Captive State

Directed By Rupert Wyatt

Starring – Ashton Sanders, John Goodman, Vera Farmiga

The Plot – Set in a Chicago neighborhood nearly a decade after an occupation by an extra-terrestrial force, “Captive State” explores the lives on both sides of the conflict; the collaborators and dissidents.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief adult language and drug material

POSITIVES

– A great sense of weight and world building. When science fiction is done right, you can feel the change in tone from environmental differences contrasted so differently from our own world, and “Captive State” rattled me with the hell that our once familiar world has become, at the hands of an unforeseen army watching from above. George Orwell frequently warned us against this kind of thing in “1984”, and like that movie, Wyatt’s world conjures up the kind of feelings in hopelessness and helplessness that invoke the biggest scares from the science fiction genre. To me, once you see how an event has changed a barrage of people, only then will you realize true terror, and the movie’s brand of science fiction terror is held competently in its grasp because it takes something so far fetched and grounds it in reality, so that we the audience can comprehend how our world became this way.

– The genius that is Rob Simonsen. This composer has been lighting up our ears for years, most notably with some of his best work in 2014’s “Foxcatcher” and 2016’s “Nerve”, but his influence in this film echoes constantly throughout, in a musical score that stays with the story un-flinched. Simonsen attains distress in the form of repetition in a single piece of music, and slightly alternating its composition each time through. It reminds me a lot of Cliff Martinez, particularly in his work in Soderbergh films, in that it’s asked repeatedly to amplify the tension of the action-less sequences transpiring, and masters it any and every time. Even though redundancy is the tool used most effectively for Simonsen, the entirety of his work on the score alters so frequently that it never tests the nerves of the audience who are engaged in it, often switching up the tempo alongside the movie when it switches scenery’s.

– Surprises behind every turn. While the screenplay does tend to get away from the general interest of the audience who were promised one particular film and given another, it does reward patience in the form of third rug pulls that do prominently pay-off. Constantly throughout the film, you’re wondering what the correlation is between these many different characters we’re seeing, and the unique way that it ties them all together is something that I admit I didn’t see coming, and made for the tightest of bows in combining truth and logic effortlessly. Aside from this, there’s much respect to be given for introducing us to a subgenre that I’m confident I’ve never seen before, and that is “Alien political thriller”.

– Stirring performances front and back. It’s exhilarating to see Ashton Sanders leading a genre film, especially as he offers up enough heart below the surface to play against what we see front-and-center: a bundle of anxiety, anger, and occasional hope. Goodman is also brilliantly duplicitous, offering an against-type turn as an alien enforcer and Chicago police officer, who thrives within the deepest parts of the new foreign planet leadership, when everyone else around him strives for daily survival. The film dazzles the brightest when these two are on-screen together, but the added intensity of supporting turns from familiar faces like Alan Ruck, Kevin Dunn, Ben Daniels, and of course Akron’s own Vera Farmiga, adds a layer of prestige to a film so unpredictable that any one of them could easily be labeled expendable.

– Unmistakable social commentary. During an age when our own freedoms are being encroached upon, the film’s raw material speaks volumes to the concept of social revolt, and just how long and how much has to be lost before someone is willing to risk it all to change the system. While “Captive State” is certainly a dystopian worst case scenario at best, the seeds of similarity ring true when vital exposition drops hints at walls being set up across major cities around the world, as well as a questionable mayor being criticized for his ties to the newfound leaders of the once free world. Whether or not writers Wyatt and Erica Beeney intended for this haunting story to ring so true with our own trials and tribulations, the fact remains that “Captive State” feels like the bombastic warning to inspire a stern message that if we give an inch, someone else will take a mile.

