Lady and the Tramp

Directed By Charlie Bean

Starring – Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Sam Elliott

The Plot – A timeless retelling of the 1955 animated classic, that features a pampered house dog (Thompson) and a tough but lovable stray (Theroux) embarking on an unexpected adventure and, despite their differences, grow closer and come to understand the value of home.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and action/peril

POSITIVES

– Distinguishable score. What I love so thoroughly about the musical compositions done here by composer Joseph Trapanese is there’s a real sense of geographical identity maintained by the flavors and instruments that he uses to accentuate our introduction into this world. The trumpets and horns seem to elaborate of a Louisiana feel, complete with big band swing numbers to remove doubt in the form of accents by the actors, which certainly aren’t present. Aside from this, Trapanese has fine audible timing as a composer to know just when to switch up his tempo’s from warm and light-hearted to suspenseful and ominously resonant, and it keeps so much of his work from remaining so very one-note, similar to how many of Disney’s animated property scores rubbed together in constant repetition.

– Intricate production value. For a Disney streaming offering, this section is highly exceptional for the budget that they’re given to work with. The dated wardrobe of 1909 is not only wonderful at immersing us into the thread designs of the established day, but their consistency between three-piece suits and free-flowing gowns are seen as far as the eyes can stretch, using every possible angle of framing to give subtle reminder of this place that feels far from our own. In addition to this, the set design is absolutely off the chain, using no shortage of shelving to show off some of the more sturdy inventions of yesterday. This gives the sets an almost three-dimensional rendering, complete with vibrancy in coloring that keep them from ever fading in the background.

– Surprising special effects. While not nearly as effective or believable as I would eventually prefer them to be, the subtle influence of canine movements in the film is a welcome step of positivity moving forward that will hopefully help the ball swing more in Disney’s live action favor. It helps that live action dogs are used for the integrity of the scenes, leaving the post-production to focus more on just the mouth movements and emotional resonance on the faces of these furry friends. On the latter, it’s slightly better than “The Lion King”, but still nowhere near as expressive as an animated movie made nearly seventy years prior to it. On the former, the mouth movements are nearly perfect with what’s being heard in dialogue deposits, and flow naturally once you get over the initial first ten minutes, where seeing dogs talk in live action form feels strange in the real world feel that Disney seems aiming towards. It proves that subtly rings truest in bringing two sides of artistic direction together, and bringing forth the realist depiction of animated animals from Disney to date.

– Differences. The overall structure of the story still remains very similar to the original “Lady and the Tramp”, but there are more than a few measurable changes to the direction of the story, which for the most part ground the story accordingly towards more of a dramatic enveloping. This is seen more than anywhere else during the late second act, where Lady and Tramp begin their cross-town descent through a night of silly hijinks, and end sampling some deliciously-appealing spaghetti and meatballs. It cuts through too much of the downtime, which stretches the original movie even for its 72 minute run time, and instead invests more time within the dynamic of the two dogs, making their eventual friendship all the more valuable because of the backstories receiving further emphasis. There are unfortunate sacrifices to the edit button, which I will get to later, but if nothing else I appreciate Disney instilling anything different from the live action shot-for-shot remakes that have made them all comfortably uncomfortable.

– Compelling vantage points. Part of what I’ve always loved about the Lady and the Tramp lore is its contrast in placing two characters from opposite sides of the track, and fleshing them out in a way that allows each of them to learn about the other in ways that help each of them grow as canines. This educative side of the ages old nature versus nurture debate not only creates some uncomfortable dynamics for Lady and the Tramp alike, but also supplants an air of social commentary poignancy that teaches us the importance of those less fortunate. Lady only survives during her time on the street because of Tramp’s intellect and awareness when dealing with danger and abusive authority, and Tramp’s family prejudice is only defeated when he opens himself up to the love that being adoptable can pertain. It teaches us against being close-minded, and reminds us that only possibilities come from opportunity.

NEGATIVES

– Human characters. I understand that this is a story first and foremost about the canine protagonists, but the human element of the film is so lukewarmly underdeveloped that they often come across as the very same cartoon characters that this film was trying so hard to get away from. Some of it’s on the performances, which I will get to later, but for the most part it’s the impossible personalities that are anything but honest in a real world rendering. I point to the cherished restaurant scene, where a snobby business owner yells at his staff to hurry along to the packed house waiting, but takes more than enough ample time bringing plates of food to dogs outside, as well as serenading them with a violin and ukulele. In addition to this, the owners might as well be pieces of paper. They have no personalities or influence on the dynamic of the film, nor do they make enough of an impression to warrant how much screen time the movie gives them. This is also prominent with the film’s antagonist; a dog catcher played by Adrian Martinez, who is a one-note Disney villain who might as well be spitting fire from his mouth. If you’re going to establish a real world conscience, make the characters live and breathe inside such a decision. Otherwise, these are cartoon humans living in a live action real world, and it just doesn’t blend well together for compelling characterization.

– Musical minimalization. This is where the edit button really starts to get over-zealous, as so many of the cherished tracks and musical numbers that familiarize people with a healthy dose of nostalgia is, for the majority, gone here. I can think of at least three musical numbers that are nowhere to be found, and the negative condentation that this has on the film is it makes it all the more difficult to indulge in the supposed depth of their personalities. The lyrics of the songs better help to flesh out the psychology of these furry characters and what they’re feeling. Without it, we not only lose the magic of the moments in translation, but the movie’s 96 minute runtime does eventually start to hold us prisoner because of how little material there is to fill it.

– Culturally and historically insensitive. I hate playing this card during a kids movie, but there are still more than enough heavy influences that creep up into the frame of this 2019 installment. For one, the depiction of a mixed race couple as Lady’s owners is one that I commend the company for in establishing some semblance of progressive ideals to the story’s merit, but in setting your film in 1909, it does do a disservice in educating youths on the influence that racism played in deep south America. Readers probably won’t agree with me, but things like these don’t sit well with me when you have the responsibility of educating during a time piece film. Whether it’s a kids movie or not, it ignores what was prominently a factor in the world’s foreground. This is why I would prefer that the movie be set in current day, as opposed to 1909, but then we’d lose so much of the production value, so damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There are other examples with Asian and Spanish characters, but those would be getting into spoiler territories, so I will save that for another day.

– Forgettable performances. This especially pains me because I’m a huge Tessa Thompson fan, but the limitations of the script and direction from Bean keep this high-brow talented cast from ever making the roles their own. On Tessa, she has enough energy donated to the role, but not enough emphasis on the dramatic side that engulfs her character whole during the second half. Theroux is virtually insignificant, meaning anyone could play this role and get at least the same charm and charisma that he minimally returns us on throughout the film. As for human characters, it was nice to see Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemmons, and Yvette Nicole Brown do their thing, but all of them act like they were given these single word phrases to fill in the gaps of their characters, with not an ounce of intelligence between them. The cast was the last thing that I expected to be the problem here, but thanks to flat direction and meaningless choices made with the characters, they can’t even measure up to the physical performances of their furry on-screen co-stars.

– Uneven halves. The first half is dull and repetitive, offering no shred of intrigue to draw us into this story beyond the top-notch production design. It slugs along feeling the weight of its minutes because it’s approaching the story from far too many angles, when in reality all we want is two cohesively parallel narratives running simultaneously until these two dogs become one. There’s no relief in the second half either, as the lack of developed drama eventually catches up to the film’s final dramatic conflict (If you can call it that), where a rat who we’ve never heard from or mentioned once throughout this film is suddenly a threat to a pivotal character. Because of its spontaneous appearance, this feels every bit as tacked-on as it does inconsequential to what it brings forth. Was this rat going to poison this person, or bite it? What was the intention here? Ultimately, it tries to be too dramatic when it never shifts the gears in motion towards heading that way, and outlines no shortage of faults throughout this screenplay that Disney knew better than to show in a theater.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

The Good Liar

Directed By Bill Condon

Starring – Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey

The Plot – Career con artist Roy Courtnay (McKellen) can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish (Mirren) online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.

Rated R for some strong violence, and for adult language and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Stirring performances. McKellen and Mirren are national treasures. This much certainly isn’t news, but even in the third act of their respective careers, these two immense figures of the silver screen are still providing vastly intriguing directions to their unlimited depth. In this movie, it means the McKellen rivals his turns as Magneto in the “X-Men” franchise, this time reminding us that pure evil resides the strongest in a man with no superpowers. Ian is remarkably vile in this portrayal, using vulnerability as a senior citizen, as well as a soft English demeanor to trap his prey before turning on the conniving intelligence that has made him an unearned millionaire at such a tender age. He meets his rival, however, in Mirren, who brings forth another onion-peeling performance as Betty. Her naivety is easily her most distinguishing feature, but it’s the directions taken with her character during the third act that prove there’s logs of anguish burning deep beneath her reserved furnace of emotional resonance. Both of these leads make the movie a lot better than it rightfully has any business being, and gives us one more glimpse through the keyhole of two careers who share an air of dedication and sophistication that is so rarely found anymore in today’s Hollywood landscape.

– Fitting pieces. This is a film whose devil is in the details, and while we eventually comprehend that a twist is on the horizon, it’s the clever insertion of clues along the way that will make “The Good Liar” better with its second watch. Without giving away anything, I will say that you should pay close attention to the decor and imagery that is focused on throughout, because it’s in those instances where we see the wheel of curiosity turning, but don’t understand how it spins until our closer look is revealed. It helps Condon to get further lost in these characters and their lifestyles, giving a very psychological pulse to the story that is often overlooked from films who don’t invest meaning in set designs. I love a story where the imagery plays a piece into where the direction is headed, and with Bill’s measured level of adaptive direction from the novel, he brings to life those descriptively miniature details to harvest into something pre-established within the conflict.

– Tonal precision. A lesser film would take a plot involving an 80-something con man, and render it to comedic proportions, and while there are instances of pleasurable relief maintained within the air of the deceit, I am thankful than Condon took serious care in fleshing out the danger of the deed, especially during a time when we are so vulnerable with our valuables. Condon maintains a healthy balance of paranoia and urgency in the air, that while nothing as spine-tingling as a spy thriller or a psychological stinger, does the job in illuminating Roy as this no-nonsense danger to society. This atmosphere eventually matures even more by an unraveling third act, which only ups the stakes, and reminds us how our pasts are the only things that can run faster than we can.

– Subtle lighting. There are two aspects to credit Tobias A. Schliessler with, and the first is his incorporation of lacking light to sequences that vividly paint the picture of secrets materializing from below. Tobias uses a lot of dominant shadow-play to present the faces in frame as half dark/half lit to elaborate the double lives that each of them are playing, all the while maintaining the trick that is being presented front-and-center. Also on the colorful spectrum is the scouting of set designs, like the one in the train subway, that preserves a level of European style that is every bit bold as it is foreign to the kind of weathered interiors that we are used to within American cinema. For a movie so dark and deceptive, there’s plenty of substance within the style that Schliessler taps into, giving a lighting scheme that is every bit as reflective of the jaded personalities that bounce from its minimalization of glow.

– Crafty framing. Schliessler’s second praise pays off only if you’re as invested into the narrative as I was. It deals with the duplication of angles between two respective timelines that hint where the story is going long before the words of explanation catch up. During several key sequences in the scene, I noticed not only similarly structured wall designs in certain frames, but also similar imagery and movements of the camera, for how it approaches the clarity of what is obscured. This feeds heavily into the third act state of mind, in how one character has remained confined by their past, stuck in one room on one day where everything changed for the worst. Whether intentional or not, I can’t credit Tobias enough for the way he immerses us seamlessly between two timelines so much that they practically bleed together, and converges them as one cohesive destination that has finally merged together.

