Five Feet Apart

Directed By Justin Baldoni

Starring – Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani

The Plot – Stella Grant (Richardson) is every bit a seventeen-year-old. She’s attached to her laptop and loves her best friends. But unlike most teenagers, she spends much of her time living in a hospital as a cystic fibrosis patient. Her life is full of routines, boundaries and self-control – all of which is put to the test when she meets an impossibly charming fellow CF patient named Will Newman (Sprouse). There’s an instant flirtation, though restrictions dictate that they must maintain a safe distance between them. As their connection intensifies, so does the temptation to throw the rules out the window and embrace that attraction. Further complicating matters is Will’s potentially dangerous rebellion against his ongoing medical treatment. Stella gradually inspires Will to live life to the fullest, but can she ultimately save the person she loves when even a single touch is off limits?

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, adult language and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Familiar premise. An aspect with the romantic genre is that you often have these two people in love who simply can’t be together because of contrasting worlds tearing them apart, and as to where that plot is redundant for this particular genre of film, the necessity of it here makes sense more than ever. Considering these are two people suffering from a very dangerous strain of CF, it forces them to keep their distance so as to avoid possible death, and what this does is not only give the premise reason for its existence, but it also gives it immense weight in the form of the conflict itself. To be together means that these two will sacrifice touch, and it really begs the question if a relationship can survive without such intimacy.

– Responsible approach with its subject matter. Aside from this being a mostly entertaining film in whole, the task of educating its audience on the specifics of Cystic Fibrosis is taken with enough tender care in explanation that makes it so much more than just another movie. The director and actors spent ample time with a Cystic Fibrosis foundation in order to capitalize on accuracy, as well as the hopelessness of the care given to the medical staff themselves. What’s vital here is that nothing is glossed over or fancied up for the screen itself. The depictions in the film can look and sound grueling and dejecting for its audience, but without those valuable depictions, the film would be doing an extreme disservice to the impact of living with a disease that cuts literally everything short.

– Method of exposition insertion. Stella’s character has her own Youtube channel, and aside from this aspect of the film inevitably feeling someday dated, the aspect of it allows the film to tell some pivotal moments in her life that the screenplay might otherwise have difficulty conquering. Through her daily VLOG’s, Stella explains what impact the disease has on her, some of her favorite tastes in her otherwise limited world, and the importance of a missing family member that has weighed heavily on her development. This gimmick hasn’t worked in other films because of how much it’s often trying to convey in such a small window, but the details here feel natural and synthetic to the kind of videos and conversations that are prominent on video sharing websites in modern times, and allows us the audience to pick up on things at the exact same time that our co-protagonist Will is.

– Cute, charming lead cast. This is definitely a leading cast kind of film, as the supporting characters are kind of reduced to keep them front-and-center, but it allows the chemistry of Richardson and Sprouse to shine because of the care given to the progression of their relationship. The movie takes ample time in preserving them as friends first before dropping the romantic star-crossed lovers angle that was promised, and I appreciated this because it does sort of depict how love is a progress that sometimes doesn’t fit right away. As for performances, Richardson is given her first meaty dramatic role and thrives with ample colors. Stella has no shortage of running tears or vibrancy in personality, and for Haley’s first dramatic lead it really opens your eyes to how the young actress can captivate audiences with an arrangement of emotions that are brought out and returned like Mister Rogers suit jackets. Sprouse also has plenty to be grateful for, mostly in the form of precise comedic timing and a conflicted character who feels like the responsible shoulder that the story so desperately requires. Sprouse’s Will walks that fine line of responsibility on the eve of his 18th birthday no less, and his honest outlook on life gave his character many miles for his age, and actually turned out to be my favorite character in the film.

– Intimacy in camera work. While I wasn’t blown away with the complete presentation of the movie’s cinematography and movements behind the lens, I can say that the variety in handheld and still-frame pageantry shows great responsibility from Baldoni’s nurturing hands. The framing here is exceptional, bringing with it a necessity to focus on the facial registry of the actors respectively, and giving us the audience and immersive quality to what is transpiring. This allows the film to frame its two leads close in ways that the disease inside of the story keeps them conflicted, conjuring up a feeling of satisfying fantasy in ways that we know will rarely ever pay off in real time.

– Elements of the novel coming to life. Like most successful films in 2019, this film is based off of a book with its own artistic vibes that the movie felt necessary to bring along. Featured in the movie are drawings that were prominent in the first run editions of the novel itself, and these portraits can be seen and mentioned not only in the artistic capabilities of Will’s ever-trusting notebook, but also in Stella’s hospital room home away from home. Each of these hold strong merit to their inclusion to the film, and adds a wink-and-nod element to longtime fans of the novel, who are otherwise tired of the originality of such stories being forgotten for movies that take more than a few liberties. That isn’t such the case here, as “Five Feet Apart” proves that a book and movie can live together in near perfect harmony, without one infringing on the benefits of the other.

– One stage setting. I’m a sucker for movies that exist in one continuous place, so much so that I commend the movie for illustrating the claustrophobia for these kids being forced to live without much escape, as well as its ability to stay mostly entertaining considering its landscapes stay almost entirely grounded. It helps that the film stays faithful to the two leads instead of depicting the reactions of parents or supporting family. This not only allows the film to set up this world inside of a world, but it remains a testament to the movie’s confidence for how it’s able to constantly maintain my interest considering visually it is going nowhere. You don’t see one stage setting films often anymore, but “Five Feet Apart” proves that this angle can succeed if the story is gripping enough, and the characters are easily engaging.

NEGATIVES

– Prolonged dramatic tension. Right around the beginning of the third act, the wear of redundancy in the screenplay feels evident, and it forces the story to take some forceful directions in logic to grip the audience in their seats and push forward towards the two hour run time that Baldoni so desperately wants. For one, most of the typical third act distancing that we’ve become saddled with in movies feels particularly unnecessary here, and could easily be resolved with much-needed communication. One such occasion with Will distancing himself from Stella comes out of nowhere, and had me scratching my head because of things about his disease that we must believe he is learning for the first time in his life. In addition, the third act scene away from the hospital is not only ridiculous for how many red herrings it forces against us the audience that takes away from the dramatic elements of the scene, but Stella herself goes against established directions in her character with a decision that could easily help her. Instead, a simple decision leads to irresponsibility on one character that costs two, and only brings forth a visible line of desperation that this story couldn’t escape from.

– This might be the worst hospital ever. In addition to having no security cameras of any kind to keep an eye on its patients who just might interact with one another, there are nurses who ignore monitors going off and dismissing it as nothing more than a patient sitting on a button. I get that the reason this angle happened is because this very thing does happen earlier on in the film, but there isn’t a nurse on this planet who asks questions first and takes action later, and it just made me question how many lawsuits this place may have fought through along the way. In fact, the one nurse explains that a couple already died on her watch for them interacting behind staff’s back. Maybe that incident might lead to some tougher safety precautions, but no, we need it for the plot device, darling.

– Unnecessary opening monologue. Once again, we are treated to narration by an actor that is every bit pointless as it is spoiling to what it gives away. When you think about it, you know this character will probably live considering they are talking in the past tense. Not only this, but it doesn’t add to any particular scene or established plot because it is stating the obvious to anyone who has already seen the trailer. This is one of those major flaws that I hate in films, and it only further convolutes the relationship that a movie this cerebral establishes with the audience it conveys to. If it is indeed purposeful, take it out of the movie and see what it changes.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

A Madea Family Funeral

Directed By Tyler Perry

Starring – Tyler Perry, Cassi Davis, Patrice Lovely

The Plot – A joyous family reunion becomes a hilarious nightmare as Madea (Perry) and the crew travel to backwoods Georgia, where they find themselves unexpectedly planning a funeral that might unveil unsavory family secrets.

Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content, adult language, and drug references throughout

POSITIVES

– Still par for the course is the exceptional make-up work that distinguishes the many characters that Perry and friends portray. While nothing of substance that will surely win an Oscar in the category, there is enough detailing in the form of greying hairs, saggy skin, and additional prosthetics that allows the actor inside to fully immerse themselves in the beat of the character, and carve out an air of respect to the film’s limited production to be able to impress in any area of the spectrum. It’s one of the only things in Madea movies that I’ve always tipped my hat to, and the vibrancy in variety that each character sports makes each of them noticeable without their prosthetic designs rubbing together in repetition.

– A scene of substance? I know, in a Tyler Perry film this is groundbreaking news, but there is a moment late in the film in which the Mother of this family, portrayed by Jen Harper, not only steals the film, but does so by conjuring this emotionally moving strip of dialogue that will inspire female audiences who see it. Harper proves that she may be the one actress who deserves better than being subjected to this slop, and through measured responses of anger, regret, and patience, her character diminishes the line of what should be overlooked in modern day relationships.

NEGATIVES

– Bloated run time. There is absolutely no reason for this film to be anywhere near two hours, but it is because once again scenes are stretched in a way that assists Perry in containing budgets without frequenting between sets. Without question, the Improv humor is the thing that truly makes these scenes unbearable, muttering off line after line of atrocious conversation and jumbled dialogue that add about as much to the perspective of the film as integrity does. How can a movie bore you ten minutes in? “A Madea Family Funeral” feels like being a kid again, when you were forced to sit there and endure your older family members talk for hours about the “Good old days”, and you sitting there thinking how great your life would be if you were put up for adoption.

– Two cars racing towards a collision. This film has serious tonal problems, and I say that because half of it is a sluggish comedy with Madea and her friends, and then there’s a polar opposite direction with a family drama that is ungluing at the seams. Both are highly contradictive towards the other, making the progression of this film and each respective subplot feel like a tug of war that is constantly fighting against its own self-momentum. What’s most surprising is as a vehicle for Madea’s supposed goodbye, she never feels like the main character or focus in her own movie, with each appearance feeling like a shoe-horned cameo in one of Perry’s B-grade dramatic offerings that never got half of the box office take that his leading lady accomplished.