NEGATIVES

– Better suited for television. Aside from this film just trying to cram far too much story in a brief 104 minute run time, the cheap production value in effects and set pieces, as well as the episodic roller coaster of pacing, makes this feel like it would be better served on a media platform without such limitations. It’s certainly easy to see the clearly visible book ends with each respective act during the film, where one episode ends and another begins, but the dialogue heavy exchanges sacrificing the promised big budget action sequences more than pay homage to binge-worthy television, and makes this a difficult one to stay focused on when the confines of a theater start to feel testing. If “Captive State” were on Netflix, this would be a guaranteed gold mine, but the silver screen isn’t as kind to something that virtually glosses over important details, like how we even got here in the first place, in favor of a computer screen that tells-and-not-shows in a one minute over-stuffed vacuum bag.

– Doesn’t have a central protagonist. One could argue this point in favor of Sanders, but that debate is easy to dispute, especially when you consider that his character goes missing for twenty minutes at a time, multiple times during the film. Is it possibly Goodman? Well, he’s more of an antagonist at times, so the debate to mold him into even a redeeming protagonist with conflictions is something that is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. With so many characters and sections of this story being fleshed out, there’s a severe jockeying for position in screen time that does nothing in managing the kind of consistency required for indulgence and investment. Did I feel for these characters? Absolutely, but the biggest hurdle to jump over is the fact that there’s not enough moments of self-reflection to allow me to see myself in any of their predicaments.

– Horrendous camera work. Much of the fast-paced sequences, especially those of on-foot chases, felt every bit as distorted as they did cropping. What I mean by this is every depiction feels zoomed in far too close, or rumbled with such gimmick shaking cam that leaves it difficult to focus for our eyes or the integrity of the shot respectively. This is one gimmick that I wish would die a horrible death in fast-paced action sequences, because it takes away from the stellar job of the editing, which is surprisingly well reserved here, as well as the impactful sound mixing that narrates the devastation, but thanks to the compact angles we don’t see.

– False advertising. This is without a doubt the biggest obstacle that the movie will face, as the trailer promises us this big budget action blockbuster that is never remotely realized with what transpires. In reality, “Captive State” is a strategic political thriller, the majority of which is spent on the ground building the plans. If this is your thing, fine, but the aliens themselves are shown for probably five combined minutes throughout the film, and even then only crack the glass of potential in terms of what they can actually do. Deceitful trailers raise expectations, and then slowly diminish them with a finished product that is anything but what was advertised, and I can see this unfortunate aspect being something severely compromising to people who paid to see it for a particular reason.

– Poor lighting serves a purpose. This might sound like a positive, but the lack of overall style associated with the film is clearly only used as a convenience to hide the lack of dimensions and rendering with the alien creatures, that makes them indistinguishable. I mentioned earlier that the aliens are barely in this movie, and even when they are we get these ugly depictions in the worst kind of lighting that makes it difficult to register what is taking place. This feeds into the uninspiring production quality of the movie, but the noticeably darker lighting scheme when these monsters show up is every bit as obvious as it is compromising, and gives those brief scenes of payoff yet another test of patience with an audience who have already had enough.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Wonder Park

Directed By Dylan Brown

Starring – Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Kenan Thompson

The Plot – June (Denski), an optimistic, imaginative girl, discovers an incredible amusement park called Wonderland hidden in the woods. The park is full of fantastical rides and talking, funny animals , only the park is in disarray. June soon discovers the park came from her imagination and she’s the only one who can fix it, so she bands together with the animals to save this magical place and bring back the wonder in Wonderland.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and action

POSITIVES

– Eye fetching detail in animation. While there were some flaws with the character detailing, which left things like mouth movements and reactionary impulses feeling a bit delayed, the set designs and coloring pallet instill a vibrant sense of imagination to the product that puts the wonder in “Wonder Park”. Particularly in the dynamic between the grey undertones of the deceased park, which give it a decayed look, and the rich tapestry of it when it lives and thrives, we get a visual rendering of the atmosphere that the film has trouble translating into personal feelings. Likewise, the immense set designs and creativity behind some of the rides made it feel experimental like a Sims game brought to the big screen, all the while leaving valued minutes to devote to the mechanics of such unorthodox inventions.

