Terminator: Dark Fate

Directed By Tim Miller

Starring – Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Plot – More than two decades have passed since Sarah Connor prevented Judgment Day, changed the future, and re-wrote the fate of the human race. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is living a simple life in Mexico City with her brother (Diego Boneta) and father when a highly advanced and deadly new Terminator – a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) travels back through time to hunt and kill her. Dani’s survival depends on her joining forces with two warriors: Grace (Davis), an enhanced super-soldier from the future, and a battle-hardened Sarah Connor (Hamilton). As the Rev-9 ruthlessly destroys everything and everyone in its path on the hunt for Dani, the three are led to a T-800 (Schwarzenegger) from Sarah’s past that may be their last best hope.

Rated R for violence throughout, adult language and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Heavy action set pieces. The Terminator franchise is one of the godfathers of big budget action, so in turn it’s a must for the newest installment to have no shortage of demolition mayhem to satisfy audiences into remembering what they loved so dearly about the franchise to begin with. Offering a satisfying compromise of aerial and ground attacks to keep the integrity of the set designs fresh with innovation, the film spares no degree of immersive sound mixing to play complimentary to musical composer Junkie XL’s eclectically riveting compositions, nor does it ever not result in the impact of these characters being felt on said properties. In addition to this, the sequences are shot with a degree of stable handheld camera work that maintains the detection of what transpires, and offers a surprisingly absorbing quality to its movements that better helps us feel engaged in the plight of these characters enveloped into it. If you’re only watching a Terminator movie for intense action sequences, “Dark Fate” will continue the trend in what has brought forth some heavy stakes in the war of man versus machine.

– The queen returns. There’s not much to say positively in the performance department here, with the exception of Linda Hamilton’s glowing return to form as badass Sarah Connor in the role that made her a household name. Sarah’s demeanor still embodies the feminine toughness that all female characters should be privy to, but it’s really Linda’s dramatic depth instilled to the character that helps push her transformation once more. In this unveiling chapter, we learn about the kind of loss that plagued Sarah for more than two decades, and left her with a mission of revenge as her only life’s meaning going forward. It offers a side of vulnerability to the character that we haven’t seen since the original movie from 1984, but brings with it the ruthlessness of the character from “Judgment Day”, which captures the complete evolution. This movie is better any time Linda is on-screen, and Miller’s desire to involve her moving forward is among the most rewarding of decisions that he has made for the integrity of the franchise.

– New toys. After seven films in this franchise, it’s difficult to keep coming up with fresh and innovative traits to give to these invading machines, but the arrival of Davis’ heroine, and antagonist Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9, bring forth some startling developments in on-screen technological advances that make them deadlier than anything previously established. For Davis, it’s her lightning-fast speed, as well as her ability with a chain that competently articulates her position as a protector. In addition to this, it’s her dynamic of not exactly being a machine but rather an enhanced human, that help her maintain the values of human existence, and what hangs in the balance from this invasion of the machines. For Luna’s Rev-9, he is able to melt himself into maintaining two forms of existence at the same time, doubling the odds against the opposition in a way that forces them to keep their eyes in both directions. Aside from this, however, it’s his ability to hack and absorb character signals and camera devices accordingly, in order to make it even more difficult to escape him.

– Production aspects. There are two things here that I believe are owed to Tim Miller’s attention for detail that better accommodate some of the beats that the film surprisingly takes us one. The first one is terrific de-aging in the form of two past characters to the franchise, that really makes you do a double take a few times, and maintains the gimmick even more than something like “Gemini Man” ever could. Beyond this, the C.G for the film is more good than bad consistently. Sure, there are a few instances where the movements of the Terminator’s while crawling or in mid-air felt a bit hollow or uninspired, but the overall spectrum here left me dazzled more than dazed, and solidified the production in a way that marries the best of ambitious practicality in set designs and computer generation in special effects, that accomplishes some impressive feats visually.

– Diversity in the cast. I commend this film greatly for instilling some Spanish born characters to the front-and-center position of one of the biggest franchises in the action genre history. Not only does this story’s reach expand its grip on its audience to include more minority moviegoers, but it also helps flesh out more of the scenery where the story takes place. It proves that the producers aren’t afraid to add a contemporary spin of social commentary to the dynamic of its plot, proving that there is a John Connor in every corner of the globe.

NEGATIVES

– Horrendous dialogue. This film tries so desperately to be humorous in some instances, and inspirational in others, and thanks to the unnatural flow of deliveries, as well as the forceful puns of familiarity to the franchise, they fail more times than they succeed. If this isn’t bad enough, the way they are presented brought forth several groans within me, where the intention never left the station, and immediately took me out of the heat of the scene, periodically throughout the film. The kind of dialogue that I expect in an action movie should inspire me to the point of goosebumps developing on my exterior, but the majority here are a series of pun deviations trying to capitalize on a bigger, better period for the franchise long ago, and just feels here like your grandparents learning words like “For shizzle” or “Crunk” for the first time ever.

– Lack of originality. Tim Miller has gone on record stating that “Dark Fate” ignores the continuity of films 3-5, and stands as the sole sequel to “Judgment Day”. “Halloween” recently did the same thing with its franchise, and it’s interesting to compare the two films because their abilities to push reset brings forth the meaning of their intentions when you find out just how little the newest edition brought to the franchise. Aside from the plot being the same in all six movies, there are moments and dialogue repeated from films 3-5, but presented in a different light here. It chooses not to acknowledge those films, then has no problems with ripping them off? I searched far and wide for something original in this movie that no other film before it has done, and even hours after the film I still struggle with the realization that this is just more reheated fan service to manipulate you into thinking it’s something fresh or ground-breaking for the series. It isn’t.

– Disrespectable. This is in regards to one particular subplot, and I want to be careful not to spoil it because it is a shocking development when you consider the previous films omitted from the continuity of this franchise. It deals with a death that takes place in the opening ten minutes of this movie, and it not only diminishes the heartfelt impact of a previous film, but also disposes of this person in a way that is nothing more than a speed bump to the roads this screenplay travels down. I have always said that the worst sequels not only damage themselves, but also previous successful films that should’ve been left alone in the first place, and “Dark Fate” is the latest in that selfish execution. It takes something as timelessly precious as the air-tight perfect ending of a previous movie, and shakes it in a way that lessens the meaning and stakes of its conclusion.

– Sharp tonal shift. I commended Miller and most of this movie for not reaching for the low-hanging fruit of his brand of humor that he’s very well known for, but then something happened in the early stages of the third act that made this feel every bit of the weight of the five screenwriters that it maintains. Arnold pops into the frame, and suddenly we’re treated to no shortage of corny material, slow punchline executions, and an important narrative that gets lost in the fog of these characters able to joke about their truly dire situation. I’m fine with a line or two here or there, but there are whole scenes of this act where Arnie brings forth so much of the character-ruining material that made “Rise of the Machines” such a difficult watch, for the road of pop culture that the character traveled between nearly twenty years of film. Here, I could’ve done with more urgency, and less dependability on using humor as a crutch for slow periods of script.

– Arnold. Speaking of the man himself, I wish he was kept to merely a one scene cameo, where his meaning within the film is established, and then he’s never seen again. Why do I feel this way? Well, so much of the film centers around these tough female characters fighting for themselves and the world surrounding them, and then the screenplay tells them that they need help in the form of a man, about 70% into the movie. Not only does this lessen the effects of Davis’ enhanced super human, but it also conjures up a very disturbing and timely insensitive message to the ladies in the audience, who are enjoying their first dose of gender dominance in 35 years throughout the entire franchise. Aside from this, Arnold is really just exploring the familiar third act beats of his character between “Judgment Day” and “Rise of the Machines”, that etched out this layer of predictability for this film that was inescapable. For a film and director so determined to build a fresh direction for itself, this one saunters through the muddy waters of repetition in a way that limits the evolution of its characters and permanency of its story, relying far too heavily on where we’ve been instead of where we’re going.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Doctor Sleep

Directed By Mike Flanagan

Starring – Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran

The Plot – On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless-mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance (McGregor) knows, and tween Abra Stone (Curran) learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.” Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul.

Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, adult language, nudity and drug use.

POSITIVES

– The real terror. While soul stealing serves as the topical adverse scare for the movie’s themes and ensuing material, it’s the underlying issues associated with Danny’s plight that truly makes his arc gripping in more ways than one. Once again, alcoholism is a big reason for that, finding Danny in the very same parallels and shadows that his father faced during “The Shining”. Pushing this idea one step further is the inescapable terror associated with becoming our parents, which almost feels inescapable the longer our stories continue on. This seems like the one conflict that Danny can’t fight with his shine, requiring him to confront the past if he ever wants to make a future for himself. It’s interesting to see how one side of adversity transcends the other, outlining a battle of demons that Danny fights not only on the outside, but also the ones eating him alive from the inside.

– Credible cast. McGregor was definitely the right man to cast as this older version of Danny, who has worn the scars of anguish as an adult thanks to the things he has seen first-hand because of this gift. Ewan is very much the same introvert that his decades younger counterpart was in the previous installment, but it’s McGregor’s fiery registry that conjures up not only strong empathy for the character, but also inspires Danny in a way that very few other things have since that one fateful night at the Overlook Hotel. In addition to Ewan, Rebecca Ferguson hands in what is possibly the film’s best performance, having so much fun as this against-type antagonist with no shortage of menace or confidence to her personality. Ferguson commands attention each time she’s on camera, and gives proof to the argument that female antagonists in a Stephen King universe can be every bit as sinister as males, if not more for the way they use beauty and gentility to attack their prey. Curran is also reputable here, as this gifted little girl who is so much more than the two sides trophy in the middle. She gets her hands dirty multiple times throughout the film, and maintains her shine with a ferocity that never allows you to forget the peak of her powers.

