so little barriers creatively.

– Bravery. Keeping up with the previous positive, the film also is certainly no puff piece for Garland, in that it tries to shape her as someone she definitely wasn’t. From my time spent with the character, I learned that she was a terrible parent, selfish when it came to putting her needs over the demands of her audience, in love with the idea of being in love, and the owner of some of the worst decisions that I’ve ever seen when it comes to managing her dimming star. A lesser biopic will stick to what’s safe when selling its product to the specific audience who are coming to see it, but Goold never relents on conveying his message of provocation for the scandals, giving us many directions of abuse aimed towards the titular character, and some of which even being self-inflicted. It’s a movie that doesn’t cater to anyone in selling a specific agenda, and is as close to authentic as any biopic that I’ve ever seen about this memorable face.

– Valued production. This is two-fold, as the idea of this being a period piece, complete with such foreign styles and designs from what we’re used to in modern day, as well as the film’s encompassed cinematography, which eludes it from ever feeling like a made-for-TV movie. England is the perfect place to cast a majority of this story from, as much of the architecture and plush styles have changed so little ever since post-World War generation, and the production takes advantage of such a permanence, visually seducing us with a combination of colorful gowns, big band musical sequences, and a state of mind with subject matters that we have since evolved firmly from. Likewise, the filmmaking here is astutely sound, treating us to lurid movements in shot composition, sharp editing, and pacing that mostly held its own for me. This is a film that doesn’t fall completely in love with the pageantry of depicting a past age of pop culture, choosing instead to focus more intently on the character piece in front of us. What visual flares it does possess will be enough to stimulate you into immersing your mind over to the designated time-frame, serving as eye-popping garnish for the meaty main course.

– Riveting Renee. I knew that Renee Zellweger could act before this movie, but she’s never convinced me as a transformative actress. That all changes in this performance as Judy Garland, as Zellweger’s familiar mannerisms for the actress-turned-singer proved that the she did her homework on the cinematic icon, and it’s in that dedication where we get Renee’s single best performance to date. Renee trades in her familiar squeaky voice and frequent squinting in favor of a wide-eyed diva who exuberates the spontaneity of the singer, who could have a good or bad night depending on what has recently transpired in her life. Zellweger earns empathy like very few female performances have this year, and takes her performance down a resounding road of redemption that proves that Hollywood endings really are just reserved for film, and real life is so much more brunt and unforgiving. While Renee isn’t a shoe-in for the Oscar, her work here should be enough to warrant a nomination at the very least.

– The soundtrack. From the flawless choice in song selection, to the jaw-dropping surprise that Zellweger actually sings in this movie, everything musically nourished the soul and brought forth the kind of respect and dedication that Judy herself would commend if she were here to do it. Renee spent a year training with “La La Land” vocal coach Eric Vetro, and the duo’s work remarkably shines, as her believability in a weathered Garland makes the feat attainable in evening the odds between character and actress. That sounds like a back-handed compliment, but it’s efficient for the aged Judy that the movie is depicting, making Zellweger have to scale it back a bit to attain that level of weathered vocal capacity. Among my favorite song choices for the film, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is obviously in there, but I also enjoyed Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy”, Ron Miller’s infectious swing “For Once In My Life”, and especially my personal favorite, “Come Rain or Come Shine” also by Arlen.

– Contemporaneously relevant. Without question, the single biggest impact that can be felt from this film is the status that Garland attained as an iconic figure in the gay community. This is unfortunately only relegated to a single scene in the movie, but it’s one that rings effectively in triggering the contrast between then and now for the same, ridiculous wars that unaffected people feel compelled to fight. This comes out in the form of a gay male couple in the film, who are huge Judy fans, and felt inspired by her music to live the kind of lifestyle that they feel entitled to. The film does this without having their disposition take over the focus of the movie, but this five minute scene is enough to remind us that as much as things change, unfortunately some things remain the same, as gay rights is still a fight being pursued by many brave souls in today’s insensitive landscape. It’s a sad yet comfortably-inspiring scene that is easily my favorite of the film, and casts a level of importance for Judy that couldn’t be attained in a thousand people complimenting her.

– Unconventional direction. Perhaps the strongest decision creatively for the film comes in the form of shaping the story within this single year in Judy’s life, instead of the long-winded life stories that biopics have become accustomed to. What’s compelling about this is it focuses on the star after the lights of fame have died down, and really gives us an honest depiction of what is left being the most important thing; family. In this case, I feel like it’s much more rewarding to take an instance in a person’s life, and exploit what got us to this particular moment by then utilizing the demons of the past to play simultaneously with the transpiring of the current day narrative. It wastes little time in its initial set-up, and plants its feet in the area where the details about Judy’s life are the least known, and I appreciated it every step of the way because of it.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary dual narrative. I will be in the minority for this critique, but I feel like the decision to include a series of flashbacks to Judy’s childhood are ones that only lay the thickness of obviousness in its exposition, and don’t really tell us anything that we weren’t already learning from the free-flowing dialogue, that informed us naturally with each passing conversation. For one, long periods of time commence between these flashbacks, presenting them with such little time importance to the tug-of-war with the present day narrative. Secondly, the acting in them was a bit over-the-top for my taste, and it all felt like a distracting dramatization that you see in a crime show depicting a real life event. For my money, I would rather learn about Judy’s past from the scars of war that she wears on her face from an endless battle with sleep, a devastating battle of custody for her kids, and a crumbling stability, which paints the past better than these pacing speed-bumps ever could.

– Time devotion. This screenplay tries to attain a bit too many dynamics with not enough time given to them to further flesh out their importance to the plot. A perfect example of this is through the eyes of Jessie Buckley, the second highest billing cast member of this film. She’s alluded to being important, yet the movie has these nothing scenes with her and Judy, where her character comes across as being overbearing. Likewise, the romantic subplot between Judy and Mickey evolves as naturally as a half hour sitcom, at some times going as much as forty minutes without touching base on this subplot, and others where it dominates the screen for twenty minutes until it is resolved with its inevitable direction. I definitely could’ve used more time dedicated to these relationships and many others that don’t seem valued enough to depict in the film, and feel like they’re being rushed for an ample run time of nearly two hours to promote them all.

