The Princess Bride

Directed By Rob Reiner

Starring – Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright

The Plot – A kindly grandfather (Peter Falk) sits down with his ill grandson (Fred Savage) and reads him a story. The story is one that has been passed down from father to son for generations. As the grandfather reads the story, the action comes alive. The story is a classic tale of love and adventure as the beautiful Buttercup (Wright), engaged to the odious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), is kidnapped and held against her will in order to start a war, It is up to Westley (Elwes), her childhood beau, now returned as the Dread Pirate Roberts, to save her. On the way he meets a thief and his hired helpers, an accomplished swordsman and a huge, super strong giant, both of whom become Westley’s companions in his quest.

Rated PG for adult situations and language.

POSITIVES

– Practicality all around. A refreshing aspect in watching a film that is 32 years old is the collection of set designs and special effects that speak levels about a now forgotten age of creativity. Most of the set visuals in the film authenticate that stage presence, in that everything sticks out especially, giving each prop sufficient weight in the movement and influence of each scene. Likewise, all creature special effects are done with animatronics, and while this decision looks obvious by today’s standards, there’s no substitute for time devoted to craft. It gives focus to distinct features of each creature that would easily be glossed over with computer animation, as well as gives the actor something lively to interact with during scenes of tension.

– The magic of the lens. Many of the establishing shots here are GORGEOUS and full of wide angle immensity that would make you think much of it was shot on location, but in reality pay homage to the immersion of studio filmmaking that suspends disbelief. In particular, it’s the shots on the water, with a sprinkle of moonlight used to illuminate the ships in focus that peaked my interest and outlined a layer of focus to the importance of this storybook tale that is established in each capture. None of these scenes lack believability in scale, but are made that much more impressive when you consider they were done inside of a backlot studio, instilling distance in a stage with only water and a single light to inspire believability.

– One legendary line. While everyone has a favorite line of dialogue for the movie, my personal favorite has always been Inigo’s threatening menace behind “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die”, and as I’ve recently learned there’s quite a story behind it. Patankin, who played Inigo, had just recently lost his father to cancer in real life, and used the dramatic pull of the loss to channel the vengeance in delivering the line. What I love about this line is that it repeats throughout the film and manages to feel more focused the closer Inigo gets to his enemy, all the while standing out in a way tonally that feels other-worldly to the rest of the romantic comedy taking place around it.

– Stellar cast performances all around. Elwes is every little girl’s prince charming, exuberating a combination of confidence in swordplay and cool demeanor that make him irresistible as a protagonist. Patankin also commands the attention, riding this story arc of redemption that is equally as intriguing as the central plot rescuing of Robin Wright’s Buttercup. Patankin’s transformation throughout teaches us a lot about his tortured past, all the while never diminishing the intensity of Patankin’s roguish appeal. Aside from the two leading men, there are charming appearances from Billy Crystal, Andre The Giant, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, and of course Wallace Shawn, who gives my single favorite laugh of the film when laughing gets the best of him. Overall, it cements an ensemble effort that fires on every cylinder, giving ample time for each of the big names to shine with each character introduction.

– Management of dual narrative. Considering there are two stories running simultaneously throughout the film, it’s the incredible pacing and structure of each that astounded me in ways that other dual narratives today don’t equally balance out. While a majority of the film is set in the fantasy world itself, the three instances of Savage and Falk’s family characters are placed in a way that gives outline to the three act structure, and really pauses our interest in the fantasy when progression is at its peak. We, like Savage’s grandson character, can’t wait to jump right back into it, and in this regard the film transcends screen, in that we too are held at the mercy of Falk’s luring storytelling, giving us the audience a presence in this fairytale that feels like it’s being told to us exclusively.

– Stunning sword choreography. There’s much to give praise to here, but it all comes at the respect of Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson, who between them had been in the Olympics, Indiana Jones films, and eventually Lord of the Rings films. What’s so impressive is that not only is the swordplay fast between oppositions, but the foot work of the actors engaged manages to evade a barrage of branches, bricks, and rocks that we’re just waiting to see have an influence in this conflict. It never comes, and it’s a testament to the handling that was taken in preserving hand-to-hand authenticity, made even more impressive considering Elwes broke his toe on a four wheeler only hours before the scene was shot. Diamond and Anderson work magic on these big name actors, and because of such juggle enough testosterone and urgency to constantly raise the stakes.

– Constant 80’s nostalgia. One of my favorite aspects in watching a classic movie is the hints of dated pasts that could only reside in a particular decade, and there’s plenty to admire and even pause the film over here. I love the extra props like the all red and white Cheetos bag, as well as Fred Savage playing the Commodore 64 computer game “Hardball”. Each of these items add important perspective into Savage’s close-minded personality at the beginning of the film, coming off as a generation X slacker of sorts, who will eventually become more captivated into material that he condemned before it started. It’s a perk that is totally irrelevant to the film, but something that I like to mention because its objects and focuses have almost become time-stamped in the same way that the medieval age has in the story that Grandfather and Grandson are moving through.

– Meticulous in the humor. While juggling the content of romance, action, and family elements alike, this movie features plenty of hearty laughs in the form of modestly gentle and subordinate deliveries that never step on the straight story evolving around it. Similar to the structure of Mel Brooks (Who is in fact in the film) or Monty Python, the material doesn’t halt the progression of the narrative, an aspect that many modern comedy films could take a lesson from, in that improv humor is used as fluff for a two hour run time designation. Instead, “The Princess Bride” still values these moments of release, but does so in a way that never holds the story hostage, nor does it over-indulge in allowance, proving to us how comedy can work hand-in-hand with fantasy if the two can work as partners instead of adversaries over the screen.

NEGATIVES

– Horrendous sound mixing. One of the things that became obvious with this watch was the sloppy sound manipulation that the film tries to pass off onto the audience as synthetic. Several scenes throughout the film feature overheard dialogue that is said without any of the lips of characters moving, but none more prominent than that of Elwes back-riding scene of Andre The Giant. In just this scene alone, there are a few instances where the mixing takes advantage of a majority of Elwes head being shielded during long winded dialogue, but it flounders because the mouth is still as obvious as any close angle shot, and serves as one of two major problems that I had with the production of this picture.

– The other one. It’s not often that the production is the biggest hurdle for a film that I watch, but once again post-editing brings to light some disastrous decisions as to what’s left in the film. Several instances of production crew’s shadows being in a shot, boom microphones moving in and out of the tops of shots, and a landing pad during the first fight scene which is as obvious as a fart in church. I get that it’s the 80’s, so there’s some room for forgiveness in this respect, but if you’re going to ever deem a film as “A Timeless Classic”, then the production has to stand up to the forth-coming decades that it stands tall through, and sadly amateur mistakes like these keep the film from ever reaching its potential as one of the best films of the decade.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Alita: Battle Angel

Directed By Robert Rodriguez

Starring – Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly

The Plot – Alita (Salazar) is a creation from an age of despair. Found by the mysterious Dr. Ido (Waltz) while trolling for cyborg parts, Alita becomes a lethal, dangerous being. She cannot remember who she is, or where she came from. But to Dr. Ido, the truth is all too clear. She is the one being who can break the cycle of death and destruction left behind from Tiphares. But to accomplish her true purpose, she must fight and kill. And that is where Alita’s true significance comes to bear. She is an angel from heaven. She is an angel of death.

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

POSITIVES

– Flawless special effects pallet. Everything from the seamless stop motion capture used to inspire the movements of the title character, to the barrage of computer generated backdrops and character pixelation, especially that of Alita’s huge eyes that authenticate that Japanese Manga design fluently, screams evolution in the art of film, and just as “Avatar” was for the previous decade, James Cameron once again has his finger in the cookie jar of this evolution, this time as a producer to “Alita”. While we know that what we’re seeing before us is purely illustration, the movements and impacts combine enough weight with impact, as well as exceptional color texture in design, to allow yourself to feel immersed into this far away land of dangerous fantasy.

– The dynamic between Alita and Dr. Ido. Aside from the performances of Salazar and Waltz completely carrying the movie for me, the chemistry and bond between these two characters speaks volumes to the concepts of the father and daughter relationship without the link in DNA to prove it. From the very beginning of the movie, Ido is there every step of the way for Alita’s re-introduction of sorts to the world, and it’s in his most obvious traits of worrying and protecting where we feel a missing desire within himself and his past to be fulfilled by this angel who has given his life purpose again. It’s without question my favorite arc of the screenplay, and etches out a lot of heart and concern for the movie to balance these scenes of terrifying devastation.

