Ad Astra

Directed By James Gray

Starring – Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga

The Plot – Astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.

Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Stinging sound mixing. My respect for a space film that channels the absence of sound accordingly is far greater than a film that tries to pass off blaring volume as a substitute for a script’s inability to craft earned anxiety, and the former can be said for “Ad Astra”. Articulately channeling the isolation and immensity of space, the intense sequences put us front-and-center in the suit alongside of our protagonist, giving us a rich audible vibrancy of authentication that other space movies can’t maintain consistently. Saying that this is a quiet film might not appeal to a mass audience, but it’s my belief that Gray and Bradley were going for an immersive quality to the setting that audibly articulates a distance in space where no one can hear you scream, and that element plays wonderfully in the many adversities that Pitt and crew endure throughout the longest road trip ever put to film.

– False advertising. Another negative sounding positive comes from the marketing team’s inability to sell this picture for what it really was, which resulted in no shortage of pleasant surprises for me in all of its thought-provoking human commentary. Depicted as a science fiction thriller through the cosmos, the finished product itself is a character study on the boundaries of interaction, grief, and especially love, bringing forth a slow-burn cerebral undoing that gave me much more rewards than a by-the-numbers action film ever could. There’s definitely action sequences in the movie, but 90% of them are the ones shown in the trailers, and even then they never stick around long enough to dominate or take away from the poignancy of its vital importance.

– Useful narration. I could be in the minority here, but I felt that “Ad Astra” is a movie that earns its narration, for the way it illustrates what the visual storytelling refuses to commit to. Sure, there are scenes on the ship where Pitt’s mental elaboration paints what we already interpreted, but it’s really in his past dynamics with his ex-wife and estranged father that allows us to crack open his psyche and absorb the kind of feelings that reside within from no shortage of mistakes that he frequently regrets. The editing of flashback sequences only appear sparingly, so some audible dialogue that novelizes the value in deconstructing Pitt’s character is one that I greatly appreciated, especially for the way its audible capacity is presented. Throughout the film, this narration is deposited with a slight echo, giving off the impression of the full spectrum when it comes to his character’s position inside of the space suit. In addition to this, it also further paints the poison that comes from his career obsession, and the many ways that it has destroyed his chance at a normal life.

– As a science fiction picture. The best kind of science fiction films to me are the ones that bridge the gaps fruitfully between our current landscape and the future in the film, which feels closer than we think initially. Aside from some outstanding world building, which includes a sampling of some off-in-the-distance familiar product placement, the film also values a social commentary that is cherished by me for being “Hopeful and disastrous”. Instead of giving us a post-apocalyptic rendering, the film feels more effective in giving us slight deviations from our world, in a way that colorfully paints our similarities, all the while giving food for thought towards our differences. It treads its creative feet as a smart science fiction film instead of a cool one, and this unshakeable presence of a subgenre surprisingly feels more accurate because of its creative restraint.

– Variety of conflict. This script constantly evolves, bringing forth a series of adversities and even frights that I truly wasn’t expecting, but one that kept me invested to the sometimes arduous pacing of the film. A lot like life in this regard, the mission at hand sometimes becomes slightly skewed, and antagonism materializes in the form of conflict spontaneity that tests this group of astronauts in unforeseen circumstances. What’s valuable is that none of these set pieces feel hollow or tacked-on to the rest of the film surrounding it. They transition in a way that feels honest and even in some cases pre-conditioned to the exposition that gave us pieces of speculation before they come forth. It keeps the anticipation and anxiety firmly gripped in to the integrity of the picture, and succeeds in mastering a level of vulnerability that makes space undefeated in that regard.

– Human themes, big stakes. Grey has always been known for taking these big epic surroundings, and boiling them down to relatable eye level, thanks in whole to these reflective themes that his audience goes through every day. There are many to dissect in “Ad Astra”, but the ones that feel the most prominent to me deal with workplace dependability, forgiveness, and the fear that we have in becoming our parents. The last one is mentioned unabashedly in dialogue, but the way the shot compositions elaborate this paranoia gives something unique and visually receptive to that fear. For instance, there’s one scene where Pitt is in front of us, staring at a video of his father right in front of the camera. As the camera moves upward, the screen of the father slowly takes over the face of the son, and soon this humbling juxtaposition gives visual way to the quote in the movie “The sins of the father soon become the sins of the son”.

– Breathtaking cinematography. I saved my two favorite aspects of the film for last because their consistency in excellence alone kept this from ever becoming a disappointing film. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has crafted some gems in the form of 2017’s “Dunkirk”, 2014’s “Interstellar”, and 2013’s “Her”, but his work in “Ad Astra” feels more prominently eclipsing of those past counterparts because of the way he moves elaborately with his angles to move the image towards crowding. The shots of the planets transfix us in all of their colorful immensity, and the absorbing color schemes within these structurally complex set designs better helps emit the tension of the atmosphere more fruitfully than words or actions ever could. When you have a master of the lens this impressively gifted, you wish you could pause specific frames within the movie, and hang them on the walls of your house to gaze at for decades to come, but thankfully Hoyte’s work has already done that, giving us no shortage of gorgeous scenery and unshakeable focus to capture the immensity of our solar system. It’s my early favorite for best cinematography this year.

– The Richter scale. Musical composer Max Richter’s constant influence over the integrity of the picture gives us these classically rendered compositions that build the anticipation for the inevitable wonderfully. Max’s electronica-tinged opera relies on a lot of persistence in volume, feeling equally effective as any other musical score this year, despite his incorporation sounding at half of the volume. It throbs away at these scenes like a riveted heartbeat that beats stronger with each second it’s put through physical intensity, and while Van Hoytema visually stimulates us with imagery that weakens us in the knees, it’s Richter’s audible emphasis that gives us the bed of gravity to float on. Together the two make an unstoppable duo, which will bring forth depression the next time they work on a film without one or the other.

NEGATIVES

– Weak performances. I know, this one is especially shocking when you consider the talented big name cast that fills its ensemble. Unfortunately, Gray’s weakest stance as a director comes from the complete lack of emotional resonance that he pulls from his protagonist and Tommy Lee Jones, making both feel terribly miscast in their respective roles. For Pitt, it’s his constant stone-face that keeps us from fully investing in these gut-punch scenes involving a scarred boy searching for his father, but we never embrace the hurt because neither does Pitt, and it leaves the big payoff for the movie feeling cold and underwhelming because he never loses sight of the tough guy demeanor. Beyond this, the use of these big name stars like Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler and even Natasha Lyonne felt insulting for how little screen time they are actually given. Pitt is certainly the main character, but everyone else is a glorified cameo, with most of which adding so little importance to the value of the film.

– Disappointing ending. Aside from the emotionally vapid performances of Pitt and Jones, which I previously mentioned, the conflict resolution to me didn’t work for an array of reasons. MAJOR SPOILERS. DO NOT GO ANY FURTHER IF YOU WISH NOT TO BE SPOILED. The first deals with the scene in question between father and son. Terribly acted, yes, but it feels rushed considering how committed Jones is one second to staying on board, yet in the next he is walking out with his son. Secondly is the conflict resolution itself. I would never promise to be a science major, but does blowing a power grid that is giving off power surges to planets away sound like a good idea to you? I get destroying the product, but something made of so much energy might not be a good idea to release into the environment. Finally, after Pitt lets go of his father during an exchange in space, Jones floats out to darkness to die. Pitt later mentions in the closing moments that he has no nightmares now that everything is resolved. I guess his conscience allowed him to forgive himself for basically honoring his father’s suicide wish. It points to aspects with the script that caused me to do a double take, and really left the big payoff for the movie feeling like the scene where nothing adds up.

My Grade: 8/10 or B

Downton Abbey

Directed By Michael Engler

Starring – Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

The Goldfinch

Directed By John Crowley

Starring – Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Finn Wolfhard

The Plot – 13-year-old New Yorker Theo Decker’s (Elgort) life is turned upside-down when his mother (Kidman) is killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Confused in the rubble of the tragedy, he steals a priceless piece of art known as The Goldfinch.

Rated R for drug use and adult language

POSITIVES

– Gorgeous cinematography. If a film that deals with art so closely wasn’t beautifully rendered, only then would this movie be a complete and total tragedy. Thankfully, the team of Crowley and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins present us with an absorbing pallet that really captures the tonal complexities of the picture. For coloring and texture, there’s a lot of callous whites and greys to match the abstraction of the mystery surrounding these events, giving us tasteful melancholy that constantly reminds us that this is an arthouse film first and foremost. For shot composition, it’s mostly still-frame, and I feel that’s the best vantage point for facial resonation and the small things out of focus that the movie’s themes allude to so candidly. It summarizes the lavish lifestyles of the characters thoroughly, which practically allows this adaptation to immerse us in the details of the novel.

– Rounded cast. The performances are vibrantly complex, starting especially with the combination of Oakes Fegley and Elgort, who round out consistency in psychology for the respective character they embody. For Fegley, it’s interpreting him coming out of his shell the longer that time and people allow him to distance himself from this unshakeable tragedy, and Elgort is really the embodiment of such timing. Not only are these two believable in portraying the same character, but every single dual time-frame character transformation is only rivaled by Stephen King’s “IT: Chapter Two” for most seamless visual transformation. Rounding out the leads is a stoic performance from Kidman, an indulging outcast by Wolfhard, despite an inconsistent Russian accent, and a captivating focus on Jeffrey Wright, whose tapped-into wisdom gives the picture direction and moral fiber during the times when it requires it the most.