– Technical problems. Most productions and filmmakers grow from past blunders with experience, but Perry as a helmer has proven that he doesn’t take notes for the horrendous bloopers that fill his screen. Choppy A.D.R that feels like a Kung Fu film dubbed for American audiences, actors corpsing in laughter throughout serious scenes, and blurry lighting schemes that are so bright and unedited that they felt like I was waking up from a long night of drinking. All of this pales in comparison however to the biggest offender of all: body doubles in the background that come nowhere close to replicating the actor in question. There’s a scene where David Otunga, a muscular black man, obviously wasn’t there for the day’s shots, so the film fills in his absence with a light skinned, thin as a beanpole actor, whose comparison gave me the one laugh that I had during the film. Filmmaking this bad is offensive, not just to me paying money to watch this movie, but to the loads of aspiring filmmakers who can’t catch a break despite someone in Hollywood doing the craft much worse.

– Perry’s direction. The only thing worse than Perry as this wretched title character is his work behind the lens in inspiring his actors to go above the material. I mentioned Harper earlier, and that was only a single scene. The rest of the cast is virtually wasted playing second fiddle to Perry’s four characters who take up a majority of screen time. Beyond this, when the supporting cast do get a chance to shine, their deliveries feel cold and unconvincing in a way that lacked complete motivation. It’s sad because if this is indeed the big break for some of these actors, I see their days ahead for casting being very dark and humbling because Perry has given them the depth of a late night Skinemax flick. Without boobs, a Skinemax film becomes pointless. Catch my drift?

– What funeral? What’s commendable at least with the funeral scenes in the film is that they are sometimes a clever take on the bloated nature of funeral services, but the problem is that it takes so long to even reach the pivotal setting of this movie, pushing audiences through a redundant endurance test with scenes that feel so far removed from where this film inevitably takes us. There are 28 minutes remaining in the film when we finally hit the mourning services, and it comes and goes with so little weight compared to the rest of the story moving around it. When you compare it to “Boo: A Madea Halloween”, that whole film revolves around that magical night where anything can and often does happen, but the funeral here is a footnote in a bigger picture in a film that goes nowhere, emphasizing what little they could actually do with such a constricting gimmick.

– Characters missing frequently. As I mentioned before, Perry dons make-up and multiple costume changes to become four different characters in the film, and after seeing some flawed continuity errors catch up to him, maybe it’s best that he release his grip on feeling so ambitious. There are many examples of this throughout, but the most glaring one is the very last scene of the movie, where Madea and friends are leaving, with a certain driver missing from the goodbyes all together. Did they leave Brian (Perry) with this struggling family. Did he run away from the madness that is dealing with these window lickers every single day? I’d say we will never find out, but we all know that another mindless Madea effort is coming. Otherwise, I’d have to rely on Adam Sandler or Kirk Cameron to make my life a living hell, and they’ve been traded to Netflix in recent years, where I don’t have to give a shit about either of them.

– An uncomfortable commentary. I won’t go over it much, but I can’t escape this uneasy feeling that Perry continues to flirt with, in that light skinned African Americans are evil. Every single one of the characters who fill this description in the movie are either cheaters, abusive, or completely out of their minds crazy, and I can’t begin to even entertain the idea why this is the case in every single Perry directed movie thus far. It’s not only made it to where each character’s motives are completely predictable when fleshed out, but also a bit of a cliche for how he can’t remove himself from this particular agenda.

– Why the humor fails. Aside from the material residing in the grounds of redundancy where every joke missed by audiences is replayed three or four times, there’s very little diagraming or set-up to Perry’s comedy that builds towards the big payoff. The accents as well do their parts to take audiences out of the attention span of the conversation, playing into audible kryptonite for much of the expectations in deliveries that never reach their desired destination. Patrice Lovely is by far the worst in this regards, because her screeching delivery and stroke victim face come off as feeling catered to three year old’s who just need a funny face and boisterous enactments to earn their praise.

– Visually, this film still withstands the presentational value of a Sears Air conditioner commercial, complete with cheap cinematography and stilted editing that is a chore to keep focus on. Establishing shots feel very conventional, refusing to leave the safety of exterior house depictions that was made famous only thirty years ago during the boom of network sitcoms. For all of the money that Perry has made, he deserves to flex some cash into crafting an exceptional Madea movie that stands out above the rest, but one unfortunate common theme in these films is that each one feels substantially more amateurish in its filmmaking, an aspect that continues with “Family Funeral”.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

Arctic

Directed By Joe Penna

Starring – Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir

The Plot – A man (Mikkelsen) stranded in the Arctic after an airplane crash must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown in hopes of making it out alive.

Rated PG-13 for adult language and some bloody images

POSITIVES

– A complete immersive experience. “Arctic” is a survival movie whose elements push the limits of theatrical watches, placing you right in the cold of the moment within this frozen hostile wasteland. The sound mixing, while slightly too low to authenticate the atmosphere seamlessly, does do a fine enough job in constantly reminding you of the conditions that are brewing surrounding our protagonist. The visual camera work is easily my favorite aspect of the film, harvesting a majority of wide angle lens depictions that not only convey the realities of isolation, but also instill a sense of weight to a journey that exponentially tests the will of human strength. Likewise, the absorbing color textures reflect the desperation and hopelessness of the situation, and constantly remind us the audience of the situation if even we forget for a single solitary second. These perks combine enough emphasis of the bone-chilling cold that transcends the screen, making for a combination of sight and sound presentation that is exceptionally impressive for a first time filmmaker.

– Visual storytelling throughout. What I love about this screenplay is the minimal amount of dialogue and exposition delivered that highlight how the characters service the film and never vice versa. There are no conversations, nor past flashbacks that provide insight into how this guy came to be in this predicament, but if you pay attention closely enough you can notice abilities that he would only master if he has been forced to live that way for a while, and that’s what I took away from how the film depicts him. Likewise, props and objects used in the film are frequently inserted, and it isn’t till later on when we learn what they elaborate towards, proving that the puzzle is complete when you can understand how all of the pieces vibrantly fit together. In certain aspects, this is a modern day silent film that visually communicates to its audience instead of beating them over the head with heavy details, and I admire the kind of confidence that comes with outlining a story where we begin right in the middle of this thing without much thought as to what came before it.

– Pleasantly paced. I sat through what only felt like the first act of this movie, and was surprised when I checked my watch to see that only 40 minutes remained in the film. This isn’t an insult to the film, but instead complimentary for a script that is so grounded in reality that we as an audience find ourselves lost in the redundancy of something mundane as a daily routine. Perhaps it’s a testament to Mikkelsen’s persistent presence on the film, who I will definitely get to later, but I feel bigger credit derives from beneficial editing that never hangs on or relents for too long on a particular scene. The splicing on this film is wonderfully done, inspiring subtle humor in redundancy, all the while giving grave focus to each task he must endure to stay alive, and the introduction of a map that comes into play gives us something to keep tabs on in our man reaching his goal.

– Speaking of grounded in reality, “Arctic” maintains real life dramatic tension and situations that gives the film anything but a par-for-the-course Hollywood survivalist movie. There’s plenty of adversity in the way of predatory animals, increasing heights, and even sleeping arrangements, that never stretched or removed the visible line of what’s possible, and if anything it proves that real life drama can still be compelling without reminding us every ten minutes that this is a movie. While not an action movie first, this is the kind of action that I crave in a film, combining the dangerousness of environment against man’s desire to live, and what we’re left with is a confrontation that never exceeds the boundaries of the human spirit.

– Dedication to the craft. This movie was filmed on location in Iceland, and what Penna pulled from such a decision made for some specific challenges in filmmaking that, while difficult to maintain professionalism, does solidify the intensity of the destination. Front-and-center in the lens of the great Tomas Orn Tomasson, we see sequences involving hurricane-like winds increasing the ferocity of a blizzard, as well as the many peaks of the mountainsides, which treats us to claustrophobic scenes involving caves. As well, Mikkelsen himself gets in on the fun, gutting and devouring more than one fish to colorfully illustrate one man’s unabashed hunger. When what we’re seeing before us is real, it pays off in believability and integrity, and I commend the crew immensely for taking nearly three weeks to film in such an undesirable location that pays off valuably for the production of the film.

– One kickass Easter Egg. This is only known if you’ve read the production notes, but Mikkelsen’s character name in the movie is briefly shown as H. Overgard on his I.D photo. What’s funny about this is not only did Penna use a picture of Mikkelsen from the amazing TV show “Hannibal”, but he also hints that the “H” in his name is a nod to his breakthrough performance as the show’s title character. From someone who has adored that show endlessly, and was pissed when it was cancelled, it brought a smile to my face that some will never forget the time Mikkelsen spent in the role, re-defining Hannibal Lechter for an entirely new generation.

– Once again, Mads Mikkelsen proves why he is one of the very best actors working today, providing a committed performance from having very little to work from. When it all boils down, Mikkelsen is basically just emulating human emotion, and it’s his honesty and drive that preserve such intrigue for the character with no exposition or backstory to work from. Mikkelsen’s greatest strength in the movie is the physicality that he must endure in order to reach his goal in mind, and throughout it all we see a man who gets beaten down over-and-over, only to persevere and keep moving. Mikkelsen’s grip on the audience is so tight that we often know what’s to come from crytpic facial responses, carving out a telepathic link to an otherwise ambiguous character, that only serves as a testament to just how gifted Mads is.

– No special effects used for anything. This could be categorized in the dedication to the craft section, but I felt it deserved its own mention. During a couple of scenes during the film, we are shown a Polar Bear that frequently makes its presence felt through scenes of rash urgency. What’s incredible about this is the production doesn’t use C.G or any other form of incorporation for what we see front-and-center. This is very much a live action real walking, breathing bear, paying homage to a forgotten era of filmmaking that preserved calculated risk to the integrity of its film. Live action property in this instance pays off immensely, keeping the budget of the film maintained respectably, all the while bringing the most genuine of reactions from Mikkelsen when put in these dire situations.