– Solid structure in world building. While 2553 looks like anything but a place that I would want to live in for the unpredictable mayhem that floods the streets on the daily, the economical push for a world that lives and breathes around a sporting event, as well a place still on the brink of recovery after a paralyzing war, was something that I found great relatability in with our current social climate, and really made the distance in years feel that much more conjoined when you think about what could be if a couple of wrong decisions were made from our own current day. What’s important too, is that wealth still play a very pivotal role in this economy, and the idea with there being nowhere else but the sky to go for this minimal one percent is touched on more than a few times. This is science fiction at its best because everything feels easy to comprehend, the world is anything but a hopeless one, and the ideas associated with the gadgets inside will give unlimited potential in replay value with the more time that passes after this movie.

– An experienced master behind the lens. If I give Robert Rodriguez credit for doing just one thing effectively in the film, it’s in his caption of action sequences that rumble and rip apart the screen. I can imagine that seeing this film in 3D is probably the one rare chance that you want to take in paying extra money for a theater occasion, because the combination of limbs and velocity that rushes towards the screen fires on every cylinder of adrenaline that you can imagine, and spares no expense in doing so. What’s vitally important is that no sequence’s editing feels choppy, nor does the camera movement ever use the shaky-cam gimmick in translating itself to the audience, allowing us enough focus and detection to stay with these overwhelmingly-fast scenes every step of the way.

– One big surprise. I have my displeasures with the entirety of the supporting cast that I will get into later, but the last second reveal of the film’s REAL antagonist was something that really cements the legacy of what it means to work with someone like James Cameron or Robert Rodriguez. This person is nearly unrecognizable, which is a compliment to the practical make-up, not C.G, that adorn this person, and left me literally scratching my head until I looked it up online as to who this character was played by. I am someone who sees over 200 films a year, and when a movie’s production can conceal and hide away the familiar face of one of my favorite actors going today, I have to commend the designs on a completely different level.

NEGATIVES

– Sequel shielding. This is another example of a film that feels far too confined in what satisfaction narratively that it can give us in this introductory chapter. While I’m all for leaving audiences on a cliffhanger, the ending of this movie feels downright insulting, ending it during a time when so little has been established or confirmed for the progression of our title character, and it makes me wish that the studio could just make a great movie with the thought process that we might not get another shot at a second one. Because of such limitations, “Alita” loses so much momentum on its way to the finish line, and the film’s final moments are every bit predictable as they are anti-climatic. If you want to hone a ten hour narrative, shop it to Netflix and tell the whole story. Don’t waste the first hour by hinting at the following nine hours to follow.

– Dream team wasted. Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Casper Van Dien, and I haven’t even listed all of the big name actors who fill these roles. All of these faces come and go without even the slightest lasting impression of personality or impact upon this jumbled screenplay, and it gives them a flashback presence to a time when none of them could get anything better than a cameo appearance in a movie that was anything but them. With so much talent hanging in the balance, how could Rodriguez not take advantage of these once in a lifetime pairings? Their names are used for nothing more than to draw audiences in, and unfortunately those very same audiences will feel betrayed when they realize that only one of them is in the movie for more than ten combined minutes.

– Huge third act action set piece that is entirely inconsequential. This is one that bothers me from a logic standpoint. Towards the end of the film, there is a sort of alliance to finish of Alita once and for all, complete with thousands in attendance and a broadcast equal to that of the Super Bowl, and the way it ends unceremoniously is astounding when you consider the many in attendance who are going home without a defined conclusion. I can’t say a lot because of spoilers, but imagine if Tom Brady left during the third quarter when the Patriots had the ball, and he never comes back again. It’s baffling that anyone with a pen would write such an expensive and pointless sequence, and it only highlights the many faults of a screenplay riddled with chaos.

– Subplots introduced and never followed through. Dr. Ido’s previous daughter, Alita’s past before she was an android, the decaying relationship of Dr. Ido and his ex-wife, what led to said ex-wife taking a vicious personality change towards shallow lifestyles. These are just a couple of the arcs attached to the film that are never fully elaborated on, and stand as the biggest hurdle to getting any of these characters over for the audience to embrace. This screenplay has Attention Deficit Disorder, in that it can’t stop throwing a handful of subplots at us the audience without addressing and resolving what is front-and-center before us, and it overall gave the movie a very jumbled kind of circumstance that shreaded the pacing in ways that never quite got off of the ground.

– Undercooked romantic subplot. If there’s ever a single instance of this movie slipping away from the grip of the three writers who penned it, it’s in the unraveling of Alita’s romantic interest that burned the kind of kinetic energy below similar to the kind you get eating bad Thai food. The two actors lack even the slightest form of chemistry in capturing the kind of spark that the movie so desperately wants to establish, and the brief stint of time that this film takes place across only further muddles it. I get that Alita is essentially living for the first time, so all experiences are brand new to her, but she has known this kid for days and is quite literally willing to give her heart to him. It makes for some sappy, albeit unintentionally hilarious deliveries of dialogue that will have you either laughing or barfing, depending on how you react to artificial sugar.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

The Kid Who Would Be King

Directed By Joe Cornish

Starring – Rebecca Ferguson, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Patrick Stewart

The Plot – Old school magic meets the modern world in this epic adventure. Alex (Serkis) thinks he’s just another nobody, until he stumbles upon the mythical sword in the stone, Excalibur. Now, he must unite his friends and enemies into a band of knights and, together with the legendary wizard Merlin (Stewart), take on the wicked enchantress Morgana (Ferguson). With the future at stake, Alex must become the great leader he never dreamed he could be.

Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Respects the source material. Any time you make a modern day adaptation to something of historical significance, the translation is usually less than stellar. However, what is sure to surprise a few people is that this film is actually a sequel to the Merlin saga we’ve come to understand, therefore it still abides by the same rules and history that we’ve come to enjoy. In addition to this, the film does successfully serve as a welcoming introduction to anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the ages old folk tale, taking valued screen time not only in filling us in about these character’s defining conflicts, but also in the traveled road of the sword itself, which gives whoever holds it a preservation of power that helps bring along their transformation.

– The modern spin. I loved how the very outline of the story, characters, and moments from the tale are translated in a way that makes them feel relatable to modern times. I won’t spoil much, but take for instance Alex’s estranged father, who we’re told heroically fought off many demons in his life before he was able to be an influence in Alex’s life. However, as we come to learn, demons in this context represent personal demons, and the man was anything but heroic because of such. It’s things like these that really gave the film a clever backbone of creativity, all the while grounding the fairy tale in the kind of realities that tell the audience this is anything but make believe. Likewise, the decision to not date this film numerically is one that keeps it from feeling dated, all the while harvesting an air of familiarity to our own world with how the movie frequently highlights the world feeling worse than ever before because of its leaders. I’d make an America joke here, but frankly I’m too depressed.

– Fresh faced cast that I couldn’t get enough of. I didn’t recognize a single one of the five youths that make up these new knights of the round table, but each of them have bright futures ahead because of the way their confidence harvests in each of their performances. For my money, the show-stealers are Serkis (Andy’s son) as the title character, and especially Angus Imrie as young Merlin. Serkis shows a ton of dramatic depth to the unveiling psychological fragility of his character, and Imrie rivets with a combination of finely-timed comedy and energetic hand movements that lead to beneficial spells. Both of them are stars in the making, and captivate the attention of every scene of long-winded dialogue delivery that hints that this film is the first step in bigger, bolder careers.

– Rides the waves of tonal change smoothly. I was expecting a comedy after seeing the trailers for this film, and for the most part that is correct. What surprised me however, was the consistency of each joke landing for a kids movie. Especially during the first act, when the lunacy of this legendary sword shows up for some hilariously awkward situations. In addition to the humor however, the film succeeds in adventure, science fiction, and especially drama, harvesting some gut-punch scenes of character development once the truth comes to light. A film will usually fall apart when it tries to attempt too many changes in tone, but “The Kid Who Would Be King” reigns in royalty because it takes enough time to fully flesh out the directions of where it’s heading, and ultimately it leads to a roller-coaster of mixed emotions that will have you pulling back so much more than you were expecting.

– Electric Wave Bureau’s beautifully immersive musical score. This group have had success with films such as “Lucy”, “Broken”, and the Paddington series, to name a few, but the work done in this film is easily my favorite from them because of the control in sound mixing that makes us the audience reach for something faint in the distance. In my interpretation, the eclectic tones channel a lot of 80’s coming of age flicks, like “Stand By Me” or “The Goonies”, in that they exert enough danger in the wonderment of adventure that you sadly don’t hear much in today’s child movie landscapes. The music fits on the ideals of war and blossoming adolescence that aren’t two of the easiest things to blend together, but E.W.B’s complete score is a taste test of rich flavors and layers that will have you putting your ears before eyes to see what hints become prevalent to you.

– Passion of filmmaking instilled to a kids movie. It would be easy for this film to fail for the fact that it’s released in January, but the combination of shot selection, gorgeous cinematography from the mastermind Bill Pope, and intriguing character arcs, render this one a rare gem to the days when kids movies could be films that looked and felt like award worthy presentations. The detail here to its themes and inspiring message is something that I feel will leave a lasting imprint on the rapid fire list of releases that they endure each year. It’s the perfect introduction for any kid wanting to learn more about film, and seeing the kinds of artistic integrities that expands their horizons, and it’s in bringing along that adult filmmaking mentality to a kids genre where I have the deepest respect for this picture.