– Characterization. This is especially surprising, because this film spends about 70% of its time with the antagonist characters, in order to build and understand their momentum in stealing gifts from unsuspecting youths. The screenplay values them in a way that almost no other antagonist characters receive in film, and I commended Flanagan endlessly for building an equal to the Danny and Abra combination, who we already understood to be indestructible. In showing these savages in their element, I also grew an enveloping rage from inside of me that wanted to see them suffer for their torture of these kids, capitalizing on a personal investment that very few antagonists capture with me anymore. Because this film is two-and-a-half hours in length, there’s no shortage of exposition or interaction between them, acting as a benefit to the urgency of these two sides eventually meeting for the inevitable confrontation.

– Easter Eggs. These will undoubtedly take a couple of watches to spot them all, but there were a few instances in the movie that paid homage not only to “The Shining” itself, but also to the true King of horror; Stephen King. I won’t spoil much, but keep your eyes open during an introductory scene when Danny meets with a sobriety leader. The scene practically echoes the placements in frame, color in objects, and meaning in conversation similar to the very same one where Jack Torrence meets the owner of the Overlook. In addition to this, numbers play a big running joke in the movie, like the address of Abra (1980), which serves as the very year “The Shining” was released. I could go on for miles with this one, but to summarize, I love a film that gets lost in its own folklore, and allows hardcore fans of the previous installment to study and isolate each frame in a way that gives it the kind of meaning and importance that Flanigan was hoping for.

– Brotherly brude. What a transfixing spell that The Newton Brothers lay at the doorstep of this movie, producing a musical score with such an inescapable presence in its riveting execution. In fact, presence is important when describing it, because these series of compositions maintain a pulse in frequent heartbeats added to the introduction of such, as well as the mixing of voices and chants that can be heard in the distance of this shattering of cymbals. It’s important to note that while each track begins the same, they are in fact anything but repetitious in their progressions. Deviations from familiarity constantly keeps us guessing, and adds to a suffocating atmosphere that allows us to get lost deep in the fog of psychological clarity. These are the same brothers who worked on Flanigan’s exceptional Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House”, and that bond between them is solidified here in a way that makes the Newton’s presence inescapable to the film’s presentation.

– As an adaptation. I usually don’t support when a King adaptation deviates so drastically from the source material, but in following in the shoes of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, “Doctor Sleep” also finds its own unique voice to prosper as its own product. Sure, around 60% of the book is evidently there, mostly in the navigation of the story and disposal of characters, that eventually found its way back to familiarity. But the deviation presents several character deviations that I greatly appreciated, a weight of current day social conscience that wasn’t present in the noval, and an ending that I liked much more in the movie than the book’s tacky closing moments. In that respect, I give the movie a slight advantage over its literary counterpart, but in reality these are two products that each have a satisfying duality to fans looking to get lost in these characters one last time.

– Flanagan’s influence. From the man who articulated so much unnerve in the toxic family narrative from “The Haunting of Hill House”, it’s a bit of a surprise that Mike shows much more restraint over stylistic choices in this film, which keeps the film’s message and story grounded where it needs to be. However, there are certainly some creative leaps throughout, particularly when characters use their shine abilities, taking audiences on a flightful mind-warp of a journey to emphasize the otherworldliness of these moments. Outside of that, the film rests easily on a fairly grounded world, utilizing c.g sparingly and as needed, instead of an abundance. This helps immerse you into the world of “Doctor Sleep” without it ever feeling too fantastical or unbelievable towards its psychological themes. His ability to adapt to the diversity of the world’s that he tackles, makes him one of the most sought-after horror directors of the current day, and “Doctor Sleep” is just one more chance to indulge in such a self-less execution.

NEGATIVES

– Sloppy transitions. This is especially evident during the first act of the film, where the juggling of multiple story arcs and character introductions are edited in a way that makes certain scenes feel pointless. This is evident during scenes that serve as nothing more than a reaction to what ensued previously. This isn’t a problem if the previous scene is maintained throughout the next one, but the new scene establishes its attention dominance over the story in a way that makes it feel like something big is coming, yet never actually does. In addition to this, transitions are usually meant as a tool for the passage of time, yet here there’s no clear consistency or indication for the movements forward, that appear more frequently and spontaneously than a major motion picture is used to. There’s simply too many transitions in such a short period of time, and this impatient level of storytelling kept the film from gaining any momentum until the settled down second act.

– Too long. I hate making this complaint, especially with a lengthy novel with so many great ideas, but the movie version of “Doctor Sleep” is filled with an abundance of scenes that could easily converge together, instead of standing as two individual scenes to pad the time further. Not only can so many of these scenes be merged together to speed up the fluidity of the story, but some more attention could be paid to the very rules of Abra’s shining, which are sometimes so ambiguous that they feel like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, where the rules are made up as we go. This is a 145 minute movie, and for my money you could tell the very same story in two hours flat, and not lose a single ounce of creativity to the benefit of the literary counterpart. This feels every bit of its run time, and that isn’t a compliment.

– Continuity. Strangely enough, the film suffers the strongest when you remember its ties to the original movie, and the seams of similarity start to come unglued. For one, the decision to cast these unknown actors in the very same roles that Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson adorned gives the scenes a cheap and disruptive quality to the immersive consistency that was improving until these unnecessary scenes popped into frame. To be honest, you don’t even need them. They are just cheap recreations of scenes we’ve already seen and lived through with Danny, so their inclusion only diminishes the energy of the previously more inferior product. Secondly, the hotel itself is kind of a disappointment once you get past the placement of the rooms, and the familiar orange carpet that filled the lobby. If you’re a hardcore fan of “The Shining” like I am, you start to notice that the flooring tiles of Jack’s typing lobby are different, the boilers in the boiler room were painted a completely different color, and the entertainment lobby with the legendary bar looks like it was robbed of its tasteful high-class furniture, and replaced with a college rec room. Considering movies like “Blade Runner 2049” or “Captain America: Civil War” have articulated de-aging and an eye for time-stamped set designs, there is simply no reason for “Doctor Sleep’s” method of laziness. It renders the Overlook Hotel even more lifeless than the script’s intended direction, and adds a reminder of the near 40 years that have passed since the previous film.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Zombieland: Double Tap

Directed By Ruben Fleischer

Starring – Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone

The Plot – Columbus (Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Harrelson), Wichita (Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) move to the American heartland as they face off against evolved zombies, fellow survivors, and the growing pains of their snarky makeshift family.

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

POSITIVES

– Production enhancements. With this being a sequel to a movie that made some serious bank, you knew that the bar had to be raised drastically higher for the sequel’s visual presentation, and satisfies it does. The camera movements are slicker, full of pulse-setting shaky-camera effects that don’t diminish or demean what’s depicted in frame, and the enticement of some long take sequences that move around our family of zombie slayers vividly paints the fun and urgency of slaying from every respective angle of character. In addition to this, the set design and make-up are a much needed upgrade, fleshing out an evident decomposition for our flesh-eaters that subtly gives depth to the distance between the two films without audibly elaborating this point. The variety of ambitious locations gives the film an inescapably higher stakes quality than the first film, all the while granting us more candid observations in globe-trotting storytelling that conveys this sickness on a grand scale.

– World building. Similar to where the first film introduced us to the rules of the hunt, “Double Tap” takes this one step further, extending the list in a way that plays into the experience of the group, all the while educating the audience on the changes inside of this world that has grown ten years before our very eyes. It’s also important for a post-apocalyptic film to convey this decaying sense within society that supplants realism within the effects of its environment, and paints this world as anything but the violent fantasy that two films have produced. Automobile deterioration and zombie classification are two such examples, which prove that Fleischer has very much provided stock and insight into this particular world, giving it a sense of progression even after the virus has taken over. It gives “Double Tap” a rich sense of realism that grounds the fantastical aspects of the film entirely, making it easier to understand the rules and logic of the process because of the way it draws comparisons to our world so seamlessly.

– Comic muscle. While not as consistent as the laughing power of the first “Zombieland”, the barrage of laughs at the hands of some cleverly inserted Easter eggs, as well as Tallahasse being Tallahasse is something that provided the fun that I seeked for this sequel that I was never expecting in the first place. There’s rarely a desire to play off of the nostalgia or familiarity of the first film, proving the intention that Fleischer makes for this film to stand on its own feet respectably, all the while providing the next series of clever quips for fans to quote for the next ten years. It competently maintains the comedy aspects of the film wonderfully, and gave me plenty of laughs to get through scenes that were otherwise running a bit too long for my taste with regards to the movie’s pacing.

– Creative kills. To satisfy the carnage candy nut in all of us, this film comes through in granting us no shortage of gore or innovative torture to put it at the forefront of zombie killing cinema. This is also where the production once again impresses us, as the computer generation for the bigger scale kills comes through in an effective believability that leaves the hollow dimensions of the first film sequences in the past where they rightfully belong. Without spoiling anything, my personal favorite comes at the hands of a spinning hay bailer tractor that results in one of the funniest aftershock results that I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Considering the characters are always fighting for Zombie Kill of the Year, you can bet that the bar constantly gets raised in a way that tops the previous kill, leading to an action packed finale that is visually unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a zombie movie.

– Delightful cast. The only exceptional work here is from newcomer Zoey Deutsch, who plays a bubbly blonde who has miraculously survived the apocalypse to this point. Her character did get on my nerves, but that was the intention of a professional like Deutsch, who pushes all of the right buttons to leave you sinisterly eager for her demise, all the while supporting Stone’s character further for the divide this woman has caused between her and Eisenberg. Beyond Zoey, the main cast all transform into their personalities seamlessly once more, and give us another 95 minute opportunity to soak up as much about their dysfunctional family dynamics as you can possibly yearn for. Harrelson’s seedy hillbilly Tallahassee is easily my favorite character once more, providing a combination of gut-busting one-liners and eye-rolling masogyny that we’ve come to expect from his legendary presence.

