The Art of Self-Defense

Directed By Riley Stearns

Starring – Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

The Plot – After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.

Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A Stearns sense of humor. Riley Stearns is my spirit animal when it comes to his style of humor. In being every bit as blunt as he is unapologetic, this whirlwind of social commentary appropriately articulates the ridiculousness associated with toxic masculinity in a way that the characters on-screen take seriously, yet us watching in the theater translate as elementary behavior. This not only gives the film’s material a unique blend of dark humor rarely capitalized by other independent films, but also makes us the audience dig a little deeper to properly channel what kind of tonal ranges the film is taking us on at any given minute. There were moments so dark and depraved that made me want to laugh, and moments so silly that made me want to cry, and it speaks volumes to a writer and director so involved in both aspects of a film’s creative process that allows them to flow cohesively throughout the picture.

– Confronting the poison. This is the second straight week that I have reviewed a movie dealing with toxic masculinity, and the kind of consequences it has in raising a generation of glorified entitlists. Where it stands in the movie takes us through themes involving firearms, mental manipulation, crude behavior involving the polarization of females, and an overall demeanor in demographic that tells us what to listen to and how to act at all times. What’s so rewarding about seeing this through Stearns eyes is not only is it layed out in a way that feels every bit truthful as it does obtuse, but the lessons learned by the end of the film reward us in a way that promotes hope through progression. Even for a film that classifies its material as satirical, it still wraps up in a way that deconstructs the mentality and lifestyles of decades worth of movements, and gives itself a lasting image that reminds us to strive for better.

– Wonderful performances. This is a three course dinner of uniquely gifted performances by the cast that shine for completely different reasons. It begins with this being the perfect role for Eisenberg, in that it allows him to bring along his nervous ticks and quirks for the nuance of the role. His Casey has very much been a victim his whole life, so Eisenberg’s introverted shyness gives us no shortage of body language to visually narrate what we already learn in his backstory without the narration telling us anything, and it leads to his best work in years. This is my first experience with Alessandro Nivola, and I have to say that his antagonist of sorts is endearing for how much he truly believes in his disgusting and deceitful ways. Almost immediately, you notice the mental advantage he holds over Casey, in that he is able to convince him to follow through with Karate, and it outlines this sort of mental chess game that feels ten times stronger than the physical hurdles that Casey endures in competing with dojo students who command years of experience ahead of him. The real shock however, is Imogen Poots, transforming herself once more to illustrate the film’s only female character. Her character’s personality feels tougher than anyone because of the treatment she has had to endure, and through a couple of near-tearful exposition dumps, Poots displays a variety in range and on-screen presence that proves those teenage romantic comedies were thankfully a thing of the past.

– Complex compositions. The camera work in this film is beautifully constructed, illustrating a range in personality that visually takes us through the roller-coaster in tone that is the film’s juggled tonal capacity. When it reaches for humor, it usually signals out one character in particular with a still-frame long take that reaches for awkwardness in isolation. When it reaches for unnerving uncertainty, it gives us a slow pan-out shot similar to David Robert Mitchell’s style of reveal that focuses on the smaller aspects in the background coming into focus to grow into something much bigger. In my interpretation, every shot in the film has meaning in establishing a greater purpose of gimmick within the script’s many themes, outlining a level of pulse and presence for the film’s cinematography that I certainly wasn’t expecting in a film advertised mostly for the psychological abuse of Casey disposition.

– Crisp editing. In addition to the colorful blend in shot layers that stimulated with precision in variety, the editing gimmick used in the film also provides these sharp cuts that provide a particular advantage of its own for what transpires on-screen. Not only is there a treat in the form of heavy metal karate montages a couple times throughout the film that marry two sides of the coin I was truly never expecting, but the self-defense action itself is cut and pasted in a way that preserves the continuity in a sequence that was probably shot and run through three or four different times to pull from the best takes of each run. This makes Hollywood actors look and feel like authentic Karate athletes, and thanks to the consistency of timely editing preserves that level of Hollywood magic often overlooked with independent cinema.

– Color representation. Being a film that revolves around karate and the many ranks associated with color in belts that the students wear, Stearns intelligently uses this as a mentality tool that follows the characters along with them everywhere. For example, Casey spends most of the movie being a yellow belt, and the influence of that color that seems to pop up everywhere from that point forward prove that it is anything but unintentional. Some of the examples are obvious, like the shopping scene where he buys nothing but yellow products, and it’s elaborated upon by the cashier mentioning it, but there are other scenes so obscure in size that really require future re-watches of the film to catch them all. This takes character framing to a whole new level, and provides food for thought in the absorbing quality that Stearns provides in transferring the mental capacity to the outside where it vibrantly flows with pride alongside the character it is intentionally supposed to represent.

– Delicious dialogue. Not only are the lines in the film clever in the way they construct conversations, but also in how the actors are directed with a dead-pan to deliver emotional lines that should feel more animated. This only adds to the comical layer of the film that I mentioned earlier, that further feeds into this unique and satirical world where nothing sounds too strange, and allows the actors to commit to an idea so silly and contrived that it feels routine in a male-dominated society like the one depicted in the movie. Likewise, jokes that are originally introduced during the first act return later on, and bring with them greater landing power because we the audience now grasp the situation in better detail after living through it with our central protagonist, and understanding what he’s gone through to reach this transformation in mentality.

– Visual props. To rebel even more in Stearns cleverness, the film rewards audiences so in-tuned with scenes by supplanting visual extras that honestly land just as effectively as the rich dialogue. Particularly present during the first act, we are treated to a couple of jokes in the form of a male magazine with the male icon on the cover, and a combination of guns, cologne advertisements, and female nudity within its pages, as well as an opening scene payoff that is genius for how it turns the advantage of a character dynamic on its head. Without spoiling much, two strangers are insulting a character in their native language, and we learn that their assumptions get the best of them. Where the visual comes in is during the second setting scene, where one reveal shows us everything that we need to know about the prior scene, and pays it off in a way that could be condemning if our attention is wandering during these initial minutes.

NEGATIVES

– Predictability. There are essentially two twists during the second half of the movie, and with relative ease I was able to predict each of them correctly. It’s not that the film shows itself too early, but rather its lack of moving room creatively within the story and minimal amount of characters leaves it claustrophobic with the available directions it could take with its mystery. The second twist is more something that happens within the reveal of a scene that I saw coming because of how uneven the odds were against a particular character. Both are credible reveals within the movie, but ones that I saw coming from early on in the second act, and the focus for the second half of the film revolved around this element of the reveal that I waited for the screenplay to catch-up to.