– Feels like there is actually weight and stakes to the movie. Part of what I miss in the movies from my childhood are those instances of fright or daring imagery that supply a ball of uneasiness in the pit of my stomach, and this film is an homage to exactly what I’m talking about. Aside from an antagonist who is visually and personally sinister, there’s much to the idea surrounding school bullying and where the evolves with the progression of the story. It’s one of those films where the kids feel alone and legitimately responsible for what transpires, proving age is only a number in the inspiration and ambition to grow into what you’re destined to become.

NEGATIVES

– Misuse of the antagonist character. I have been a fan of Rebecca Ferguson for a few years now, so when I heard she was cast as the film’s central evil enchantress, I looked forward to seeing a side to her acting that I haven’t been privy to before. First of all, Ferguson is NOT the problem. She gives her all in these deliciously devilish takes when she is front-and-center. The problem comes from the lack of energy and time dedicated to her character that make her motivation nothing more than just another villain. Even the confrontation itself comes and goes with very little struggle or psychology to its movements, and it ultimately drops the ball on a character who deserved to have more influence on this group banding together to stop her.

– A bit too long. Clocking in at nearly two hours long, the film does begin to test patience during the third act, in which there are two different final battles. The second confrontation that rendered the first completely pointless and worthy of being edited out, feels like the real ending. This is really the only script disagreement that I had during the film, as the second conflict is bigger, more visually indulgent, and goes on a bit longer. I think without that first battle, the film could’ve trimmed fifteen light and inconsequential minutes that would’ve done wonders in carrying audiences through the home stretch.

– Computer generated saturation. While the generated effects in the film do supplant enough weight and believable color filtering to where they stand out, the percentage of its use becomes too much by film’s end, ridding itself of what simplicity made the movie sweet in the first place. Even for the fantasy genre of film, its imaginary properties don’t theoretically blend well with the whole Arthur folklore, and felt like too much was being thrown at the screen during the most impactful of sequences.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Directed By Dean Deblois

Starring – Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler

The Plot – As Hiccup (Baruchel) fulfills his dream of creating a peaceful dragon utopia, Toothless’ discovery of an untamed, elusive mate draws the Night Fury away. When danger mounts at home and Hiccup’s reign as village chief is tested, both dragon and rider must make impossible decisions to save their kind.

Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

POSITIVES

– Consistency in animation amazement. Considering this is a film series that has been released by three different studios, it’s the prestige associated with Dreamworks Animations that have allowed it to thrive by remaining true to itself. There’s a fine combination of wonder and beauty associated with the adventurous movements of the camera, as well as the detailed illustrations of costume and character trait that gives definition to appearances, and these are only further impactful when you consider that the legendary Roger Deakins is once again behind the movie’s cinematography. Deakins prescribes us a dose of fantasy immersion that almost allows us to feel the wind in our hair from these vibrant showcases of airtime, and the scenes of the hidden world itself are among my favorite setting for an animation film in quite a long time.

– Adds value to the previous chapters. For my money, the best kind of films give us a desire to re-visit previous installments to see if later narratives consistently hold up, and this is one trilogy that moves and breathes as one cohesive property because of Deblois’ continued interest in adding prestigious layers to kids films. There is one such subplot about the Night Fury’s that helps clear up some plot holes that I had for the first movie clear up. It’s not the only instance of this powerful capability, and only instills in me an air of respect for Dean and his vision in building each chapter simultaneously, even after its shelf life has expired.

– Maturity of the dialogue. One thing that becomes clear about this movie almost instantly is the influence of more comedic-driven dialogue and material that easily makes it the most light-hearted of the series. This was something that worried me after seeing the trailer, for reasons that it would take away from the focus of the conflict, in turn diminishing the urgency of the atmosphere. But I must say I was wrong, as the material is not only positively tasteful, it also hits its mark effectively more times than not. I love an animated film that can make me laugh as well as keep my attention in the narrative, and if more films were like “The Hidden World”, the world of kids films would be a better place.

– Characters first. This third film in the series is proof of the major payoff that supplanted enough weight in emotional registry and audience investment, thanks to the evolution of this growing group of characters who bonded as a family. Thankfully, this film also supplies the strongest antagonist of the entire series, harvesting enough uncertainty in the unfolding of this long distance journey to prove why 3 is only a number. There’s a constant reminder of previous plots and predicaments each time you see a particular character, giving respect and reminder to the past, while building them closer to the future that has inevitably awaited them all this time. We, just like the characters, have grown with this series, and that reflection benefits us in ways that pays off tenfold to the story, structure, and the world that Deblois helped create.

– The equal balance of tonal territory from musical composer John Powell. The music itself in the film envelopes these tense scenes of action and expedition with an evening of dream and devastation that give the scenes it accompanies an audibly reflective roar that channels more emotion than words ever could. Deblois has such confidence in Powell that he removes any kind of distraction in the form of dialogue or on-set sound design from intruding. For a few exceptionally long takes on this wild ride, Powell’s orchestral influence is all that we the audience hear, and it almost makes every first line that follows after it release this air of disappointment that snaps us out of the impressive partnership of sight and sound that enhances the artistic merit for the film.

– A big name behind every corner. Aside from Baruchel’s captaining, which has been a star-making turn for the leading man, the work of big name presences like Blanchett, Butler, Jonah Hill, Kit Harrington, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, America Ferrera, and Craig Ferguson preserves a velvet rope where only the biggest are invited. I left out F. Murray Abraham for a reason, and that’s because as Grimmel, the film’s prime antagonist, the sun turns back and allows us to focus on the greatness that is Abraham one more time. Grimmel isn’t the villain you come to understand, but the one you fear for his sense of purpose that prove some dark days are ahead for these dragons. The film has no problem tapdancing on our devotion to Toothless, and it allows Abraham the ability to shine under his most sinister.

– Smooth fluidity in the pacing. At 97 minutes, this film is the quickest of the three movies in the series, but its runtime is only a metaphor for the movement through the three act structure that flows so breezy that I wouldn’t have been angry with another twenty minutes to better flesh out some of the supporting cast. Because of this light runtime and the benefit of watching a movie that knows and delivers to its audience, we get as easy of a sit as you’re going to find, and what’s more convincing is that it’s one that the whole family can enjoy.

– Finality with the ending. There is no hint at a fourth film, nor is there unanswered questions left that leave us searching for more breadcrumbs on the path to closure. What does emerge is an ending that is every bit satisfying as it is reflective, as sentimental as it is responsible, and as poignant as it is heartwarming. After three great films, it’s tough to say that I wouldn’t want to see more from this franchise, but for me there has never been a series that has had three near equally great films in its clutches, therefore the weight associated with goodbye has never felt as therapeutic as it has here. We can say that this is a film that never had a single bad installment. How often does that happen in any franchise?

NEGATIVES

– No arcs in the way of supporting characters. The biggest negative for me are these friends from Hiccup’s past, present, and future, who serve as nothing more than props to the focus of this particular narrative. There’s very little focus or mention of them in anything that doesn’t involve Hiccup or any of the other dragons, and that’s a bit of a letdown considering they all were pivotal pieces to the franchise at one point or another. This gives the film a reminder of it having too many characters and not enough for all of them to do, and if your favorite character is someone other than Hiccup, this will challenge you in ways that you weren’t expecting.

– While I enjoyed the structure and motivation for Grimmel as an antagonist, the film unfortunately falls into the hole of conventionalism, as every choice the character makes only hinders the ideas in his plan. For instance, there is an attack in the film by Grimmel’s army, where they more than make their presence felt, and despite this he refuses to land the crushing blow for any reason other than the convenience of plot. This doesn’t exactly spoil the ending of the movie, but it does meander some of the menace to Grimmel that made you believe in the power of his punch, and I wish there were better ways the film could’ve exploited prolonging the conflict for reasons that aren’t as obvious.

My Score: 8/10 or B+

Welcome To Marwen

Directed By Robert Zemeckis

Starring – Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger

The Plot – When a devastating attack shatters Mark Hogancamp (Carell) and wipes away all memories, no one expected recovery. Putting together pieces from his old and new life, Mark meticulously creates a wondrous town where he can heal and be heroic. As he builds an astonishing art installation, a testament to the most powerful women he knows, through his fantasy world, he draws strength to triumph in the real one.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Vibrancy in art design. While nothing original in terms of its production specifics, the animation in the film free-flows the beauty and attention to detail of a doll’s aesthetics. The actors film these scenes in live action, and in post-production are given a plastic shine filter to emulate them as acting dolls against a live action backdrop. In addition, the lighting of these scenes are beautiful, conjuring up a soft gloss of light that reflects on the smooth plastic exterior of their physical properties. You can say a lot of things about this film, but lacking in the art department will never be one of them.

