The Art of Self-Defense

Directed By Riley Stearns

Starring – Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

The Plot – After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.

Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A Stearns sense of humor. Riley Stearns is my spirit animal when it comes to his style of humor. In being every bit as blunt as he is unapologetic, this whirlwind of social commentary appropriately articulates the ridiculousness associated with toxic masculinity in a way that the characters on-screen take seriously, yet us watching in the theater translate as elementary behavior. This not only gives the film’s material a unique blend of dark humor rarely capitalized by other independent films, but also makes us the audience dig a little deeper to properly channel what kind of tonal ranges the film is taking us on at any given minute. There were moments so dark and depraved that made me want to laugh, and moments so silly that made me want to cry, and it speaks volumes to a writer and director so involved in both aspects of a film’s creative process that allows them to flow cohesively throughout the picture.

– Confronting the poison. This is the second straight week that I have reviewed a movie dealing with toxic masculinity, and the kind of consequences it has in raising a generation of glorified entitlists. Where it stands in the movie takes us through themes involving firearms, mental manipulation, crude behavior involving the polarization of females, and an overall demeanor in demographic that tells us what to listen to and how to act at all times. What’s so rewarding about seeing this through Stearns eyes is not only is it layed out in a way that feels every bit truthful as it does obtuse, but the lessons learned by the end of the film reward us in a way that promotes hope through progression. Even for a film that classifies its material as satirical, it still wraps up in a way that deconstructs the mentality and lifestyles of decades worth of movements, and gives itself a lasting image that reminds us to strive for better.

– Wonderful performances. This is a three course dinner of uniquely gifted performances by the cast that shine for completely different reasons. It begins with this being the perfect role for Eisenberg, in that it allows him to bring along his nervous ticks and quirks for the nuance of the role. His Casey has very much been a victim his whole life, so Eisenberg’s introverted shyness gives us no shortage of body language to visually narrate what we already learn in his backstory without the narration telling us anything, and it leads to his best work in years. This is my first experience with Alessandro Nivola, and I have to say that his antagonist of sorts is endearing for how much he truly believes in his disgusting and deceitful ways. Almost immediately, you notice the mental advantage he holds over Casey, in that he is able to convince him to follow through with Karate, and it outlines this sort of mental chess game that feels ten times stronger than the physical hurdles that Casey endures in competing with dojo students who command years of experience ahead of him. The real shock however, is Imogen Poots, transforming herself once more to illustrate the film’s only female character. Her character’s personality feels tougher than anyone because of the treatment she has had to endure, and through a couple of near-tearful exposition dumps, Poots displays a variety in range and on-screen presence that proves those teenage romantic comedies were thankfully a thing of the past.

– Complex compositions. The camera work in this film is beautifully constructed, illustrating a range in personality that visually takes us through the roller-coaster in tone that is the film’s juggled tonal capacity. When it reaches for humor, it usually signals out one character in particular with a still-frame long take that reaches for awkwardness in isolation. When it reaches for unnerving uncertainty, it gives us a slow pan-out shot similar to David Robert Mitchell’s style of reveal that focuses on the smaller aspects in the background coming into focus to grow into something much bigger. In my interpretation, every shot in the film has meaning in establishing a greater purpose of gimmick within the script’s many themes, outlining a level of pulse and presence for the film’s cinematography that I certainly wasn’t expecting in a film advertised mostly for the psychological abuse of Casey disposition.

– Crisp editing. In addition to the colorful blend in shot layers that stimulated with precision in variety, the editing gimmick used in the film also provides these sharp cuts that provide a particular advantage of its own for what transpires on-screen. Not only is there a treat in the form of heavy metal karate montages a couple times throughout the film that marry two sides of the coin I was truly never expecting, but the self-defense action itself is cut and pasted in a way that preserves the continuity in a sequence that was probably shot and run through three or four different times to pull from the best takes of each run. This makes Hollywood actors look and feel like authentic Karate athletes, and thanks to the consistency of timely editing preserves that level of Hollywood magic often overlooked with independent cinema.

– Color representation. Being a film that revolves around karate and the many ranks associated with color in belts that the students wear, Stearns intelligently uses this as a mentality tool that follows the characters along with them everywhere. For example, Casey spends most of the movie being a yellow belt, and the influence of that color that seems to pop up everywhere from that point forward prove that it is anything but unintentional. Some of the examples are obvious, like the shopping scene where he buys nothing but yellow products, and it’s elaborated upon by the cashier mentioning it, but there are other scenes so obscure in size that really require future re-watches of the film to catch them all. This takes character framing to a whole new level, and provides food for thought in the absorbing quality that Stearns provides in transferring the mental capacity to the outside where it vibrantly flows with pride alongside the character it is intentionally supposed to represent.

– Delicious dialogue. Not only are the lines in the film clever in the way they construct conversations, but also in how the actors are directed with a dead-pan to deliver emotional lines that should feel more animated. This only adds to the comical layer of the film that I mentioned earlier, that further feeds into this unique and satirical world where nothing sounds too strange, and allows the actors to commit to an idea so silly and contrived that it feels routine in a male-dominated society like the one depicted in the movie. Likewise, jokes that are originally introduced during the first act return later on, and bring with them greater landing power because we the audience now grasp the situation in better detail after living through it with our central protagonist, and understanding what he’s gone through to reach this transformation in mentality.

– Visual props. To rebel even more in Stearns cleverness, the film rewards audiences so in-tuned with scenes by supplanting visual extras that honestly land just as effectively as the rich dialogue. Particularly present during the first act, we are treated to a couple of jokes in the form of a male magazine with the male icon on the cover, and a combination of guns, cologne advertisements, and female nudity within its pages, as well as an opening scene payoff that is genius for how it turns the advantage of a character dynamic on its head. Without spoiling much, two strangers are insulting a character in their native language, and we learn that their assumptions get the best of them. Where the visual comes in is during the second setting scene, where one reveal shows us everything that we need to know about the prior scene, and pays it off in a way that could be condemning if our attention is wandering during these initial minutes.

NEGATIVES

– Predictability. There are essentially two twists during the second half of the movie, and with relative ease I was able to predict each of them correctly. It’s not that the film shows itself too early, but rather its lack of moving room creatively within the story and minimal amount of characters leaves it claustrophobic with the available directions it could take with its mystery. The second twist is more something that happens within the reveal of a scene that I saw coming because of how uneven the odds were against a particular character. Both are credible reveals within the movie, but ones that I saw coming from early on in the second act, and the focus for the second half of the film revolved around this element of the reveal that I waited for the screenplay to catch-up to.

– Plot conveniences. This is the biggest problem I had with the film, as many coincidences during the first act are a stretch at best for lining up properly to the plot twist reveals that I previously mentioned. Things perfectly work to the advantage of the movie’s antagonist without really taking the time to understand how such things are possible, and why Casey would choose something like karate over the permanency and intimidation of owning a gun. Hell, the whole jumping happens when Casey is walking home from a supermarket trip that he walked to. We find out later that he owns a car, so why would you walk at night in a dangerous neighborhood to a store when you have valuable transportation? It doesn’t get any easier with the progression of the film, as there are a couple of situations that are easily escapable for someone with the intelligence of Casey that the film must ignore to further prolong the conflict. This also feels like a world where no cops or consequences exist, giving us about as much urgency within Casey’s blackmail conflict that never allows itself the time or opportunity to flesh itself out properly to coincide with the weight that we are visually told resides within this deal.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Under the Silver Lake

Directed By David Robert Mitchell

Starring – Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace

The Plot – Sam (Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Keough), frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool. When she vanishes, Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal and conspiracy in the City of Angels.

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

POSITIVES

– Sparkling style. Considering this is from the same man who helmed 2014’s “It Follows”, the entrancing visuals involving eye-catching color and velocity behind the lens isn’t surprising in the least. While Mitchell’s story itself is something that I had a lot of problems with, the beauty inside of this Lynch-meets-Refn world of color dominated sequences constantly allured me and kept me engaged into the progression of the scene with its unabashed focus. It’s unique how one particular color will take dominance over an entire frame, making everything else surrounding it weak to the lustrous glow that seduces us front-and-center, with the cherry on top being David’s signature slow, stirring close-up pans that conjure up an atmosphere of unnerving tension that conveys something sinister at play in the city of angels.

– Musical Majesticism. Both the variety of tones compiled by Disasterpiece to make another must-buy musical score, as well as the film’s storytelling soundtrack by rock band Silversun Pickups lights the way for an audible presence that sinks its hooks into us with all of its subtle nuance and nostalgia that breathes patiently without feeling like an obvious gimmick. Fresh off of his unsettling stirring that was “It Follows” Disasterpiece once again rivets, combining orchestral cues, beach vibe blues, and 8-bit sound bites to drill out a composition that evolves right along with the story. Disasterpiece rides the waves in tone complexity that the film sometimes rapidly shifts us under, and emits a level of euphoric mystery that competently articulates the inherency of its central protagonist. The new material from Pickups, one of my favorite current rock bands going today, is also appreciated, bringing forth an air of familiarity in the vocals of Brian Aubert to play into this band of characters within the film who thrive more for their pageantry instead of their aspiring talents.

– My interpretation. While the film certainly doesn’t settle for feeding into just one consistent direction of social commentary, the themes of paranoia against conspiracy theorists overwhelmed me, and brought forth an intended level of comical delight that at times elevated the lunacy of the material. The sheer silliness associated with Sam’s investigative measures are as far of a stretch as anything you’ll ever see in cinema, and feed fuel for the fire for the world’s theorists who sometimes look far too deeply in interpreting media. In a sense, you can argue that this is Mitchell’s way of getting back at the masses who interpreted “It Follows” as something far deeper than it rightfully was, spreading it as a completely different monster than the creator intended. Curiosity is an inspiring thing in film, but an audience audacity at searching for clues in the widest margins is clearly present throughout, and elaborates that the best battles are left carefully chosen by intelligent people.

– Direction reflecting performances. David has a way of stirring these never-before-seen performances from his cast, and none is more prominent of than the work of Andrew Garfield as Sam. Garfield’s usual endless charisma is reserved in small doses here, instead bringing along enough neuroticism and quirk to feed into his evolving curiosity, and while there are plenty of moments of laughter from Andrew’s nervous registry, his shining stride comes in the form of fabricated intelligence that lights up his face like a Christmas tree whenever he comes on to some kind of clue. Garfield is given occasional help from reputable turns from Keough, Grace, and especially one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, Jimmi Simpson, but he commands 100% of the scenes that we tail through, so this one man show is perhaps the most emotionally demanding of Garfield’s still-young, storied career.