– Plot conveniences. This is the biggest problem I had with the film, as many coincidences during the first act are a stretch at best for lining up properly to the plot twist reveals that I previously mentioned. Things perfectly work to the advantage of the movie’s antagonist without really taking the time to understand how such things are possible, and why Casey would choose something like karate over the permanency and intimidation of owning a gun. Hell, the whole jumping happens when Casey is walking home from a supermarket trip that he walked to. We find out later that he owns a car, so why would you walk at night in a dangerous neighborhood to a store when you have valuable transportation? It doesn’t get any easier with the progression of the film, as there are a couple of situations that are easily escapable for someone with the intelligence of Casey that the film must ignore to further prolong the conflict. This also feels like a world where no cops or consequences exist, giving us about as much urgency within Casey’s blackmail conflict that never allows itself the time or opportunity to flesh itself out properly to coincide with the weight that we are visually told resides within this deal.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Lion King (2019)

Directed By Jon Favreau

Starring – Donald Glover, Beyonce, Seth Rogen

The Plot – The movie journeys to the African savanna where a future king is born. Simba (Glover) idolizes his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s brother-and former heir to the throne-has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.

Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Jon Favreau. Once again, Favreau instills a personal touch to a Disney classic, this time in the form of intense camera movements and character personality that give way to the more light-hearted, carefree atmosphere this time around. On the former, there are quite a few sequences where we the audience behind the camera are constantly in front of a particular character, engaged in a chase sequence that maximizes the urgency of the situation, and cements Jon as articulate in his captivation of this very dangerous world in ways the animated original simply never could. As for the humor, not everything lands (Especially unnecessary fart humor), but the abundance of comedic characters, as well as colorful ironies, gives way to an indulgence that makes it difficult for any cinematic snob not to embrace.

– Pacing. This Lion King remake is twenty-six minutes longer than the previous animated classic, and while that may feel like unnecessary padding in the form of storytelling, the few additionally original scenes that we are treated to better help earn the feelings and situations that come with Simba’s tale of vengeance. One of my few problems with the animated original is that it felt like it was constantly in a rush to get to the inevitable predictability of the third act conclusion, but here the sorrow of those damned to Scar’s reign of terror, as well as Simba’s time away from home, better capture the dread of this dire situation. This time, we are actually treated to examples of Scar’s authority in the form of specie extinction, and not only does this further flesh him out as an intolerable antagonist, but it also gives much needed attention to the victims of this story, who were otherwise forgotten in the previous film.

– Female empowerment. Speaking of characters forgotten, the lack of female influence was also something that greatly bothered me from the original film, but here is given great importance to everything that transpires. Particularly in the form of Nala and Sarabi, they play a much more pivotal role in the combat of Scar, with the former being a motivator of sorts to this army of misfits who come together as a family. I knew someone like Beyonce certainly wouldn’t be relegated to virtual arm candy to the male protagonist, and this much needed level of gender inclusion will undoubtedly inspire female audiences, young and old, in ways that very few 20th century Disney films captured. Say what you will about Disney live action remakes, but their finger of creativity is constantly on the pulse of modern day social commentary, and the way it’s done is accomplished in a classy way that doesn’t feel preachy in the slightest.

– Endearing cast. While the limitations of script condemn any of these exceptionally talented actors from making any of these roles their own, there are a few notable deliveries who I greatly enjoyed. The ones who come to mind immediately is the duo of Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as the lovable duo, Timon and Pumba. To anyone who knows these two colorful personalities, the transformations of their on-screen counterparts isn’t a stretch in the slightest, balancing vibrancy in comical range and elevated vocal capacities that really bring their character designs to life in a much-needed shot of adrenaline for the film’s second act. Also buzzworthy is John Oliver’s sarcastic wit behind Zazu that further outlines a serious character living in a care-free world. Considering in real life Oliver hosts a weekly news show, it’s perfect that he serves as the branch of airborne news for the film’s protagonists, and just as he does on TV, Oliver’s wordy dialogue constantly puts him a step above the game in terms of intelligence. It was also great to hear James Earl Jones vocalizing Mufasa again, as even at 88-years-old, the man still commands enough bravado and stern emphasis in demeanor to demand your attention like he does Simba in the movie.

– Transformations in set design. The one aspect that is live action is the dreamy backdrops of the African safari that are practically lifted from the pages of ambitious animation, and brought to life with an attention for detail that constantly impresses. The rock cliff is the easy part, as the familiarity of those stones would point to a huge tragedy in production if not captured authentically, but what amazed me were the shapes and designs of the small objects in frame that prove no spare detail was left on the creative room floor. For my money, the scenes of Rafiki’s cave, as well as Timon and Pumba’s home really impressed me, and served as a virtual checklist in creature and object extras that only further cemented the lasting power of the scene in the animated original. When a production is really good in a remake, you can point to a familiar object and know what is about to transpire, and the eye-catching three-dimensional quality to the lively sets and background props serve as episodic chapters in this modern day rendering of Hamlet stripped down to its bare bones.

– Gutsy. I was more than impressed at the perilous imagery in animal characters that brought back an air of 80’s child cinema that challenged for its gruesome content. That’s not to say that “The Lion King” will blow your mind with violence or gore, but rather if you absolutely dread seeing animals in these kind of situations, the movie will test you in ways that you weren’t expecting, especially from PG-rated cinema. But that ratings jump from G-to-PG has never felt bigger, especially considering the ambush of Mufasa’s downfall, or the camera panning of Scar’s demise, which for better feels a few seconds to late from the mauling that we catch before it pans to shadows. I admire a children’s movie that appreciates the age divide in its audience and finds a healthy compromise somewhere in between for the beats of its material that is easily more testing than any other kids movie in 2019, giving respect to the youth, while rewarding the mature for its evolution in the two films.

NEGATIVES

– Weightless. I say this in the form of computer generated characters that leave this live-action rendering virtually pointless, considering they are basically refined cartoons in the way they are designed. What’s even worse is the C.G is definitely a step below Favreau’s previous work in “The Jungle Book” live action remake, with hollow mouthing captures and overall lack of facial expressions that hinder your ability to connect with the characters. Both of these aspects make the dialogue exchanges feel hokey and lifeless in their enveloping, and quite often brought me out of my investment into this supposed live action story, to remind me of the glaring negatives in post production never immersed themselves smoothly in the progression of the film. I don’t expect actual animals performing in the movie, but it points to perhaps the biggest reason why this animated classic should’ve remained just that, serving as the beacon in a fantastical animated world where anything feels possible.

– Uninspiring. Just as I feared, the film is roughly a 90% shot-for-shot remake of the previous film, and while familiarity is expected in a remake, the level attained by this film is borderline shameless. Not only is the outline of events in the film transferred in the exact same way that it was in the previous movie, but whole lines of dialogue are ripped in a way that prove absolutely no creativity went into making their version stand out with even a shred of originality. While not a bad or even terrible film, “The Lion King” is easily the biggest offender to people like me who ask for something of substance or varied complexity to combat feelings of an obvious cash grab. Even if you haven’t seen this remake, you really have already seen this movie, and before giving Disney one more dollar of the life savings that you have already invested in their company, maybe go back and just watch the 1995 animated original. Key word there is “ORIGINAL”, an aspect this movie never will be.