NEGATIVES

– MINOR SPOILERS. There’s a female character introduced around fifteen minutes into the film, and I kept waiting for something big to happen with her, and it simply never does. Aside from her being a convenient plot device in regards to people looking for her, she serves no purpose or holds no bearing on the consequences of the story itself, instead serving as an unnecessary weight for Overgard’s quest that is already tough enough. For my money, I could’ve used a scene of connection between her and Overgard. If not, just keep this as a one man survivalist film, in turn making his isolation that much more complex considering he is quite literally all alone.

– While this is a beautiful looking and well acted film overall, the movie will do nothing to change or revitalize the sub-genre for the lack of chances it took with the condensed story. When you step back and look at the complete picture, long after the film has completed, you will notice more of the similarities to the competition more than the fresh takes, and if there’s anything that I wish this film would’ve done to rectify that it’s invest more into emotional character arcs with Overgard in particular. Mikkelsen pulls a diamond out of the rough, but the screenplay does him no favors in meeting him halfway with a layer that emits the drama from intended conflict. Take chances, swing the bat, and don’t be afraid to take your film to never before seen heights.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Fighting With My Family

Directed By Stephen Merchant

Starring – Florence Pugh, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey

The Plot – A heartwarming comedy based on the incredible true story of WWE Superstar Paige . Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige (Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for World Wrestling Entertainment. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training program, she must leave her family and face this new, cut-throat world alone. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep, fight for her family, and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star.

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, adult language throughout, some violence and drug content

POSITIVES

– Captures the true essence of wrestling, both inside and out of the ring. It’s no surprise that a film like this is a commercial for the WWE brand, but in doing so the film has the right framing in the phenomenon of its product, as well as the passion involved with living this lifestyle that makes it anything but glamorous. At its core, the life of a professional wrestler is lonely, painful, and often times impossible because of the limited few who make it, and Paige’s story is the embodiment of all of these ingredients, fleshing out a narrative in which fans and non-fans of the sport can come together to embrace a true underdog on the silver screen, for only the first time since 2009’s “The Wrestler” brought gravity to a sport that is pre-determined.

– Surreal casting. Props in this department not only go to the director Stephen Merchant for doing his homework on the essential characters in this story, but also to casting director Shaheen Baig for calling on some pretty big names to render the synthetics of their real life counterparts. When I say that Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, and of course Florence Pugh emulate the look and feel of this family perfectly, I mean it in a sense that they immersed themselves in each role, leaving fans who are familiar with the Knight family feeling eerily satisfied with just how deep the film goes to master everything from personalities to movements in the ring. It gives the film a transcendent quality on the screen that was previously seen in the documentary of the same name, but made even more impressive considering this is Hollywood elite who are donning the roles.

– Constant professionalism in performance work. Speaking of this talented cast, the energy they dedicate to the film pays off immensely for the believability, as well as the underlying longing of each sibling that is pulled from them brilliantly by Pugh and Lowden respectively. In Pugh’s Paige, the actress channels enough heart in bravery for being in a foreign land, and blends it superbly with the little girl fan inside her who is screaming in agony for not capitalizing in the way she thought she inevitably would. There’s enough humility to her performance to make this anything but a predictably conventional protagonist, adding layers to pre-conceived notions of wrestlers that give poignancy to unfamiliar audiences with the craft itself. Vince Vaughn is also a scene-stealer here, bringing a stern hand of authority to the humor we’ve come to expect from him, and harvesting it into this character whose intentions are honorable, but is also someone who has no problem breaking a person down mentally to reach their limit. For my money however, it’s Lowden who steals the show, riding Zack’s highs and lows that forces the character through an identity crisis of sorts, in that he swallows through the inevitability of his dream never fully coming true. Lowden’s wave of emotional instability brings a lot of intensity to scenes that would otherwise fall flat, and he’s an actor who I’ve only seen three times, but with each role confirms the lock he has on resiliency that makes him a thrill to watch.

– Juggling tones. The atmosphere in this film masters two exponentially different attitudes for the price of one, in comedy and drama, and accomplishes each of them tremendously without ever combining them as a cliche hybrid that we’ve come to expect. For the first half of the movie, this is very much a comedy, full of snappy dialogue and vibrant personality to bring forth more than a few hearty burst of laughter, but once it all settles down, the impact of dramatic tension lends itself to some very gripping scenes involving envy, isolation, and of course polarization, to give the screenplay depth. What’s important is that neither of these directions ever step on or compromise the other, giving the film plenty of time for you to indulge and feast on this circus under one roof, before the actions of the animals bite you in retaliation, and it proves that “Fighting With My Family” has enough heart and humor to flesh out a surprisingly moving narrative that is too infectious to ignore.

– Anything but a paint-by-numbers biopic. Beyond this feeling like a greatest hits collection of Paige’s most important moments, the film instills enough curveballs in the progression of the protagonist to make her conflict feel anything but temporary. In addition to this, the decision to make this film a sort of dual narrative of sorts, with Zack’s story feeling every bit as important as Paige’s, pays off tremendously for the shelf life of the respective plots, and reminds us of the importance of not only the film’s central protagonist, but that of the people who make her who she is. Imagine if “Bohemian Rhapsody” actually took the time to get to know the members of Queen, instead of just its flamboyant frontman. It would give the screenplay enough variety to keep it far from the outlines of conformity that unfortunately too many biopics become saddled with today, and this gleaming benefit keeps us firmly invested into even the more well known angles of Paige’s story, giving nuance to the kind of emotions and bitter pill’s the 20 year old was forced to taste.

– Rapid fire pacing. If this film has done just one thing better than the other twenty films that I have seen this year, it’s in the fluid pacing of 102 vitally important minutes that never waste an opportunity in adding something to the story. Considering this is a film revolving around something as redundant as wrestling, the film surprisingly masters a lot of complexity not only with its filmmaking, but also in the knowledge of the sport itself, with how it’s very much teaching the audience at the same time it is teaching the students of the game. There was never a point during the film where I was even remotely bored, despite knowing a majority of the results in Paige’s struggle. It caps off a command by Merchant that shows his passion for the sport and filmmaking alike, and it makes for as easy of a sit as you’re going to get for something that never feels the weight of its minutes.

– Production value between worlds. Merchant’s biggest gain as a director in this film deals with his capabilities in comparing and contrasting the worlds of big league and independent wrestling that articulately channel the desperation of the two ambitious students. When we’re in the independent world, the angles are claustrophobic, dimly lit, and full of cheap effect smoke to give the complete picture a very small stage essence. Yet when the WWE appears, we get these beautifully vibrant sets, with no shortage of professional lighting to tie it all together. The greatest strength a film can have in dealing with two worlds is to compare them side-by-side, and in doing so it visually channels the uphill climb, all the while selling the spectacle that many have fallen in love with.

NEGATIVES

– Incorrect sequencing of timeline events. There were a few nagging instances I caught where the film mishandled the years of important events not only in wrestling, but also in pop culture. There are small things from the movie mentioning “The Hunger Games” movie, which came out in 2012, despite the fact that Paige’s story takes place in 2010. There are also big things that only wrestling fans like myself would notice, like a pivotal John Cena title win shown that didn’t take place until 2013. These are the kind of constant time frame errors that I often look for in movies with a particular time designation, and as it turns out this one missed a lot in the mentions that it tries to so cleverly slip by its audience. If you’re going to do something right, check for continuity, otherwise remove any mention of events you’re too lazy to look up.

– Time is a construct. Days, weeks, months, years. I mention these because the film has no need to inform the audience on how much time has passed. Why is that important? Because it helps illustrate not only how long Paige has been apart from her family, but also how long she has fought in winning over her peers during her time in NXT. Speaking of which, the NXT area of the film is so trimmed down and confined that it doesn’t capture Paige’s pivotal Women’s Title win, nor does it articulate how and why she endears herself with the fans. It leaves a noticeable gap late in the movie that makes her jump to WWE feels spontaneous instead of earned, and this is the area more than any that could use more clarity, as well as more time to better convey the passing of time, to which the movie has none of.

– Sloppy final sequence. This will only appeal to wrestling audiences like myself, who are bothered by the little things. In this regard, it’s during Paige’s title match against A.J Lee, where not only are the wardrobe choices by both wrestlers terribly wrong in every imaginable way of fashion, not only is Lee’s bodyguard Tamina missing from the scene, not only is the choreography of the match completely off from the real life match itself, but also the editing is done in a way where Paige wasn’t already extremely popular with audiences before she defeated Lee. This gives the sequence a manipulative presence, orchestrating itself to convenience of a plot device that it strictly didn’t need, and gives a phony feeling to the production during this area of the film that was otherwise remarkable up to this point. Even WWE Films apparently doesn’t watch their product. Can’t say I blame them.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Cold Pursuit

Directed By Hans Petter Moland

Starring – Liam Neeson, Emmy Rossum, Laura Dern

The Plot – Quiet family man and hard-working snowplow driver Nels Coxman (Neeson) is the lifeblood of a glitzy resort town in the Rocky Mountains because he is the one who keeps the winter roads clear. He and his wife (Dern) live in a comfortable cabin away from the tourists. The town has just awarded him “Citizen of the Year.” But Nels has to leave his quiet mountain life when his son is murdered by a powerful drug lord. As a man who has nothing to lose he is stoked by a drive for vengeance. This unlikely hero uses his hunting skills and transforms from an ordinary man into a skilled killer as he sets out to dismantle the cartel. Nels’ actions ignite a turf war between a manically unpredictable gangster known as Viking and a rival gang boss. Justice is served in one final spectacular confrontation that will leave no one unscathed.

Rated R for strong violence, drug material, and some adult language including sexual references

POSITIVES

– The harsh elements of the setting. Not since 2017’s “Wind River” has a film established the ingrediants of an environment so fruitfully that easily transcends that of the screen that we the audience are watching it on. Thanks to the immersive shot selection, as well as the various imagery throughout the picture, I found myself feeling the sting of the frost-bitten cold, combined with the isolation and confinement of the overwhelming snow that surrounds our cast of characters. Visually, it outlines a hell-frozen-over kind of vibe to replicate the actions of what is going on in the story, and it frequently gave me chills the longer we are engaged in it.