– Grief channeled. Perhaps the thing that I respected most about this script was the focus it portrays in depicting grief, and the vulnerability that leads our protagonist through many dark paths that he otherwise would’ve never reached. In embracing the loneliness and disposition of living with a parent who isn’t fully invested in him, Theo’s desperation to attach himself to anyone and anything to release everything inside is something that is admirably honest, especially for youths who sometimes aren’t mature enough to properly emote what is taking place inside. Aside from this, it’s another tip of the hate for Fegley, whose blank stare authenticates a boy who is still very much in shock, granting no shortage of empathy for the character, despite us the audience knowing so very little about the details of the day in question, at least early on in the film. I’m a sucker for a movie that gets emotional resistance right, and doesn’t play it for the temporary cliche that has become a consistency in Hollywood big screen releases. It’s a long and shape-shifting road, and with the right people for guidance, it it allows us to heal by confronting what was there all along.

– Surprising soundtrack. While I have problems with the musical score, which I will get to later, the cues in soundtrack brought audible pleasantries to my ears in the form of familiarity to my album deck that I appreciated probably more than most. Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” is given about two minutes of run time, to the point that I was desperate for Thom Yorke’s repetition of lyrics, which never come. It’s more used as a compartmentalized score inside of this otherwise awfully obvious one, and really adds to the dimension in dynamic of the scene it accompanies. In addition to this, Van Morrison’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” articulately captures the depressive progression of the movie’s third act in a way that an abundance of obvious dialogue never truly captures. Sometimes music is the way to go to allow the audience to reflect on the impacts of a previous scene or sequence, and that’s the case with these two tracks that I wasn’t expecting in a plot and characters with champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

– Go in blinded. I have heard from readers of the novel that this isn’t the best adaptation in terms of faithfulness to a product that some have deemed as “Incapable of being adapted”, and I can accurately interpret that from my own ignorant and inexperienced position. For someone like me who hasn’t read the novel, I enjoyed the many twists and turns that played as a placebo for the ambitious run time, that we start to feel by the third act. There’s enough intrigue and misdirection in the heart of these subplots to not only grant a layer of much-appreciated empathy for Theo as a protagonist, but also to further flesh out some of those scattered pieces that didn’t seem to materialize until they are given the light of realization. This is a story that certainly didn’t end the way that I wanted it to, nor that I expected to, and that’s more of a homage to the spontaneity of our short time here, and how nothing goes the intended route of conventionalism to our satisfaction.

NEGATIVES

– Violent tonal shifts. If I had to summarize this movie’s biggest problem in a single area, it’s that it often tries to be too many different genres in the same picture, and none of them transition believable enough to feel like they’re helmed under the same director. This is definitely Crowley’s biggest problem with adapting the source material, because too often too many of his tones are abruptly rendered, and it ends up changing the entire dynamic of the attitude surrounding the central plot. In the third act alone, there are three different kinds of subgenres introduced and not followed through on, making the important and pivotal climax feel as scatter-brained as anything that I’ve seen in 2019.

– Disjointed storytelling. Another mess that the movie endures is this spontaneous jump in multiple timelines, that is every bit unnecessary as it is compromising to the pacing of the sequences. What’s most important during a steep timeline jump is to introduce all of the elements that have transpired, and while the script does do this, it does it in a way that makes us the audience feel like we were already privy to this information, and it’s not exactly a big deal. One such element deals with a romantic subplot for Theo, which is frightening in itself considering what these two characters are to each other, but made even more sudden because of how little the story decides to develop between them. This kind of story shift is littered throughout the film, and cements the idea to me that this film would be better served on Netflix as a ten episode streaming series.

– Meandering music. I won’t mention names, but the composer of this film has been known for some less than thrilling audible emphasis’ in movies, and his streak continues for “The Goldfinch”. To say that this movie manipulates audiences into feeling a certain way that it doesn’t truly earn with its storytelling is the understatement of the year. He takes these sharp and obvious deposits of music, and makes them inescapable, made even more apparent by a choice in volume that drowns out the performances and dramatic capabilities of this talented ensemble cast. This is one of my least favorite musical scores of 2019, and stands as a directional booklet on what not to do when incorporating music into your film.

– Distracted. Considering this film was advertised with the bombing being the central focus of the film, there’s so little attention paid to it, which becomes more obvious the longer the film runs. I was pulled into this movie with the lure of a mystery that centered around what happened on that one important day, and the longer the film goes, it has moved on from it in a way that essentially makes it feel inconsequential. That seems almost disgusting to say considering this is a little boy losing his mother in an act of terrorism, but there’s so little details given with the who and the why that it almost feels like it could’ve happened on accident with the building itself malfunctioning. What’s even more confusing is that Theo blames himself for it throughout, which I get is one of the stages of grief, but there’s nothing revealed that should make him even remotely think that he was a factor in this bombing, so I don’t get it.

– Incapable of satisfaction. This is dealing with the ending primarily, because there are so many dynamics introduced and never followed through that leaves us with an unavoidable inevitability of disappointment that we know is coming. It writes itself into a corner with a long-winded run time, as well as closing moments that are completely anti-climatic, and doesn’t pay-off in the way that entertaining movies rightfully should. For the most part, it’s being asked to come along on this journey with many different arcs and characters, with the promise of something great at the end, but then when it eventually comes, it’s nothing more than a thank you for braving it out. If the closing moments were predictable, it would even be fine, but this film finishes on such a loss of momentum from a previous act that transforms everything in the movie to something completely different tonally and creatively, and it sends us home with the weakest scene of the movie during the time when it needed strength the most.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Hustlers

Directed By Lorene Scafaria

Starring – Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Haunting of Sharon Tate

Directed By Daniel Farrands

Starring – Hilary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst

The Plot – Pregnant with director Roman Polanski’s child and awaiting his return from Europe, 26-year-old Hollywood actress Sharon Tate (Duff) becomes plagued by visions of her imminent death.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, terror, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– Unique ending. While it is certainly predictable once you know the flow of the formula, in that this story is alternating the events of history, the climax of the film’s big reveal was one that was exceptionally satisfying for me, and further fleshed out the tragedy from Tate that the rest of the film around it abandoned. It’s strange because I’ve never seen a movie where I hate 90% of it, yet find the ending compelling, but the steps of this twist were put into motion earlier on in the film, when a supporting character mentions people living out various versions of their lives. It’s a risky direction in terms of satisfying the masses of people who know very little about the real Sharon Tate, but one that I feel pays off in at least sending us away with an air of sentimentality for the lives lost in a devastating tragedy.

NEGATIVES

– Flat performances. I hate demeaning the skills of a cast that have made acting their careers, but the ensemble work here is every bit undermined as it is emotionally vapid of a single empathetic gain. Duff in particular is relegated to a series of annoying screams and ditzy dialogue deposits that outlines Sharon as a bumbling dependent, who can’t figure out that she has the ability to leave her house at any second. Beyond Duff, the supporting cast is as bland and inconsequential as a blank sheet of paper. None of them receive even the slightest attention in characterization, leaving them to impress by the weight of their performances, which are so underwhelming that they often rubbed together when I tried to remember who was who.

– Horrendous computer generation. Why would a movie revolving around Sharon Tate in the 60’s require special effects? The inclusion of generated blood and flies were about as obvious as a truck hitting a nitroglycerine plant, thanks to texture and color coordination that made them dominate the attention of the scene. The blood is really unnecessary when you consider the movie actually does use practical blood on the bodies of its victims, but director’s decision required splatters to register in the framing of the scene, and gives it a cheap quality that immediately took me out of the heat of the moment each time it pops like a super soaker.

– As a period piece. As to where Quentin Tarantino reveled in the nostalgia of the flower generation, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” can’t entice us with a visual seduction to grant weight in the respective time period. Instead of losing itself audibly and visually in the allure of the setting, the film grounds its believability with a dominantly indoor setting and flavorless costume design that keeps us from endearing the vibe of the world outside of their door. I would depend on music to save us from this overstep of artistic direction, but there’s only one song repeated five times throughout the film, and even that song selection was a generous B-side at best, offering no familiarity to at least get our toes tapping in classic glee. Without hype in a visual presentation, “Haunting” bores us to tears with a series of mundane visuals and conventional cinematography that misses a chance to provide proper reflection to a forgotten age of unique expressionalism.

– Documentary feeling. If it isn’t enough that Farrands comes from a mostly documentary genre background of filmmaking, the decision to instill real life archival footage of Tate’s story is one that has a surprisingly negative reaction to what it does to the film surrounding it. Think about it, if the real, accurate footage gives us all of the information that we need in factual accuracy, what is the point of the film? The point of a film adaptation in gimmick terms is to suspend disbelief, and treat the film in front of us as the event being played out in real time. How can I do that if the footage counterfeits everything that the movie itself is treating as gospel? It’s tough enough when you know that the better story is being played out in a documentary somewhere on this planet, but the encroachment of the grainy footage giving away what little surprise there is for uneducated audience members seeking curiosity for the first time. Strangely enough, it even fumbles the charm of this positive, as it doesn’t keep up the consistency of its inclusion every fifteen minutes during the first half of the picture. The second half is completely void of any archive footage, leaving us alone with 84 minutes of a movie that can’t contend with forty total seconds of factual footage.

