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 +

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

Directed By Joe Berlinger

Starring – Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Angela Sarafyan

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 6/10 or C+

The Intruder

Directed By Deon Taylor

Starring – Meagan Good, Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy

The Plot – When a young married couple (Ealy and Good) buys their dream house in the Napa Valley, they think they have found the perfect home to take their next steps as a family. But when the strangely attached seller (Quaid) continues to infiltrate their lives, they begin to suspect that he has hidden motivations beyond a quick sale.

Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality, adult language and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Quaid’s raw energy. A testament to Dennis Quaid’s experience as A grade-A actor for many decades is the grip that he has not only on his role as this landlord of lust, but also in the knowledge of what kind of film tonally will come out as. For my money, Quaid is the only person who feels like he is emoting the proper responses for this particular film, juggling a combination of creepy and hokey in the same vein of something from a villain in a superhero movie. Every other actor feels like they take their roles a bit too seriously, and because of that, it allows Dennis to shine once more in a role that is anything against typecast for the typically protagonist hero that we are used to seeing from him, and reminds us that the leading man still finds ways to evolve as an actor even at the age of 65.

– Shooting location. Roughly 80% of this movie takes place in and around this beautiful countryside mansion, which has no shortage of lavish interiors or immersive scenery to get lost in. What’s vital about the location is the isolation from the rest of the world, particularly the police, that constantly keeps the antagonist of the movie in control. The film’s photography takes every chance to explore the grounds fruitfully, giving us a vivid documentation of every room and hallway to better comprehend our understanding of the character movements and intentions in the heat of the fight. It’s no surprise that the film was shot entirely in British Columbia, Canada, as it’s becoming a tradition for studio’s seeking cheap production costs to shoot there, but it’s nice to see a movie explore some of its more expansive scenery to the integrity of the plot and film, and if nothing else, you will fall in love with the property in the same way that Good and Ealy’s character’s do.

– Prompt pacing. Despite the fact that so much of this movie was predictable, and brought forth very few surprises creatively, this is a very easy sit, thanks in part to the stakes constantly being elevated throughout the progression of the film. 97 minutes is a little challenging for a narrative this minimally profound, but there was never a time during it when I was bored or checking my watch to see how much time remained, serving as a testament to Taylor’s engaging atmosphere that reaches out for the things that go bump in the night.

NEGATIVES

– Blandly predictable. Aside from a terribly revealing trailer that gives away roughly 90% of the movie, the screenplay itself written by David Loughery capitalizes on the very same tropes and cliches of past serial stalker thrillers that have become a right of passage for new installments preserving the mantle. It offers very little in the way of suspense or audience anxiety for us to hang our investment on, and ultimately dooms the picture to these long periods of emptiness that only negatively tests Quaid’s raging influence on the film. What’s even more compromising is that the film doesn’t try to preserve any angle of mystery on the backstory of Charlie (Quaid), instead choosing to keep us the audience one step ahead of the protagonists at all times, as we wait for their bumbling stupidity to tiptoe to a catch-up point.

– Speaking of stupidity, Ealy and Good’s character’s defy human logic even in terms of unrelatable people we’ve come to know in movies. For Good, it’s the typical understanding female presence who is somehow able to overlook deeply concerning traits in Charlie because the film calls for it. It continues a trend in Taylor directed films where females are the subject of nothing deeper than male lust, and really makes me concerned for his views on an evolvingly-progressive world. Not to be outdone however, Ealy’s contradicting directions as time goes on made me wonder if the script was trying to convey this man as a bi-polar character for how he often compromises a previous scene. One second he’s a loving, healthily-infatuated husband who would do anything for his wife, and in the next he’s flirting with a female client. This would be impactful if it actually went somewhere, but the boiling subplot comes and goes with the kind of effectiveness of a dry fart, and reeks of desperation for a character who has so little to do between the growing dynamic of Quaid and Good.

– Oversexualization. This is becoming a growing trait in Deon Taylor’s filmography, a director who seems destined to takeover Michael Bay’s mantle for perverted camera work that focuses on the simpler things in cinema. Here he has the beautifully gifted Megan Good at his disposal, and in doing so wastes no time in documenting her body through two sex scenes, one shower scene, and many revealing outfits during non-sexualized events like Thanksgiving Day dinner. The problem is two-fold, the first is that it obviously only values Megan as this physical presence, instead of carving out an acting side of her that we have yet to see, and two, it conjures repetition in getting the same idea of Charlie’s stalking across, padding out the time to eventually reach 97 minutes. Sex factor should be used to serve a purpose in films, but when that purpose reaches overbearing levels of important plotting, its seedy intentions are further unveiled, and only further cements how audiences engage in sexy people being in trouble.