– Fresh takes on performances all around. I know what you’re thinking: this is the typical Liam Neeson role, in which he saves the day after something horrible is done to a member of his family, but that’s merely a rough take and not the entire picture of his performance. What is so different about Nels as opposed to the other characters that Neeson has portrayed is his sense of vulnerability and the consequences catching up to him with thinking on the fly. Outside of maybe his role in “The Grey”, this feels like the most relatable character of his action movie filmography, balancing enough heart and menace to the role that never forgets this man’s pain through the many dirty deeds he unloads. Aside from Neeson, I also enjoyed the work of Emmy Rossum as an upstart police detective whose soul motivation is to save the town from rival drug gangs, as well as Tom Bateman as the film’s central antagonist, who may or may not be directly out of a superhero movie for his unorthodox movements and over-eccentric personality that constantly keeps things interesting.

– A surprising direction of tone. “Cold Pursuit’s” strongest quality is in its dark and twisted sense of humor, which gives the elements at play a very ironic sense of circumstance behind them. I certainly didn’t expect myself to laugh with a plot like this one, but the film is constantly tugging at the patience of audience in the most devilishly delicious manner, showing it’s not afraid to get silly with a premise as outlandish as this one. One such example involves an incredibly slow and noisy morgue lift that would otherwise be edited for time in a typical movie, but here is played in real time to translate the awkwardness of the situation in the air. Beyond this, the deaths themselves are given a lot of free-range creativity to play around with, satisfying the crave of carnage candy in anyone who values intense revenge in circles like these.

– The immense responsibility cast upon cinematographer Philip Ogaard. Philip himself has done a lot of Danish film projects, including the original film that this movie is based on, and you can see that country of influence translate superbly to the way the film looks and feels. The color pallets have a very absorbing quality to them, in that they soak up the color scheme inside of each and every room, but beyond that they do wonders in depicting the elegance associated with these wealthy families of Denver, giving scenes of chewable scenery for us the audience to sample these extraordinary set designs. There’s also respect to be given for how Denver is presented from the wide lens angle, presenting it as sort of an isolated snowpacalypse that has paused the everyday operations of such a city.

– Unorthodox focus in where it spends its time. It’s interesting that the screenplay spends a majority of its time getting to know our antagonists, but the benefits as a result of such are rewarding in more ways than one. For my money, this creative direction gives the film a more cerebral sense, in that we are seeing the cause and effects of each and every move by each respective side, as well as it taking its time in forcing the audience to understand each calculation along the way. Beyond even this however, it gives light to these horrible people being just that: PEOPLE, and not some hokey, cliche-ridden bad guy who we ourselves can’t relate to in the slightest. It’s a big chance that pays off handsomely in giving us a who for the why, and I wish more films would take this as a much-needed gift to better flesh out the motivations of characters inside of their stories.

– Creativity in visual text. Each time a character dies, and believe me when I say there are many times of it, the film cuts to a black backdrop white text visual that gives the name of the deceased, their nickname, and an icon symbol to match each. It gives each bout of revenge a compartmentalized and almost chapter-esque feel inside of the bigger picture, and only further plays into the personality that the screenplay instills. If a character is seconds away from facing what we realize is an inevitable death, the quick cut to black visually communicates and confirms what we already knew was coming, and no matter how many times this gimmick is used, I never lost my smile because of it.

– Impactful ending. A problem plaguing many films these days is the director not knowing where to end it to leave audiences with the biggest gut-punch right before the credits, and thankfully “Cold Pursuit” never has this problem. Aside from there being some twists with its resolution that I didn’t see coming, there is one last surprise in the final shot of the movie that made me laugh, wince, and only confirmed the awesome time I had with this movie through nearly two hours. It’s one last stinger that reminds audiences of the cold and unforgiving nature of such a place, and does so in a way that the previous scenes thrived at: ironic inevitability.

NEGATIVES

– Obvious plot device introduced midway through. There’s a character who pops up midway through the film who has very little ties to either side, and whose progression and conclusion only appear because the movie needed him to. I won’t give away anything, but without this person, the antagonist would never know the name of the person coming after him, nor would there ever be any form of war between the two sides, since Nels knows his enemy and not vice versa. This character only appears for about ten minutes during the film, and because of such we know that the intention was to draw these two sides together in the most obviously sloppy kind of manner.

– Important character disappearance. One strange directing decision along the way involves Laura Dern’s character vanishing from the screen and never re-appearing or further elaborating on the relationship between her and Neeson. The reason for this to me feels like too many cooks in the kitchen in terms of characters introduced to the on-going narrative, but the mother to the deceased boy is such a pivotal and redeeming quality to a conflict like this, and only further wastes the time and talents of arguably the most talented worker in the entire cast.

– Moland’s broken promise. I am one of few American critics to have seen “In Order of Disappearance”, and director Moland has gone on record as saying he would only remake his previous film if it were completely different from his original film, and that just isn’t the case here. With the exception of different actors, and one minimally unimportant subplot, the only difference is Nels last name, with it in the original being Dickman, and in this one being Coxman. Yes, that is indeed a dick joke. My point however, is that this film is sadly an almost shot-for-shot remake that will do little for people who have seen the original chapter, and only further convolutes the definition of the term “Remake”.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Destroyer

Directed By Karyn Kusama

Starring – Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany

The Plot – Follows the moral and existential odyssey of LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) who, as a young cop, was placed undercover with a gang in the California desert with tragic results. When the leader of that gang re-emerges many years later, she must work her way back through the remaining members and into her own history with them to finally reckon with the demons that destroyed her past.

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

POSITIVES

– Riveting performances all around. As expected, this is Kidman’s stage to shine, and she does so as Erin by channeling a combination of grief, anger, and confinement for this woman that stitch together two contrasting performances for the price of one. As far as physical transformations go, this is easily Kidman’s best work to date, as Kusama strips down every elegant and defining feature about the actress, in favor of this weathered and fragile look that tells the story of everything she’s been through long before the narrative does. Aside from Kidman, Toby Kebbell also commands attention as the film’s central antagonist. Kebbell’s variety in roles accepted have carved out quite an impressive resume for the Australian star, but it’s his work here that gives us glimpses of the terrifying presence that he should’ve had as Doctor Doom in 2014’s “Fantastic Four”. Kebbell’s cold stare practically burns a hole through the camera lens, and dares us to look for even a second to test the influence he has over us the audience, as well as the gang he is in control of.

– Unique method of storytelling. I compare this movie to a season of “True Detective”, in that the events of the past are every bit as important as what’s transpiring in the future, but it’s the full circle sense of sequencing is what really made this movie something special. Without spoiling anything, the first act introductions are brought back late in the movie, this time to add layers to the kind of images we saw that were easily glossed over when you didn’t know the entire picture. Overall, it gives the film an unnerving sense of time loss that reflects Erin’s greying eyes, and makes us the audience question if what we’re seeing is in fact reality.

– A woman’s touch. Kusama takes a human approach to a story so riddled in surreal violence, drugs, and characters that feel so foreign to the everyday person, and blends them together with living, beating woman whose priorities are never lost despite all of the madness. Erin as a character is very much a mother first, therefore she continuously takes time to look after her daughter even when the rest of her world is crumbling down around her. This not only gives the character strong integral value in terms of being a protagonist, but also speaks volumes to the good side of her who has otherwise been lost in the struggle of some truly awful decisions over the course of sixteen grueling years. Even when Erin doesn’t look familiar to us, Karyn never jumbles her conscience, and above all else crafts a character piece that sees unorthodox shades of grey in the usual white or black side of good versus evil.

– Julie Kirkwood’s gothic sense of cinematography in this nightmare world. L.A has never looked so seedy and haunting as it does in “Destroyer”. It’s a sense of environmental establishment that David Lynch would greatly appreciate, and makes the film’s setting feel every bit as remorseful as that of our leading lady. Kirkwood has been doing her thing for well over a decade now, but this is easily my favorite work from her to date, as the sunshine influenced visuals rubbing off on Erin’s emotionless pallet speak volumes to the familiarity in world that she can’t run away from, constantly glaring in her face with unabashed reminder of the things she’s lost.

– A slowburn sizzle. This won’t be a movie for every one, and I understand that people need actions to sustain their interest in a film, but for me I was much more captivated in Erin confronting the demons from her past, and finding out why she holds herself responsible for the things she can’t change. This case as a whole feels like the lone purpose left in her life that she herself can make right, and it’s in that inspiration where we see evidence of the great detective that she could’ve been had her life gone drastically different. In addition to this, I’m a sucker for a duel narrative that eventually reaches a head-on collision where everything ties together between two respective timelines. The back-and-forth plodding is satisfying and exceptionally edited, and for my money neither one ever feels substantially more important than the other, giving them equal value in the pacing of this case.

– Double duty for great make-up. The make-up work for the film are subtle in design, but very much effective in the desired impacts that the script calls for. I say double duty because they accomplish brutality and aging equally remarkable, and make the immersion for a story that takes place over sixteen years feel that much more seamless because of it. Kidman’s decaying facials deserve academy recognition by themselves, but it’s in the consistency of the cuts and bruising between long takes of the film where I tip my hat the highest, because they blossomed, dried, and scarred very much in the way that they rightfully should. Make-up isn’t something that I usually commend a film for, but the nuanced prosthetics made for such impressive returns that I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t commend the production for them.

– To capitalize further on the human aspect of the film, Erin is anything but a superhuman presence, and Kidman as a whole takes a physical beatdown every step of the way. This helps make the aging process of the make-up feel that much more synthetic, because Erin is slower, weaker, and especially less resistant in the current day narrative, and it all plays into the urgency of these rare conflict scenes, as we realize we’re following an officer whose best days are clearly behind her. Fractured protagonists are a delicate thing to possess in a movie, and can become cliche if they are not handled properly. But the performance of Kidman combined with the focus of some devastating blows, adds grave weight to the concepts of time, constructing Erin in a race against the proverbial clock that is undefeated against us.