– Overstuffed dialogue. The line deposits from the cast in this movie are simply trying to stuff ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag, and the desperation of trying to touch on so many themes from so many different angles leaves us with a series of conversations that don’t feel honest even once. If 84 minutes isn’t enough to give a well illustrated backstory, then we must include as much off-screen exposition as possible, giving us a full-fledged review of the who, what, why, and where each time we’re just trying to throwaway interaction between two characters. In addition to this, there are out of place deposits, where Tate will suddenly become philosophical, with all of her theorizing and justification, which completely comes out of left field when compared to the rest of the dialogue. This means that it will obviously serve a purpose later on, which it does, making what follows as predictable as a fart after Taco Bell.

– Disjointed editing. One of my least favorite cliches in psychological horror movies is when a scene will try to authenticate the deteriorating mental health of a character by stitching together an array of scenes that bounce off one another, and make the depiction of the scene as visually disgusting as possible. For this movie, that inclusion mars and distorts the context of the scene so viscerally that you can’t tell what is taking place. It overcomplicates the intended purpose so terribly and so repeatedly that it sort of crafts its own demise so frequently, and it’s in that perspective where this movie really does itself zero favors in appealing to a new generation looking for answers from its compelling story.

– Abundance of jump scares. The only thing that this movie has that is even remotely in the direction of thrills for the audience is a series of untimely jump scares that try so desperately to make this something that it rightfully isn’t. None of the jumps are remotely justified, mostly coming in the form of shriek noises from the musical compositions to reflect a stranger appearing somewhere in this distance. To double this problem, the framing and lighting for the scenes are so amateurly manufactured that often I only heard the noise, and didn’t understand what they were alluding to. Nothing in this movie is even remotely intimidating. From the lackluster imagery, to the watered down violence, nothing warrants the coveted R-rating that this movie generates, and as far as horror goes, it’s as harmless as a pussycat.

– Completely disrespectful. Where do I start with this one? There is very little factual truth to what is portrayed in the film, and even worse than that, Sharon Tate is rendered in a way that has led to some real life off-screen drama from her relatives not being happy for the way she was portrayed. For my money, I can understand their pain. The revelation that Tate was mentally unstable, complete with visual hallucinations and a streak of stupidity a mile long, is enough to give a bad taste in the mouths of anyone who watches it, for how they trash the deceased. Beyond that, the small aspects that should be correct even in an alternate timeline of history are completely destroyed. Character’s in the wrong positions at the house, characters who didn’t have as big of a role on the night in question are given a bigger role in the events of the movie, and the lack of attention given to key aspects within character appearances, gives this a no care or concern finished product with what we’re given. If you’re watching this film to learn anything new or honest about the night in question, keep traveling along, because Charles Manson is only the second worst thing to ever happen to Sharon Tate.

– Endlessly boring. Without question, the thing that separates this film from other horrible movies of the year, is its ruthless blank canvas that never even remotely signifies its existence. There are scenes with two characters in frame, where they don’t talk for long periods of silence, cliche dream sequences being run into the ground to the point where they are predictable with each new one, a screenplay that takes ages to get off the ground, further complicating the pacing consistency of the entire film, and of course laughably bad A.D.R that distorts the believability of every scene they maul. Other bad films of the year are typically so bad that they’re good. Even if I gave them a low grade, I wouldn’t be against going back and watching them again. That isn’t the case with this movie, as its pretentiousness is only outweighed by its paralyzing boredom, giving us 84 minutes of art replicating life if the life was full of complete inane bullshit.

My Grade: 1/10 or F-

The Fanatic

Directed By Fred Durst

Starring – John Travolta, Devon Sawa, Ana Golja

The Plot – The story is inspired by a real-life fan who pursued Limp Bizkit’s frontman Fred Durst many years ago. It follows Moose (Travolta), who gets cheated out of meeting his favorite action hero, Hunter Dunbar (Sawa). Moose then hunts down Dunbar to get the celebrity interaction he feels he deserves. Harmless at first, Moose’s actions begin to take a dark turn. Against the advice of his friend Leah (Golja), Moose begins to make frequent visits to his hero’s private home. As the visits continue to escalate, Dunbar finds himself in increasing danger.

Rated R for some strong violence, and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

– Travolta’s commitment. John has very little to work with here psychologically, but the physical consistency of a stilted walking pattern, as well as speech patterns that accurately articulate those of a mentally unstable man-child, made his performance stand-out as one of the very few positives that you can pull from “The Fanatic”. I have read other critics challenging the sharpness of his acting, but actually Travolta is completely on-par for what is asked of his character. It’s really everything else surrounding him that shortens his growth, and allows him very few chances to make this convincingly effective in dramatic territory.

– So bad it’s good. Yep, it’s one of those films where you get a bunch of friends together, have some drinks, and completely rip this film to shreds in a delightful night of laughs. This reason alone is why I could never give this movie my lowest rating, because at least from a horribly entertaining circumstance, it’s probably the best that big screen cinema have seen since “The Room” broke all of the rules for what can be defined as a hit in Hollywood. Would I ever watch this movie again? Absolutely. It has strong replay value with the more people you pull into it, and whether intentional or not, Durst has earned himself a bronze bust in the hall of Tommy Wiseau filmmaking.

NEGATIVES

– Directionless Durst. Fred has helmed other big screen films before, so his lack of instinct and urgency given to this picture is one that really confuses me, and condemns this movie long before it ever has a chance to appeal to its audience. For one, his character framing is horrendous, leaving us without a side to truly invest in. For Moose, his condition and love of horror movies is really the only thing we ever find out about him. From a personality positioning, he’s a full-fledged stalker, who audibly abuses his friends, and constantly pushes the envelope to see what he can attain selfishly. His opposition comes in the form of Sawa’s movie star, who is downright detestable for how he treats fans. If this is based off of Durst’s own experiences, shouldn’t he at the very least pick a side to determine who is right in a series of many bonehead decisions? Beyond this, the movie’s lack of suspense or frights leaves it feeling so far out of the box of its genre classification. It hurts most of all that there are no shortage of scenes that drown on too long, and never conjoin to the next to keep the ball of momentum rolling to peak our interests. This is one of those films that shows how important a director truly is to the finished product, and even a halfway capable one would’ve known that these scenes and pacing deserved to sit on the shelf for at least another two months of post-production.

– Cheap production. Speaking of production, the visual presentation that we are treated to is one that reeks of penny-pinching cinema. From the incorrect frame rates being displayed during slow motion sequences, to the choppy editing, to the artificial lighting that displays some visually disgusting color coordination choices, this film is a visual nightmare of squinting renderings. I really understood what was coming during the initial first minute of the movie, when we usually get one or two production companies to showcase the consistency of hands on-deck, but here we get 58 whole seconds of no fewer than seven different production companies. This is usually a bad sign when you already alienate an audience wanting to get to the beginning of the film, and make clutter them with a barrage of names and companies that only hardcore film fans truly care about. Finally, there are the strange choices in artistic animation that play during pivotal moments throughout the film. Since they only repeat the scene we previously just saw, I don’t understand the meaning behind their inclusion, nor do I feel even remotely impressed by what they bring to the artistic merit of the picture. I personally feel like it’s more run time padding, which I will get to later in further detail.

– Unnecessary narration. To anyone who knows me, you know I despise pointless narration in movies, mainly because it offers nothing of substance to justify its existence, and that’s definitely the case here. As read by Golja’s barely supporting character, she comes in during four different times in the film, and in her hip-to-be-cool emotion, basically only highlights what the previous scene already told us. Here’s a fun idea; remove her narration entirely from the film, and see what you lose in the process. Even with the importance minimal in this category, I could’ve at least understood if it were Moose talking through it. Then, at least we would get a chance at learning more about the man behind the mayhem, but we are bored to tears by a character that the film doesn’t take any time to know beyond her being a photographer and friend to Moose. It would be the equivalent of making Farmer Fred the narrator in “The Waterboy”, which creates an entirely new list of problems that I don’t even want to think about.

– Leaps in logic. Plenty to unload here. Character’s driving by in a car looking at a character in the exact same spot despite the moving of the vehicle, incompetent use of cellular phones, and the absolute dumbest police officers that I have ever seen in cinema history. The latter really has to do with the movie’s finale, so I will get to that later, but Durst seems to lack even the smallest shred of logic to invest into his picture, making for some unintentionally hilarious scenes that once again do the film no favors for its already minimal tension hanging in the balance. Beyond the ones I already mentioned, there is a lack of continuity between cuts taking place in the same moment. For instance, Golja’s character is holding her phone high in one scene, then after a quick cut to Travolta’s perspective to replicate the same discussion in the scene from a different angle, it’s closer to the table. I’m not fooling anyone by saying that no care or attention was given to this film. If there was, then these instances of gut-busting delight would never make it on camera. More than a director, this film needs a realist.

– Bumbling dialogue. Easily the worst dialogue that I have heard in a film so far this year. In fact, you could remove all dialogue in this film all together, make it a silent Charlie Chaplin picture, and you would still understand everything that is developing, because of the visuals. There’s nothing of substantial depth or human-like believability that cements these conversations as authentic. I would be a lot angrier about it if some of the lines weren’t so damn funny. For instance, how a mentally handicap protagonist and his photographer friend continue to call celebrities “CelebRETARDS”, or “Los Angeles, I call it the city of bullshitters”, read to us by Golja’s tortured Sunset Strip enthusiast, or even our introduction to Travolta’s character, in which he mumbles “I can’t talk too long, I gotta poo”. Shakespeare, bow down and praise the new lingual lion-heart of the English language, Fred “Did it all for the nookie” Durst.