– Transformative editing technique. You’ll notice something off almost immediately with the editing, and like its material that reflects the beats, gags, and theories associated behind the picket fences of Hollywood, Mitchell’s permanence in editing is a throwback to silver-aged cinema, when dissolving was the majority editing direction over quick-cuts. Not only does this technique maintain the urgency associated with the investigation, but it also transfers time in a way that quick-cuts often leave you scrambling for how much time has passed between cuts. It’s measures like this that keep this from feeling like a completely pretentious presentation, and instead takes viewers with it down the rabbit hole to a setting that feels modern, but a production quality that feels anything but, stitching this collision of crossroads that immerse together as one cohesive quality.

NEGATIVES

– Meandering mystery. There are many in this film. So many in fact that the film feels muddled in its narrative direction long before the halfway point. What happened to this girl? Who is the Dog killer? Who is the Owl killer? Is there truth to there being clues in pop culture ads and products? and so many more. The girl one is obviously the one that sparks Sam’s initial movements, but throughout a majority of the film, the eye on the prize becomes more than slightly blurred, and we start to lose attention towards what is essentially driving him. I did manage to predict one of these mysteries correctly, but taking credit for it would be childish considering the film doesn’t take any time to develop any other characters to make it stir with intrigue. As I mentioned before, there are many ideas for this film…..too many, but what stilts the impact of each of their indulgence is an incoherent, disjointed manner of storytelling that challenges you for all of the wrong reasons, leaving you tossing and turning through a film that is every bit as jumbled as 2015’s “Inherent Vice”.

– Heavy run time. If you’re going to set out to make a 137 minute film, you better outline a script that makes it impossible to turn away from, but thanks to the abundance of drowning dialogue exchanges and repetition of similar scenes despite differences in location, “Under the Silver Lake” keeps burying us under suffocating weight of bumbling exposition, that quite frequently goes nowhere. Beyond this, if you use conventionalism in filmmaking to outline where you are at in the story, you will quickly become disappointed with where you’re at, at any given time. There were a few times during the film when it felt like things were starting to wrap up, only to discover that I still had 90 minutes left in the film. The pacing also does it no favors, building such little momentum between scene transitions, unless you’re half as stupid as Sam is, and believe half of the bullshit that you’re being asked to chew on.

– Sloppy editing. This is perhaps the biggest surprise to me, as “It Follows” was edited in a way that carefully carried over the tension and sense of dread that enveloped every scene and ensuing atmosphere, But with “Under the Silver Lake”, we get no level of consistency or transition with these scenes, jaggedly cutting with several fade-to-black measures that shoe-horn a wedge in between scenes that are supposed to be consistently running together. There are scenes where cuts come long after they were expected, leaving an ample amount of silence before the cut, and there are scenes where dialogue is cut-off in what I can only fathom as being intentional? This is the area of production that certainly could’ve used another measure of tweaking inside of the studio, and thanks to this disjointed nature of what is transpiring on-screen, it occasionally makes the film’s second act feel like two films involving the same characters being trapped in multiple plots, are running simultaneously.

– Lack of female depth. This could be considered intentional because our following of Sam orchestrates a treatment towards women that only values them for their physical attributes, and never psychological stimulation, but a film made in 2018 (It was on the shelf for a year) that only asks its female leads to be naked, or really stand as nothing more than a sexual target for Sam, makes it hard to believe that this intention serves a valid purpose within the film. In fact, even as I sit here typing this review one hour after watching the film, I can’t remember a single female’s name outside of Sarah (Keough), Sam’s increasing obsession, who is only in three scenes during the entire film. Everyone else is easily forgettable, and it’s this level of ignorance that only caters to one side of the audience spectrum, leaving the criminally ignored to be victims of a story that is every bit as tedious as it is condemning to half of its gender audience. Consider that Sam is only interested in Sarah and uncovering her mystery because she’s the only one who he hasn’t been with intimately. It casts a sleazy circumstance to the movie’s hook, and even worse never confronts its protagonist because of such. Progressive ideals, no?

– Abrupt tonal shifts. This is a film that is trying to obtain a level of seedy darkness in its mystery, all the while poking us occasionally with this sharp level of awkward humor that dares you to get lost in the cooky appeal of a place so far from your own. My problem with this is how uneasy the extremes of each direction blend together, frequently feeling like a jagged speed bump that lessens the effectiveness of each polarly opposite quality. If done to perfection, you get something like “Twin Peaks”, a world both wonderful and strange, but if done wrong, you get flat dimensions that leave your film feeling staggered in the ambiguously middle ground, and that’s the case with Mitchell’s compromise. Most sacrificial is the chills, by which this film has none, giving a director known for his piercing moments that transcend the screen nothing in regards to moments to make his audience relate with the uneasiness of the material, etching out this toneless hybrid subgenre that I would prefer never to cross into again.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

A League Of Their Own

Directed By Penny Marshall

Starring – Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty

The Plot – During World War II when all the men are fighting the war, most of the jobs that were left vacant because of their absence were filled in by women. The owners of the baseball teams, not wanting baseball to be dormant indefinitely, decide to form teams with women. So scouts are sent all over the country to find women players. One of the scouts, passes through Oregon and finds a woman named Dottie Hinson (Davis), who is incredible. He approaches her and asks her to try out but she’s not interested. However, her sister, Kit (Petty) who wants to get out of Oregon, offers to go. But he agrees only if she can get her sister to go. When they try out, they’re chosen and are on the same team. Jimmy Dugan (Hanks), a former player, who’s now a drunk, is the team manager. But he doesn’t feel as if it’s a real job so he drinks and is not exactly doing his job. So Dottie steps up. After a few months when it appears the girls are not garnering any attention, the league is facing closure till Dottie does something that grabs attention. And it isn’t long Dottie is the star of the team and Kit feels like she’s living in her shadow.

Rated PG for adult language

POSITIVES

– Lasting legacy. Before “A League Of Their Own”, there really were no shining examples of women’s presence in the sports film world, and thanks to Marshall’s respect and documentation for the subject matter, we receive a film that succeeds as a sports biopic on the surface level, yet transcends that accomplishment in giving us a real taste for the time. In this regard, during the 1940’s, women were left to run the country when the men departed for overseas, thrusting them into the limelight for the first time ever in situations that they otherwise wouldn’t be given a chance for. This is different for a war film because they’re often depicted as depressing and full of grim circumstance, but Marshall’s picture grants us an opportunity at solidifying that anything men can do, women can do better, and enclosed we see many examples of the unshakeable prejudice that an entire gender faced in the immense void left by the previous establishment. This film really was a trail-blazer in attaining a level for women’s sports in films that previously we never dreamed of, and it’s one that hasn’t been topped ever since.

– Production detail. This is arguably Penny’s strongest quality, as her scope for a particular age in American culture radiates ever so vibrantly in the many depictions that the film garners. Dated fashion trends involving flowing gowns and three-piece suits, ideal shooting locations involving non-lighted ballparks, an array of weathered billboards, and especially a grainy presentation from cherished cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek that transforms us accordingly. Ondricek was best known for his work in 1979’s “Hair”, and it’s clear that his absorbing radiance has a distinct advantage towards time pieces, especially during the cloudy uncertainty that was World War I. Everything here vibes synthetically, preserving a level of seamless believability that reaches the level of 40’s stock footage over this being a manufactured production of one.

– Precision in casting. Marshall’s one rule in her casting was that any actress would have to know how to play baseball, and it shows in the physical performances here that are twice as demanding as the emotional ones. Geena Davis, Rosie O’ Donnell, Lori Petty, and even Madonna all master a level of athletic professionalism that prove they aren’t afraid to get dirty to get the job done. Particularly, it’s Geena’s bat grip and choreography behind the plate that especially impressed this critic, and completely transformed this group of lady actresses into a full-fledged baseball team. Beyond this, Hanks is clearly the show stealer as the rundown alcoholic Jimmy Dugan. It’s especially unique to see Hanks in a role like this, as before this he was known as the sophisticated leading man in Hollywood cinema, but Tom’s dirtbag demeanor and unflinching rudeness preserves many iconic one-liners that age as gracefully as a fine wine, and further pertain to the redemption storyline for the character that I invested a lot of empathy into.

– In addition to the level of sports believability that I previously mentioned, Marshall’s flashy stance of crisp editing and montage sequencing play into a side of filmmaking, that while easy in outlining, certainly achieves the job in continuity to keep us firmly invested into the sights and sounds of the game. For my money, I could’ve used more long takes in these scenes to establish the impressive nature of learning a sports routine, but the accommodating narration by the film’s broadcast journalist (Played by Laverne and Shirley’s Squiggy) keeps enough of a grip on a game that practically flies before our eyes in progression. It’s especially surprising that outside of the World Series game seven finale, Marshall doesn’t necessarily focus much on the heat of the game’s environment for the film’s ambitious two hour run time, proving that the film values life experience and spiritual bonding over the perks of the game, which can sometimes feel a bit too demanding on a film’s screenplay direction.

– Masterful musical score by Hans Zimmer. That’s right, arguably the most well known composer by 2019 standards was still making his mark on a film’s audible impact way back in 1992, and the work he solidifies in the film provides a nuanced nourishment that is every bit reflective for the time as it is distinct for anything else Zimmer has ever produced. The combination of building drum beats, orchestral horns, and echoing vocals brings forth an infectious feel that makes it impossible not to tap your toes, and plays especially hand-in-hand with the pulse of the game, that rides a roller-coaster of many highs and lows for our team protagonists. Zimmer’s usual flow is dark, ominous, and challenging, but considering this was Hans first interaction with the sport (True story), his tempo in pace proves synthetically fused with the movements of the sequences. Beyond this, we are given a new track from Madonna called “This Used To Be My Playground”, that won her an Academy Award and mainstream recognition from elder audiences who previously deemed her flavor of pop music a bit too rebellious for their tastes. It rounds out a musical collection that articulately channels the uncertainty of a newfound world where women’s loss and fears became inspiration for something bigger.

– Rare accomplishment. My first screening of the film came in sixth grade, when my history teacher showed it to our class during our World War I week, and it was then that I realized this film is one of those rare exceptions that is every bit as entertaining as it is educational. While not everything in the film is factual, the script from four different screenwriters does attain a level of homage to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that it so rightfully deserves. Likewise, the 1940’s narrative begins with a montage taking us through the deployment of troops overseas, as well as the government’s dependency on women to pick up the pieces of a country going through an unforeseen adversity. So many films credit the sacrifice made by millions of brave men who fought an evil regime for many years, but this is one that values a completely different sacrifice, and outlines a level of history, both in baseball and this country, that would otherwise be forgotten if not given the proper light to shine under. Aside from this being educational and entertaining, “A League Of Their Own” is important, first and foremost.