– Post credit stingers. Definitely make sure that you stay for the entire credits, as there are two sequences that not only provide a bit of clarity towards a familiar victim, but also paints a general outline for how this virus started in the first place. Is it the most satisfying answer in terms of logic? Absolutely not, but the fulfilment of an earlier Easter egg coming into play during what is arguably the best scene of the entire movie is something that crafts much needed borders for the outline of this general conflict. Unfortunately like Marvel, there is one good stinger and one pointless one, but for my money it was just great to see this familiar face, all the while poking fun at a fictional movie that thankfully never was.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of character growth. This film had a decade between the previous film, and yet none of the characters feel like they’ve grown or expanded in the slightest. I say this in regards to Eisenberg and Stone’s arcs in particular, because without this love triangle playing out on-screen, the movie doesn’t spend a single second alone with either of them, to capture a moment of wall-breaking psychology. In addition to this, Breslin’s character is basically nothing more than a teenage girl who wants a boy. That’s it. If you’re going to make a sequel picking up with the same collection of characters, at least make an attempt to provide us the audience with something important to draw to their respective characters. Without it, the characterization or lack thereof feels very much in-tuned with the very walking dead who chase them all around the globe. Disappointing to say the least.

– Social commentary. I don’t have a problem with incorporating a political stance to something as typically conventional as a zombie movie, but the film’s consistency at dropping the ball towards deeper themes and self-reflection for us the audience made it pointless to include in the first place. Throughout the film, there is an anything-but-subtle wink towards our current president, as well as the current war on firearms that seems everywhere in the news in current day Americana. However, the film lacks never takes the bait to pick a side in the issue, nor does it flesh it out as anything further than a one-off joke deposit. This was a real opportunity for the filmmakers to capitalize on an issue that plagues our own world, and use it for coherence in a world where everything has quite literally gone to hell, but unfortunately it’s nothing more than one of those clever fourth wall breaks used to sell a trailer, and nothing more.

– Repetitive structure. It’s very disappointing that a film with ten years to come up with something compelling settles for the same beats that its predecessor guided us through during the first film. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the similarities are as follows; group is together, members leave group, one member seeks something especially vital from their previous life, and ends up trapped because of it. Other members are left to save said person. These are just a few of the examples, and listing any other ones would be impossible without spoilers, so I will leave it at that. My point is separation is everything in a sequel, especially one as memorable as “Zombieland”, but this sequel plays it safe in giving fans of the franchise what they want, and as a result takes a familiarly predictable direction that is most certainly double-tapped.

– One question. MINOR SPOILERS. Early on in the second half, there’s a killing scene involving a character being gunned down. It makes it even more difficult to believe when this shot character then shows up a couple of scenes later, with no bullet or no explanation or alluding to what transpired between them in the woods. Not only does this make their confrontation essentially pointless from the previous scene, it also emits such an enormous screenplay hole moving forward that the story itself knows it can’t explain, and would rather use it to craft another laugh. It’s the constant unexplained question that I have yet to see explained by anyone who has seen the movie.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Lucy In the Sky

Directed By Noah Hawley

Starring – Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz

The Plot – Portman plays Lucy Cola, a strong woman whose determination and drive as an astronaut take her to space, where she’s deeply moved by the transcendent experience of seeing her life from afar. Back home as Lucy’s world suddenly feels too small, her connection with reality slowly unravels.

Rated R for adult language and some sexual content.

POSITIVES

– Psychological warfare. As to where most films document the immensity of space in a way that is awe-inspiring and epic on a grand scale, “Lucy In the Sky” does this, but also with a varying degree of polarization that weighs heavily on the titular protagonist’s mentality, post-space exploration. Hawley puts us front-and-center in the suit of the astronaut, balancing a universal weight in seeing something so unique and rare, and then being asked to return to a life of mundane normalcy that loses much beauty to be desired in its translation. Personal reflection for astronauts are something that is rarely ever depicted in this kind of manner in a film, and this valuable angle of psychological delve benefits us and the film in a way that provides further emphasis into their sacrifices being those that are far greater than a physical and time capacity, as well as the decaying mental stability of its protagonist.

– Smooth camera movements. Most of the photography in the film is done with still-frame execution, but occasionally we get movements in a way that fully fleshes out the evolution of two character dynamics, or to isolate a character who is in a trance from everyone else. It’s not the idea itself that amazed me, but rather the free-flowing progression of the movement that properly channeled the lack of gravity in space, and harvested it on earth to express the intentions of its inclusion. Because of such, we get several dream-like sequences that not only provide uniqueness to the film’s many fantastical sequences, but also channels the psyche of Lucy in a way that provides entrancing visuals to what we’re learning in exposition dialogue.

– Varying aspect ratio. Many critics have labeled this as a negative for the film, but after studying the intentions of Hawley, as well as taken in the movie for myself, I can understand why he uses so many different kinds of lens aspects during so many different times in his film. For starters, the widescreen presentation is used mostly during scenes in space, or even when Lucy is dreaming about space. It captures her ambition vividly, and does so in a way that conveys to us the audience her love for the beauty and immensity of the great beyond. It then often switches to a boxed 4:3 ratio while on Earth. This is not only to play opposite of space, and showcase the lack of inspiration as opposed to a property so infinite, but also to articulate Lucy’s isolation, in feeling so far of a connection from anyone else. In addition to this, we also get several right or left side boxes meant to depict the environments and characters who Lucy is removing from her mind of wonder, as well as to convey the instability from conventionalism, both in the film and her mind, that the story is unraveling. Does it go to the well too often on this gimmick? Absolutely, but to say there’s no meaning in this is severely irresponsible, and overlooks important aspects within the creativity that make this a completely immersive experience into Lucy’s mental fragility.

– Gripping performances. This is certainly Portman’s show for the very onion-peeling transformation that she gives Lucy, but the work of Hamm also shouldn’t be understated here. Both of these actors competently and continuously juggle a southern drawl throughout the film, all the while fleshing out the meaning within their personalities. For Hamm, it’s understanding why Lucy is willing to throw everything in her life away for this man. He’s suave, intelligent, soft-spoken, and especially handsome. Even beyond all of this though, Hamm gets to actually deposit some dramatic acting that we don’t often see from him, and it moves us to several unnerving scenes that amplify the tension to near suffocating levels of intensity. Portman continues to be one of the best actresses in the world, connecting with the audience in a way that produces strong empathy for the character despite some bad things that she does. Natalie’s ability to cry on command goes a long way in investing in her character, but it’s really the riddled anxiety of the performance that relates that this woman could snap at any moment, that really moves it distance, and makes this one of the more emotionally jaded portrayals that the acclaimed actress has had to take on.

NEGATIVES

– Hawley’s first steps. While a critically acclaimed television writer and director for his magnificent work on “Fargo”, “Lucy In the Sky” is Noah’s first work on a silver screen capacity, and to my surprise created a lot of problems that prove his inexperience. For one, the urgency of this narrative is taken completely out of the picture thanks in part to a series of decisions with the varying pacing of each scene that could’ve used some more edits. Some scenes drown on for too long, and others lack a strong amount of focus to absorb the audience in its drama. This is scene more than anything in the final moments of the film, where Hawley’s foreshadowing narration playing over the scene that is progressing, spoils it in a way that completely removes curiosity or mystery to what’s transpiring. “Lucy” may have been too ambitious of a first project for Hawley, but the story is there if he just stops overthinking the aspects that should flow naturally.

– Tonally imbalanced. For the first half of this film, it stands as a compelling drama, full of enough insight into Lucy, as well as intrigue over the matters developing in the distance. It’s a finely crafted narrative that feels authentic in its intentions. That changes during the second half of the movie, as this becomes a hybrid between a Lifetime Television movie full of lunacy, as well as an unintentional comedy that disrespects the real life character that the movie is based on. Zingy musical montage sequences during sinister planning, on-the-nose dialogue full of cheesy meandering, and an overall change in tonal direction that makes this feel like Hawley abandoned ship after realizing his film was boring up to this point. These are the matters that persist during the most important time of the screenplay, and more than anything feed into the thought process that I had leaving the theater that established this as the most disappointing film of 2019.

– Horrendous soundtrack selections. This also plays a pivotal key in the tonal imbalance that I previously mentioned, but deserves its own mention for the way it constantly shoe-horns cleverness into a scene that was doing fine without it. Considering the movie is called “Lucy In the Sky”, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Beatles hit song of the same name is included in the movie, albeit with an emo-rendered cover by an unknown artist, that is so far on-the-nose, that it might as well be a pimple-popping procedure. Beyond this, there’s a surprisingly ridiculous amount of light-hearted tracks that fully compromise everything taking place in the integrity of the scene, giving us two moods that are playing against one another in a way that lacks consistency. Sadly enough, the film’s original musical score from Jeff Russo is effective in emitting the proper ambiguity with what’s taking place internally, but is deposited with such minimal volume and emphasis that it never establishes a presence within the picture.

– Shallow writing. Beyond the ridiculousness that I mentioned with the third act feeling so far out of place than the sum of its parts, the pretentiousness of hollow symbolism comes in far too many times during the film, and establishes what the scene is meaning to convey long before the words ever start. One example of this is Lucy owning a terrarium of caterpillars who are remaining prone to their cocoon’s, signifying Lucy’s own metamorphosis. We’ve seen this lone example done a million different times in a million different films, and while it is the worst example of metaphorical response displayed throughout the film, it is far from the only one. The over-saturation of the color blue to the film’s cinematography is used to display her endless bouts with depression. This manages the subtlety of a tank driving through a dynamite factory, and left my eyes tortured in the very same way that the color yellow did for 2016’s “Assassin’s Creed”.