– The twists. One thing to understand about this film is that while you will most likely predict the who’s of the story’s pivotal third act plot twist, it’s the why’s that really matter here, and in that regard I had no idea where this film was taking me. I do have problems with its execution that I will get to later, but part of the charm for me was the elaboration of the con that gave the concepts of greed its own two legs to move freely throughout the screenplay. There were moments when I knew what the final result was going to be, but had no clue the amounts of traffic that we would have to navigate through to get there, and it illustrates just how exceptional that Roy is at ironing out the details to push through. Definitely not some of the best surprises that I’ve seen in cinema, but enough sinister sting in the execution to enhance the cinematic experience while watching it.

– Carter Burwell. The very same musical composer who fleshed out a sense of audible identity during academy acclaimed films such as “Carol”, “Fargo”, or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is back to entrance us with another substantial score, this time combining the mystery of a stranger with the heft of a torturous past, to bring forth compositions as dark and rhythmic as they are bold and daring. “A Wire” is certainly one of my favorites, with all of its humming cymbals and articulate bells chiming along next to a typewriter that serves as our introduction into this world, but it’s easily the emotionally devastating “I Went Back Home” that I hummed along with, minutes after I left the theater. Burwell has a skill at encouraging abstraction to his complex themes, and while there’s room to debate which is more fitting on this track, it’s the compromise of tragedy and closure that resonate so soundly.

NEGATIVES

– Convoluted. For my money, the major plot twist of the film, while personal in its incorporation, is clumsily addressed in long-winded execution, which halts the progress of the current day narrative twice for five minutes apiece. Surely there’s an easier way to address this big reveal, but for me, I was fine without it all together. Keeping this film a game of con-men one upmanship feels suited enough for this story, and adding this level of revenge to the story just overthinks what should be clever and sleek. It’s exposition dump 101 with how heavy handed it holds our hands through all of it, all the while these two characters are just paused out of frame while we the audience are sifting through all of it. If you want the backstory added, fine, but surely this method of reveal lets out too much air of momentum that was otherwise leading to an intriguing third act conflict. It highlights why new screenplays have to be adapted properly when transferring to film, because some details just don’t play accordingly on screen like they do in the heft of a novel.

– Pointless timeframe. The film makes a point at the very beginning to establish this story in the year of 2009. Why it does so is beyond me, because never in the film is any social or political instance inflicted to the progression of the narrative, nor are there any spare details of importance needed in tying everything together. Even from a technological vantage point, there’s nothing in the film that explains why this couldn’t be done in 2019 as opposed to a year when damn near everything is identical in this capacity. Why even add a year at all? Just make it a timeless tale that can resonate for years and decades to come.

– Unnecessary rating. I was somewhat surprised to see this given the cherished R-rating that I usually covet for during horror movies or raunchy comedies, especially considering this movie doesn’t do enough to justify why it’s even necessary in the first place. For one, there’s three F-bombs throughout the movie. Remove two of these, and you already have a PG-13 movie. Vulgarity in dialogue to me should have meaning, and while there is one such instance in the film, the other two feel influential off-screen, with a director whispering it into the ear of the actor just to drive a point home. There is one scene of strong visual violence, and it is so extremely rendered that it feels like it comes out of nowhere, and is directed to garner unintentional laughter as opposed to its intended horrific effect. If you’re going to go the R-rating path, make it worth it. The aspects within “The Good Liar”, aren’t enough to add proof to the pudding, and just wastes an opportunity that many other films pine for.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Charlie’s Angels

Directed By Elizabeth Banks

Starring – Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska

The Plot – A trio of ladies are working for the mysterious Charles Townsend, whose security and investigative agency has expanded internationally. With the world’s smartest, bravest, and most highly trained women all over the globe, there are now teams of Angels guided by multiple Bosleys taking on the toughest jobs everywhere.

Rated PG-13 for action/violence, adult language and some suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Upgraded style. In crafting an Angels story once every decade, these films have a responsibility in keeping up with the very essence of the times, and this music video style of presentation is one of few things that this movie invests weight in articulating. The boisterous audibility of its dance-dominated soundtrack combined with its sleek establishing shot movements, gives the film weight in its current day narrative, all the while conjuring a personality in atmosphere that reflects the vibes continued by its trio of ladies at the forefront this time. Even if it has problems with its following execution nearly throughout the rest of the film, the introduction and pre-established flavor is enough of a visual seduction to indulge us into investing more into this world, and above all else settling us into a popcorn action flick for females with its anything but cheap tastes.

– Feminist narrative. Speaking of females, it should come as no surprise that a Charlie’s Angels movie is full of inspirational circumstances for its female audience, which in turn establishes the trio as an action force capable of doing the very same stunts and gravity-defying feats that their male predecessors have done. Aside from this, it’s the message of sticking together and bonding hand-in-hand against a world that even in 2019 still demeans and lessens the importance and capabilities of a gender that has to work twice as hard to reach the same finish line. The Angels are hip, tough, and especially sexy when they need to use it as their strongest weapon against their opposition. It embodies everything that the female spirit could and should be, mastering the consistency of its intention so much better than “Terminator: Dark Fate” attempted two weeks prior.

– Extended universe. Perhaps the coolest aspect of the screenplay is how Banks encapsulates the entire Charlie’s Angels universe in a way that brings three generations of ass-kicking women together in a couple of uniquely constructed scenes. I won’t give much away, but this newest installment confirms that there is one endearing direction that all of arcs are belonging to, giving elaboration to its spy universe in a way that the James Bond movies only hint at. Not only did I enjoy how this movie aligned all of these versions together while driving its current day narrative, but I also appreciated that the prominence of this movie never falls on the shoulders of previous editions that a lesser movie would use as a crutch to hinge at people’s nostalgia. It answers the question, then chooses the option of standing on its own, and whether you enjoy this movie or not, you have to respect it for that direction.

– Geographical punch. Casting further emphasis on its 48 million dollar budget, “Charlie’s Angels” cements the importance of its operation by offering us a constant barrage of location changes that gives this first installment a global cinematography that keeps the scenery challenging. There’s a consistency applied to switching things up at just the right time to keep the establishing shots persistently entrancing, but really it’s the way that the conflict of the group grows in scale the longer the film goes on, forcing them to attack each sting operation with different costumes and respect for the rules of the cultures. A great spy movie should offer a stage big enough so that every corner of the world is affected simultaneously, and even with a conflict that has problems of its own for its lack of vulnerability removed from Banks’ direction, the production fills the blanks the best it can with expansive shooting locations that switch-up as often as dance partners.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired action sequences. Even if the fight choreography is believable enough in selling these petite women as ferocious adversaries, the fumbling shot composition and overzealous editing hinders what chance the actresses have to break convention. For one, the angles here are so tightly claustrophobic that we have difficulty detecting what has taken place during each swing of bodily momentum. In addition to this, the camera uses clever placement of its actors to hide whatever difficulties the production had in manufacturing these scenes, presenting us with a lot of over-the-shoulder depictions that can be sold well enough without ever getting too close to put them in danger. It’s gutless filmmaking at its finest. Finally, the choppy editing is disastrous, stitching together too many different angles for the same shot in a way that overcomplicates what should essentially be filler before the brunt of the storm. Nothing about this action worked for me, and further stirred my pudding of discontent from a series of trailers that came across as spoofing what they should be excelling at.

– Tonal incompetence. To say this movie fails as a comedy on nearly every measure is an understatement. Instead, I will say that not only did I not laugh once in the movie, but the personality particularly of Stewart is so overly forced that it comes across as feeling desperate. This is a major problem for someone like Banks, who has built a career as a reputable comedic actress, but here completely eviscerates the fun factor from something so familiar in pop culture. As for an action offering, the bumbling of what I previously mentioned keeps it from dominating in that area as well. It leaves this movie searching for a comfortable identity of its own, free from the stacking up of failed intentions that are, unfortunately, all too common in this installment.

– Rudimentary dialogue. Easily the worst aspect of the film for me are a series of punchlines and puns that would have seven year old’s asking their parents to take them to the bathroom without a drop in them. When this group isn’t wasting minutes debating which celebrity should be referred to as Birdman, there’s also enough time dedicated to groaning deliveries that don’t emit a single shred of timing or confidence in their embodiment. The worst is easily from Stewart, who as committed as she is to blazing a new trail as a comic heavyweight, isn’t given the kind of lines necessary to make her turn stand-out as anything other than forgettable, five minutes after you leave the theater. If spies talk and break down strategies like this, I think I will take my chances against the terrorists on my own, thanks.

– Predictably bland. There’s a couple of strange instances in this regard. One deals with a plot twist midway through, that feels every bit as telegraphed as it does unnecessary to the stacking adversaries, who aren’t given enough screen time to be anything characatures. Then there’s the treatment of its search for the third angel, which is not only given away in the trailer, but also as obvious as a tornado in Kansas, for there being only three women that this movie spends ample amount of time focusing on. Nothing in this movie surprised me or left a memorable impression of positivity with me, making its biggest problem its forgettable lack of effort that will diminish before the next corporate Charlie’s offering sometime in the next decade.

– Wasted cast. Thank the movie gods for Patrick Stewart, because otherwise this entire picture is void of one convincingly effective performance from the trio of ladies, who are the least interesting characters in their own movie. Kristen Stewart is extremely miscast, Naomi Scott is entirely one-note, and Ella Balinska isn’t given a personality to compliment her yearning for physicality on-screen. It hurts even more that these three lack any kind of chemistry so badly that the script often has to insert these scenes of togetherness to convince its audience that they are indeed growing as a family. One such comes during a train-ride to Istanbul, where these ladies, who only met the day before, are now resting on one another for nothing more than to establish their growth in such a short time. The antagonists are equally misdirected, as the often-scene-stealing Sam Claflin is nothing more than an afterthought to the mid-movie twist that renders him virtually pointless. Claflin isn’t given enough screen time to make an impression, so it isn’t completely on him, but the total lack of effort during exposition makes me think that this was an obligation film that he is still abusing his agent for.

– Finish line stumbles. How can a movie with so many problems save its worst stuff for a time that is supposed to offer relief in the eyes of an audience chained to a radiator to see it? The final moments of this movie are anti-climatic and stretched to the point that they are challenging Marvel for post-movie activity. Where this film ends is without question the most pointless stamp of emphasis that a movie has given in 2019, and only solidifies how little of effort and intention was made towards its success. As for the post-credit sequences, they are these series of ten second cameos that could’ve better been used to sell the big name appeal of its property, but here have the audacity to sell a sequel that I promise will never happen. “Charlie’s Angels” doesn’t have an ending, it has a series of last breaths meant to prolong the suffering of a movie that is already twenty minutes too long, in terms of valued minutes.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

Ford V Ferrari

Directed By James Mangold

Starring – Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe

The Plot – American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Bale) battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

Rated PG-13 for some adult language and peril

POSITIVES

– Production details. This is a film that takes place in 1966, yet doesn’t require the heavy handed quality of beating us over the head with such a presentation that is distracting to the pivotal pieces surrounding it. Instead, Mangold disperses an occasional reminder every so often, lie a dated magazine or grocery design that better helps illustrate the designated time frame. For coloring texture, it’s the sunbaked cinematography of Phedon Papamichael, who has an experimental side of expression shooting visuals classics like “Walk the Line”, “Nebraska”, or “A Beautiful Day”. Phedon’s subtly easily immerses us in the transformation of the era without requiring the desperation of saturated imagery to sell his point, instead letting the toys themselves in the foreground do the talking in giving us an alluring seduction to the automobiles of yesterday. In that regard, the Ford and Ferrari 60’s models are made from the very same scrap metal that is no longer found on cars, as well as a faithful curvature of the car’s framing that accentuates detail right down to the very tee of what Miles took with him across the finish line.