– Dramatic progression. The third act is definitely my favorite of the film, as it is during that time when the seeds of redundancy are relieved in favor of some dramatic underlying tension that the film so desperately requires to push it to the finish line. Urgency develops in the form of soldier husband’s dying, a trade between the sister protagonists, and the return of troops home, which in turn leaves the women’s league with a foggy future. When there’s more stakes involved, the film reaches a level of intrigue that truly makes it memorable, and while every plot is sewed up a bit too easily at times (Especially Tom Hanks alcoholism being cured by Coca-Cola), every subplot culminates in a one game winner take all that serves as a volcanic blow to everyone and everything involved, illustrating a much-deserved center stage for the women athletes that continuously reminds us that there is no tomorrow.

NEGATIVES

– A missing voice. One thing that bothers me each time I watch this film is the missing voice of a black female player that could’ve added a new layer of depth to the film’s reservoir. Sure, there’s a scene of a woman in the audience throwing a baseball that amazes all of the players in frame, but I feel like the desire to establish their yearning to play is something that could’ve added more truth to the time, and given female minorities a familiar voice in a film that so obviously deserves it. Black women were banned from the A.A.G.P.B.L for the time, but still played in Negro Leagues all across the country, and considering this film is a work of fictionalized reality, the script could’ve used a few minutes to balance the blessing that the players shouldn’t take for granted.

– Minimal Characterization. Easily the biggest problem of the film, as every character outside of Dottie is given such a one-note description in personality that it reminds us how little we’ve come to know these ladies by film’s end. Madonna and Rosie’s characters are brought in at the same time because they are practically the same woman, Marla never receives a talking line of dialogue anywhere in the film, and Kit is really just Dottie’s jealous sister. It’s a bit of a surprise that the male characters are written better in a female directed movie, but when you consider that we know Jimmy’s entire backstory, his illness that ruined his fame, and the future direction of his character, it alludes us that the movie’s biggest misstep was trying to be anything other than a female-driven movie.

– The deleted scene. If you’ve ever seen the DVD edition of the film, you know of the many deleted scenes shot in the over four hours of film by Marshall, but none more memorable than the glowing scene between Hanks and Davis that hints at an underlying romance. In the scene, the two share a kiss after Dottie sees Jimmy hitting baseballs after a game, furthering the idea that the passion from within him still resides. Why this scene’s inclusion is pivotal for me is because the movie’s finished product alludes to it many times in the scenes the two share, but it feels like it comes out of nowhere because there’s no scene that ties those feelings all together. In addition to this, the scene develops Dottie even more, establishing her passion for the game that the finished product never fully capitalizes on. It allows the juxtaposition in her ‘Home Vs Game’ mentality to be further fleshed out and full of vulnerability to make her decision all the more complicated to us the audience. This scene definitely should’ve been left in, and if you’ve never seen it, Youtube has it in its 5 minute entirety.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Yesterday

Directed By Danny Boyle

Starring – Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon

The Plot – A struggling musician (Patel) realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed. Using it to his advantage, the songwriter takes credit for every Beatles song ever created, but soon the price of fame catches up to him.

Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– The gimmick. There’s much to be commended about this alternate dimension gimmick that the movie’s plot essentially focuses on, but none more credible than what’s left on the bone from what I originally thought was an overly revealing trailer. Aside from the loss of The Beatles here, there’s a series of startling exposition drops for everything from musical artists to soft drinks, that paint the pop culture tragedies within this complex situation that Jack becomes saddled with. In addition to this, the screenplay is wise enough to illustrate these what if scenarios, bringing along a series of smart and well-timed surprises that still persist even if artists like The Beatles actually don’t, and it’s a script that is every bit as profound and challenging as it is unique to the world with pop culture history so inferior to the one we live in.

– Absorbing presentation. Danny Boyle’s one-of-a-kind scope remains consistent in this film, garnering razor sharp editing and metaphorical transitions involving meaningful imagery that really allows us to soak in the atmosphere from all angles. One such example takes place during the initial bus accident, where we are treated to as many as four different perspectives on-and-off of the bus that fruitfully articulates the psychological beat that exists within this Chaos Theory. Likewise, Boyle treats us to a barrage of establishing setting sequences that engage us with vibrancy in color design, as well as big, bold lettering to better paint the big world feel that the pop star life quickly becomes saddled with. When you watch one of Danny’s films, it often feels like as many as two other films are cohesively and simultaneously playing at all times, giving the audience a perspective inside the mind of its protagonist where cameras aren’t often allowed to go, and in this case it reveals the one person who persists within Jack’s mind over the fame, the riches, and the overall popstar lifestyle.

– An emerging interest. While the gimmick of a world without The Beatles is enough to bring butts to the seats, it’s pleasantly remarkable that my interest became further invested in this nourishing love story from beneath that is brought along superbly by screenwriter Richard Curtis. The film values the bond between Jack and Ellie so much that it initially depicts them as friends and even business partners, and it’s in those introductory minutes where we better comprehend that there is enough room to grow in these subliminal romantic feelings between both to evolve into something more. As the film went on, I practically begged for the movie to return to their interesting dynamic that played so tenderly into the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Jack and Ellie are confronted with an evolution in their relationship, and the progression throughout is anything but choreographed in the way you would expect a romantic comedy to stick a bit too close to conventionalism. It challenges them to confront this feeling inside, and demand more not only from themselves, but from the person staring back at them.

– Sturdy performances. For a first-timer, Himesh Patel strikes all of the right chords, balancing life on and off the stage in a way that nearly establishes the two sides as entirely different people. While wrapped in the spotlight, Patel’s Jack feels every bit as anxious as he does let down by all of the things he once craved, yet to the side that navigates through everything, there’s a relaxed and comical side to his demeanor that seems only present when he engages with James’ Ellie. Speaking of which, the chemistry between them is every bit believable as it is tasteful, and for a female lead there’s a lot of gentility and warmth behind Lily’s glowing smile that makes it easy to understand Jack’s falling for her. Notable supporting cast includes Ed Sheeran, Sanjeev Bhaskar, and especially Kate McKinnon as this overbearing manager who serves as a villain if anyone under the film’s cape.

– Musical incorporation. While not a musical itself, the film features 18 different Beatles songs that are played in compact form to keep the pulse of the story firmly in focus. This might upset some people to not hear a whole song in its entirety, but I liked the pacing of these clips because they were able to include more, offering a wide range of catalog that is sure to satisfy all interested parties. As for the performances themselves, Patel does do his own singing, and while his singing is at times inconsistent in attaining certain pitches, the passion that comes from his delivery, as well as altering to a song’s original speed, gives new life to a collection of timeless tracks without alienating audiences from experimentation. The finished products maintain the level of familiarity to their compositions, all the while establishing something fresh with the steep check written by the production that was second to none in the year’s soundtrack offering.

– Fantastical approach to iconic songs. How would a song like “Let It Be” do against today’s landscape of colorful personalities and downloadable content? “Yesterday” answers this in a poignant approach, depicting the difficulties of song writing in a toxic environment, that occasionally feels a bit too influential. In this respect, the material hints that The Beatles were lightning in a bottle not just for the abundance of classics that they produced, but also for them being a product of their time, in an age where music came before marketing. When presented in modern day rendering, we get a series of compelling circumstances that illustrates a mountain of opposition that John, Paul, George, and Ringo never had to embrace, and while we the audience side with Jack for his understanding of why these songs are genius, we can’t help but ask if they would receive the same praise in a decade known for exchanging content.

– Attention to detail. What I give a film like “Yesterday” over movies like “Rocketman” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the dedication to craft in mastering these big scale concert sequences that spare no expense or time to authenticate the experience. Live action audience over computer generation is the intended direction here, and it better masters this level of iconic impact that Boyle’s grandeur cinematography allows to stretch as far as the eye can see. In addition to this, the variety of shot composition camera angles and intensity in sound mixing articulately capture the big stage feel with no gimmicks required, and these intoxicating sequences that never over-complicated their intention restored my faith in cinematic concert footage that hasn’t been inspiring as of late.

NEGATIVES

– Fame fumbled. There’s a point midway through the movie where Jack of course becomes this mega popstar, being constantly mobbed by a barrage of fans that hunt him down to catch a glimpse of their idol. My problem with this stands as a film error of sorts, as for the rest of the film, any time Jack is in a highly public place, he isn’t bothered even in the slightest by an adoring fan. It’s not like his fame decreases. If anything, it increases as the film progresses, and this nagging error in continuity bothered me because I feel it could’ve better been used as a barrier between the love story of Jack and Ellie, that the two could never connect because of. To drop it completely just feels like an obvious oversight in production detail that was flawless until that point.

– Uneven pacing. This isn’t so much the case with the two halves of the film like is usually the case, but rather with an overly-anxious pacing that didn’t link up well with the nearly two hour run time that this story is blessed with. To do this right is to give each chapter of fame proper time to grow with its audience, but what we’re left with gives the film this constant feeling of montage storytelling that never takes advantage of the time it has been given. Particularly with the rising conflict of a new lover being added to Jack and Ellie’s complicated relationship, the screenplay introduces it then rarely addresses it ever again, until it absolutely has to. This film clearly has a lot of ideas, but without the proper execution in attention given, they fall off like B-side tracks that are only there to fill an album quota.

– Strange ending. I won’t spoil much here, but the lack of attention that the film’s alternate reality conclusion receives not only doesn’t explain things, but leaves us feeling like an important scene is missing that we’ve come to expect from movies like these. This could be considered good because it takes an original stance that is anything but conventional, but I feel like a scene of logic is required to better tie things together. For instance, the additional things erased from this world that I mentioned earlier are never elaborated at why those in particular are gone from this world. The Beatles could be connected to Jack’s obsession with them, but what about the other erased things? It’s never revealed, and while “Yesterday” has an interesting idea, its solution feels practically non-existent.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Last Black Man In San Francisco

Directed By Joe Talbot

Starring – Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover

The Plot – A young man (Fails) searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.

Rated R for adult language, brief nudity and drug use

POSITIVES

– Absorbing setting. It’s clear that the very pulse of San Francisco radiates beautifully throughout the vibrant textures and intrusive sound design that only a man of the Golden Gate could materialize, giving us an immersive experience of cinema that very few other films have captured this year. San Francisco is simply inescapable. Proof of this exists in the many times its imposing stature and toxic environments come into frame during moments of self-reflection for Jimmie, a constant reminder of blunt force to interrupt the fantasy that plays so vividly in his head at all times. At first, hearing much of the passing crowds annoyed me, but I soon took great pleasure in a presentation that soaks in so much about the experience, and Talbot, like Majors creative writing character, uses inspiration from all around to paint an abstraction that pierces through its use of systematic racism and cultural segregation.