– Visual distractions. I mentioned earlier about the aspect ratio playing an innovative measure in conveying Lucy’s jaded disposition, but almost equally condemning, this gimmick comes with a few transition problems that serve as a distraction to anyone’s investment into the film. Instead of changing ratios with each edit of the film, leaving as little obviousness as possible, there are these jarring moments of ratio transition that happen right before our very eyes, chalking out the obviousness of the nuanced gimmick long before our minds have a chance to seek the answers out for its reasoning. If this happened a time or two, I could easily forgive its abrupt stature, but the way the minimalizing and maximizing surrendered the attention of the screen frequently even in the same scene, felt like a nagging injury is something that almost takes away from the integrity of the gimmick all together.

– Dated special effects. The use of these are subtle enough in the amount that they are called upon, but jarringly obvious in the way they allude to the lack of authenticity from the sequence. In particular, it’s the way that the hue of the object feels so foreign and easily distinguishable from the rest of the lively properties surrounding it, giving the production a cheap rendering of artistic integrity that takes away from an otherwise gripping consistency of gorgeous cinematography. In my opinion, these effects aren’t even necessarily needed considering how little the film focuses on them. It’s unnecessary influences coming from the weakest of executions, and stacks the deck against a movie convinced that it has a humanly grounded approach to its visual and narrative storytelling.

My Grade: 4/10 or D

In the Tall Grass

Directed By Vincenzo Natali

Starring – Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson

The Plot – When siblings Becky (Oliveira) and Cal (Whitted) hear the cries of a young boy (Will Buie Jr) lost within a field of tall grass, they venture in to rescue him, only to become ensnared themselves by a sinister force that quickly disorients and separates them. Cut off from the world and unable to escape the field’s tightening grip, they soon discover that the only thing worse than getting lost is being found.

Rated TV-MA

POSITIVES

– Sharp cinematography. Craig Wrobleski does an outstanding job here not only illustrating the thick and overpowering nature of the grass, but also conjuring up a variety of deep and meaningful shots that really puts the audience in the confines of this environment. Wrobleski offers a combination of overhead and on-the-ground shots that attacks the immensity of this location so thoroughly, all the while maintaining an air of claustrophobia that plays into the urgency and unpredictability of the situation. He does so while emitting a haunted isolation from someone standing outside of the madness that persists inside, turning a bland unintimidating field into an endearing mass of swallowing uncertainty. Thanks to Craig’s standstill execution and a patience in editing consistency, the film is able to construct the setting in a way that makes it believably infinite because of its clever tricks behind the lens, and it solidifies Craig as the single most consistent aspect of the production.

– Surprisingly scary imagery. “In the Tall Grass” isn’t going to be atop anyone’s scariest films of all time list, but for a few short instances there is enough unnerving imagery and riveting tension to make these spare instances memorable through the eyes of the audience. One scene involves the pregnancy of Becky coming to fruition. A scene so hypnotically dark and entrancing that it brought back childhood flashbacks of my psychological trauma associated with seeing “Rosemary’s Baby” for the first time. For a Netflix release, this film certainly ups the bar for mainstream horror releases in a way that forces you to take them seriously, all the while establishing to the audience why true horror doesn’t require cheap and untimely jump scares to sell the ferocity of its product.

– Cleverness. While the set-up for this conflict stretches believability a bit, the attempts at silencing the audience and their skeptibility is something that I commend the film greatly for, in spending valuable time towards debating it. Throughout the film, there are no shortages of protagonist attempts at making the time inside of the grass that much easier, seen through an array of possibilities like grass-bending to create a familiar track, shoulder sitting to see a familiar building to march towards, and sun and moon tracking for directional guidance. All of this is pursued and defeated by the film’s adversity, leaving very few opportunities of escape to be realized by our characters or the audience alike.

– Material’s message. A Stephen King story might be the last thing you’d expect to have such a deep and spiritually connecting message, but that reason is why “In the Tall Grass” has always preserved itself as one of the more reflective stories within King’s library that people can connect with. Through a series of repetition based on choices, the story is trying to convey that humans have many choices to do things different based on their experiences, challenging them to see and spot things differently when the next chance arises. Because of such, there’s plenty of heart-wrenchingly endearing moments in the film, when the roads of triumph and tragedy cross paths briefly, and grants our protagonists several second chances that most people don’t ever get. It is a bit meandering towards the pacing and urgency of the film, but I would rather the material giving me some semblance of connective tissue for me to invest in, and “In the Tall Grass” does this by the dozen, in its own Stephen King-ish way.

NEGATIVES

– Stilted performances. Outside of Patrick Wilson getting to play a dirtier character than we typically associate him with, the rest of the unknown cast was every bit as unconvincing emotionally as they were unlikeable personally. Some characters are stupid and illogical with their movements, some are fleshed out to be completely horrible people, and some completely lack the emotional resonance instilled with such a serious situation. The moments that are supposed to be splashed with fear and paranoia are reduced to the kind of emotional conflict associated with a mosquito landing on their skin, and it left me generally uninterested for how underwhelming their registry left me unsatisfied.

– Stretched material. The book that this movie is based on is a mere 60 pages in length, so to stretch this out to a 90 minute feature length film, many problems would arise. For one, the film, even at 90 minutes, is far too long. 80 minutes would be enough to satisfy me while reaching the bare minimum of what’s defied as a feature length runtime. The second problem is the pacing within the film, which runs through roughly the first two-thirds of the book within the first 25 minutes of the film. If it slows down and harvests more of that first night positivity that persists within the desire to get out, then the film can better document the change in atmosphere and attitude, further fleshing out the performances in a way that also cures my first problem with the film. The pacing for this film is completely arduous, and never finds its rhythm within the proper progress of the story, limiting its appeal both to fans and non-fans of the book, for their own respectively different reasons.

– Book changes. Speaking of the short story that I fell in love with, the movie takes the safe route with the material up until about the halfway point, when a series of demeaning decisions leaves it feeling so unfamiliar from the story it’s based on. For this film, there are too many characters. Why this is a problem is because it limits the helplessness of the protagonists, all the while omitting isolation completely from the conflict of the story. The next problem comes with the abandonment of certain important characters for the progression of others. This not only feels like a betrayal of the people who we were brought into the story with, but also rewrites the ending in a way that didn’t measure up to the one I enjoyed in the book. I completely understand adding to a story this minimal, but the decisions made gave this story an unnecessary facelift that took more displeasing liberties than I would’ve preferred.

– Underwhelming sound mixing. This isn’t normally a problem that I would call out unless it was painfully obvious to the integrity of the film, but considering the gimmick in this book is sounds being distorted and heard from changing directions, the lack of such in the film feels like a missed opportunity in immersing the audience in the experience of the characters. Far too often, characters have to describe to us the audience the direction where the voice is coming from, and I feel like the movie’s gimmick would’ve hit even more effectively if that problem never existed in the first place. I even watched this film while wearing headphones, and the lack of emphasis given to sporadic audio was probably the most disappointing aspect of the adaptation for me personally, and dropped the ball in creating something original to stand among King’s other adaptations.

– Unanswered questions. There is no shortage of these within the confines of this movie. The film’s closing moments alone stand as a reminder of a total underdeveloped lack of exposition left unfulfilled throughout, as so much changes within such a short amount of time, and there’s no explanation for it. Particularly with the rock itself, its powers are mostly cryptic, leaving no explanation even remotely for how any of this is even remotely possible. Then there’s the church being placed across the road from the field. Is the church meant to be a metaphor for hope, or empty promises of salvation? Is the field itself a symbol for the saddest corners of our subconscious? These are the questions I found myself asking during some of the more uneventful stretches of the film, but there were no answers or directions to be found anywhere. I guess the excuse that is going to reside in everyone who watches this is “Well…..magic??”. Too much time wasted on the characters, and too little on the world-building of the environment, leaving us as blinded by what transpires as the characters embattled in the heat of the situation.

– Staggering direction. Natali as a director is someone who I credited immensely for his psychology instilled in the cult favorite “Cube”, but his total lack of imagination or illustration here for the total lack of emphasis on the rules is something that dooms him almost immediately. The shallowness of the plotting is unnervingly frustrating from the start, as Natali directs each scene with all the clarity of a broken compass. He’s a master of atmosphere, and has no trouble insinuating all sorts of hidden dangers to the fear of the audience, but there’s nothing enjoyable about watching people try to solve a puzzle that doesn’t have any firm rules set in stone (See what I did there?). In fact, its repetition is twice the problem, as in this instance it’s the same wash, rinse, repeat formula that its characters, nor its audience can ever overcome in moments of utter boredom. If King and Natali can’t save this film, what in imagination rightfully could?

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

Gemini Man

Directed By Ang Lee

Starring – Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen

The Plot – A retiring assassin, Henry Brogan (Smith), finds himself pursued by a mysterious killer (Also Smith) that can predict his every move. Discovering that he’s being hunted by a younger clone of himself, Henry needs to find out why he’s being targeted and who the creator is.

Rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Jaw-dropping special effects. Obviously the major gimmick for the movie is the value of two Will Smith’s for the price of one, and while this gimmick within cinema is certainly nothing fresh or ground-breaking, the effects used to realize this perk are done with an air of believability and de-aging that really makes audiences do a double take quite frequently. The movements in fighting are crisp, the facial resonation shows no chips in the armor of continuity, and the camera work done by Lee doesn’t require gimmick shots, like personal vantage points, to hide its obviousness. There are plenty of scenes with both sides of Smith in frame, providing plenty of fuel for the conflictual fire that burns stronger the longer the movie progresses.