– Ending flub. Another opinion that I will be in the minority for is the decisions with the final scenes that removed so much air of momentum from the direction of the finished product. There’s a particular moment after an energetic song which would be a perfect final image to leave audiences inspired. Instead, the film goes on for five more minutes just so it can include a disappointing on-screen performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, leaving the film on a pitiful note instead of the inspiring one that Judy deserved. Not a big deal when compared to my other two negatives, but it didn’t give me as strong of a feeling as I had two scenes earlier, when Judy’s triumph was the necessary inflation before hitting the on-screen text that conveyed the rest of her tragic life.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Abominable

Directed By Jill Culton and Todd Wilderman

Starring – Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor

The Plot – When teenage Yi (Bennet) encounters a young Yeti on the roof of her apartment building in Shanghai, she and her mischievous cousins, Jin (Trainor) and Peng (Tsai), name him “Everest” and embark on an epic quest to reunite the magical creature with his family at the highest point on Earth. But the trio of friends will have to stay one-step ahead of Burnish (Eddie Izzard), a wealthy man intent on capturing a Yeti, and zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) to help Everest get home.

Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor

POSITIVES

– Dreamy animation. Lets get the best thing out of the way first, as the combination of luscious landscapes and character designs brings forth a fantastical quality to the airy illustrations, which combines the technology of today with the anime rendering of the past. That’s not to say that this is an anime style movie completely, but the flowing believability of the grass and plants in frame, combined with enough eye-stretching scenery that makes you scream for a pause button, makes this easily Universal Animation’s most visually ambitious film to date. For the character designs, the decision to make big expression-filled eyes is one that better paints the vibrancy in personalities of these teenage protagonists. Likewise, it’s Everest’s windows to his soul, as well as his ever-changing facial complexion that easily paints what the animal is trying to say, leaving nothing of personality or depth in the ink of the pen. My lone critique for the animation involves a lack of breath that is visible during a scene that takes place on Mount Everest, but it’s one small crack in an otherwise perfect armor of artistic expression.

– Masterful shot compositions. It’s not often that I get to compliment the camera angles during an animated film, but I would be ignorant if I didn’t mention the amount of storytelling depth given to some metaphorical imagery that constantly held my attention. One such example is during Yi and Everest’s initial encounter in a blanket manufactured tent. It is dark inside to represent Everest’s cold and condemning personality to that point, but it’s the warm glow stemming from outside of the tent that is brought forth by Yi’s hand that alludes us to a colorful opportunity for the creature to change everything. There are many more meaningful shots like this one scattered throughout the movie, and in conjunction with the heart of the themes it really fires on all cylinders of the emotional circumference that the story is conveying.

– Sweet as candy. There are very few films in 2019 that will touch you as strongly as “Abomination”, and the reason for that accomplishment is in the array of mature themes and conversations that treat its youthful audience with the dignity they deserve. Grief, self-worth, and especially family are three consistent tracks that the narrative train takes us through, not only focusing on mature consequences for life, but also valuing the importance of personal growth in a way that evolves our characters before our very eyes. While the trio of human protagonists are already a family, you really only feel that tight-knit connection between them once this road trip has tested them in unforeseen ways, and with the addition of a hairy, humming mountain creature, it cements a dynamic between them that is too rich in sentimentality to escape from its heartfelt radiance.

– Refreshing opportunity. I knew very little about this film heading into it, but what transpired was a documentation of Asian depiction that we as an audience receive very few opportunities with in American animation. For one, there’s no vicious stereotyping when it comes to the accents or speech patterns given to the characters. This is big because it never allows the film to feel demeaning or unintentionally humorous at the result of its prominent culture. Secondly, it cloaks them in relatability in a way that the audience, regardless of heritage, will respond with unabashed similarity. Asian culture received live action attention last year with “Crazy Rich Asians”, and it’s nice to see that streak continue in the animated capacity, made even more appreciative with the respect that the film has in appreciating them as people above anything else.

– Fresh-faced performances. While all of them are established actors in their own respective directions, the majority of the cast here are first time actors in the vocal capacity, and what stems from it is an unleashing of colorful personalities that help each bring their characters to life. Chloe Bennet is someone I’ve always felt is minutes away from a big screen breakthrough, and it’s possible that her role as Yi might grant her the buzzworthy praise that she deserves. Chloe combines the essence of teenage ambition with the maturity of parental care and guidance, and it etches out a female protagonist that little girls and boys can equally value for how her spontaneity really brings out the coolness in her. Equally captivating is Tenzing Trainor as this whirlwind little boy whose obsession with basketball and soda is only surpassed by his rampant personality, which is delivered through a series of visual sight gags that anyone who isn’t a cartoon would be laying unconscious from. Sarah Paulson also disappears in an antagonist role that would make her a shoe-in for the next Cruella Deville if Emma Stone wasn’t already signed.

– Antagonist twist. Most of the screenplay hits the familiar beats and tropes that you would expect of a movie with this derivative of a plot, but there is one twist in the final minutes of the second act which deconstructs everything the previous half of the film already established. Why this pleases me is the central antagonist up to this point was as a conventionally vapid as an animated movie could allow, but this unconventional spin brings forth the female empowerment of the film in a way that refreshes the final conflict better than the initial set-up ever could. Decades of Disney animated films didn’t prepare me for what transpired, and thanks to a timely switcheroo, the film’s second half re-established the stakes in a way that is beneficial to the film.

– The movie’s peak. Without spoiling anything, this scene is easily my favorite of the movie, and revolves around a moment of closure that is made even more riveting by the audible capacity of Coldplay’s “Fix You” cementing the emotional sting. If this isn’t enough, we are visually entranced by a colorful lighting scheme that, and quote me on this one, is as attention-stealing as anything that Pixar has created in the last five years. What makes this scene so memorable for me, aside from everything that I mentioned above, is the way that it stands as the virtual crossroads for Yi, and promotes her to remembering her father’s memory in the way that he would’ve wanted: by living life instead of talking about it, a motto that every audience member should motivate themselves by.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of humor. While this is a dramatic adventure more than anything else, the overall lack of comedy firepower is something that I believe will have a negative impact on the film’s lasting image. I say that mostly in the regards of kids, as the film’s redundancy in material, combined with underwhelming punchlines, left every kid in my audience bored and searching for clarity in its intention. Considering its visual capacity attains a level of emotional registry that amazes us behind every turn, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the movie’s humor falls so flat, leaving us so few opportunities to bask in the glow of clever writing, where only a pleasurable release can allude to the good time we are having.