– Meandering musical score. An early favorite for worst musical enhancement of 2019, composer Geoff Zanelli overly inserts his obvious tones in the middle of every scene, made less seamless by the boisterous command of sound mixing that has it reaching orchestral levels of volume during tension-building sequences. The music itself is synthetic for the kind of tones necessary in a genre like this, but the problem is the way they manipulate audiences into feeling one way, instead of letting the actors master their craft without boost, and for my money it made for one of the more obviously distracting aspects of this movie. If it serves any point, other than to be used during a cheesy Halloween party between you and your friends, it’s the fine line of divide between acting and post production, and what not to do to step on the toes of one or the other.

– Obvious visual foreshadowing. This is one of those visual presentations where the movie has a few counterfeit shots in a sequence early on, that feel out of place when compared to the sum of their parts. The reason for this is a series of revealing foreshadow images that prepare you for where this story’s setting is headed, and once again leave nothing to the idea of imagination in maintaining some level of suspense for audiences seeking thrills. For instance, if a movie focuses on a particular closet for an inordinate amount of screen time, you can bet your last dollar that it will come back into play eventually, and serve as a pivotal moment during an unfolding conflict that will come full circle. If the storyboards are doing their job properly, and the direction is crisp, these elements within the house can work their way into the elevating drama without an unnecessary underlining to them, but unfortunately this movie, in so many ways, uses bells and whistles to signal what’s to come, and for anyone like myself who has seen this no shortage of times, it’s really a waiting game for when it will choose to pop up once again.

– Continuity errors. (Light spoiler) There are many examples of this throughout the film, but my favorite happens during the final conflict, when the two male leads of the film are armed with knives when they walk through the house, but once they come to blows those weapons are nowhere to be seen or used between them. It builds to a fist fight in which these weapons disappear, and only re-appear when the fight subdues, and one of them is forced to get out of the room that they are locked in. It introduces elements to the persistent drama, and then does nothing to enhance the results of such. While certainly not as funny as Quaid’s ever-changing hair growth throughout the film, does signify the kind of hands-on effort that goes virtually unnoticed during the duration of this movie, and garners unintentional laughter when the movie really doesn’t need it.

– Back and forth. There are some scenes in the film where the exposition heavy dialogue alludes to the fact that the only reason for its inclusion is to feed the audience bits of information. I say this because character’s move in and out of this film to never be seen again, and it’s a sloppy transition that doesn’t feel naturally believable in the slightest. To counteract this, there are then aspects of the exposition that are never further touched upon. For instance, Charlie’s backstory with his wife and family. Sure, we find out what happened, but we don’t know why, and it only emits more questions the more you think about it. An on-going subplot with Charlie’s daughter in partular, is hinted at, but never fully realized in a way that could shed more light on the mystery of this obviously mentally challenged antagonist. Too many things just simply don’t add up, and a more detailed screenwriter could better flesh out the holes in a story that everything besides Quaid practically falls right into.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

The Shawshank Redemption

Directed By Frank Darabont

Starring – Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton

The Plot – The story of a hot-shot American banker Andrew Dufresne (Robbins) who finds himself to be an inmate at the Shawshank prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit, the murder of his wife and her lover. The movie revolves around Andy’s take on this drastic transformation, his journey as an inmate in the prison during which he befriends Red (Freeman), a fellow inmate as well as gains the respect of his friends.

Rated R for adult language and prison violence

POSITIVES

– On-set location. Prison movies are all about atmosphere, so in casting the closed down Mansfield Reformatory to double as Shawshank, the film spared no expense in scale as the stomping ground for the story’s most dangerous criminals. What’s so perfect about this setting, aside from the gothic architecture that easily made the transition to 1947 that much easier, is the immense size that constantly reminds us of the hopelessness of the troubled souls inside, and it’s made much more impressive when you consider that absolutely nothing was a pre-constructed set. The prison itself feels very much like its own character inside of the movie, and one that took years for Andy Dufresne to overcome its concrete walls and corruption. In addition to this film borrowing the Mansfield Reformatory, other films like “Air Force One” and “Tango and Cash” also shot there, as well as music videos like Godsmack’s “Awake” and Lil Wayne’s “Go DJ”.

– Perfect casting. The requirements between Robbins and Freeman is perfectly defined, and works extremely well because their respective performances is a clashing of ideals that cater to audience balance. For Robbins, he’s the beacon of hope. Long after his incarceration, he still maintains the fire burning inside as an innocent man, and it’s his combination of blank canvas personality and endless wit that keep him sharp as a tack for being an ideal protagonist. In contrast, Freeman is the aging veteran inside of the prison. His decades spent locked up have molded him into a man who declares that hope is a dangerous thing, and it’s only in his introduction to Andy where this frame of mind is complicated, once Andy begins molding the prison as his own list of prided accomplishments. Bob Gunton as the evil warden also deserves a lot of credit, molding a character who borrows the parts from the bible that are appropriate to his questionable teachings. Gunton’s unflinching stare and total lack of personality give an intimidation factor that make this the perfect antagonist to deconstruct Andy’s hopeful circumstance, and it takes the work of an exceptional actor as an antagonist to counteract two intriguingly gifted protagonists, and with the trio of Robbins, Freeman, and Gunton, this film has no shortage of meaty performances, nor uniquely fascinating characters.

