The Good Liar

Directed By Bill Condon

Starring – Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Ford V Ferrari

Directed By James Mangold

Starring – Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe

The Plot – American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Bale) battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

Rated PG-13 for some adult language and peril

POSITIVES

– Production details. This is a film that takes place in 1966, yet doesn’t require the heavy handed quality of beating us over the head with such a presentation that is distracting to the pivotal pieces surrounding it. Instead, Mangold disperses an occasional reminder every so often, lie a dated magazine or grocery design that better helps illustrate the designated time frame. For coloring texture, it’s the sunbaked cinematography of Phedon Papamichael, who has an experimental side of expression shooting visuals classics like “Walk the Line”, “Nebraska”, or “A Beautiful Day”. Phedon’s subtly easily immerses us in the transformation of the era without requiring the desperation of saturated imagery to sell his point, instead letting the toys themselves in the foreground do the talking in giving us an alluring seduction to the automobiles of yesterday. In that regard, the Ford and Ferrari 60’s models are made from the very same scrap metal that is no longer found on cars, as well as a faithful curvature of the car’s framing that accentuates detail right down to the very tee of what Miles took with him across the finish line.

– Fluffy pacing. This is a movie that is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, yet never grinds its gears in presenting an intoxicating narrative. The reason for that is because the first two acts of the movie is constantly moving, taking us through the backstory of the race itself, in addition to the many real life dramatic circumstances that Miles and Shelby dealt with in partnering with a major corporation like Ford. I was surprised to find that when I checked my watch for the first time, there was only 25 minutes left in the movie, acting as a testament to the script’s ability to allow its audience to get lost in these characters, as well as the education lesson given to anyone like me, who knows so little about automobile education. For my money, this film could even afford another twenty minutes on fleshing out its antagonists, as well as diving a little deeper on a gut-wrenching finale that lays everything on the line. It’s definitely one of the easier two hour plus watches that I have had in 2019, and cements a testament to Mangold as a storyteller who knows what avenues to travel to keep audiences invested within the heat of the complexity.

– Surprising special effects. There aren’t many that are especially obvious, but the seamless inclusion of an eye-stretching crowd, as well as some computer generated tricks used on the track, prove that foreign properties to the live action dimension are anything but lifeless. In fact, there’s only one scene in the film, where a plane lands on a runway, that stood out as a bit cheap in its rendering for me. Aside from this, the proximity of the consistency of camera angles used, as well as proper coloring establishment with its live action surroundings, exceeded believability, and nearly fooled me into thinking that Mangold called on thousands of extras to line its rows of stadium seating. These give the film a big budget quality of attention that lesser filmmakers don’t spend nearly enough time on, and overall it’s proof computer generation, when done right, can have an impactful effect on materializing the proper influence that adds to instead of overrides.

– Musical depth. Hats off to musical composer Marco Beltrami for channeling no shortage of musical genre’s nor instruments in conjuring the proper urgency needed to push these racing sequences to suffocating levels of claustrophobic tension. In the first act, Beltrami uses a lot of jazz drums and increasing rhythmic pulse to give the atmosphere a level of ambition, all the while paying homage to the Motown presence that accompanies so much of the film’s consistent setting. In the second act, he switches it up by instilling a classic rock vibe of electric guitar’s and piano to enhance the natural quality of fast-paced racing, granting it an underlying presence that shifts and shakes almost in mirror comparison to the cars that dominate the visual capacity. By the final act, Marco throws what he can at the studio recording, producing a twisting quartet of range that persists with increasing volume like a screwing coming undone in the most unnerving way. I’m usually not a big fan of Beltrami’s scores for their practicality and obviousness to the films they accompany, but something like a racing film works so efficiently for him, if even just for the way he incorporates much of the audible flavor that was present with the particular time frame.

– Informative. Everything in the film is factually based, with regards to the developments of behind-the-scenes aspects that only a movie could bring forth, but what’s compelling is how deep the dive of privacy entails. Not only does this film invade the thick walls of the Ford elite, illustrating its bureaucracy inside with an elaboration of the story’s real antagonists, but it also vividly depicts the kind of faltering science associated with car building. In fact, no other racing movie has ever fruitfully portrayed the annoying-but-inspiring process of deconstructing something so permanently established, and reshaping it in a way that extends its lifespan tenfold because of the passionate team behind it. This screenplay has a love for the most intimate of details, and values their importance in a way that will provide even a few surprising revelations for even the most hardcore of automobile enthusiasts.

– Enthralling sequences. Without a question the most valuable positive of the movie is Mangold’s near perfect direction of shot composition versatility that puts us so close to the action that we nearly feel the heat from the engines pushing themselves in unnatural methods to win. Instead of using shaking camera effects that have become a staple of action movie cinema used to illustrate energy, James instead takes a consistent approach of using wide angle, semi-long take shots, where the cars move in and out of frame with such velocity that it nearly becomes a three-dimensional gimmick for how close they reside. In addition to this, there’s a healthy compromise of bumper point-of-view shots so immersive that we the audience nearly feel the wind blowing through our hair at the ever-changing landscapes emerging and diminishing before our very eyes. It presents the closest possible depiction of being in the driver’s seat without it being an outright first person movie, and thanks to the fine balance of experimentation used to literally drive its points home, the film presents many riveting exchanges where it feels like vulnerability is a character within the movie of so many characters playing with such high stakes.

– Characterization. This movie has tons of it. Aside from investing valuable minutes in its duo of central protagonists, the film outlines everyone from Henry Ford himself, to supporting pit crew members, and especially most important, the Miles family themselves, who are among my favorite characters in the movie. The screenplay has such a respect for these many emotionally diverse people, spending time to flesh out their fears and ambitions in a way that makes us feel like we’ve known and watched them grow for years. What’s important is no two characters are ever the same in personality or speech demeanor, proving that screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Jason Keller provided emphasis in their importance to the story. It offers no defining weak spots of scenes where our favorite characters are away from the camera, and keeps our interests at consistent highs throughout, because they’ve each had their examples to shine in the brightest ways possible.

– Complete cast. Bale gives another transformative performance, emoting Ken with a combination of neurotic intelligence and heartfelt family-man compassion that really presents two alluring sides of the racer’s personality. Damon as well shines with a southern drawl consistency and endless charisma that makes Shelby stand out as so much more than a pioneer of an assembly line, but also as a human being who valued the friendship with Miles so much that he often went to war because of it. Aside from this talented duo, Tracy Letts gives off a mafia-head vibe as the CEO of the biggest automobile company on the planet, Josh Lucas chews up atmosphere as this detestably vile Leo Beebe, and Jon Bernthal resides as the visionary Iacocca, who constructed the pieces that were pivotal to a war nobody thought was possible. Without a doubt, however, it’s Caitriona Balfe who stole the show for me as Mollie Miles. Mollie exudes the same intelligence that her husband has, but has a delightfully pleasant cynicism to her character that often sees moves being made a mile ahead of everyone else, often making her feel like the driver in the marriage. Her scenes with Bale feel so naturally convincing, and Balfe’s influence on the film doesn’t go unnoticed, giving us plenty of laughs along the way of the unfolding madness. During an age when men were at the forefront of many relationships and careers, it’s Caitriona’s Mollie that takes one step forward.

NEGATIVES

– Dated establishing. There is no on-screen text throughout the film, often making it difficult to distinguish how much time has passed, unless a character conveniently mentions it in informative dialogue. Why this is a problem for me is it not only adds unnecessary difficult in conveying to the audience the urgency of the situation of building a revolutionary car in such a brief period of time, but it also makes it a chore to comprehend just how much time has passed along the way. The film flashes forward through lengthy amounts of time so unceremoniously that it outlines a convoluted method of storytelling where simplicity should’ve been the intended measure used to maximize the importance of time. Without it, six months passing feels every bit the same as six days.

– Lack of Ferrari. Without including the side of our Italian rivals, the film unfortunately falls under the category of American propaganda, with a villain character that might as well be a shadowy corporation. It attains that level of ignorance because of its long span of time that passes before we see them again, and when we do see them, it’s only to sneer at the screen to remind us that they are bad, and America good. This is easily where the film could use even more time to commentate their side of the story. Without it, the title, “Ford V Ferrari” is a one-sided battle where only one side is important to the complexion and convenience of the narrative.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Midway

Directed By Roland Emmerich

Starring – Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Last Christmas

Directed By Paul Feig

Starring – Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson

The Plot – Kate (Clarke) is a young woman subscribed to bad decisions. Her last date with disaster? That of having accepted to work as Santa’s elf for a department store. However, she meets Tom (Golding) there. Her life takes a new turn. For Kate, it seems too good to be true.