– One spell-binding scene. In a movie containing two high-speed chase sequences, two bank robberies, and an endless array of ammunition, the scene that stuck the most with me is a Mother/Daughter confrontation at a diner that feels like a long time coming. This speaks volumes once again to the humanity that Kusama instills to the project, but even more than that captures a slate being wiped clean by two women, one coming up in the world and one coming out, that transcends space and time in a way where everything else around them is paused to the importance that is front-and-center. While this scene didn’t bring me to tears, there’s enough dramatic pulse in the rock-swallowing delivery of Kidman, as well as the series of revelations that are brought to the table that allow each of them to see the other in remarkably different light than previously established. It’s almost a warning of sorts from the woman who has lived that lifestyle to the girl who is heading in that direction, marking a crossing of paths that hits closer to home than these cop dramas are typically capable of.

NEGATIVES

– Dumbed down transition sequences. I almost took away two points for this aspect because the rest of the film surrounding it is so smart and non-linear, but deep in the middle are these awful sequences of reminder that reward audiences who aren’t paying attention. When a character is shown in the present day narrative, the film will flash-back to them in the past narrative, cementing who they are and why they’re important to the scene. Of course, if you’re paying attention to the movie this whole time, you won’t need to be reminded so damn frequently of things that you already know, and after the fourth or fifth time I was yelling “ENOUGH!!!” at the screen. It slowed down the progress of the story so unnecessarily, and I wish the editors had slightly more respect for the audience’s investment into their film.

– Anti-climatic conflict. For the entirety of this two hour film, we are building to this present day engagement between two central characters in a way that makes you beg for it once you know all of the elements. The problem comes in the form of a scene that comes and goes with so little impact or dramatic pull that it doesn’t even attempt to reward us with something remotely satisfying. I’m fine with a quick fight, but when the film doesn’t even capitalize on the tension of sixteen years apart between them, I start to wonder why this conflict was ever so pivotal to the entirety of the film to begin with. Beyond this, the remaining five minutes contain questionable imagery and sluggish conclusive storytelling that it stood out as the obvious weakness of the movie for me.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Miss Bala

Directed By Catherine Hardwicke

Starring – Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ismael Cruz Cordova

The Plot – Gloria (Rodriguez) finds a power she never knew she had when she is drawn into a dangerous world of cross-border crime. Surviving will require all of her cunning, inventiveness, and strength.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Gina Rodriguez. While the line deliveries of this actress, and overall toughness leaves slightly more to be desired, the dramatic effect of her watery-eyed visuals speaks volumes to the pain inside of her soul. This is perhaps the only element of her transformation that feels believable, as Gloria very much feels like a woman so removed from her element that the look of shock and disdain that constantly fill her facial resonation tell the story of a woman who has already lost so much, yet persists in doing what she can to stay alive. Gina’s best quality, sadly, is when she is quiet, and thankfully the film capitalizes on enough of this to make us the audience feel fragility of her particular situation.

– Immersive musical score by Alex Heffes. This man clearly has his work cut out for him here, but rises to the occasion in scoring these kind of ammunition-riddled sequences with the kind of increase of intensity that elevates further with each repeated-yet-slightly-different stroke of the instrument. Much of Heffes work here reminds me of the great Johann Johansson, specifically in his masterful music design in “Sicario”. The two feel considerably similar because of the overall capture of dread and helplessness that harvest so strongly in the manufactured atmosphere, instilling much fear to the unveiling of worlds that each female protagonist must endure.

– Dual border setting that speaks volumes to the current day landscape. I loved the production decision to compare and contrast the two dramatically different worlds in America and Mexico, and where they each played a pivotal part in the progression of what transpires. This geographical gimmick is used in ways that, while lacking in originality, does cast a dark and conveying shadow to the immensity of dangerous activity that persist between the respective sides. As to where the original “Miss Bala” takes place solely in Mexico, this American remake capitalizes on the importance of polarization for Mexican born citizens who have since taken up citizenship with its northern neighbor, echoing a familiar vibe to the many in our current day landscape who seek a fresh start in a brand new place.

– Logic in arms. I appreciate a film that doesn’t make its lead a sharpshooter after picking up a gun only twice. To this degree, Gloria as a distributor of justice doesn’t ever feel godly or even effective enough to pull you away from the situation because of abnormal accuracy, and there’s much respect to be given about a movie that takes time to document not only the aim of its holder, but also in the lack of confidence she displays in holding the product itself. It all feels believable in a way that other big budget action films easily overlook in favor of a hip protagonist who knows how to stand in front of a film’s movie poster.

NEGATIVES

– Never slows down. While some will commend a movie for moving rapidly throughout, I can say that the clumsiness in storytelling that constantly rushes through these sequence of events, is anything but pleasurable. For one thing, many subplots never receive further explanation, leaving many character motivations, especially that of Gloria, feeling left out to dry in the bigger, more violent picture. The second act in particular is one that just depicts a series of situations with very little exposition or narration to further elaborate on just what we the audience are seeing in front of us. This gives the film an unintentionally deplorable quality, in that the audience feels very much like Gloria in what little we are being explained along the way.

– The definition of pointless cameo. Anthony Mackie deserved better than this, but I can certainly understand that easy paychecks aren’t easy to come by. Mackie is barely in this film for two scenes, in a sort of blink and you might miss him quality, and casts an unavoidable disappointment in the very little interaction between he and Rodriguez that could’ve done wonders in putting her status as an action hero, or her transformation over. Anthony’s charisma is something that is needed more in this film than anything he’s ever done, and the script’s decision to make him this secondary nothing character proves that literally anyone could’ve accepted the role.

– Constricted editing. Once again we are treated to a film with handheld camera designs and rambunctious editing that paints such ugly and uninspiring depictions of action that never allow us the opportunity to sink our teeth into. The editing always feels like it’s two seconds late, cutting just after a pivotal bullet or character move has taken place, making it difficult to follow the sequence of events. If this isn’t enough, the horrendous looking visual captures only did a further disservice in hooking me in to the drama of the occasion, and only speaks volumes to what is capable when you set a Mexican gang movie with a PG-13 designation. Because this is definitely the kind of film that 13 year old’s are itching to see.

– Lack of character exposition. If the film’s trailer, leading star’s gender, or even the title led you to believe that this was a woman’s movie, you might feel manipulated when you actually see the picture. In fact, there’s so little interaction with Gloria during the first act that everything you’ve learned about her can easily be said in a job application without a past jobs section. How is it that in a movie titled “Miss Bala” that we learn more about the gang leader (Conveniently a good looking model of a man) than we do the woman we are supposed to be following this whole time? It’s absolutely bonkers, and does nothing in furthering your investment into this character or her urgency, which is also vitally lacking.

– Riddled in generic production qualities. Predictably telegraphed? Check, Lack of entertaining element in compelling dialogue? Check, ignorance of political spectrum considering some greatly important issues in foreign treatment of women? Check. All of these things and more give “Miss Bala” an incomplete feeling that will always leave me wondering what would’ve developed if they only took some chances. Being forgettable is easily its greatest sin, as even minutes after leaving the theater I struggle even remembering what took place during the film’s anti-climatic final conflict. It’s a fine example of everything I mentioned here, as the scene plays out without so much as a single moment uncertainty, allowing the screenplay as the only thing to beat us in a foot race to the closing credits.

– Conflicting elements in production. While the cinematography for the film sometimes echoes that of its predecessor, in a sort of B-movie meets music video style artistic merit, the film’s tone and overall material lacks any kind of personality in identifying what kind of movie this rightfully should’ve been. There’s no fun or redeeming quality to a film like this, making the audience it speaks to that much more sparse because it never finds an identity of its own. The people steering this ship crashed into a wall of mediocrity that they couldn’t ever escape, and what’s even worse is that no one will be there to hear the sound it made.

My Grade: 4/10 or D

Stan & Ollie

Directed By Jon S. Baird

Starring – John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson

The Plot – The true story of Hollywood’s greatest comedy double act, Laurel and Hardy, is brought to the big screen for the first time. Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the inimitable movie icons, “Stan and Ollie” is the heart-warming story of what would become the pair’s triumphant farewell tour. With their golden era long behind them, the pair embark on a variety hall tour of Britain and Ireland. Despite the pressures of a hectic schedule, and with the support of their wives Lucille (Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda), a formidable double act in their own right, the pair’s love of performing, as well as for each other, endures as they secure their place in the hearts of their adoring public.

Rated PG for some adult language, and for smoking

POSITIVES

– Stage like presentation. The way that Baird frames this film is simply marvelous, combining the elements of the world that our title characters lived and breathed in, and incorporates them for us the audience to feel like we are embracing their show in the same way people did in the post Vaudeville era. The introduction text is complimented by a curtain in the background, feeding us exposition for the past between these two, and the backdrops and props are carved out in a way that echoes hollow interiors, making this all feel like a manipulated presentation for only our eyes.

– Candid reveals about the duo. Without question, my favorite aspect of this film is its approach to matters happening off-stage that equal or even surpass what their audiences perceived because of their stage show. As expected, the bond between them is tested and even strained because of decades on the road together, making their relationship feel like a marriage during confining times. In addition to this, there’s much focus on the significant others of the duo in how each of them unabashedly influence the decisions of their male suitors, providing a sort of fuel for the fire which led to the distance between them. The material nuances much more than the conventional entertainer biopic that we’ve become saddled with, and makes “Stan & Ollie” much more than a series of sight gags to tug at our funny bones.

– Speaking of humor, the dynamic in banter between Coogan and Reilly is fantastic in replicating the many routines that they made famous night after night. I am not a fan of Laurel and Hardy, nor am I a fan of slapstick humor on the whole, but the fine timing between these two simply couldn’t be ignored, and gave me a series of hearty laughs that solidified their impeccable chemistry. Even beyond the stage however, the banter between them in their daily lives felt like it’s serving a greater purpose in perfecting what they bring to their material. Some of my favorite parts of the film are just the small talk scenes between Coogan and Reilly that speaks volumes to two men being involved in the business for far too long.