– Fluffy pacing. This is a movie that is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, yet never grinds its gears in presenting an intoxicating narrative. The reason for that is because the first two acts of the movie is constantly moving, taking us through the backstory of the race itself, in addition to the many real life dramatic circumstances that Miles and Shelby dealt with in partnering with a major corporation like Ford. I was surprised to find that when I checked my watch for the first time, there was only 25 minutes left in the movie, acting as a testament to the script’s ability to allow its audience to get lost in these characters, as well as the education lesson given to anyone like me, who knows so little about automobile education. For my money, this film could even afford another twenty minutes on fleshing out its antagonists, as well as diving a little deeper on a gut-wrenching finale that lays everything on the line. It’s definitely one of the easier two hour plus watches that I have had in 2019, and cements a testament to Mangold as a storyteller who knows what avenues to travel to keep audiences invested within the heat of the complexity.

– Surprising special effects. There aren’t many that are especially obvious, but the seamless inclusion of an eye-stretching crowd, as well as some computer generated tricks used on the track, prove that foreign properties to the live action dimension are anything but lifeless. In fact, there’s only one scene in the film, where a plane lands on a runway, that stood out as a bit cheap in its rendering for me. Aside from this, the proximity of the consistency of camera angles used, as well as proper coloring establishment with its live action surroundings, exceeded believability, and nearly fooled me into thinking that Mangold called on thousands of extras to line its rows of stadium seating. These give the film a big budget quality of attention that lesser filmmakers don’t spend nearly enough time on, and overall it’s proof computer generation, when done right, can have an impactful effect on materializing the proper influence that adds to instead of overrides.

– Musical depth. Hats off to musical composer Marco Beltrami for channeling no shortage of musical genre’s nor instruments in conjuring the proper urgency needed to push these racing sequences to suffocating levels of claustrophobic tension. In the first act, Beltrami uses a lot of jazz drums and increasing rhythmic pulse to give the atmosphere a level of ambition, all the while paying homage to the Motown presence that accompanies so much of the film’s consistent setting. In the second act, he switches it up by instilling a classic rock vibe of electric guitar’s and piano to enhance the natural quality of fast-paced racing, granting it an underlying presence that shifts and shakes almost in mirror comparison to the cars that dominate the visual capacity. By the final act, Marco throws what he can at the studio recording, producing a twisting quartet of range that persists with increasing volume like a screwing coming undone in the most unnerving way. I’m usually not a big fan of Beltrami’s scores for their practicality and obviousness to the films they accompany, but something like a racing film works so efficiently for him, if even just for the way he incorporates much of the audible flavor that was present with the particular time frame.

– Informative. Everything in the film is factually based, with regards to the developments of behind-the-scenes aspects that only a movie could bring forth, but what’s compelling is how deep the dive of privacy entails. Not only does this film invade the thick walls of the Ford elite, illustrating its bureaucracy inside with an elaboration of the story’s real antagonists, but it also vividly depicts the kind of faltering science associated with car building. In fact, no other racing movie has ever fruitfully portrayed the annoying-but-inspiring process of deconstructing something so permanently established, and reshaping it in a way that extends its lifespan tenfold because of the passionate team behind it. This screenplay has a love for the most intimate of details, and values their importance in a way that will provide even a few surprising revelations for even the most hardcore of automobile enthusiasts.

– Enthralling sequences. Without a question the most valuable positive of the movie is Mangold’s near perfect direction of shot composition versatility that puts us so close to the action that we nearly feel the heat from the engines pushing themselves in unnatural methods to win. Instead of using shaking camera effects that have become a staple of action movie cinema used to illustrate energy, James instead takes a consistent approach of using wide angle, semi-long take shots, where the cars move in and out of frame with such velocity that it nearly becomes a three-dimensional gimmick for how close they reside. In addition to this, there’s a healthy compromise of bumper point-of-view shots so immersive that we the audience nearly feel the wind blowing through our hair at the ever-changing landscapes emerging and diminishing before our very eyes. It presents the closest possible depiction of being in the driver’s seat without it being an outright first person movie, and thanks to the fine balance of experimentation used to literally drive its points home, the film presents many riveting exchanges where it feels like vulnerability is a character within the movie of so many characters playing with such high stakes.

– Characterization. This movie has tons of it. Aside from investing valuable minutes in its duo of central protagonists, the film outlines everyone from Henry Ford himself, to supporting pit crew members, and especially most important, the Miles family themselves, who are among my favorite characters in the movie. The screenplay has such a respect for these many emotionally diverse people, spending time to flesh out their fears and ambitions in a way that makes us feel like we’ve known and watched them grow for years. What’s important is no two characters are ever the same in personality or speech demeanor, proving that screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Jason Keller provided emphasis in their importance to the story. It offers no defining weak spots of scenes where our favorite characters are away from the camera, and keeps our interests at consistent highs throughout, because they’ve each had their examples to shine in the brightest ways possible.

– Complete cast. Bale gives another transformative performance, emoting Ken with a combination of neurotic intelligence and heartfelt family-man compassion that really presents two alluring sides of the racer’s personality. Damon as well shines with a southern drawl consistency and endless charisma that makes Shelby stand out as so much more than a pioneer of an assembly line, but also as a human being who valued the friendship with Miles so much that he often went to war because of it. Aside from this talented duo, Tracy Letts gives off a mafia-head vibe as the CEO of the biggest automobile company on the planet, Josh Lucas chews up atmosphere as this detestably vile Leo Beebe, and Jon Bernthal resides as the visionary Iacocca, who constructed the pieces that were pivotal to a war nobody thought was possible. Without a doubt, however, it’s Caitriona Balfe who stole the show for me as Mollie Miles. Mollie exudes the same intelligence that her husband has, but has a delightfully pleasant cynicism to her character that often sees moves being made a mile ahead of everyone else, often making her feel like the driver in the marriage. Her scenes with Bale feel so naturally convincing, and Balfe’s influence on the film doesn’t go unnoticed, giving us plenty of laughs along the way of the unfolding madness. During an age when men were at the forefront of many relationships and careers, it’s Caitriona’s Mollie that takes one step forward.

NEGATIVES

– Dated establishing. There is no on-screen text throughout the film, often making it difficult to distinguish how much time has passed, unless a character conveniently mentions it in informative dialogue. Why this is a problem for me is it not only adds unnecessary difficult in conveying to the audience the urgency of the situation of building a revolutionary car in such a brief period of time, but it also makes it a chore to comprehend just how much time has passed along the way. The film flashes forward through lengthy amounts of time so unceremoniously that it outlines a convoluted method of storytelling where simplicity should’ve been the intended measure used to maximize the importance of time. Without it, six months passing feels every bit the same as six days.

– Lack of Ferrari. Without including the side of our Italian rivals, the film unfortunately falls under the category of American propaganda, with a villain character that might as well be a shadowy corporation. It attains that level of ignorance because of its long span of time that passes before we see them again, and when we do see them, it’s only to sneer at the screen to remind us that they are bad, and America good. This is easily where the film could use even more time to commentate their side of the story. Without it, the title, “Ford V Ferrari” is a one-sided battle where only one side is important to the complexion and convenience of the narrative.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Midway

Directed By Roland Emmerich

Starring – Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans

The Plot – The film centers on the Battle of Midway, a clash between the American fleet and the Imperial Japanese Navy which marked a pivotal turning point in the Pacific Theater during WWII. The film, based on the real-life events of this heroic feat, tells the story of the leaders and soldiers who used their instincts, fortitude and bravery to overcome the odds.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, adult language and smoking

POSITIVES

– Strong direction. Yes, this is me complimenting the very same man who helmed garbage like “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Godzilla (1998)”. I guess experience has finally humbled Emmerich, who’s traded in cheesy comedic banter and logically stretched moments of possibility for in-depth, respectful storytelling to honor these soldiers of war from every possible angle. Roland capitalizes on the patient dissection of a rumbling war and behind the scenes strategy, to illustrate how pivotal each measure of informational gain played in each side’s movements. The one mistake he still makes is his extreme propaganda for America, often overlooking pivotal mistakes in policy for moments of heroism. However, I can’t blame him too much for loving his country, especially considering “Midway” is arguably his finest film since “Independence Day”, and proves that he can still offer compelling filmmaking when it stems from a historical outlet.

– Wide scope. One surprisingly pleasant aspect of the storytelling is it honors people from three different sides; Americans, Japanese, and soldier wives, to not only prove that each of them equally sacrificed, but also to keep the dimension of variety constantly churning out something fresh to add to the developments. In the case of the Japanese enemies, it’s especially refreshing to see a movie that establishes a lot of honor, even in motivations that are primarily sinister. It depicts them as being every bit as human as their American opposition, full of the very same fears and risks taken to get one step up. I love a war movie that equally builds both sides towards an inevitable destination of confrontation, and thanks to these side-by-side comparisons, it’s easier to understand that even despite their political differences, they are a lot psychologically closer than people ever could’ve imagined.

– Riveting war sequences. The special effects are right on their mark here, using reputable green-screen designs and computer generation in planes and artillery that maintain a quality of believability despite the over-indulgence of each. The color coordination is naturally resonant in duplicating the clean design of mid-20th century visuals, but the real story comes from Emmerich’s anxiety-riddled editing, which preserves the same vulnerability and tension that is persistent within the heat of the moment. It could be considered choppy by all accounts, but I feel like the frequency of cuts better adds to the conveying of the detection within the barrage of firepower, as well as working as the best rival against predictability that this film rarely fell victim to.

– Immersive sound mixing. This was going to be included in my war sequences section, but deserved its own mention for the level of articulation that remains a constant throughout the film. The best kind of sound designs are often the ones that allow you to close your eyes, and still mentally illustrate what is going on, despite not being able to see it. The volume is perfect without being obviously amplified, the direction duplicates the air attack in all of its zooming teleportation, and the tremendous reach is infinite during sequences with a wide scope, where as much as hundreds of ammunition and planes are flying in-and-out of frame at any given second. Good sound mixing is pivotal in a war movie, but for one whose dominance exists in the air, it’s a chance to vividly render much more audible presence in the echoing atmosphere.

– Stretching ensemble. There’s a big name celebrity behind every corner, but it’s the work of the film’s youth that especially dazzled me, and presented a few surprises in actor’s who are usually the weakest element of the movie they star in, but are given a role to sink their teeth into here. In that aspect, Ed Skrein and Luke Evans give the best performances of their young careers. Skrein plays a cocky pilot whose Jersey accent is only exceeded by the on-screen growth that evolves his character throughout, giving him a commander role when the numbers are never in America’s favor. What Evans lacks in personality, he more than makes up for in bravado and courage, giving us insight into the desire of American soldiers who were eager to play their part in the war despite not having a lot of experience with the assigned aircraft. Beyond this, there are appearances from Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhardt, and of course Patrick Wilson, rounding out a presence of big name talent that still prove Roland as a reputable director who many seek out to work with.