– Insensitivity. What makes this movie deplorable to me, and almost completely irredeemable, is its lack of responsibility with the subject matter of an autistic protagonist, that it could’ve used to enhance awareness on, but drops with a complete lack of compassion. First of all, his name is Moose. That by itself should elicit the necessary groans to show you where this film is going, but Moose is a bumbling idiot who is manipulated, humiliated, and stereotyped in a way that makes “Simon Birch” suddenly feel wholesome by comparison. What’s even more baffling is the fact that Travolta himself even has an autistic son in real life, so how is any of this low-hanging fruit acceptable from his parental standards? Then there’s Durst, who uses a real life condition like Autism to justify fandom in a way that many films like “The Fan” or “Big Fan” does humanly and respectably. Moose has a condition, but its necessity is only used as a justifiable mechanism, and it’s an irresponsible stance that crashes the moral compass of this movie during the opening scenes.

– That one scene. If I had to pick my least favorite scene in a movie this year, it would be in “The Fanatic”, where a father and son discuss how awesome and heavy Limp Bizkit is while jamming out to the band in their car. I speak of shameful product placement all the time, but when it’s the actual lead singer of the band who directs the film that said scene takes place in, it takes the limits to a whole new level. What’s strange is how the scene really has no sound reasoning for existing other than to be a commercial for shitty nu-metal music that lasted longer in the public eye than it rightfully should have. It halts the movie’s progress for forty whole seconds to cradle Fred’s egotistical boner, and makes Kirk Cameron look like a thespian in movies where his name is part of the title.

– The ending. There’s a lot of reasons why this ending doesn’t work for me, but lets start with the lack of closure itself. The film ends anti-climatically with ridiculous consequences for one character, who would easily establish himself as innocent if he would just speak up and tell the police what happened. The cops themselves are severely stupid because after surveying the whole area, they manage to somehow pin everything on a character who had absolutely nothing to do with it. In addition to this, the guilty party took pictures on his Twitter that would increment him in any courtroom in America, but we’re supposed to shut our minds off and believe the mindless mush that this movie is feeding us. In addition to this, the credits, complete with same order and texture, are repeated from the film’s intro, no doubt in an effort to pad the run time to reach minimal big screen run time acceptability. It was confusing, it was drawn-out, and it was illogical. Basically summarizing everything that came before it.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Directed By Paul Downs Golaizzo

Starring – Jillian Bell, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh

The Plot – Hilarious, outgoing and always up for a good time, New Yorker Brittany Forgler (Bell) is everybody’s best friend, except maybe her own. At 27, her hard-partying ways, chronic underemployment and toxic relationships are catching up with her, but when she stops by a new doctor’s office to try to score some Adderall, she gets slapped with a prescription she never wanted: Get healthy. Too broke for a gym and too proud to ask for help, Brit is at a loss, until her seemingly together neighbor Catherine pushes her to lace up her Converse sneakers and run one sweaty block. The next day, she runs two. And soon, after finishing her first mile, she sets an almost unthinkable goal: running in the New York City Marathon.

Rated R for adult language throughout, sexuality and some drug material

POSITIVES

– Committed performance. What an eye opener this is for Jillian Bell, who receives her first starring role in the form of a character so unconventionally outside of the box for her. As Brittany, Bell channels a combination of insecurities, impatience, and depression, which really force her to use her humorous personality as a crutch. Her work here dramatically tears down any misconceptions about her acting, and brings forth an actress with depth, who isn’t afraid to immerse herself in the confines of the character. Speaking of immersion, Bell’s performance is also a physical one, as the transformation that takes place with her during the movie is one that instills believability to the progress that the character is making with her running. Bell becomes an entirely different physical specimen by film’s end, and the practicality of an actress willing to shed herself to accommodate the role is one that enhances the dynamic of her effort to the picture.

– Evolving humor. As expected, there is a lot of laughing material scattered throughout the picture, but what surprised me was how the humor is used as a manner to reflect the transformation in her personality, as the things in her life that never seemed attainable before come forth. As an example, the first half humor doesn’t land as strongly in punchlines, nor does it feel confident in Brittany’s delivery, and this is entirely intentional. As the film progresses, her deposits feel more timely and reminiscent within the dynamic of the scene, leaving nothing to feel out of place or smoothing out awkwardness that exists. This movie did make me laugh more than a few times, and the comedy inside offers a nice compliment to the romantic elements that spring during the second act of the film.

– Experimental camera work. There’s certainly nothing original or ground-breaking here, but I have to give Golaizzo credit as a filmmaker for inserting enough practicality in his compositions to really transcend this as a major motion picture. The handheld style never slips or distorts what’s depicted in frame, and the candid claustrophobia of body shots conjure up the vulnerability within Brittany’s discomfort that grants us further empathy for the character. The chosen angles certainly aren’t afraid to get dirty with their showcases, and as to where I would hate someone like Michael Bay for focusing on a woman’s body for perverted reasons, the requirement here further serves the argument of what needs to change within our protagonist’s life. At times, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” feels like a documentary, and if it wasn’t for some of the big names associated, the visual flare that Golaizzo promotes would be enough to cement this feeling.

– Educational. This is a movie that touches on more than a few important topics with women and body-shaming, taking ample time to flesh out the feelings far beyond the fat girl who dominates our story. For Brittany, there is a lot of contrasts in how she’s treated before and after her transformation by others, as well as the way she’s used as a crutch for careless friends who never take her interests to heart. For supporting characters, they endure the skinny-shaming from Brittany in a way that helps them escape the conventionalism of a role within these kinds of stories. This gives everyone included a substantial amount of heart and trail-blazing that I certainly wasn’t expecting, and reminds us that Brittany is every bit as guilty of the toxins unleashed in this society as everyone else she comes into contact with. I love a film that says something deeper about today’s place and time, and “Brittany’s” script never rests on its surface level laurels to sell the poignancy of its conflicts.

– Responsible. Perhaps the most important element of this story is the script taking an opportune stride to remind us that living healthy is so much more than just eating properly. Brittany’s disposition is hurt because of her choice in the binge eating, drinking, and drug lifestyle, but it’s really breaking down decades of walls within her friendships, lack of career, and dating dynamics that hints at a lot more than needs an epiphany. In this regard, her transformation is one that challenges her to examine every angle of her life thoroughly to get where she once felt she deserved to be. This positivity transcends the movie as just an entertaining one, and pushes it through to the side of inspirational that it wholeheartedly earns, as opposed to other so-called positivity films of the current day, like 2018’s “I Feel Pretty”.

– As a sports film. “Brittany” is obviously so much more than just another token in this popular subgenre, but on that merit it attains an informative level of depiction that outlines the difficulty with competitive running. The struggle of the protagonist is easily the most important aspect here, as Brittany is seconds from death when she initially begins her journey, highlighting the urgency of the situation. Even more, it does feel easier to her as the film persists, but she’s never Wonder Woman when it comes to the enhancing challenges that she continuously tackles. Even during the film’s prime conflict in the title of the movie, we feel the difficulty of the task, thanks in whole to Bell’s expressions of pain, as well as the deconstruction of her body. Even throughout all of her training, the marathon is one that grinds at her to unrelenting levels, and establishes runners who are every bit as much warriors as football, basketball, or baseball athletes.

– Surprises. Even though you can see the traces of familiarity as the story persists, the third act switch-ups really left me awestruck, and only increased my interest in the unraveling story. I won’t give anything away, but you should expect that nothing in Brittany’s life ever goes as it rightfully should, molding a totally unforseen antagonist within herself that she expects, but never sees coming. The tweaks in the script here were a bit stuffed at times, in terms of how much time is donated to them, but I appreciate a movie that deviates from conventionalism, because it keeps me firmly in-grip with the pulse of the story and characters.

– False advertising. This is one of those rare times where I’m glad that a film was marketed terribly, as the promising of a wacky comedy is anything but in a shape-shifting movie of this caliber. It is a comedy, sure, but it’s one that doesn’t rely on classless gags or insensitivity in its body-shaming. This is very much a classy film, and it’s one that eventually evolves into elements involving romantic comedies and even full-on dramatic tension that transcends its deeming. If you see this film, you should know that you’re getting something so much deeper than what Bell is usually typecast to, and even while this film is trying to attain so much tonally, it all fits together as this seamless ball of success that is every bit entertaining as it is important.

NEGATIVES

– Weak second act. There’s a point in this film where the running aspect is shelved in favor of a romantic comedy subplot, which even though I enjoyed, does take too much time away from the mission at hand. Because so much of the pacing within Brittany’s year during the first act is lightning quick, the second act stalls when it pauses everything around these two romantically linked characters, in favor of a dynamic that I honestly would’ve been fine without. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the romantic aspect of this script, but rather I felt that Brittany was so much stronger when she didn’t need a man hanging in the balance to motivate her into being someone she has always wanted to be. At a certain point, we forget what the primary conflict is, and it’s an example of this script trying to juggle too many aspects at once.