– Cinematography choices. Lee adopted the 120 frame rate during the less-than stellar “Billy Lee’s Halftime Show”, and has brought it along to “Gemini Man”, perfecting it in a way that adds big stakes and geographical flare to the action genre. Considering most movies are shot on a 24 frames per second rate, the expansion of focus allows something to constantly transpire in the background, all the while our main cast is conversing in the foreground. It gives the scenes an air of authenticity that within the many people and places revolving around our story, and conjures up no shortage of breathtakingly globe-trotting scenery to chew on along the way. In addition to this, the decision to film everything with 3D cameras is one that pays off immensely for the eye-popping detail of people and objects flying across the lens in real time. This is one of those rare cases where seeing a movie in 3D will offer an immersive quality to what’s transpiring, instilling a justification on this element alone to pay a few extra bucks to see it on the biggest and brightest screen that you can.

– Thrilling set pieces. The action in the movie is done with very little torque on the shaky-cam permanency that has become a cliche stable within modern day action films, giving us plenty of depiction and unabashed focus to what’s transpiring within the fast-paced heat of the scene. Thanks to the high frame rate that I previously mentioned, the fight choreography is slightly sped up, giving the clone an inhuman quality to his movements that make him easily distinguishable from the protagonist Smith that we follow through this journey. Continuing this positive is the space that Lee gives his actors to thrive far away from the camera. There are very few tight or claustrophobic angles in the movie, instead settling for a wide angle depiction that greatly caters to what audiences can see approaching in the background. These perks in turn allow the actors to succeed on their own physical performances without relying on cheap tricks to enhance their believability, and giving us a collection of enthralling action that boils the urgency to a kettle-blowing climax.

– Smooth pacing. This script wastes very little time setting the pieces in motion, as well as getting to understand what makes our protagonist such an advantage to the corporation that is out to kill him. Opening with a scene where Henry is hired to assassinate a shady businessman, we learn that he is every bit precise in his area of expertise as he is remorseful to the skills that he has attained in decades of this service. It perfectly sets the stage for what’s to come in 107 minutes of screen time, all along the way leaving very few moments of downtime between delightful characters and continued ambiguity in mystery that keeps audiences glued to the screen. There’s very little that I would cut from the finished product, and even plenty more exposition that I would add to certain respective subplots, which I will get to later.

– Sturdy performances. Smith pulling double duty here does so with a varying degree of personalities and persistence that establishes that while these two men look the same, they are anything but inside. As Henry, Smith still engages us with the warm charm that we’ve come to indulge in from one of Hollywood’s most notorious leading men of the past twenty years, but it’s his finger on the pulse of being an action icon that still resonates within his weathered exterior. It’s proof that Smith is still a reputable vehicle in selling a movie, and that even at the age of 51, he still doesn’t sleep through any performances. In addition to Smith, Masterson is equally charming as a spy with an agenda of her own. The two have great chemistry together on-screen, but it’s Mary’s cunning intelligence and anxious confidence in execution that is really the prime story here, etching her out as anyone other than a damsel in distress role that we would expect in a movie with such 90’s action similarities.

NEGATIVES

– Weak antagonist. How is Clive Owen the worst part of any movie? This sad-but-true revelation comes in the form of laughably bad dialogue, a complete lack of human emotional detection, and an overall lack of screen exposition sent on the character that practically reduces him to a supporting role. On a logic perspective, this character might as well be wearing a white lab coat with spiked hair and glasses to complete the mad scientist that the movie so prominently wants him to be. On top of this, the final conflict between good and bad comes and goes with so little stakes or amplification of struggle between the respective side. It outlines a performance for Owen that I know he would love to forget ever happened, and wastes the most reputable actor in the cast with a role so rudimentary that even the movie can’t be bothered to waste valuable minutes of screen time on.

– Weak mystery. This is a very predictable film, and a lot of that is a combination of poor marketing with an overly-revealing trailer, and confusing mental framing within the movie that really grants no favors on the intelligence of our protagonists. Even after multiple confrontations where Smith’s Henry sees the face of his pursuer, it still takes him and Masterson nearly fifty minutes of investigation and script time to realize that this is a clone of himself. That may sound like a spoiler to those of you reading this, but the movie’s trailer even reveals this fact in both of the ones produced to sell the movie. So it’s that aspect within a film where the audience are constantly one step ahead, instead of vice versa, leading us to several instances where I was practically screaming for the characters to catch up to what is so prominently evident. It’s sold as a mystery, but never one to the people that matter the most; us.

– Cheesy dialogue. It’s everywhere in this film, and not always the fault of Smith or his forced humor bone that is brought to light in every movie he’s in. Instead, the lines written by five different writers often alienates the complexion of the tone within the film, trying desperately to give us personality within a movie that is anything but. Some lines are spoon-fed exposition that are completely obvious, some are horrendously underwhelming comical gags, and the worst are these cringing one-liners that play into the twin gimmick, similar to 1997’s “Face-Off”. There are many examples, but my favorite is during the first scene when Smith and Masterson meet, and he says “You grow to hate the man you see staring back at you in the mirror”. This is so on-the-nose that it might as well hit it with a lead pipe, and ruins so many serious scenes of urgency with this obvious layer of 90’s cheese that is unintentionally humorous.

– Underdeveloped subplots. For every positive that comes with smooth pacing, there’s a few different negatives that materialize because of complete lack of time donated to subplot progression. For one, Smith’s Henry constantly mentions the anxiety of sleepless nights, yet we see him sleep two different times throughout the film. Perhaps if there was even a single dream sequence scene that served as the ghosts of the past haunting him, then we would further believe and empathize with the darkness that supposedly clouds him. Besides this, there’s certainly a father/fatherless subplot that the film obviously has something to speak on, but the lack of focus and contrasting sides to fruitfully solidify this angle loses far too much in translation for the movie to successfully garner any element of deep emotional tissue to connect with audiences. This is where Owen’s character could come into play much more frequently, but instead we are treated to a one-off scene that is easily my favorite of the movie, but required so much more to play into the nature versus nurture debate that the film was pointing to.

– Script inconsistencies. Once you start thinking more about the rules instilled in this movie between the twin gimmick, you start to realize more problems that transpired because of it. We are told about halfway through the movie that Henry’s clone Junior knows Henry’s every move, and does so without feeling any of the pain of emotional weight that comes with assassinating people. The first lie comes in the form of the mental similarity, where there is far too much landing offense to believe that these two are one and the same. The second deals with that lack of empathy that Junior supposedly has, yet almost every single scene (I’m not kidding) that he comes into during the movie, he’s noticeably crying. But wait, I thought he had all of the skill of Henry without any of the feeling that comes with such a profession? If a movie can’t even stick to the rules of its own gimmick, then it has failed itself long before the rest of the movie can, and “Gemini Man” is an example of all style with very little substance to equal it.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Ad Astra

Directed By James Gray

Starring – Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Directed By Jon Watts

Starring – Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal

The Plot – Our friendly neighborhood Super Hero (Holland) decides to join his best friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) , MJ (Zendaya), and the rest of the gang on a European vacation. However, Peter’s plan to leave super heroics behind for a few weeks are quickly scrapped when he begrudgingly agrees to help Nick Fury (Jackson) uncover the mystery of several elemental creature attacks, creating havoc across the continent!

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some adult language and brief suggestive comments

POSITIVES

– Maturity of a script. As a tie-over from the previous installment, the film still feels very enriched in this teenage romantic comedy direction that just so happens to take place in a superhero universe, and while this tone was consistently satisfying for me, the film’s evolution during the second half as this cautionary tale for technology heightened my interest for where this film would take us. It certainly didn’t disappoint, as the social commentary of becoming too vulnerable in the devices that guide our every day occasions, as well as difficulty in distinguishing what’s real and what’s manufactured news is something that resonates ever so soundly in the current day landscape of our own political stratosphere. Like Peter, this is a film that matures as it ages, and in turn Marvel maintains the fantasy of a superhero dynamic with this unnerving echo of a world not too far from our own, conjuring up a balance that harvests this very lived-in feeling of patented world building.

– The difference. If there’s one thing that Spider-Man films in this version of the M.C.U does better than its company, it’s the inspiring camera work on-and-off the ground that bring to life the movement of its characters full circle. In this installment, we get a series of long-take, no-cut shots for sequences involving Peter with a pivotal character. These intended delves not only amaze us in the youthful cast’s capabilities in memorizing long exchanges of dialogue, but also allude to the real time that is playing out before Peter’s very eyes that he often doesn’t get enough time to live inside of. To contrast this, the flying and web slinging sequences attain a level of calculated introversion that maximizes the height of the danger without sacrificing the audience’s ability to follow the events of the scenes with their eyes. The editing is used only when necessary, and the POV camera gimmicks aren’t nearly as depended on as they were in “Homecoming”, an aspect that pleases an easily motion-sick moviegoer like myself wholeheartedly.

– Musical Michael. Music continues to be a character in these Spider-Man films, but this time their inclusion feels very much absorbing in attaining the geographical designation that the film often switches up. Because this is a film that takes us through many diverse cultures in country, composer Michael Giacchino wastes no time tuning us into the very pulse of these rich locations with a score that audibly tells the story. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice instruments used during particular scenes that radiate the flavor that we’re used to in our understanding of the environment, and in addition to this the soundtrack itself of assorted pop culture favorites are inserted at the most opportune time to really make them pop. Some of my favorites involve New York-heavy artist The Ramones to channel that big apple state of mind, as well as one of my favorite 80’s tracks “Vacation” by The Go-Go’s narrating through a series of vacation photo stills for the film’s end credit sequence that establishes an infectious vibe that makes it difficult to say you didn’t have a fun time.