– A positive message earned. As to where most kids movies these days harvest a personal message that often feels tacked on or contradictive to what is transpiring in the movie, the film’s desire to inspire and celebrate creativity is something that burns translucently throughout, and gives the film such honorable intentions that should echo with every member of the family. The film crafts the ideals of dreams as this sort of physical presence in our lives that breathe with the kind of energy that we put into them, and if those ambitions are shelved, Wonder Park represents that on a grand scale. Visual metaphors combined with heart in message, gives this story something deeper to reach for than the conventional kids movie we have come to expect.

– Filmed in 2.39:1 scope aspect ratio. This is only the fifth time that Paramount has attempted this with an animated property, but I think it pays off not only in capturing the immensity of the park itself, but also the madness associated with the mood inside. These establishing shots do so much more for the movie than the meandered script ever does, and it’s proof that camera stylings deserve consideration even in an animated setting, if only for the way it hooks the audience in to its mayhem before it breaks their trust. Read on.

NEGATIVES

– One problem ties to everything. When I look back on all of the things wrong with “Wonder Park”, the one common motive is because of a barely 78 minute run time that condenses every possible theme and subplot that the film tries to harvest. On top of it, the pacing is horrendously erratic, feeling like the movie is constantly on fast forward through skewered lines of dialogue that are constantly rushed, as well as the antsy setting that changes every thirty seconds. After a while, this film gave me a headache to even concentrate on it, and it establishes firmly the argument against easy time sits for the sake of an antsy audience.

– The dropped ball of dramatic pulse. One subplot in the film revolves around grieving, and actually intrigued me as to what the film could do with such heavy levity that develops depth for a movie like this. But it never materializes because the film and our central protagonist put it in the back of their minds to never be mentioned or touched upon again, and it wastes what could’ve been this movie’s “A Monster Calls” moment, complete with character maturity and epiphany that really allowed you to relate to the anything-but-engaging June character. Even worse than this, the film neatly tucks away this angle in the closing minutes, proving that if it did have any balls, they were left behind on one of the rides because this movie, like others, feels that kids are too stupid to grasp with loss.

– Undercooked material. The worst kind of kids movies are the ones where there are no redeeming laughs or material to at least you entertained while you sit through the rest of the movie that doesn’t measure up, and this is the case with “Wonder Park”, a movie so devoid of emotional response that it made me wonder if I was sedated. The humor not only fails in this movie, but it fails so bad that even the kids weren’t buying it in my theater. Even the cute noises and loud sounds that animated movies go to when they refuse to write anything clever weren’t working, and it just sort of makes every scene a chore to sit through when it’s reaching for something that so evidently isn’t there in the slightest.

– Zero character exposition. This is a strange one for me, because I didn’t feel like a movie could omit even its lead character from any kind of build that properly fleshes out her personality and moral character. When you think of June, you must ask yourself what you learned about her in the movie. For me, it’s that she loves theme parks, she loves her mother, and that she’s mechanically inclined. That’s it. These are things that you would probably pick up on if you spent ten minutes with the character in real life, but after spending this much time, the juice simply doesn’t warrant the squeeze. Aside from June, the other characters are just personalities instead of people. The film has so little desire to include them in anything meaningful or rendering that it just kind of reserves them to being these voices that never materialize as living, being things, and completes the underwhelming layer of character development that the script doesn’t waste time on.

– Obvious copyright ducking. The movie never says Wonder Park once in the film. Instead, it says Wonder World repeatedly. So why call it Wonder Park in the first place? Perhaps it’s because Disney owns the rights to Wonder World, and that the mention of it would cease the production of this film faster than you can say frozen Walt. Or here’s an idea, just refer to it as Wonder Park in the lines of dialogue, because ya know, IT IS THE TITLE OF THE MOVIE. This kind of sloppy execution is something that you would expect from an unknown studio, but for Nickelodeon Pictures to bring forth this cowardice, only reminds you of the bigger, better studio that is producing more meaningful pictures than this in its sleep.