– Derivative plot. Anyone with even a 1500 movie I.Q should be able to sniff out the traces of familiarity within this plot that gives it an overall lack of originality within its clutches. Let’s see, a creature invades the home of a kid, who then goes on a mission to return it home. Either the screenwriters have watched “E.T” one time too many, or the coincidences are remarkably striking. If you don’t believe that example, maybe you will believe the fact that this movie shamelessly lifts lines of dialogue from that exact movie, leaving me to wonder if this film was intentionally spoofing that movie in all of the wrong ways. Beyond this, I couldn’t escape how strikingly similar that Everest was to Toothless from the “How To Train Your Dragon” franchise. He’s big, he flies, he possesses magic powers, and he only communicates with grunts and groans. I can appreciate a film admiring the single greatest animated trilogy of all time, but to offer no distinguishing contrasts to his traits and personalities practically leaves you ripe for the picking in the critical eye.

– Illogical instances. While I commended the movie earlier for restricting Asian stereotypes from the film, the lack of accents or even Chinese speaking citizens is something that I can’t overlook for the film’s geographical setting. This gives the film a lack of detail with its setting that proves it could’ve been depicted anywhere on the globe, and the film’s decision to persist without any sense of Asian style or culture is something that limits its appeal to its foreign audience. Besides that, this whole road trip that happens spontaneously by Yi lacks any kind of urgency from those waiting for her at home. For instance, never once in the film does Yi’s mother of grandmother worry or contact the authorities in trying to reach out to track her down. Three people go missing, and no one on the homefront lifts a single finger to show concern. It’s every bit as much of a fantasy as the film’s animated elaboracy, but for all of the wrong reasons.

My Grade: 7/10 or C

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!

Directed By Morgan Spurlock

Starring – Morgan Spurlock

The Plot – Morgan Spurlock reignites his battle with the food industry, this time from behind the register, as he opens his own fast food restaurant.

Rated PG-13 for brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Informatively provocative. In the fashion of the original film, this one as well has no shortage of scandalous facts and revelations to open eyes on everyone from Tyson Chicken to the advertising market for its unabashed manipulation of the consumer. In the first film, Spurlock taught us how our lifestyles had a negative effect on us, but in “Holy Chicken”, it’s really how that lifestyle has an effect on the animals who were sacrificed for the finished product, outlining a level of selfishness weighed heavily by the irony of a culture supposedly seeking change in the choices they’re given. There were times during this picture when I was angry, sad, and even grateful for the way Morgan turns the joke on those responsible, and through an expansive experimentation throughout the many fast food chains that make up the landscape, he proves that so very little outside of restaurant appearance has changed in fifteen years.

– Our leading man. While I definitely appreciate Spurlock more as a leader behind the camera rather than the one in front of it, I can’t dispel what his level of journalism brings to the uncovering of the information presented before us. As a detective, Spurlock’s blunt sarcasm is easily his greatest strength, narrating and navigating us through no shortage of on-screen guests and factual evidence at his disposal made even more appalling by the emphasis he gives in summarizing it all. He’s certainly a man not afraid of getting his hands dirty with the subject matter, putting himself front-and-center in the shoes of the many who experience these scandals. It establishes a bond between director and audience rarely ever seen on film, and allows him to come down to our level of reality when documenting it for the cameras.

– Riveting second act. This was easily the highlight of the film for me, as a conspiracy scandal against Big Chicken was brought to light through a series of farmer interviews that really struck a chord with the dreamer inside of me. What’s so endearing about this subplot is the way it really halts the humor of the film dead in its tracks, giving us a hard to swallow reality for many American workers forced to give up the family business because of the humbling circumstance brought forth by 21st century capitalism. Spurlock keeps the camera on them and allows the tears to flow, embracing the hurt ensued like a warm blanket of conscience that resonates soundly with anyone who watches it. With so much money flowing everywhere in the fast food industry, but especially the chicken wars, why are the people who make the biggest sacrifices the ones who are left with such very little proof of positives for their contributions?

– Effective animation. The most important continuity between films definitely comes in the form of these hilariously grim animated sequences that give visuals to what Spurlock is narrating through. These scenes prove fruitfully that the film has a strong sense of humor, and it’s one that uses animal torture to convey the message of what we otherwise can’t show in a PG-13 documentary. What I love about this besides the fact that the animation is so extreme in its rendering, is the way these visuals never allow the audience the same freedoms that they have been living through their whole life with when enjoying this product. They have to endure what it takes to feed their gluttony, and it’s nothing short of astonishing when you consider that actual animals go through this consumerism machine every single minute of every day. The coloring and fluidity of the sequences are gorgeous from an artistic level, and fill in the gaps of curiosity brilliantly during these sporadic moments throughout the picture.

– Razor sharp editing. This is especially important during a documentary because the words of the narrator and imagery that is transpiring have to move soundly throughout the many conversations and factual inserts, and in that regard, this was one of the best storytelling methods that I have seen in quite a long time. My favorite comes in the form of Morgan at the scene talking to someone, and the subject matter in question peeks into frame at just the exact moment to make the mention more effective dramatically. For instance, there’s a scene when the inevitable day comes for the chickens that Spurlock is raising, and the pacing of the editing reveals the big bombshell from the facial resonations of the feathered flock called into question. Besides this, we get a few exceptionally inserted newsreel clips of everything from the original “Super Size Me” and the effect that it had on the fast food nation, to shameful advertising that are heavy in manipulation. It’s great to have these examples present when they are brought up, and if nothing else Spurlock is exceptional as a director for always meeting his audience at eye level when stirring the proof into the pudding.

– As a sequel. There’s many decisions creatively that allows “Holy Chicken” to stand out on its own, all the while preserving the integrity and consistency of the original picture, which stands as a cultural landmark for many. In the initial first few scenes, we are taken through the events of fast food nation since the documentary aired, displaying the impact and awareness that Spurlock prescribed on many who were living with their eyes wide open for the first time. Where this film differs creatively from its predecessor, aside from focusing almost entirely on chicken, is the film’s on-the-ground approach that sees things through many different sets of eyes, instead of just Morgan’s. We are told the effects of the mass public in the original, but here we are shown it, and it’s an evolved and matured growth for a filmmaker who sticks so close to the subject matter between films.