– Steve Carell dazzles once again. The screenplay does this man zero favors in making his character look presentable to the audience, yet the constant professionalism of one of the strongest dramatic forces working today constantly elevates the material and gives light to another transformative performance. In Carell’s Hogancamp, we taste humor, some anguish, and a lot of fragility, and it’s in the masking of the last term where we really outline a layer of empathy to the character, making his a story of redemption that we are constantly investing ourselves in. Steve delivers a lot of heart for the real life figure, and that commitment to the ball of nerves that dominate his daily routine is something that only an actor of this magnitude can pull off without it feeling humorous every time.

– Believable setting. The boundaries of Mark’s real life town inside of Kingston, New York are tightly shot, preserving that air of a small town quality where everyone knows everything going on. This not only explains why Mark’s situation is the discussion of so many people surrounding him, but also a news broadcast that clues us in on what’s taking place with the men who jumped and beat him down during one fateful night. This is an area of filmmaking that is often overlooked for whatever reason, but in keeping our filming locations limited, and the framing tight, it accurately presents that air of claustrophobia inside of a small town.

NEGATIVES

– Musical miscues. Besides these obvious tracks feeling distracting during the scenes in which they play because of their boisterous volume levels, the overall soundtrack for the film is riddled in such topical convenience for what is playing out on-screen. An example is a sleeping sequence that is being enveloped by The Everly Brothers “Dream” playing out in the most eye-rolling manner. It made for these times of musical incorporation that I dreaded hearing from, and made me wish the remainder of the film was a silent one from the roaring 20’s.

– Cluttered dialogue. There’s nothing subtle or nuanced about the dialogue in the film. From force-feeding of backstories, to obvious metaphorical representations, this film constantly reeked of desperation, and progressed little because of how much explanation it was required to give for the past. Because of such, it feels like two movies are playing out in real time: one for the current narrative, and the one in which the movie has to stop every two minutes to explain something we see in real time or hear about on the news. Who knew in 2018 that biopics can still be this clumsily written?

– Lack of sensitivity for the subject matter. Hogancamp’s story is one that is plagued by mental illness, depression, and especially abuse, and the screenplay tiptoes around these subjects so as not to make anything under Zimeckis’ roof feel risque. For Mark himself, the movie approaches him as this bumbling infant who is part compassionate and part creepy for the demeanor he exerts on others. An example of this is his interaction with Leslie Mann’s character, in which he describes how he collects women’s essences. Keep in mind that all of this is out of Mann’s context, as she just moved to the town, and would otherwise come across as a serial killer who is obsessed with her likeness. In addition, the conflict of mental illness is cleaned up in such a way that is not only insulting to someone like me who has fought his own battles with such adversities, but irresponsible for how easy it is eventually defeated.

– The “Sucker Punch” effect. Zach Snyder’s 2011 fantasy epic is the last film that I ever thought or ever wanted to reference again, but it feels like Zimeckis has watched this film one too many times in his rendering of this project. The fantasy sequences often take far too long to reach their point. As well, they also dominate the time allowance over the live action narrative in a two-to-one ratio, taking far too much focus away from Mark’s confining circumstance. There’s almost too much optimism in a story that should otherwise feel so dark, and I’m not naive enough for a second to believe that the answer to both films conflicts resonate somewhere in the fantasy world. Seriously, fuck you.

– Disjointed continuity. Some character dynamics are dropped and never referenced again, some female doll likenesses are never explained or introduced at all, and some scenes are so miniscule in importance that they were better left on the cutting room floor. It all pressures the pacing of the film into some dire consequences that make 111 minutes feel like three hours of burning wax torture. The main problem is that these scenes never allow themselves to pick up any kind of relative momentum, instead feeling like a collection of instances that don’t gel together as one cohesive unit that is otherwise building towards the bigger picture.

– A talented cast that is completely wasted. Besides what I mentioned earlier about the work of Carell as the film’s central protagonist, the entirety of the female cast is shipped in and shipped off in such a way that makes their value that of their wax counterparts. There just simply isn’t enough time to donate to all of them, so inevitably someone is going to get sacrificed, and the pendulum swings more on Mann and Janelle Monae than anyone else. Mann is Mark’s love interest, and aside from them intentionally lacking chemistry despite Mann and Carell doing three films together, the development constantly feels rushed and unnatural in the way it flows, limiting the film’s one redeeming quality in such a way that gives us the audience nothing to look forward to from the predictably bland third act that comes to fruition.

– Pretentiousness rears its ugly head again. While this isn’t the most pretentious film of 2018 thanks to Lars Von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built”, it does more than its share of Zimeckis referencing to drown out the immersion of the film. I won’t spoil all of them, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention that the Doloreon from “Back to the Future” is prominently featured in the dynamic of an important scene, midway through the final act. Why is this included? Because one of the doll’s require a time machine, and we obviously can’t think of anything other than Robert’s biggest franchise when it comes to that distinction. It stinks of desperation, and emits an air of pretentious filmmaking that reminds us that Zimeckis is leaps and bounds from where he once was.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

Mary Poppins Returns

Directed By Rob Marshall

Starring – Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw

The Plot – In Depression-era London, a now-grown Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (Whishaw), along with Michael’s three children, are visited by the enigmatic Mary Poppins (Blunt) following a personal loss. Through her unique magical skills, and with the aid of her friend Jack (Miranda), she helps the family rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action

POSITIVES

– A whimsical collection of new musical numbers that enchant the sight and sound of the picture. Like only Disney can, they repeatedly emit that magic that is so much of Mary Poppins and bring it to life in the form of no-rules lyrics and snappy dance choreography to make the presentation pop. So much of the film radiates when it is showing off to be a spectacle, and the rich, vibrant production value that harvests from within will transport you once again to being a kid watching “Mary Poppins” for the first time, regardless of age. Even more impressive, all of the singing is actually done by the actors themselves, opening up my eyes and ears to Emily’s expanding brilliance. Is there anything this woman can’t do?

– Off-the-page special effects. If there’s one justification for making a Mary Poppins sequel 56 years after the original (A new live action record for time between films), it’s in the addition of modern tools that make so much of the film glow. The blending of computer generated special effects to make the unbelievable believable, as well as the decision to consistently keep the animation hand-drawn are instances that go a long way in blending the respective time periods seamlessly. Nothing ever stands out as hollow or obvious, despite these characters doing things that we in our heads know isn’t possible in the human world. It’s a testament to the production’s ability to competently immerse us in this world of make believe, where the rules are left at the doorstep of naysayers.

– Perfect casting all around. Much of my enjoyment of the film came from this terrific cast who bring their A-game to the immense task of living up to the storied history of one of Disney’s biggest names. The kids are never over-zealous in terms of their directed responses, and the big name cast are each given chances to seduce us under a spell of ambiance. Emily Blunt seriously gives her single best performance to date in an already amazing career. Stepping into Mary’s immense shoes, Blunt charms us with a combination of sophistication and tasteful arrogance that makes her donning feel synthetic with that of Julie Andrews original turn. Likewise, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his first big dive to the silver screen with enough energy and charisma in a look than most actors have in a hundred lines of dialogue. The chemistry between Blunt and Miranda twinkles like a star that stays lit regardless of the shine that surrounds them, and for my money two stronger on-screen presences couldn’t have been chosen for their respective roles.

– A generational affair. Transcending the story and screen respectively, I couldn’t escape this feeling I got where the youth in the theater audience were enjoying a Mary Poppins story in the same way that their parents did. This is clearly evident during the film as well, as Michael’s children are introduced in the very same way to the charm of this woman’s nurturing touch, all the while being whisked away to world’s far from their home’s comfort zone. More than anything, I hope kids are able to take away that family films don’t have to be dumbed down or slapstick to gain their attention. “Mary Poppins Returns” is a film too classy to stoop to this level, instead garnering enough family element and imagination to cleanse their continuously evolving pallets, and offer something for generations of yesterday, now, and decades to come.

– The conflict is bigger. It’s rare that a sequel will double the stakes of the previous film, but that is the case here, as the Banks family are not only fighting for their home but also for the link that bonds them together after the untimely passing of the family’s mother. I didn’t expect a story this light-hearted to be as emotionally gripping as it was, and besides just constantly rooting for these characters throughout, you really feel an overwhelming sense of empathy for why they need Mary’s return now more than ever. It keeps the story grounded in real life consequences, despite the fact that so much of the film is enveloped in fantasy and teleportation.