– Twists. Many people, including myself, had theories heading into this film, and while I did accurately predict nearly everything that transpired on-screen, it was really where the film took it after the twist that I truly didn’t expect. Without spoiling anything, there was a distinct feeling that I had when this occurred that gave me unnerving chills towards “Iron Man 3”, a film nearly ruined by its direction of an unexpected twist, and while the charms of a gimmick are slowly evaporated in this film alike, the grounded progression associated brought forth an antagonist that was not only easy to invest in and understand, but also brought forth much needed weight to a very localized threat when compared to what these films have faced in dangerous adversity. What I truly loved was this earned feeling of paranoia that persists from within Peter, casting great vulnerability for a character who usually overcomes by expressing his personality. That’s really taken away here, and brings forth an antagonist who succeeds not because of an empathetic backstory, but because of the sharpness of intellect that brings forth power that we surprisingly haven’t yet seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

– Strong leads. Tom Holland continues to amaze, balancing the two sides of this character that no actor has completely enveloped before him. As Peter, Holland very much wraps himself in the awkwardness and nervousness of being a teenager, and we’re treated to a series of firsts for the character that might as well be home movies levels of revealing for his usual code of armor. As Spider-Man, Holland feels every bit believable in combat as he does evolving as a superhero. Throughout the film, the character is forced to deal with these imposing expectations that everyone has for him, and it better fleshed out a performance for Tom that competently articulates those needle-inducing levels of anxiety that all teens must live up to in one way or another. Also great are turns from Zendaya, and especially Jake Gyllenhaal as one of my favorite characters in the Spider-Man universe, Mysterio. On the former, Zendaya’s version of Mary Jane very much soaks in the ideals for women of the time, delivering on a character who is weird, guarded, intelligent, and especially cool. Like “Homecoming”, it took me a while to warm up to her, but I found myself falling for the uniqueness and originality of her version of M.J in the same vein that Peter does, and the chemistry that exists between them accurately moves through the motions of teenage romance to a lump-in-the-throat tee. Gyllenhaal is spectacular in this role, chewing through enough scenery in the scene to make him an unshakeable presence even in a scene that doesn’t include him. He’s one of those characters you just can’t wait to get back to, and while I loved the scenes where he’s the new Tony Stark of sorts to Peter’s open void, Jake’s work when he’s in action really dazzles the complexity of his character’s abilities.

– Costume design. The combination of practical and computer generated are married seamlessly here, sketching an eye for transition in believability that were practically lifted from the pages of a comic book. For Spidey, we get not one suit, but four different ones, taking us through the genius of Tony Stark’s attention to detail. Most of the suit’s movements and artificial shine are obviously manufactured, but there’s no substitute for the grandeur associated with a new suit reveal, that if you’re watching closely will take you through the past, present, and future of Spider-Man sheik. On the material side of design, Mysterio’s suit, especially his neon armor, is possibly my favorite of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Considering how fantastical his suit is in the comics, it’s remarkable what the production team is able to accomplish here, giving us pride that for once a better suit wasn’t make on the Comic Con floor by an adoring fan.

– Crisp pacing. For a film that exceeds the two hour mark (Barely), the surprise of a film that breezes through left me yearning for more. For me, this doesn’t happen often in superhero movies, especially ones where the events from start to finish take us through so much complexity, but the screenplay’s ability to value the two sides of the Parker dynamic respectively equal is enough to pay-off for fans of every Peter spectrum, giving us possibly the single easiest sequel to watch to date. What helps even more is that the film’s strength for me is the second half, elaborating that “Far From Home” will only get better the deeper you invest into it. Along the way, there’s no shortage of valuable action set pieces, intoxicating dialogue that reaches for the one laugh a scene ratio, and alluring characters, lead and supporting, whom we don’t think two hours with is ever enough to satisfy our pallets for them.

– Post credit scenes. NO SPOILERS HERE, but I wanted to mention them because for once BOTH scenes are important not only in the future of Marvel installments, but also for the degree of permanence that exists because of them. The first reminds me of a John Wick direction for Spider-Man that hints that darker days are certainly ahead for the integrity of the character, and the second proves that our once conventional world of occupants will no longer be the same after the Endgame has come and gone. In the past, post-credit Marvel scenes don’t always bat a thousand, in fact, it’s become quite expected that one of these scenes will be a snoozer, but thanks to urgency associated with getting this second volume of the M.C.U off of the ground, the necessity to grab the attention of audiences ensures them that despite so many losses on-screen, the integrity of the name Marvel will still persist in telling a whole new collection of stories involving diverse characters.

NEGATIVES

– Exposition dumping. There are many examples throughout the film where the need to explain too much overwhelms the sequence that accompanies it, making them feel like manufactured inserts instead of this rich level of authenticity that if done right will feel like natural conversation. I point particularly to the big twist scene as the shining example, where the film halts progress to explain far too much about what has transpired to get here, but there’s a collection of scenes like this during the first act that tie itself a bit too tightly to Endgame before allowing itself to break free on this new chapter of life that Marvel is headed towards. I feel that the exposition could spread itself out a little easier to reach its intended purpose, but what we’re left with are a couple of scenes that drown on a bit too long, and are a bit alluding to perfectly tie them in a neat bow for audiences who have difficulty paying attention.

– Same problems. As is the case with an on-going cinematic universe, this film has the same lack of believability that other superheroes wouldn’t come to the rescue to stand alongside their favorite web-slinging superhero, and take down the powerful nemesis. It’s mentioned early on where the big guns like Thor and Captain Marvel are at that particular moment, but what about the other Avengers? What about Hawkeye? What about War Machine? I find it difficult to believe that this madness is transpiring in a major place like Paris, and no one is catching wind of it? In addition to this, convenient plot devices like Stark’s glasses being introduced exactly one scene before Peter needs to wipe away a picture on a phone is clumsy to say the least, but still persist in a world with too many coincidences to feel engulfed in reality. Likewise, the more that I start thinking about the villain’s gimmick with technology, the less it makes sense in all measures of gravity. Can a movie playing on a projection screen touch or cause damage to objects around it?

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Men In Black: International

Directed By F. Gary Gray

Starring – Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Rebecca Ferguson

The Plot – The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest, most global threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some adult language and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Intricacy in action set pieces. While a majority of the backgrounds and action sequence designs are of computer generation descent, the vibrations of their use, as well as a slick, fast paced presentation, makes for an infectious dynamic that often feels too enthralling to not get lost in. The fight choreography here is top notch, but it’s really the energetic use of choppy editing used in a positive light that really kept my eyes glued to the screen, and kept the consistency of urgency locked firmly into the heat of the moment between the two sides in battle. If this film does one thing better than its predecessors, it’s in the way it incorporates the action side into the Science Fiction genre, balancing enough restrain through nearly two hours, then paying off in spades once the stakes get raised.

– Star studded cast. Everything from the fluffy cameos of Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, and Rebecca Ferguson, to the dominance of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, works here, and kept me hooked into the meat of the story where the screenplay often failed it. The chemistry between Chris and Tessa definitely holds over from its charms from two Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and the tease of romance between their characters without fully committing to its cliche reverence is something I greatly appreciated from their dynamic, perhaps leaving room for movement in future installments. Thompson commands a combination of cerebral intelligence, child-like innocence, and a sense of overall pride that burns from the sense of style that she emits from the character. Likewise, Hemsworth continues his comic precision with this slacker mentality that works as the perfect counteract to his rock-hard studly features, giving the audience enough reminder why he will never be limited to just one drama, all the while etching out a character that surprisingly does distance itself from the familiarity of Thor that I was expecting.

– World building. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the MIB franchise is the use of gadgets that breeds charm in arms within a series of films that are four-deep at this point, yet still find ways to astonish in this respect. The typical Cadillac used by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is traded in for a fine line of Lexus land and air attack, like the QZ 618 Galactic Enforcer helicoptor, or the RC.F automobile that preserves a comical side of British craftsmanship. In addition to this, the introduction of all-chrome weaponry and where it sprouts from adds great integral value not only to the vehicle itself, but also to the automobile creativity that derives from their designs. Nothing feels too far-fetched, nor redundant when compared to the other tools of the trade from previous films, and cements the idea that the Men In Black are still at the cusp of arms advancement to better contend with outside world adversity.

– Distancing. This is the hardest sell for fans of the original trilogy, but I commend this film greatly for barely mentioning the events of those previous films, and choosing to blaze its own trail of originality within this secretive world. This allows the film to never feel restrained or conventional from those that came before it, all the while conjuring up this mystery that, for the first time ever, someone within the bureau has deceived them. I also feel that the long distance setting of London and Paris in the film better helps in the distancing, outlining a whole new line of rules and etiquette for the geographic setting that better serves and establishes the supporting characters surrounding the black suits. It would be easy for a sequel to save time and energy with re-heating the same room temperature gags and directions that worked more times than not in early editions, but screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway extend the lifespan for this series by nearly pressing reset on everything we’ve come to know and expect, and it leads to a sequel that creatively feels like the first fresh one of the entire franchise.

– Pacing. Even for nearly two hours long, the film never lagged or stalled for my investment into it, despite me having zero interest in it heading into it. This is not only a testament to the energy in chemistry between Hemsworth and Thompson that I mentioned earlier, but also in the ever-changing geography of the film, that vibrantly feeds into the big world international feel of the MIB promotion. There’s this breezy consistency in scene transitions that keeps the story firmly on its toes, and leaves so little of downtime between scenes of valued exposition, where a screenplay typically loses half of its audience. This was as easy of a two hour sit that I’ve been through this entire year, and while the movie does have a lot of problems in its structure, it’s impossible for me to say that I didn’t at least have fun with the way I fell in love with these characters.