– Genius ending. What better scene to be my favorite than the one that allows this film to end on a high note while maintaining almost all of the momentum that it attains on this steadfast journey of saturation? To say that the payoff is big for this film is an understatement, so instead I will indulge in the fact that it’s a cynically educated prescription for many who take truth in advertising. The saddest disappointment of this ending is that what is created physically doesn’t actually exist, because if it did it would be the tastefully devious approach at firing back against cryptic restaurants who shelter us from so much that is reality. The way this scene is edited in general realization is only surpassed by the mentally vapid’s inability to catch on, and the final threat that Spurlock makes towards the camera is one that challenges those businesses to do better.

NEGATIVES

– Phony interviews. Having sat through literally thousands of documentaries in my life, I would be foolish to think that the interactions between Spurlock and his guests were a hundred percent truthful, but with that said, the meeting up of each guest feels as artificial as a scripted film could manufacture. Call it terrible acting on the part of his guests, or logic suggesting that Morgan couldn’t just walk into an office with a film crew and start filming without permission, but these scenes during the first few moments of the film feel overly constructed to the point that the dialogue itself is lost in this cloud of desired reactions and perfect framing placements that chew away at the concepts of spontaneity. The film should’ve definitely just stuck with a dual camera interview sequence, which was primarily prominent during the first film. This cuts out the introductory period of Morgan meeting with them, that is every bit unnecessary as it is obvious for lacking the element of surprise.

– Pacing issues. Most of the movie is sound in its transitions and keeping the beat of the story pumping throughout the many angles it attacks its subject matter at, but the strings of conceit sneak into this film, outlining the fame of the same man who has been in tabloids for reasons not of the flattering kind. Occasionally, the storytelling will halt progress to squeeze in Morgan’s blossoming fame with how it complicates and challenges the idea behind this film. If you did this once or twice, fine, but there are four different times when this reality is brought into light, and after a while you just have to write it off as reflecting of the pretentious kind, which often comes in the form of a filmmaker receiving his first taste of global attention. It stands as the only thing that I would cut from the film entirely, and presents the lone speed bump on an otherwise perfect run time and storytelling progression for the film.

– Undecided. If you are going to make a film as judgmental and condemning as the material conveys, then you should have the guts to point blame at someone more substantial than the shadow figure associated with Big Chicken. It feels like a bit of a cop-out for this film to not have any political or social conscience to align itself with, especially considering that it has the uncanny ability to point at the problem, yet offers no solutions to deviate from reality. One could justify that the solution in itself is to quit feeding into the slaughter of animals all together, but that would then open up a bunch of other problems and freedom fights that I would rather not get into. Apparently, neither would Spurlock. Overall, it feels like too safe of a stance to truly appreciate the focus of the mission at hand, and leaves “Holy Chicken” with all cluck and no bite when it comes to feeling like a fearless documentary.

My Grade: 7/10 or C

Downton Abbey

Directed By Michael Engler

Starring – Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery

The Plot – The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Satisfies both sides. For longtime fans of the show, the big screen debut for Abbey’s world of colorful characters and vibrantly rich tastes is one in which nothing gets lost in translation. In terms of structure and storytelling consistency, this felt very much like a two hour episode of the television show, with even Engler himself, a staple in directing the show, there to helm its debut on the silver screen. The contrast to that is the new viewers to this world, like myself, who have only seen a few episodes, or never seen it at all. This film will appeal to them as well, because the plot in the film never feels over complicated, or relying upon knowledge of the history of these characters. It’s easily accessible for a new legion of fans, and one that I feel is entertaining enough to peak their interests further towards diving into the lengthier investment of the TV show head first.

– Strong humor. This was something that I certainly wasn’t expecting from the film, and it’s one that made my sit even easier when immersing myself into a film and era that I’m usually not smitten for. There is a lot of English style humor littered throughout the picture, most of which lands effortlessly, and all of which serves a bigger purpose in fleshing out these upper class citizens to human levels of personality at our delight. Sometimes it is a bit slapstick, and that direction doesn’t bode well for the dramatic tension that the film calls for during the second act, but the endless charisma and stark contrasts in so many different characters co-existing under one roof is too conflicting not to feel comedic, and it proved that “Downton Abbey” successfully juggles humor every bit as capably as it does dramatic enveloping.

– Complete team film. Move over Avengers, because the Abbey crew are here to stir their melting pot of personalities towards a bigger common goal. What I love about this film and setting is that there isn’t really a central protagonist, but rather an entire family and service staff that each share ample screen time in realizing these personalities, further adding to the bond that each of them have shared for many episodes under many years. Sure, I do have my favorites, mainly in the grip of Michelle Dockery’s future dilemma that has her feeling pulled from every direction, Allen Leach’s brave and humbling fight against a society fearing change, and of course Maggie Smith’s bickering traditionalist, Violet Crowley. The latter is definitely my favorite, but this is clearly an ensemble piece when it comes to screen time and storytelling focus, outlining a selfless effort all around that fires on all cylinders to give importance to each respective arc.

– Beautiful production value. Easily my favorite aspect of the film is the dynamic of wardrobe, set design, and stage props that transforms us back to the earliest days of the early 20th century seamlessly. In fact, there’s such a consistency when it comes to these elements that you don’t see these famous actors for being who they are off of the screen, you see them as real lived-in people who were each pivotal pieces of this long ago but not forgotten age. The elegantly flowing gowns for the ladies, and three piece suits for the gentlemen stimulate a class in taste that is inescapable throughout the many patrons that celebrate under the Abbey’s quarters. The set backgrounds and interior decorations offer just enough variation in design and coloring that further elaborates the immensity of this one-stage setting, and the attention paid to the dinner silverware, fine china, and sparkling glasses alike offers an indulgence on rich tastes so closely that it makes us feel like a guest that is sitting at this very table. This proves that “Abbey” really is much more than a movie, it’s the very invitation that the trailers promised.