Rated PG-13 for adult language and sexual content

POSITIVES

– Dark humor. For the first half of the movie, we are treated to the charming essence of Feig’s off-beat brand of laughs and visual sight gags that help the audience grow and invest in these characters, especially Kate in that her vulnerability towards humiliation is her greatest quality. For the majority of intended deliveries, I enjoyed a consistent helping of hearty laughter, that lured me right into the holiday setting and all of its strange, quirky characters. It proves that the film does have a vibrancy in personality that makes this anything other than the tacky Christmas or romance narratives, and instead grounds its reality in the awkwardness of the season that is every bit boisterous as it is testing.

– Likeable cast. Thompson has always been a national treasure to me, and even donning a Russian accent here, she still maintains the level of timely delivery and on-screen charisma that has made her a commanding presence for over four decades of film. Aside from her, the chemistry of Clarke and Golding is off of the charts, subtly developing their blossoming relationship, all the while preserving what’s so enveloping about the duo as leading stars. For Clarke, it’s easily her warm, bright smile, but it’s the infectious energy that she maintains in the role, even through some dramatic depths in material that prove she’s anything but one-note. For Golding, it’s more of the Tinsletown leading man suave that is a rarity in today’s movie landscape, but one that easily distinguishes him from his competition. Both of these leads have fun in their respective roles, all the while providing us with a relationship that is easy to get behind from an audience perspective.

– Soulful soundtrack. Being that this is a movie based on the music of George Michael, it would be difficult to screw this aspect up, and thankfully the production doesn’t waste away this opportunity. It’s important to note that it isn’t a song every couple of minutes, and instead it’s the cleverness of Feig to work it in topically when he sees fit, giving the song a newfound life through the eyes of a different situation that at least lyrically resonates. “Last Christmas” is obviously the focal point here, but non-Christmas classics like “Faith”, “Freedom”, “Heal the Pain”, and even “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” are dispersed in a way that provide a pleasant energy to the film that accentuates the entrancing visuals of England. Aside from this, Clarke herself is given the microphone a couple of times throughout the film to actually perform some of the catalog from her character’s favorite singer, and does a masterful job in doing justice to Michael’s ranging falsetto.

– Small details. I love a set design that the camera can allow us to immerse in, solidifying the lived-in quality that comes within the specifics of one’s geographical setting. In this regard, it’s specifically the year-round Christmas shop that Clarke’s character works in that dazzled me with rare product that I am sure will become a staple of real life retail once this film is seen by more opportunist eyes. There’s plenty of examples mentioned and shown by characters who present the miniature statues front-and-center, but it’s the stuff that is barely shown just over the shoulder of a character in frame that really impressed me, and presented plenty of inner-world Easter Eggs to prove that the production spared no expense in bringing its world and ideals to life. If nothing else, the visual appeal of the film will get you prepared for Christmas, and give a fruitful example of marketing in its most extreme of all stages.

– Unique wardrobe. This is primarily towards Clarke’s character, whose color and style coordination reflects that of an alcoholic with little time for anything other than the bottle, except maybe sleep. Her work uniform has her in a green elf costume, complete with cute elf shoes, all of which seemed perfect for Emilia’s brand of irresistible spunk. Her casual attire features leopard skinned coat, multi-layered dresses underneath, all supplanted by grey stockings, which are every bit a staple of the character as the very bottles she clinks through. It’s not overly spectacular in its pageantry, but does the job in colorfully illustrating the personality and demeanor of someone so dispirited with the season.

NEGATIVES

– Theme overload. This is really only a factor during the disastrous third act, which so many of my negatives resonate in. For this particular problem, it’s the need to incorporate racism, gay prejudice, and even an unfolding social war in Yugoslavia into the mix, with such little effetiveness or direction to make it articulately pop with the pre-established Christmas theme that the entire film until that point was preaching. None of these themes are ever given even remotely satisfying resolution, nor the kind of clarity that hammers home a positively earnest message to send audiences home on. Instead, it mentions them once or twice, and then never follows through on cementing its necessary intention. The film is only 97 minutes long, but if you cut these pointless exercises for this particular film, you would have a tighter more cohesive direction that remains focused all the way to the finish line.

– Improv comedy. I mentioned earlier that the humor, particularly during the film’s first half, is one of the more stronger suits that the film preserves itself into earning the attention of its audience. For a majority, I was delighted into it, but occasionally there is that hint of pretentious Feig that sets in, giving unimportant extras the chance to hone their craft at the screeching halt of storytelling progression. If this is done once or twice, fine, no problem, but the need to incorporate two bumbling female cops, two homeless shelter characters who only serve a purpose to advance the mystery between the romantic leads, and a barrage of Kate’s family and friends, makes this unbearable. Every time these characters popped up on camera, I cringed knowing where the scene was headed, and I was right every single time. More cutting that could be used for positivity.

– Melodrama overload. I expect this kind of thing in a romantic Christmas movie, but the way it transitions with its overbearing third act took away much of what I enjoyed about the movie in the first place. Mainly it’s the complete removal of comedy that comes once Kate reveals some near-death troubles from her past that allows Tom to see her in a different light. The heavy handed nature of its evolution feels so far removed from the enjoyable film we once were receiving, in favor of a conventional third act conflict that sours when it should be sweet. It’s working with emotionally moving material and performances, but the film’s designated majority genre keeps it from ever properly attaining the tears that it calls on the audience so abruptly to disperse. If Feig directed the first two acts of the movie, Nicholas Sparks directed the third.

– Detestable twist. I expected something similar to this when I was watching the film, based on the awkward exposition of one of its characters, but what it amounted to couldn’t have been the intended ending meant to send audiences home happy with the result they were just given. This twist is so absurdly rendered, with a complete lack of logic in the rules of the consequence that it almost succeeds at being a science fiction movie. On top of all of this, it takes the song “Last Christmas” by George Michael, and attacks it with such a lyrical dissection in deconstructing it as something completely unintended. An example would be taking a song like “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, and making a film inspired by it, that revolves around a sand salesman. The last time a melodrama pissed me off this terribly was after “Collateral Beauty”, and at least with that film there was very little about it that I actually enjoyed. “Last Christmas” was close in succeeding, but the very next day, it gave it away. See? I can be clever too.

– Stretched ending. This is becoming a staple in Hollywood cinema, as this film as well doesn’t know the proper ending that it was trying for, so therefore will include them all in the film’s final ten minutes. For my money, I would’ve never included a Shelter ball, or a scene in the springtime that follows it. Yes, that’s right, the film’s ending is so long that it starts in Winter, and ends in Spring. How’s that for procrastination?

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Pain and Glory

Directed By Pedro Almodovar

Starring – Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The King

Directed By David Michod

Starring – Timothee Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson

The Plot – Hal (Chalamet), wayward prince and reluctant heir to the English throne, has turned his back on royal life and is living among the people. But when his tyrannical father dies, Hal is crowned King Henry V and is forced to embrace the life he had previously tried to escape. Now the young king must navigate the palace politics, chaos and war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life – including his relationship with his closest friend and mentor, the aging alcoholic knight, John Falstaff (Edgerton).

Rated R for some strong violence, and adult language.

POSITIVES

– Unexpected direction. Most stories revolving around the chase for the throne detail these deceiving characters using whatever advantage they can to seek the fame and fortunes that they desire, but “The King” uniquely flips this narrative in a way that boldly illustrates the pressures of the throne. For Henry V, it’s the character evolution while being on the throne itself that brings forth a determination to do the ugly deeds in order to attain what is necessary for peace. This more than anything compromises the young man we were introduced to early on, who turned down the throne so as not to be a part of the hierarchy that put so many of his citizens in danger. It takes this conventional re-telling of European history, and transcends that tag in order to become a candid character piece, full of enough political insight and profound weight in historical significance to constantly keep shedding its skin towards finding its own original method of storytelling.

– Fluid pacing. 140 minutes of screen time originally worried me when I saw while studying the film’s information, but the consistency of the dramatic tension, combined with emphasis in its brutality, brought forth a sit that even at nearly two-and-a-half hours I still didn’t want to walk away from. This is a story that is constantly moving forward, crafting a series of noise in subplots playing in the background in the same way they do King Henry V’s mind when making a pivotal decision, and it produces a strong amount of urgency that is not typical prominent in an early 19th century movie. Some liberties were certainly taken with the consistency of adverse arrivals, but for the integrity of the picture, everything is at least entertaining above all else, tweaking the factual capacities for an entertaining narrative that welcomes audiences to something they otherwise wouldn’t.