– Transformative performances. It’s easy to brag about Reilly’s physical transformation here, as he dons a fat suit and multiple prosthetics to make this heralded figure come to life. However, it is Coogan for me who really stole the movie, in that it feels like the first time he has portrayed a character with heart and ambition simultaneously. Coogan channels the gentle side of Laurel that at times gives him the adolescent vibe, and when combined with Reilly’s gruff exterior, the two easily lose themselves in the mold of the characters, cementing my early favorite for perfect casting thus far in 2019. It’s awesome that both actors found their way out of the devastation that was “Holmes and Watson” and managed to get together once more without the confines of immature Will Ferrell comedy to hinder what they bring to the table.

– Choice of time period. Most biopics center around the time frame when an artist hits their prime and really makes it big, but “Stan and Ollie” takes place during those less-flattering years after the fame has worn off, and the two weathered veterans are forced to make some tough decisions moving forward. If you’re invested into the characters like I was, this will make for some truly compelling dramatic elements that come to fruition because of the introduction of some familiar immitators in duo stage shows that are making their mark at the exact same time. It all comes to a head during a post-show dinner gone wrong that vividly paints the picture for past discretions that have solidified their current stance towards one another.

– Manipulated long take sequences. This is especially prominent during the first act of the movie, in which we follow the two leads through a movie studio at the height of their stardom, and what this does is depict the change in the world of pop culture, which feels like it grows with or without the duo’s inclusion. While these of course aren’t one take scenes, the synching of masterful editing by Una Ni Dhonghaile, who did deserve Academy recognition, stitches it together in a way that completely holds your attention, and allows you to take in as much of this duo at their highest fame so that the images of their fall will feel that much more devastating because of it. Brilliant visual storytelling.

– A moving tribute. One unique take in the film involves the duo acting their way through a Robin Hood spoof film that Laurel wrote much of the material for, but sadly the duo never managed to make. The scenes themselves are funny, intelligent in material, and especially beautiful for the time period cinematography, and it crafts a ‘What if?’ element to the screenplay that even Laurel and Hardy themselves would appreciate for the revealing looking into what indeed could’ve been.

NEGATIVES

– Jagged flashback sequences. For my money, there’s not enough definition or subliminal differences in the flashback sequences to not confuse the audience when they appear. These scenes just incorporate themselves like the next scene of the on-going narrative, and forced me several times to stop and accurately define on my own what time period is front-and-center at that particular moment. Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of these instances in the film, as it stays mostly grounded in the current day narrative, but the few instances where it does overtake our story try to do it without text or aging differences from the actors, and it makes for sloppy transitions that feel like speed bumps to important exposition.

– Less than stellar musical choices. Rolfe Kent’s acompanyment here not only misses the mark in channeling the proper vibes in each scene, but it also wants so badly to spoon-feed emotional response down our throats in a way that removes any kind of artistic interpretation. The syrupy orchestral score often feels overwrought and extended, making for a score that feels bigger than where the reserved story takes us, and I wish the producers instead would’ve instead went for a more Vaudevilian-influenced approach in sound to properly replicate the tinge of the particular era.

– Errors….errors everywhere. This falls on the head of Baird, who should’ve used more focus in removing these items that completely ruined my investment into the proper era of film. The first is a modern Canadian flag with the maple leaf that wasn’t adopted until 1965. Likewise, a 50-star American flag that wasn’t adopted until 1960 is shown outside during the Savoy hotel introduction. Finally, a continuity error, in which Stan delivers some eggs to Hardy while he’s in bed. He lays them on the bed, and in the next scene, when Stan lays next to him, they have completely vanished without being moved. Small stuff? sure, but good production focus translates on-screen, and this one could’ve used attention for the things that are easy to reduce.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Serenity

Directed By Steven Knight

Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane

The Plot – Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain leading tours off a tranquil, tropical enclave called Plymouth Island. His quiet life is shattered, however, when his ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) tracks him down with a desperate plea for help. She begs Dill to save her and their young son from her new, violent husband (Jason Clarke) by taking him out to sea on a fishing excursion, only to throw him to the sharks and leave him for dead. Karen’s appearance thrusts Dill back into a life he’d tried to forget, and as he struggles between right and wrong, his world is plunged into a new reality that may not be all that it seems.

Rated R for adult language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images

POSITIVES

– Exceptional framing work. While I have quite a few problems with the technical aspects of Knight’s style and circumstance, the man knows how to craft informative character framing in a way that helps you understand their characters more than this script ever could. Color coordination and particular objects are they key here, giving us exposition in the form of varying lifestyles that vividly paint the person in focus. These moments of self reflection were easily my favorite scenes of the film, and prove the sting of subtlety in ways that Knight never ties to other areas of his production.

– Gorgeous on-site filming locations. “Serenity” takes place on this gorgeous island that is full of dirty deeds and secrets that counter that of the breathtaking visuals that we are being treated to, courtesy of the island of Mauritius, which the movie spent six weeks shooting on. Very little green screen design is instilled into the picture, instead allowing cinematographer Jess Hall a bulk of the responsibility that he dazzles in consistency, thanks to a combination of wide lens movements out in the ocean and manipulated lighting that surprisingly remains consistent with the glow of the island sun. Like the setting itself, “Serenity” offers us lots of beauty, but it’s unfortunately never enough for the ugliness that is boiling just beneath the surface.

NEGATIVES

– That painful plot twist. Five minutes into this film, you can already comprehend that something deeper is at play with these characters and situations, and unfortunately it leads to a second act revelation that once again reminds us how influential the TV show “St Elsewhere” was in this newest generation of writers. This manipulative direction not only undercuts the meaning of everything and everyone up to this point, but it inevitably paints the movie in a corner that it will never find its way out of, in terms of satisfying its audience. We pretty much either cheer for the bad thing to happen, or we cheer for the bad thing to happen. Also, as with any plot twist, this one brings to light a series of questions that don’t add up to what the message is trying to convey. It’s a brain-dead movie that is trying to disguise itself as genius, when in reality its creative muscle gets caught in its zipper before it truly begins.

– Lack of narrative progression. Factor everything that takes place in “Serenity”, and you have a series of events that are every bit as stretched in pacing as they are selfish for even thinking this belonged anywhere near its 100 minute runtime. This film is the very definition of sluggish, as there are at least two instances in the film where everything moving forward comes screeching to a grinding halt, requiring the audience to be patient for the big blow that they’re being reminded of frequently, yet never rewarded in terms of satisfying payoff. It really is a train-wreck in slow motion, and if you’re fortunate enough to bring popcorn to the scene of the accident, you’ll be finished with the bucket before the script gets to the point.

– Insufferable characters. My problem with a lot of sex thrillers is that they often involve these characters that I truly can’t tie myself to, and that’s once again the case with “Serenity”. These are disgusting people who grow worse with each passing moment, making the challenge of spending time with them the film’s biggest obstacle. Hell, our main character mocks his best friend for being bad luck after his wife’s untimely passing. Your hero, ladies and gentlemen. I think I saw more sensitivity from McConaughey when he played a sadistic killer in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation”.

– Cold, callous performances from an A-list cast. There’s plenty of familiarity in the expanding cast that the film has to offer, but there’s nothing in the way of meaningful depth or subtle nuance to deem any of their deliveries the proper guidance that this movie needs to steer the ship. McConaughey at least is giving his all in trying to make salad out of shit, but the stilted dialogue and the overall way his character is presented reminds us of the B-movie stinkers that he was subjected to before he won an Oscar. Hathaway is someone out of a 30’s crime noir novel, complete with cigarette in hand and sex being her only weapon against the more powerful men. Her character alone sets women’s rights back another thirty years. Finally, Lane, Jason Clarke, and Djimon Hinsou are all wasted, preserving only a couple of scenes between them that echo the sound of a paycheck film that they have since tried to forget about.

– Rough editing transitions. The consistency of cuts in between the scenes of exposition, particularly in that of that during the first act, feel jagged and dissolving of any kind of momentum that the film has in winning its audience over. The result is a hack and slash feel in post production that gives pivotal confrontations a cliff notes feel of authenticity. I’m willing to bet that there is a two hour plus director’s cut sitting on a producer’s shelf, that may help answer some of the contrivances in story time reveals that practically grow because character interaction is treated like a poison in this film, and if you can’t invest into a movie early on, it makes for a painful sit that disallows you to feel even an inkling of interest into what evolves.

– Strange camera movements. One such choice for character introduction shots involves a sped-up revolving shot that slows down once an important character’s face is revealed. This trope is most commonly used in comedies, usually involving a gorgeous male or female character who is the object of affection for a protagonist, so you can imagine how it comes across in a film that juggles serious themes like sex, murder, and female abuse. Instead of coming across like a visionary stimulation, the sequences feel like a road-block of distraction that only served as one more instance of interruption that delayed me once more from reaching the finish line of this cinematic lobotomy.

– Horrendous dialogue. Once again, when discussing a sex thriller that felt dated even in the 90’s, you should expect dialogue exchanges between characters that will leave you gagging, but this film took it completely over the top. To be honest, I could quote the entire film, but my favorite line uttered by a post-sexed McConaughey goes “I’m a hooker who can’t afford hooks”. Huh? What? How can this film be written by the same man who penned the genius that was 2013’s “Locke”? A film so enriched with psychological bruising from family’s past that I was able to accurately paint a picture with just Tom Hardy talking in a car for 82 minutes. As for the dialogue in this film, it will test your patience in ways, while squeezing out an unintentional laugh or two during a scene that wanted so desperately to be moving and engaging.