NEGATIVES

– No established villain. Are there antagonists in the movie? Yes, but my biggest problem is that because of the restraints of a weak whodunnit? the villain characters just kind of hang in the balance until their inevitable confrontations with the heroes comes to fruition. This is especially tragic for Ferguson, who we are fortunate enough to see don a Cleopatra wig and free-flowing gown, yet unfortunate enough to only get around ten minutes with her in the entire film. In addition to this, there are twin characters who are on the trail for a mysterious jewel (What else is new?), but never receive any kind of time or exposition to further sell the impact of their invasion. This is again another case of too many cooks in the kitchen, as the work of dual screenwriters and many antagonists feels like a virtual hodgepodge of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, and for a film’s underlying urgency, there’s essentially none in this installment.

– Texture of computer generation. While I did enjoy the weight established from C.G character properties in the film, the designs and vibrancy of their designs counteracted the work of some exceptionally done cinematography from Stuart Dryburgh. Even if intentional, there’s this visually jarring glow emanating from all hollow properties, giving scenes these very distracting and uncomfortably ugly circumstances that not only doesn’t match the boldness in tone from previous movies, but also constantly reminded me of the missed opportunity that this film could’ve attained from make-up and prosthetics work that could’ve earned it awards recognition. This is easily my least offensive problem within the film, but it’s something that came up frequently throughout, and gave off this cheap feeling of quality from the very same company that has visually rendered Spider-Man since 2002.

– Irritating sound design. Here comes the critic in me. Scenes like the one that takes place in the club in this film are ones that standout like a midget hooker in a WNBA game. In this scene, the two MIB agents can communicate with an alien in a club that features loud blaring music by softly talking to them while standing five feet away. Considering I can’t hear what they’re saying, I find it difficult to believe that the characters in the film can either, and these scenes always drive me nuts in a movie where loud music is bombastic. Speaking of bombastic, the overall musical score from Chris Bacon, with traces from Danny Elfman’s original score, are very much effective in delivering the heat of the moment, but are blared at such ear-shattering levels that it gave me a headache only twenty minutes in. If you watch this movie in a theater, maybe do it in one with lesser sound qualities than your big-budget multiplex, because the will of some ruthless asshole in the studio is responsible for this ringing in my ears that seems to be growing louder as I type this.

– Weak comedy. If not for the commitment to the craft that Hemsworth gives in shedding his pretty boy persona, the gag material in the film would fail at any and every opportunity possible. The twisted dark humor puns that we’ve come to expect from Men In Black movies are still there, but the line deliveries of conventional comic set-ups land with the kind of power of an ear-hair trimmer, and it fails so bad that it made me forget that this film was ever deemed partly a comedy in the first place. I blame part of this on predictable punchlines, but so much more can be said for limitations felt by its rating that doesn’t test or stretch PG-13 concepts even in the slightest. Don’t go to this movie to laugh, because you’ll be sadly disappointed, and it will only serve as further reminder how terribly this film misses the energetic charm of Will Smith.

– Telegraphed mystery. I figured this out almost immediately after the subplot of a mole in the MIB was introduced to the film, and the film certainly does no favors in making this even remotely climatic for its influence on the rest of the story. Besides the fact that it hardly mentions it again or teases it besides the beginning and end of its mystery, the fact that there are only two lasting characters to the film outside of our central two protagonists (Who it’s obviously not), increases your chances to 50% of getting it right. One of which would be so obvious that it wouldn’t be a mystery at all, so who does it leave? It’s an equation so elementary that a fifth grader could do it on a napkin, and such a disappointment to an aspect of screenplay that should be the enveloping paranoia that is breaking this elusive group apart at the seams.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Directed By Simon Kinberg

Starring – James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Godzilla: King of Monsters

Directed By Michael Dougherty

Starring – Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler

The Plot – The new story follows the heroic efforts of the cryptozoological agency Monarch as its members face off against a battery of god sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three headed King Ghidorah. When these ancient superspecies, thought to be mere myths, rise again, they all vie for supremacy, leaving humanity’s very existence hanging in the balance.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some adult language

POSITIVES

– Articulate computer generation. All of your favorite Toho monsters return to the silver screen, and are each given an upgrade in rendering that brings out the true diversity and grand scale in each character design. Godzilla is not only as big as he’s ever been in size and strength, but the rough texture that tells the stories of the various wars he has been through, compliments the gigantic lizard in ways that immediately capture your attention and intimidation of him in all of his god-like presence. In addition to this, most of the movie is computer generation, and what worried me about that initially was the loss of weight being diminished in artificiality, but thankfully the devastation feels every bit as thunderous as it does expansive, giving us the same kind of colossal damage that we all grew up loving, for half of the price and physical labor going into making and destroying live action sets. It gives the events in the film an air of permanence on a global scale that logically will make this easily the most difficult to clean up from of all of the Godzilla franchise.

– Bear with me. Music composer Bear McCreery steals our audible attention seamlessly with a scintillating musical score that pays tribute to classic Godzilla chords, all the while distorting the music in a way that creates something completely fresh and unique from the ages old piece. Godzilla’s main theme is of course heard a couple of times throughout the film, but it’s after those initial familiar intro notes where the track evolves to paying homage to the art in motion that we are seeing displayed before our very eyes. McCreery manages to capture the true wonderment and astonishing nature of the character, echoing his invasion to these scenes with operatic levels of volume that practically forces audience members to the edge of their seats for the brutality that is sure to follow. Also intriguing is a collaboration that Bear has with System of a Down front-man Serj Tankian, in covering the classic Blue Oyster Cult stadium anthem “Godzilla” for post movie credit sequence. In total, the music plays a pivotal role in amplifying the tension and drama of the moment, and establishes an influence by Bear that is every bit as immense as the movie’s title protagonist.

– A surprise behind every corner. I knew of the first three or four celebrities who were in this film, but I had quite literally no idea the depth of big name personalities that make up one of the best collective ensembles in a disaster movie ever. What’s gratifying is that none of them are a temporary cameo, sticking around for the entirety of the movie to give this installment a higher value of caliber than we’re rightfully used to from this otherwise hokey franchise. I will choose not to spoil any of the names, but for my money the supporting cast is what kept me constantly intrigued into the movie, and the main character’s dominance of the screenplay did them zero favors in gaining popularity the longer you spend with them, and it’s nice to know that Godzilla’s timeless influence rings true for even some of Hollywood’s most elite actors and actresses, as they simply can’t turn down a chance to act in infamy.

NEGATIVES

– Same shit, different day. The very same problem that I had in 2014’s “Godzilla” exists in this sequel, but made even worse for the longer run time that completely fries the pacing with its choices in direction. Once again, this is Godzilla’s movie, but humans and unlimited long-winded series of exposition scenes make up roughly 90% of its 127 minute run time, complicating a film so easy to construct that even the trailers did it for them. When I say that I didn’t like the human character’s in this movie, I’m not embellishing slightly. They are every bit as stupid in their actions as they are deceitful in their morals, and being forced to spend scene after scene with each of them became increasingly frustrating when all I wanted to see what exciting monster collisions with carnage chaos to spread. We are told during the film that there are 17 monsters scattered all across the globe, but because Godzilla becomes a supporting character in his own movie, we really only passionately follow four of those monsters in the foreground, and it’s a humiliating missed opportunity for all of the hardcore fans of the series to see their favorite character with a modern rendering.

– Too much humor. The dialogue in this film isn’t just meandering, it’s down right humiliating in regards to how it chops the urgency and seriousness of the situation each time a character opens their mouths to say something cute. The only other Godzilla film that I can compare this stance to is 1998’s “Godzilla”, a failure on nearly every aspect of technical filmmaking that many fans have chosen to forget its existence. You can’t tell me this banter is any different, as the commentary coming from this crew of class clowns feels a bit too protected in their ivory towers to truly soak in the tragedy that exists on the ground, reminding me of those 2000’s VH1 shows, where a bunch of comedians are brought in to tell jokes towards an internet video playing in real time. Not only did I find this direction counterfeit of the story taking place around it, but it also felt childish for the very laughs that the lines reach for in some truly hideous deliveries, that feel so out of place to the previous film’s serious demeanor.

– Disgusting cinematography. Another continued problem from the first film are these darkly colored, shaky-cam frames that make it so difficult to focus firmly on any of the fight choreography transpiring. With the exception of the movie’s final battle, the previous three are a smoke-filled, never-ending rainout of cluttered catastrophe, that often make it feel like you’re riding Godzilla’s back for how chaotic everything appears. The shakey-camera effect was fine in 1998, when “Saving Private Ryan” perfected it in a way that took nothing away from what registered, but in 2019 imitators are still conjuring up new ways to make you run to the bathroom in motion sickness delirium. At least the finale fight pulls back a hair in its otherwise tightly claustrophobic angles, but the damage of character building physical exposition for a new generation is done, soiling in the process anything of rarity or uniqueness about these monsters to make them stand out.

– Stupid story. This is typical for Godzilla movies, but I can’t give a pass to a world existing beyond the screen where I’m smarter than every single character that exists in it. SPOILERS YOU’VE BEEN WARNED. The main idea behind unleashing these monsters is that one character believes they will fix the problems caused by humans. BY KILLING THEM ALL? How will we be around to reap the benefits of this reward? Beyond this, problems with logic involved an electronic machine getting drenched in rain, yet not malfunctioning at the very least, a barrage of particles flying at a group of characters, where not one rock or wooden board hits them anywhere on the body, a child being able to access government run operations and programs, and suits being worn by some characters because of the radiation being distributed into the air, yet others going as far as touching said creature without even a raincoat on. I get that these movies are stupid goodness that you turn your brain off and watch, but when a film is trying to be overly preachy about the real problems we face in our own real world, it’s difficult for me to afford it the courtesy of being naive when the movie asks for it. You built a world reflective of our own, so you simply can’t overlook the tremendous holes of logic in the way your story plays out.