– What it says. On the surface level, this is a social commentary about gentrification and all of its seedy intentions, but digging further into the material, the film actually has equally as much to say about the objects in our lives that define us in unhealthy enveloping. Fails is very much a character at the crossroads of many decisions to come for the rest of his life, and in doing so finds great difficulty in being able to constantly ignore what is consistently knocking him down, and it outlines an overall feeling with minorities in an ever-changing city that unabashedly depicts the storm of resistance that meets them each time they get two steps ahead in life. The material is truly moving without ever feeling angry, and the profound nature in which each of these reveals are presented allows the audience to come to grasp the intention of the situation without the scene ever beating it over our heads in obviousness.

– Breathtaking photography. Talbot is a legend of the lens in only his first feature film directing effort, and his alluring compositions and choreographed variety of angles and abstractions pulls plenty from a story that obviously lands so sensitively to his heart. The contrast in claustrophobic shots for other filming locations is intentional, if only to balance them with these wide angle lucid depictions inside the dream home in the story, which has it presented as a dream of sorts. In addition to this, there are many risks taken within camera movement scenes involving characters walking in and out of frame, shots where we’re slowly trailing buses, and especially sequences involving Jimmie skateboarding. The movements not only feel so fluid to mimic the movement being depicted in frame, but the still-frame work of whatever is being used to articulate these never miss a beat to what’s progressing in frame. It would be easy for sequences like this to come off as jarring or visually incoherent, but the confidence of the capture expresses a sheer professional behind the lens, making this a film that is equally beautiful as it is soundly impactful.

– Exposition brilliance. Much of the information we’re fed throughout the film feels honestly earned and patiently developed, thanks to a series of supporting characters weaving in and out of the story to add strokes of clarity to what has already transpired off-screen in the past of Jimmie and his family. In this regard, the leaps of dialogue don’t feel like actual scenes, but rather a rich authenticism of conversations that naturally materialize, and if you aren’t paying attention you could miss something that sheds more light on the darkness of obscurity that Jimmie initially early on in the film feels saddled with. Through the many changing dynamics, we get a fully fleshed outline of the character that better articulates his range of motions and intentional impulses that can otherwise feel spontaneous in the wrong eyes.

– Perfect cast. Fails himself has lived this story in real life, so how could there ever be an actor who could better capture the essence of longing so fruitfully as this man does with a story so near and dear to his heart? There are definitely those moments of long-winded anguish that unfurl from his tired demeanor, but for my money it was Jimmie’s childlike eyes of optimism that lit up when he saw an opportunity that truly established this man having emotional balance and control over a scene that some experienced actors don’t gain in a lifetime of work. There’s a presence in him that you constantly look to after something good or bad has materialized, and Fails influence is felt consistently, even in scenes when he isn’t present on camera. Likewise, Jonathan Majors is also award deserving, playing Jimmie’s best friend with a nervous tick of creativity for the art that flows around him from life. The dynamic between these two characters was a constant warm blanket that garnered feelings of a love story that is purely and professionally platonic, and you feel the bond in friendship that resonates between them every time one of them is faced with adversity, where the other picks up the slack. In addition to this, there are also memorable cameos from Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, and Finn Wittrock as this real estate agent with his own seedy intentions. It levels out one of the more well-rounded casts of 2019, and brings forth not one lone weak link on an overall spectrum.

– A24. This studio once again hits it out of the park with another sentimental think-piece that really resonated with me for its dramatic undertow. Coming from someone who moved out of their childhood home when they were nine-years-old, I found myself relating to the character in a way who obsesses over something that they can no longer control. When I started driving, I found myself parked in front of that old house for long spans of time, dreaming about the time when I could buy it once more, so for the film to bring forth these scenes of wonderment from Jimmie’s perspective, really brought forth a sense of appreciation to a simpler time, and wanting to hold on to the days when everything felt in place. After the accomplishment that was “A Ghost Story”, A24 lands itself another equally skin-piercing somber that grabs ahold of sentimentality, and doesn’t let go. I’m finding myself more and more in their list of films, and connecting with audiences is something this film has no difficulty in attaining the more it chooses to tackle life’s biggest personal obstacles.

– Adam Newport-Berra’s ringing cinematography. There’s so much to unload here, but I would like to focus on the city and the house itself. On the former, Adam casually involves fog to feed into the poisoned chemicals and dirty waters that surround the city because of atomic testing that took place during the World Wars, and it cements this feeling of inevitable dread and doom that outlines much of the film’s material about gentrification that something deeper is going on here that meets the eye. It takes something as simple as fog, and gives it an ominous outline full of uncertainty and mystery that speaks volumes to the city’s current facelift. As for the house, when Jimmie and Montgomery are inside, we get a lot of warm feelings from this golden shine that fills the room. Berra champions in this visual feeling of a home being established despite not much being actually in it, hinting at a feeling of home being what you make of it as the film persists. When the duo aren’t inside, there’s a lot of bland, callous white resistance being emitted from its lack of identifiable features, which take a lifetime of memories, and wipe them away in a matter of minutes.

– Tonally encompassing. It’s remarkable that a film so deeply rooted in important social issues is presented with an inordinate amount of comedy early on in the film. The film has no reservations about bringing out the occasional smile or giggle in terms of awkwardness for seeing much of the city’s current patrons who have otherwise been deemed acceptable because of their upper class incomes. It’s strangely poetic in a way that gives a voice and attention to much of the characters within the city itself, proving that no place feels just one way emotionally, and I think “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” is that rare breed of film that doesn’t abide by having to be one consistent feeling overall because of such. It helps that every importantly dramatic impact lands effectively despite this contrast, but never does the tonal progression feel broken because of it.

– Audio goosebumps. With Emile Mosseri’s stirring musical score that combines thunderous orchestral power volume with a jazzy undertone flavor, the film becomes a feast for the senses, mirroring the beats of the central protagonist accordingly with all of its despair. Mosseri’s slice of humble pie is cut with the sharpest of knives that pierces our souls in a way that makes you a resident of the city, and long for the days of yesterday for this place, that fed more into the values of America being a place where you can be and do anything you want. Second only to Nicholas Britell’s somber stirring in “If Beale Street Could Talk”, Emile is definitely in good company with his string of scintillating selections that feel like a poem to a forgotten city without the words to make it ever so obvious.

NEGATIVES

– Despite me enjoying so much of the gimmick within the exposition, there were questions unanswered in this film that became a bigger nag within me the longer the film progressed. For one, we never learn how Jimmie’s family lost the house to begin with. There are some implications regarding his Dad being involved in some get rich quick schemes, but nothing of proof to solidify the claims, especially considering this family isn’t the most honest in terms of their pasts. The other thing involved Jimmie’s motivations for the house itself. We could piece together that it means so much to him because of it coming from a simpler time full of warm family memories, but there’s never a scene involving Jimmie where he lays out why it means so much to him, and that’s a bit troubling for someone like me who highly values those moments of clarity within a tortured soul. Especially considering where the film goes in the third act, a scene involving Jimmie spilling his feelings felt instead like a deleted DVD extra, and left me scratching my head for important subplot aspects that certainly deserved some time within the two hour time frame.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

The Souvenir

Directed By Joanna Hogg

Starring – Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

The Plot – Julie (Byrne), A shy film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man, named Anthony (Burke). She defies her protective mother (Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Non-linear storytelling. What’s so synthetically natural about the exposition in the film is that it’s delivered in a series of events in a girl’s life, rather than one cohesive running story that connects each scene together. This makes the screenplay at times feel like a jagged collection of memories, rather than a conventional story, and speaks volumes more towards the spontaneity of life that is constantly evolving. This requires audiences to pay attention to key images in the background, as well as stay fully committed in the unraveling of each conversation, otherwise the answers don’t fill in with the question properly. Not everything that happens in detail is shown on-screen, and I greatly appreciate any film that makes the audience work hard for its answers, refusing to spoon-feed us like nearly every film does today with its valued exposition.

– Unorthodox camera angles. Hogg is definitely a director who loves her mirrors, and her use of incorporating them into nearly every scene is done so in a way that presents body movements and interactions in a more revealing perspective than we would normally receive shooting in front of our actors. Some of these shots are truly breathtaking in capturing the dynamic that is slightly off focus, all the while studying the change in tonal temperature that is present in the foreground, giving us a complete picture of the dramatic pulse that is transpiring between these two people learning about each other for the first time. In addition to this, the personal reflection shots off a POV angle, where the character’s are speaking to us the audience, putting us front-and-center in the heat of the moment to better convey the love, anguish, and humility developed from its many conflicts.

– Stimulating performances. Before I even start on the performances that were out of this world, I commend the casting agent for casting Tilda Swinton’s real life daughter as her daughter in the movie. This not only transcends the art that is persistent on-screen, but cements the visual believability better than it could ever possibly be. For my first film seeing her, Honor Swinton Byrne completely blew me away. From a once reserved girl on the verge of her sexual and creative awakening, to the life-tested control she exerts over every angle of her life, this woman harvested a constant plunge of gut-wrenching emotional pull that not only made you invest in her character, but also created a deeper narrative for the personal battle taking place inside of her, courtesy of some timely narration that was appreciated. Her male opposite is also played wonderfully by Tom Burke, another first timer for me personally, who juggled the bi-polar complexities that his character moved through like a roller-coaster, thanks in whole to a drug influence that depicted his change emotionally and physically before our very eyes. The chemistry between Honor and Burke not only felt rich with honesty because of the many trysts they are forced to endure, but also advantageous to both actors who capture our attention with facial expressions that tell the story long before dialogue ever could. Tilda Swinton’s physical performance, donning a grey wig and wrinkle prosthetics, also radiates with an essence of natural aging and seamless delivery that transforms what we’ve expected from the actress before our very eyes. It’s cool to see the two generations of Swinton dominate the screen, and outlines a relationship that is a loveletter to mothers everywhere who go from protector to protected as time carries on.

– Story within the story. This is a film that feels very personal to Hogg, for the way it spiritualizes the highs and lows of first time love, and upon further digging, Hogg has clearly expressed herself from the trials and tribulations of a similar story that she took from her own life growing up. The flat used in the film is a perfect replica of the one Hogg lived in during that same age, constructed in an airplane hanger that is continuously projecting 35 mm photographs that she took as a student in her 20’s. She is a London film student similar to the female protagonist in the film, and actually was best friends with Tilda since both of them were ten years old. I mention this as a positive because I’ve always felt that the best told stories stem from real life experiences, and there’s a certain articulation to the psychology, as well as authenticity to the specific detail, that speaks volumes to the nourishment of a particular experience, and I find it therapeutic for Hogg that she was able to bring so much of her past experiences with her to the bettering of her picture.

– Effective production value. This film takes place in the 80’s, and to capture the aesthetic of such a specific time, the production crew uses a fine blend of grainy cinematography, a multitude of different camera lenses, and an attention to detail with wardrobe, decor, and soundtrack that perfectly captured the mood of the cocaine-driven 80’s nostalgia. There are parts in this film where the imagery encased remarkably transported me to where I legitimately felt like I was watching a shelved picture from the 80’s, and even with my picky eye for detail, I couldn’t find a single instance of any object or depiction that soiled the integrity of its unique time frame. The objects of the apartment are also documenting a story within their many shifts and disappearances that I don’t want to spoil here, and only mention because its brilliance used to channel maturity is something you rarely ever think about when it comes to set pieces during an aging story.