– Eye for Engler. This is my first delve into the mind of Michael Engler on the big screen, but it’s one that surprised me for how this TV-dominated director competently makes the transition to film with a wondrous eye. Besides admiring each pivotal piece of the characters along the way, giving them almost two hours of screen time to interact with our attention, Engler’s greatest feat of strength is definitely the movements behind the camera that seduce us with the Abbey’s charms. The swooping establishing shots, as well as the fine compromise of grounded and aerial depictions offers a versatility of shot composition to prove this man isn’t just resting on the laurels of repetition to sell its charms. This is a director clearly in love with this setting, as he rightfully should be, but it’s clear in the way that he stalks this setting, as well as indulges on the planning that goes into this big event, that he cements the importance that setting plays alongside story. I couldn’t imagine a better director for this film, and it will satisfy fans of the show to know that Michael is a big reason why this thing is a success in the first place.

– Chilling musical score. When I use that statement, it’s usually to capture the essence of horror, but the goosebumps induced on me by composer John Lunn is something that played wonders into capturing the immensity and wonder of a world far from our own. Aside from the show theme, which plays a few times with a few tweaked variations throughout the film, the collection of orchestral numbers conjured an air of equality between sentimentality and prestige that summarizes everything that this film is about. It’s another example of the producers of the movie bringing back another familiar element from the show to make this transition as easy as possible, and a lot like the same way that Engler establishes a visual entrancement, Lunn audibly enchants us with resounding capture of visual props and styles that are then transferred in musical form. It creates a perfect wedding of sight and sound that makes everything else easier because of that consistency.

– Relevant today. As they always say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. That phrase is a great one for “Abbey” because there were a couple of arcs of conflict in this movie that are synonymous with exactly what our world is still going through today. Why is this relevant? Well, besides linking up these two polarly opposite time periods in closer capacity than we originally thought, it offers an air of tragedy to the aspect that the less we learn from history, the more we’re doomed to repeat it. This goes for many subplots within the film, but none more prominent than a gay character arc that touched my heart deeper than anything else in the movie did, and really unfortunately initialized the hate for homosexual love that has grown with each passing generation. I can imagine that this age of storytelling more than any makes this subplot even more difficult to fathom, but I have respect to the script for elaborating on the struggles of a world not yet ready to change, allowing a film from the early 20th century to offer a surprisingly relevant level of social commentary for 2019.

NEGATIVES

– First act repetition. Long before many other subplots are introduced or followed through with, the first act focuses entirely on this royalty storyline involving the staff and families preparing for the visit of the king and queen. Honestly, there’s very little movement that you can expect from a direction like this, that should only take up around twenty minutes tops of film. That is not the case, as roughly the first 35 minutes of this movie is every character reacting to this shocking announcement, and the level of confidence, or lack there of, that they are attacking it with. It fumbles the early pacing a little bit, especially during the time when the movie should be hooking you in, and points to a few scenes that could’ve easily been cut to trim the finished 117 minute run time. Not a major problem, but one that creates more problems than it should initially for a first time fan like me who is trying to invest in these people.

– No weight. It’s important to invest in vulnerability when it comes to depicting rich characters on screen, and unfortunately this movie has very little of it to truly make the conflicts pop with uncertainty. This group runs into very little trouble that they can’t solve by the following scene, and it kind of only instills a temporary sense of urgency, instead of long term adversity that is needed for character growth and audience investment mutually. When you really think about it, there’s such little permanence or change that comes from this movie, establishing a level of superfluous storytelling that could easily be removed from the entire Downton Abbey timeline if someone who hated it really wanted to.

– Dishonesty. I get that it’s a television show-turned-movie, but I couldn’t escape this glaring noise coming from the depiction of British royalty that is a bit too polished to feel legitimate. My problem is in the lack of self-entitlement that is completely not present in their demeanor, making them feel like one of the family, especially considering so little time or attention is given to further flesh out their characters. As crazy as it sounds, it rides quite often on the side of British Propaganda, mainly just for how it glorifies the British class system during the 18th and early 19th century, which created an aristocracy that was anything but positively endearing. For my money, I could’ve used more struggle between the management of the house and the visiting guests. It would’ve presented an internal conflict within the staff that forced them to do things against their bitter judgements, and it definitely would’ve presented a greater conflict that solved the previous two negatives that I mentioned.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Hustlers

Directed By Lorene Scafaria

Starring – Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles

The Plot – Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, the film follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.

Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, adult language and nudity

POSITIVES

– Cross brand appeal. “Hustlers” is the perfect date movie, in that it offers plenty for both sides of the gender coin to thoroughly invest in. For the ladies, it’s a story of female empowerment, and lashing back against a system and its corrupt brokers, for the roles they played on nearly bringing our society down whole. For the guys, it’s obviously the benefit of seeing so many beautiful women showing off their stage presence, balancing sexy and classy handedly with very little nudity shown throughout the picture. This aspect got my foot in the door, but as the film continued, I found myself further investing in the beats and conflicts of the characters, putting to bed any pre-conceived notions about me supposedly knowing what kind of movie I was getting myself into.

– Storm of Scafaria. It’s perfect that this film is held together by female hands because in addition to battling back against stereotypes for the depicted career choice, at its core it’s really a story of female control, and the consequences that this plays on male masculinity. Lorene is brilliant in getting to know her characters first, but it’s her presentation that truly grips this story into unconventional methods, often feeling like the female “Wolf of Wall Street” for all of the depth contained inside. There’s also a devilishly delicious amount of humor that compliments the dramatic elements superbly, and rides the waves of sharp shift effortlessly because someone as capable as Lorene emits irony in these extraordinary situations. This is a director who understands the psychology of being a mother, a friend, a provider, and even a fighter, and it’s in those many molds where she grants us one of the more compelling outlines for female conflicts than we’re typically used to, establishing these protagonists as the shade of grey between good and bad.

– Moral compass. One of the things concerning me about this film heading into it was how much compassion I would have for a group as dirty as the men they deceive, and thankfully the movie is responsible enough not to invest enough stock in one side or the other. Yes, you may feel inspired by the stand these women take against their suitors, but the screenplay presents us more than enough examples of what they’re doing being wrong, complete with a few of the ladies even questioning if they’ve crossed a line that they will never get back to. This gives the characters more of a human element than I was remotely expecting, and doesn’t feel like the events in the film are being sugar-coated for the convenience of buying them unearned empathy. A lot of wrong takes place during “Hustlers”, but the attention given to consequences and moments of self-clarity prove that it’s teaching a greater lesson than a get rich quick scheme, it’s really carving out a cautionary tale for taking life into your own hands.