– Truth in advertising. When you consider the movie’s title: “The Shawshank Redemption” you might assume upon first viewing that the redemption is Andy’s or Red’s, but the title actually alludes to all of the dynamics inside of the prison. It’s a story about light overcoming darkness, as well as a good old-fashioned good defeating evil story. Before Andy entered Shawshank, it was a story of cycle’s and routine, mainly in the few who were freed, as they realized that surviving on the outside would be tougher than living behind the concrete walls, and because of such established a condemning mentality, where each of the inmates remained put because of this fear. It’s only after Andy’s guidance does the truth eventually begin to seep out and the light begin to seep in, with the truth and ulterior motives of the warden becoming evident to us the audience. So the redemption is really everyone’s associated with the film, as for better or worse Andy’s sentence to the prison changes everyone and everything, giving us the ultimate story about second chances motivating us to seek out the positives in undesirable situations.

– Passage of time. One extremely underrated accomplishment that is often overlooked in reviews I’ve seen is in the passing of time that authentically replicates the prison experience for us the audience. With no visual text or any kind of alluding to, other than the subtle aging make-up used on the cast, great strands of time literally float by in the film’s linear narrative, making it difficult to convey just how much time has passed between the film’s beginning and end that burns through two-and-a-half hours at a consecutive pace. What’s even more deceitful is the endless loop of consistent weather patterns outside of the prison that also offers no reprieve in difference to keep track of. This seems especially strange for a Maine setting, but feeds into the mentality that Darabont was going for, in that confinement really does cut out every other aspect of your life, feeling like one continuous loop that is indistinguishable from day to day.

– Positive life message. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the movie is its obvious intention, that with hard work and determination, there’s an escape from any adversity in our life. This comes in many different forms, some positive and some negative, but all with the same kind of reprieve from the daily darkness that secludes them. Consider Brooks’ freedom or Tommy’s studying for his high school diploma. Both aspects that end tragically, but both with a motivation to rid themselves of the despair that has defined them for a lifetime. In contrast to that, Andy and Red’s wishes are obvious ones: to be free. For one, it takes endless years of planning the proper escape, and for the other it’s decades of interpretation from prison officials that gains him the knowledge of understanding that he can’t be afraid to lose anything further. These are examples of men who grew tired with being patient, and took matters into their own hands, living by my favorite movie quote of all time, which is “Get busy living or get busy dying”, and it’s one of those rare messages that transcends the screen and stands as words of inspiration for an audience who inevitably have their own Shawshank’s to face every day.

– Darabont’s masterful direction. Despite this man creating modern day masterpieces like “The Green Mile” or “The Mist”, “The Shawshank Redemption” is easily his best film to date for how he absorbs the pages of this brief Stephen King story and fleshes out nearly two-and-a-half hours of endlessly compelling cinema. The decisions from Frank are articulate and influential all around. From his collaboration with arguably the best cinematographer working today in Roger Deakins, which brings forth an intoxicating atmosphere of decaying color effects that brought him the first of twelve Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography, to the indulgence of the world Frank creates within the prison, is something that completely sucks you in, and stands as that rare exception where even when all stories and subplots have been resolved and satisfied completely, you still don’t want to say goodbye to these characters. King trusts Darabont with his projects more than any other director, and despite this film winning no Oscars and being deemed a box office failure for its 18 million dollar intake, it has left a lasting impact to legions of fans, especially the website IMDB, which ranks it as the single greatest film of all time.

– Thomas Newman’s haunting musical score. Newman’s film drives this film almost as much as its characters, as his themes and articulate motif’s that he echoes throughout the entirety of this film are very powerful and very fitting to the complexion of each inspiring scene. It stands as the persistent note of conscience that lingers through the toxicity within this environment, made especially louder during the impactful final escape scene. I have seen this film thousands of times, but the triumphant scene where Andy stands in the swamp with his arms outstretched to the sky, complete with deafening orchestral accompanying, still sends goosebumps up my arms, and is the most satisfying of payoff’s that is emphasized even further because of Newman’s rhythmic pulse that alludes to Andy’s satisfaction. As far as movie scores go, this is one of the most underrated in cinema history, and speaks volumes to the scene where Andy describes that “Music is the one thing they can’t get to. It’s in here (points to heart)”.

– The big payoff. Prison escape movies are a dime a dozen anymore, but back in 1994 when this movie came on to the scene, it presented one of the more finely illustrated reveals in the history of cinema. So good in fact, that many films since have borrowed from its combination of shot compositions and constructive blueprint. When you consider that the whole movie shows us hints in the form of the objects that Andy asks for, then coyly deters the idea of escape by establishing how weak they would be when used for this capacity. On top of it, each object is given reason for it to be in Andy’s possession. Consider the rock hammer, and how he explains that he needs it to build the ultimate soapstone chess board. So when we cut to the third act when Andy vanishes in the middle of the night, we, like the warden, are left all the more clueless for how he evaded officials when he was spotted by them every step of the way. It comes as a result of years of planning, and made even more impressive when reviewed with the claustrophobic photography and patience associated in carrying out every step of the plan, making for an anxiety-ridden climax of the film whose extreme measures are grounded in satisfying realism.