– It continues. Once again, original screenwriters on the original Lion King movie aren’t credited in the credits of this film, despite writing roughly 90% of the remake’s material. I also pointed this out in the “Aladdin” remake earlier this year, to which a reader so candidly told me I was wrong. Upon a re-watch of the opening and closing credit sequences, I can confidently say that the names of those writers are NOWHERE to be found in that film, as is the case with this picture. As I’ve said before, If you aren’t going to credit screenwriters who are so obviously being ripped off, it is called plagiarism, and while this isn’t a problem to the casual moviegoer, it is the single most offensive thing to a film that is trying to market itself as a new feature length film that you should pump your hard earned dollars into. Only Disney gets away with this crap, and it’s mostly because that mouse touched audiences somewhere vulnerable when they were children. Cute.

– Musical performances. While the singing itself is strong enough in the movie, it was really the lack of fantastical pageantry within the visuals that left me yearning for more. I hate to keep going back to this, but the original animated film presented these in a way that is big and boisterous, catering to the big budget choreography musical nut in all of us. The problem here is that the movie’s grounded approach to realism limits the appeal of what it can capture with the magical essence of the song, leaving a dreaded damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t juxtaposition that will hurt one side of the audience regardless. The truth is, if they wanted a photo-realist story, the music should’ve been left out as a whole, but then you risk alienating the older audiences who grew up with classics like “Just Can’t Wait To Be King” or “Be Prepared”, and look forward to actual musical artists like Glover or Beyonce actually perform them. Speaking of “Be Prepared”, this film destroyed the psychology and momentum of Scar for the way they illustrate and include it into this one. It’s almost an after-note by the time you realize it’s happening before our very eyes.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Framing John Delorean

Directed By Dan Argott, Sheena M. Joyce

Starring – Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles

The Plot – The documentary recounts the extraordinary life and legend of the controversial automaker, tracing his meteoric rise through the ranks of General Motors, his obsessive quest to build a sports car that would conquer the world, and his shocking fall from grace on charges of cocaine trafficking. Interweaving a treasure trove of archival footage with dramatic vignettes starring Alec Baldwin, “Framing John DeLorean” is a gripping look at a man who gambled everything in his pursuit of the American Dream.

Currently not rated

POSITIVES

– Crisp presentation. Argott and Joyce visually seduce us with a free-flowing allure in editing and storyboard movements that gives the documentary an investigation kind of format to its storytelling. With a combination of photographs from news stories, magazines, and personal family collections, as well as an array of guests close to the story, the film’s grasp on the intimate details is astonishing, granting us a level of access into the psychology and circumstance of Delorean that no other news story on the figure has given us before. Beyond this, the film’s own framing method of sliding each picture into frame with the uniqueness of a slide-show is one that constantly kept the pacing of the story moving, all the while covering so much of the time frame with a shocking abundance of accompanying visual flare.

– Surprises. Considering I knew very little about the Delorean trials, as well as the complications that he dealt with while building an entirely new automobile company from the ground up, I was surprisingly enlightened to learn about a figure who is every bit as innocent as he was guilty. It’s a strange juxtaposition because John was a man with honorable dreams and intentions, yet his naivety often got the worst of him, and cemented this ideal that for every one step forward he was often taking two steps back. In addition to this, the lasting image effects left on his family and work colleagues is something that conjures an air of tragedy to the story, where one man’s vision became the catalyst in the destruction for many careers and futures. In particular, the footage of John’s adopted son in present day is the most effective in garnering a feeling of empathy that I honestly wasn’t expecting for a family that had everything that the American dream entailed.

– Two for one. In addition to this being a documentary-first category of filmmaking, there’s also a Hollywood presentation that plays alongside the details of the previous, colorfully filling in the gaps of storytelling for the footage behind closed doors that we are unfortunately not afforded because of the circumstances. The production itself is believable enough without feeling cheap or cheesy, and the make-up work of a talented production transforms Baldwin to Delorean seamlessly before our very eyes. What’s important is that these cinematic inclusions never overstep their boundaries, or happen frequently enough to stall the pacing of the story, balancing two appreciated levels of filmmaking for the price of one. It capitalizes on the documentary’s many mentions of there never being a Hollywood film about the life of John, all the while living and breathing inside this bubble of biographical fact that documentaries thrive on.

– Appropriate tone. There’s a great deal of blunt personality that radiates from the many ironies of the story that take us through some very suffocating beats within Delorean’s life. Not only is the film not afraid to capitalize on the sheer lunacy of the many trials that John faced as a result of his own judgment, but it also hints at the selfishness of an elevated capitalist market within the American landscape in the 1980’s that maximized production of product into overdrive to satisfy demand. It helps that many of the speaking guests on-film are mostly animated in their deliveries, but it’s made even more convincing by the stakes in adversity that always seems present in John’s life and social surroundings, outlining a protagonist who was every bit unorthodox as the model car that he campaigned to an otherwise conventional market of consumerism.

– Enjoyable cast. This is really on the acting spectrum for the movie within the documentary, as the many familiar faces that move in and out of frame gives the story a big-screen presence in transforming this story for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. While none of the performances are transformational in anything other than look and character design, the intention of the character direction is something that clearly capitalizes on the big personality feel of the silver screen, skewering the pulse of the character for the conveniences of the story that it is trying to tell. Besides Baldwin, Gotham’s Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles, Michael Rispoli, Dean Winters, and Twin Peaks Dana Ashbrook are just a few of the names who give nuance to the respective characters within Delorean’s story, giving us a vibrant array of colorful personalities that play into a story involving drugs, gang warfare, and two class action lawsuits brought before congress.

– Back to The Future. The most alluring area of the screenplay to me going in was clearly going to be the behind-the-scenes access for how the Delorean automobile made its way onto one of the most memorable 80’s movies of all time; “Back To The Future”, and this film definitely didn’t disappoint. Considering the Delorean name was dead by 1985, the representation of the Delorean on the silver screen immortalized its name for future generations, benefiting in the way of advertisement that some automobile brands can’t pay for. For my money, I could’ve used more time dedicated to the meat of the pre-production aspect, in terms of John’s involvement in getting the car onto the set, but the interviews from screenwriter Bob Gale, as well as iconic footage playing simultaneously during it, proved why this was the perfect marriage of temporary product meeting timeless cinema to create something truly cohesive on all levels within the feature film. You certainly couldn’t imagine anything else being the time machine now, and this gives the Delorean immortality in a day and age where cars come and go like musical trends.

– An undying spirit. Without question, the most endearing quality of the film for me was the final moments of footage, where John’s mock-ups for the D.M.C 2 come into frame, and outline a vision in automobiles that was decades ahead of its time. Even for something that is only a first draft drawing, the dimensions and curvature associated with a product that is every bit fast as it is luxurious is something that even today is still unavailable to lower and middle class drivers. What this does is cement an idea about John that conveys him as being one of the good ones, who catered to the mass instead of the minority, and preserved that level of drive and determination that stuck with him until the day he died. To humanize a public figure so high up on the food chain of fame and fortune is remarkable, and perhaps stands as the single greatest achievement for Argott and Joyce, if only for the way add vulnerability to a man who was once considered to be, like his cars, indestructible.