– Third act separation. Yep, even in a movie this experimental, it can’t escape the trope of a third act distancing between Brittany and everyone else, which nearly implodes the movie because of its length in appearance. First of all, the distancing itself doesn’t feel believable to me from Brittany’s standpoint or her friends. They are there to support her, yet they suddenly develop a sensitive exterior to her treatment? She appreciates their bond the entire movie, and then because of one comment she throws everything away? The other thing that bothers me about this is, unlike those other movies that use this trope, it doesn’t solve everything in the time it needs to still produce a pleasing ending. The ending here is OK enough, but it’s clear that this unnecessary conflict took too much air out of the momentum of the home-stretch, which was progressing smoothly until this. For my money, give us a small conflict, but let it be within Brittany herself, and not the many others she selfishly puts on pause, distorting her character in a way that contradicts everything that came before it.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Don’t Let Go

Directed By Jacob Estes

Starring – David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Byron Mann

The Plot – After a man’s (Oyelowo) family dies in what appears to be a murder, he gets a phone call from one of the dead, his niece (Reid). He’s not sure if she’s a ghost or if he’s going mad, but as it turns out, he’s not.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Electric cast all around. Oyelowo and Reid are definitely the prize centerpieces here, but the surprising inclusions of Bryan Tyree Henry, Alfred Molina, and the endlessly charismatic Mykelti Williamson round out a collection of big screen presences that transcends the Blumhouse production value that most of his films become saddled with. Reid continues to be a revelation who is decades ahead of her age. The tremendous range and emotional captivation that comes with someone so interactive with the camera pays off immensely through some pretty soul-crushing sequences. Storm lives up to her name by rumbling the ground, and devastating everything in her wake, complimentary of her timely tears and uncontrolled angst that earns her tremendous empathy from this critic. Oyelowo is another national treasure by this point, and his central protagonist here outlines a complex character who may be at the breaking point of his life, not only for the valuable loss, but also for what toll it took on his psyche. This is a man who contends that he may be unstable, especially after he receives calls from the deceased, and David’s articulation to craft outlines the delicacy of a man so shattered by the circumstances. Oyelowo gets to transcend his drama dominance for some physicality in this role that he otherwise isn’t known for, and it presents a new direction for the young actor that is every bit believable as it is fresh for the course of his early career.

– Uncle and niece dynamic. This relationship is enriched with a combination of believable dialogue and inside jokes, which gives their bond a real lived-in feeling of quality that better illustrates their history. In fact, the chemistry between Oyelowo and Reid is so precise that they often times feel like father and daughter, giving them an importance to one another that better captures the tragedy of the one fateful day between them. In addition to this, it’s nice that the film’s initial plot points before the madness are only between them, keeping the pacing leveled before we’re off to the races with the conflict of our story, at only fifteen minutes in. Beyond this, it’s a relationship that talks over the phone instead of texts, establishing their strength in unity once more for the subtleties that a modern day technological snob like myself can enjoy. As someone who has 11 different nieces and nephews, it’s nice to see a story that caters to the relationship that is rarely given center stage attention in film, and this dedicated time adds emphasis to the crippling weight of loss that occurs once the inevitable comes.

– Meaningful editing. I will get to my problems with the overall presentation of the movie later, but the one positive that I did take away was metaphorical editing, which brought these two worlds together seamlessly before our very eyes. Particularly during the scene at the diner, while both uncle and niece are on the phone together, their unabashed focus at the camera, as well as sharp cuts between each line of dialogue distributed gives the scenes a feeling like both exist in the same timeline for the first time since the beginning stages of the film, feeding further into the tragedy of the conflict for how close they feel in distance, yet so far away in reality. It’s very rare that I get to commend a film for giving meaning behind something as common as editing, but the pasting of these two respective timelines fools us into thinking that for just a moment everything is alright in this world, presenting a catalyst that satisfies ours and the character’s yearning’s to fit the pieces together competently, on the road to solving this mystery.

– The mystery. Speaking of which, there is a resolution to this conflict, and thankfully it wasn’t the one I was thinking throughout the entire movie. Upon looking back on it, the aspects that I fell for seem a bit too obvious now, and instead of settling for the “Shutter Island” ending, which seems all of the rage in 2019, the film does give us a face for the culprit, and it’s one that equally satisfied and intrigued for how everything was paid off. This is presented in a third act presentation that plays side-by-side with our current day narrative, and proves that anyone who you’re supposed to be trusting within this world, you really shouldn’t. There’s enough Macguffins thrown in along the way to keep our mental engines finely tuned, but in the end the script makes the right movements not only in bringing forth a fun performance by this revealing antagonist, but also in refusing to settle for a supposed shocking direction that feels conventional by this point.

– Golden musical score. The real breakthrough star of the film is musical composer Ethan Gold, a man well known for instilling these ominous tones to these worlds of darkness and corruption. His work here may be his single best to date, as the repetition with subtle twists thrown in the deeper the tracks get keeps your ears glued to the speakers, all the while fleshing out the atmosphere of the character’s living in this nightmare world within the sunny side of Los Angeles. In this perspective, the articulate juggling of paranoia, urgency, and tragedy radiate ever so transfixingly throughout, stalking our characters like an unforeseen gunman who they can’t see, yet one whose presence constantly influences the dynamic of this intensity.

NEGATIVES

– Miscalculations. There’s a lot that clearly wasn’t thought out about this gimmick, but a couple of big ones come to mind. For one, what halfway competent police force leaves a victim’s blood-covered cell phone in the bathtub, yet grabs several other meaningless items like magazines? This is obviously a convenient plot device to allow Oyelowo to find and communicate with his niece’s phone, but one scene of him (A cop) finding it in evidence could’ve cleared all of this up. Secondly, the rules of things changed in the past has almost no effect on the future. This practically re-defines the butterfly effect to perplexing levels, as nothing within Storm’s past movements rumbles the dynamic of the present, other than the ones the scene asks for, like paint or chewing gum. Surely this child would’ve messed something up in current day, but her time travel would make Marty McFly awestruck, for how flawless her track disturbs the present. Finally, the ending is the most ridiculous dealing with physics that I have ever seen. SPOILERS, DO NOT PROCEED. When a character who is killed in the past, it vanishes not only them but another character in the present, deeming this timeline inconsequential to the story. How is this possible? You can’t erase present day, and then live in the past. Time travel doesn’t work like that. Even worse, it practically kills characters who had nothing done to them from that previous age. I’ve gone cross-eyed just thinking about it.

– Jarring presentation. Easily the most offensive aspect of this production, as the visuals in the movie gave me Vietnam flashbacks for how headache-inducing they feel. For one, the decision to craft this movie in handheld style is one that comes with visually incoherent chase scenes and conflicts, that make it difficult to register even the tiniest of details in the complexion of the scene. The other problem is this horrendous visual dissolving effect that was last seen in “Suicide Squad”, and is given an unnecessary rebirth here. At least in that movie, the point was to obstruct healthy thinking with Joker’s corrupt insanity, but here the gimmick is a failed attempt at art that adds nothing but a visual speedbump to what we are interpreting. Estes direction is amateurish at best here, leaving tons of opportunity in capturing the essence of the seedy L.A nightlife in exchange for a shaking camera hangover that makes it difficult to stay invested during scenes of action.

– Lack of originality. Jason Blum must not have seen 2000’s “Frequency” a movie where Jim Caviezel is trying to save his deceased father (Dennis Quaid) through the use of a ham-radio. There are subtle differences here and there, mostly in the graphic nature of the hard-R rating that comes with colorfully illustrating more of an adult rendering, but the overall spectrum of comparison between the films points to more than a few identical coincidences that proves Hollywood doesn’t even have the energy to go back thirty years when trying to pull the wool over the eyes of its mostly teenage audience. For my money, “Frequency” is a better movie, not only for the originality of its release, but also for the heart of the story, and attention to its rules, which ever kept it from feeling convoluted.

– A missed opportunity. One aspect that I wish the film would’ve explored was in the contrast between brothers, one being a cop, and the other being a criminal. This road isn’t taken because the supporting characters are barely even supporting, receiving nothing of exposition or valued screen time to better flesh out their personalities for the exposure of the audience. This film could’ve carried with it a complexity for today’s modern justice landscape with minorities, especially considering its two males in question are African Americans, and ones whose paths have taken entirely different routes in outlining the humans we see before us. With very little poignancy or provocative social commentary to its material, “Don’t Let Go” wastes a mostly black cast’s chance at connecting the seams of distance that today’s racial injustices have further distanced, leaving us nothing beneath the surface level plot to stick to us, minutes after leaving the theater.

– Rushed. This is really more with the lack of natural development in the plot, as well as minimalist characters, who are only there as a body count to the borderline torturous violence. For the pacing, the movie is solid enough, clocking in at 98 fluid minutes that constantly keep the unraveling of the mystery at entirely satisfying levels. Where that’s a problem to someone like me, who appreciates the little aspects that make a bigger picture, is in the answers given to the question relying on far too much convenience. In my opinion, “Don’t Let Go” would work better as a weekly television show instead of an under two hour narrative. There’s very little struggle in the detective work, nor is there rarely ever a feeling of helplessness for the little girl. It always feels like it will work out, and that’s a major hit for compelling drama, which often relies on vulnerability or determination to sell its human factor.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Jacob’s Ladder (2019)

Directed By David M. Rosenthal

Starring – Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Joseph Sikora

The Plot – After his brother (Williams) returned home from war, Jacob Singer (Ealy) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images.

Rated R for adult language, some violence, sexuality and drug content

POSITIVES

– Deviation from the original. If you have to give this movie credit for anything, know that it isn’t a plagiaristic rip-off of the original film that did every single aspect better by comparison. Aside from the names of the character’s being the same, the film does surprisingly take a refreshing direction in the form of the modern war on medicine, which allows it to stand on its own two feet of originality from an otherwise borrowed title. There were some measures taken in the film that I did enjoy, and with a little more time could’ve been properly fleshed out to convey its intentional message to the eyes and ears of the audience. In addition to this, the film is much better paced than the original “Jacob’s Ladder”, moving frequently throughout its 84 minute run time towards the twist that we’ve all been expecting. This quickness is rough on other aspects that I will get to later, but brings forth an easy one-sit watch that never stalls on the message it is conveying to its audience.