– Respect for the source material. This is one of the rare exceptions where I feel that a film transcends the quality of the book, but even with that said, Darabont has enough influence from the literary material to remind audiences of its importance to the screenplay. One such instance happens when the prisoners are watching 1946’s “Gilda”, a film starring Rita Hayworth, and why that’s significant is because Stephen King’s original short story for “The Shawshank Redemption” is actually called “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”. Likewise, the very poster that Andy has in his cell that hides his route of escape goes from Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch in the book, to Rita Hayworth herself in the movie. The obvious reason to not include Welch is obvious, in that this film takes place in 1947, but the decision to rest on Rita falls solely as an homage to the source material, and it’s one of many that are woven conveniently throughout the film.

– One sign of a timeless film is the ability to watch it and gain some new form of knowledge that you didn’t pick up on in previous watches, and even my latest screening for this review brought forth some clever Easter eggs that I am witnessing for the first time. The first is Red’s cell number being 237, and for anyone who knows Stephen King material specifically, they know that this is the very same number that the Torrence family are asked to stay out of in Stephen King’s “The Shining”. The second is the judge’s name that sentences Andy early on in the film being Horton. What’s interesting about that is that there is a Judge Horton in the 1996 Stephen King film “Thinner”, and it’s aspects like these that make the Stephen King universe in his films feel like a living, breathing frame of continuity that continuously holds up, and really makes me want to go back and watch King’s films closer to draw even more parallels.

My Grade: 10/10 or A+ – My all time favorite movie

Avengers: Endgame

Directed By Joe and Anthony Russo

Starring – Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth

The Plot – After the devastating events of “Avengers: Infinity War”, the universe is in ruins. With the help of remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more in order to undo Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) actions and restore order to the universe.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– The evolution of the superhero genre. What the Russo brothers have done here is astonishing. Over the course of eleven years and twenty-two different films, they have helped mature these movies into something that, despite the abnormal feats and character’s, feels very fleshed out and human in its communication to the audience who have remained faithful to them, and none of this more evident than in “Endgame”. This is very much a film that is visually and narratively adult in the way its masterful approaches transcends the genre, and above all else gives us a great technical MOVIE above everything else. It is cerebral, transfixing, profound, and most importantly consequential in helping to keep the weight in stakes higher than it’s ever felt. Considering some of us have quite literally grown up with these films, it’s therapeutic to see that evolution transpired on-screen, and it helps establish “Endgame” as the perfect emphasis on eleven years of continuity, that will most likely never be matched or topped again.

– Happy to be wrong. My biggest fear after “Infinity War” was a clean and convenient fix that would leave our team virtually un-phased from their conflict with Thanos, and thankfully this isn’t the case, as the stakes remain very much gripped with the direction of the Russo’s constant reminder of their powerful antagonist. I won’t spoil anything, but I was left very satisfied with the way Marvel allowed themselves closure on certain characters, all the while teasing the next phase with some fresh faces. It leaves a permanent mark, for better or worse, on this group of superheroes that will keep them from ever forgetting what was lost in the dreaded Infinity War, and keep us as an audience on the edge of anxiety, as unpredictability has finally come into focus in a world that feels as dangerous and unpredictable as our own. It proves that not everything can ever be the same again, and that the fragility of livelihood is something we should cherish each and every day in our lives.

– Fine balance of dramatic and humorous elements. The very amount of laughable moments from richly ironic dialogue, as well as timely physical humor, made for a nice release after the draining that was “Infinity War”, and established early on that this is a return to form for the airy atmospheres that we’ve come to know from Avengers movies. That’s not to say that there aren’t gut-punches in the film, as the entire first act resonates ever so loudly in all of its depressing imagery and newfound disposition’s that the group find themselves on for the first time. What’s vitally important is that neither direction oversteps its boundaries towards the other, and allows enough careful articulation in each to take audiences on a roller-coaster of emotional response like only a flashy, frenzied superhero film can offer. Very few films this year have mastered one or the other, but the testament to the Russo’s brilliance is how they manage to juggle each without it ever compromising the integrity of one or the other, in turn establishing a hybrid subgenre of action, drama, and comedy that perfectly capture the atmosphere of page-turning graphic novels in all of their intrigue.

– Crisp action sequences. This certainly isn’t a film that is overwhelmed with action set pieces, in fact, the near three hour runtime allows enough pacing in anticipation that when it finally does come full circle, we are treated to enough visual fireworks that explode at just the right moment with our patience. The fight choreography is sharp as a tack, with two sides emulating a physical chess match with each move serving value in the fight for control. The editing is precise, instilling enough speed between actors without an over-abundance of them testing our stomach’s. And the variety in camera angles serves well in the battle of telegraphing for the audience, which can sometimes struggle with an area that should be the easiest aspect. Likewise, the set pieces spare no expense, and leave a barrage of debris and smoke flying at the screen that would allow me to recommend audiences spending a little more for the 3D, which has to be completely out of this world.