– Contradicting directions. It’s hard to decide what kind of tone Dougherty seeks to attain in the film when aspects of the script don’t mesh well with others in creating one cohesive narrative. As I mentioned earlier, there is an overwhelming amount of humor from the dialogue, yet a serious attention given to the trio of performances by Chandler, Farmiga, and Brown. There’s an attentive focus to political commentary on humans being the real monsters, yet a story driven narrative that is painfully contained and limited because it begins and ends because of one family’s stupid decisions. This is a film creatively that is experiencing an identity crisis, thanks in part to five different screenwriters having a hand in its fate feeling like five different directions, and if it managed to settle down and establish a layer of consistency for longer than three scenes, the accomplishment of a continuous pace of tone would feel concrete, but “King of the Monsters” endlessly searches for a direction that it never comfortably finds, and takes so much away from the weight of what’s on the line in so much tragedy.

– Lack of character. The consequences of bare minimum character exposition and a total lack of family interaction throughout shows through the seams here, and the result is a collection of people who we the audience find great difficulty in grabbing onto, especially considering the thoughtless, selfish decisions that they are making for the rest of us. For my money, I could’ve accepted losing any of these characters, and it not having one ounce of heft on my conscience towards the story, and that’s a problem when you’re thrusting these humans in a situation so unlike anything that they’ve ever experienced before, and asking us the audience to invest in them because big bad monsters are everywhere. Godzilla is in this movie maybe a collective twenty minutes, and I cared more for him when he suffered pain of any kind. He’s a computer generated lizard who is a constant danger to anyone beneath him. Yep, that’s the kind of fleshing out that we get in this film.

– Messy editing. Mainly on the value of continuity in scene-to-scene transition, the film fumbles in cohesive visual storytelling, that otherwise makes for unintentionally humorous scenes of shattered continuity that prove more directing incompetence. There are scenes of Brown’s hair being tied one second, and down in the next, scenes where character’s magically transport from one part of a ship to the other in the next frame, and an overall consistency in splicing that feels far too intrusive at all of the wrong moments. The fight scenes in a particular have far too many cuts, especially considering this is the Godzilla franchise, a series known for its long takes of choreography during fight sequences. The post production on this film is underwhelming to say the least, and proves that no care went into the consistency of the film, for which there is none with regards to gaining momentum to carry over the pacing of the film’s two hour plus run time.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

Brightburn

Directed By David Yarovesky

Starring – Elizabeth Banks, Jackson A. Dunn, David Denman

The Plot – What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?

Rated R for horror violence/bloody images, and adult language.

POSITIVES

– Beauty in the darkness. As an expressive visionary, Cinematographer Michael Dallatorre has always been someone who visually brings forth an entrancing pulse to the settings and filming locations that make up his lurid shot compositions, but “Brightburn” is easily his best work to date. Channeling an ambiguous decay in coloring textures, which brings forth an inexplainable fog that constantly plagues our character’s, the film does what D.C couldn’t, in that it seeks out motive for the grittier, grimey presentation that is easily reflective of its central antagonist. Movies being dark for the hell of it are often taking advantage of a visual gimmick for nothing other than a brooding take on an ages old story, but Dallatorre grasps this poison in the air that many can feel, yet no one can admit, and it establishes a vibe for this film from the get-go that visually conveys that this superhero flick goes darker than any other one you’ve ever seen.

– Ties to Superman. This film has been credited as being James Gunn’s dark twist on the Superman origin relic that everyone young or old has come to know by this point, and while the similarities in alien powers and adoptive parents certainly goes a long way to cement this feeling, it’s the divided roads with the powers that each superhero has that makes this film stand-out as a ‘What if?’ tale of sorts, that brings Superman to The Twilight Zone. The kid in this film being too young to fully grasp the consequences of his powers is something that gives the movie great vulnerability and urgency for all of its character’s, and because of such we’re juxtaposed from a world seeking hope in Metropolis, to a world quickly losing it in Brightburn. It answers some long debated questions revolving around Superman taking the road less traveled, and stands as a worse case scenario when the world’s greatest strength is also its biggest destruction.

– Isolation in setting. This, just like the comparison to Superman, is inevitable, as the stretched countryside of this small town not only puts the character’s far away from the eye of the public when the devastation begins, which helps keep the lid on the details getting out, but also helps elevate the tension and anxiety of the constant silence that surrounds the curiosity of these people from what goes bump in the night. In addition to this, the nane of the town itself, “Brightburn”, is the answer to the question, as its banner is featured in a few blink-and-miss-it moments in the background, that play a subtle resolution to the film’s cryptic title. Finally, the school used in the film is actually the very same school used in “Stranger Things” seasons one and two, proving that other-worldly things is actually a common everyday occurrence for a place known for its curriculum terrors.

– Adolescent dynamic. One of the aspects of the script that I found so uniquely refreshing is in the way it contrasts and justifies what is going on in Brandon’s life to the spring of teenage puberty. In this regard, the film can be taken as a nuanced commentary piece towards adolescence, albeit in entirely satirically powerful directions given to our growing boy. When you consider that the terror begins on Brandon’s 13th birthday, the short nerves, testy decisions, and blossoming interest in females, all feel like familiar beats that every kid has to go through once he gets to that particular age, and with a quick re-write and a couple of scenes edited out, this film could’ve easily been just about the dreaded change associated with such a terrifying coming-of-age, but then we would miss out on so many of the cool things that I have yet to talk about.

– The birth of a new subgenre? Mixing the elements of superhero and horror is a very ballsy move, but thanks to the knowledge of the hands on deck of each respective genre, the film manages to seamlessly weld them into this Frankenstein project that lives and breathes with respect to the measures that make each familiar. Could these be considered cliches? Absolutely, but I feel like those familiar beats should be present, especially in a first time marriage between the two, if nothing other that to easily immerse audiences into how beautifully each of them vibe together. The jump scares, panning camera movements, and typecast parents dealing with a demented child, are all still there to represent horror, as are the origin story narrative, big budget effects, and of course iconic symbolism are to represent superhero stories, and each is represented in a way that gives a blissful 50/50 allowance for each to play into the story, without either of them encroaching on the effectiveness of their respective properties. During an age when superhero films are overcrowding the box office, “Brightburn” brings forth something fresh to breathe life back into it, and should be commended for the gutsy determination in stitching together two sides that up until now couldn’t be further from synonymous.

– One man stage. It’s not that I have a problem with Banks, Denham, or any of the other adult protagonists, but Dunn’s impression left on the film is one that commands much of the attention to him, leading to a breakthrough performance in his first starring role on the silver screen that echoes with each unsettling scene. As Brandon, Dunn’s stirring silence is something that seeps into our skin with triggered anxiety, establishing a level of sinkable weight on the perspective of this family that leaves them astonished in the transformation from this once sweet little boy, to the dangerously deviant defiant who stands before them. Most kid actors have trouble feeling believable in confrontations with adults, but because of the magnitude of powers instilled in him from a higher power, as well as the intelligence articulated from Dunn in understanding the depth of every situation, the work of Jackson flies higher than the heights reached by cape.

– Refined special effects. What is commendable here is that the inclusion of gravity defying feats are saved for sporadic moments of dazzle that maintain the wow factor in not overdoing it, as well as the sequences themselves having strong live action impact for the properties they collide with. This not only fleshes out the effects with weight for believability, but also renders the impossible possible with the scale of stunt feeling mostly reserved. There is one exception, however, and it deals with a lawnmower being thrown hundreds of yards to the bewilderment of the little boy. But the scene is shot and edited in a such a way that barely allows you time to focus on the mower itself, and long before logic sets in, the incredible launch of a 200 pound machine lights up the sky like a shooting star, solidifying a tempo for the film’s action sequences that remain sharp throughout the duration of the film.

– Perfect pacing. Although I have problems with the film’s run time, which I will get to in a minute, the pacing of the screenplay is so crisp in non-stop action and Brandon’s personal conflicts one after the other, that the film feels about half of the fluffy 85 minute run time that it boasts. It helps that the film wastes no time in bringing audiences into its world and character’s, introducing us right away to the couple and alien arrival that sows the seeds for each of their eventual confrontations, but what really triggered my interest was how little of downtime there is in between these scenes of extraordinary. This can normally hurt a film if it’s too much of the same thing, but what I appreciate is that each scene varies in pitting urgency, depending on that character’s kind of interaction with Brandon prior to this, and each evolution leads to dramatically different conclusions, bringing forth an air of creativity to the progression of scenes that constantly keeps familiar set-ups feeling fresh for the fun that this director and screenwriters incorporate into the fresh take of genre direction.

NEGATIVES

– Rushing the details. The backlash from that 85 minute run time is everywhere. From the limited exposition in the origin and backstory of our central character, to the longterm build of certain bully character’s not getting the revenge that they deserve, to the flat ending that just kind of lacked emphasis. In rushing through the script’s more personable moments, especially during the opening act, it will have an unavoidable consequence on your investment into the film and character as a legendary presence on-screen. For my money, the film could easily use another fifteen minutes to solidify the importance of some supporting cast, as well as offer more moments of personal reflection for the boy learning to grow with newfound powers.

– Skimping on the deaths. Aside from one death sequence, which is arguably the most lasting presence that an on-screen death has had on me in years, the majority of sequences minimalize the effects of the single biggest detail; the devastating final blow. For some of them, they happen so fast that we don’t register what actually happened. For others, the occasion happens so far in the distance that you don’t get to soak in the gory details of blood and prosthetics, which thanks to the exceptional death that I mentioned earlier, are actually superb when they get the rare focus that they rightfully deserve. While the elements of horror still resonate throughout the many obvious tropes throughout the film, the biggest one is rarely anywhere to be seen, standing as the one matter in a superhero horror film that requires articulation to reach perfection.

My Grade: 8/10 or B