– Ladies night. Everyone minus maybe Cardi B hits the mark brilliantly here, but it’s especially Lopez and Wu who easily steal the show. The most time is definitely dedicated to their characters, but Wu’s fiery emotional registry combined with Lopez’ guidance over her learning ladies reminds you that there’s no place you’d rather be. This is easily Jennifer’s best performance to date, and I say that because of the control she exerts over the attention of each scene, as well as the jaw-dropping impressive feats that she masters physically in such shape-shifting stage sequences. Even after a couple of decades of captivating us on-screen with her endless beauty, J-Lo proves that it’s her gravity over dramatic tension that proves she’s much more than a pretty face. Her and Wu are giving everything to their respective roles, and it’s the dynamic established early with a pivotal coat-sharing scene that perfectly sets the stage for the bond that develops between them.

– Style AND substance. Beneath this real life story that is playing out before our very eyes, we are treated to these mesmerizing sequences of flare being played out, bringing us wholeheartedly into the wild nightlife of a strip club and all of its seedy patrons. The neon lighting is a must for the kind of visual hypnosis that the ladies have over their prey, and the handheld camera compositions allow us to follow them every step of the journey, from pregame warm-ups to sales interactions with customers. Scafaria adds a touch of class and trance to the underbelly of New York nightlife, even preserving her nudity deposits during the moments when their inclusion doesn’t dominate or take away the focus of the scene. Ironically enough, there are two scenes involving nudity, and one is male nudity. Take from that what you will.

– The music. Completely brilliant choice of songs, as well as articulation in incorporation to make the music serve a storytelling gimmick of its own. On-stage, the song, dance, and essence of the environment play out seamlessly together, cementing an artistic consistency that fires on all cylinders. Off stage is where the real magic happens however, as the topical nature of a cohesive soundtrack adds a touch of humor and relevancy to what is being discussed by our characters in the foreground. For instance, there’s a scene where Wu’s grandmother discusses meeting Frankie Valli, and sure enough playing in the background is “Rag Doll” by the very same artist. This is far from the only example of this brilliance, but I would rather not spoil the charm and cerebral nature of its intention any further than I already have.

– Sound enhancements. During the third act, there are these measures taken during interview scenes that prove Scafaria has complete control over her story. It comes in the form of audible tweaks that will leave the audience wondering if the theater they watch it in is having technical difficulties, but actually its use plays perfectly into what is transpiring within the heat of the scene. One character shuts off a recorder, and suddenly we can’t hear the dialogue that is being exchanged between them, giving us a full immersion into the recorder serving as the gimmick that we are hearing played out in real time. Another example muffles a microphone during a sting being orchestrated, and it establishes another level of scene transformation that I never truly thought about prior to this movie. From this point forward, I will be looking for this in every movie where a character carries a mini microphone with them. Truly marvelous.

NEGATIVES

– Abrupt pacing. Easily the biggest problem that this film faces is the fact that it should’ve been longer. I say this especially during the first act of the movie because so many elements of dramatic tension are compartmentalized and rushed, leading to diminished returns later on when a scene reaches for them. The second half of the movie definitely slows it down more satisfyingly, but there are still angles within the holes being filled in with the investigation that don’t feel fully rendered, leaving us with a neat and tidy explanation of a real life story where there’s definitely more to it, especially since I’ve read the article that the movie is based on. If this film lands around two hours, it can take its time with more of highs, which would further flesh out the tragedy of the lows, and allow us the audience to see the stark contrasts in both extremes.

– Plot device. The central character in the film is Constance Wu, who is being interviewed by Stiles’ reporter character to detail all of the events of her time with Jennifer Lopez’ character. My problem with this angle are some conversations and events that take place without Wu’s character ever being present at the scene. Because the film uses Wu as a storytelling device, we rely on her to present us all of the facts, but anyone with half a brain could sniff out the logic that persists in events transpiring where she is nowhere to be found. This did at least inspire me to seek out the real story for myself, but establishes a theory that the film would work better if Stiles was interviewing every girl involved in the scam, for the sake of our believability. That way, the events would seem pieced together by four different voices, instead of one whose knowledge can only be justified by everyone telling her every single word and every single action after it happened?

– Cardi B. This easily feels like a written-in cameo at the last minute, as the dialogue and movements of the character feel unlike any other one within the confines of the film. Her line reads would be blamed entirely on her lack of character transformative acting, but the lines themselves are tacky and cliche’d to the point of feeling like lyrics from one of her songs. In addition to this, her lack of screen time in only three scenes throughout the film gives us this unshakeable feeling that her name was put on the poster to manipulate her fans into thinking that this was her first big screen role, and while that sentiment is true to a degree, it’s such a minimally diminishing role that she might as well be one of the many background dancers who don’t mumble a single line of dialogue throughout the film. At least then her tongue constantly hanging out wouldn’t have a soundtrack to accommodate it.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Good Boys

Directed By Gene Stupinitsky

Starring – Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon

The Plot – Three sixth grade boys (Tremblay, Williams, Noon) ditch school and embark on an epic journey while carrying accidentally stolen drugs, being hunted by teenage girls (Molly Gordon, Midori Francis), and trying to make their way home in time for their first kissing party.

Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and adult language throughout, all involving tweens

POSITIVES

– Strong humor content. As expected from a series of trailers that articulated precise timing for its adult content, the film itself has no shortage of gut-busting material that constantly pushes the envelope. What matters most is not all of the good stuff is used in those trailers, leaving clever kid-aged quips, inexperienced naivety in mature situations, and a solid bond of chemistry between this trio of infectious personalities, while you would have to be heartless not to indulge in each time they share screen time together. While not as effective as “Booksmart” in terms of its unpredictability factor, “Good Boys” still embellishes enough in its good times to easily make this one of the three best comedies that I have seen thus far in 2019, and establishes youths as an untapped force to be reckoned with for truthful interactions.

– Surprisingly poignant. Perhaps the biggest positive that I pulled from the film was its responsible take for pediatric friendships that most movies don’t have the balls to feed to us through in an honest depiction. As the film progresses, we come to understand that being friends at the age of the boys in this movie is more built on convenience instead of deep-seeded similarities, and soon the air of inevitability rings true in testing them in ways that they never expected. What I love about this is it feeds into the mentality how barely any of us have friends from our childhoods, and the air of borrowed time is something that certainly adds a refreshing claustrophobic weight to the memories that they are currently relishing in. In fact, the entire third act feels like a precedent for the days that are about to come, nearly matching “Superbad” in that somber mall scene, where Michael Cera and Jonah Hill say goodbye for the last time.