– Similarities to other prominent figures. My interpretation of the film brought familiar feelings in watching documentaries about Nicolas Tesla, the man credited by some as the creator of electricity. In comparisons to Delorean, both men were hunted by the government, set-up in a sting operation to ruin their careers, and then had their visions ripped from them for profit at the hands of someone else. Most people don’t know that Delorean’s can still be manufactured in special requests to this day, conjuring up an unnerving feeling within me that gets the conspiracy wheels spinning. Both of these men were considered geniuses ahead of their respective times, and challenged the conventionalism within a system that ultimately led to their untimely downfalls.

NEGATIVES

– Stumbling pacing. This film was running smoothly until the cocaine trial, which takes up an inordinate amount of screen time to cover every single angle of the world-wide focus, and while it’s vital to include this in John’s story, the dominance that it has over the rest of the film offers too much separation from our protagonist’s psyche. Especially with a third act that breezes through with an ending that feels incomplete at best, the particular trial section bleeds the brakes on a progression that until then covered a variety of topics without staying put for far too long. Opposing that, there were many times in the film’s final half hour where I frequently checked my watch, and even stopped the film for an entire day because of waning interest. With more devotion to John’s final days, the film could’ve further fleshed out the real tragedy of his lasting memory, but it simply doesn’t seem interested in the weak John, leaving much of the weathered transformation on the floor of under developed curiosity.

– Unnecessary cursing. As mentioned up top, this film doesn’t have a designated rating, but one guest’s desire to drop F-bombs every other word soiled a level of class within the picture that had been maintained up to that point, and illustrated him as a nutcase of sorts to the case that he was trying to prescribe to the audience. One or two of these words is fine to articulate the anger from this particular character, but a barrage seems unnecessary, and reminds me of the freedom that the director’s had in allowing their guests to get get everything out. Even if you don’t agree with me on this, the desire of including the film’s final text with a line “He died in 2005. He lived to be 80 FUCKING years old” feels highly unnecessary.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Stuber

Directed By Michael Dowse

Starring – Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan

The Plot – A mild-mannered Uber driver named Stu (Nanjiani) picks up a grizzled detective (Bautista) who is hot on the trail of a sadistic, bloodthirsty terrorist and finds himself thrust into a harrowing ordeal where he has to keep his wits, himself unharmed, and work with his passenger while maintaining his high-class rating.

Rated R for violence and adult language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– Strong comical pull. This is really the most important aspect of this film, as it is a comedy before anything else, thanks in part to the combination of Nanjiani and Bautista, who improvise through many awkward situations and exchanges that left my gut busted. The most used device definitely comes from Bautista, who undergoes Lasik eye surgery for the improvement of his character, and it leads to several instances of audible, physical, and slapstick comedy that constantly kept me engaged to the many character dynamics and ever-changing backdrops that the film takes us through. As for the two male leads, their comical chemistry is impeccable, occasionally taking turns on being the straight man who unleashes a sarcastic poke to chew into his counterpart within the car, and setting the stage for the boundaries accordingly that exist between two strangers who are taking in complete polar-opposite directions in lifestyle choices and character demeanor.

– Delightful leads. In addition to the comedy that is top notch, the performances from minority-heritage Nanjiani and Bautista were the perfect display of their respective talents, giving us the same kind of fan service that has gotten us to fall in love with their personalities time and time again. For Bautista, it’s the ability to balance the tough guy action bulldozer that he was born to become with this element of emotional acting that he starts to convey once we eventually break down the walls from his character. Like his turns as Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, Dave once again gives proof to something deeper beneath his registry, and while his ass-kicking is what you came for, it’s the scars his character wears from past parental issues that will make you stay. Nanjiani is also a pleasure once more, with his dry sarcastic delivery and reserved emotional investment that gives him a unique voice in today’s comedy landscape. Some of the best scenes for me were definitely those where Kumail is trying to assert some level of control over a situation that he is entirely incapable of, giving us several examples of scenes where he has to adapt to a world taking place far beyond his luxury sedan. As far as polar opposites go, these two were made for each other, and it’s that bond in chemistry between them that turns the script’s many pot holes into minor speedbumps.

– Joseph Trapanese. Yes, the very same man who musically scored films like “The Greatest Showman”, “Straight Outta Compton”, and “Tron: Legacy” returns for atmospheric work on “Stuber” that is every bit present as it is evolving with the tonal shifts of the movie. Like his work in “Tron”, Joseph’s work here points to a vaporwave encompassing that vibrantly pays homage to the 80’s buddy cop thrillers of yesterday, all the while maintaining a level in volume which never feels obvious or hindering to the integrity of the scene it accompanies. Particularly in the film’s third and final act, Trapanese fleshes out the urgency and intensity in ways that Dowse’s direction often falls flat on, and conjured up an element of surprise for a production that is otherwise blandly conventional on nearly every end of the artistic spectrum.

– Topical for the day. Another surprising element of the film was the dissection of toxic masculinity that gives the narrative a strong helping of emotional weight beneath the table dressing of shoot-out action in modern day Los Angeles. The measure taken with how this film approaches such a touchy subject is one that is as equally profound as it pertains to a real world, where until recently male protagonists were appreciated for the way they degrade everyone surrounding them. I definitely didn’t expect the film to dissect the cultural definitions of what we perceive masculinity to be, but the polar-opposite pulling of two male characters whose personalities colorfully off-set one another, leading to the answer being somewhere in between, not only proves that this casually slapstick comedy is so much more than that dreaded labeling, it’s a commentary on preventable poisons that deconstruct decades of personality building that build up one to tear down many.

– Commercial advertising. This is usually a problem for me, but the film’s inclusion of the Uber product is one that is cleverly more informative than it is a blunt marketing campaign for 88 minutes. Throughout the film, we are told in dialogue the many uses and rules associated with the taxi-cab application that will help fill in the gaps of curiosity for anyone who hasn’t been fortunate enough to use its services. What’s more important here is that the film isn’t out to make Uber anything more appealing than that of a modern day convenience, even going as far as to rarely show the emblem or the app itself to gain profitable interest. Does Uber play a pivotal role in “Stuber”? Absolutely, but the maintained focus on the screenplay, as well as the character-building bond between our male leads, harvests this film as anything other than “The Emoji Movie”, a kids movie that engorged an abundance of vital screen time in order to sell toys.

NEGATIVES

– Obvious foreshadowing. One of the film’s biggest adversaries is its inserts of tropes, which makes this film easily predictable to anyone who has ever watched a buddy cop movie. One such example is in the terribly weak antagonist of the movie, who doesn’t have a single scene dedicated to the exposition of his character for a bigger purpose. Almost immediately, you know a bigger swerve is coming, and come it does. A second antagonist develops from a mystery that was every bit as unpredictable as “Men In Black: International”, and as it turns out I accurately predicted from the moment this character was introduced. Beyond this, the film’s heavy focus on a romantic subplot, as well as no shortage of scenes involving convenient plot devices, constantly had me sarcastically saying “Gee, I wonder if that will come into play later”. Subtlety is certainly not Dowse’s bag, baby, and thanks to a series of telegraphed scenes that step over boundaries repeatedly, “Stuber” becomes a film where we are waiting for every character inside to catch up to what we’ve sniffed out in fifteen minutes.