– Visual storytelling. Pay very close attention to the progression of the sky patterns throughout the movie, as it represents the ever-changing atmosphere of the family’s dynamic. When the film begins, we are soiled by the darkness of greying skies, but as Mary pops into frame, we notice that she brings with her a change for England that isn’t always prominent in a country so negated by the rain. I always love when small aspects of the film like this are present, and it adds another layer to atmospheric establishment when the film’s geographical location plays into the very ups and downs of what’s taking place under this roof.

– A collection of set pieces and designs that adds a firm reminder of nostalgia to the film. The Banks house itself looks EXACTLY the same as it did in the original film, and that fine eye of attention to detail is also evident throughout the film. Likewise, during a sequence involving Meryl Streep playing a character whose whole world is literally upside down is great for the fact that expanding objects featured in each frame feed into the gimmick, and really give us genuine moments of intrigue, where we wonder how certain scenes were shot. And yes, this is a “Devil Wears Prada” reunion, BONUS POINTS. My favorite however, is definitely the street scenes, complete with actual gaslight street lights, that echo the limited frailty of props within a Broadway stage show. It proves that sometimes less is more when it comes to simple set designs.

– The cameos. Besides the charm of a well rounded cast that each give their all to their respective roles, it was the surprises of two established film veterans that warmed my heart and brought the generational gap that much closer with their inclusion. I won’t spoil who they are, but only going to say that one of them was in the first “Mary Poppins”, while the other actually auditioned to be Mary Poppins. Take from that what you will, but seeing them will instantly bring a smile of appreciation to your face, and prove that Marshall is well versed in the historical accuracies of this film, as well as the undeniable ambiance that each of these two actors bring with them when they sign on.

NEGATIVES

– Far too predictable. I get that there has rarely been a Disney movie that has surprised me in ways of a plot twist, but there is nothing in “Mary Poppins Returns” that I didn’t see coming from a mile away. In this regard, I could’ve used even more distancing from the original, as much of the same beats and instances of that original film come into play, and really water down the possibility of letting this stand on modern day storytelling. The closest example to this was a first act character swing that makes this well respected actor the film’s antagonist, but once you hear his job title and obvious sinister musical accompaniment, you will sniff it out with easiness.

– Sometimes the abundance of songs take away far too much from the unraveling narrative. This is evident more than ever during the late stages of the second act, as the story’s conflict is put on hold for such a long period of time that I nearly forgot about what these kids were striving for. In addition to this, a couple of the songs add nothing of lesson to Poppins’ teaching, rendering them remotely pointless in terms of their inclusion.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Aquaman

Directed By James Wan

Starring – Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe

The Plot – Arthur Curry (Mamoa) learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world. Standing in his way is the leader of a dangerous army, led by Arthur’s brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Will the communicator of underwater life stake his claim, or will the wrath of the Seven Seas provide too much for him?

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

POSITIVES

– James Wan’s immense scope on this decades old property. After you see the film, you will have no doubts that this modern day maestro was the right man for the job, as the variety of geographical set pieces and enhanced world building gives new life to the property many deemed impossible to bring to the big screen. Wan spares zero expense when it comes to capturing the sheer magnitude of the world beneath our feet, bringing with him several rumbling action set pieces and believably textured C.G work as far as the eye can see, that is sure to silence even the loudest doubters.

– Consistency of tone is key. One thing that D.C has failed with at nearly every big screen release until now is the cohesive bond that appropriately measures humor and drama respectively. Thankfully, “Aquaman” feels like the blueprint for future successes here because it keeps each within their boundaries, so as to never encroach on the importance of the other. What’s most commendable is the humor doesn’t feel forced or immature to the kinds of personality that the characters maintain throughout the film. There’s this very accommodating sense within the material that doesn’t just cater to older audiences like in past movies, allowing kids the chance to enjoy the wonderment and light-hearted atmosphere that this company has been under-appreciating in its comic movies.

– Strong ensemble work all around from this talented cast. While this is certainly a breaking out vehicle for its main star, who exuberates enough brawn and bravado behind a crooked smile, I was surprised at the allowance given to the supporting cast as well. Heard possibly steals the movie in my opinion, carving out another female heroine for D.C in ways Marvel can only dream of. Likewise, Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson each turn in impactful dramatic turns, giving the franchise name tremendous value because of the sum of its big name parts. It could be easy for any of them to get lost in the ridiculousness of wearing these costumes or donning these tridents, but each actor brings with them a level of professionalism that makes them believable in their respective roles, transcending the familiarity of their appearances into the characters they are portraying.

– The single most beautiful looking superhero film of all time. Yes, I just gave “Aquaman” the honors over films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor”, mainly because the difficulty in capturing the beauty of something as dark and mysterious as the sea is something film just hasn’t captured until now. Don Burgess’s turquoise filtering reaches an astonishing level of consistency throughout, but it’s his enveloping nature of the above water landscape shots that constantly captured my attention and stretched the boundaries of imagination, making these two worlds truly rub together synthetically. Whether you like or hate this movie, everyone will feel like they just came out of a film where the pages of a comic book came to life, and that above everything else is probably the most important aspect to any comic book adaptation.

– Learning from mistakes. Where “Aquaman” takes perhaps its biggest step forward is the decision not only to not make this an origin story, but also not to cater to a future installment before attaining greatness with this current film. Sure, there’s certainly flashbacks to Arthur’s training growing up, but they actually serve a purpose in echoing the timeline of current day, all the while leading to a big discovery that shakes both timelines immensely. If you’re watching this film for a link to other D.C movies, you will be very disappointed, but I think that’s the proper steps necessary for finally gaining some traction of momentum for this once storied company.

– Hits and misses with the music. While I despised the soundtrack for this movie (A Pitbull cover of Toto’s “Africa”? Seriously?), the compositions of Rupert Gregson Wagner more than carried the load in this particular area. Wagner’s entrancing and wonderous musical score instills enough fantasy to the outline of the picture that really makes those moments of triumph truly pop. In addition, the thunderous audible presentation of the war sequences bring with them a sense of rumbling urgency that frequently hold your attention, and echo that of war genre films like “The Thin Red Line” or “The Patriot” that juxtapose that level of uncertainty on the screen.

– Creative touches in serene camera work. Wan is the culprit here once again, as his revolving scope around these important scenes of dialogue experiment in a way that truly allows the audience to move and immerse themselves in the thick of the water itself. This one-of-a-kind experience gives us several takes of textbook pasting in editing that made even me question several times if what we are seeing was long take sequences of long-winded dialogue delivery. It’s great to see Wan has developed a level of personality behind the lens that constantly evolves with each project, and never distracts or takes away from the beauty within the fantasy of the setting.

– Despite the setting being this fantasy realm of caves and creatures, the material itself is instead grounded in this family hierarchy, debating the bond of blood relatives in a way that everyone watching can relate to. Think “Game of Thrones” set in a world of fantasy and you’re already halfway there. What I love about this dynamic is it takes something as unfamiliar to us as the deepest darkest blue and withdraws from it this level of family drama that everyone has dealt with at one time or another in their lives. More than anything, this makes “Aquaman” certainly the most relatable and accessible to audiences enjoying one of these movies for the first time ever, and highlights yet another layer of brotherly bond that we thought we’ve seen enough of.

NEGATIVES

– Manta, while looking menacingly awesome in a detailed body suit, never feels like an important or vital part of the film because of limitations of time given to his development. This is also the only light pacing issues I have with the film, as every time we cut to his subplot, it all just feels like filler to reach the 130 minute desired run time and breath for the more important war that Arthur is building towards. I would’ve preferred they saved this antagonist for an Aquaman sequel instead, allowing them not only to properly flesh out the revenge associated with the character, but also proper time for Yahya Abdul-Mateen to shine in the role.

– Clunky dialogue. There are still problems in the script with characters speaking these cringing lines with such a lack of conviction. That’s not to say that it’s the actors faults, just that far too often these lines don’t flow as natural conversation, instead catering to the superhero demographic that literally forces these people to say these same tired lines. A great example is “The Dark Knight”, where no one speaks like a superhero or villain, instead sounding like a conversation between HUMAN beings, that transcends its superhero label. “Aquaman” shakes itself of all of these familiar tropes except for this one, and it makes for instances of unintentional humor that were distracting.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Mortal Engines

Directed By Christian Rivers

Starring – Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Jihae

The Plot – A mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop a giant, predator city on wheels devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang, a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action

POSITIVES

– Poignancy in politics. One thing that I wasn’t expecting in a movie that takes place decades ahead of our own, is the similarities in government that truly transcends the screen. Aside from Weaving’s power hungry antagonist being one who believes in a wall separating kind, the very ideal of this bigger, more advanced vehicle being a bully of sorts to its contemporaries is something that certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. There are these kind of a tiny sprinkles of thought throughout the film, and prove that “Mortal Engines” never settles for being another Young Adult conventional offering, instead going the route of thought-provoking social commentary that certainly gave me something to hand my interest on.