– Is it worth three hours? This was the biggest concern heading into the film, and for a majority of the scenes I can say that an inflated runtime is definitely needed considering the wide range of character’s and subplots that all need resolved by film’s end. What impressed me was how this film paid ample respect to each respective film franchise, and gave them the kind of closure that you never expect to see in a world run by money and greed, which constantly ask for the next unnecessary installment. As for pacing, with the exception of the first act, which takes slightly more time than I would like in setting up where this chapter is headed, I remained firmly invested for a majority of this film, and only checked my watch once, when the final battle concluded, serving as a testament to the story’s impression on me. There was never a period where I was bored with the movie, and more importantly, the scope involved in the immensity of the script practically demands that this film be treated as anything other than a conventional episodic Marvel installment, granting necessity to the rarity of this lengthy investment.

– Hidden narrative. Marvel apparently does know how to craft a trailer, as the sudden appearance of this plot took shape about thirty minutes into the movie, and remained intact for the better part of the next two hours. It sort of becomes this heist movie, with the remaining Avengers going after something, but not exactly the what or who that you’re thinking of while reading this. What this does is create some unexpected dream conflicts that would usually be impossible, but here are given life in a way that establishes fun, urgency, and most importantly: a underlying layer of tragedy hidden just beneath the surface. When this direction started, I felt that it overlooked a few more important aspects from what “Infinity War” gave us, but as time progressed I found myself feeling less alienated, and more giving in to this refreshing turn that was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the M.C.U to this point, and gave layers to events in the past Avengers timeline that we thought was dead and buried until now.

– The great Alan Silvestri. Music is usually the underlying poke or prod to an audience’s emotional interpretation. It can be manipulative if done wrong, but the work Silvestri has done in this film, as well as the other Avengers films, shouldn’t be underscored when surfing for proper emotional atonement. In “Endgame” Alan takes us through a triumphant nightmare, full of longing and despair, and combining them with the bombastic orchestral accompaniment that echoes in consistency with that of the single biggest war sequence that you have ever seen in film. In a sense, Alan feels like the often overlooked Avenger, but this critic deems him a necessity for the way his absorbing tones feel like an audibly reflective mirror on sometimes cryptic character’s, and if you feel yourself with any kind of goosebumps throughout the film, you will more than likely thank the talented cast, but you should DEFINITELY thank a composer with an immense responsibility of scoring the single biggest movie in pop culture history.

– Speaking of performances, most of the cast hits again in channeling enough heart and endless charisma for their respective character’s, which makes their fantasy interactions with one another all the more of a blessing. There’s still problems, most notably in the work of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, which continues to feel like the furthest thing from human that Marvel has ever channeled. But the positives are aplenty, as Downey, Evans, and surprisingly Jeremy Renner steal the show. For the first two, it’s the expected command of leadership and bravado that etch out the perfect two protagonist’s for this gifted army, and preserve the level of commitment that each of them have given in their seventh and sixth films respectively. For Downey’s Stark, it’s that fearful and traumatic nuance that gives the film layers that was only hinted at in “Iron Man 3”, and given legs to grow here with timely adversity. However, Renner stole the show for me, as this rogue assassin who is hellbent on avenging what he lost in the finger-snap heard around the world. Clint Barton has always been my favorite Avenger, and “Endgame” feels like the lost opportunity that we finally get to see what he can do front-and-center, and he never disappoints. Barton’s rage and unshaken focus are depicted in ways that we’ve never before seen, and it sheds the shield and allows him to don a side of dangerousness that we’ve never seen from Nick Fury’s secret weapon, leaving me all the more desperate for a Hawkeye movie that should’ve already happened.

– Peak special effects. This is as good as money can buy in 2019, as the combination of aging, de-aging, green-screen digitalization, and capture motion technology, transcend what we see and believe as real, and leaves us astonished at how seamlessly it all fits into the frame of live action realism. Marvel has once again taken actors who are aged in current day, and instilled youth into them to make us feel like they were recruited at the prime of their acting careers to shoot for a film that wouldn’t see the light of day for another thirty-five years. Likewise, the capture motion of Mark Ruffalo giving The Hulk a more distinguished feature for the actor who is living and breathing inside, is a reflection of just how far special effects have come, especially since Edward Norton’s delve inside looked anything but believable in the 2008 Hulk film. Ruffalo can move and interact without his depiction feeling distorted or enhanced, and the familiarity of Mark’s more obvious features is reflected in a way that makes his transformation feel like a legitimate actor under make-up and prosthetics kind of performance, which in turn helps better register when something hurts him. It envelopes a complex inspiration of artifical generation that puppeteers time in a way that we as humans simply shouldn’t be able to, and stands as the measuring stick for technical achievements, which will no doubt win the Oscar that it should’ve had with “Infinity War”.