– Accurate depiction of first love. Some women will view the love depicted as ridiculous, but I feel like every woman has dated someone that today their wisdom would tell them differently, and that’s what I find so intoxicating about this relationship. We the audience feel leagues above the girl in terms of knowledge. We know what signs to look for, we know where everything is headed, and it’s that aspect that is frustrating but in a way that is entirely for our investment in the well-being of the character. There is no initial first spark really, it’s just that a guy is paying her attention at a party, and especially in the case of her being a virgin, that first time always exposes the vulnerability that women face, especially considering the kind of influence a look from him holds over her through the first half of this film. It’s not the most delightful watch in this regard, but no film should be shunned for its unabashed honesty, and this film has it in spades, reminding us behind every corner of the wisdom that she will gain because of her timultuous experiences.

– The judgment game. In Hogg’s ability to give us so little time with every supporting character, with the exception of the occasional party or on-set scene, the film manages this level of uncertainty with each of their intentions that puts as in the shoes of Honor’s Julie. Especially during the late second act, when a barrage of these characters received more time in front of the lens, I began to wonder who had her best intentions in mind, and who was there to be another Phil on the highway to her accomplishing her goals. This once again begs the audience member to invest themselves in the unraveling of these exchanges, making us feel as a parent of sorts to Julie’s newfound breath of escape, and it outlines a level of weightless suspense that feels beneficial to the film without smothering it in urgency. This feeds more into the idea of Hogg grounding this story so deeply in reality, as anyone who comes into our lives really is just a smiling face until we get to know them.

– Meaning behind the title. The title “The Souvenir” is named after an 18th century rococo painting of the same name by Jean-Honore Fragonard, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover into a tree. This painting is shown twice throughout the movie, and at least from a metaphorical stance can easily be emitted from what transpires in the way Anthony influences Julie throughout. Without spoiling anything, I took away a complex tone of permanent scarring from the painting, which alludes to the permanence of someone etched into the memory of the carver’s psyche, for better or worse. A film’s title should summarize everything enclosed within its walls of creativity, and the title used for Hogg’s nearly autobiographical feature is one that requires digging beneath the material if one is to fully understand the meaning of its message.

NEGATIVES

– The pacing. Especially the case in the first act of the film, the unorthodox nature of storytelling and event depiction is a bit of a jump to overcome when you’re getting settled in to a film’s style. In this reflection, if you can get through the opening half hour of the film, your investment will give way to the meatier material that fills the remainder of the film. With the romance in particular feeling so cryptic early on, there’s very little to bounce off of within the initial meetings between these two lovers, and even for editing that remains patient throughout the film, these first few scenes feel so dramatically slower than anything else that accompanies it.

– Musical incorporation. I didn’t care much for the film’s soundtrack, as the inclusion of pop tracks like “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Love My Way” by The Psychadelic Furs felt like such an unnecessary forcing into a film that is stripped down in reality without them. In a sense, the scenes with no musical incorporation helped maintain this slice of real life that so much of the film was buried in, and to add songs, especially ones as familiar with the decade as these, gives it an overbearing feeling of obviousness for time-stamped gimmick that this film doesn’t have to stretch itself for. If they were played during the party scenes, I would be fine with them, but their inclusions during moments of self-reflection for Julie, feel like an obvious distraction in the clarity of the situation.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Directed By Simon Kinberg

Starring – James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner

The Plot – Jean Grey (Turner) begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Female empowerment. Jean Grey in this film isn’t just powerful, but the attention and focus dedicated to her character helps us understand and reason with the film’s antagonist in ways we’re not especially used to in comic book cinema. The film takes Jean and inserts her into these various dynamics with other X-Men characters in a way that establishes her dominance over them, all the while preserving food for thought with regards to other villains that the group has tangled with, over the last four films. In that respect, this is easily the biggest daunting task that the group-turned-family have ever faced, and helps break down barriers created by decades old cliche cinema that females can’t be believable antagonists. For this film, Jean is fierce, seductive, imposing, and most importantly, human, an aspect in character that the film cherishes every bit as much as it does her maniacal gifts of macabre.

– Performances. Every one here is united and still on top of their game, but for my money it was the work of a dazzling trio that firmly kept me invested in the unveiling of this narrative. The first is Michael Fassbender returning as Magneto. No character has fully evolved over the past four films than Fassbender’s jaded antagonist, and his work here preserves that sentiment, as he very much feels like a man who is searching for meaning within his own life, whose tenacity and fire between the eyes is lit when Grey plays a pivotal point in his resurgence. Also great is the addition of Jessica Chastain as a mysterious villain guiding the darker side of Grey’s pulse. Chastain plays completely against type not only in the comic book regards, but also in being a villain who is anything but limited to being just menacing, and her delivery preserves a fine level of believability to what the film asks of her. The best for me (No surprise) is of course Turner, who competently juggles a double side of Jean that allows the audience to notice the differences on their own, thanks in whole to Sophie’s limitless range that is constantly at play. Turner manages to conjure up every ounce of the emotional spectrum, both good and bad, for the character, and her psychological permanence on the audience further outlines the jaded dilemma that constantly fills her psyche with the walls built by others that she is crumbling one by one.

– Underlying commentary. One of my favorite aspects of the X-Men films is their strong current of political and sociological reflections that allow us to take an air of poignancy away from their often times spectacle of a film, and “Dark Phoenix” is certainly no different in this regard. Throughout the film, I viewed Jean Grey as this constant reminder of biological weaponry that grows more dangerous with each day that those in charge further ignore. To feed into this thought, there are obviously two sides fighting for the advantage that this power conveys, all the while an American government on-screen hanging in the balance who now put their faith firmly in the hands of a group of mutants that they once hunted. This series, despite its anything but human characters and traits, has always felt the most in-tuned with the pulse of our own world for the way Stan Lee and many since him have grasped onto the deep environmental issues that plague our everyday spectrum, and it feeds into a continuous reminder of how powerful the world would be if we work together as one unit for one common goal.

– Strong production design. With balance between locations and costume design, this becomes one of the more visually alluring X-Men movies, and does so without preserving a respective decade setting that has often felt like a required gimmick to the previous three films. Instead here, it’s the things we’ve come to love and expect about this series that is front-and-center, and only instills further reminder of how strong this group of extraordinaries have grown together over time. The costumes, especially those of the matching X-Men spacesuits are every bit as vibrant as they are durable to the kind of physical torture they endure. Likewise, the Xavier School For the Gifted feels as expansive as ever thanks in part to this being the first movie where no structural damage takes place there, as well as the litter of youthful exuberance that now adorn its halls, turning the once innagural class of X-Men into the teachers in a sense of life evolution coming full circle.

– Testing limits. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the screenplay was Xavier’s re-appearing arrogance from “First Class”, which cast he and his hubris in new and shape-shifting light for the first time in this series. This is where you can really invest into Grey’s disposition, for the way Charles has taken the hurt in her jumbled past and replaced it with things that only he sees fit, inspiring the student to break free from the shackles that the teacher have locked her in. I’ve always loved McAvoy’s Xavier for this side effect of fame that comes from the inevitability of being a modern day popstar of the public eye, but it proves that the film isn’t afraid of pointing the finger of blame at the mirror towards itself, and as a result we get to indulge on scenes of confrontation between Xavier and Grey, Xavier and Mystique, and Xavier and Hank, the latter of which being my single favorite scene of the entire movie.

NEGATIVES

– No surprises. Thanks to a trailer that not only spoiled every big reveal in the film, but also left so very little in terms of scenic screenplay transformation, we are now left with a movie that leaves so little meat on the bone of revelations that this film so desperately required. This not only took away from a major X-Men death that everyone could now see coming from a mile away, but it also left this film feeling so much more conventional than the previous installments that gave us at least one moment of mind-blowing awesomeness to send us home anticipating the next sequel. Considering this is the final film before Disney introduces the X-Men to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps Kinberg felt none of that was necessary. Either way, “Dark Phoenix” is a telegraphed string of evolving backgrounds that lack anything or surprise or intrigue to sell their impact.

– All around copout. I have to be careful not to spoil here, but considering the film’s title and way it’s marketed around the globe, the third act switch that this movie pulls on its central conflict is one that I found every bit as disappointing as it was inconclusive to what transpired previously. In addition to this, there’s a point in a movie called “Dark Phoenix” where Jean Grey herself becomes a supporting character in her own movie, not only for the lack of lines she receives in the second half of this movie, but also for how the film keeps her contained in ways that the other X-Men never could. Because of this, I can say that the Jean Grey storyline still hasn’t been done to pleasing levels of comic book nerds like me who grew up with its compelling storytelling and vibrancy in illustrations that still hasn’t been touched in terms of depth, in my opinion.

– For his first time behind the director’s chair of a feature length film, there’s much left to be desired about Simon Kinberg’s work on this movie. For one, the photography is horrendous, using a combination of close angles and hollow computer generation that takes out the fun and impact of every action set piece. Beyond this, there are some set pieces that come into focus that serve no purpose to the fight or anything in focus, other than to establish that character could do something powerful. One example of this takes place at a fight in New York City between two sides, and Magneto resurrects a train from underground that does nothing but sit there. He doesn’t hurl it at Jean, he doesn’t ride it to get away from her, nothing. This is expected for a first time director, but in terms of consistency for the rest of the series it is an obvious downgrade, hurting the serious most during the pivotal chapter when all elements of filmmaking should grow as one to match its learning of the craft over the last ten years.

– Convoluted. I appreciate that this is the shortest of X-Men films, clocking in at 108 minutes total, but what’s sacrificed in translation is a smooth and steady pacing of exposition that rarely ever exists in this movie. For my money, “Dark Phoenix” feels like a stitching of two different movies with two different antagonists, that never breathe together as one cohesive unit. Many times throughout the film, the two sides are quite literally sprawling with one another for dominance over the attention of the story, and it does a huge disservice to two compelling story arcs that each deserve a candid amount of time to properly engage the audience in its conflicts. If it were up to me, I would keep this purely as a Jean Grey story, and erase Chastain’s involvement all together. Especially considering this is the final chapter of the series, you have to establish the biggest stakes possible, and because Grey is sacrificed for time in her own movie, the world’s urgency because of her influence never reaches the levels of Apocalypse from the previous film.