– Then I suddenly became uncomfortable. I was OK when the sexual material stayed on McConaughey’s trysts with Lane or Hathaway, but an emerging bond between father and son characters is presented in such a way that harvested a rock of uneasiness deep in the pit of my stomach. McConaughey speaks telepathically by rubbing circles of spilled water. Doesn’t hit it for ya? How about a two minute underwater sequence where a naked McConaughey (Complete with Ken-doll crotch mound) floats while staring into the eyes of his adolescent son. If this is where the future of sex thrillers is headed, count me out. I left my Victor Silva shoes of pedophilia in ashes in the center of my fireplace. No thanks.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

Glass

Directed By M Night Shyamalan

Starring – Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James Mcavoy

The Plot – Following the conclusion of “Split”, “Glass” finds David Dunn (Willis) pursuing Crumb’s (Mcavoy) superhuman figure of The Beast in a series of escalating encounters, while the shadowy presence of Price (Jackson) emerges as an orchestrator who holds secrets critical to both men.

Rated PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and adult language

POSITIVES

– One more chance with these characters. I still stand by that James Mcavoy should’ve been nominated for an Oscar for his work in “Split”, and here that momentum only continues. Mcavoy easily carries the movie, ushering us through 23 different personalities that all casually make an appearance in this installment, giving James a phenomenal range with improv characteristics. Likewise, Samuel L. Jackson as the title character is also impressive, combining a wide range of intelligence and anger that really make you feel for this man who has only ever known pain in his life. When Mcavoy and Jackson interact, it’s easily the best parts of the film for me, but unfortunately this is again a case of Bruce Willis phoning his performance in. It doesn’t help that the film has so little for him to do, but Willis’ calm demeanor doesn’t win him any awards in the category of most charismatic.

– A wide variety of shot compositions. While there is one problem in this area that I will get to later, the overall choices of angles and creativity associated with the film’s movement left me satisfied, and proved that above all else, Shyamalan still knows how to shoot a movie. What’s interesting is that “Unbreakable”, “Split”, and “Glass” are all part of the same series, yet none of them look visually anything alike. This allows each of these films to stand out on their own, so as to never repeat or derive the style about its respective films that harvested that air of originality that made each of them thrive visually.

– Creative use of flashback storytelling. There are no shortage of flashbacks throughout the film, in fact, I think “Glass” may have topped last year’s “Fantastic Beasts” sequel in how many times it recalls the past. Why it worked more here for me is not only the surprising instances of what it reveals, but also in triggering pivotal moments in these characters lives that peel the layer of the psychological onion one layer further. The transitions are never sloppy or rushed, and most importantly they keep the pacing of each scene they accompany firmly in their grip, never allowing them to drag or stall for too long.

– Shyamalan’s love for comic books once again shines through. “Glass” takes ample time not only in explaining the history surrounding some of the more important comic book novels of the past, but also incorporates them to this particular narrative, and it pulls out this poignancy that crafts an honorable message to the film’s social commentary. My take is that the film is reminding us that greatness exists in all of us, and this world will constantly try to diminish or devalue its existence, but it’s us who must stand up and give them irrefutable proof of the gifts we’ve always known were inside of us. If you take anything from this film, take this inspiring message that Shyamalan preaches, reminding us that all of us should be considered super.

NEGATIVES

– One terribly bad shot choice. This film has no shortage of close-up POV angle shots, particularly in that of the film’s fight sequences, that render them with a complete lack of believability. For one, we as an audience can’t register what is happening in each of them because we only see the face of one man, not what is transpiring beneath this face, therefore we can’t detect when a pivotal blow has been landed. For two, this screams PG-13 limitations, as well as an overall lack in chemistry between Willis and Mcavoy that tried so hard to frame the violence in ways that wouldn’t expose their limited capabilities. It could be forgiven if it happened a few times, but this gimmick is exploited so much that I couldn’t help but wince each time it popped up, and I can’t begin to imagine why Shyamalan felt that this was the way to go for capturing the impactful devastation.

– Plot holes/inconsistencies. I could write a book on this section alone, but I won’t bore you with the endless details that even the movie couldn’t answer for itself. Characters making irrational decisions, rules of Mcavoy’s character being changed from the previous film, continuity errors from scene to scene transitions, and issues with the capture of these men that had me scratching my head. Because of these frequent road blocks in creativity, the film feels like it can’t go ten minutes without the same question of logic popping up into my brain, and even in an era where we don’t question how Captain America can’t suffer any difficulties in the unfreezing process, or a selfless billionaire donning an iron suit to constantly risk his life, “Glass” feels like the biggest fabrication of truth in the comic genre that I’ve ever seen.

– Far too much humor. I expected that some of the line deliveries that Mcavoy gave were going to come across as comical. You can’t play an 8 year old or a woman without the audience snickering a time or two, but the overwhelming amount of comedy, not only with Mcavoy’s character, that constantly filled the screenplay, frequently pulled me out of the film’s immersion, giving the audience far too many moments of breath in between what should be these tense and epic showdowns. A joke about rap artist Drake is repeated on three different accounts, leaving Shyamalan as a screenwriter feeling like your hip grandpa who just discovered Youtube last week.

– Disjointed storytelling. “Glass” feels like three different stories being told simultaneously that never mesh together to form one cohesive unit. My biggest problem comes in the form of pivotal characters disappearing for long stretches of time, smashing any kind of momentum that the film requires in giving audiences each perspective side. Mcavoy feels like the one constant, but the lack of revenge conflict between Mr Glass and Dunn never actually happens, leaving the very same dynamic that blew the roof off of the theater in “Unbreakable” feeling underwhelming. It makes for a finished script that is often pulling us in different directions without us fully understanding why.

– Shows its hand far too often. If you seek a movie that gives away pivotal twists and turns constantly throughout the movie, then this might be the film for you. The first rule of competent screenwriting is that mentioning something once is forgettable, but to mention it twice or more means its important, and the film’s idea of repeating its own rules within this superhero world it establishes left me with a few telegraphed instances within the film, where I knew something was coming. That’s not to say that “Glass” is entirely predictable, it’s just entirely far too obvious and lacks any kind of nuance to slip one by you.

– That convoluted ending. When there was one twist, I loved it. That added layers to a previous film that wasn’t originally established. When there were three twists, I felt it was beginning to get out of hand. When there were six twists, I felt that the film got way ahead of itself, and it all became this overstuffed vacuum bag that blew minutes prior, yet still kept pumping. This is Shyamalan at his most Shaymalan, and what I mean by that is he has what he feels is a genius idea and keeps poking at it until we the audience scream “ENOUGH”. The final twenty minutes of this film could easily be considered the ending, and each scene that follows could easily be the ending in any film. But Shyamalan leaves the camera on for far too long, and the closing moments take this film to an ending that I’m confident will be unsatisfying to anyone who watches it, ending a once promising trilogy on a note of obvious disappointment that reminds you why the name Shyamalan scares you in the first place.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

Inception

Directed By Christopher Nolan

Starring – Leonardo Dicaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page

The Plot – Dom Cobb (Dicaprio) is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb’s rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible – inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout

POSITIVES

– One of a kind direction. Before “Inception”, Christopher Nolan already carved his name out as one of the best directors of the current era, but after the distinct imprint that he left on this picture, he became one of the greatest minds of all time, challenging the audience in ways that films often don’t anymore. This is very much a passion project for Nolan, whose pictures envelope the very best in all areas of the technical spectrum, and are only surpassed by a script that is the epitome of a game of mental chess. This film is the very definition of expedition, treating us to an idea that geographically feels galaxies away, yet in reality is something that we ourselves can reach out and touch, and it’s because of this quality that the science fiction in a film feels possible for once, because it is grounded in such reality.

– Art imitating life. Nolan based the roles of the Inception team similar to roles that are used in craft filmmaking, with Cobb being the director, Arthur being the producer, Ariadne being the production designer, Eames being the actor, Saito being the studio, and Fischer being the audience. What this does is mold a team-based exercise for the movie out of something that Nolan knows best, giving what I interpreted as an immersion into the mind of a literary and visual genius. In addition to this, the initials of each character spell out a bigger message to the audience at home. D(om), R(obert), E(ames), A(rthur), M(al), S(aito), P(eter), A(riadne), Y(usef) = Dreams Pay.

– Best of both worlds. There is this prejudice in Hollywood that big budget Summer blockbusters can’t be intelligent and poignant, but “Inception” was really the film that changed this dimming perspective. Combining a monstrous budget of 160 million dollars with a script so expansive in material that it took ten whole years to write, made for the rare breed of Summer releases that challenge the audience in ways that disaster films and monster movies simply never could, and man did it pay off. Every time I watch this movie, I learn something entirely new about it, and it’s in those clever nuances that have since become known as Easter eggs where the film has tremendous value as a two-and-a-half hour film that you actually yearn to watch again and again. As far as heist films go, it is easily the most challenging and most evocative that I have ever seen.

– Sight and sound. There are no shortage of achievements when discussing this film, but the exceptional perfection that is the rumbling texture of the film’s sound mixing, as well as the practical-dominated work of visual effects serve as the strongest duo, for far greater reason than it taking the Oscar in both respective categories. The movie’s audio thrives as this building ball of momentum, constantly mimicking that of the intensity in dream conflicts that builds to a satisfying blow-off without ever decreasing the urgency in the atmosphere. Everything introduced into the dream is always enveloped by this emphasis that engages you with its presence, and it’s even more incredible when you consider that most of the jaw-dropping visuals we’re seeing are done with limited- to-no computer generation. It’s a technical marvel that sheds light on the tremendous confidence that Nolan had in his crew in depicting this world that looks very similar, but feels eerily foreign to our own laws of gravity.

– Tremendous world building. While I do have a problem with some of the inconsistencies of the rules established that I will get to later, you can’t deny that this idea within these dream worlds were treated as so much more than just table dressing to the film’s essential plot. The film takes valuable screen time in explaining the rules, ideas, and consequences within this state of sleep that give it this rich sense of originality when compared to anything else in film history. Likewise, the set designs and backdrops feel vastly different in channeling the deeper levels of tranquility that the team invades, so as not to feel redundantly confusing to the audience keeping score at home. Also, the fine tuning of superb editing allows for great visual definition when it comes to each ever-changing layer of the dream, and kept things from ever feeling convoluted in a film where it easily could’ve been. This is editing that is visually telling us as many as four different stories at once, and never lost its location for the story along the way.