– Production troubles. The movie is a chaotic mess, which may have been inevitable given its troubled production history. Paramount reportedly fired the original director in January 2018, when he was accused of “inappropriate and unwanted contact” with women. (Through his lawyer, he denied the charge.) He was replaced by a trio of filmmakers, none of whom getting directing credit. Five months later, the actor who voiced one of the park mascots, a narcoleptic bear named Boomer, also was replaced after sexual-misconduct allegations. Somewhere between those two events, the movie’s title was changed. One could write this off as a string of bad luck that occasionally catches up to film crew’s, but I call it a sign from a higher power telling them when it’s time to pack it in.

– Floundered voice work. Outside of the animated complexity of John Oliver voicing a romance riddled porcupine, the entirety of this heralded well known cast is wasted by a string of poorly directed and energetically lacking deliveries that highlight this as a paycheck only job. I probably shouldn’t say this about kid actors, but the 14-year-old Denski’s monotonous inspiration of this animated property lulls it down to a sense of dreary hypnotism that is anything but a compliment. As a protagonist, she lacks the kind of excitement associated with a character of her particular skillset, and gives us nothing to look forward to since this is where the movie spends the entirety of its time. Jennifer Garner also underwhelms again, bringing nothing of dimension or difference to her usual familiarity. Her and Thompson are probably the only two you can easily make out in the cast, and it’s a testament to the lack of experimentalism that they bring to the role that could otherwise open some new doors for the longevity of their shelf lives as stars.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

Captain Marvel

Directed By Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Starring – Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law

The Plot – The story follows Carol Danvers (Larson) as she becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races. Set in the 1990s, Captain Marvel is an all-new adventure from a previously unseen period in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language

POSITIVES

– Delightfully engaging cast of characters all around. For the title character, Larson is solid at conveying the dramatic pull of Carol’s loss of life on Earth, as well as the personable side of her demeanor that allows her to have fun through some truly trying times in the balance. My lone problem is in her ability to come across as intimidating to her opposition because of her inherited powers. Perhaps it’s in the way that her enemies view her, as a weakling woman, but to me I felt that anger and fire deep below in Larson’s performance was missing from her complex character, and I hope it’s something they can further flesh out in future movies with her. What Larson does thrive at however, is being a sponge that soaks up and adapts to the change in personalities she comes across. Most notably, it’s in her impeccable chemistry with Jackson’s Fury and Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg where we get the most indulging sense of banter between scenes and characters, making for thoughts of a buddy cop movie that floats to the surface. Jackson is definitely the show-stealer for me, as finally we get a film where Fury is brought to the forefront of the conflict and resolution, allowing us to see him in his prime, long before time and shadows forced him to step away from the action. Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos also shouldn’t be slept on, as his exceptional range as an actor gives him the power to connect to the audience despite being under layers of make-up and prosthetics for his character.

– Complete musical package. For the first time in a Marvel film, we are treated to a female’s perspective in musical score and accompaniment, as Pinar Toprak’s electronic atmosphere gives the film’s scenes of war and reveal a fine combination of pulse and energy necessary to hook the audience firmly into the sometimes abrupt movements of the camera. Likewise, the film’s soundtrack collection of 90’s favorites, although topical at times, does succeed in capturing the eclectic essence of 90’s top 40 radio for now future generations to immerse themselves in. One such song near the end of the film, I actually predicted would pop up, and while there are instances like this that sometimes feel obvious, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t lip-sync along once they made their presence felt to the dynamic of the story and title character.

– Computer generation effects at their finest. For my money, the transformation effects used on Fury and Coulson in the film, to make them look decades younger, is some of the most seamlessly effective enhancements that I have seen to date, and speaks volumes to the way Disney calculates where to spend their cash. This is of course a story that takes place in the 90’s, so obviously make-up isn’t going to cut it. Instead, the actors are shot and redistributed to the audience in a way that adds an inspiring layer of reality to the movements and authenticity of their shapes and size to the film, that would before feel obvious in its inclusion. There’s subtlety in artificial effects work, and Marvel just paved the way for an entire generation.