– Uninspiring title. “Stuber” is as lazy of a movie title as you will find in 2019. Considering it stems from a jerk supporting character, who uses it as a combination of Nanjiani’s character’s name (Stu) and the part time job that he endures through (Uber), the studio heads prove that they don’t have a lot of imagination to sell their product, leaving many moviegoers confused heading into a screening of it. It’s not often that I hate on a movie for the title, but considering this is really the first thing that you learn about the film, and it’s supposed to be used as a summary of everything enclosed, the one word noun that isn’t even a word at that, only touches the surface of what the plot, narrative, and characters are building towards, making ambiguity feel like a bumbling curse that dooms it from the opening page of script.

– Shaky-cam action sequences. The biggest hindering for action movies is back, this time in the form of tight-knit compositions and sloppily choreographed camera movements that ruin every single set piece that the movie contains. Not only are these sequences so close that you could recognizes an acne sprouting on the film’s cast, but the intended direction to make us the audience feel like a pawn in the unveiling visual narrative is something that makes it difficult to depict what is actually taking place. If done right, the scene’s intensity can articulate a feeling of presence for our vantage point, but this intention is often done wrong because of commanders who substitute intensity for atmosphere, and try to capitalize on every little aspect of detail that the character’s in frame are going through. If I wanted to be an actor in Hollywood, I would’ve done it the second I graduated from high school in 2003, but my desire to be a moviegoer instead, means I would rather watch and follow a scene from the comforts of my seat, and this film’s supercharged sequences give me neither option to pleasantly chew on.

– Uneven halves. For the first forty minutes of this film, I really found myself invested to one of the more consistent comedies of the 2019 movie year, but the last forty-five minutes made it so obvious why this film isn’t receiving the best reviews globally. For the compromising second half, there are no shortage of violent tonal shifts, redundancy in comic gags, and antagonists who are handled about as easily as nick to the skin when you cut yourself shaving. For my money, “Stuber” is a film that originally takes pride in being what it is; a buddy comedy, but eventually feels ambitious on its way to transforming as a dramatic action thriller that simply hasn’t earned the kind of emotional tug that it asks of its pivotal third act. If it remained more true to the advertising it conveyed in its trailers, then the film would’ve been one of the sleeper hits of the year, and a film that I would be proud to stick up for, but “Stuber’s” resonance to change up the game far too often leaves it scrambling for an identity that is completely unnecessary.

– Revenge subplot. (LIGHT SPOILERS) We open up the film with a death involving Bautista’s cop partner, at the hands of the movie’s antagonist, and what’s truly puzzling is how little of weight and focus this impact leaves on the remainder of the film that follows it. Never again is this partner ever brought up again, or further elaborated on what kind of impact psychologically that this has on Bautista, considering the two were practically married at the wheel, and it all just kind of evaporates this personal level of vengeance that Dave’s character has for this antagonist without ever capitalizing on the rivalry that makes this dynamic special. More concerning, as I mentioned previously, the film also drops the ball on following that antagonist, which creates a level of disinterest within the film so deep that we lose sight of the subplot that was driving this whole thing.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Crawl

Directed by Alexandre Aja

Starring – Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson

The Plot – A young woman (Scodelario), while attempting to save her father (Pepper) during a Category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against meat hungry alligators.

Rated R for bloody creature violence, and brief adult language

POSITIVES

– Thrill ride. This is easily one of the more intriguing sits that you will endure in 2019, and while most of that has to do with a consistency in thrills and stimulating sight gags, the smooth and rapid pacing developed from an 83 minute run time more than feeds into this circumstance. Whatever you say about this film, boredom certainly won’t be one of the nominated verbs, as this film’s constant fluidity leaves very little slow spots of exposition in between these moments of surreal horror that harvest a hybrid of entertainment between the screenplay’s hip personality that conjures from these very tense and horrific moments of horror curriculum. A film that doesn’t lag is difficult to come by, but “Crawl’s” biggest strength is in a story that flows as fast as the deposited water that leaves our characters stranded.

– Grave urgency. Speaking of that condemning rain, the gradual rising of this element not only feeds into the claustrophobia of this diminishing setting, but also outlines a visual reminder of the limited time-frame that these people face, perhaps illustrating a bigger adversary than even that of the alligators that surround them. Considering the screenplay does a great job in remaining focused on the characters and their predators, the blink-and-you-miss-it rising of this virtual hourglass of sorts increases before our very eyes, adding a completely different element of danger that isn’t as easily escapable as something that can be hurt or killed. This for me was the biggest and most rewarding antagonist of the film in terms of weight to the adjacent story, and brings forth a level of creativity of escape for the protagonists that was previously unforeseen.

– Story above storm. The problem with disaster films are often the necessity to substitute valuable characters for riveting storm sequences, and while “Crawl” does have an inescapable presence to its methods of mother nature, it’s the character building and backstories that I appreciated more than anything. As especially is the case with this father and daughter dynamic, the screenplay initially hints at a level of distance between them that evolves terrifically into a fully fleshed out narrative, giving us the audience extreme indulgence in the form of characters who we can grasp and understand the intentions behind their dangerous decisions. While I did have problems with Scodelario’s character and her overall performance, which I will get to later, the established backstory that is slowly revealed between them in candid flashback sequences more than solidifies an interest in their well-being that makes films like these all the more rewarding for my investment into them.

– Consistent theme. Further feeding into the film’s depth, the script has an obvious intention of feeding into ones past, and the negatives that come with constantly reveling in it. I won’t spoil anything important here, but this whole conflict starts because of the father’s road trip to his family’s former residence, which represents the happier times between them, when all was copacetic. Beyond this, every character, big and small, is dealing with the regrets of the past. Some in the form of immense mental blocks that leave their success in sports hindered because of the mental luggage that pins itself to them, as well as the way other supporting characters bring up their former significant others in moments that don’t necessarily require it. This burden that our characters face constantly feeds into every one of their motivations, bringing forth a couple of epiphanies along the way that are earned because of the dire pressure of their current conflict.

– Special effects. This element surprised me more than any, as the believability and weight established between storm influence and computer generated reptiles wasn’t as equally present in the illustrations within the trailer. Clearly another production rendering took place here, as the seamless dimensions and designs on display more times than not impressed me, and was made more apparent because of articulate measures along the way that prospered their consistency. For one, the cinematography by Maxime Alexandre, as well as the movie’s overall lighting scheme points to a weathered, grainy visual capacity that crafts opportunity within its darker frames, making it all the more difficult to zero in on an obvious weakness within the generation. Most of the storm is human-created elements, but the sky itself is computer generated, and left intimidating by its thickness in clouds and darkness in color, that never needed a skull to channel its intensity (See “The Hurricane Heist”).

– Aja’s devilish direction. You cast a man like Alexandre Aja to helm your film if you want a barrage of blood with a non-relenting atmosphere that persists like a rapid heartbeat, and while this film doesn’t reach the levels of blood or gore on something like previous Aja offering “The Hills Have Eyes”, it does manage a level of intensity that barely ever has time to breathe within the environment that he created. In addition to this Aja’s claustrophobic lens offers a combination water level, underwater, and alligator trailing sequences that conjure up the variety in shot compositions that shoots the action from many unnerving levels. But fear not horror hounds, as there is a solid offering of snapped limbs, bloody bites, and jump scare thrills that frequently remind us of the deacon of direction, who elevates a film like this if only for the hell that he puts his characters through.