– Hans Zimmer’s best musical score to date. Zimmer has always been one of my personal favorite composers, but the work done here is exceptionally breathtaking in the way it takes command of these impactful sequences. Hans not only treats us to a fine variety of eclectic compositions, but his dedicated influence through a majority of this picture prove that he is working overtime when actors need a break from the frame. The music very rarely ever leaves the picture completely, and Hans even manages to save the best for last, as “Time”, a somberly building track that plays during the film’s emotional finale, may just be my single favorite piece of music not only by Zimmer, but by any composer in any film ever.

– Collective ensemble. I’ve read a lot of disdain for the performances in the film feeling wooden, but to me this couldn’t be further from the truth, as Dicaprio’s Cobb channels a lot of anger and grief in the valuable things lost that I felt his addiction to the past to induce shivers each time he comes at a crossroads to let them go. In addition to this, the banter and engagement of these top notch actors constantly keep things fresh because of their differences in dynamic, especially that of Levitt and Hardy, who feel like they have a complicated past between them that have left them uneasy towards one another. My favorite scenes really are just the ones when these characters interact with one another, proving that if personalities and presence are strong enough, you can’t get enough of their influence on the picture.

– Absorbing cinematography. The shot composition and color illustration in the film serve so much more purpose here than to outline a beautifully intricate film, it also establishes versatility in complexion that mimics each room it invades. Pay close attention to the background lighting or color pallet in each scene, and you’ll get an undeniable sense of how something so distant plays such an unavoidable presence in the foreground. What made it a done deal for me is that the color correction never feels overwhelmingly artificial, instead endearing subtly in a sponge-like quality to harvest the artistic merit in each scene. For a film made in 2010, it could easily stand tall with the 4K definition of a 2019 film.

– That controversial ending. (Light SPOILERS) Like most artistically poignant films, this one has plenty of room for interpretation, during the film’s pivotal closing moments. Many people have their own take whether Cobb is indeed awake or not when he is reunited with his children. My personal take is that there is a wobble on the spinner right before the screen fades to black, therefore instilling the idea that this is the real world. I say this because in the dream world there never was one instance of this even slightly wobbling even a little bit, therefore he must be in the real world. Either way, I applaud Nolan for giving food for thought to the idea that there is no wrong answer, and that either ending could alter the feeling of the film and its characters conclusively. It proves that endings don’t always need clarity to hit you the hardest emotionally, and if done right they can leave plenty of room for incorporated fan feelings, because after all, that is why movies are made in the first place.

NEGATIVES

– Inconsistencies with the rules. Some of the glaring problems upon my recent watch involved a few things that crossed my mind as being false, based on the established rules. The first is with the Limbo stage of the dream itself. If Limbo is indeed thought of as the point of no return, why is it so easy for Ariadne, Cobb, and Fischer to escape it by simply killing themselves in the dream? What about Cobb’s incarceration? How was he found guilty when he wasn’t even in the hotel that his wife jumped from? Doesn’t the hotel have cameras showing who went in and out of each room? Wouldn’t they have record of her checking into two different hotel rooms? It seems pretty clear cut to me. Finally are the audience conveniences that make absolutely zero sense in the context of the movie, but are there to forcefully teach the audience about the dream world. Why is Cobb even set up for a water kick when any kind of kick would work in waking him up? Why does it have to be water, and why not a mattress? How come the fall itself into the bathtub doesn’t wake Cobb? I’ll tell you why: So the movie can show water invading a dream. Once again, it only makes sense in the context of speaking to the audience. What about Cobb failing three different times during Saito’s test, and yet he still hires him anyway? What about Cobb’s kids being in America while he lives in other countries? Why not send the kids with Grandpa (Michael Caine) over to where Leo is, so they can be together? I could go into these things for years, but these were the ones that really bothered me.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

The Upside

Directed By Neil Burger

Starring – Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman

The Plot – Inspired by a true story, the film is a heartfelt comedy about a recently paroled ex-convict (Hart) who strikes up an unusual and unlikely friendship with a paralyzed billionaire (Cranston).

Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use

POSITIVES

– Hart and Cranston are a constant riot. Aside from the impeccable chemistry that provides endless banter between them, the stage proves that there’s enough room to their performances for this to be eye-opening for both. In Hart, we are still saddled with the same comedian that we’ve come to expect in every film, but his temperament feels much more reserved and timely when he instills a laugh to the picture. He also proves that he has some fine dramatic chops, as Burger takes his character through this redemption arc with a family who are at odds with him, and Kevin obliges by providing enough heart to help develop his moral transformation. Cranston’s physical limitations are consistently authentic through two hours of film, and his personality renders that of a man who has lost everything while struggling for a reason to hang on. Being a rich protagonist is a difficult thing to translate in terms of likeability, but Bryan’s timeless smile and dry reactions to Hart’s shenanigans makes the money a backdrop instead of a defining character trait.

– The less you know about the original film, titled “The Intouchables”, the better. I think “The Upside” will charm audiences of a new generation, who aren’t suffering from inevitable comparisons to the original movie. For one, I feel enough time has passed to give this a modern rendering, as well there’s much to be appreciated about a feel good story that doesn’t sugarcoat the material to manipulate them in one way or another. This film is very much a ball of nerves, that like life, will have you riding the highs and lows of a bonding friendship in which these two men desperately need each other for completely different reasons.

– Tons of personality in the overall photography of the picture. What’s commendable about Burger behind the lens is his ability to switch things up and never allow his presentation to feel conventional or stale, and because of such it adds a lot of energy to offset the weight of the dramatic material. Some examples we are treated to involve unnerving close-up angles to represent the awkwardness of something said or done, as well as following self-still frames to represent the lunacy of two characters getting high together. What’s even more important is that these special takes are reserved for the right time, and do wonders in articulating the atmospheric mood that the material sometimes clashes over.

– Charmed by the material in the script. While some scenes did challenge me morally for laughing at them, I do enjoy a film that takes place in the modern P.C era and doesn’t abide by any particular book on what’s acceptable. Instead, it lets the audience interpret things for themselves, and because of such I was treated to an early 2019 favorite in terms of comedic firepower. As well, I’m glad that it was the dialogue that I was laughing at, and not physical or bodily humor like Hart’s other films are known for. The dialogue is rich with a combination of sarcasm and character personality that allows it to thrive from each perspective, and we simply can’t get enough interaction between Hart and Cranston because of it.

– Informative look at the¬†quadriplegic lifestyle. In taking care of people like Cranston’s character in this movie, I can say that the depictions and treatment given warms my heart with a level of honesty and fact that I wasn’t expecting from this movie. Everything from the way we look at paraplegic’s when we speak to them directly, to the sensitivity needed in feeding them, feels enriched because of the knowledge it passes down, allowing it to succeed as so much more than a piece of entertainment.

NEGATIVES

– Production issues. There is no shortage of color correction used, especially during the first act of the film that made for that inauthentic feel that we all get from Lifetime Television movies. One such instance involves sun shining through the windows, when in reality we see that it is a cloudy day outside, and there’s no possible way that this volume of light could possibly be bleeding through the windows. Likewise, the overall cinematography feels a bit too experimental for something that could’ve thrived with more nuance and less painting of the picture for us.

– Jarring musical score. The tones and music incorporated into the film reeked of 90’s romantic comedy, in that its intrusive nature tried to audibly narrate what the audience should be feeling because of its lack of confidence in the clashing of tones in material. There is no precedent for consistency here, and it makes some of these scenes swell up with a lack of subtlety that constantly pulled me out of the dramatic depth in every scene. It simply tries to accomplish too much, in that it can’t decide if it wants to be heartfelt and emotional or bumbling and funny. Each are fine by themselves, but when stitched together as a cohesive unit lack the kind of solid direction needed in mastering these meaningful moments.

– Needs another edit. “The Upside” is two hours even, and the ambition of that run time just doesn’t match the fluidity of the script that begins to feel its weight around the halfway point. For my money, twenty minutes could easily be removed from this script, as there are scenes involving Hart and Kidman’s characters that could easily be trimmed or cut all together because they add nothing to the developing progress or character dynamics established early on. There’s also an early third act introduction involving a romantic subplot that comes and goes only to force a conventional third act distancing that doesn’t feel believable because of everything that has already transpired. This drags the pacing down violently, and especially so with an ending that feels like it happens ten minutes too late, and builds something climatic that is instead neatly tucked away in predictably bland territory.

– Great imbalance in tone. Films that incorporate both comedy and drama to a movie can work. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t have a subgenre titled “Dramedies”. But the occasional slapstick scene, like Hart being overwhelmed by a technologically advanced shower, don’t blend well with those deeper moments where the integrity of the film needs to resonate with the heartbeat of its audience. For much of the first half, the film feels juggled between these two opposite directions, giving it a feel of multiple cooks in the kitchen to the movie’s development, all before settling down in the final act as a sombering drama completely. Much of the film constantly feels like a juxtaposition of itself, and with more control could’ve balanced these directions seamlessly into feeling like one cohesive unit.

– Racially insensitive? Similar to last year’s “Green Book”, we have another story of trade-offs, where a black and white character give each other something that they were lacking before, but unlike that movie the exchange in “The Upside” feels cringing the minority audiences who will see it. Cranston instills class in Hart’s character in the form of opera music, while Hart gives Cranston weed and Aretha Franklin music. You can kind of see where the representations are a little one sided here, and for a business that claims it is becoming more progressive with each passing film, it certainly drops the ball in leveling the playing field with this exceptionally offensive take.

EXTRAS

– One unique take. Considering this film revolves around an ex-con who is looking to redeem himself to the people who judge him for his past, I guess it’s appropriate that Hart is cast in this role, considering the current controversy of the Oscars with Hart once recruited to host. If we learn anything from this film and particularly Hart in general, it’s that people can change, and shouldn’t just be defined by something from their past that was more than enough time ago to believe they may have changed for the better. It’s a reminder to our own world that people make mistakes, and we can either allow ourselves to become saddled with those mistakes and keep them from redeeming themselves, or we give them the chance to make everything right.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+