– Seamless production. This aspect is everywhere. From the personality that marries itself with the factual of multi-layered costume designs, to the immensity of sparse details that exist within the framing of each interior set design, to the attention given to British and French conversation structure, everything inside offers a teleporting experience that really caters to immersing yourself in these familiar faces losing themselves to the proper time period. In this regard, it is Netflix most ambitious property to date, and one that will surely make the awards war with the silver screen all the more difficult because of this gap-bridging that is visually commanding. Most of it falls on the shoulders of Michod, who balances the most in 19th century visual capacities with 21st century filmmaking, producing a hybrid marriage that blends surprisingly natural in maintaining its immersive qualities.

– One bright idea. Easily my favorite aspect of the film is the choice to use natural lighting to document these scenes. This not only plays wonderfully in establishing the dark, gritty atmosphere that cinematographer Adam Arkapaw vividly entrances us with, but conveys a natural presence in the pre-electricity age that offers an alluring quality to ugly rendering. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but my investment to a film is made all the more tighter when I’m feeling the very same aspects that its people did for the proper time period, and while shadows might not be visually appealing to most because of their distracting nature, it’s the way they articulate its place in time that allows it to forget the ideal artistic prejudice that exists in most big budget presentations.

– War sequences. There are only two in this film, but even for a streaming service quality of scope, the scenes are enriched with a level of unriddled intensity that allows them to hold their own against the big boys of the genre. Most of it falls on composer Nicholas Britell’s magnetically riveting score, for the way it encapsulates the very tragedy and gratifying circumstances of war, but more than that it’s the use of some gorgeous shot selection’s that keep your eyes glued to the screen. Michod uses a lot of long take character tracking shots to impress us with physical stunt choreography, but even more than that, it’s the heat of the atmosphere with all of its mud-slinging frenzy that vividly paints this soggy, dirty battlefield, and one whose vulnerability resonates throughout its barrage of bodies and brutality that the film is not ashamed to donate ample time towards.

– Gifted cast. The collective group of names brings forth one of the more talented ensembles of 2019, but the work individually measures the constant professionalism in spades that allowed some of today’s best to lose themselves in the confines of their roles. Kicking it off in that regard is Edgerton, who pulls double duty as a star and screenwriter, is easily my favorite character of the film as Falstaff. This man is the film’s humor and personality, but even more than that it’s the devotion to Henry V that easily cements him as the heart of the film, and one that thankfully we get plenty of time with. Pattinson might be the show-stealer again, however, as this French army leader, who is every bit as intended over-the-top for the scene, as he is antagonizing as a villain. Pattinson lays it on thick with his English-French accent and endless conceit, almost turning the film into a comedy at times. But the way he once again transforms himself as a chameleon actor who lives and breathes through the character, is something that makes him one of the best going today, and the commander of many scene-stealing appearances throughout the film’s second half. Finally, one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets in Sean Harris is let out of the bag with a performance that toes the line of trustful and seedy accordingly. It helps that his delivery isn’t comical or over-the-top in a way that meanders the effectiveness of the intention, instead burning in the background like the tarantula that his character rightfully is, and popping into frame at only the right moments to stir the pot of dramatic tension.

– Profound reflection. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is who it depicts as the “Villain” of the war. There are many sides addressed in this regard; from the unsettling tensions mounting from the French adversaries, to King Henry IV, Henry V’s father, whose one man democracy has cost England so many lives and money from a war that many deemed unimportant, and then there’s the third refreshing side that could even resonate to the kinds of decisions that our own people in power today are going through, and that’s those string-pullers behind the scenes. It’s easy to comprehend how these whisperers are responsible for so much, stirring the shit with the king in a way that better manufactures this war, and has Henry himself making decisions that he never wanted nor expected to make. That’s what is truly rewarding about this film. That idea that anyone inside could be considered an antagonist to the story, and that there are no black or white characters, only varying shades of grey.

– Concept of hate. What really struck me about this film was the way it examines how hate is grown from ignorance and vanity, and fostered by the corrupt and greedy to have influence on those intended. This is certainly another one of those shape-shifting themes that can feel prominent in our own world, but how it’s used here condemns experience in a way that is reflective of the greed they seek, and how many people they’re willing to step on in order to attain it. This for me was an absolutely phenomenal statement for a film like this to make, if only to take time maintaining a theme in a way that coincides with what is transpiring on-screen, all the while cementing it further in the actions given. It gives poignant food-for-thought in a way that makes a story so dated surprisingly timeless with its themes, and makes this one of the more spiritually rewarding films of the 2019 movie year.

NEGATIVES

– Minimal character depth. This shines more prominent when you have these familiar faces playing such unimportant characters to the dynamic of the time they’re given to make an impact. Even for a movie as lengthy as “The King” is, characters like King Henry IV, Henry’s sister Philippa, or even the love interest subplot that is coldly introduced in the final ten minutes of the film, all required more exposition and interaction to get the beats of their characters over, and warrant their inclusion at all to the integrity of the film. Without it, they all feel like obvious plot devices in a bigger scheme with each scene they accompany, and it leaves so very little opportunity for a female presence to dominate in the foreground of this picture.

– Leading man. If you noticed one big name missing from my performance section, it’s Timothee Chalamet as King Henry V, who is every bit as underwhelming in the role as he was miscast. I have nothing against Chalamet as an actor. His turns in “Beautiful Boy” and “Call Me By Your Name” are some of the very best of their respective years, but when tasked to emote as the inspirational figure who led the Brits into France, Chalamet’s reserved registry just doesn’t fit the bill. The long-winded diatribes are fine enough, but when the camera opens up Chalamet during personal scenes of reflection, it’s clear there’s so very little to the character that is only hinted at, and very rarely ever realized. With a volted protagonist performance, “The King” could be one of the best films of the fall season, but because Timothee feels more fit for a Calvin Klein commercial instead of a decorated soldier of war, it doesn’t quite fit the throne that it inherits.

My Grade: 8/10 or B

Harriet

Directed By Kasi Lemmons

Starring – Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Joe Alwyn

The Plot – Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, “Harriet” tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s (Erivo) escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and adult language including racial epithets

POSITIVES

– The character study. If nothing else, Lemmons earns herself the status as the right woman to tell Harriet’s immensely important story for the respect she instills within the mentality of her leading lady. Faith, family, and freedom are the three things that shape her actions, allowing her to risk everything for the themes she holds so closely to her heart, and it outlines her as this ahead-of-her-time historical figure that sadly hasn’t received the kind of historical praise that she so desperately deserves. Lemmons depicts her as a trail-blazer, and one that still maintains the vulnerability associated with putting so much on the line, despite her exuberant bravery that shines unflinchingly on the outside. In that regard, Tubman was an icon for the many black little girls, like Kasi, who owe her the kind of homage that the film, above all else, properly stands for.

– One thunderous performances. Everyone here does a fine job living through their respective parts, but this is clearly a one woman whirlwind of a performance done through the eyes of the vastly talented Cynthia Erivo. Ignoring the controversies that came with casting her in the first place, I will say that Erivo silences the doubters with an ample amount of long-winded inspirational diatribes and an equally riveting display of emotional and physical investment that articulate the mountains Harriet moved in fighting for her freedoms. Erivo, at only a barely five foot frame, gives Harriet the kind of fearless intensity in the eyes of her adversity, that resonated across the country why she was one to be feared by many, and admired by more. The film is only as watchable as it is because of Erivo’s extremely gifted performance, and if nothing else should earn her an Oscar nomination next February.

– Established production design. In the immersive quality for the film, there are many examples that give it that distinct look of 19th century appearance told through the lens of 21st century technology, but none more captivating than the amounts of throwback threads and impactful set designs that remain consistent throughout. On the former, there’s the mundane weathering of plantation outfits, which convey the idea that all names and identities are lost in a sea of similarity. For the latter, I thoroughly thought the log cabin’s captured a cheap quality of life for the many slaves, that visually conveyed a depravity that was typical for them. In addition to this, Philadelphia is granted a distinguishing aura of top-shelf class and sophistication that makes it the ultimate finishing line for Harriet’s testing cross-country journey. The production picks up the slack where the script dooms the film into conformity, and presents us with eye-popping visual aspects that absorb as much about the time period as possible.

– Use of color. There are two sides to this artistic integrity, and each have their own important ideal of rendering that plays a pivotal roll in Harriet’s journey. While initially I thought that the blueish hue that adorned so much of the film’s first half was used just a means to accentuate the many visions that Harriet was shown from God, they are in fact meant to represent the cold, damp atmosphere that many feel in being held captive against their will. This becomes evident when the same blue is used in scenes that don’t even feature Harriet, but remain persistent in the southland setting. The other color is gold, and this is used to convey freedom, as evidenced by its saturating quality in frame when Harriet finally arrives in Philadelphia. It’s an intoxicating layer of cinematography meant to inspire warmth in the registries of the audience watching, and does an exceptional job in illustrating the proper tone between the two sides.