– Gifted duo. Ealy and Williams are sound in what they offer to the picture, despite a lack of characterization from Rosenthal that does no favors in fleshing out the hooks to their personalities. These two men are basically playing two sides of the character coin for the price of one performance, and their believability from post-war traumatic stress is only surpassed by the way their impeccable chemistry and near identical looks bring weight to the believability of the brotherly subplot. Ealy has always been an actor who I consider a secret weapon in Hollywood, despite appearing in some quite popular titles, but as the central protagonist, his grip on the constantly changing scenarios around him enhance the paranoia in trying to decipher what’s real, all the while bringing Michael’s soulful eyes to the surface to convey the fear.

NEGATIVES

– If there’s one constant theme throughout this screenplay, it’s the over-the-top nature in which every element of exposition is delivered. The dialogue flows about as naturally as an 80’s porno, the fantastical imagery feels forced even for monstrous visual transitions, and there’s certainly nothing subtle about the war subplot, which I easily predicted within a few minutes because a better movie did it already. At least in the original, we the audience could decipher the thin line between fantasy and reality, but here even the scenes that take place in the real world feel so convoluted to duplicate authenticity, and soon the entire film turns bored because too much is being repeated along the way.

– Cheap production values. Oh boy, where to start here? First of all, the handheld camera gimmick should only be used in action films to accentuate thunderous impact. Here, it depicts a sloppy mess that brings forth the idea of motion sickness with every movement in and out of frame. Secondly, the special effects in 2019 don’t even come close to matching the subtlety of the ones from 1990. Why is this? Well, this movie relies on them far too often, allowing them to lose their charm by the end of the first act, and they use the same facial filters that made “The Dark Tower” one of the biggest unintentional laughs of its respective year. Finally, the lighting in the film is intusively ugly to the point of scenes feeling like they took place on a green-screen. There is so much puke green tint throughout this film that I thought it was the Green Lantern sequel that Ryan Reynolds never wanted, and what’s even worse is that its consistency never allows it to shake itself free of the television style of production that ruins this film before it even gets its feet off of the ground.

– Changed setting. In the original film, the doom and gloom of the New York city landscape perfectly articulated the darkness from within Jacob’s double life, but the geographic change here to Atlanta does so little to establish its identity or importance within the story. The backdrops in the film reek of stage production, and offer nothing to distinguish itself as a one of a kind setting, instead of a film that easily could’ve been set anywhere if the film didn’t tell me in the opening that this is Atlanta. In addition to this, the war change from Vietnam to Iraq took away arguably the biggest benefactor to Jacob’s subconscious in Agent Orange, and now has to settle for a drug that this movie made up, that doesn’t even happen until soldiers return home. What Vietnam did was make everything believable. You could’ve told me that a character grew a third ear there, and I would’ve believed you because of so much uncertainty in the jungles of their countryside. With Iraq in this instance, far too much has to be explained, leaving an abundance of filling in the gaps that raises more questions than answered.

– Lack of scares. It’s not that there aren’t any attempts, but the ones that are reflect this “Goosebumps” flavor of chills that shouldn’t be even remotely scary to anyone who is able to pee anywhere but their pants. Thankfully, there are no jump scares, but this might be the case where some would’ve been appreciated, because this film in tone and lack of frights often forgets that it is a psychological HORROR movie. For my money, this is as close to an action movie as you can get, even resulting in a third act climax that results in two characters duking it out for survival. The original movie was filled with terrifying imagery in a subtly devilish way that inspired gaming franchises like “Silent Hill”, and rather than even attempt to master this creativity with the effects skills of today, this remake settles instead for the cliches that doom so many horror films in modern day.

– The mystery. Being that this is a “Jacob’s Ladder” movie, there is of course a twist in the third act that supposedly brings everything together, and while this twist is one that capably fills all of the holes in logic, it doesn’t escape the element of predictability, which was given to us long ago. I mentioned earlier that I figured everything out in this movie within the opening ten minutes, and what doesn’t help that fact is a series of clues and coincidences that all but write out on paper what will happen with every character and subplot. My biggest problem is the lack of punch that comes from the revelation as opposed to a first movie that was beautifully synchronized. There’s nothing even remotely compelling or cathartic about what this Jacob endures, and soon we come to understand that his only resolution is one that doesn’t benefit us the audience who have hung on this long in the hopes of closure. It’s an easy way out, and it feels like no one truly wins, a betrayal of the first film’s ending that made me tear up on first watch.

– Fumbling characterization. If we got to know our protagonists for a few minutes, then maybe we would invest in the heaviness of their respective conflicts, but nothing compels me to ever care slightly for one of them, and that has to do with them feeling like strangers even throughout 84 minutes of film. Jacob is our central protagonist, and one we spend the entirety of the movie with, but outside of the things that take place in the movie, I found out nothing about him for the things that happen off-screen. The one aspect we do learn deals with a romantic triangle that honestly doesn’t cast him in the greatest light when it comes to a man with strong family ideals. What did I find out about his girlfriend? Nothing. What did I find out about his brother besides he’s a war veteran? Nothing. These are the people you’re supposed to support and feel worried for when something bad happens to them.

– Disjointed storytelling. It’s important to distinguish what is intentional, and what is a result of sloppy editing. The entirety of this film is told on two respective timelines, so the disjointed nature of scenes feeling scrambled is one that will remain jumbled until the twist comes that fits them all into place. This is done to make us the audience feel the disorientation that Jacob Singer is feeling in the film, and I’m totally fine with that. What I’m not fine with are transitioning scenes the stunt the growth of the dialogue that is deposited, offering no time for audiences to ingest it as anything important by the necessary emphasis required to sell its purpose. Likewise, there were a couple of transitions in the movie where the next scene begins its dialogue while the previous one is still talking. It’s more of the amateur level of production that I mentioned earlier, but this one deserves its own column for how it limits the growth and potential of every scene, offering no bit of momentum to tease us for what is to follow.

– Faulty title. I have to be careful not to spoil this section. The title of this movie should only be there because this is a remake of a film that it is modernizing. My problem with the meaning within the title is that once you know the twist of this particular film, it doesn’t add up to the religious inspiration that Jacob’s Ladder refers to in the bible. Imagine if “The Breakfast Club” was remade, and in the new version the detention is actually done in the afternoon or evening, yet the title remains the same. Occasionally I complain about a title, but I try to save it for occasions when it really creates a problem when summarizing the film, and that is exactly the case here.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

The Nightingale

Directed By Jennifer Kent

Starring – Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr

The Plot – Set at the turn of the 19th century, the film follows Clare (Franciosi), a 21-year-old native Irish wife and mother held captive beyond her 7-year sentence, desperate to be free of her obsessed master, British lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin). Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) intervenes with devastating consequences for all. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare pursues Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unfamiliar with the Tasmanian wilderness she enlists the help of an orphaned Aboriginal tracker Billy (Ganambarr). Marked by their traumas, the two fight to overcome their distrust and prejudices against the backdrop of Australia’s infamous ‘Black War’.

Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, adult language throughout, and brief sexuality

POSITIVES

– Kent’s vantage point. As a director, Jennifer is quickly earning herself the reputation as a hypnotist, not just for the mesmerizing spell that she commands over the audience, but also for the psychosis that she delves into in getting understand the very pulse of these characters. In this regard, the decision to once again write and direct this film is one that pays off immensely for the way she uses the camera to comprehend human emotion in a way that very few films articulate. With the mostly claustrophobic shot composition, Kent’s unflinching documentation of the face, and all of the weight that is carried through the eyes of the soul, further fleshes out the gut-wrenching nature of the mature content, offering us no chance to turn away from anything other than the registry of emotions that washes over our characters like a current from the sea.

– Transgressive subject matter. This film is not for the faint of heart, as there are multiple examples of female rape, slavery, and the overall handing down of violence, which test audiences who consider themselves brave enough to endure it. Even for a cinephile like me, there are scenes in the film that tested my commitment to it, saved only by the artistry used that makes these conflicts as tasteful as can be. It helps that Kent doesn’t show anything too extreme with the camera, leaving much to be interpreted from audience minds that no horror film can ever touch in terms of scarring material. But the issues enclosed all work for how they’re distributed throughout the film, and even more so, they ring true in a current era where the cycles of these sick matters still resonate now more than ever, giving the film a ringing social endorsement that will appeal more to females and minorities more than any other moviegoer.

– An inside look. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the film is the immersion into the human psyche that comes at the hands of grief, torturous abuse, and taking a life. This is where Kent stands out above the rest in terms of her power with the pen, as there are many fantastical sequences that depict the weight given to these matters, outlining what little chance there is for mental escape for the remainder of this prisonous life. “The Nightingale” more than any other film I’ve seen in recent memory channels this isolation in a way that makes the decision that comes with it one of great responsibility, and this in turn gives extreme value to the many lives that are taken throughout the film, proving them to be something so much more than a convenient body count. They haunt our protagonist like an endearing spirit, and it’s one that haunts her time of rest with nightmarish visuals as a constant reminder that comes with irresponsibly taking a life.

– Minimal music. Kent makes the decision for very little musical incorporation throughout the film, choosing instead to remain within the heat of the environment, which the only constant is unpredictability. What music that is supplanted is sung by Franciosi, an actress with no big mainstream experience with music, yet one who triggers the heartbeat of the audience with every emotional current that she flushes over them with. Her lyrics are those of Irish folk tales, and her presence over the performance reflects everything she is currently dealing with at that particular time. It’s wise to keep music quite limited throughout the film, not only for our suspense, which feels like it is constantly gripped tight in the palm of Kent, but also to leave this time period piece feeling as dated as possible, with as few current day production interjections as possible.