NEGATIVES

– Problems with a gimmick. I wish I could elaborate more, but it would be a spoiler. Instead I will say that some of the laws and rules established within Ant-Man in particularly doesn’t make sense, and when we are given an explanation for it, the film just kind of winks and nods towards past films in pop culture that also had a similar problem with this aspect, without giving us an answer that ties it all together. That’s all I’m going to say. Literally anything would ruin this movie for you guys, and I’m not about that.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

High Life

Directed By Claire Denis

Starring – Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Teen Spirit

Directed By Max Minghella

Starring – Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Breakthrough

Directed By Roxann Dawson

Starring – Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas

The Plot – Based on the inspirational true story of one mother’s unfaltering love in the face of impossible odds. When Joyce Smith’s (Metz) adopted son John (Marcel Ruiz) falls through an icy Missouri lake, all hope seems lost. But as John lies lifeless, Joyce refuses to give up. Her steadfast belief inspires those around her to continue to pray for John’s recovery, even in the face of every case history and scientific prediction.

Rated PG for thematic content including peril

POSITIVES

– Mutual respect. “Breakthrough” is the rare exception in religious exploitation films, where the film states its case and its belief in a greater power, and doesn’t shun the cliche atheist character for their contradicting beliefs. The character in question is played by Luke Cage himself, Mike Coulter, and he’s depicted in a way that not only gives a strong combination of dignity and class to the character, but also never tries to change his beliefs or prove that he’s wrong. It’s a world developed that allows both sides to prosper without unnecessary confrontation, and that element alone allows the movie the kind of rare open arms treatment, where everyone is welcome, regardless of spiritual beliefs or lack there of. It’s one of the only times when a movie like this didn’t judge me or make me feel uncomfortable, and that alone brings it a step above the rest in living out God’s message.

– Soundtrack depth. When the movie begins, we are treated to pop culture toe-tappers like “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, or “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore, and it’s enough eye-opening selections to give the film a rich sense in budget, all the while echoing the cultures of its youths. This of course eventually changes into all spiritual offerings, but the eclectic nature of the genre and composition’s inspire creativity to the conventional hymns that we’ve come to know, and instills a sense of creativity to the movie’s compositions that radiate that fresh appeal, and it allows the music to remain true to itself, all the while catering to a bigger audience based on pop culture familiarity.

– A couple of solid performances. Metz is definitely the breadwinner here, emoting Joyce with no shortage of tears or energy to the command that she has on each situation. The problem is that I detested her character, mainly because the movie hints at a transformation that never comes, but all the same, Metz harvests most of the film’s emotional registry. Likewise, Coulter has a strong on-screen presence that captures the attention in each scene that he’s in, and juggles the biggest conflict of the movie, because his own eyes and ears are failing him on everything that he believed to this point. Topher Grace was also a riot to watch, if only for the facial reactions to the movie’s events, which drew more than a few smiles out of me. In terms of likeability, Topher is the movie’s saving grace, and his hip demeanor in freshening up the old testament is something that this world could use more of.

– Iron production values. While nothing is academy award deserving, it is exceptional in terms of religious movies that sometimes diminish the power of their message with a presentation that looks like it was shot by a high school film class. That simply isn’t the case here, as the neon interiors of the hospital, combined with some breath-stealing scenery of St. Louis, conjure up a visual presentation that confirms a great amount of money was spent in post production, and the editing, while dealing with continuity issues at times, does at least keep the progression of the film smoothly running, to keep us firmly engaged. When you compare “Breakthrough” to a PureFlix movie, you see an immense difference that reminds you how strong a film can be if it has a big studio presence behind it, and it gives us a lot to look at when the film’s plot progression has kind of grinded to a violent halt.

– Big game talents. I was surprised at how much the camera work relied on the skills of the young cast to showcase their basketball skills without manipulating the shot to make them something they’re not. Long take shots offer a balance of choreographed dribbling and long range shot display that came from the hands of the cast themselves, and really impressed me for not only the confidence they display, but the confidence that Dawson has in them to get it right. These are sequences that are such a minimal use of time for the bigger picture, so it would’ve certainly been easy to cut and paste these kids in a way that would fool half of the audience into thinking these kids are something they so obviously are not, but the direction, especially with NBA star Steph Curry serving as a movie producer, commits itself to getting it right, and shows John at work with his finest skill, instead of just telling us.

NEGATIVES

– Predictable. This is the biggest obstacle that the movie faces, as aside from a trailer that gives away nearly everything about this plot, aspects as minimal as lines of dialogue were mimicked by a friend and I, who spoke them seconds before the movie did. It’s expected that the events would be told in completely honest detail, but what’s concerning is how little we learn about the character’s, which could offer some shred of intrigue during the waiting game, which is roughly 80% of this movie. It’s obviously better for people who know less about these true life events, but even then you know there’s only one certain direction that a plot and genre like this can travel, and the fact that “Breakthrough” left me with the ability to telegraph everything scenes before they happen, spoke levels to the entertainment factor of the script, that feels closer to a Wikipedia article for the covering of events.