– Scintillating score. The work done here by composer Terence Blanchard incorporates a fine combination of stirring compositions and gospel hymns sung by the characters in frame to give it a distinct uniqueness from other films of the slave subgenre. I say this because movies like these are often rare to spot characters still sporting the tool of Christ within their registries, but it brought forth no shortage of forth-coming goosebumps to my arms each time their notes relayed that they still fight. For the lyric-less music, the air of sentimentality that usually cripples my theatrical experience in sappy films prospered with driven intensity, that filled in the gaps by amateur direction in that field. There’s an achingly tense cloud of inevitability that is presented at sturdy levels of volume, never overtaking what’s transpiring on-screen, and always acting as the necessary highlighter of emphasis to push investment even further.

NEGATIVES

– Superhero framing. Tonally, this film couldn’t be anymore insultingly ineffective for the factual storytelling that should be enough. This feels very much like an origin superhero movie, and one that isn’t a good thing to the sensitivity of the subject matter. There’s personal loss, injuries that lead to super-powers, an over-the-top antagonist with some truly dreadful lines of dialogue, and a hero who pops up at just the right time to even the score. When I watched the trailer for this film, I felt that the decision to make this an action film was one that did a great disservice to the film, but looking at it now, that’s the least of my worries. “Harriet” is one Sam Jackson cameo away from being an Avenger, and commits the biggest error of its material, in that it never remains true to itself.

– Too soft. In the era of films like “12 Years a Slave” or “Birth of a Nation”, there’s simply no room for films about slavery to be reduced to a PG-13 rating, and somehow expect to properly attain the air of authenticity that it requires in relating the fear and disgust to its audience. In this regard, “Harriet” is the safest film about slavery that I’ve ever seen, trading in disgusting treatment for implication. In fact, it’s so astonishingly farce that the white slave owners don’t do anything worse than tearing up freedom papers or separating family members throughout the film. Instead, they recruit a black muscle to do all of their dirty work for them, and because of it, is never able to articulate the menace of the antagonist properly, nor give the audience as much empathy for the slaves as what should be easily intended. “12 Years a Slave” captured such unflinching intensity with its torture that never felt exploitative or unnecessary to the integrity of the picture. It used it to paint a picture of both sides of this world, and did so with such articulance that I begged for these slave owners to meet their makers, something this film doesn’t even come close on.

– Shortcuts importance. I’ve always thought that Harriet Tubman’s life story is simply unable to be adapted to the big screen because there’s so much to cover in such a short time that something is bound to be left unaddressed, and that’s the case here. The story starts with Harriet in the middle of being a slave, with no mention at all of her life before everything in frame. Aside from this, the period of Harriet being a spy during the Civil War, where she rescued as many as 800 rumored slaves is reduced to post-movie text that only hints at it. It seems like such a disservice to Tubman to not feature this in an action-dominated genre, and only offers a scope of her talents when you subtract it from the finished product.

– Taking liberties. This movie is what I call factual, but far from authentic. What I mean by that is the movie will take aspects like the Godly visions or the Fugitive Slave Act featured in the film, and spin them where the screenplay requires them to bend urgency. Yes, Tubman was rumored to have visions from God, but they aren’t the superpower that is shown in the film, but rather a mental seizure that the character suffered from each time one popped up. You could call them illusions caused by mental suffering, but lets just stick with the God stuff for now, because it’s convenient for the plot. As for the Fugitive Slave Act, it’s mentioned as being signed in 1836 in the movie, but in reality wasn’t signed until 1850. Once again, this is another example of a screenwriter who couldn’t log onto Wikipedia to cement the proper year it was established, bringing flashbacks of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for all of the wrong reasons.

– Amateur direction. I don’t have anything personal against Lemmons, but certain sequences prove she’s over her head in the bland shot compositions and lack of dramatic emphasis that go virtually unnoticed throughout the film. Scenes that should feature such suffocating intensity and peeling vulnerability, are instead illustrated as a momentary adversity, and one that the protagonists overcome with quite an inordinate amount of ease. It crafts the film’s pivotal sequences, but especially the ending, with an overbearing grounded approach, burdening us frequently with a sense of anti-climatic resistance that makes this forgettable five minutes after you finish it.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Inside Game

Directed By Randall Batinkoff

Starring – Eric Mabius, Scott Wolf, Will Sasso

The Plot – In 2007, when NBA referee Tim Donaghy (Mabius) got caught betting on games he worked, he said two men associated with the Gambino crime family; a bookie named Baba Battista (Sasso) and a drug dealer named Tommy Martino (Wolf) – threatened to kill his family if he didn’t give them gambling picks. That’s what Donaghy told the FBI, that’s what he told 60 Minutes, and that’s what he testified in court. But that’s not what really happened. That’s not even close. INSIDE GAME is the untold true story of one of the biggest scandals in sports history.

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

POSITIVES

– Sasso of truth. While you could poke enough fun at the casting, for how any of these lead actors don’t look a thing like the real life counterparts they are portraying, or the fact that Michael O’Keefe, who plays Tim’s father in the movie, is only sixteen years older than Mabius in real life, there is actually one solid performance in the bunch that constantly drove my interest, and it was that of Mad TV alum Will Sasso, who treats this like the Oscar winning turn that it so evidently was not going to be. Sasso is a wonder to behold, chewing away at no shortage of scenery throughout the movie, all the while embodying a drug and gambling addict with the nerves of a mental patient. It brings forth the urgency and dramatic depth within a couple of scenes that easily make them stand out in the film’s finished product, and preserves Sasso as an actor who deserves more lead opportunities in front of the camera. While everyone else is phoning in their performance as nothing more than a paycheck film, it is Will’s constant professionalism and commitment to this underwhelming production that prove he is simply too good to be involved with such garbage.

– High stakes. Even when the storytelling undercuts the opportunities that should be presented from lengthy exposition, the enveloping of some truly gripping scenes of tension materialize in the film’s early third act that earn your investment into it all over again. In addition to the many adversaries coming for this trio of friends because of what they owe them, it’s more so the deterioration of their family lives that strongly make you empathize for innocent people with nothing to do with said situation, except for the unlucky inheritance of a father with a clearly evident problem. Right up until Tim’s final game as a referee, you feel the weight of what would normally be a championship atmosphere in any sports movie, but here it represents the despair and risk of laying everything on the line for one final pay-off, and attains a level of pins and needles for this group’s darkest hour that it rightfully should not.

– Not boring. I know that sounds like a back-handed compliment, but the film’s air-tight pacing through a barely 94 minute run time keeps things constantly moving forward, leaving very little down time in between the very high’s and low’s that shape this evolving friendship. In that regard, if there is one thing that Batinkoff knows, it’s how to shape a story for fans and non-fans of sports alike, that limits boredom from ever setting in with their experience. It helps that its storytelling has a severe case of attention deficit disorder, in that it never stays grounded to soak up as much about curveballs that are thrown their way in playing the system. But more so it’s the tightness of establishing every scene as something pivotal to the development of where this story and these characters end up, giving the film an intriguing presence despite the many things that it does wrong.

NEGATIVES

– Cheap production. The aspect isn’t so much a surprise, but rather how badly it truly is. Tight shot composition’s during game sequences limit the obviousness of small crowds for the production scene, stilted editing that is consistently around two seconds off for where it should be cutting scenes, and of course the film’s lack of funds for purchasing the logo’s that these NBA teams familiarize themselves with. The last one is surprising because the NBA logo itself is represented a couple of times in the film, but I guess the line was drawn there to dig deeper into the visual integrity of the teams. Aside from this, the film’s cinematography is lacking of any style or substantial shot meaning to carve out something unique to fight off a miniscule production budget. It gives the film a made-for-TV quality that only looks worse when it’s shown on a big screen, making this one of the more strange studio releases of the 2019 fall season.

– Who’s story? It’s strange that Donaghy is a supporting character in a film about his dealings on and off the court, but even more than that it’s how the film goes these long span of minutes without even hearing from him, establishing Sasso and Wolf as the central leads for how the focus remains so tightly prominent with them. There’s no examples of self-reflection or anything complex about the character that makes his cause all the more deserving for what he’s robbed of, and makes me think that his involvement in the picture was very limited if anything at all. It would be like making a movie about the music of Kanye West, and then establishing Jay-Z the central protagonist. This is easily the biggest problem with the film’s overwhelming lack of information that goes unaddressed with a film that was supposed to donate 94 minutes to tackle such a subject. It’s kind of shameful.