– A duo of delight. Weaving continues to demand bigger roles in movies, carving out an antagonist who is every bit deceitful as he is narcistic. When Weaving isn’t chewing up the scenery in every scene, his presence feels the most valuable, detaching us from this character who you hate to love and vice versa. The real surprise however, might come from Hilmar as the story’s lead. Like the fragile character she plays, the narrative takes its time in getting to know Hilmar, starting off as another dry female badass who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But as the film progressed, I started to notice the layers and nuance that this young actress gave to her character, competently juggling enough tearful remorse and growth in reflection to make you buy into her investment into the character.

– Style eeks out substance. I mentioned earlier that there are some thinking points for the film, but for my money the allure of artistic integrity in the film is too valuable to be topped. During a season when films like “Venom” and “The Possession of Hannah Grace” make the nighttime look like a collection of colorless blobs, here comes a film that completely restores fate to what can be done in the shadows. The airtime battles are vibrant with moonlight ecstasy that radiates ever so smoothly against the fireworks of firepower that play in front of it, and the lighting scheme indoors takes on enough filters and dimensions to truly keep you guessing. If I recommend this film for anything, it’s the third act conflict that features a gala affair of everything I mentioned here.

– Effective camera work. I did have some problems with the concepts inside of the ships themselves, but Rivers as a first time filmmaker showed a lot of tinsel in movie magic in making me believe the immensity of its size. The revolving shots around this moving setting are luxurious and move at just the right speed to never slug down the movie and give the audience ample time to see what is transpiring behind every corner. Likewise, the action sequences are shot with enough urgency and articulate detection that you never struggle in hanging on to the many angles and characters inside.

– There’s certainly enough comparisons with popular films of the genre like “Star Wars” or “Mad Max” that the film evidently borrows from, but there’s also enough variation in the ideas to cement a name of its own. The concept of cities eating smaller towns (a process called Municipal Darwinism that provides an obvious metaphor for capitalism) is stunningly brought to life on screen, thanks to some truly extraordinary production design work never limited by its inflatable budget. The dynamic of land and air is also a unique take, allowing the film to press on through the ever-changing circumstances of the meaty two hour run time that would challenge the audience inside of a lesser quality science fiction film for all of the wrong reasons.

NEGATIVES

– Clumsy subplot juggling. This movie has no fewer than six on-going subplots from what I counted, and not only does this make for a challenging interpretation of who our intended protagonist is supposed to be during the first act, but it also limits certain narratives that easily could’ve used more time in development. My favorite subplot in the film deals with a male android and the relationship he has with Hester, and it just never felt fleshed out enough to warrant the sharp direction change that it takes midway through the film, and how it left this character feeling directionless. When you’re still introducing characters and subplots to the audience more than 80 minutes into the movie, you’ve certainly got problems, and I constantly felt suffocated by how bloated this screenplay truly is. Likewise to “Fantastic Beasts 2”, this film is overflowing with flashback exposition, giving way to many instances where this inevitable one-off film is compressing as much from the source material as humanly possible.

– A predictably convenient macguffin. Early in the film we learn about an object needed to suppress England’s power, and evening out the balance of the ensuing war, and to anyone paying even remote attention, the obviousness of the mystery that the film wanted so badly to present falls flat. It’s clear where this is going from the start, and it didn’t differ even remotely from where someone as inexperienced as I to these books predicted. I hate macguffins in movies enough, but when the movie tries to dumb down the material to cater to the audience, it shows its hand more often than not.

– Poorly rendered C.G effects work. There are instances in up tight camera angles where the computer generated effects feel passable enough, take for instance the visually descriptive depictions of England that I mentioned earlier, but as soon as they’re presented with a dominant live action opposition, you start to see the money was spent in less luxurious places. Take for instance the character of Shrike (live captured by the legendary Stephen Lang), who constantly looks phony with an illuminous green glow. I get that he’s an android character, but the design of his property is something out of an early 2000’s Tim Burton animation, and feels so out of place with everyone and everything he crosses paths with.

– Speaking of editing… It’s easy for Ray Charles to see what could’ve been left on the cutting room floor of this film. Often it’s the scenes and lines of dialogue that add nothing to the unfurling narrative, and stand out as an obvious cater to teenage audiences. One such instance involves our lead male protagonist, who has enough time in the face of life-threatening danger to stop and decide which jacket looks cool enough for him to sport. Keep in mind that this character isn’t self-serving or in love with himself by any stretch of the imagination. What makes it truly aggravating is that it’s instances like this one that makes it difficult to ever truly buy in to the supposedly overwhelming cost of what’s at stake, and twenty minutes less of these worst kind of Blu-Ray deleted scenes would serve the pacing of the movie well enough to not need the artistic merit to keep saving the day.

– Man did this movie want a shoe-horned love triangle like other Young Adult movies. There’s awfully sappy dialogue like “I will take away your pain”, a total lack of chemistry between Hilmar and Sheehan, and not a single scene between them that translates that growth in closeness that is present as the film persists. Maybe it’s the total lack of character build, or the one kissing scene between them feature an obvious stall by Hilmar, but I was never fully convinced, and the necessity to even include this sort of thing feels every bit as unnecessary to the film as it does diminishing to the strength of Hester as the female heroine that so many teenage girls need.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

Directed By David Yates

Starring – Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The Plot – At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy and action

POSITIVES

– From a fantasy perspective, this is still the measuring stick, bringing with it a barrage of richly textured computer generated effects and a fine assortment of fictional creatures that we’ve come to expect. Because of this, it is so easy to get lost in this world of pre-Potter hysteria, and the film’s biggest spell is the one that continues to open itself to new audiences, continuing the charms of this franchise feeling like a generation affair.

– Paris in 1927. This element of the film is often so subtle that you have to constantly remind yourself that the film takes place here. This isn’t to say that it’s a fault for the production, but rather the decision not to carve out the cliche elements of Paris that we’ve come to expect in Hollywood. For my money, the authentic vibe of street cafes and Baroque style buildings is simply too sophisticated not to indulge in, and if there was ever a place to properly channel the rebuilding nature of the world, post World War I, it’s the city of lights.

– New additions to the cast. Jude Law as Dumbeldore is without question my favorite, radiating the familiar character with a dual threat of heart and youthful exuberance to properly fill in the gaps of curiosity. Unfortunately, Law isn’t in the movie more than twenty combined minutes, but his sharing gives way to opportunity for others as well. For instance, Depp goes way above the compartmentalized material, making the most maniacal for the mantle for the film’s title character. Depp too suffers from script fatigue, but his big screen presence is something that can’t be ignored, and serves as yet another chance for the acting chameleon to get lost under a range of make-up and contact lenses. Depp’s Grindelwald is cool, cunning, and calculated, in the same manner a cult leader would feel, and his magnetic embrace of the dark side is something that we certainly need to see more of, especially after the magic that was “Black Mass”.

– James Newton Howard, one of the world’s most notorious musical composers, giving us his most entrancingly immersive tones in years. I realized many times that it’s James impeccable touch of his own wand, in the form of an orchestral baton, that gives the film noticeable emphasis, and overall this is a score that I felt equally captured the immensity of the unfolding drama, as well as audibly took us on a journey that couldn’t have been better articulated with words. You feel the intention in every scene with a composer this talented, and Howard’s grip on this series is equally as important as the events that play out in real time.

– As far as world expanding goes, this sequel has everything to up the stakes of the exceptional first film. Yates and Rowling continues to introduce us to creatures, cultures, and locations throughout the wizarding world that will please even the most passionate of fans of nerd euphoria. This element of the script lends more to the idea that the world of magic in the 20’s spans far outside of the school of Hogwarts, giving way to a wide range of possibility and relatability in these clashing characters that we haven’t even grazed the surface of, in two-two hour movies thus far.

NEGATIVES

– “Flash-Back: The Movie”. I say this because this film has no fewer than six flashback sequences to explain exposition, and none of them are the briefest of explanations in the way we would cut to the chase as storytellers. This element wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t frequented so often, and about halfway into the film, it relates this idea that the progression of the current day narrative isn’t as important or as compelling as those details of things that have already happened.

– Does that time honored pain of building the third movie more than making the second film a stand alone classic. If the friendship between Grindelwald and Dumbeldore isn’t enough, the direction of many characters, especially during the confrontational third act, more than cements an outline for where the next chapter may be heading, but it’s one that comes at a price for the weight of the conclusion of this film, that feels anything but heavy. Ultimately, the second movie feels like the first trailer for a much bigger third film, and because of such, this film will easily be the most forgettable of the Wizarding world franchise thus far.