– Star-making performances. Everyone already knows how much I adore Jacob Tremblay, after becoming a fan of his in 2016’s “Room”, and his work here is equally committing and precise in his timing for fine quality. So I will use this time to praise the duo of Williams and Noon for the unshakeable impact that they had on the film. Noon was originally who I thought would steal the show, but Williams’ combination of impatient yelling in pressure-filled situations and unique personality was something that allowed him to stand out from his on-screen co-stars. Noon is nearly equally captivating, delivering with a blunt brutality in vocal deposits that hints at a teenage badass in a 12-year-old’s body. These two not only gave me a majority of the laughs in the film, but also proved how far their versatility of emotional range will inevitably play into their blessed futures.

– As a pre-teen film. The coming-of-age story is certainly nothing new in modern cinema, but to document it from this age definitely is, and in doing so takes us through plenty of the complexities associated with junior high that stand in the way of our boys’ progression. For one, I love the anxiety that the film develops, not only with kissing for the first time, but also in the socially awkward enveloping in meeting people who we perceive as being “Cooler” than us. It tackles this as well as impressionable minds living in a grown-up world, and does it with a sense of unshakeable humor in personality, that keeps it from refusing this to ever turn dark in tone. Finally, I love that our trio of boys think so spontaneously. This more times than not gets them into trouble, and creates believable conflicts that evolve thanks in part to the mental incapacities of being placed in situations that they certainly aren’t used to, which in turn allows them to grow with every learning experience.

– A twist with plot devices. There’s a lot of surprises in this area, as a script so heavily outlined by obvious pivotal pieces in the first act weren’t used in ways that I was expecting throughout. For instance, a $600 object gets broken by the boys, and we know that a playing card that one of the boys has will easily solve this convenient conflict, but the refreshing positivity comes in the fact that this isn’t the eventual route that the film takes. In addition to this, a couple of other plot devices are distributed throughout, and not one of them ever materialized into the solution that I was expecting. There was absolutely no way that “Good Boys” was going to be anything but a predictable screenplay, but they pull it off with these momentary lapses of twists that prove that the duo of screenwriters are thinking outside of the box, further preserving an air of urgency that plays brilliantly with the party being only hours away.

– No time stamp. One of my problems with coming-of-age films is that they’re often given this air of modern day production in objects and backdrops that easily makes it a product of this time, in term limiting its appeal with each passing age. But “Good Boys” keeps its soundtrack ambiguous, saving a few familiar tracks only for instances involving humor within school plays or wherever else it doesn’t feel fresh for the setting of this story. In addition to this, there’s nothing in focus, outside of maybe the current day IPhone, that makes it feel like it won’t age well with future re-watches. The technical aspects of the movie are very grounded and conventional, but the productional aspects in set design and timely seamlessness gives the film crossover appeal that these subgenre films don’t often partake in, giving it the one true advantage where it can prosper.

– Highly quotable. What’s the key to any great comedy? Tons of quotes that become a part of pop culture conversation with our peers, and in this respect, the measure of comic firepower in “Good Boys” hits us with a barrage of one-liners and punchlines that I won’t be able to get out of my head for quite some time. Some of my favorites involve words being said wrong, or these loudly boisterous responses that elevate the laugh because of the physicality involved in the heat of the performance, but the cake-taker for me is definitely the hip demeanor with how these clean-cut boys lingo themselves in and out of conversations with their upper class classmates. This wave of slang sweeps over them like a transformational spirit, and soon I found myself whisked away to a time when I too tried to replicate what was hip for the current age.

NEGATIVES

– Obvious social commentary. My biggest problem with the script easily comes from these unbelievable lines of dialogue that no kid walking this earth would ever say. It mostly deals with female consent when it comes to kissing or any sexual activity, but springs as far as tax abandonment, the difficulty of political aligning, and of course equal rights, which we all know is a huge topic of conversation for eager youths. This wouldn’t be a problem if the film did it once or twice, and then dropped it, but these subject matters are brought up so frequently that it quickly becomes an agenda that the screenwriters are trying to instill, and while they are all admirable ones, they aren’t ones that gel synthetically with a child rendering.

– Plot conveniences. There were a few instances where things didn’t add up, with solutions from conflicts feeling like a disjointed mess in what we the audience are supposed to fill the blanks in with. Without spoiling anything, I refer to two different examples where reality didn’t gel with what transpired. The first is something that the boys buy, and how even without taking it out of the box are able to plug it into their phone to sync-up accordingly. The other one is how a drug dealer who sees the boys only hours before when they interrupted a kiss with his girlfriend, can’t recognize them face-to-face in a drug deal. One could write this off as coincidence, but these matters don’t add up for me, and instilled a level of incohesive storytelling that wore on the longer the film transpired.

– Choppy editing. When the jokes need visual assistance to sell their punchlines, the film fumbles in productional aspects, thanks in part to a framing device in editing that constantly drops the ball. Occasionally, you will get a bad joke that doesn’t land properly, and most of that has to do with a cutting to a character that sometimes happens too quick in terms of cutting, and often times too untimely with where it would better cater to the pause for reaction. Some reactions take too long to get to, and sometimes scenes cut during lines of read dialogue that are pasted together with the next scene in a way that abruptly crushes the prior, and overlaps the latter. It’s clear that this film is at the helm of a first timer in the directing chair, but hopefully with more experience comes a smoother presentation that better accentuates timing.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Directed By James Bobin

Starring – Isabella Moner, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Benicio Del Toro

The Plot – Having spent most of her life exploring the jungle with her parents, nothing could prepare Dora (Moner) for her most dangerous adventure ever: high school. Always the explorer, Dora quickly finds herself leading Boots (Danny Trejo), Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), a mysterious jungle inhabitant, and a ragtag group of teens on a live-action adventure to save her parents and solve the impossible mystery behind a lost Inca civilization.