– Magic of montage. As I previously mentioned, the exposition is limited throughout this film, and what this does is causes character traits that weren’t there before to pop-up in a way that makes us feel like we’re watching a completely different film. An example is in Sasso’s drug use, which goes from conventionally stable to out-of-control chaotic within about ten minutes of screen time, disallowing anything to materialize naturally because of something pivotal that transpired on-screen. There are three of these montages used throughout the film to fill in the gaps, and it’s compared to something like the movie “Click”, where Adam Sandler fast-forwards through key moments of his life, and is then surprised at the current state of where he lands. There’s enough intrigue in the story that it should’ve just went the documentary route with its story, instead of a film that meanders character motivations in a way that makes them feel bi-polar.

– Detestable characters. This was the hardest angle to get through for me personally, because there’s never a shred of empathy or hope that these trio of man-children will escape the inevitable fates that await them. Compare this to another real life story depicted in film like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and you start to understand and appreciate how Scorsese never overlooks the horrible things that these men in suits do, but does outline them with a layer of humanity that helps us understand their reasons for doing so. In “Inside Game”, no such thing exists, as these are three Philly boys who do drugs, cheat on their significant others, and put their families in financial jeopardy in ways that are so selfishly condemning towards the appreciation of their characters. It made it to where I couldn’t wait until karma caught up to them, offering no level of civility to the perils of greed that overcome them whole.

– Fumbled sound mixing. This is always one of my favorite productional aspects to point out because it’s something so easy to attain, that nearly every movie stumbles on. For this movie, the two that I point to are in the heat of the arena, as well as a scene early on within the club, where the noise of others in the setting is about as established as a paper bag blowing somewhere in the background. The conversations between characters aren’t muffled or overrun in the slightest, and even when a character isn’t shouting or mouthing words in slow, bold movements of the mouth, you can still hear them like they are shouting in your ear. Try to do that the next time you’re in a dance club with a friend, and write down every word they said to you. I guarantee you won’t get half of their words correct.

– Movie cliche 1,363. This is another personal favorite of mine during the sports genre, for how ridiculous it appears in conjuring up reality. In this instance, Tim’s parents are watching the basketball game at home that he is referee on, and even during moments where a play is being run, the camera within the broadcast is focused on him and his reactions towards plays. Once again, imagine this in the real world, where Lebron James is bouncing a basketball out of the frame of our commitment to documenting referee Ken Mauer watching the play in question. This is obviously only done to illustrate the communication between two characters who are in a different setting from one another, but it soils the values of immersing ourselves into the realism of this established environment for the sake of visual stimulation.

– Strange narration. This is not done by Donaghy, but rather his best friend Tommy, who is arguably a distant third to audience investment between this trio of characters. It’s bad enough that his narration offers only an echoing quality to what transpires on-screen before us, but he also only pops up around three or four times in the film to begin with, making the gimmick feel every bit as unnecessary as it is unsubstantial to its inclusion. Finally, the last drop-in features no shortage of basketball puns to throw into the comparison of what the guys are currently going through, and it got so annoying that I screamed out “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” in my empty theater. Yes, even at over 1400 reviews, films still find a way to antagonize me in a way that makes me quite literally scream.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

Motherless Brooklyn

Directed By Edward Norton

Starring – Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe

The Plot – Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, “Motherless Brooklyn” follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve his friend’s murder. Armed only with a few clues and the powerful engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance.

Rated R for adult language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence

POSITIVES

– Newfound success. In choosing to adapt a novel that takes place in the 90’s, and spin it during the swing of the roaring 50’s, Norton conjures up a crime noir story that establishes his passion for the genre in spades. Absorbing as much as he has from the classics he grew up with, Norton accomplishes a wardrobe consistency of three piece suits and free-flowing gowns, a scintillating musical score with enough horns and trumpets to bring to life the late night think tank feel that many detectives endure, and of course in-depth narration from Norton’s own character, which paints the very complicated line he toes in being a part of so many relationships within the central conflict. It establishes a retro presentation that we unfortunately very rarely see anymore within big screen releases, and provides proof that Norton’s impeccable eye and ear for detail give him an exceptionally gifted presence in transformative cinema, and render him a credible triple threat in acting, directing, and writing.

– Friends in high places. Norton brings along his most famous acquaintances and co-stars from previous films to make his first helmed an impressive assortment of attention-stealing focus in a sea of familiar faces. Aside from the impressive trio that I mentioned above, they are also joined by young Hollywood phenom Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann, and Bobby Cannavale, to name a few. It gives the film a rich feeling of elite star power that most directors have to wait a few films to attain, and proves Norton’s influence over his word of mouth in order to make this collaboration something that is visually impressive. Not every big name has a big presence over the film, but its decision to dispose of one very early on solidifies the unpredictability within this established environment, adding to the gritty surrealism of Brooklyn during a very violent period in the city’s history.

– Script depth. One refreshing element to the progression of the screenplay is in this emerging subplot of racial gentrification within the city’s tenants, which has brought to light some deep-seeded issues from a questionable administration. What’s so rewarding about this aspect of the script is that Norton touches on the very honest circumstance that many minorities actually dealt with during such a period in history, and incorporates it seamlessly into a story that further plays to the heat of its on-going investigative mystery. This in turn allows the storytelling to remain fresh, and opens up the second half of the film to improve on some of the areas during the first half, whose plodding pacing and disjointed editing transitions kept me from investing my interest into any of these characters or table dressing subplots.

– Committed performance. It’s no surprise that Norton is the star here, and whether or not his level of ego has rubbed you the wrong way in his quotes throughout his mystery with the media, one thing is certain; the man’s adaptability is one that never gives less than a hundred percent. In this particular instance, it’s his character’s losing battle with Tourrete’s syndrome, that ruins nearly every public occasion he chooses to invest himself into, for the better of the case. His delve into this undesirable predicament is patient in its influence, appearing during the most spontaneous moments, where it not only gives us more than few surprising laughs during the picture, but also never feels like a dried up well of a gimmick that Norton clings to for too often. Dafoe also gives another heralded turn, this time as a neurotic professor with an addiction to all things food. It brings forth yet another colorful personality to the already award-deserving year that the actor has been having, and treats us to a magical dynamic between he and Norton, which never feels enough in the nearly two-and-a-half hour run time.

– One touching scene. “Motherless Brooklyn” features one of my favorite scenes of 2019, where a slow dance between two characters signifies a poetic resolve in each of them filling what the other is lacking. The jazz music accompanying it is perfectly transfixing, but it’s really the body language of the two actors in frame, and how their connection transcends everyone and everything surrounding them. It’s a scene so peacefully entrancing that is captured by a series of long-take revolving shot composition, keeping the focus solely where it needs to be, and preserving the air of connection between the two characters that establishes this as a breakthrough love interest for the movie’s following third act. It approaches the romantic subplot with an air of class that is often thrown away by an unnecessary sex scene, but here is followed up upon with a touch of patience and reserve that really does preserve this a time-piece story.

– Alluring setting. Brooklyn in the 50’s not only gives us a chance to capture some of the sparkle of the city during a time when so much was being created and established within the city, but also to play irony to the thematic pulse of the movie, which hints at the darker days ahead. This is an interesting juxtaposition, because like the city itself during its heyday, appearances were deceiving, and it all gave way to a racial depression that only began with the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for greener pastures in Los Angeles. To cement this feeling, we’re treated to an abundance of gorgeous establishing shots of the city that approach its conflicts from an aerial level first, giving way to the ideal that bad things happen behind picket fences.

NEGATIVES

– Too long. At 138 grueling minutes, Norton’s biggest negative as a director is the necessity to know what and where to cut within his often times plodding pacing. There are scenes like the ones Norton’s character shares with fellow detectives that goes nowhere, and offers nothing towards the kind of isolation vulnerability associated with most crime noir dramas. In addition to this, the entire first initially begins feeling like we the audience are joining a film that has already been in progress. The introductions are brief, if anything at all, the explanation for what’s transpiring is lost in a sea of metaphors and cop lingo that had me rolling my eyes for its frequency, and the introduction of Norton’s Tourette’s is a strange one because we don’t fully comprehend if it’s there as a gimmick within this sting, or if it is in fact reality for him. A half hour could easily be trimmed from this film, and you would lose nothing. It proves that Norton as a director just has to know when to trim the fat. Without it, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an arduous task that is too simplistic in storytelling direction to be so long.