– Pacing issues. Most of the problems that I discussed directly above this translates to the jagged pacing of the movie, which at nearly two hours feels like a stretch for how much develops during the film. For one, there’s plenty that can be removed with very little impact. Stretched sequences involving throwaway character’s outside of this family, or repetition in scenes that transpire the same way but pivot on character movements, feed into this padding for passage of time that is quite literally that. This movie’s consistency literally did feel like a hospital waiting game at times, and with some more first act exposition before the big splash, the film could ease itself from racing to a red light, which it remains parked at until the final fifteen minutes of the movie.

– Transformation issues. For this movie, there are two character transformations that inspire these character’s to become better people. First is Joyce, an overzealous control freak, whose own insecurities are exposed in the way she devalues those around her. The second is John, as he struggles with feeling the love associated with being adopted. Both of these serve a bigger purpose, but only one of them worked, and it lands in the hands of the person who stays under conscience for most of this movie. Joyce’s supposed transformation didn’t land for me because she isn’t really that different from the person she was before all of this, and even worse, her actions are justified for the sake of John’s progression. She’s a conflicted character who never cures her conflictions, and it says a lot that the kid who doesn’t speak for a huge chunk of this movie attains the things that the film’s central protagonist simply never does.

– Blunders. There were all kinds of errors in believability, continuity, and horrendous line reads that do bring forth some unintentional laughs while watching this. Some of my favorite involve a resuscitation scene where the nurse administering C.P.R is obviously not beating on the chest, nor even doing it on the correct area of the chest for it to work. Likewise during this scene, it’s fairly obvious that John is breathing, especially with the revealing camera angles used, as well as the placing of a tube on his chest, which only makes it easier to detect. This is also one of the worst hospitals in the country apparently, because doctor’s say things like “Think, Gene” to themselves during surgery, or speak negatively in the presence of the boy and mother in their hospital room. If you can get over this believability issue, a musical scene in which students from John’s school sing him to inspiration you simply cannot. The kids are not only singing at a level that would make it difficult to hear from twenty feet away, let alone three floors up on a hospital window that doesn’t open, but it’s even less believable when a piano is heard that simply isn’t there. These are just a few of my favorite things, and don’t reflect the stretches of logic necessary to understand some pretty moronic course of actions that I won’t spoil here.

– Pitiful poignancy. For my money, I could’ve used more discussion aimed at the thought-provoking of its subject matters, that the film slowly steps away from. One such discussion happens late in the film, when a character asks why miracles happen for some people and not the others. Instead of offering up some form of relief for those seeking answers for the awkwardness of the question, the scene uses it as nothing more than a brief hiccup on the way to bigger and better things. If you had no relief in the form of even opinion-based answers, then why bring it up in the first place. This movie is full of solid questions that should be coming from an atheist’s point of view, but the overall lack of energy used to support these queries makes their inclusion feel every bit as temporary as they do pointless. A cop out with no intention of supporting its believers.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Mustang

Directed By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring – Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern

The Plot – Roman (Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an “outdoor maintenance” program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang.

Rated R for adult language, some violence and drug content

POSITIVES

– A wide range of emotional response. Very few films, especially today, have the kind of depth in screenplay that connects with the audience on such a personal level. To this degree, “The Mustang” brought forth, laughter, sadness, anger, and an overall sense of inspiration in me, for what I call the modern day rendering of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ending. If films can invest you in a way that makes you feel one of these emotions, then it’s done a good job at connecting to its audience, but when you have a film touch you in a way that allows your own registry to ride hand-in-hand with those of the character’s, then you have something that transcends the screen, and gives us a sense of the vital importance of connection, even beyond that of a human level.

– The Roman/horse dynamic. When you compare these two lost souls coming together, you discover that they have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both of them are captured and imprisoned in ways that take them away from familiarity. Both are well reserved in their demeanor’s, requiring the bond of the other to open up and invest in something important to feel free again. Likewise, they both come together during a time when the lives surrounding them have crumbled, leaving them leaning on the dependency of the other to get by, and redeem the level of trust that they are both capable of. I also found it interesting how Roman’s engagement with the horse is reflected upon the brief visitation interaction’s that he shares with his daughter. The first one is very well reserved and full of anger, but by the third one he seeks forgiveness and redemption for the missteps taken in his handling of the situation. It’s not accidental that Laure depicts these two living, breathing creatures so closely in movements, and it all leads to the final shots of the film, where I interpret that these two become one almost metaphorically, bringing forth a back-handed triumph in the closing moments that makes sense the more you think about it.