– Newt is a bad protagonist. Bear with me here. This film exposed for me some pretty serious problems for the series central character, all of which are more prominent than ever in this installment. First, he’s selfish. He doesn’t listen to a friend when he’s confiding in him, and is only occupied with figuring out his own conflicts. Second, Redmayne’s performance and direction from Yates lacks the kind of charisma and focus that cement him as the pivotal character throughout. Watch this movie and tell me that Newt MUST be the main character, and I’ll tell you where millions of dollars are buried. There’s nothing to the film’s conclusion that makes us thankful that Scamander was there to save the day. Third and finally, there is no evolution with the character. This is very much the awkward, mumbling tick, who existed in the first film, and never during this movie does he feel any closer to solving the matters that bother him, nor does it ever feel like he truly will. At this point, it will take 27 films for Newt to even properly talk to the object of his affection, and everything I mentioned will still very much be an issue.

– At 124 minutes, it is far too long of a movie. Don’t get it wrong, it’s not the run time that bothers me, but rather how we got there. The first Fantastic Beasts film was 130 minutes long, but I never felt bored or suffocating from a convoluted script. The problem lies in the element of too many characters with too many perspectives. Far too often, this screenplay morphs from character to character, quite often leaving important ones on the waiting path, inevitably making them forgettable until they pop up violently again. This film should’ve taken a page from the first film and just combined some of these subplots, limiting the down time in pacing that does anything but hold your attention.

– Antagonist angles that go nowhere. Considering how vital the elements of magic are to this series, it’s surprising that there isn’t more of it in this film. Take for instance Grindelwald’s capability of body possession that is only used twice, during the first act, and never mentioned again. It’s easy to understand how this gift could’ve played out in allowing him to understand his enemies when they are hot on his trail, but that would expose the obvious problem of this film being over in an hour, and at the risk of this gift being believable in the first place. Believe me when I say this isn’t the only dropped gift throughout the film, and what’s worse is they only highlight why no one, at least in this universe, should be able to remotely compete with Grindelwald’s power.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Directed By Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

Starring – Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman

The Plot – All Clara (Foy) wants is a key; a one-of-a-kind key that will unlock a box that holds a priceless gift from her late mother. A golden thread, presented to her at godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Freeman) annual holiday party, leads her to the coveted key-which promptly disappears into a strange and mysterious parallel world. It’s there that Clara encounters a soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three Realms: Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, and Land of Sweets. Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and hopefully return harmony to the unstable world.

PG for some mild peril

POSITIVES

– Disney’s choice for a 65 mm Kodak format for the presentation. To anyone who has just seen the trailers, it should come as no surprise that this is a beautifully exceptional looking movie, filled with enchanted glimmer that radiates ever-so-gently off of the colorful wardrobes and dreamy landscapes. The team of Hallstrom and Johnston have moved mountains in bringing to life this ballet-turned-film to audiences, and the tinsel of magic that only Disney can emit, is a constant throughout Clara’s wonderous journey.

– Considering this is a ballet with very little exposition between characters and events, it’s a benefit for the film to keep things tight at 89 minutes, leaving the fluff of downtime on the cutting room floor. This is a film that constantly keeps moving, whether you’re into it or not, and I commend the production’s desire to not reach for the low hanging fruit of turning this into an epic, like other Disney live action properties. As far as the burning of an hour-and-a-half goes, it’s as smooth as silk, and keeps the attention of adult and child audiences alike, without a noticeable test of patience.

– Stylishly decadent wardrobes. In emulating the many differences in world, both fantasy and reality, the great Jenny Beavan has her work cut out for her. But with a faithful homage to the nutcracker and toy soldier tinker toy looks of the early 20th century, she wows us in ways that literally transform actors into the characters. For Clara, it’s a second act unveil that grooms her into becoming the woman she is destined to become, and for such an occasion it’s a transfixing gown that greatly compliments her skin, and lends itself to the finer side of class and sophistication.

– My favorite sequence of the film. It’s strange that possibly the only scene that I remember from this film an hour after is the ballet early on in the second act, that depicts Clara’s mother finding the Four Realms, because I myself am not even close to being a ballet fan. But it was in this exceptionally choreographed and wonderfully serenated play that not only built the most in backstory for the film and characters, but also fed into the concepts of majestic, an angle that much of this movie sadly under-developed. It’s a subtle reminder of why this story works on stage in ways that it can only dream of on film.

– No forced humor or cliche supporting cast. You can see it early on. Disney wants so badly to give Clara two dim-witted soldiers to chime in when the movie feels forced to cater to younger audiences. Thankfully, they hold off on this instinct, keeping the film’s tone grounded in expectation, keeping this from becoming a bumbling occasion that would do this story more harm than good. The lack of risk does catch up later on, as I will get to, but the best measures are always those that differ itself from what’s been proven ineffective, and this decision pays off immensely for me.

NEGATIVES

– Terribly miscast ensemble. It’s a disappointment to me, because I love Foy as an actress, and it’s not all on her. Everyone here is recruited for the wrong intentions, feeding into big budget films dreadful 90’s idea of bringing along the biggest name possible, regardless if it works for their personality or not. In this regard, Foy lacks energy as a protagonist we devote ourselves to, Freeman and Helen Mirren are in the film for a matter of minutes, and Knightley brings forth easily her most annoying portrayal to date. To piggyback off of what I said earlier, I enjoy all of these people individually as actors, but their casting here leaves much to be desired in the way they commit to their roles, and even expanding on their range as actors, making this feel like nothing more than a paycheck project.

– Same old same. You’ve seen it every year: a film will come along involving a child being shipped off to a wonderous land, and asked to save it. There’s nothing shocking about “The Nutcracker” taking this ages old troupe, but rather how little it truly does in adding layers of depth to such a tired plot. Because I’ve seen this concept played off in films like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Empire of the Sun”, and most recently “Ready Player One” to name a few, I can telegraph what will happen throughout, leaving little suspense or imagination to a decaying product.

– Considering this is a film with four different realms inside of this adventure, there’s an overall great lack of concern for the world building that goes unnoticed. Attribute this to the minimal runtime if you must, but in films that depict worlds far from our own, I prefer to be brought up to speed on what makes this place so special, and it just isn’t present here. If it’s in the title, you better do a great job of luring the audience inside, and there was never a moment over C.G backdrops where I felt amazed or riveted by what the film presents.

– This is again another example of a movie with so much computer influence that you wonder why it simply isn’t an animated movie. If you’re going to adapt a story into live action, do so in a way that justifies its existence. Instead, we are treated to hollow properties and poorly rendered rodents that make up the majority, and leave much to be desired in terms of reality. It’s no secret that this is the growing trend, especially with Disney remakes, and to me it’s the kind of creativity the production can muster up in bringing to life live action that impresses me. I’m not against C.G, but it should never make up the majority of any single shot in a movie.

– The dad in this film (Played by Matthew Macfadyen) is creepy to say the least. I get that this is a man who is grieving after the untimely death of his wife, and loneliness eventually sets in, but the way he looks at his oldest daughter in her Mother’s dress, as well as obsess over dancing with both of his daughters, made me slightly uncomfortable to say the least. This is the man’s entire story arc, and his intrusion upon these scenes make it stand out even more unnaturally, and if you think I am indeed bluffing on this, I challenge you to take in the movie and see the weirdness of this aspect, live and in living color.

My grade: 5/10 or C-

Assassination Nation

Directed by Sam Levinson

Starring – Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

The Plot – High school senior Lily (Young) and her group of friends live in a haze of texts, posts, selfies and chats just like the rest of the world. So, when an anonymous hacker starts posting details from the private lives of everyone in their small town, the result is absolute madness leaving Lily and her friends questioning whether they’ll live through the night.

Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use, all involving teens

POSITIVES

– Stylish introduction sequence that sets the precedent. The film opens with this stylish sequence that reminded me of exploitation movies of the 70’s, complete with audible narration and visual likenesses to tell you what’s behind its creative content. In this regard, it pretty much runs through every reason why this film is rated R, giving you a taste of the material before the storytelling has truly begun. This not only showed me that this film had a sense of humor, ala Quentin Tarrantino vibes, but also that it values style every bit as much as substance, welcoming us into a world where law and order has been reduced to civilian measures.

– Authentic dialogue. As a screenwriter, Levinson channels rich honesty in the way he mimics the speech patterns and conversations of today’s youth, bringing forth a level of realism that proves that the man has done his homework. But it isn’t just in the way that this group of free-spirited women communicate personally with each other, it’s also in the articulation and abbreviation of texting that really hammers this positive home. The amount of times that these characters reach for their phones is a constant reminder of how attached at the hips they are to social media, luring them with the cheese that will eventually trap them whole.

– As for the film’s camera work, there’s a documentary vibe that elicits itself from the experimentation in angles and movements that sets itself apart from the rest of the pack. Levinson cashes in quick edits for manipulated long takes, and this decision pays off immensely with some of my favorite scenes that keeps the grip on tension firmly. One such scene involves a house break-in by a masked group of guys, and we the audience are taken through each room of the house from the outside, pasting together the stream of madness that is spreading like a cancer inside. It is definitely one of my favorite sequences of the year, and magnificent for how it’s cut together to feel like it’s playing out in real time.