– Mostly factual. The facts tend to get strewed in war films like these, but Pearl Harbor enthusiasts have elaborated that this remake of the 1976 original maintains the level of accuracy to make it an educational watch in addition to an entertaining one. Obviously the movements are the truthful side, with the conversations and strategy being understandably ad-libbed. Emmerich clearly has a great respect for this pivotal moment in American and Japanese history, so much so that he maintains the real life names and accolades that made each of them a decorated hero of war, as well as one of many pieces that added up to this bigger picture of success that they each played a hand in. Finally, the film gives us on-screen text at the end of the film to further elaborate on where each of them ended up, and it just makes you appreciate and want to seek out as many historical reports on these people because of your time spent with their adaptive renderings.

– People make mistakes. As to where typical war movies preserve these godly character soldiers who never miss a target, I appreciated “Midway” because it took time to show the many misses that further cement their human qualities. This is something so unimportant to the integrity of the film, but something that I have to appreciate because it plays so wonderfully into the urgency of the scene’s dynamic, spinning what’s originally expected in a way that allows us to feel the disappointment of the character in focus. There’s a tragic aspect to this, of course, considering more lives are lost the longer the target goes unblemished. This too pertains to the urgency factor for obvious reasons, and overall takes something so nuanced, and virtually unnoticed, and makes it the catalyst for the bigger changes that are inescapably prominent.

NEGATIVES

– Characterization. There’s so very little of it throughout this film. In fact, some characters are never given any personality except the ones expressed by the familiarity of the big name actors that we’ve come to expect, giving us no chance to understand and comprehend their noticeable quirks that add a level of detail to their depiction. There’s rarely any opportunity to experience these people in their element without the war, and this takes a devastating toll on character investment to each particular narrative, never earning the kind of empathy that the screenplay so heavily calls upon.

– Audible problems. This comes in the screenplay and post-production, which manufactured no shortage of noticeable cringe opportunities aplenty for the audience. First up is the horrendous A.D.R, which more times than not stretches these mouth movements in a way that makes them painfully not sync-up. As to where you will catch a bad audio deposit once or twice every movie, I found no fewer than six different examples of dialogue that simply didn’t add up, compromising an 80 million dollar budget for no excuse. The other problem is with the dialogue itself, which is a collage of inspirational quotes and movie jargon 101 that we’ve heard in every single Emmerich movie to date. It’s so recycled and glamorized up for movie purposes that it often has trouble maintaining the grounded in reality quality that the film has going for it.

– Too long. 130 minutes isn’t one of the top ten longest sits for 2019, but if you reach that long for your movie, it better have near-flawless pacing within it, which is definitely a problem with this movie. After kicking it off with an impactful opening sequence detailing Pearl Harbor, the film remains grounded for an ambitious amount of minutes, choosing instead to analyze what has already happened, instead of moving forward on the attack. Beyond this, the second act has nearly no action as a whole, replaced by training sequences that can’t even compare to the gripping pulse that Roland entails during his action scene execution. For my money, the strategy could be narrowed down a bit, making this film 105 minutes, all the while losing none of the story or factual importance along the way. At times, it’s a bit too difficult of a sit, and will only fully appeal to history buffs looking to learn about every side, on and off of the field of battle, to war strategy.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Last Christmas

Directed By Paul Feig

Starring – Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson

The Plot – Kate (Clarke) is a young woman subscribed to bad decisions. Her last date with disaster? That of having accepted to work as Santa’s elf for a department store. However, she meets Tom (Golding) there. Her life takes a new turn. For Kate, it seems too good to be true.

Rated PG-13 for adult language and sexual content

POSITIVES

– Dark humor. For the first half of the movie, we are treated to the charming essence of Feig’s off-beat brand of laughs and visual sight gags that help the audience grow and invest in these characters, especially Kate in that her vulnerability towards humiliation is her greatest quality. For the majority of intended deliveries, I enjoyed a consistent helping of hearty laughter, that lured me right into the holiday setting and all of its strange, quirky characters. It proves that the film does have a vibrancy in personality that makes this anything other than the tacky Christmas or romance narratives, and instead grounds its reality in the awkwardness of the season that is every bit boisterous as it is testing.

– Likeable cast. Thompson has always been a national treasure to me, and even donning a Russian accent here, she still maintains the level of timely delivery and on-screen charisma that has made her a commanding presence for over four decades of film. Aside from her, the chemistry of Clarke and Golding is off of the charts, subtly developing their blossoming relationship, all the while preserving what’s so enveloping about the duo as leading stars. For Clarke, it’s easily her warm, bright smile, but it’s the infectious energy that she maintains in the role, even through some dramatic depths in material that prove she’s anything but one-note. For Golding, it’s more of the Tinsletown leading man suave that is a rarity in today’s movie landscape, but one that easily distinguishes him from his competition. Both of these leads have fun in their respective roles, all the while providing us with a relationship that is easy to get behind from an audience perspective.

– Soulful soundtrack. Being that this is a movie based on the music of George Michael, it would be difficult to screw this aspect up, and thankfully the production doesn’t waste away this opportunity. It’s important to note that it isn’t a song every couple of minutes, and instead it’s the cleverness of Feig to work it in topically when he sees fit, giving the song a newfound life through the eyes of a different situation that at least lyrically resonates. “Last Christmas” is obviously the focal point here, but non-Christmas classics like “Faith”, “Freedom”, “Heal the Pain”, and even “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” are dispersed in a way that provide a pleasant energy to the film that accentuates the entrancing visuals of England. Aside from this, Clarke herself is given the microphone a couple of times throughout the film to actually perform some of the catalog from her character’s favorite singer, and does a masterful job in doing justice to Michael’s ranging falsetto.

– Small details. I love a set design that the camera can allow us to immerse in, solidifying the lived-in quality that comes within the specifics of one’s geographical setting. In this regard, it’s specifically the year-round Christmas shop that Clarke’s character works in that dazzled me with rare product that I am sure will become a staple of real life retail once this film is seen by more opportunist eyes. There’s plenty of examples mentioned and shown by characters who present the miniature statues front-and-center, but it’s the stuff that is barely shown just over the shoulder of a character in frame that really impressed me, and presented plenty of inner-world Easter Eggs to prove that the production spared no expense in bringing its world and ideals to life. If nothing else, the visual appeal of the film will get you prepared for Christmas, and give a fruitful example of marketing in its most extreme of all stages.

– Unique wardrobe. This is primarily towards Clarke’s character, whose color and style coordination reflects that of an alcoholic with little time for anything other than the bottle, except maybe sleep. Her work uniform has her in a green elf costume, complete with cute elf shoes, all of which seemed perfect for Emilia’s brand of irresistible spunk. Her casual attire features leopard skinned coat, multi-layered dresses underneath, all supplanted by grey stockings, which are every bit a staple of the character as the very bottles she clinks through. It’s not overly spectacular in its pageantry, but does the job in colorfully illustrating the personality and demeanor of someone so dispirited with the season.

NEGATIVES

– Theme overload. This is really only a factor during the disastrous third act, which so many of my negatives resonate in. For this particular problem, it’s the need to incorporate racism, gay prejudice, and even an unfolding social war in Yugoslavia into the mix, with such little effetiveness or direction to make it articulately pop with the pre-established Christmas theme that the entire film until that point was preaching. None of these themes are ever given even remotely satisfying resolution, nor the kind of clarity that hammers home a positively earnest message to send audiences home on. Instead, it mentions them once or twice, and then never follows through on cementing its necessary intention. The film is only 97 minutes long, but if you cut these pointless exercises for this particular film, you would have a tighter more cohesive direction that remains focused all the way to the finish line.

– Improv comedy. I mentioned earlier that the humor, particularly during the film’s first half, is one of the more stronger suits that the film preserves itself into earning the attention of its audience. For a majority, I was delighted into it, but occasionally there is that hint of pretentious Feig that sets in, giving unimportant extras the chance to hone their craft at the screeching halt of storytelling progression. If this is done once or twice, fine, no problem, but the need to incorporate two bumbling female cops, two homeless shelter characters who only serve a purpose to advance the mystery between the romantic leads, and a barrage of Kate’s family and friends, makes this unbearable. Every time these characters popped up on camera, I cringed knowing where the scene was headed, and I was right every single time. More cutting that could be used for positivity.

– Melodrama overload. I expect this kind of thing in a romantic Christmas movie, but the way it transitions with its overbearing third act took away much of what I enjoyed about the movie in the first place. Mainly it’s the complete removal of comedy that comes once Kate reveals some near-death troubles from her past that allows Tom to see her in a different light. The heavy handed nature of its evolution feels so far removed from the enjoyable film we once were receiving, in favor of a conventional third act conflict that sours when it should be sweet. It’s working with emotionally moving material and performances, but the film’s designated majority genre keeps it from ever properly attaining the tears that it calls on the audience so abruptly to disperse. If Feig directed the first two acts of the movie, Nicholas Sparks directed the third.

– Detestable twist. I expected something similar to this when I was watching the film, based on the awkward exposition of one of its characters, but what it amounted to couldn’t have been the intended ending meant to send audiences home happy with the result they were just given. This twist is so absurdly rendered, with a complete lack of logic in the rules of the consequence that it almost succeeds at being a science fiction movie. On top of all of this, it takes the song “Last Christmas” by George Michael, and attacks it with such a lyrical dissection in deconstructing it as something completely unintended. An example would be taking a song like “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, and making a film inspired by it, that revolves around a sand salesman. The last time a melodrama pissed me off this terribly was after “Collateral Beauty”, and at least with that film there was very little about it that I actually enjoyed. “Last Christmas” was close in succeeding, but the very next day, it gave it away. See? I can be clever too.

– Stretched ending. This is becoming a staple in Hollywood cinema, as this film as well doesn’t know the proper ending that it was trying for, so therefore will include them all in the film’s final ten minutes. For my money, I would’ve never included a Shelter ball, or a scene in the springtime that follows it. Yes, that’s right, the film’s ending is so long that it starts in Winter, and ends in Spring. How’s that for procrastination?

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Pain and Glory

Directed By Pedro Almodovar

Starring – Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia

The Plot – Salvador Lallo (Banderas) was at the decline of his career. He involuntarily looks back into the past, and a stream of vivid memories falls upon him. He recalls such moments from his youth as tender feelings for his mother (Penelope Cruz), love and separation, the search for happiness and success. All this leads the master of cinema to important thoughts about life and art, building to an epiphany culmination that gives meaning to each pivotal step along the way.

Rated R for drug use, some graphic nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– Cinematic intimacy. This is certainly a sentimental story to Almodovar, who not only lived through what transpires on-screen, but also brings along with it an eruption of emotional response so precise that it couldn’t come from anyone except someone so enveloped by the experiences. Because of this, every conversation, conflict, and mental commentary supplanted to the film gives it this proximity with the protagonist that fictional films simply can’t compete with. It helps to better illustrate Salvador’s cryptic actions with a layer of clarity that only materializes once all of the pieces have been formed together, cementing a bigger picture of history playing a pivotal hand on the progression of the future. Most of all, it’s Pedro’s vulnerability within the story that feels every bit as honest as it is therapeutic to the storyteller, paying off years of constricted longing with the audience who have always adored his artform.