– Sloppy editing. This is the one area of Norton’s technical spectrum that could certainly use improvement, as the time continuity and scene transitions within the film often feel like they’re jumping ahead abundantly without visual explanation. The former will often cut in the context of the same scene by presenting a character standing up one second, then walking back to their chair with a glass of water immediately one second later. It jumbles the telegraphing necessary to put the audience in the heat of the setting, and makes the characters feel gifted with advanced teleportation.

– Uncomfortably funny. I understand that the film was going for the occasional laugh with Norton’s jaded Tourette’s encompassing, but with honesty for this particular disease comes brutality, as we the audience are essentially laughing at a man who is suffering for our own entertainment. In addition to this, the power of the humor being as strong as it is really does a disservice to the diminishing tension of the scene, leaving us stranded in scenes of drama we’re supposed to care about and invest in, but truly don’t because we’re also being told to laugh at the very same time. For about 70% of the film, it does maintain the tonal consistency needed to feel like one cohesively emotional product, but for the few instances there’s enough damage done to take away from the edge-of-the-seat aspect that the film so desperately requires.

– Generic screenplay. It’s disappointing to say the least where this film ends up. There’s no big shootout, no physical confrontation of any kind, and especially no satisfying climax that ties everything together to justify the time investment. One could argue that this plays into the vibe of a crime noir, where it’s always more assertive dialogue than actions, but the magnitude of this anti-climatic final act is so easily forgettable that it’s sure to take the final grade of any moviegoer down a grade because of how much air of momentum it omits from the finished product. Aside from this, “Motherless Brooklyn” adds nothing to the already overstuffed crime noir genre, with the exception of maybe a Tourette’s-riddled protagonist on the case, but even that wears thin by around the twenty minute mark. It proves that some novels shouldn’t be adapted regardless of the inspirational intention, and gives this particular instance a grave case of underdeveloped dramatic pull that leaves it in search of an identity it never fully finds.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Black & Blue

Directed By Deon Taylor

Starring – Naomie Harris, Mike Colter, Tyrese Gibson

The Plot – An action thriller about a rookie cop (Harris) who inadvertently captures the murder of a young drug dealer on her body cam. After realizing that the murder was committed by corrupt cops, she teams up with the one person from her community who is willing to help her (Gibson) as she tries to escape both the criminals out for revenge and the police who are desperate to destroy the incriminating footage.

Rated R for violence and adult language

POSITIVES

– Against type performances. This is an eye-opening showcase for everyone involved, not because of the dramatic depth of their deliveries, but rather the unique characters they portray, that gives us something outside of the box of expectations. For Harris, it’s the chance to play an action lead, and it’s one she takes very seriously. Not only does her physical performance offer a satisfying equal to the emotional registry that is firing on all cylinders for the actress as expected, but the jaded moral line that her character toes as being an African American AND a police officer keeps her constantly feeling in the middle of a tug-of-war between two sides who she loves very much. In addition to Harris, Colter, the man known for playing Luke Cage on Netflix, gets to portray a seedy gang leader, Gibson gets a darker shade of personality from the light-hearted goon we’re used to in the Fast and Furious franchise, and Frank Grillo serves as the film’s central antagonist. It was satisfying to see them all play their respectively diverse roles, and if nothing else offers a chance to establish the complexity of their range as character actors.

– Social stigma. As you may have expected, the film has a lot to say between the conflict of police and black citizens, and even despite the sometimes heavy handed nature of its depictions, it does offer a revealing scope towards both sides that may be a tool used to better understand them. There are good and bad people on both sides of the line, and often because of their sworn allegiance to what they claim, conflict ensues. Taylor seems persistent on his message of communication and coherence, two things often misconstrued in pre-conceived prejudice that both sides are guilty of. Because of this, there are very few more important or socially conscious films that you will see this year, making “Black & Blue” the rare exception that deconstructs both sides of the conflict for us to absorb.

– Lens originality. Taylor incorporates police body cameras, as well as police cruiser cameras to paint the action and conflict from an entirely unorthodox angle of film storytelling. What this does for the presentation of the film is cover the mayhem from an angle so unnaturally prominent that it not only adds to the intensity of several chase scenes throughout the film, but also presents us with easily the most candid side of depiction that stands as the gimmick of truth and clarity for the film. As to where the camera work in a film can be used as a blinder to expel what is later revealed in plot-twisting detail, this eye-level approach, like its real life intention, gives us the complete picture, establishing it as the single most important character in the film, for the way it will clear the innocent. Even though this film feels like it was made a decade late in terms of its plot holes, the use of contemporary gadgets to the integrity of the cinematic design gives it a professional level of approach that, surprisingly, more cop dramas haven’t attempted.

– Atmospheric. If nothing else, Taylor’s day-turning-to-night thriller is one that articulately captures the anxiety and paranoia that is conjured up from Harris’ character feeling more alone than ever in her fight for justice. Part of it is the brilliant setting of New Orleans, a city riddled in its own tragedies and racial injustices, which in personality brings forth a very dangerous and vengeful side to its opposition. There is simply no safety zone, and very few instances of trusting characters who she can turn to, and this isolates her as even more of a minority in the established environment than her African American heritage ever could. The unique perplexity of her standing in the direct middle between two feuding sides supplants her with enough belief to bestow upon either side, opening her up to be a victim of a double-cross time-and-time-again, and thus fleshing out her vulnerability in a way that ratchets this tension to satisfying levels for the pacing.

– Tight action. There’s nothing exceptionally special about the film’s action sequences, which are spared for the most meaningful time to disperse amongst its audience. What I like about them is they maintain the intensity of their surroundings without choppy editing or shaking camera effects, choosing instead to maximize the amounts of bullets and hit detection, which brings forth a healthy amount of the red to splash at the screen. As for the chase sequences themselves, there’s some energetic shot compositions and long takes that breathe life into the believability of the actor or actress who is invested into the scene, as well as some a fine illustration of distance to better elaborate how far ahead the prey is of the pursuer. There’s nothing here that is truly memorable for its creativity, but it’s rather the consistency of its efforts that don’t dilute or convolute the focus of the screen, and allows what transpires to be the rolling snowball of momentum to indulge in the fast-moving high-stakes of the picture.

NEGATIVES

– Disbelief suspended. That is what you will need to keep your head in the game of this modern day setting, where cell phones and social media could easily play a part in proving this woman’s innocence. This more than anything alludes to the idea that this was a 90’s idea that didn’t get made until twenty years later, fleshing out a series of inconsistencies and enormous plot holes that solve the film’s conflict from ever becoming a matter of issue in the real world. Aside from this, police cameras themselves are hooked into the police station database, so if this were to ever happen, one call to headquarters for the victim officer would clear her of any of this, and store this film at best as a glorified period piece, that doesn’t hold up when told in a 2019 backdrop.

– Horrendous A.D.R. Sloppy production values can be seen mostly everywhere in this film, but the audio editing done in post-production for roughly 60% of this movie is done so obviously amateur that their inclusion often feels like an unseen character talking somewhere behind the camera. The problems are aplenty; audio that doesn’t line up with lip movements, audio that doesn’t coincide with mouth movements, sound mixing of audio a few levels above every other dialogue in the scene, despite the talking character never shouting in the least, and choppy placement so hollow that you could practically hear the clicks in its involvement. This is one of my favorite negatives to point out in a movie, but rarely is it ever as evident as it was in “Black & Blue”, offering no solidification that any effort was put into getting this film to the finish line.

– Fumbled twists. There are two of them in this movie, but none of them are ever directed in a way that gives them even an essence of jaw-dropping nature to the complexity of the screenplay. If done correctly, there’s a fine amount of exposition deposited on their character, but also clever camera tricks that document the big reveal in a way that we the audience feel the betrayal of the protagonist, but these scenes are produced in a way that made me feel like I should’ve already been in on the corruption. Considering these are arguably the most pivotal scenes to elaborate on, not only the corruption within the force, but also the evolution of characters on both sides that prove just how alone this woman truly is. It dropped the ball on giving me any chance to fully invest myself in the heat of its riveting social commentary, making this as forgettably bland of a screenplay as can be expected from anything by Deon Taylor.

– Backstory of Harris. This is strange because she’s our central protagonist, yet we learn so very little about her, except for these rare instances used in between these tense moments of speed, bullets, and betrayal, which are nothing more than an afterthought to the two subplots that are driving this movie. This lack of insight is a problem to me because it falls into one of my biggest problems with movies, where if I don’t care about the characters, it’s very difficult to care about anything else, and it doesn’t follow through on some interesting directions that are merely just speculation for the lack of attention given to them. One deals with Harris’ deceased mother, who is never mentioned or defined, other than these two scenes of Harris at her gravesite. The second is a conflict with who I’m guessing is either Harris’ sister or best friend from back in the day. It’s only briefly hinted at what happened between them, and is missing a tearful scene of regret to further illustrate why one of their lives didn’t turn out the way she expected.