– Rating limitations. How could this movie not be rated R? Especially considering how restrained the lumpy dialogue and emphasis in death scenes lack during its entirety. There is one F-bomb in the movie, but it’s said at the most laughably bad delivery throughout the movie, and only further establishes the missed opportunity and raising of the stakes that this movie could’ve established in a film where all bets are off. There’s very little blood, absolutely no gore, and somehow even less believability to a world with a walking timebomb hellbent on destruction and devastation. “Logan” most recently showed us that an R-rating can work smoothly in this world, but because the production behind Fox lacks any kind of fortitude for anything that would limit their purse intake, the material has to suffer by giving us more of the same, and it could’ve taken an already legendary character in the pages, and made her an icon on-screen.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Lion King (1994)

Directed By Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Starring – Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones

The Plot – A young lion prince (Broderick) is cast out of his pride by his cruel uncle (Irons), who claims he killed his father (Jones). While the uncle rules with an iron paw, the prince grows up beyond the Savannah, living by a philosophy: No worries for the rest of your days. But when his past comes to haunt him, the young prince must decide his fate: Will he remain an outcast or face his demons and become what he needs to be?

Rated G

POSITIVES

– G-rating. What astonishes me about this film is that it was one of the last non-documentary cinematic releases to be stamped with the rare G-rating, that is often times looked at as a statue of limitations, but here is executed brilliantly to never hinder or demean the film’s potential in material. Aside from the scenes of war and loss coming across as emotionally effective despite showing so very little to us the audience, the themes in the script mature at the rate of speed that its central protagonist does, transitioning us into a third act where the urgency of the film is very in-tuned to the pulse of the unraveling narrative, eventually building to a high-stakes final conflict that has immense consequences that are tastefully carried out. G-rated films in 2019 are as dry as paper, but in 1994 there was an animated movie that touched on the concepts of love, loss, evolution, and jealousy fruitfully, and it’s one that resonates loudly twenty-five years later as the film that didn’t abide by a letter grade.

– Memorable soundtrack. Hans Zimmer and Elton John on the same compilation? Phenomenal. The work done by these two masterminds of music led to a collection of timeless hits and infectious energy that can only be ignored by the heartless, and led to one of the highest grossing soundtracks in cinema history. Not only are the songs reflective of the storytelling beats, not only are they thunderous in the way that everything in frame plays into the heart of the performance, but they also transpire seamlessly at the perfect opportune time at each moment of the changing dynamic to not violently halt the storytelling. Some of my personal favorites are “Circle of Life”, “Hakuna Matata”, and the terribly underrated “Be Prepared”. Not to be outdone by lyrical tracks, however, Zimmer manufactures a presence of the Pride Lands of Africa that constantly persists throughout 83 minutes of brief screen time, outlining an original flavor of geography for the time that better allowed audiences to immerse themselves in the heat of the environment, perfecting every angle of the setting gimmick that gives it consistent weight throughout the film.

– Unmatched cast. This film is easily the winner for best animated ensemble of all time for me, not just for the prestigious names involved with the picture, but also for the highly transformative vocal work that makes it increasingly difficult to imagine anyone else in these roles. In that respect, Jones, Broderick, and especially Irons do such a tremendous job that it often feels like their vocal range is emoting to the movement of the animation, and never vice versa, and it’s that aspect that brings out extreme believability with their influence to the character’s. For Jones, it’s a combination of brawn and heart that etch out the ultimate protector not only for Simba, but for his entire kingdom that depends on him. The tag-team work of teen dream Jonathan Taylor-Thomas and Broderick conjure up a believable transfer of character in Simba that echo the ideals of childhood and adulthood respectively, and make the transformation gel smoothly for a character who grows in size and responsibility before our very eyes. Irons is the true M.V.P for me however, as Scar, the jaded uncle antagonist with a thirst for power that knows no boundaries. Irons chews up an abundance of scenery with his arrogantly sarcastic personality, never hiding for a second the hatred he harvests for those who wear the crown that he deems should rightfully be his, and it’s a conflict that is not only easy to understand in that aspect, but also one that hinders on one of the seven deadly sins (Greed) that echo the devilish demeanor of such a dangerous antagonist.

– Extremely quotable. The dialogue in the film feels as sharp as a dagger, and a lot of that has to do with screenwriters Linda Woolverton, Jonathan Roberts, and Irene Mecchi’s to channel the roller-coaster of emotional vulnerability that keeps it from persistently remaining in one particular genre of material, giving audiences the right level of change at the perfectly precise moment. One example of this is after Mufasa’s untimely death, which is followed by the introduction of Timon and Pumba, leading to the proper amount of comic relief after the single biggest gut-punch of the movie. These two character’s are responsible for many spirited one-liners that have become philosophies of die-hard Disney fans for generations of past, present, and future, but none bigger than Hakuna Matata, the mantra of living without worries. It feels like the perfect branch to Que Sera Sera, and adds importance to a second act that could easily trail off without that proper execution of mood change that I mentioned previously that values the fun in a screenplay as much as it does the dramatic elements.

– Fluid screenplay. What works to the benefit of the movie’s pacing is its ability to pack so much into an 83 minute run time, yet never feel limited by the tiers in the narrative that it constantly touches on. This is a film that continues to march forward, even during the scenes of dramatic mourning that likely made audiences feel like a necessary cool down period. The movie’s notorious death sequence happens with a measly 46 minutes left in the film, choosing to build the relationship between father, son, and the kingdom in depth up to this point, all the while telegraphing the moves of the board for the opposition that awaits him. It feels like we’re seeing each side, good and bad, every step of the way, leading to that previously mentioned confrontation that doesn’t disappoint for heartstring tugging or permanence within a usually light-hearted kids atmosphere. Beyond this, the second and beginning of third acts construct a crossroads for Simba’s past and present, bringing a balance of emphatic reunions and maturity to the protagonist that proves his fate for the throne. When all is said and done, there are 13 minutes left for the showdown between uncle and nephew, and while not the longest or most elaborate in terms of fight choreography, does excel in audience vulnerability for how many of the battle beats strike a familiar chord with the second act fight that took the life of the original king. This film is constantly engaging, and never lags or distracts from the material for a single solitary second.

– The perfect antagonist. Part of what allures you to Scar as an endearing villain is in the way Irons emotes him, but beyond that it’s the way that his actions capture the entire spectrum of devilish deeds, otherwise known as the seven deadly sins. He believes himself to be deserving of power. He also refuses to abandon the Pride Lands, even if it means the death of his subjects (Pride). He acts indolent even as the Pride Lands fall into ruin. (Sloth) He enjoys food while letting the rest of his kingdom, including his loyal followers, starve (Gluttony). He is envious of his brother and nephew for getting the throne, and plots their deaths for it (Envy). In a deleted scene, he comes onto Nala, eager to produce heirs(Lust). He wants power and will destroy anyone to get it. (Greed) He gets enraged when Mufasa is mentioned to him, and he attacks Sarabi for comparing him unfavorably to Mufasa (Wrath). Most Disney antagonists have at least one redeeming quality about them that hints at an air of conscience persisting deep down, but Scar is an empty shell of a man so deceitfully sinister that he gladly sacrifices family if it means attaining the things he wants, a first for Disney antagonists at this point, that was later followed by Hades in in 1997’s “Hercules”.

– Aged well animation. Despite the lack of depth and detail associated with the backgrounds in some tight character angles of framing, the vibrancy in illustrations of animals and environment in the foreground generates a level of artistic merit that I’d easily put up against 80% of today’s animated advancements. Slow motion effects, expansive facial expression resonation, and no shortage of high intensity framing movements gives the film a maturity well beyond its years in terms of capabilities, and really stood as the measuring stick for animated feature length films well before the dawn of Disney Pixar. In addition to this, the haze cinematography is just enough of a presence in each frame without taking too much away from the vibrancy in production design that radiates with the influence of sunbaked scenery. This is a film that gets most of its attention for music and screenplay, and not quite enough for the luster of the lens that immediately captures your attention high atop a cliff during life’s sweetest celebration. In that perspective, “The Lion King” isn’t just a film, but an admiration for all things life, love, and family, and the poetic imagery of visual transfixion does wonders in relaying to the audience the things in life that are most important.

– Modern day Shakespaere. Part of what makes “The Lion King” so compelling and rich in its hierarchy setting is that it’s positively derived from arguably William Shakespeare’s biggest work of literature. Don’t believe me? Lets examine. Simba, like Hamlet, is the king in grooming, both feature an uncle who is eager to kill their nephew for the benefit of gaining the throne, Timon and Pumba easily echo the same comedy-instilled sidekicks that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do for Hamlet, both Simba and Hamlet are driven by the ghosts of their fathers appearing to them in a vision, and the overbearing similarities of graveyards in each story, which involve jokester antagonists like the gravediggers (Hamlet) and the hyenas (The Lion King). Calling this a coincidence is a bit of a stretch, but even so, there’s no denying that Disney beautifully blends the worlds of stage and safari seamlessly, making for a screenplay that proves that great literature is immortal when redesigned to accommodate the era that borrows it.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of female influence. Between Nala and Sarabi, I couldn’t escape this overwhelming presence that female character’s simply don’t apply as much as a necessary influence to the dynamic of the film, and more than not serve as virtual arm candy for the happenings around their male counterparts. Nala receives screen time, but when you consider that there’s never a scene of lone reflection for her that doesn’t involve Simba in the very same scene, you start to conjure up feelings that the story isn’t interested in what she lost that fateful day. Likewise, Sarabi, Simba’s mother, goes missing for ample amounts of time after scenes that rightfully should include her, if only to document her reaction to immense loss. She has a few scenes, but what’s most concerning is that the film never answers if she is still the queen of the land after her husband’s untimely passing, and more than this why she isn’t at the crowning ceremony during the film’s closing shot.

– A tragic misstep. This is all personal opinion, but I feel like Mufasa died in the wrong scene during the movie. He is ambushed by a herd of wild animals, the trio of hyenas, and of course his own brother Scar, at the height of a casual day of training between father and son. This does very little for Simba in terms of emotional tug, because even though he lost his father to disgusting circumstances, it happens during a scene where Simba is obeying the royal parental unit, thus nothing of substance to regret about that fateful day. Now imagine if the death actually took place in the bone graveyard scene instead, during a defiance of his father, which would then lead him to lose the person who matters the most to him. The weight of his immature decision would weigh even heavier on the conscience of the boy, thus outlining a much stronger character arc and internal conflict for him to overcome in the way of adversity. The finished product death scene is fine, but a conflicted protagonist always feels leagues more relatable to the audience, and could’ve practically doubled the dramatic heft of the passing, that would only further enhance Simba’s distancing from the place he once called home.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Rocketman

Directed By Dexter Fletcher

Starring – Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

The Plot – A musical fantasy about the fantastical human story of Elton John’s (Egerton) breakthrough years.