– Touching tributes. Being that this was the first film after the untimely death of Marvel founder Stan Lee, you knew that the familiar face would pop up a time or two, and thankfully the movie takes ample time to pay respects to the reason we’re all here in the first place. I won’t spoil much, but there’s an introduction to the movie that is every bit as clever as it is resounding, as well as a usual cameo appearance that may be my new personal favorite for Lee, considering the prop that he carries with him in the scene, and where it fits from a timeline perspective. I’m not sure if this scene was shot before Lee’s death or not, but the computer generation that I mentioned earlier gives me hope that Excelsior will live on forever.

– Overabundance of comedy. This would usually be a big negative for me, especially considering there are a few deliveries that didn’t land for my auditorium, but the film’s tonal decision to establish a healthy amount of humor for this character is one that I give great credit for. When the film was missing for me in waiting for this lead character to remember who she used to be, I was treated to clever quips in the form of a dangerous cat, Jackson’s impeccable straight man persistence, and of course 90’s nostalgia that constantly reminds us how far we’ve come with technology. The latter is also part of the genius of the particular place and time of the film’s setting, as they don’t have Tony Stark’s inventions or advanced technological measures to guide them through, therefore creativity is all of the rage, and it is incorporated in such a way that will poke and prod at anyone in the theater who is over the age of 25 and still remembers their America Online Password.

– Positive pacing. Perhaps the single biggest accomplishment in this two hour movie is how, despite its narrative flaws, it never manages to slug or stand in place for too long. Instead, the pacing of this script constantly keeps moving and keeps you glued to the unfolding characters who move in and out of frame in the fight for this unforeseen power. As far as Marvel movies go, pacing is often one of the biggest flaws that I have, often times padding a film’s run time to reach a certain time destination, but I feel like two hours was perfect with the knowledge dispersed inside, all the while allowing for just enough time to soak up these rare character engagements and 90’s setting all the same.

NEGATIVES

– Struggles under the weight of its responsibility. As a narrative, this is a link to the past, an origin story, a fitting chapter to the on-going Avengers story, and a potential entry way into the next phase of the Marvel universe, and I think all of that simultaneously struggles under that weight. This is a very scattered narrative in the form of a non-linear style of storytelling, and that direction presented some issues with exposition obvious dialogue, as well as audible character narration that was only used to solidify what the previous scene already showed us. Beyond this, the jump cuts are edited in a way that felt every bit as choppy as they did visually unappealing, and when sequences are this visually repulsive, you wish that they would just go with the conventional dream effects that, while overdone in cinema, at least don’t force you to stop every few minutes to wonder where they fit in.

– Speaking of visual presentation, the film never carves out a visual captivation for its film in the same way that Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, or the Thor films made famous. It doesn’t have to be as beautiful looking or enchanted as those movies, but the coloring filters used in this film wasted some eye-catching landscapes in planetary details that would usually pop with their introductions, but instead came off as looking like they were clouded in a dense fog that rendered them colorless. I point particularly to the first act of the movie, when the establishing scenes waste away so much of the movie’s stylistic personality in ways that don’t even allow the colors of the costumes to make their presence felt, and it all made me think the finished product required one final post production edit to remind us of the vibrancy of the worlds that Carol is fighting for.

– Fumbled fight sequences. Too many cuts, too mundane of fight choreography, and especially far too close on the angle in depictions. It was not only very difficult to follow through with what was transpiring on screen between these scenes of physical conflict, but it suffers in the same way that D.C Films resolve their conflicts: By throwing everything at the screen in order to convince you of resolution. There are no shortage of explosion porn or crash devastation to make the audience flinch, but because we have an editor who is anxious in making their presence felt, it all just comes across as jumbled pieces from a puzzle that never fits together in the movement of the scene. My favorite fight scene of the film was a practice fight that happens in the first five minutes of the movie, and that’s a nothing fight between two characters. It’s all downhill from there.