– Uneven halves. The first half of this film is certainly much stronger than the back half of this movie, which falters frequently by settling for repetition quite often. The opening act of this movie sets the tone, the backdrop of New Orleans, and a dangerous disposition that puts this protagonist on the run from any and everyone she doesn’t trust. Unfortunately, as it progresses, the movie’s lack of visual flare, as well as its reliance on its message brings forth the air of melodramatic that hindered all of the moody intensity that the film had built for itself early on. It starts to feel very formulaic and full of familiar genre tropes that takes an adrenaline-fueled drama, and meanders it to an assembly line genre flick with a routine third act seen as much as three times already in this movie year alone.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Current War

Directed By Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Starring – Michael Shannon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Hoult

The Plot – The epic story of the cutthroat competition that literally lit up the modern world. Cumberbatch is Thomas Edison, the celebrity inventor on the verge of bringing electricity to Manhattan with his radical new DC technology. On the eve of triumph, his plans are upended by charismatic businessman George Westinghouse (Shannon), who believes he and his partner, the upstart genius Nikolai Tesla (Hoult), have a superior idea for how to rapidly electrify America: with AC current. As Edison and Westinghouse grapple for who will power the nation, they spark one of the first and greatest corporate feuds in American history, establishing for future Titans of Industry the need to break all the rules.

Rated PG-13 for some disturbing/violent images, and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Contemporary rendering. Even with this entirely being a time period piece taking place during the late 19th century, the resonance of the social commentary bringing forth one of the original war-of-the-words in the media brought to mind this inescapable notion of how little the world’s celebrities have changed when being orchestrated by the real antagonist; the media. This clever irony that the movie deposits stands as one of those aspects of storytelling that not only elaborates at how these two sides were able to respond to one another without the advances of our modern day technology, but also how dangerous consequences are pushed into overdrive if misunderstandings aren’t given the kind of clarity or responsibility that they so urgently deserve from the pen-holders. When a story from a hundred years ago has a conscience within today’s media-dominated world, you’re able to comprehend how little it has evolved even in an age where social media is meant to somehow bring us closer, conjuring up a humorous irony in that we can create something as monumental as electricity, but not a dual-understanding in consideration.

– Responsible. While the film does take more than a few liberties in the factual area of the real life story, the way it values the three men as equals in the realization of the product is meaningful to their lasting legacies. While these three men didn’t work in unison, each of them had an idea or two that was perfected once all of these sole ideas were brought together to bring forth one powerful product. It not only proves how ahead of their time that each of these geniuses were, but also how much they invested in money, time, and mental capacity to win the high stakes war, an angle the film wastes no opportunity in telling. It brings forth an unforeseen vulnerability to each of them trying to make the world a better place, and proves that they weren’t exactly the biggest reapers when it comes to creating something so timeless and revolutionary.

– Thorough production value. The many artists and visionaries behind the scenes are able to teleport us back to the tail end of the 19th century, all because of an unabashed eye for detail that doesn’t spare a cent of its 30 million dollar budget. The backgrounds and set designs seduce us with intoxicatingly high taste, the wardrobe stretches as far as the eye can see, through some crowd shots that mirror consistency, and the visual aesthetic is one that captures the sleek essence of the particular era, thanks to the dependency on natural lighting that resides in each scene. Consdering this is a film that unfortunately sat on the shelf for two years, it brings forth a tragic aspect to what could’ve been with awards consideration, especially since everything here visually captivates us in a way that feels like combines the best of throwback style with the benefit of modern day film techniques, bringing forth a presentation that visually authenticates the lifestyles of the respective characters.

– Various shot composition. This could be considered a bit inconsistent, especially considering the many different angles and techniques of the lens doesn’t establish presence of one continuous director, but for me the abstraction of many different approaches constantly challenged me to adapt with the artistic pulse of the picture. There’s fish-eye lens tricks, unusual character framing, and no shortage of breathtaking establishing shots that bring us in and out of every room with the same kind of dedication to the focused character that makes us feel shoulder-to-shoulder alongside with them. There are so many more variations on the very art of filmmaking that reside within the movie, and the experimentation is one key that, ironically, finds an alluring identity of its own within the ambiguity it expresses with its randomness.

– Conflicted characters. My favorite kind in a movie, especially one depicting real life visionaries of a bygone era. For Edison, you get a sense of the family-first kind of man, but also a perfectionist who often resides on the conflicting side of business and personal relatioships. His arrogance is often his biggest downfall, making mountains out of anthills for the very people he alienates, which eventually lead to this war’s inception, adding layers to the genius we’ve only read about in text books. Likewise, Westinghouse is a business-first presence, whose only mistakes come in the lack of creativity that he expresses within projects bearing his name. He’s kind of an investing silent partner without the silence, and if nothing else, you should be able to distinguish him as a man who will bet the family farm if it means he can stick it to his adversaries. Tesla himself is a bit of a wild card. He’s a dreamer who lacks the kind of conventional wisdom necessary in comprehending what’s feasible, making him often a danger to himself and his finances, for the way he goes all in when creativity strikes. With these three at the helm of the story, you know there will be no shortage of thematic fireworks or personal conflicts, and while the film’s dynamic shot composition is my favorite aspect of the film, these very grounded and human geniuses is a close second.

– Dialogue approach. Director Gomez-Rejon has stated in interviews that he wanted to remove as much of the period piece gimmick from the picture as possible, so that audiences of the modern age could relate and take more away from the character’s intentions, and this is no more prominent than in the film’s language, which feels anything but classical. This could throw some people off considering it breaks the immersive qualities of particular setting, but for me it better approached audiences in a way that constantly kept them engaged to the beats of the smart talk gab that very few of us understand about electricity, and allowed them to better comprehend their movements in the war. There’s nothing time-distinctive or elegant about the deposits, and more importantly, the banter between dual characters bounce freely off of one another without the obviousness of cool emphasis to enhance personalities that aren’t there in reality. It gives the film a feeling of a 1880 narrative that actually takes place in a timeless setting, and makes this approachable for anyone who is or isn’t experienced on the lives of these fascinating people.

NEGATIVES

– The performances. It’s not exactly the faults of the actors, because after all they’re doing the most they can with the material they’re given, but the monotonous direction from Alfonso limits them from ever reaching the academy recognition that the studio wanted for this movie so terribly. Cumberbatch and Shannon are essentially playing themselves. They add no complexity or transformation to the performances they supplant, wasting an opportunity for them to positively benefit the film in a meaningful way. Hoult is a cartoon living in what should be the most compelling character between this trio dynamic. His demeanor is unintentionally humorous, and affords him the negative aspect of standing out like a sore thumb in a movie that takes no time to invest in him. More on him later. Tom Holland as Edison’s secretary is easily the best performance of the film, proving that the boy wonder can break free of the Spider-Man chains that will typecast him for the first few years of his career. This is obviously the problem, because if a supporting secondary character is the best of the movie in terms of performance depth, then it drops the ball on the many big names who are basically inconsequential to the film’s positivity.

– Rushed storytelling. This story could benefit immensely from an 8 episode series on Netflix or Hulu, but because this is merely 97 minutes of allowed time, the screenplay undercuts the dramatic tension that should be prominent of a movie with this high of stakes. It isn’t, and whether it’s the fault of too much being shoe-horned in to such a brief run time, or even the complete lack of long-term storytelling, which takes something like a significant other passing away, and meanders it in a way to where their partner has forgotten about them by the next scene. The worst part of all, however, is definitely the film’s intro, which gives us pivotal information in the form of on-screen text, which proves it values the backstories of these characters as much as they do the difficulty associated with invention, that the movie spends zero time depicting. I guess since these guys are geniuses these ideas spring to them like a word that rhymes with ‘Play’ in a rhyming poem.

– Tesla arc. Easily the biggest disappointment of the film, as Hollywood continues to undervalue the most important character within this war. This time he’s merely a supporting character in a movie based around Edison Vs Westinghouse, leaving so much of the intelligence and angst of the inventor in the dark. There are long periods of screen time where the character isn’t seen or heard from, and then when he’s brought back into frame he’s a raving lunatic who is definitely in the wrong movie tonally. I’ve said for almost two decades that Hollywood needs a good Nicola Tesla movie, because the man is responsible for many modern inventions and constructs that don’t bear his name, and it’s time that we as a society pay respects to a man who was decades ahead of his competition, but was limited because of the lack of funding that always plagued him.