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

POSITIVES

– British led cast. Everyone here is on their marks in providing depth to their respective character’s, as well as instilling a sense of value and weight within the story that makes them vital as supporting cast, but it’s clearly the tour-de-force performance by Egerton that everyone will be raving about minutes after they see it. This is not an impression of Elton John, this is Elton John. Taron gives his best performance to date, transforming the look and sound of his familiarity to compliment that of the imposing figure who he’s taking on, and there’s much eye-opening to be complimented about his work in the film. For one, he does all of his own singing, a feat that until the movie ended I had no idea about. While obviously not as strong or passionate as John behind the mic, Egerton has clearly done his homework, establishing the line of variety in genre offerings from John’s catalogue of music that changed with the scenery of pre and post disco influence. In addition to this, Egerton’s psychological delve is one that captures the energy, love, loneliness, and despair of the singer through some of his biggest triumphs and darkest disasters, and Taron’s timely grip on the pulse of the ever-changing dynamic of the character is one that feels earned brilliantly with the tides of the script.

– Breathtaking production value. This is where the film separates itself from other biopics of the genre, as the look and feel of “Rocketman” was made for the big screen. What allows it to spare itself from feelings of TV-movie-of-the-week budget is in the immense scale of choreographed-led musical numbers, practical precision in make-up designs, vibrant boisterousness of costume design, and a feast for fantasy that blurs the line of reality and imagination seamlessly. If every musical biopic had this level of focus and budget expressiveness, then we would be able to emit the fun from all of the raw energy contained inside, but Fletcher knows that John’s story certainly isn’t a cheap one to tell, and it leads to a barrage of lucid surrealism that benefits from the drug-fueled intensity of the cocaine age.

– R-rating. I still don’t comprehend how “Bohemian Rhapsody” could even imagine telling Freddie Mercury’s life story with the limitations set by its studio and the PG-13 tag it was given, but the decision here to travel the adult route with its material pays off in spades for the way it can properly articulate the meat of its material. From the carelessness of Elton’s diverse sex life, to the abuse of illegal drugs and narcotics, to the rapid-fire fury of the English dialogue, everything is covered in vivid detail, giving audiences a no-apologies depiction of a heralded figure for better or worse, and it gave me great appreciation for the screenplay to use Elton’s biggest negatives to craft an enveloping layer of indulgence for the audience, as well as a dramatic layering to the story, which feels far from topical. Nothing ever feels overdone or desperate to fill an R-rating quota, and it keeps the air of honesty to Elton’s engagements on display in the exact manner they took place.

– Wide range of story. As to where most musical biopics only cover a brief sampling of the artist’s fame, “Rocketman” has an appreciation for everything Elton John, as well as Reginald Dwight. Kicking off during his early days as a kid in dealing with two mentally abusive parents, the film eventually takes us through the entire first half of Elton’s immense 40 year career, before settling down during the days in rehab that eventually changed his life for the better. This seems like a lot to cover in nearly two hours of film, but what’s remarkably shocking is how the film gives ample time to each important chapter without alienating the fluidity of pacing that is nearly always smooth in transition. Beyond this, the storytelling tool in narration is one that I found to be very clever, not only for the way it is set-up in the opening scene of the movie, but also for the way it evolves in diminishing wardrobe with every beat of the story. It gives food for thought in the stripped down nature of John starting and ending his career as Reginald, and comforting us with a blanket of clarity as he finally feels comfortable being the man he was born to be.

– Meaning behind the soundtrack. The film has no shortage of Elton favorites to choose from, conjuring up around twenty-five favorites from the musician that take us through the roller-coaster momentum in his trysts with fame, but there’s something more elusive to the way that each song and sequence transition, proving that Elton always used life as a means, and music as a therapy to bind the two world’s. Films make many mistakes in this aspect, because they often depict a popular song being made in the most topically obvious and unintelligent demeanor, but the almost freestyle effort of song writing that John displays feels replicated from the previous scene in a way that naturally harvests from a tortured soul. It was in this area where I learned the most about John that I didn’t previously know before the film, and helps cement an audible reflection to what’s transpiring inside of Elton.

– Passage of time. I hate to bring this film up again, but my biggest problem with “Bohemian Rhapsody” is how it mutilated important dates and events in Freddie’s life for the shaping of the film, but “Rocketman” gives an alluring and poetic design behind the way it collides with the sands of time. No dates or text is featured throughout the film, and even more shocking, huge amounts of time will pass not only for us the audience, but also for John, which results in him feeling like Rip Van Winkle, in that he just woke up from a ten year nap. What’s so cinematically appropriate for this direction is it captures the fragility and sacrifices paid not only to immersing in the live fast lifestyle that booze, drugs, and depression can form, but also in the routine of being a rockstar, which is anything but appealing by this film’s standards. We the audience are merely left to establish a time frame from iconic Elton fashions, as well as the look and feel of the world that changes around him with nuanced subtlty. It proves that the when isn’t nearly as important as the who or the why, and allows us to get lost in the devil of the details instead.

– Backdrop special effects. This is all done on green-screen, but you would never know it because of the impeccable technology associated with visual time travel in the same vein as Marvel’s ability to de-age a particular actor. This gives us time to soak in the glitz and glamor of the Hollywood specter, as the world famous Troubadour bar becomes youthful again, complete with posters in the windows which are no longer present, and an architecture design that reminds people that the location grew just like Elton did once the two were married in rock and roll on that legendary night in August 1970. If this is the direction that production teams are taking us, then soon there won’t be any need for on-site shooting, and while there is an element of tragedy to that circumstance, the believability and texture shading of flawless computer generation will at least help trim production budgets accordingly, all the while articulating past ages in a way that feels far beyond a visual gimmick.

– Juggling of tones. I wasn’t surprised in how much comedy filled the script, but what did surprise me was the landing power of such witty banter all the while the sting of dramatic elements were being felt. These two co-exist simultaneously through Reginald’s loveless home life, to his questioned sexuality in his later years, to the single most romantic non-sexual friendship between Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin, and what’s more important is that neither are compromised because of the other’s influence on the dynamic of a particular scene. This film took me on an emotional registry of laughter, fear, curiosity, and sadness for the evolution of the story, proving that it would rather appeal to a broader spectrum of audience tastes rather than cater to the limitations and cliches of one respective field.

– Fletcher steals the light. This is the very same director who finished “Bohemian Rhapsody” (There I go again) from the disastrous production that hindered it to finishing as just a decent final product, but with “Rocketman” it’s a fresh and complete start for the man at the wheel. What we learn from his stroke is that he values the human side of the heralded superstar, carving out a helping of audience investment that keeps us glued to the unfolding drama and tension within Elton’s life that is more urgent because of that focus. Likewise, the influential photography breathes a light of audience connection that features John singing to us the audience, instead of the grand scale that we have come to expect in cinematic musicals. It cements a feeling of professionalism and on-screen presence in rendered style that garners a developing visionary in Hollywood, thanks in whole to commanding the stories of two of music’s biggest icons.

NEGATIVES

– Technical inconsistencies. This brought forth two noticeable problems, with the first dealing with the uninspiring levels of cinematography established in interior office scenes. The coloring scheme and textures establish a level of generated lighting that does nothing to compliment the appeal of the scene. Likewise, a continued problem for Fletcher’s editing team remains prominent in this film, as the editing is far too choppy during scenes involving two character’s. It made for some highly distracting scenes during moments of heartfelt resonance, which deemed it necessary to show us the same line of dialogue in as many as three different angles for what I guess is towards the better of understanding the essence of the conversation? Either way, less anxiousness in illustrating these casual scenes.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

The Sun Is Also A Star

Directed By Ry Russo-Young

Starring – Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, Faith Logan

The Plot – Natasha (Shahidi) is a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. She is not the type of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when her family is twelve hours away from being deported. Falling in love with him will not be her story. Daniel (Melton) has always been the good son, the good student, living up to his parents’ high expectations. Never a poet. Or a dreamer. But when he sees her, he forgets all that. Something about Natasha makes him think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store for both of them. Every moment has brought them to this single moment. A million futures lie before them. Which one will come true?

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– Articulate photography. If nothing else, this film is a love-letter to the city of New York, in all of its immense architecture and melting pot population that lives and breathes within the city. In capturing such passion, Russo-Young’s blissful strokes of the canvas paint a sunny, serene setting for the world inside of the film to exist in, capturing more than several examples of artistic personality in unflinching focus, which feels like an homage to director Barry Jenkins, in that her setting becomes a character within the film, that surrounds the blossoming of these two love-struck young adults. The Bronx feels clean, poetic, and lived-in to the point of unabashed hope from the light above that continuously shines down on that front-and-center stage.

– Detailed montage sequences. This is where the film authenticates that literary feeling, stopping frequently throughout the progression of the plot to give us these sharply-edited, poignantly-informative flashes of backstory that matches the audible narration cohesively. These scenes are presented in such a crisp and absorbing way that it gives the film these brief moments of feeling documentary-esque, taking great pride in its responsibility to educate the audience not only in the history of the bi-racial cultures represented in the film, but also in the unrivaled path of collision that has set everything we know today in motion. Science is everything for a film that constantly seeks the evidence in matters, and thanks to some expressive montage sequences, we the audience engage in the important specs of information that blur the line between fate and coincidence.

– Speaking of the battle between those two themes, I love that the screenplay isn’t afraid to challenge centuries old debates in philosophy, like those from Carl Sagen, to contrast to the values obtained from choices of love. One line mentioned in the film is that “Love is the only proven thing that can’t be measured from science”. Interesting observation there, and it certainly adds weight and unpredictability to the single greatest emotion in the human stratosphere, for the odds of obtaining that one in a million who you were meant to spend your life with. As a single man myself, the script’s material reminded me not to overlook the smallest details, which may serve as signs for a bigger picture, but as a lover of film, the movie challenged me mentally in ways that romantic genre movies simply don’t in 2019, and it gives the movie a spring of pep in distinguishing itself from the overpopulation of such a territory.

– Surprise cameo. This film earns points just for finding a way to cast one of my all time favorite actors in a role that becomes evidently more important the longer the film proceeds. This guy is not only the most charismatic performance in the film, in all three of his scenes, but he also conveys the kind of presence needed in making you care and invest in anything that he’s involved in. It’s a bit of lesson to the film’s two central character’s, whose shoe-horned exposition against some less-than thrilling aspects about their character’s, brought forth two human beings who couldn’t sell me a bottle of water in a 365 day drought. I commend this actor for reminding me that there is no role too small for him, and that his variety in selected projects continues to expand even at the age of 54.

– Reflection to our own world. The fight for immigration plays a big hand in the developments of the movie, and especially considering this element is so prominent in today’s society, it gives the events a feeling of art-reflecting-life, that makes this movie feel more human than even its discussions on love. One question asked frequently throughout the film is what America means to this woman, an answer adored for its diversity, yet humbled for its honesty. It reminds us that even though this is the land of the free, we truly have a long way to go for everyone to feel the emphasis of that meaning, shedding light on the battle of the current day administration that now more than ever feels ever so urgent. Respect also goes to casting a Korean male and black female to echo those sentiments for the duration of the movie. It goes a long way when you can invest in one aspect; the love story, yet be entirely ripped apart by another; deportation, proving dramatic depth which is anything but timely.