– Heavy-hitting turns. This is easily Schoenaerts single best performance to date, transforming himself physically and personally to becoming this shell of a convict who remains to himself. Matthias’ ability to say so little throughout the movie, yet speak so loudly in facial reactions is something that establishes a line of immersive acting that he hasn’t been saddled with until now, and despite this character being a bit of a terrible person, you engage in him because his eyes are the windows of this tortured soul that is living with a fine combination of grief and regret. It builds to a third act transformation that gives way to him being able to open up the closer he gets to his trusty four-legged companion. In addition to him, it’s always charming to see Bruce Dern’s dry delivery of wit that commands respect if only for its stern enveloping. Young phenom Gideon Adlon is also a revelation, making the most of a few scenes with unabashed anger in streaming tears, that really forces you to turn against our central protagonist. I saw Adlon in last year’s so-so raunchy comedy “Blockers”, but her turn here shows that there’s a lot of fire burning in this furnace, and with any luck in casting, we will see her coals burning for a long time to come.

– Precise editing. The tight cuts are asked to perform a bit more magic in this film, as the movements of the horses are used to manipulate audiences into thinking that we are seeing them naturally attack. This is done with a fine amount of close angles and fluid continuity in pasting different takes together, to make a presentation that puts us front-and-center with Roman, in the heat of the action. Sequences like these almost give us no time to zero in and focus on even the slightest detection of weakness, but we never find it, and it’s all a testament to Clermont-Tonnerre’s hand of magic, where she only allows you to see what you want to see. For her first feature length film, her consistency never shatters, and it makes me want to see what else she can do on a bigger scale production.

– Seeping-in musical score. The somber ingredients dispersed in the film echo such a cold sadness in the presentation of the movie, that it almost feels somewhat reflective of Roman’s interior compass. What’s impressive is patient level of volume used in post production to never overstep its boundaries on the art of the scene itself, and only becoming audibly obvious during scenes of transition, where the echo of hopelessness begins to evaporate. The man behind the callous tones is Jed Kurzel, the same man who scored “The Babadook”, one of my favorite horror films of the decade, and it was his influence that triggered much of the anxiety-ridden nightmare fuel that film had to offer. For “The Mustang”, he’s able to show a much more intimate side than horror can grant, and the confidence in his music to never strike louder than anything in the scene itself, better allows the elements of drama to simmer with the heat in orchestral engagements that he sprinkles each scene with.

– Ruben Impens. One of my favorite cinematographer’s going today is back, and it’s no surprise that his boldly beautiful frames and color filters are the very best thing that this film has to offer. The wide angles that depict the mountainside and endless deserts convey a sense of freedom being so close, yet so far away for Roman. Likewise, the sunbaked effects that reflect in the camera itself, establishes a visual metaphor for his golden opportunity that he simply can’t let slip away. These things prove that a film doesn’t need a blockbuster budget to present these visually breathtaking enchantments, and these elements better channel the mental location of these characters, in a place that feels so isolated from everyone and everything they love.

– Educative and informative. A fine line of poignancy and human commentary persists in the idea of these horses being taken from their habitat, and sold for devilish greed, and the film never shies away from this inescapable feeling of victimizing that it is truly responsible for taking. Beyond this, I appreciate that the film not only gives us the facts with this disgusting poaching, but it also takes the time to teach us the steps in gaining a horse’s trust that other films may overlook. In this regard, we are able to slip into Roman’s shoes that much easier because we are learning things on the same speed that he is, and can’t escape that feeling of uncertainty and fear that smother the initial confrontations. This film not only told me how similar the breeds of human and horse are truly are, it showed it to me, and it proves that even in a 91 minute film, it’s important for audiences to understand how unpredictable their movements truly can be if you make even one wrong move.

– True story. I appreciate that the movie never got lost in the heat of the “Based on a true story” gimmick, and instead reserved itself for the beginning and end of the movie to relay its information. The end even treats us to some real life pictures of the people that the movie is based on, but doesn’t lose itself to fully telling their stories. This may sound a bit insulting to the real life figures, but when you’re not discussing a historical event of tragedy, the people can become shaped in whatever way the script requires them to be, to further enhance the element of surprise, which this movie has a couple of.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary prison subplot. This angle, which distracts from the intimacy of these stirring subplots, feels every bit as tacked-on as it does compromising to the film’s pacing. This angle involving drug trading and race war’s is something that didn’t feel synonymous with something in this particular prison film, and if it was removed completely, the film would trim ten minutes and lose absolutely nothing. It doesn’t hinder the progress of my score as a whole, but these brief hiccups were the only times when “The Mustang” felt like it was trying to be something and cater to a particular subgenre that it absolutely isn’t, and this element of the script simply doesn’t mesh well with its counterparts.

– Missed opportunities. Even if we do find out the “what” and the “how” of Roman’s incarceration, the “why” seems to be a much more important aspect that the movie never fully exploits for compelling drama. There’s a scene of remorse from Roman, where he speaks to his daughter about one faithful night, but the actions of an angry man come and go with so little understanding of the situation, that it almost feels secondary to the environment surrounding it. The father and daughter do confront one another, but for it being the closing shot between them, the resolution left a little more to be desired, and if it wasn’t for an additional closing narration (Which also feels tacked-on), this subplot would leave many audiences missing the finer points of easily the most engaging material that the movie has to offer.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+