– Fresh-faced cast. While the film does have some big name long-time actors like Jennifer Morrison, Joel McHale, and even Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard, the decision to hire actresses who are majorly inexperienced is one that pays off greatly for immersing yourself in them as characters. What’s equally more endearing is that each of them steal the show in their own ways, carving out four star-studded breakthrough performances that will undoubtedly bring them to the spectrum of bigger pictures. More than anyone, it’s Young’s nightmarish transformation of Lily that keeps your attention, experiencing a growing reaction to the town that puts her at the forefront of the growing panic.

– Going into this film, I felt that this was going to solely rest as a study of harrowing feminism across a post-Trump elected environment, and while it thrives as that, it doesn’t just rest on those laurels. This is also very much a warning to the kind of stock and security that we put into technology, opening our eyes to how truly vulnerable every one of us are when we think this four inch device shields what’s boiling underneath. We are treated to the fragility of hormone-drive males and how respond to female nudity, and how often women are condemned for doing what they want with their own bodies. All of this echoes these small seeds of truth that we can pull from our own society, allowing the fears that are homegrown within the film to grow with the light of audience eyes firmly focused upon them.

– Reflective storytelling. While I already mentioned the transformation of Lily and what it does to the significance of her character, it also shouldn’t be understated what this does to the movie itself that so faithfully follows her. About halfway through the film, this turns into the scariest Purge horror movie that you’ve ever seen, bringing with it more seeds of honesty than that series could ever attain with satire. The unnerving movements and actions of the townspeople are very effective, and the movie’s thirst for blood is fully realized in the way the angles play with your imagination.

– Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film was the mesmerizing lighting scheme that radiated throughout much of the first act. These unorthodox coloring measures are every bit euphoric as they are absorbing, often embracing the mood of the room and characters respectively with its neon tints. As the film progresses, we are given subtle reminders of this scheme, but never as obvious or as influential as it was during those pivotal first twenty minutes, and I believe this is because there’s something to be said about shaking this almost angelic and dreary perception that the townsfolk have on these girls, in seeing them how THEY want them to be.

NEGATIVES

– Not a major problem, but calling the town Salem was a bit over the top for me. If you know anything about the Salem Witch Trials, you know what I’m referring to, and this not only gives off an unsubtle hint at what’s to inevitably come within our story and main protagonists, but also takes away from the audience relating itself even further to the material. For my money, I wish they would’ve not even mentioned the town name. Mentally, this would be food-for-thought in that it could happen anywhere, and doesn’t limit its message of urgency to one specific place.

– Second act spills. Without a doubt, the second act is the weakness of the film for me, often feeling like its narration is trailing off on character shaping and residential panic to properly bring along its progression. Because of the latter, it greatly feels like the response from the town jumps two steps with little or no warning, exceeding believability a bit with such drastic jumps, and I would prefer Levinson focus slightly more on what’s going on outside of these temporarily protected walls that our group of ladies secure themselves in.

– Principal subplot? One such instance of the sloppy grip that Levinson occasionally stumbles at with his materialistic agenda, is the subplot involving a principal’s secret being revealed. This goes virtually nowhere after the news breaks, and what’s even worse is the lack of involvement from this actor/character as the film goes on, reminds us just how much fat the film could’ve trimmed for itself, in ridding itself of these distracting subplots that take us absolutely nowhere. Another such example is the FBI supposedly tracking Lily’s online movements, but then never actually appearing in the film. Surely something this big would have government workers all over the place, but all we ever get is a goofy sheriff twice removed from a Dukes of Hazzard movie.

7/10

The House With A Clock In Its Walls

Directed by Eli Roth

Starring – Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccard

The Plot – Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccard), after losing his parents, is sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black). He discovers his uncle is a warlock, and enters a world of magic and sorcery. But this power is not limited to good people: Lewis learns of Isaac Izard (Kyle Maclachlan), an evil wizard who wanted to cause the Apocalypse so that he could see what happened afterwards. To do this, he constructed a magical clock with black magic, as long as it exists it will keep ticking, counting down to doomsday. He died before he could finish the clock, but he hid the clock in his house, where Uncle Jonathan now lives. Now Lewis and Jonathan must find the clock before it’s too late, and before Isaac’s wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry), gets to it.

Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and adult language

POSITIVES

– Zany production designs on every level. This is a film that takes place in the 1950’s, and what I appreciate about that is it gives the film a one-of-a-kind style in wardrobe and architecture to compliment the special effects that are constantly flying at us on-screen. The wardrobe in particular is a delightful throwback to the days of faded gowns and dusty blue jeans, and the lighting scheme inside of the house vibrates well off of the gothic style set pieces, that all of which perfectly capture the mood of the material in spades.

– Strong crossover appeal with Harry Potter fans. Whether you know it or not, the book of the same name for which this film is based on was actually an inspiration for J.K Rowling and her series of novels that have re-defined the young adult genre respectfully, so it’s certainly easy to see the appeal for kids in particular, who will easily immerse themselves in this world of similarity. I do have problems with some of the magic itself, which I will get to later on, but there’s clearly enough paranormal instances depicted here that will give the less-picky audience members a roaring good time.

– Black and Blanchett steal the stage. What I appreciated about their relationship more than anything is that the film doesn’t forcefully paint them as this romantic coupling just because every film seems to require that. These are very much two friends with devilishly delicious banter back-and-forth, who colorfully narrate the bond between them that transcends romance. In that way, they very much feel like outcast soulmates who have grown together because of their inability to fit in anywhere else in society, and the duo constantly keep this film on the railings of positivity thanks to their portrayals never feeling like this is a basic paycheck job.

– Sentimentality. Beneath the complexions of spells and warlocks, what won me over for this film immensely was the subplot involving Lewis’s remorse for his parents, and how it crafted and underlying layer of sensitivity for the film that I wasn’t expecting. Early on especially, we feel a sense of great isolation for Lewis that overrides the actor’s lack of focus on emotional resonance, keeping our investment in the character firmly for wanting to see him achieve the greatness he is destined for. Where the film ends especially hammers this angle home, and proves that this film has the heart required to counterbalance the scares, that could or could not test the younger audience.

– Enchanting musical score by Nathan Barr. More often than not, Barr’s tones of temperament ease us through the majestic mystery that resides in this gorgeous house, repeatedly giving that feeling of possibility in the air that the film’s environment requires. Nathan uses a lot of orchestral cues in enhancing the energy of what transpires visually, and offers enough variety in samplings to never feel like each piece is rubbing together or repeating.

– Great world-building in magical spells that will surely satisfy even the most hardcore magic fans. What I like about the spells mentioned and portrayed in the film is that they very much feel like they are ones that are at an introductory level, for the beginner who has recently picked up the skill of magic. Never in the film does Lewis feel like this prodigy who advances without practice, and I appreciate when a film isn’t afraid to document a character’s struggle, especially for something that is anything but easy to pick-up as a casual hobby.

NEGATIVES

– Poor child acting. I’ve already mentioned what worked about Vaccaro’s performance, but his screeching delivery and unbalanced emotional registry made for an uninentional rendering of the character that left him more annoying than indulging. In particular, it’s Owen’s inability to play up the dramatic pulse of the film dealing with his deceased parents that constantly underwhelmed, and left me wondering what could’ve been. Beyond Owen, the extras in the school scene severely lack focus. There are scenes where kids are in frame staring at the camera, that left me wondering how this ever got past the editing room that usually fixes these sort of ordeals.

– Obvious Plot Ploys. As usual in kids movies, there’s a lot of emphasis in the first act objects and subplots that are briefly mentioned, yet quickly diminished, that you know will pop up eventually as the film goes on. It’s terribly distracting for how these drops of exposition force their way into these casual conversations, but one in particular is far worse than the rest. This involves a backstory flashback scene shown to us the audience in film-strips, but doesn’t answer the question of how or who is filming this amazingly edited scene for the time.

– While this isn’t Eli Roth’s best film to date in my opinion, it is definitely the most ambitious of his career. Unfortunately, Eli is only half up to the task of the scope of such a legendary story, feeling the constant nagging of tonal imbalance and lack of overall wonderment that the story so desperately requires. There are interesting aspects that go bump in the night, but the volume of Roth’s magic feels very tamed when compared to a Potter or Goosebumps film that properly emphasized more of the impact and consequences from its delicate pages.

– Underwhelming effects work. While not everything is terrible about the 90% C.G work here, there’s also nothing impressive about it that we haven’t seen from better films. In the era of computer generated effects that often lack weight or heft to their inclusion, here comes another film that finds its way into that dreaded category. The layers of color constantly feel off with their manufactured properties when compared to physical that surrounds them, and the interaction with live actors always feels a step too late to feel surprising.

6/10