– Clever joke. Beyond Aja’s stylish execution, his ability to instill a sense of dark humor is also a trait that he wears with pride, and his insertion into the film’s intro is one that made me laugh and roll my eyes equally, with unabashed glee. Upon our initial introduction with Scoloderio’s character, we learn that not only is she a college athlete swimmer, but she goes to the University of Florida, a school known for its prestigious mascot that plays quite an intended irony on the film’s future. The mascot is of course the gator, and this obvious level of foreshadowing is certainly the perfect litmus test for any audience curious to gauge the kind of atmosphere and attitude that they will soon be neck-deep in.

NEGATIVES

– Inconsistent sound mixing. Not only does the shallow sound mixing attain a level of manipulation within its audience, it also drops the ball frequently on the engaging nature of a storm that otherwise should swallow us whole. One example of my problem stems from the alligator’s abilities to move in and out of frame with such a lack of weight that makes them feel like a feather when they sneak up on these humans. Likewise, the spotty splashes of rain come and go in a way that makes it feel like the storm has subdued, despite the fact that the water from within this house continues to rise in elevation. If the sound mixing is shoddy, the disaster film that contains it won’t feel as imposing on the heat of the storm, and while visually we are shown no shortage of urgently impactful imagery, the lack of balance in the audio capacity proves that its production isn’t equally up to the task, leaving too much weight of presence on the field of imagination for us the audience to vividly fill in.

– Unlikeable protagonist. While the storytelling outline for this family was rewarding in keeping me invested to their well-being, my disdain for Scoloderio’s performance and overall direction was something that constantly kept me annoyed in her demeanor. For one, this woman’s closed personality all stems from divorce. That’s right, something most of us go through, and we’re supposed to justify her rude behavior because of it. She’s condescending towards her family, un-invested with her friends, and arrogant in moments where it feels like a lesson should easily be learned. In addition to this, Kaya’s dialogue does her no favors in articulating the proper emotional tug to give us goosebumps from her situation. As an actress, she’s alright, but all of her character’s that she has played in movies rub together, leaving no semblance of depth or distinguishing to showcase her skill.

– Leaps in logic. So much here to unload, but everything from laws of physics to human lung capacity is tested here, giving me several moments of unintended laughter that didn’t line-up so well to the film’s mostly serious tone. Humans can apparently outswim alligators, alligators can disappear and re-appear without hearing them, Scoloderio’s character can apparently hold her breath under water for over two minutes in real time, and so much more. There are also measures that could easily be taken to end this threat within ten minutes, but because of the sake of the already brief 83 minute run time, the necessity to pan out the sequence of events and overlook easily taken measures that any idiot could fathom, giving us frustrating scenes in logic that could easily be omitted if the screenwriters did the necessary studying in preventing what people like myself already know.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Under the Silver Lake

Directed By David Robert Mitchell

Starring – Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace

The Plot – Sam (Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Keough), frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool. When she vanishes, Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal and conspiracy in the City of Angels.

Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, adult language throughout and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Sparkling style. Considering this is from the same man who helmed 2014’s “It Follows”, the entrancing visuals involving eye-catching color and velocity behind the lens isn’t surprising in the least. While Mitchell’s story itself is something that I had a lot of problems with, the beauty inside of this Lynch-meets-Refn world of color dominated sequences constantly allured me and kept me engaged into the progression of the scene with its unabashed focus. It’s unique how one particular color will take dominance over an entire frame, making everything else surrounding it weak to the lustrous glow that seduces us front-and-center, with the cherry on top being David’s signature slow, stirring close-up pans that conjure up an atmosphere of unnerving tension that conveys something sinister at play in the city of angels.

– Musical Majesticism. Both the variety of tones compiled by Disasterpiece to make another must-buy musical score, as well as the film’s storytelling soundtrack by rock band Silversun Pickups lights the way for an audible presence that sinks its hooks into us with all of its subtle nuance and nostalgia that breathes patiently without feeling like an obvious gimmick. Fresh off of his unsettling stirring that was “It Follows” Disasterpiece once again rivets, combining orchestral cues, beach vibe blues, and 8-bit sound bites to drill out a composition that evolves right along with the story. Disasterpiece rides the waves in tone complexity that the film sometimes rapidly shifts us under, and emits a level of euphoric mystery that competently articulates the inherency of its central protagonist. The new material from Pickups, one of my favorite current rock bands going today, is also appreciated, bringing forth an air of familiarity in the vocals of Brian Aubert to play into this band of characters within the film who thrive more for their pageantry instead of their aspiring talents.

– My interpretation. While the film certainly doesn’t settle for feeding into just one consistent direction of social commentary, the themes of paranoia against conspiracy theorists overwhelmed me, and brought forth an intended level of comical delight that at times elevated the lunacy of the material. The sheer silliness associated with Sam’s investigative measures are as far of a stretch as anything you’ll ever see in cinema, and feed fuel for the fire for the world’s theorists who sometimes look far too deeply in interpreting media. In a sense, you can argue that this is Mitchell’s way of getting back at the masses who interpreted “It Follows” as something far deeper than it rightfully was, spreading it as a completely different monster than the creator intended. Curiosity is an inspiring thing in film, but an audience audacity at searching for clues in the widest margins is clearly present throughout, and elaborates that the best battles are left carefully chosen by intelligent people.

– Direction reflecting performances. David has a way of stirring these never-before-seen performances from his cast, and none is more prominent of than the work of Andrew Garfield as Sam. Garfield’s usual endless charisma is reserved in small doses here, instead bringing along enough neuroticism and quirk to feed into his evolving curiosity, and while there are plenty of moments of laughter from Andrew’s nervous registry, his shining stride comes in the form of fabricated intelligence that lights up his face like a Christmas tree whenever he comes on to some kind of clue. Garfield is given occasional help from reputable turns from Keough, Grace, and especially one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, Jimmi Simpson, but he commands 100% of the scenes that we tail through, so this one man show is perhaps the most emotionally demanding of Garfield’s still-young, storied career.

– Transformative editing technique. You’ll notice something off almost immediately with the editing, and like its material that reflects the beats, gags, and theories associated behind the picket fences of Hollywood, Mitchell’s permanence in editing is a throwback to silver-aged cinema, when dissolving was the majority editing direction over quick-cuts. Not only does this technique maintain the urgency associated with the investigation, but it also transfers time in a way that quick-cuts often leave you scrambling for how much time has passed between cuts. It’s measures like this that keep this from feeling like a completely pretentious presentation, and instead takes viewers with it down the rabbit hole to a setting that feels modern, but a production quality that feels anything but, stitching this collision of crossroads that immerse together as one cohesive quality.