– No struggle what so ever with her powers. Carol Danvers ability to adapt to any new knowledge or power that the movie gives her, is something that I think takes away greatly from the human side of Captain Marvel that is never truly fleshed out. In any superhero film, self-conflict is the strongest form of developing empathy, and there is none when there’s never truly a moment where this character fails. Even though Captain America or The Hulk now tangle with newfound capabilities, it’s their inner tortured souls in vulnerability that allow them to connect with the audience, and this movie doesn’t afford Danvers the same bend. Any miniscule level of adversity is really more of a hiccup or an accidental move incorporated by someone else around her, and it ultimately constructs what feels like an android developed in Tony Stark’s lab, as opposed to a human being coming to terms with the fear of a new gift that she knows nothing about. MINOR SPOILER – It doesn’t just stop with Carol however, as a little girl also manages to come up with a familiar costume, thanks to some Skrull technology that she herself has never used.

My Grade: 6/10 or C+

Arctic

Directed By Joe Penna

Starring – Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir

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

Rated PG-13 for adult language and some bloody images

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Fighting With My Family

Directed By Stephen Merchant

Starring – Florence Pugh, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

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

Cold Pursuit

Directed By Hans Petter Moland

Starring – Liam Neeson, Emmy Rossum, Laura Dern

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Directed By Mike Mitchell

Starring – Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett

The Plot – Reunites the heroes of Bricksburg in an all new action-packed adventure to save their beloved city. It’s been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are now facing a huge new threat: LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than it can be rebuilt. The battle to defeat the invaders and restore harmony to the LEGO universe will take Emmet (Pratt), Lucy (Banks), Batman (Will Arnett) and their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds, including a strange galaxy where everything is a musical. It will test their courage, creativity and Master Building skills, and reveal just how special they really are.

Rated PG for mild action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Endless imaginative animation. Since this is a sequel, the stakes and production should be twice as strong, and thanks to a collection of immensely detailed Lego structures and a variety of ever-changing landscapes and scenery, the film’s digitalization refuses to ever grow stale, all the while raising the bar respectively between two different worlds, real life and Lego, that offer enough contrast in character movements to flesh out the rules and engagements of each atmosphere. The color scheme is vibrant in depiction, offering a cornicopia of colorful explosion to constantly hold the attention and amazement of each respective age group.

– Character cameos. The first Lego Movie brought us the introduction to one of my favorite Batman’s of all time, but it’s nothing compared to the intelligence instilled in how the sequel incorporates some familiar faces into the Lego Universe. I won’t spoil anything, but the one that steals the show easily for me is a 90’s action icon who pops up twice in extremely creative and humorous ways, that may or may not be his best performance in years. Aside from him, there are appearances with everyone from superheroes, to sports stars, to teen heartthrobs, and even an easily recognizable actress to play Will Ferrell’s wife, that is just too perfect not to capitalize on.

– A completely brand new earworm of a soundtrack. While nothing reaches the replay value or adventurous spirit of something like “Everything is Awesome”, the musical numbers in the film offer plenty of balance and eclectic instrument progression that will surely craft a favorite for everyone. For my money, it’s definitely the appropriately titled “This Song Will Get Stuck In Your Head”, a building stadium anthem that not only pokes fun at the repetition of chorus used in most modern day pop music, but also speaks volumes to the way a track will inflict pain no matter how bad we try to fight it. It’s the perfect cap on another collection of surefire favorites that won’t relent until they have been played in every family minivan cruising the world.

– The progression of the script. When the film started, the first act felt like a chore to get through, mainly because every scene during this time was given away in the overly-revealing trailer, leaving nothing but predictability in the way, but thankfully the rest of the film builds an intriguing triple-tiered narrative, all the while harvesting something truly conveying for our particular time in history for its heartfelt message. For the last hour of this film, this very much reached the level of the satire and sharp delivery of the first movie, allowing it to serve as that rare example where a movie progresses instead of regresses.