Rated PG for action and some impolite humor

POSITIVES

– Responsibility realized. When Dora debuted on Nickelodeon, she not only became a pop culture icon, but more importantly a Latino one, and especially during a time when our neighbors to the south are feeling the sting of freedom falling apart, the film is perhaps more important than ever in giving them a hero they can feel proud of. As an action protagonist, Dora is tough, charming, intelligent, and even dangerous when she needs to be, and the never-ending flow of her spirit is something that represents the Mexican demographic candidly, etching out a persistence for always getting the job done. Likewise, the film is shot on location in the Amazon, so many of the sets and wardrobe associated speak vibrantly to an Aztec culture that is very rarely rendered in cinema. Everything from family traditions, to free-flowing gowns is on display for the group better known as the people of the gods, and with it holds valuable weight to the film that makes them anything but just a beautiful shooting location.

– Set designs. Speaking of which, the imagination donated to fun and audience immersive puzzles is something that added a lot of intrigue to the film, crafting this as a kids version of Indiana Jones without fully ripping it off for inspiration. Not only is their detailed variety in the gorgeous backdrops that surround our leads, but every trap that they find themselves having to get out of requires each particular character to indulge in something that they are good at, building them stronger as a group the longer the film persists. In contrast to this, the scenes in Los Angeles offer a stark variation on everything that Dora is used to, bringing forth the boisterous sounds and toxic personalities that come with upper class privilege. It gives the film a big budget feel with so many varied locations, allowing it to transcend some of the bigger budget problems that the film faces in other areas that I will get to later.

– Perfect tone. Most importantly, this film knows what it is; a wacky slew of hijinks that vibes togetherness and inclusion in an adventurous manner. It finds a comfortable balance somewhere in the middle between being taken too seriously and feeling so off the wall that it feels disjointed in its sequencing. This one stays focused with all of its madness, and brings forth a level of comic firepower that left my gut in knots more than a couple of times. It’s mostly kid humor, but there are a few clever zingers scattered throughout that only adults will pick up on, and while I appreciate a kids movie that treats youths with respect, the accessibility for all ages of audience is something I appreciate so much more. My favorites are definitely the scenes where everything stops so Dora can speak to the audience beyond the screen, paying homage to the television show in a way that makes her look like a nut here. Loved it.

– Spanish flavored soundtrack. There’s a couple of things to compliment here. The first, Dora’s incredible freestyling skills, which takes the group through many embarrassing and tense situations in which she talks them through peacefully. One such song involves a character taking a dump, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the most catchy and detailed lyrics that I’ve heard from an original piece of music in a long time. Beyond this, the soundtrack itself includes many pop culture favorites, but done in Spanish, complete with mariachi style musical accompaniment. There are many, but the two I caught were Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking”, and of course my second favorite song from The Cure “Just Like Heaven”. It keeps the flavor of the movie finely tuned with the rest of the film’s cultural setting, all the while preserving a level of familiarity in choices that will have the parents toes tapping.

– My favorite scene. I was never a fan of Dora the Explorer during its television run, but the scene that left the biggest imprint on my memory even an hour after the film is this sequence where the characters go through a bit of a drug trip, and their embodiment changes to animated form. I won’t spoil anything else, because there is a lot of creativity donated to the dialogue of the scene, but this three minute fantasy pays homage wonderfully to the spirit of the original television show without soiling the integrity of everything that it’s accomplishing originally within this film. What’s important is the animation is the exact same, not exactly transferring well to the silver screen, but doing its job on the subject of homage integrity that many remakes can’t master accordingly.

– Committed performance. I’ve been a fan of Isabela Moner for a long time, but her work here is her single most convincing role to date. Moner was born to play Dora, and even more than that, she embodies every single aspect about the character that no other acting adaptation has mastered this year for a pre-established character. Isabela’s infectious demeanor requires you to be heartless to not be touched by her magnetic charms, and the girl kicks ass in a way that very few kid properties allow their characters to instill. Capped off with an openness that naively sees the best in people, Dora is the character we don’t deserve, but the one we need right now, and thanks to Moner in the driver seat, there’s no way that a young actress as dedicated to the craft as her would ever let this opportunity pass her by.

– Room on the bone for a sequel. The first half of this film is Dora experiencing real life in America, complete with the awkwardness of high school, and while I enjoyed the adventure that this film took me on, it was the America part that I could’ve used more of. The positive out of this is that it leaves plenty of meat of creativity for a second movie involving Dora’s vulnerability living now permanently in America, as well as dating, bullying, and everything else that comes with a fish out of water story. As for this film, it gives enough satisfaction in its material easily being worth the ticket price for a matinee screening, but it’s wise enough to build a second movie in which the expectations will be much higher since this film became a success.

NEGATIVES

– Awful computer generation. I figured the animal properties and certain effects work of the film would be computer generated, but what I didn’t expect was how lifeless their renderings left my mind having to fill in the gaps of believability. The animals themselves are the worst I’ve seen in a few years, not only for failing to attain the level of natural lighting in any scene that they are involved in, but also for the lack of weight they deposit on a live actor’s interaction. Even for Nickelodeon animation, this is bad on a whole new level, and is easily the biggest flaw for a movie that has a surprising amount of integrity to its reputation.

– No consequences. I understand that this is a cartoon world, but the lack of scrapes, blood, or any kind of injuries through death-defying leaps of faith is something that erases any level of vulnerability, which in turn takes away any shred of suspense for the audience. The excuse will be that people don’t watch Dora for suspense, but this is an action first movie, so therefore it requires even an ounce of real world consequence to its many stunts. The worst of all for me is a jump that Dora makes across two sides of the cave, which can be seen in the trailers for the movie. After her jump, it cuts, and we see Dora laying on the ground at least a hundred feet beneath where she jumped, with no scratches or bone breaks to make her regret doing it in the first place. If Dora doesn’t subdue to pain, then why not have her lunge herself at her opposition at all times? Part of what makes the character so relatable is the fact that she is a teenager, and one who lives, breathes, and hurts just like all of us.

– Weak antagonist. For my money, there never should’ve been an antagonist character in this movie. The antagonist itself should’ve been the cave, with Dora and her crew trying to find their way out of it. With that said, we receive an antagonist halfway through the film, and it holds very little bearing or impact to the remainder of the film. What’s worse is this antagonist makes even less sense the more you think about it. SPOILERS DO NOT READ ON. So you’re telling me that this guy went through everything that Dora and friends did just so he could turn on her? Every death defying instance? One of which he almost drowned on, and all of which he leaves his life in the hands of kids for. Not exactly the criminal mastermind kind of thinking you would expect.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-