NEGATIVES

– Meandering mystery. There are many in this film. So many in fact that the film feels muddled in its narrative direction long before the halfway point. What happened to this girl? Who is the Dog killer? Who is the Owl killer? Is there truth to there being clues in pop culture ads and products? and so many more. The girl one is obviously the one that sparks Sam’s initial movements, but throughout a majority of the film, the eye on the prize becomes more than slightly blurred, and we start to lose attention towards what is essentially driving him. I did manage to predict one of these mysteries correctly, but taking credit for it would be childish considering the film doesn’t take any time to develop any other characters to make it stir with intrigue. As I mentioned before, there are many ideas for this film…..too many, but what stilts the impact of each of their indulgence is an incoherent, disjointed manner of storytelling that challenges you for all of the wrong reasons, leaving you tossing and turning through a film that is every bit as jumbled as 2015’s “Inherent Vice”.

– Heavy run time. If you’re going to set out to make a 137 minute film, you better outline a script that makes it impossible to turn away from, but thanks to the abundance of drowning dialogue exchanges and repetition of similar scenes despite differences in location, “Under the Silver Lake” keeps burying us under suffocating weight of bumbling exposition, that quite frequently goes nowhere. Beyond this, if you use conventionalism in filmmaking to outline where you are at in the story, you will quickly become disappointed with where you’re at, at any given time. There were a few times during the film when it felt like things were starting to wrap up, only to discover that I still had 90 minutes left in the film. The pacing also does it no favors, building such little momentum between scene transitions, unless you’re half as stupid as Sam is, and believe half of the bullshit that you’re being asked to chew on.

– Sloppy editing. This is perhaps the biggest surprise to me, as “It Follows” was edited in a way that carefully carried over the tension and sense of dread that enveloped every scene and ensuing atmosphere, But with “Under the Silver Lake”, we get no level of consistency or transition with these scenes, jaggedly cutting with several fade-to-black measures that shoe-horn a wedge in between scenes that are supposed to be consistently running together. There are scenes where cuts come long after they were expected, leaving an ample amount of silence before the cut, and there are scenes where dialogue is cut-off in what I can only fathom as being intentional? This is the area of production that certainly could’ve used another measure of tweaking inside of the studio, and thanks to this disjointed nature of what is transpiring on-screen, it occasionally makes the film’s second act feel like two films involving the same characters being trapped in multiple plots, are running simultaneously.

– Lack of female depth. This could be considered intentional because our following of Sam orchestrates a treatment towards women that only values them for their physical attributes, and never psychological stimulation, but a film made in 2018 (It was on the shelf for a year) that only asks its female leads to be naked, or really stand as nothing more than a sexual target for Sam, makes it hard to believe that this intention serves a valid purpose within the film. In fact, even as I sit here typing this review one hour after watching the film, I can’t remember a single female’s name outside of Sarah (Keough), Sam’s increasing obsession, who is only in three scenes during the entire film. Everyone else is easily forgettable, and it’s this level of ignorance that only caters to one side of the audience spectrum, leaving the criminally ignored to be victims of a story that is every bit as tedious as it is condemning to half of its gender audience. Consider that Sam is only interested in Sarah and uncovering her mystery because she’s the only one who he hasn’t been with intimately. It casts a sleazy circumstance to the movie’s hook, and even worse never confronts its protagonist because of such. Progressive ideals, no?

– Abrupt tonal shifts. This is a film that is trying to obtain a level of seedy darkness in its mystery, all the while poking us occasionally with this sharp level of awkward humor that dares you to get lost in the cooky appeal of a place so far from your own. My problem with this is how uneasy the extremes of each direction blend together, frequently feeling like a jagged speed bump that lessens the effectiveness of each polarly opposite quality. If done to perfection, you get something like “Twin Peaks”, a world both wonderful and strange, but if done wrong, you get flat dimensions that leave your film feeling staggered in the ambiguously middle ground, and that’s the case with Mitchell’s compromise. Most sacrificial is the chills, by which this film has none, giving a director known for his piercing moments that transcend the screen nothing in regards to moments to make his audience relate with the uneasiness of the material, etching out this toneless hybrid subgenre that I would prefer never to cross into again.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

A League Of Their Own

Directed By Penny Marshall

Starring – Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty

The Plot – During World War II when all the men are fighting the war, most of the jobs that were left vacant because of their absence were filled in by women. The owners of the baseball teams, not wanting baseball to be dormant indefinitely, decide to form teams with women. So scouts are sent all over the country to find women players. One of the scouts, passes through Oregon and finds a woman named Dottie Hinson (Davis), who is incredible. He approaches her and asks her to try out but she’s not interested. However, her sister, Kit (Petty) who wants to get out of Oregon, offers to go. But he agrees only if she can get her sister to go. When they try out, they’re chosen and are on the same team. Jimmy Dugan (Hanks), a former player, who’s now a drunk, is the team manager. But he doesn’t feel as if it’s a real job so he drinks and is not exactly doing his job. So Dottie steps up. After a few months when it appears the girls are not garnering any attention, the league is facing closure till Dottie does something that grabs attention. And it isn’t long Dottie is the star of the team and Kit feels like she’s living in her shadow.

Rated PG for adult language

POSITIVES

– Lasting legacy. Before “A League Of Their Own”, there really were no shining examples of women’s presence in the sports film world, and thanks to Marshall’s respect and documentation for the subject matter, we receive a film that succeeds as a sports biopic on the surface level, yet transcends that accomplishment in giving us a real taste for the time. In this regard, during the 1940’s, women were left to run the country when the men departed for overseas, thrusting them into the limelight for the first time ever in situations that they otherwise wouldn’t be given a chance for. This is different for a war film because they’re often depicted as depressing and full of grim circumstance, but Marshall’s picture grants us an opportunity at solidifying that anything men can do, women can do better, and enclosed we see many examples of the unshakeable prejudice that an entire gender faced in the immense void left by the previous establishment. This film really was a trail-blazer in attaining a level for women’s sports in films that previously we never dreamed of, and it’s one that hasn’t been topped ever since.

– Production detail. This is arguably Penny’s strongest quality, as her scope for a particular age in American culture radiates ever so vibrantly in the many depictions that the film garners. Dated fashion trends involving flowing gowns and three-piece suits, ideal shooting locations involving non-lighted ballparks, an array of weathered billboards, and especially a grainy presentation from cherished cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek that transforms us accordingly. Ondricek was best known for his work in 1979’s “Hair”, and it’s clear that his absorbing radiance has a distinct advantage towards time pieces, especially during the cloudy uncertainty that was World War I. Everything here vibes synthetically, preserving a level of seamless believability that reaches the level of 40’s stock footage over this being a manufactured production of one.

– Precision in casting. Marshall’s one rule in her casting was that any actress would have to know how to play baseball, and it shows in the physical performances here that are twice as demanding as the emotional ones. Geena Davis, Rosie O’ Donnell, Lori Petty, and even Madonna all master a level of athletic professionalism that prove they aren’t afraid to get dirty to get the job done. Particularly, it’s Geena’s bat grip and choreography behind the plate that especially impressed this critic, and completely transformed this group of lady actresses into a full-fledged baseball team. Beyond this, Hanks is clearly the show stealer as the rundown alcoholic Jimmy Dugan. It’s especially unique to see Hanks in a role like this, as before this he was known as the sophisticated leading man in Hollywood cinema, but Tom’s dirtbag demeanor and unflinching rudeness preserves many iconic one-liners that age as gracefully as a fine wine, and further pertain to the redemption storyline for the character that I invested a lot of empathy into.