– Aboriginal awareness. Taking time from its revenge narrative, the film has a surprisingly educated look inside the lives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, who were subject to animalistic manners of living due to the rich and powerful. What’s cool about this inclusion is that the members themselves are speaking Palawa Kani, a near extinct language by today’s standards, that has never been spoken in a mainstream motion picture to date. Kent has certainly done her studying for the culture thoroughly, and given them ample time within the screenplay to authenticate the look, sound, and feel accordingly, preserving these dangerously gifted warriors valuably, that still exist in small numbers to this day.

– Strong production values. Post production is reserved in the cases that further enhances authentication within the environment of the picture. This comes in the form of flawless costume design, a domination of natural lighting for the film’s cinematography, and articulate sound mixing that surrounds our characters like a soundtrack for nature isolation. There isn’t a single aspect with the work behind the scenes that breaks investment within the particular time frame, and this attention to consistency grants the movie a transcending value that Kent attains without another big budget studio investment ($2 million). For the love of God, Hollywood, give this woman a budget that she deserves. It would be cool to see what she could do with an unlimited resource, even though parts of me loves that she remains faithful to her independent cinematic values.

– Three award-worthy performances. The entire casting is completely perfect, with not a single complaint for the actors young or old, but for my money, the work of Franciosi, Ganambarr, and Claflin are works of emotional and physical wonder. Claflin easily gives his best performance to date as the film’s antagonist, a man as reckless and uncaring as anyone you have seen on-screen this year. He’s a real son-of-a-bitch, and Sam’s ability to experiment in a character so unlike anything he has done yet is something that makes you completely detest him. First time big screen actor Baykali Ganambarr offers complexity in a character with a difficulty to trust that is understandably so, but his unraveling throughout the picture is one that gives way to a free spirit that is almost animalistic transformative. His developing friendship with Franciosi drove the movie for me, and preserved a natural bond that is earned with every environment that the two endure. Speaking of Franciosi, WOW!!!! For what Kent did inspiring Essie Davis in “The Babadook”, she should be given equal respect for the psychological sting that is Aisling Franciosi. The best actors say so much in their facial registries, and even before she speaks the vengeful and grieving pulse of her voice, Franciosi’s Clare transfers that anxiety and traumatic dealings perfectly in her heart-breaking facial registries. Franciosi is a storm that levels everyone and everything in her way, and even an hour after seeing the film, the wrenching level of time dedicated to her crumbling psyche brings forth a protagonist who is, above all else, human.

– Speaking of human characters, I love that measures taken in attacks from the characters in the movie feel as spontaneously natural as could be expected from these very grounded people. Above all else, they make mistakes. They do things that we the audience in our comfy chairs would consider stupid, but I found it quite refreshing for how matters beyond their control couldn’t be calculated. This not only gives the film an air of unpredictability to it, but also made the characters and bonds that I previously mentioned feel more earned than a conventional screenplay ever could. Give me a movie where the protagonists go through hell, and I will further invest and respect in the complications associated with establishing something as miniscule as food for the uphill climb that went into finally attaining it.

– The ending. I’ve heard many people complaining that the climax of this film was anti-climatic and feels unresolved, and to them I ask, what movie were you watching? Not only did this film satisfy me cathartically for the mental and physical struggles of the characters, but the final shot combines beauty and spirituality in a way that fully realizes the struggle of the long and enduring journey of the characters who are caught in the heat of the moment. The resolution is sudden, sure, but so is revenge. People need to realize that real life doesn’t involve this big magnified production with orchestral rumblings to sell itself. The magnitude of the situation isn’t realized until it is nearly an afterthought, and the manner associated within the values of friendship presented the only feel-good aspect that I had throughout a movie that rattles you with constant intensity.

NEGATIVES

– A bit too long. For my money, I would shave twenty minutes off of this movie during the late scenes of the second act, which would require you to lose nothing from this picture. Some scenes with the antagonists repeat around this time, as well as some scenes with our protagonists not feeling especially important to what transpires, and it all results in pacing that will create more obstacles than necessary with the audience, if you’re not fully invested into the dynamics of these characters. Make this film just under two hours, and the inevitability of confrontation will feel that much more urgent with this path growing smaller.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Overcomer

Directed By Alex Kendrick

Starring – Alex Kendrick, Shari Rigby, Pricilla C. Shirer

The Plot – Life changes overnight for Coach John Harrison (Kendrick) when his high school basketball team and state championship dreams are crushed under the weight of unexpected news. When the largest manufacturing plant shuts down and hundreds of families leave their town, John questions how he and his family will face an uncertain future. After reluctantly agreeing to coach cross-country, John and his wife, Amy (Rigby), meet an aspiring athlete (Shirer) who’s pushing her limits on a journey toward discovery. Inspired by the words and prayers of a new-found friend, John becomes the least likely coach helping the least likely runner attempt the impossible in the biggest race of the year.

Rated PG for some thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Not preachy. As an atheist, when I watch a religious movie, I brace myself for the endless amounts of propaganda and childish reality checks towards on-screen Atheists that proves their heart of God was in the right place. Thankfully with “Overcomer”, this isn’t fully the case, as the movie is professional enough to keep its focus on the development of the movie, instead of pushing an agenda. Sure, the religious talk in the film still feels overly shoe-horned in, and further convolutes a third act that already had its own problems, but the discussion on faith is one that remains respectable and knowledgeable for its kind, etching out a respectable side of believers that we unfortunately don’t get enough of, thanks to production companies like Pureflix.

– Humorous. This one I totally wasn’t expecting, as not only was this movie’s first half geared almost entirely towards the comedy genre offering, but it actually connects with an intended laugh more times than not. This is especially refreshing for religious movies, as their characters don’t often beat to the drum of human impulse, yet here these characters feel every bit as fleshed out in personalities as they do transparent in their overall lack of god-like shield. It’s sitcom humor, but effective none the less, and it springs forth this enticing introduction to characters that helped with our overall investment towards them, giving us delightful humiliation along the way that proves Kendrick as a screenwriter and lead protagonist isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

– Gut-wrenching performances. For a mostly amateur cast of actors, each of them possess the gift of gab not only through committing to the dialogue, but also through some dramatic heft that they transfer through to seamlessly. For my money, the show-stealer is easily Shirer, whose combination of free-flowing tears and fragile vulnerability cast her decades ahead of her experience, and cements a control over the meat of the story that depended on her so endlessly. Also great is Kendrick, who outlines a blue collar values husband, father, and teacher, who may be my single most favorite character ever in a religious film. The reason for this is his timely deposits in humor, as well as the gripping unraveling that he takes throughout this town of his that is falling apart at the seams. Alex seems like the chain that is holding so many aspects together, and never does his character completely fold under the pressure, proving wonderfully how one person can have such an impact on a dire situation.

– Economics 101. I give this script a lot of respect for focusing on the trickle down effects of a small town losing its vital resource, and the way it diminishes so many other institutions. As mentioned in the plot, the town plant closes down, which in turn takes away jobs from many parents, which in turn forces them to move elsewhere to seek work, which in turn removes the talented athletes from the school where they made their names. Not only does this angle depict the fragility of a small town so vividly, but it also plays beautifully into the central conflict of the film, which finds so many characters seeking new identities. As far as thought-provoking material goes, “Overcomer” gives a microphone to those lower populated towns, and turns up the volume when the confines of economic claustrophobia starts to weigh in, giving thought to a scenario that sadly isn’t covered as much as the big cities are on 24-hour news networks.

– As a sports film. Cross Country isn’t exactly a sport that intrigues me, but the film does a solid job in coming down to my level of inexperience to teach, all the while remaining truthful to the purists who, like Hannah, grew up playing the sport. It embodies it for what it truly is; an endearing marathon that every other sport athlete shudders at when they even think of attempting it. As for Hannah, it transforms her in a commitment that requires her to change her eating habits, build her endurance one mile at a time, and take one butt-kicking after another when it comes to competing with other girls who have done the sport all of their life. In the heat of the moment, the film documents it with several long-take camera shots and a barrage of pulse-setting audio that contrast believability to the actors in focus, and reminds the audience of the intensity in the moment.

– Spreading value. “Overcomer” was filmed on a budget of only five million dollars, and while that may sound like a lot on the surface level, the reality is that it’s an independent film budget for something receiving a big screen release. So how do they make up for it? Well, the camera work, especially in the adrenaline-pumping races feel very calculated, and full of personality that doesn’t come from conventional shot compositions of the genre. In addition to this, Kendrick has stated in interviews that the actual cameras themselves were the very same ones that filmed the original Avengers movie. This could be the catalyst for change in the genre, and it’s one that is needed, considering I am instantaneously taken out of these movies on presentational value alone.

NEGATIVES

– Predictability. This comes in the form of two twists and a series of genre tropes that make it easy to telegraph within the first half hour of the movie. Not only did I accurately predict the two twists in question, mainly for how every black character in these movies have to be related in some way, but never once did the film deviate even slightly from the most conventionally cliche’d television offering. Even the final race itself turns out in the exact way that you would expect it to, where everything that made the movie grounded in its approach turns to fairytales in sewing everything up all neat and tidy so the audience doesn’t head home with even an ounce of life reality.