– Art imitating life. Aside from this movie being cloaked in so much life experience that it practically transcends itself as a cinematic offering, the personal touches of authenticity that Almodovar incorporates into this fictional rendering is one that utilizes a crossroads between reality and fiction that immerses them beautifully. In this regard, there are more than a couple of clever Easter Eggs inserted into these scenes that fans of Pedro will catch or not, depending on their dedication to the heralded director. First is the conflict between Salvador and Alberto in the film, which is factually based on the emerging rivalry between Pedro and star-of-this-movie Banderas, after their working relationship in “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”. Second is the near identity title of the fictional film within this movie, called “Savor”, which is a play on words for Almodovar’s real life film “Flavour”. Finally, Pedro’s real life apartment currently is used as a shooting location frequently throughout the film, proving the level of inheritance that he donned upon Banderas for his transformation into the role. These are only a couple of the ones I found, and give way to a desire to watch the film once more, in order to find any other articles of incorporation.

– Stacked performances. There’s been a lot of Academy praise for Antonio’s performance here, and it’s certainly easy to comprehend why. Instead of emoting Salvador with a series of long-winded diatribes or emotional complexity in deliveries, he instead captivates audiences in the reverse psychosis he maintains in showing what’s boiling inside on the outside, for everyone to indulge. Thanks to no shortage of weathered reminder on his face, or tearful permanence in his eyes, Banderas’ encapsulating turn comprehends every life event that came before his involvement into the film, and better established the level of believability between the actors of two respective age groups that made up the same person. Aside from him, Penelope Cruz is equally as entrancing, albeit with a much limited scale of scenes that the movie unfortunately donates to her. Cruz’s scenes come with a wide variety of warmth and inspiration for the little boy version of Salvador, which depict her character with such a level of important nourishment that only Penelope supplant. These two actors are veterans within Almodovar’s universe of films, and attain a level of professionalism once more, which has them cutting to the front of the line of deserved academy recognition.

– Unique style. Much credit to Pedro, as well as cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine for manufacturing a series of tastefully meaningful shots and color coordination that gives “Pain and Glory” plenty to chew on. The variation of wide angle lens during entrancing establishing sequences in Paterna or Madrid, and the tight-knit intimacy of sequences during one-on-one interactions, highlight every important aspect of every frame, maintaining audience investment every step of the way. Aside from this, the movie’s value with art is translated atmospherically through a series of eye-fetching interior designs that never duplicate or run together with what characters are wearing in the same shot. It proves that Pedro didn’t just rest on his laurels with the style when comparing to his abundance of substance that feels so close to him. Both are brought into the spectrum, and establish one of Pedro’s more complete films that he has made within the 21st century.

– Patient pacing. This will undoubtedly be a negative to many people who watch this film, but for me it duplicated the movements of life in a naturally satisfying measure. This is a film with nothing exciting beyond the human experience, and while that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it measures authentically if you are going for a film based on true experiences. That’s not to say that this film is boring or even dull at times, just grounded in scene transitions during a couple of instances, especially during the second act. This makes it feel like anything but a movie, which in turn cements the transcendence that the film was reaching for, and makes it a little easier to forgive those downtime moments that test patience for something bigger. It’s only a 108 minute movie, so any feeling of longing will be answered if you just remain with it, I promise.

– Documentation of aging. Decomposition within age progression feels like something that many movies are afraid to address, but Almodovar does it with a level of unabashed focus that springs forth in the most satisfyingly nuanced measures. Aside from the prosthetics department doing a remarkable job at aging Banderas naturally in a way that vividly transforms him into the director, it’s the sparse details in the screenplay that I greatly appreciated in keeping this consistency. Keep your eyes ready each time Banderas kneels down. He places a pillow underneath him to convey the soreness in his knees, giving way to the calcium deterioration that is eventually revealed as one of his many ailments. That brings me to my final point, as the film’s introduction articulates Salvador’s suffering with a visual graphic that feels like a throwback to my days in health class. It informs us extensively in a way that gives meaningful exposition to the lead, all the while paying homage to the fragility of time that catches up to all of us eventually.

– Tonally eclipsing. It would be easy to read about everything I previously mentioned and isolate this film as a melodramatic sludge whose somber pacing is only surpassed by its self-loathing atmosphere, but you would be completely wrong. Instead, there’s a level of hope maintained in the film that still makes this as optimistic as any film with heartache and regret as two of its central themes, keeping it from being the downer at the party who nobody associates with. Part of what attains this optimism is the films delving into the drug territory, which throws some extreme circumstances in the way of the suffering protagonist. Also as important is the social commentary with being an artist within the industry that Pedro has no reservations about deconstructing. This again plays especially into the level of vulnerability that he deposits onto the film, allowing him to have a satisfying laugh at his own expense.

NEGATIVES

– Limited appeal. “Pain and Glory” will have a hard time selling itself to its audience, mainly because only a few people will pick up on the nuances and quirks of a director outlining his own life story for the storytelling of the camera. I am not the biggest Almodovar fan in the world, and what little I know of him behind the scenes brings forth many questionable human traits that are a tough sell to anyone looking to pick up a new filmmaker. This is a film purely for the Pedro junkies in the audience. If you aren’t one of these people, I feel like it will compromise your investment into the film, leaving the more important aspects unrealized for what the script intended. Limited audience often means inevitably forgettable, and that’s a shame for a movie that digs so deep into a cherished director’s psyche.

– Love subplot. This is easily my biggest problem with the film, and brings forth a feeling of disjointed storytelling that could’ve used a re-write to feel more effective. Throughout the first act of the movie, we flashback to the past of Salvador in a way that colorfully elaborates at what is taking place in the foreground of the current day narrative. That is until we get to a love story reveal, with a sexual preference and interest that comes out of nowhere, and feels like it deserved much more time in establishing what came to be. It does eventually elaborate further, but it’s nearly at the end of the movie, when the big reveal of that scene could’ve held greater weight of impact on the script if it were done before the adult version runs into his former love. In fact, there are a couple of scenes in the film that I would jumble around for better context fluidity to the narrative. This is a film with a storytelling gimmick of three respective timelines within Salvador’s life, and while the past is meant to fill in the blanks of the present, this love subplot comes into focus with the subtlety of a Sherman tank running through a Nitroglycerine plant.

– Questionable casting. I had no complaints between the believability of Banderas and eight-year-old Asier Flores, mainly because their transformation signals an immense fifty year gap between them, making anything possible within their visual appearances. The one casting I did have a problem with, however, was Penelope Cruz evolving into 86-year-old Julietta Serrano as the same character. From the complete distinction of skin tone, to the vastly different facial structure, everything about these two women couldn’t be any more contradicting, leading to a level of believability that was the biggest stretch for age-progressing that I have seen in 2019. Nothing about them other than their accents are even remotely similar, and if it wasn’t for the use of some clever instances of transition editing, which moved two actors together as the same character simultaneously, I would’ve been lost in figuring out where the correlation is.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Playing With Fire

Directed By Andy Fickman

Starring – John Cena, Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key

The Plot – When straight-laced fire superintendent Jake Carson (Cena) and his elite team of expert firefighters (Key, John Leguizamo and Tyler Mane) come to the rescue of three siblings (Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery and Finley Rose Slater) in the path of an encroaching wildfire, they quickly realize that no amount of training could prepare them for their most challenging job yet; babysitters. Unable to locate the children’s parents, the firefighters have their lives, jobs and even their fire depot turned upside down and quickly learn that kids, much like fires, are wild and unpredictable.

Rated PG for rude humor, some suggestive material and mild peril

POSITIVES

– Tonal capacity. While there are very few positives about this movie, its channeling of the proper tonal structure is one that easily masters the level of fun and hijinks that transpire throughout the film. This isn’t a film that is even remotely serious, with no antagonist or major conflict of any kind, instead taking ample amounts of screen time to flesh out its slapstick sequences and wacky atmosphere in and out of the fire station that constantly keeps the pacing fluidly moving. This being a Nickelodeon Pictures production, the third big screen release of the year for said company, they’ve managed a level of consistency within their pictures, good or bad, that hammer home a pre-established continuity in genre that makes it a sure thing for families alike.

– Lots of heart. Even if this subplot was sloppily telegraphed in the way it was rendered the longer the film transpired, the third act gives way to a fine amount of dramatic sentimentality that really sent audiences home with a feel-good kind of conclusion. With kids being a central theme throughout the movie, it’s no surprise that their influence not only transforms the crew towards a family-first initiative, but also presents the audience with a firm message of commentary on investing too much into a career. The youths within the film really are the note of much-needed clarity that the storytelling and characters lean heavily on, making them feel a level of importance to a film that Nickelodeon has no problem elaborating on.

– One good set piece. As you will come to find out later, there is very little depiction of this crew in the heat of their element on the job, but the one chance we do get provides some surprisingly beneficial results in enveloping visuals. For one, the fire itself in frame is enveloping, surrounding Cena like a shadow, and giving way to the minimal time window that the guys have in rescuing these children. On top of this, the scene is shot wide enough to accurately convey the devastation in scale that conveys there being no way to salvage this location. It illustrates urgency in a way that stands as the biggest ‘What if’ to a movie that should’ve focused on combining the realism of the profession with the majority of the child audiences, who have never been this close to the danger in the shows and films that they are used to.

NEGATIVES

– Wasted ensemble. There’s plenty of talent here in name-power to be admired, but what’s disappointing is how the direction stunts their abilities in a way that is truly appalling. On a whole, everyone overacts to the point of their characters feeling like a Saturday Night Live skit, hammering home subtlety to the point of it being as loud as a marching band. Individually is no better, as Cena takes a role that offers him no complexity or challenge in illustrating something fresh for the action star. In addition, Key does his usual animated repetition in dialogue that gets tiring around twenty minutes in, and my oh my, what has this movie done to one of my favorite actors, in John Leguizamo? When John’s character isn’t crying or acting as the fire station kitchen maid, his delivery overshoots its intended destination every single time, bringing out the true desperation of the material that makes one of the funniest men on the planet virtually unnoticed. The child actors, minus Brianna Hildebrand, lack any kind of personality or appeal that craft them as anything but a cute face to make audiences go “Awwwww”. There’s times when they look directly at the camera, others when their line reads are virtually mumbled, and others when even five minutes of freedom from them can do so much to open up the appeal of the film. It’s a losing effort all around, made even worse by the fact that not one of them is deserving of a reputable recognition.

– Humorless. Yes, there’s comedy throughout, but its the tasteless kind that involves no imagination to sell it. Fart jokes with juicy noises, slapstick physical humor so manufactured that it comes off as a cartoon, and without question the most disgusting poop joke, that is only there to give us a reason to see John Cena shirtless. The unfortunate thing is this movie knows its audience to the point that it knows it will succeed in most of these gags, but for me I couldn’t escape this overwhelming feeling of classlessness that reached for the lowest hanging fruit time-and-time-again, resulting in eye-rolling so much that nearly made me blind. This is a fine example of kids being treated like idiots in cinema, and the more we approve of it by giving them the intended reaction, the more of these tasteless offerings we will be presented with.