– Missing pieces. As I previously mentioned, this film sat on the shelf for two years because of the controversy of the Harvey Weinstein bombshell breaking, forcing this film and many others to seek new representation with a new edit in the process, and while there is a cohesive narrative that materializes from the finished product of this feature, the obviousness of some missing pieces certainly seems evident. There are many that I could include, but I will spend my time speaking about one dream sequence that left me with more questions unanswered when the movie was over. Westinghouse continues to have these dreams where he’s a confederate soldier on the field of battle, when a northern soldier holds him at gunpoint. Where the hell did this come from? Why is this even in a completely new edit of the film that has very little mention of it when he is awake. The dream itself doesn’t finish, or even reach a level of clarity that justifies its existence, it just comes into frame three times during the movie, and never actually concludes its arc. If there is a two hour cut of this movie lying around some studio, I would be curious to see it, otherwise, this movie’s jumbled pieces leave me longing for more.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Jojo Rabbit

Directed By Taika Waititi

Starring – Roman Griffin Davis, Thomassin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson

The Plot – A World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy named Jojo (Davis) whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and adult language

POSITIVES

– German soundtrack. Composer Michael Giacchino incorporates a combination of humor and familiarity to the tracks he adorns the film with, preserving an element of pop culture to play against the scene they audibly decorate. What’s truly rewarding is that Giacchino takes a song like “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees, and dubs it in a German language alternative, which not only comes across as clever to the audience for the way they recognize each track despite it being sung in a foreign language, but also rewarding to the story in the sense that it plays into the very setting of the film. Even further than this, the German rendering gives the Nazi’s in the film an unshakeable presence, which alludes to what was transpiring for the territory at the time. In terms of cohesive collection, this is one of the more complete compilations for soundtrack in 2019, and thanks to Michael’s precision for adding a different dimension to theme of the song than we’re used to, it conjures up a devilishly delightful context that brings new life to their immortality.

– Mother/Son subplot. The chemistry between Davis and Johansson takes the movie miles, and offers a truly earned transformation for the dramatic enveloping that takes place at around the halfway point of the film. Scarlett often feels like the glimmer of hope to us the audience, in that her warm spirit for positivity and equality will hopefully rub-off on her toxically influenced son, and as the film progresses we start to cherish and indulge in the loneliness that forces each of them to take comfort in the other, and it’s one that took a film that I was only remotely interested in, and fleshed it out to where I couldn’t get enough of their moral tug-of-war dynamic. Mother characters often take a backseat to the central narrative of the picture involving a kin, but Waititi values that bond in a way that has an endearing significance on the rest of the film.

– Spirited performances. Even though the work of A-listers Johansson and Sam Rockwell are enough to keep you engaged in their energetic personalities, it is the youthful cast, as well as Waititi himself, who steal the show, and preserve some buzzworthy performances that will have them sifting through scripts for potential roles for the rest of their lives. Taika’s performance is one of the more intelligently-gifted performances this year, performing the imaginary Hitler in a way that a 10-year-old boy would act and speak. His bumbling personality help to keep any of his material offensive, and even more importantly offer a fresh perspective for the character than we’ve ever been accustomed to in life or cinema alike. Tomassin McKenzie has already been mentioned by me after last year’s “Leave No Trace”, for the way her sorrowful registry weighed heavily over the tonal shifts of the film, and it only continues to broader strokes in “Jojo Rabbit”. Playing a teenage Jewish girl whose family and fiance have since been removed from the equation, leaving her stranded in isolation, McKenzie balances enough sarcastic wit to counter-balance her dramatic capabilities, and her character is one we mentally relay back to each time the Nazi’s take another freedom-breaking liberty. In addition, the work of Davis and Nick Frost junior sized Archie Yates captures a precision for comedic timing that most child actors simply can’t attain for their first few roles. Here, their jaw-dropping moral banter and endless supply of raw charisma puts them years ahead of their ages because of the maturity of the subject matter that they’re placed into. In addition, Waititi gives them no shortage of screen time, which in Davis’ case outlines an immense responsibility as the film’s jaded protagonist, who toes the line of moral ambiguity the longer the film progresses.

– Object incorporation. Waititi has an unmistakable eye for the details necessary to put the audience constantly one step ahead of the movie’s characters, giving it immense meaning to the visual storytelling that is sometimes just as moving as what’s spoken. In this film in particular, it’s the shoes of a prominent character that are focused on in two different scenes for an unnatural amount of screen time, and once you remember seeing them for the first time, you will understand the significance with how they pop up for a second time. It’s a bit obvious at times, but it rewards audiences for the way they commit themselves to the screen, and proves an intelligence for imagery captivation that captures so much emotional pulse to fill in the blanks of exposition necessary to comprehend the intention of its re-incorporation.

– Surprising dramatic depth. I certainly did not expect a comedy about a movie making light of the most vile faction in world history, but even more than that, I didn’t expect said movie to possess the kind of dramatic tension necessary in fleshing out some emotionally resonant material that catches up to your tears quickly. This is where the film really earned its grade for me, because as to where the humor element of the film let me down more times than not, it’s in one character’s epiphany while finally understanding the other side that played so prominently on-film, and maintained one of the more therapeutic sits that I’ve had recently with World War II drama’s. The humorous elements are still definitely there, but they never encroach or demean the punching power of the seriousness, and instead persist in giving us a fully fleshed-out narrative for the many characters you will inevitably fall in love with.

– Scope of the story. Speaking of characters, the film spends ample time on everyone minus maybe Rebel Wilson’s character, in order to capture the victimization from the many sides of the conflict. You would expect this for the tortured Jewish communities, or even the innocent German population who didn’t have a hand in an overall message of hate, and while the movie does present these narratives, it’s really the look inside of the Nazi camp itself that offers some startling contrasts. This is one of the only films that I can remember that values the deep down good men who were held captive by a tyranical reign. It’s important to understand that the movie doesn’t justify or condone the terrible things that they did regardless, but just that not everyone in the camp were swallowed by the evil that surrounded them. I feel it’s important to know and understand that position, even if the movie is a work of tremendous fiction.

– Timeless message. This is especially difficult during a specific time-frame of the movie’s setting to conjure up something that any generation can take away from the movie. The message of the film isn’t just that Nazi’s were terrible people, but that we as human beings should understand and accept people defined as different before we become those very same people who used genocide to justify their hateful message. This is resonating loudly now perhaps more than ever, as our current social landscape has cast a great divide between the world, that now has our own country feeling like two different ones at all times. The movie teaches us that curiosity and acceptance are two tools that will save us from dooming ourselves to repeat history, and prove we can all live and be free to practice whatever under one world. It’s a deep-rooted and convincing message in a movie where the lunacy of hate and prejudice is depicted for the silliness that it entails, but further than that, Waititi establishes that there’s plenty we can learn from even the darkest days of history to preserve our future.

– Clever poignancy. Just a quick observation here. I find it funny how in Waititi’s narrative the adults act like children, and the children act like adults. It offers a striking degree of ageism in role reversal in a way that caters to the gimmick of the story, all the while fleshing out the ridiculous things that each side says and does when read by someone who we in the outside world can identify with being against conventionalism in the rendered personality of the actor who dons it.

NEGATIVES

– Diminishing results. The humor itself is strong in its introductory period, specifically with the satirical direction of the montage training sequence. Then begins a noticeable decay of less impactful laughs the longer the film’s comedic direction persists. I’m not saying that I didn’t laugh occasionally during the movie. Particularly the interaction between Jojo and imaginary Hitler gave me more than enough clever instances of fantastical glee that feel very therapeutic to Waititi. However, the one joke premise gets old fast, and even with some angles being full of ridiculousness in their approach towards the Jewish people, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at it regardless. It’s probably a good thing that the film evolved tonally when it did, because the humor muscle for the movie was fluttering in redundancy at around the forty minute mark of the film. I do believe in my heart that many people will love the level of hijinks and gags that the movie incorporates to the Nazi’s hatred of the Jewish community, but for me it loses its flavor fast in translating to 105 minutes of cinema.

– Lack of punch. Even though some of the humor aims at being audacious over offensive, the sensitivity of the direction taken with the social commentary for the time feels soft in its execution. This is a necessary mention because I feel like it always keeps the evilness of the Nazi’s themselves at bay, and the humor majority of the direction itself never allows you to fully hate their characters in the way you rightfully should. Aside from this, I was a bit disappointed at the experimentation with this being a satire. If nothing in the film is meant to be factual, then why not play with the result of the war, or tweak some things for the unpredictablity of the film? The film seems conditioned on sending its audience home without even a slight detection of testing their nerves, and safe is never the trait I thought I would feel about a comedy depicting Nazi’s.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+