– Mundane music. The musical score from composer Paul Mills is boisterous and completely meandering when it comes to triggering its sensitive audience. To say this is manipulative is an understatement, but the volume increases by Mills don’t feel natural in the slightest, nor do they offer the slightest increment of depth or complexity for its tones. This is every emotion bottled down to its smallest and inconsequential form, even going so far as to serenade us with ominous numbers when a bad character comes into focus. If this isn’t enough, the film also samples the current day pop hit “You Say” from Lauren Daigle, shaping particular lyrics in a way that makes them sound like they were made to compliment faith. This is as dirty as a film could get, and even despite the paycheck, if I were Daigle, I would be livid to have a song about physical love reduced to this propaganda.

– Fake cinematography. Even with this being a better overall film than 95% of religious offerings, the consistency in artificial cinematography that lacks any kind of artistic merit is carried over in this film. You’ve seen it before, it’s the same hazy, outline that is cemented with a feeling of God looking down from above in the form of a warm glow that radiates as subtly as a Sherman tank going through a nitro glycerine plant. It capitalizes on an aspect of visual storytelling that has been done hundreds of times before it, and stitches itself to films that are beneath it in nearly every productional category but this one, because it finds unnecessary visual metaphors alluring. If you’re going to spoof religious films, this is easily the first thing that you must capture.

– Third act issues. For roughly the first 70 minutes of this film, everything is running smoothly. Even the near two hour run time is paced in a manner that allows it to flow with urgency in storytelling movements. But the second half begins, and particularly in the third act, this once compelling piece of dramatic cinema converts itself to a religious romp that never relents. Until this point, there was very little mention of God, but it’s thrown into overdrive in four straight scenes where the same thing is being said by four different characters, pounding the pacing in a way that makes the last thirty minutes of the movie feel like you’re running in the very same marathon that Hannah is. Aside from repetition, there’s the mountain of predictability that I previously mentioned, and it turns what could’ve easily been a good late summer surprise into a barely passing final grade.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Brian Banks

Directed By Tom Shadyac

Starring – Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Melanie Liburd

The Plot – The inspirational true story of Brian Banks (Hodge), an All-American high school football star committed to USC who finds his life upended when he is wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Despite lack of evidence, Banks is railroaded through a broken justice system and sentenced to a decade of prison and probation. Years later, with the support of Justin Brooks (Kinnear) and the California Innocence Project, Banks fights to reclaim his life and fulfill his dreams of playing in the NFL.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– A pleasant surprise. Heading into this film, I simply wasn’t ready to see another religious film, and thankfully “Brian Banks”, despite dabbling in religious production companies, doesn’t rely too heavily on religious subtext. Not that I have a problem overall with religious movies, but more times than not, they try to overly sell a point that not everyone in the audience can relate to, but this film is one of the best in that category if it can even be considered one. There are moments of religious aspects, mainly in the idea of Morgan Freeman playing a god-like figure to Brian (Imagine that), inspiring him to constantly get up and keep on pushing forward. The film is solid enough, but made even better when you treat it like the unintentional “Bruce Almighty” sequel that it should be.

– Eye-opening. The most important stance that this movie commits to is the poignancy in details that it submits on behalf of the many who are wrongfully imprisoned everyday. The film alludes us to the idea that many on trial are coerced into accepting pleas for the sake of a lesser sentence, and not taking into consideration what they’re accepting as a result of it. In addition to this, the lack of digging with the investigation that often overlooks pivotal points in the state’s argument that could easily dismiss it all, and save a man from possibly losing his life for something he did not do. In Brian’s case, a new lease on life as this sexual predator, who can’t gain a decent job, or catch up with any new friends because he is constantly judged on this one dark day that isn’t even true in the first place. It proves that our justice system is still as faulty as ever, and brings to life a true American horror story that unfortunately so many face in an uphill climb every single day.

– Dubious duo. The work of Hodge and Kinnear easily made the movie for me, in terms of credible performances. For Hodge, the title character is one that is equally as challenging in the physical capacity as it is endearing in the mental one. Brian is a fighter in life, and sometimes his greatest strength in hope also serves as the devastating blow that is constantly taken away from him, and Aldis perseveres with a buzzworthy performance that proves that many more dramatic castings are clearly in his future. Greg Kinnear continues to be one of the coolest on-screen actors that I’ve still ever seen, but it’s not his cool factor that makes his character so compelling, but the responsibility in constantly playing both sides of the field in this mental debate about Brian’s innocence. It pushes him to the limits of finding that one extraordinary piece of evidence in this case, and Kinnear’s unraveling easiness outlines a layer of urgency for the picture that isn’t always as dependable within inconsistent production value.

– Proper framing. I had doubts about telling a story so big with so many character dynamics in a mostly flashback device, but the film nearly pulls everything off, complete with precise pacing that never lags or implodes on the weight of many directions. Shadyac begins the film with a current day narrative, then goes back two years to show us the audience how we got to this point. Where this is usually faulty in film is it creates a barrier of pause in between every jump forward and backward in the plot, instead of continuously building within this straight line of real time events. It works here however, because it’s Brian’s current struggles that the film values more in exposited time, donating a majority of the storytelling within this time frame. Convolution problems do stem during aspects of a flashback being told inside of another flashback, but the communication to the audience is easy enough to never lose or confuse them, adding simplicity to something that is usually so complex in transitioning exposition.

– Return to form. Shadyac as a director of the 90’s was always a product of cheeseball comedies like “Bruce Almighty” (There it is again) and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”, but most recently with this film and 2015’s “Racing Extinction”, his priorities seem to be within the air of sentimentality, expressing a rich maturity in importance the longer he helms his pictures. Even with this maturity however, the 90’s vibes remain prominent in his films, with this one’s visuals and shot composition feeling like something that was practically lifted from the decade. What I love about this is it transforms its cinematography to feel reflective of an age that is almost twenty years in the past, instead of feeling like a movie that lives and breathes within this 2019 bubble of reality beyond the lens of the camera. Shadyac’s filmography is as eclectic as anyone in Hollywood, and it will certainly be interesting to see what he is doing ten years down the line.

– The less you know, the better. This is a film that is more rewarding for the people like me, who knew very few of the details associated within the case. This is anything but a courtroom drama of a movie, residing inside of the judge’s chambers for only about ten minutes of the 95 minute run time, so really it’s the angles behind closed doors that the movie takes immense importance in. Because of this, we get a lot of twists and turns within proving Brian’s innocence, and establishing a layer of intrigue and uncertainty that really kept me glued to how far Brian and his lawyer would have to go to prove his innocence. The film is frustrating, but in a good way that inspires people to get involved, especially as is the case with another innocent woman on death row for over twenty years, who Kinnear’s character is still battling through.

NEGATIVES

– Dual responsibility. The problem with believability rears its ugly head during the high school scenes, where the decision to remain consistent with Hodge playing the role becomes a laughably bad problem to the integrity of the film. Hodge looks about as believable as a high school student as James Van Der Beek did in “Dawson’s Creek”, and in my opinion there should’ve been multiple actors used during particular ages in Brian’s multiple timelines. To leave it with one consistent actor brings forth some unintentional laughs in the form of comparison with other classmates, bumbling hip dialogue that elaborates the teenage experience as easy as khaki dads can, and absolutely no make-up or prosthetics included to transform the age of our actor.

– Television production values. There are many things to point to in this section, but the main ones deal with delayed editing, obvious dialogue, and rating limitations which keep it from telling the compelling part of a character arc. On the latter of that triple thud, the prison part of the story doesn’t focus enough for long enough on the adversities of prison that better establish his strength for remaining positive in such a dire situation. There’s a hint at a prison rape storyline, which never materializes after Brian fights back, and his opponent vanishes in thin air. As for the other two, the editing constantly pulls away from a transition scene about a second too late, losing spans of momentum frequently, and keeping it from carrying over to the following scene. Finally, the dialogue in the film, especially late in the third act, is so on-the-nose and full of re-affirmations that beat us over the head with what we already know from the previous hour of the movie. Mostly, it’s in the hands of protagonists or antagonists who lay on their respective opinions hard, fighting against any layer of complexity or originality to make them vital to what’s transpiring in the scene. Really it’s just endless repetition, and weighs down a true life story that was done entertainingly enough until then.

– Cheap villain device. I think the focus is completely wrong here. Instead of focusing on the perils of flaws in the justice system, the film is given a face late in the second act to unload all of our ill feelings against. These two character’s, especially the victim, are so completely over the top that I couldn’t take them seriously each time they’re on screen, and if it wasn’t for the horrendous acting that they never commit to even remotely, I wouldn’t have felt even a shred of empathy for either one of them. This device is too easy to be satisfying, and doesn’t reach for the bigger, more responsible target that the screenplay doesn’t have the guts to reach for, which in turn could’ve set it apart from other criminal injustice films with the production to make up for such faults.

– NFL aspect. I commend the film for going the extra mile to pay for the rights not only of professional NFL teams, but also in factual names, who played a pivotal role in Brian’s story. Where my problem lies is in the casting of Pete Carroll, the coach of U.S.C, who recruited Brian to play for his team. There’s an actor who plays him, who not only looks nothing like Pete, but is only really in one scene in the movie, which could’ve easily been kept out of the finished product. It gets sketchy towards the end, when Pete is shown on the sidelines hosting the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, with every scene showing him with his back turned to the camera, to so evidently keep the consistency of the actor’s face playing Pete front-and-center in the minds of the audience. It casts such an obvious unnecessity of a distraction to anyone who knows football, which would only be roughly 90% of the audience who go to see this movie in the first place.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-