– Lack of believability. This is essentially everywhere. From the lack of believing in these characters as firefighters, with the way they lack smart phone intelligence or have difficulty doing the most basic tasks in their jobs, to the complete lack of firefighting sequences throughout the movie, there was never a second where I was able to give in and believe that this crew was who they said they were. For a movie called “Playing With Fire”, there’s so little of it in the movie that these characters could’ve easily been a part of any other profession, and left the dangerous stuff with the movies that use it to amplify the tension and vulnerability of its characters. This one has one sequence at the very beginning of the movie, and then give their crew the longest extended vacation in firefighting history. Probably appropriate considering their chief can’t distinguish between a poop emoji and chocolate ice cream.

– Meandering musical score. The work by composer Nathan Wang is every bit as obvious as it is uninspiring, etching out a series of musical enhancements that could’ve doubled for studio stock compositions from a Windows Media program of sampled music. It’s complacent when it needs to be inspirational, and corny when alluding to sneaky hijinks taking place somewhere in the scene. This element more than any within the production gave this a familiarity within the realm of television that is known for phoning things in. Not to take away from Wang’s other work in such prestigious films like “Rumble In the Bronx” or “She’s The Man”, but he’s certainly not involving enough energy here to make these scenes pop in a way that duplicates the range in atmosphere. Comedies don’t have to phone in their scores, as evidenced by last year’s “Game Night”. It just takes a composer who allows his instruments to lose themselves within the element of the scene, instead of just underlying what’s transpiring in the most meandered way possible.

– Cheap special effects. This is entirely in the area of post-production computer generation, which outlines as much obviousness as Katt Williams jumping out of a Lucky Charms box. Two such examples exist in this film; one that was prominent in the trailers for the film, where the little girl halts the charge of a vicious dog coming her way, and the other involving the little boy swinging from a fire hose. On the former, the dog is so obviously looking at a trainer who is much taller than the little girl, and his halting is obviously two cuts spliced together to form one intendedly cohesive movement. It doesn’t work, and comes across with a complete lack of naturalism that is fumbled in execution. As for the fire hose sequence, it’s not as bad as the former, but shot close enough and saturated with enough computer influence to keep it from looking like anything other than a toddler swinging on a rope with pressure three times as strong as his grip. It’s the shoddy side of filmmaking that completely breaks investment into the film, rendering it with a level of amateur that stands out for all of the wrong reasons.

– Unoriginal. Let’s be honest, we’ve seen this formula a hundred times. Hell, we’ve even seen it duplicated from this very director. Fickman is the same man who directed The Rock’s tough-guy-turned-soft transformation in Disney’s “The Game Plan”, and even when that premise felt anything but original in 2006, it’s virtually its own subgenre by 2019. Films like these are a dime a dozen, and can easily be articulated to a tee with a trailer that hits the familiar beats and tropes of a movie like “The Pacifier”, which served as a wall-breaking vehicle for Vin Diesel to break being typecast. As I previously mentioned, this film doesn’t manage to do the same for Cena, and thanks to a screenplay that has the same direction but in a fireman capacity, it doesn’t translate to being anything beyond more of the same.

– Predictable. Within fifteen minutes of this movie, I managed to accurately predict every single resolution that was inevitable, and what’s even more surprising is how satisfied the film is with the nature of that obviousness. I say this because there are no curve balls thrown in the conflicts, nor is there even an attempt at using its minutes for anything other than a series of montages showing these big name actors invading a toy store, or having a game of dodgeball right there in the station. I mentioned earlier of a subplot that is easily more telegraphed the longer it goes on, and it all leads to a plot twist that was not only what I predicted a half hour earlier, but also produced no shortage of questions about the twist that the movie never properly addresses. “Playing With Fire” is the kind of film that you already know what is going to happen even if you’ve never seen it, ultimately giving you the perfect alibi not to see it.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

Dolemite Is My Name

Directed By Craig Brewer

Starring – Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Wesley Snipes

The Plot – Eddie Murphy portrays real-life legend Rudy Ray Moore, a comedy and rap pioneer who proved naysayers wrong when his hilarious, obscene, kung-fu fighting alter ego, Dolemite, became a 1970s Blaxploitation phenomenon.

Rated R for pervasive adult language, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– Admirable protagonist. This isn’t a biopic about Moore, but rather the Dolomite character itself, taking us on a journey that begins with the inception of the character, and streams all the way through his success as a black big screen icon that transcended conventions. Because of this, you learn very little about Moore’s personal life when the lights and camera’s die down, but it’s the intelligence of the man inside that easily wins over here, and maintains our interest throughout. Moore was wise enough to spot an enormous black disconnect within the movie and critic industries alike, choosing instead to preserve his talents as this voice of the voiceless whose every move is inspired by the things he learned from his experiences as a black patron within the industry. Above all else, it was Rudy’s perseverance through doubt and adversity that prospered each time, and gave him the courage to make his own path when very few other men in suits would help him do so.

– 70’s aesthetic. This is easily Brewer’s most ambitious project to date, treating us to a visual spectrum that transports us to the heat of the disco decade, with enough stylish flare to convince us of a time so far removed from our own. In fact, there’s a lot of personality in the film’s camera movements and editing techniques that often make it feel like a property that was directly ripped from the same age of cinema that it is vibrantly depicting. Swing shots and blunt camera panning sequences are instilled to duplicate the same dramatic tension in the foreground of real life that is enveloping our characters within the realm of the fake movie taking place in the backdrop. Likewise, the cuts are used as a visual elaboration to the punchlines that Moore is dropping on-stage, used to better sell the reaction of the material. It documents Moore as so much more than an average joke-teller, and instead prides him on physically investing presence that made his act one of Shakepaerian efforts for its time.

– Unique conflict. In a biopic like this, you expect there to be some seedy corporate executive who uses and abuses Rudy and his friends for his own personal gain, but thankfully the screenplay rings more intelligent than that. Instead, we learn about midway through that it’s really the industry as a whole who serve equally as Rudy’s biggest doubters and motivators, breaking decades of pre-conceived prejudice within the dynamics of comedy to build something innovative for his race. Maintaining this as a faceless demon within Rudy’s own prosperity is something that weighs heavily on his every move, and allows the story to capture its pivotal importance in a way that blazed the trail for the many black comedians featured throughout the film. That more than anything speaks volumes to Rudy’s everlasting legacy as a pioneer, and allowed him to succeed on the very terms that he made for himself.

– Stunning enhancements. It’s amazing what a wig and light expressions of facial make-up can do with bringing to life the familiarity of Moore during the prime of his career. In this respect, Murphy becomes Moore with very little disbelief, other than the vast difference of vocal capacity that each men couldn’t be further from. Nothing inside ever feels ridiculous or overdone to the point that it takes away from the attention or the integrity of the scene, instead immersing us in the subtle transformation that Murphy and even Snipes dedicate themselves to wholeheartedly. It’s so effectively rich with authenticity that you buy it immediately, proving that sometimes subtlety is the best way to articulate character-defining traits.

– Informative. This is easily the biggest aspect of benefit for me, as what little I knew about Dolomite was really just Moore’s well documented backstory and upbringing. This film spends precious amounts of its near two hour run time to flesh out behind the scenes production notes and inspirations that really cast a shadow of credibility to the crew associated with “Dolemite”, in that it ever was as influential as it actually was. It finely illustrates the confines associated with independent cinema, and offers a rich texture of irony once you know how the donuts are made within a scene of familiarity that ever asked more questions than it answered. Aside from this, there’s a refreshing intimacy between the friends-turned-family that Moore brought all the way along to stardom, and the film articulates this within the many conversations and interactions that take place between them. The dialogue is rich, the weight of importance within the film is well defined, and it all gives Brewer’s film a feeling of intentional family values that I honestly wasn’t expecting.

– Vivacious musical score. It makes sense that the very same man, Scott Bomar, who was responsible for the award-winning score of “Hustle and Flow” is the composer tasked with capturing the scintillating atmosphere of the funk generation. This is realized in spades, as the soulful conscience that allures us through the many stylish transition sequences treats us to enough wawa guitar and up-tempo drum beats to audibly sedate us. Bomar captures a level of originality in trance-funk offerings that is unlike anything currently narrating tonal capacities in today’s big screen releases, and gave me several instances of toe-tapping glee that consistently channeled the cool factor atmosphere that was prominent throughout so much of the movie.

– Film within the film. This is such a creative way to blend the best of modern production values with the familiarity of the original “Dolemite” movie, creating the rare chance to see what might have been if a big name studio took a chance on this property. Not only are the backdrops and character placements perfectly rendered in the frame of each sequence that actually took place in the real movie, but they are enhanced with top-notch sound editing that give the scenes of physical conflict an air of authenticity. Sure, there’s still enough silliness maintained from the uninspiring set designs, which were really just hotel rooms being made to look like their intended story setting, but the differences here are unmistakable, and do an important duty in possibly illustrating Moore’s intended vision, if time, money, and production limitations weren’t a factor.

– Too much talent. There are no shortage of who’s who celebrities popping in to add a different dimension to the picture, assembling a collective ensemble that only rivals The Avengers in terms of reputable depth. Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Kodi Mcphee-Smit, Keegan-Michael Key, and Netflix own Tituss Burgess all add their diverse personalities to the complexion of the film, offering multiple amounts of dream pairing scenarios that we’ve waited decades to experience. Beyond these names, however, there are two men who do an extensive amount of the hefty dramatic lifting, Murphy and Snipes, who deserve academy recognition for their passionate turns. Snipes as the condescending director of “Dolemite” exerts through many scene-stealing circumstances, including a death scene within the fictional film that captures the lack of excitement for the character. Speaking of excitement, the raw energy from Murphy to the film’s titular role is one that was exciting to see for this big Eddie fan, and preserved easily his greatest performance since “Dreamgirls”. It’s important that Murphy doesn’t try to emulate the familiar delivery of Moore, choosing instead to make the role his own in a way that provides several clever parallels to his own relationship with comedy. In fact, the most rewarding scenes of the film are the ones where Murphy himself stands on stage in front of a microphone, even if he isn’t delivering his own material for our delight. On the performance spectrum, Eddie gives a bigger-than-life portrayal that channels the kind of vulgarity, heartfelt sentiment, and of course endless charisma that he once adorned each film with. If nothing else, it’s great to see him back in his prime, paying homage to a man who he has a lot to thank for.

NEGATIVES

– Flat humor. It’s especially surprising in a comedy about Blacksploitation, a subgenre that has never offered me any shortage of gut-busting reprieve, that the film’s comic muscle fell so flat. There are a few times when I lightly chuckled, but nothing that ever reached the kind of firepower or consistency that Moore made a living off of. I think most of it deals with the film underestimating the weight of its dramatic details, only teasing moments when the much needed tension could’ve added to the uncertainty of Moore’s flailing big screen future. For my money, the comedy just doesn’t ring as effective with me for whatever reason, perhaps acting as the very same cultural disconnect that Moore was elaborating at when he and friends catch a Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau movie during the film, and don’t laugh once despite everyone around them being crippled with laughter.

– Slight pacing problems. This is particularly during the second act of the movie, where the film’s grounded progression does positively replicate the pacing of 70’s social life, but unfortunately renders the film stuck in place creatively for longer than I would actually like. “Dolemite Is My Name” is above all else a fun sit, but it’s one that could afford to shave around fifteen minutes of screen time, particularly during the brainstorming sequences with friends, that are visually elaborated at only a scene later each time. On top of this, there’s an introduction for every character of which there are no shortage of. That means each time a new celebrity pops up, we know five minutes of exposition will follow. It gives the storytelling a halted progress to bring a new character up to speed, and strands us the audience during the moments when the developments were starting to materialize.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The King

Directed By David Michod

Starring – Timothee Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson

The Plot – Hal (Chalamet), wayward prince and reluctant heir to the English throne, has turned his back on royal life and is living among the people. But when his tyrannical father dies, Hal is crowned King Henry V and is forced to embrace the life he had previously tried to escape. Now the young king must navigate the palace politics, chaos and war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life – including his relationship with his closest friend and mentor, the aging alcoholic knight, John Falstaff (Edgerton).