– What a cast. There is simply too much to cover here, but the double duty work of Chris Pratt, the brawn edginess of Elizabeth Banks, the sinister personality of Tiffany Haddish, and of course the dry narcissism of Will Arnett fire on all cylinders, giving us no shortage of vibrant personalities to bounce off of one another. This is an ensemble-first kind of film, in that the sum of its parts equally help boil the pot, and while no one truly loses the familiarity of their one-of-a-kind tones, the infectious energy delivered by some of the most hip actors working today is simply too enticing to ignore.

– Not afraid to get dark with its material. I love a movie that can grow with its following chapters, because this keeps things from getting stale or even far too similar to its predecessors, and in that regard we have a third act psyche-out that was every bit as terrifying for our favorite characters as it was transcendent in capturing the dire dread of the situation. Did I know what was coming during the psyche-out? Absolutely, but I commend a movie greatly for capturing the magnitude of the antagonist’s plan, even rivaling that of “Avengers: Infinity War” in terms of inescapable weight that registers hard with us the audience effectively.

– Actually feels like a sequel. Aside from the film connecting the events of Taco Tuesday to the now weathered and decay look inside of Bricksburg, the very twist associated with the ending of the first Lego Movie more than sets the ground for what we’re seeing transpire before us in this film. Because we know who and what is behind the miniature movements, we feel a need to better trace how all of this is possible, and while I do have more than a few problems with the logic design inside of the gimmick, which I will get to later, I will say that establishing this film as a compendium piece to its original chapter gives the series continuity that is sadly missing from a majority of episodic kids movies.

NEGATIVES

– The percentage of humor. The first Lego Movie was near perfect in this regard. In fact, it was so good with its comedy that the rapid fire delivery of hearty laughter forced me to miss some jokes because I was still laughing from the previous delivery. With this sequel, that sadly isn’t the case, as probably only 40% of the jokes pulled a chuckle out of me, and this is because the film so obviously caters more to a child demographic with this sequel. That is to be expected with a kids-first movie, but part of what I enjoyed so much about the first film is that it was something that kids and adults could take in and equally indulge in, as to where this film left me with a feeling that lacks the consistency or confidence of material that was literally everywhere in its previous chapter.

– Too many musical numbers. As I mentioned earlier, the musical force behind this film does remain faithful in giving audiences at least one more earworm in unlimited listens, but the pacing of the inclusions themselves could’ve used more restrain, particularly during that of the late second act, which fires off three different tracks in a matter of ten minutes. What’s even more discouraging is that not all of these songs are winners in progressing the plot, nor tickling the tummy of its audience, and instead the failures just feel like unnecessary padding in stretching this run time beyond where it needs to be.

– Twist inconsistencies. There’s many problems that I had with the twist revealed late in the first film that definitely doesn’t make sense here. SPOILERS AHEAD – For one, where do all of these character voices come from if they’re being moved and played for by children? If you don’t have a problem with this aspect, you should consider that Will Ferrell, who plays the father in this family, voices a Lego character in this universe, but apparently the other kids do not. Another problem takes place when the protagonist and antagonist have a fight under the washing machine minutes after the kids have put away their toys. The movements of these Lego characters would make us think that someone must be playing with them if they are moving during this confrontation, so I ask how this is possible in the first place?? If you think this was the only time that an inconsistency like this reared its ugly head, think again, as there were many scenes that simply don’t add up with the rules we’ve been told and run through. If this doesn’t bother you, fine, but you have to at least acknowledge that this movie doesn’t follow the rules that it has taken two movies to establish.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Destroyer

Directed By Karyn Kusama

Starring – Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Miss Bala

Directed By Catherine Hardwicke

Starring – Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ismael Cruz Cordova

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 4/10 or D

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-