NEGATIVES

– Clunky dialogue. Nope, this didn’t change from the terribly sappy trailers. The lines uttered in the film, mostly by Melton, are every bit as childish as they are meandering to the gullible audiences watching them and wondering why they can’t be romanced in such a way. The answer is simple; this wouldn’t work. Winking and nodding at a girl that you’re waiting for something from her would get you slapped and receiving of a restraining order the very same day. Likewise, the overbearing nature of Melton really made me uncomfortable, especially in the ‘Me Too’ era, where many men like this one manipulated women into thinking their intentions were honorable. LIGHT SPOILER – Melton, like those men I previously mentioned, eventually ends up in a dimly lit room, alone with the girl, and wastes no time making a move. Well, I guess they did wait four hours before they banged. Commendable.

– One PAINFUL song. I was mostly enjoying the soundtrack to this film, which authenticated the musical cultures from each respective family, with songs like “Don’t Stay Away” by Jamaican singer Phyllis Dillon, as well as “Here With Me” from Korean singer Susie Suh. But one performance tore it all down and soil the sanctity of every song that came before it. To anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer, Melton performs a version of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and The Shondells, and to say it’s uninspiring is putting it totally lightly. To say Melton’s voice is every bit as flat as it is reflective of a cat getting its nuts stepped on in the middle of the night, is an honest one. The performance is so bad in fact, that the movie mutes his performance to play us Tommy James version during a fantasy sequence from Shahidi. If this scene didn’t already feel like a stalker’s ploy to command attention, it now feels like that out-of-tune street singer who we must take pity on and spare a dollar if he’s ever going to move forward with his life.

– The performances. While separated, Shahidi and Melton display enough dramatic flare for the benefit of their character’s depth , but when they are together, it deconstructs everything positive up to that point. These two have no chemistry together, despite the film trying ever so obviously to convey that they do, and what’s even worse is that the sequence of events does nothing to issue believability that Shahidi has in fact fallen for him. It just kind of happens with a total lack of subtlety, and the lack of emotional registry from Shahidi frequently reminds us how cryptic it is to get an accurate read from her radar. Nice enough kids, but not who I picture when I think of convincing leading cast.

– Unnecessary padding. This movie is 95 minutes, and feels like it has an additional half hour thanks to plot halting that happens far too often from points A-to-Z. Every time the conflict advances, you can almost time that a convenient plot device or temporary adversity will present itself to further draw out the miniscule depth of this conflict. The good news is that there is a good movie in here somewhere, but it’s buried under too much unnecessary exposition explanation and not enough advancement, dimming the average of returns for dramatic material that is put on pause far too often to maintain audience concern. There were times in this film when I was edge-of-my-seat interested, yet times when I couldn’t be more bored, and when you average these two points out, it leads to average pacing, which shouldn’t be a challenge by hour-and-a-half measures.

– Predictable. If you’ve seen one of these films, you’ve seen them all. When a film is riding positive momentum, you know it will eventually go bad to put one over on the audience. The problem is that this has become a cliche of sorts with Young Adult cinema, so you are able to telegraph what comes next, and that’s the case here. The film, with all of its heavy-handed intentions towards fate, was easily predicted by me about a quarter of the way in, and I ended up batting 100% in that regard, leaving me nothing in the way of surprises or unexpected turns for me to hang my hat on. This film goes about the way you’d be able to pick out after watching the trailer, and for a film so expansively unique in its commentary in material, the people themselves are the least interesting and imaginative aspect in going against the grain.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

A Dog’s Journey

Directed By Gail Mancuso

Starring – Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Kathryn Prescott

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

Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Tolkien

Directed By Dome Karukoski

Starring – Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Laura Donnelly

The Plot – The film explores the formative years of the orphaned author (Hoult) as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school. This takes him into the outbreak of World War I, which threatens to tear the “fellowship” apart. All of these experiences would inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-Earth novels.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence

POSITIVES

– Thomas Newman’s gripping score. If I didn’t mention my single favorite aspect of this movie first, I would be doing a huge disservice to the maestro of magic, who once again enhances each scene with an element of drama that tinsels in the air from his lucid compositions. Newman’s music rides an emotionally surcharged roller-coaster of goosebumps, eclipsing each arm hill with a wave of enchantment and majestic radiance of “The Lord of the Rings” movies themselves, all the while outlining that invisible line of urgency that much of the movie unfortunately doesn’t capitalize it. Newman’s name for whatever reason is often overlooked when the best composers of the 20th century are talked about, but thanks to the moving renditions that he stirs into a hopeless World War I battlefield, the 21st century are ever in his favor.

– Riveting wartime sequences. Visually the highlight of the film for me. In addition to Newman’s influence that I just mentioned, we are treated to tight-knit editing, immense weight in impact, and a shot composition that definitely paid homage to “All Quiet On the Western Front” in terms of heavy breathing claustrophobia that gets as close in the trenches as being safe can buy. Never does the sequences feel staged or compromised for the lack of scope associated with both sides, instead using character narration and crisp, sharp sound mixing to audibly immerse us in the unpredictable drama. Even in knowing above average details of Tolkien’s biographical background, there was still much about orchestra of anxiety from Karukoski that left me uncertain about what transpired, and it all eventually leads to a convincing third act that does give you moments of satisfaction for remaining so patient.

– Seamless 1940’s design. From the soft color scheme of Finnish cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen, to the classy wardrobe design, to the consistency of visual likeness that never compromises the time frame, everything here is ideal for the look and feel of England during the time of great war, giving a strong attention to detail for the production that visually fired on all cylinders. Faded coloring filters are always the way to go in replicating the authenticity within an atmosphere of a prior decade, and it all manages to impress in ways that dazzle a level of time travel on the silver screen fluently.

– Effectively informative. I feel like “Tolkien” will at least succeed in outlining the important parts of Tolkien’s life, if literary biographies aren’t your thing. This film covers the rags-to-riches orphan tale of Tolkien’s early up-bringing, the bonds of fellowship in this friendship of boys, the lure that language plays in his stories, and of course the blossoming love between he and eventual wife Edith. If you’re a diehard fan of Tolkien, the film will offer you very little in the way of beneficial reinforcement, but if you’re someone seeking information for a term paper, or just looking to satisfy random curiosity after binge-watching the Rings films, “Tolkien” will educate just enough to fill in the gaps, all the while preserving a general outline for the mind behind the magic of arguably the single most influential series of novels in the English language.

– Special effects poetry. One nuanced aspect from the director that I wish was used a lot more, was a psychological delve into the mind of Tolkien, during which he sees familiar imagery from future books. It was during these scenes when I realized the crossroads of past, present, and future within J.R’s life, and it practically stands as these brief moments of inspiration that never require bloated or obvious dialogue in getting its point across. These are the scenes that will be most satisfying to fans, as we finally get a glimpse of the genius at work, proving that even in the heat of battle with fighting for survival, the execution of a creative mind still lives and breathes within the soul of a writer.

NEGATIVES

– Formulaic exposition. I don’t doubt for a second that artists pull inspiration from every spec of intrigue in their lives, but what I do have a great ounce of disbelief with is that it plays out in such a television soap opera, complete with practically wink-and-nod moments that illuminate for the audience. I have this same problem particularly with modern day musical biopics, as the overabundance of information deposited in a two hour film all but comes with a Wikipedia sign posting that each of the screenplay pages hit on ever so conveniently. Examples of this are scattered throughout the film, traveling through themes of fellowship and incredible journeys that provide material for the gifted writer, but do so in a way that prove in this film to be topical to ever come across as natural.

– Disappointing performances. I’ve been a fan of Hoult’s since I saw him on screen for the first time, and for a majority of his career he constantly elevates the material that sometimes does him no favors in connecting to the audience. But his work as this prestigiously humbling writer provides shoes that are just too big for him to fill, and leave us with a lack of personality in his portrayal that does highlight the genius in intelligence, but sadly leaves much of the twitches in Tolkien that he was well known for, on the floor of omittance. Collins likewise is an equally blank canvas, leaving as much of a lasting impact on the film as background wallpaper. The two exceptional leads try what they can to light the spark of chemistry between them, but it simply isn’t there, and without the love element providing warmth, the movie alludes and reaches to a motivation through war that simply doesn’t feel earned.

– Lack of influence from the source. The Tolkien family themselves have distanced themselves from the making of the film, not because they saw it and hated the movie, but because the production chose not to involve them when crafting a tale about their legendary ancestor. Why I think this is a big mistake is obvious: the movie is crafting a story without the ideals of heart needed to sell the man behind the books, and that’s essentially the common plague with this film. Throughout the movie, I felt like I was watching a cinematic character with very little shade of personality to help me understand and grow with who Tolkien was as a person. This is especially troubling because in a biopic it is important to separate the fame and the life, and draw the comparison between them that links almost magnetically. We don’t understand what drives J.R, and likewise the movie searches for that very same drive, traveling in a directionless fog, with all of the wrong people steering the machine.

– Sludgy pacing. I am not a “Lord of the Rings” fan by any stretch of the imagination. I can know and understand that they are exceptionally made films without personally indulging in them, but I can’t say the same about the quality exchanged in “Tolkien”. For the first hour of this movie, I was nearly falling asleep. The film’s disjointed screenplay that alternates between three different timelines transitions about as smoothly as hitting a pothole at 80 MPH, and does so with very little emphasis or distinction that a jump is coming. The film is able to gain very little momentum because it feels like it’s trying to cram in too many details in each respective age, and even at 107 minutes long, it could use another studio edit to trim the fat of adolescence that has such little bearing on anything other than the formation of his schoolboy fellowship.

– Not enough originality. For a film that preaches the theme of imagination, it’s remarkable how little there is of it throughout. When I see how boggled down and formulaic the screenplay feels for such an exceptional figure, I am reminded of similarly structured films that did it better. Just two years ago, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” depicted an author whose psychological durress with war equated out to making some revolutionary material in children’s literature. Likewise, “Dead Poets Society” managed dialogue and poetic insight better than any film before its time. So where does that leave “Tolkien”? As it turns out, searching for an identity of its own, and that’s what bothers me about a movie that should cast an immense shadow on the silver screen. There’s nothing about it that is remarkably fresh or insightful to have you screaming of its originality. It’s a collection of scenes from other films that can never jumble together to stand at eye level with its imposing title character, and feels like the forgettable secondary film to the bigger Tolkien blockbuster that feels just around the corner when a movie like this doesn’t quite live up.

My Grade: 5/10 or D +