Rated R for some strong violence, and adult language.

POSITIVES

– Unexpected direction. Most stories revolving around the chase for the throne detail these deceiving characters using whatever advantage they can to seek the fame and fortunes that they desire, but “The King” uniquely flips this narrative in a way that boldly illustrates the pressures of the throne. For Henry V, it’s the character evolution while being on the throne itself that brings forth a determination to do the ugly deeds in order to attain what is necessary for peace. This more than anything compromises the young man we were introduced to early on, who turned down the throne so as not to be a part of the hierarchy that put so many of his citizens in danger. It takes this conventional re-telling of European history, and transcends that tag in order to become a candid character piece, full of enough political insight and profound weight in historical significance to constantly keep shedding its skin towards finding its own original method of storytelling.

– Fluid pacing. 140 minutes of screen time originally worried me when I saw while studying the film’s information, but the consistency of the dramatic tension, combined with emphasis in its brutality, brought forth a sit that even at nearly two-and-a-half hours I still didn’t want to walk away from. This is a story that is constantly moving forward, crafting a series of noise in subplots playing in the background in the same way they do King Henry V’s mind when making a pivotal decision, and it produces a strong amount of urgency that is not typical prominent in an early 19th century movie. Some liberties were certainly taken with the consistency of adverse arrivals, but for the integrity of the picture, everything is at least entertaining above all else, tweaking the factual capacities for an entertaining narrative that welcomes audiences to something they otherwise wouldn’t.

– Seamless production. This aspect is everywhere. From the personality that marries itself with the factual of multi-layered costume designs, to the immensity of sparse details that exist within the framing of each interior set design, to the attention given to British and French conversation structure, everything inside offers a teleporting experience that really caters to immersing yourself in these familiar faces losing themselves to the proper time period. In this regard, it is Netflix most ambitious property to date, and one that will surely make the awards war with the silver screen all the more difficult because of this gap-bridging that is visually commanding. Most of it falls on the shoulders of Michod, who balances the most in 19th century visual capacities with 21st century filmmaking, producing a hybrid marriage that blends surprisingly natural in maintaining its immersive qualities.

– One bright idea. Easily my favorite aspect of the film is the choice to use natural lighting to document these scenes. This not only plays wonderfully in establishing the dark, gritty atmosphere that cinematographer Adam Arkapaw vividly entrances us with, but conveys a natural presence in the pre-electricity age that offers an alluring quality to ugly rendering. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but my investment to a film is made all the more tighter when I’m feeling the very same aspects that its people did for the proper time period, and while shadows might not be visually appealing to most because of their distracting nature, it’s the way they articulate its place in time that allows it to forget the ideal artistic prejudice that exists in most big budget presentations.

– War sequences. There are only two in this film, but even for a streaming service quality of scope, the scenes are enriched with a level of unriddled intensity that allows them to hold their own against the big boys of the genre. Most of it falls on composer Nicholas Britell’s magnetically riveting score, for the way it encapsulates the very tragedy and gratifying circumstances of war, but more than that it’s the use of some gorgeous shot selection’s that keep your eyes glued to the screen. Michod uses a lot of long take character tracking shots to impress us with physical stunt choreography, but even more than that, it’s the heat of the atmosphere with all of its mud-slinging frenzy that vividly paints this soggy, dirty battlefield, and one whose vulnerability resonates throughout its barrage of bodies and brutality that the film is not ashamed to donate ample time towards.

– Gifted cast. The collective group of names brings forth one of the more talented ensembles of 2019, but the work individually measures the constant professionalism in spades that allowed some of today’s best to lose themselves in the confines of their roles. Kicking it off in that regard is Edgerton, who pulls double duty as a star and screenwriter, is easily my favorite character of the film as Falstaff. This man is the film’s humor and personality, but even more than that it’s the devotion to Henry V that easily cements him as the heart of the film, and one that thankfully we get plenty of time with. Pattinson might be the show-stealer again, however, as this French army leader, who is every bit as intended over-the-top for the scene, as he is antagonizing as a villain. Pattinson lays it on thick with his English-French accent and endless conceit, almost turning the film into a comedy at times. But the way he once again transforms himself as a chameleon actor who lives and breathes through the character, is something that makes him one of the best going today, and the commander of many scene-stealing appearances throughout the film’s second half. Finally, one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets in Sean Harris is let out of the bag with a performance that toes the line of trustful and seedy accordingly. It helps that his delivery isn’t comical or over-the-top in a way that meanders the effectiveness of the intention, instead burning in the background like the tarantula that his character rightfully is, and popping into frame at only the right moments to stir the pot of dramatic tension.

– Profound reflection. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is who it depicts as the “Villain” of the war. There are many sides addressed in this regard; from the unsettling tensions mounting from the French adversaries, to King Henry IV, Henry V’s father, whose one man democracy has cost England so many lives and money from a war that many deemed unimportant, and then there’s the third refreshing side that could even resonate to the kinds of decisions that our own people in power today are going through, and that’s those string-pullers behind the scenes. It’s easy to comprehend how these whisperers are responsible for so much, stirring the shit with the king in a way that better manufactures this war, and has Henry himself making decisions that he never wanted nor expected to make. That’s what is truly rewarding about this film. That idea that anyone inside could be considered an antagonist to the story, and that there are no black or white characters, only varying shades of grey.

– Concept of hate. What really struck me about this film was the way it examines how hate is grown from ignorance and vanity, and fostered by the corrupt and greedy to have influence on those intended. This is certainly another one of those shape-shifting themes that can feel prominent in our own world, but how it’s used here condemns experience in a way that is reflective of the greed they seek, and how many people they’re willing to step on in order to attain it. This for me was an absolutely phenomenal statement for a film like this to make, if only to take time maintaining a theme in a way that coincides with what is transpiring on-screen, all the while cementing it further in the actions given. It gives poignant food-for-thought in a way that makes a story so dated surprisingly timeless with its themes, and makes this one of the more spiritually rewarding films of the 2019 movie year.

NEGATIVES

– Minimal character depth. This shines more prominent when you have these familiar faces playing such unimportant characters to the dynamic of the time they’re given to make an impact. Even for a movie as lengthy as “The King” is, characters like King Henry IV, Henry’s sister Philippa, or even the love interest subplot that is coldly introduced in the final ten minutes of the film, all required more exposition and interaction to get the beats of their characters over, and warrant their inclusion at all to the integrity of the film. Without it, they all feel like obvious plot devices in a bigger scheme with each scene they accompany, and it leaves so very little opportunity for a female presence to dominate in the foreground of this picture.

– Leading man. If you noticed one big name missing from my performance section, it’s Timothee Chalamet as King Henry V, who is every bit as underwhelming in the role as he was miscast. I have nothing against Chalamet as an actor. His turns in “Beautiful Boy” and “Call Me By Your Name” are some of the very best of their respective years, but when tasked to emote as the inspirational figure who led the Brits into France, Chalamet’s reserved registry just doesn’t fit the bill. The long-winded diatribes are fine enough, but when the camera opens up Chalamet during personal scenes of reflection, it’s clear there’s so very little to the character that is only hinted at, and very rarely ever realized. With a volted protagonist performance, “The King” could be one of the best films of the fall season, but because Timothee feels more fit for a Calvin Klein commercial instead of a decorated soldier of war, it doesn’t quite fit the throne that it inherits.

My Grade: 8/10 or B

Harriet

Directed By Kasi Lemmons

Starring – Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Joe Alwyn

The Plot – Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, “Harriet” tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s (Erivo) escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and adult language including racial epithets

POSITIVES

– The character study. If nothing else, Lemmons earns herself the status as the right woman to tell Harriet’s immensely important story for the respect she instills within the mentality of her leading lady. Faith, family, and freedom are the three things that shape her actions, allowing her to risk everything for the themes she holds so closely to her heart, and it outlines her as this ahead-of-her-time historical figure that sadly hasn’t received the kind of historical praise that she so desperately deserves. Lemmons depicts her as a trail-blazer, and one that still maintains the vulnerability associated with putting so much on the line, despite her exuberant bravery that shines unflinchingly on the outside. In that regard, Tubman was an icon for the many black little girls, like Kasi, who owe her the kind of homage that the film, above all else, properly stands for.

– One thunderous performances. Everyone here does a fine job living through their respective parts, but this is clearly a one woman whirlwind of a performance done through the eyes of the vastly talented Cynthia Erivo. Ignoring the controversies that came with casting her in the first place, I will say that Erivo silences the doubters with an ample amount of long-winded inspirational diatribes and an equally riveting display of emotional and physical investment that articulate the mountains Harriet moved in fighting for her freedoms. Erivo, at only a barely five foot frame, gives Harriet the kind of fearless intensity in the eyes of her adversity, that resonated across the country why she was one to be feared by many, and admired by more. The film is only as watchable as it is because of Erivo’s extremely gifted performance, and if nothing else should earn her an Oscar nomination next February.

– Established production design. In the immersive quality for the film, there are many examples that give it that distinct look of 19th century appearance told through the lens of 21st century technology, but none more captivating than the amounts of throwback threads and impactful set designs that remain consistent throughout. On the former, there’s the mundane weathering of plantation outfits, which convey the idea that all names and identities are lost in a sea of similarity. For the latter, I thoroughly thought the log cabin’s captured a cheap quality of life for the many slaves, that visually conveyed a depravity that was typical for them. In addition to this, Philadelphia is granted a distinguishing aura of top-shelf class and sophistication that makes it the ultimate finishing line for Harriet’s testing cross-country journey. The production picks up the slack where the script dooms the film into conformity, and presents us with eye-popping visual aspects that absorb as much about the time period as possible.

– Use of color. There are two sides to this artistic integrity, and each have their own important ideal of rendering that plays a pivotal roll in Harriet’s journey. While initially I thought that the blueish hue that adorned so much of the film’s first half was used just a means to accentuate the many visions that Harriet was shown from God, they are in fact meant to represent the cold, damp atmosphere that many feel in being held captive against their will. This becomes evident when the same blue is used in scenes that don’t even feature Harriet, but remain persistent in the southland setting. The other color is gold, and this is used to convey freedom, as evidenced by its saturating quality in frame when Harriet finally arrives in Philadelphia. It’s an intoxicating layer of cinematography meant to inspire warmth in the registries of the audience watching, and does an exceptional job in illustrating the proper tone between the two sides.

– Scintillating score. The work done here by composer Terence Blanchard incorporates a fine combination of stirring compositions and gospel hymns sung by the characters in frame to give it a distinct uniqueness from other films of the slave subgenre. I say this because movies like these are often rare to spot characters still sporting the tool of Christ within their registries, but it brought forth no shortage of forth-coming goosebumps to my arms each time their notes relayed that they still fight. For the lyric-less music, the air of sentimentality that usually cripples my theatrical experience in sappy films prospered with driven intensity, that filled in the gaps by amateur direction in that field. There’s an achingly tense cloud of inevitability that is presented at sturdy levels of volume, never overtaking what’s transpiring on-screen, and always acting as the necessary highlighter of emphasis to push investment even further.

NEGATIVES

– Superhero framing. Tonally, this film couldn’t be anymore insultingly ineffective for the factual storytelling that should be enough. This feels very much like an origin superhero movie, and one that isn’t a good thing to the sensitivity of the subject matter. There’s personal loss, injuries that lead to super-powers, an over-the-top antagonist with some truly dreadful lines of dialogue, and a hero who pops up at just the right time to even the score. When I watched the trailer for this film, I felt that the decision to make this an action film was one that did a great disservice to the film, but looking at it now, that’s the least of my worries. “Harriet” is one Sam Jackson cameo away from being an Avenger, and commits the biggest error of its material, in that it never remains true to itself.

– Too soft. In the era of films like “12 Years a Slave” or “Birth of a Nation”, there’s simply no room for films about slavery to be reduced to a PG-13 rating, and somehow expect to properly attain the air of authenticity that it requires in relating the fear and disgust to its audience. In this regard, “Harriet” is the safest film about slavery that I’ve ever seen, trading in disgusting treatment for implication. In fact, it’s so astonishingly farce that the white slave owners don’t do anything worse than tearing up freedom papers or separating family members throughout the film. Instead, they recruit a black muscle to do all of their dirty work for them, and because of it, is never able to articulate the menace of the antagonist properly, nor give the audience as much empathy for the slaves as what should be easily intended. “12 Years a Slave” captured such unflinching intensity with its torture that never felt exploitative or unnecessary to the integrity of the picture. It used it to paint a picture of both sides of this world, and did so with such articulance that I begged for these slave owners to meet their makers, something this film doesn’t even come close on.

– Shortcuts importance. I’ve always thought that Harriet Tubman’s life story is simply unable to be adapted to the big screen because there’s so much to cover in such a short time that something is bound to be left unaddressed, and that’s the case here. The story starts with Harriet in the middle of being a slave, with no mention at all of her life before everything in frame. Aside from this, the period of Harriet being a spy during the Civil War, where she rescued as many as 800 rumored slaves is reduced to post-movie text that only hints at it. It seems like such a disservice to Tubman to not feature this in an action-dominated genre, and only offers a scope of her talents when you subtract it from the finished product.

– Taking liberties. This movie is what I call factual, but far from authentic. What I mean by that is the movie will take aspects like the Godly visions or the Fugitive Slave Act featured in the film, and spin them where the screenplay requires them to bend urgency. Yes, Tubman was rumored to have visions from God, but they aren’t the superpower that is shown in the film, but rather a mental seizure that the character suffered from each time one popped up. You could call them illusions caused by mental suffering, but lets just stick with the God stuff for now, because it’s convenient for the plot. As for the Fugitive Slave Act, it’s mentioned as being signed in 1836 in the movie, but in reality wasn’t signed until 1850. Once again, this is another example of a screenwriter who couldn’t log onto Wikipedia to cement the proper year it was established, bringing flashbacks of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for all of the wrong reasons.

– Amateur direction. I don’t have anything personal against Lemmons, but certain sequences prove she’s over her head in the bland shot compositions and lack of dramatic emphasis that go virtually unnoticed throughout the film. Scenes that should feature such suffocating intensity and peeling vulnerability, are instead illustrated as a momentary adversity, and one that the protagonists overcome with quite an inordinate amount of ease. It crafts the film’s pivotal sequences, but especially the ending, with an overbearing grounded approach, burdening us frequently with a sense of anti-climatic resistance that makes this forgettable five minutes after you finish it.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Arctic Dogs

Directed By Aaron Woodley

Starring – Jeremy Renner, Anjelica Huston, James Franco

The Plot – Swifty the Arctic Fox (Renner) works in the mailroom of the Arctic Blast Delivery Service, but he has much bigger dreams. He yearns to become a Top Dog, the Arctic’s star husky couriers. To prove he can do it, he commandeers one of the sleds and delivers a mysterious package to a secret location. Once there, he stumbles on a hidden fortress overseen by the nefarious Otto Von Walrus (John Cleese). The blubbery evil genius commands an army of oddly polite puffin henchmen. Swifty discovers Otto Von Walrus’ villainous plan to drill beneath the snow-packed surface to unleash masses of ancient gas to melt the Arctic and become the world’s supreme ruler. To stop this sinister scheme, Swifty enlists the help of his friends: PB (Alec Baldwin), a neurotic polar bear, Lemmy (Franco), a scatterbrained albatross, Jade Fox (Heidi Klum), a brainy engineer, Leopold (Omar Sy) and Bertha (Heidi Klum), two conspiracy theorist otters and Magda (Huston), his curmudgeonly boss.

Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Diverse vocal work. The dedication of this exceptionally gifted cast helps overlap the confines of the lack of characterization, which I will get to later, and help establish some vibrant personalities to their deliveries that allow them to lose the air of familiarity from their celebrity. In particular, the few that I applaud are Franco as this groggy albatross, Klum pulling double duty with two vastly different characters, and especially Huston’s Nordic accent, which remains consistent throughout some lengthy diatribes. The work of the others aren’t exactly bad or anything like that, it’s just that this trio set a bar so high that I couldn’t figure out who was voicing them in the heat of the moment, and that’s a sign of impressively gifted vocal capacities.

– Strong positive message. While this aspect is prominent in nearly every animated film today, the theme inserted into this film not only works so wonderfully for the path the screenplay blazes, but also offers youthful audience members a lot of positive reinforcement to take home with them. The story centers around the ideal of being comfortable in your own skin, and refusing to change for what society demands of you. This is prominent in the work of Swifty, as his bland skin complexion and petite frame keep him from attaining the career that he wants, but instead of wallowing in a pool of self-grief, he works twice as hard in proving the establishment wrong, and learns a lot about self-appreciation along the way. I love when films offer a profound blanket of affirmation to make the world a better place, and “Arctic Dogs” has a lot of bark to match the bite that it establishes early on.

– Beautiful color pallet. While I have a big problem with the film’s animation, the rainbow aesthetic of the film’s visual capacities preserve the air of consistency that is established by the light-hearted atmosphere of the screenplay. In this regard, the film feels like a Christmas film that is just missing the designation of taking place on the day to cement it all. It gives us an absorbing quality of white, fluffy snow, a variety of freshly painted houses that adorn a glowing quality to reflect the town’s lighting, and so many examples of splash that play terrifically against a mostly white backdrop. Entertainment Studios still has a lot of work to do on their character movements and illustrations, but their environmental paint is one that will fool enough mainstream audiences into thinking this film can compete with the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired animation. Here’s the compromise to the chewable colors that I previously mentioned. Character renderings look to be incomplete in some cases, with character mouthing movements not matching the delivery of the dialogue in some cases. This is topped by bodily movements that feel a decade late in their imaginative qualities, and instill an overall slow and dragging quality to a movie that promotes speed in its career objective. Overall, the animation lacks a strong pulse of conscience that establishes believability in these being living, breathing properties despite the lack of dimensions in facial resonation, or personal appearances that sets them apart. It helps that this is only the studio’s first animated property, but in an age when animation is doing some truly ground-breaking work with its most intimate of details, the work in “Arctic Dogs” simply doesn’t measure up.

– Failing humor. There are no laughs in this film for adults, and questionable instances of material for kids, who should be the essential focus in its visual sight gags and energetic line deliveries. One such example is a “Doctor Who” joke that comes and goes with about as much relevance as a walrus with robotic spider legs, also a real aspect within the film. I laughed one time during the film, and it was more of a hurling reaction towards motion sickness that was perfectly articulated by Baldwin. Aside from that, there’s no shortage of body humor, like the fart joke that was followed up literally one minute later by yet another fart joke. Classy material that reaches to the deepest level of bodily flatulence to attain its audience. Truly clever material.

– Action absence. The setting of the Arctic mountainside practically begs for some riveting impact, which amazingly enough never comes throughout the film. In fact, the overall lack of action sequences and scenes with even a shred of impact, keep this film’s boredom constantly attained in a movie that re-defines the term bland. So how does it settle the film’s third act conflict? By showing as little as possible of course. There is no physicality with the antagonist, as well as no moment of satisfactory revenge that would equal the devastation that would’ve been caused by said character’s evil intentions if he was left alone for even a minute. This also brings forth the overall lack of urgency that persists within the film, keeping us from investing in the heat of the conflict or the vulnerability of the characters. The predictability keeps its expectations grounded, and gives us a lack of influence from Cleese’s Otto, that makes him practically non-existent.

– Characterization. Otto also seems like a great place to start here, because his incorporation into the story comes with around 57 minutes left in the film, and proves how unnecessary he was to this underdog story that was better left without a cliche antagonist. In addition to this, because “Despicable Me” mastered this many years ago, and every other animated film has followed with more diminishing results each time, this film also has a group of cute, funny minions that back up their master with cute gibberish in their own bird language. Then there’s the protagonists, who are no better than their opposition. With the exception of Swifty’s one scene of backstory exposition, there isn’t a single instance donated to anyone else in scenes or dialogue that would better paint them with some level of history before this film ever began. The female of the group is nothing more than a love interest for a storyline that goes literally nowhere, and the supporting characters only instances of personality is to feed into puns associated with their particular breed. It makes for a bunch of empty shells that are so thinly developed that they might as well be part of the backdrops that they stand in front of. Completely inconsequential.

– Unlikely plot. I know that questioning a kids movie is like questioning the logic in our dreams, but the film’s far-fetched plot never attempts to answer the one question that stretches its setting miles from the realism of this story. If this is a village atop this mountain with no roads or clear paths for transportation, how in the hell are these dogs even getting packages to deliver to their village in the first place? It hurts even more that we never see humans throughout the film, nor do we see anything other than a truck carrying packages in the very last scene of the movie. If you can answer me where or how this stuff is delivered to them, then maybe I can start working on how tropical birds exist in a frigidly cold surrounding.

– Missed potential. This is again attributed to the screenplay, as the importance of fracking or global warming is only hinted at, and never fully realized as an influence to the chaos surrounding these characters and their situations. Maybe that will be saved for the optimism of getting a sequel. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that, based on the amount of people in my theater, but anything is possible with Hollywood. This points to a realization within the laziness of the screenplay that keeps it from reaching the emotional climax or underlying social commentary of animated films like “Inside Out” or “Coco”, instead settling for the tired and tedious narrative of protagonist overcoming the odds to reach greatness. That’s fine enough, but a film with more to say about the world outside of its screen could transcend it as a cliche kids movie, and redefine it as something socially conscience.

– Nameless soundtrack. Aside from the pleasant-but-grounded approach of the movie’s adventurous musical score from composer David Buckley, the film features three different lyrical tracks that even still I haven’t been able to track down who is responsible for. This points to another immense difference in budget between studios, as Pixar has been known to throw in a timely theme from top 40 radio to sell downloads and get kids toes tapping with familiarity. American Studios takes an ambiguous approach, incorporating a trio of songs that, while relevant to the complexion of the story’s narrative, does nothing to solidify the expense of the movie’s minimalist production. Perhaps “Arctic Dogs” will stand as the first step in the highly-necessary evolution of this studio’s quest for better days. As it stands right now, however, it’s a cheap execution lacking the kind of artistic expression to hook kids into its fluffy fun energy.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+