– In addition to the level of sports believability that I previously mentioned, Marshall’s flashy stance of crisp editing and montage sequencing play into a side of filmmaking, that while easy in outlining, certainly achieves the job in continuity to keep us firmly invested into the sights and sounds of the game. For my money, I could’ve used more long takes in these scenes to establish the impressive nature of learning a sports routine, but the accommodating narration by the film’s broadcast journalist (Played by Laverne and Shirley’s Squiggy) keeps enough of a grip on a game that practically flies before our eyes in progression. It’s especially surprising that outside of the World Series game seven finale, Marshall doesn’t necessarily focus much on the heat of the game’s environment for the film’s ambitious two hour run time, proving that the film values life experience and spiritual bonding over the perks of the game, which can sometimes feel a bit too demanding on a film’s screenplay direction.

– Masterful musical score by Hans Zimmer. That’s right, arguably the most well known composer by 2019 standards was still making his mark on a film’s audible impact way back in 1992, and the work he solidifies in the film provides a nuanced nourishment that is every bit reflective for the time as it is distinct for anything else Zimmer has ever produced. The combination of building drum beats, orchestral horns, and echoing vocals brings forth an infectious feel that makes it impossible not to tap your toes, and plays especially hand-in-hand with the pulse of the game, that rides a roller-coaster of many highs and lows for our team protagonists. Zimmer’s usual flow is dark, ominous, and challenging, but considering this was Hans first interaction with the sport (True story), his tempo in pace proves synthetically fused with the movements of the sequences. Beyond this, we are given a new track from Madonna called “This Used To Be My Playground”, that won her an Academy Award and mainstream recognition from elder audiences who previously deemed her flavor of pop music a bit too rebellious for their tastes. It rounds out a musical collection that articulately channels the uncertainty of a newfound world where women’s loss and fears became inspiration for something bigger.

– Rare accomplishment. My first screening of the film came in sixth grade, when my history teacher showed it to our class during our World War I week, and it was then that I realized this film is one of those rare exceptions that is every bit as entertaining as it is educational. While not everything in the film is factual, the script from four different screenwriters does attain a level of homage to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that it so rightfully deserves. Likewise, the 1940’s narrative begins with a montage taking us through the deployment of troops overseas, as well as the government’s dependency on women to pick up the pieces of a country going through an unforeseen adversity. So many films credit the sacrifice made by millions of brave men who fought an evil regime for many years, but this is one that values a completely different sacrifice, and outlines a level of history, both in baseball and this country, that would otherwise be forgotten if not given the proper light to shine under. Aside from this being educational and entertaining, “A League Of Their Own” is important, first and foremost.

– Dramatic progression. The third act is definitely my favorite of the film, as it is during that time when the seeds of redundancy are relieved in favor of some dramatic underlying tension that the film so desperately requires to push it to the finish line. Urgency develops in the form of soldier husband’s dying, a trade between the sister protagonists, and the return of troops home, which in turn leaves the women’s league with a foggy future. When there’s more stakes involved, the film reaches a level of intrigue that truly makes it memorable, and while every plot is sewed up a bit too easily at times (Especially Tom Hanks alcoholism being cured by Coca-Cola), every subplot culminates in a one game winner take all that serves as a volcanic blow to everyone and everything involved, illustrating a much-deserved center stage for the women athletes that continuously reminds us that there is no tomorrow.

NEGATIVES

– A missing voice. One thing that bothers me each time I watch this film is the missing voice of a black female player that could’ve added a new layer of depth to the film’s reservoir. Sure, there’s a scene of a woman in the audience throwing a baseball that amazes all of the players in frame, but I feel like the desire to establish their yearning to play is something that could’ve added more truth to the time, and given female minorities a familiar voice in a film that so obviously deserves it. Black women were banned from the A.A.G.P.B.L for the time, but still played in Negro Leagues all across the country, and considering this film is a work of fictionalized reality, the script could’ve used a few minutes to balance the blessing that the players shouldn’t take for granted.

– Minimal Characterization. Easily the biggest problem of the film, as every character outside of Dottie is given such a one-note description in personality that it reminds us how little we’ve come to know these ladies by film’s end. Madonna and Rosie’s characters are brought in at the same time because they are practically the same woman, Marla never receives a talking line of dialogue anywhere in the film, and Kit is really just Dottie’s jealous sister. It’s a bit of a surprise that the male characters are written better in a female directed movie, but when you consider that we know Jimmy’s entire backstory, his illness that ruined his fame, and the future direction of his character, it alludes us that the movie’s biggest misstep was trying to be anything other than a female-driven movie.

– The deleted scene. If you’ve ever seen the DVD edition of the film, you know of the many deleted scenes shot in the over four hours of film by Marshall, but none more memorable than the glowing scene between Hanks and Davis that hints at an underlying romance. In the scene, the two share a kiss after Dottie sees Jimmy hitting baseballs after a game, furthering the idea that the passion from within him still resides. Why this scene’s inclusion is pivotal for me is because the movie’s finished product alludes to it many times in the scenes the two share, but it feels like it comes out of nowhere because there’s no scene that ties those feelings all together. In addition to this, the scene develops Dottie even more, establishing her passion for the game that the finished product never fully capitalizes on. It allows the juxtaposition in her ‘Home Vs Game’ mentality to be further fleshed out and full of vulnerability to make her decision all the more complicated to us the audience. This scene definitely should’ve been left in, and if you’ve never seen it, Youtube has it in its 5 minute entirety.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Midsommar

Directed By Ari Aster

Starring – Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper

The Plot – A young American couple (Pugh and Reynor), fly to a rural town in Sweden for a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival after experiencing a death in the family. Not long after the couple’s arrival, their trip unfolds into a hallucinatory nightmare when the visitors are invited to drink some sort of concoction that seemingly screws with their perception of time, and are targeted by the sinister leaders of a pagan cult.

Rated R for nudity, violence and gore, scenes involving drug use, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– Shot composition variety. Like Aster’s previous film, “Hereditary”, this one is a visual masterpiece full of unnerving and unorthodox angles that sizzle with experimentation. While there’s so much to break down here visually, the sequences involving mirrors to display a character out of frame, but still in the context of the conversation are only the tip of the iceberg for this man’s supreme intellect behind the lens. In addition, we are treated to many overhead shots that cover things from above, room transitions that follow a character into another area of the stage, long take sequences that trade off character focus every few seconds, and an adoring admiration for the boldly vibrant set pieces that hold such weight with any particular scene that they persist through an elevated ambush of mood-setting lighting. If you take nothing else from Ari’s films, understand that he’s a director whose visual captivation always reaches the heights of ambition set by his screenplays, and because of such we are treated to a presentation that mentally and visually stimulates us with each frame.

– Authentication in sound mixing. The sound production team is on top of their game here, echoing the vibes of realism and authenticity in dialogue audibility that allows it to flow with believability. One thing that drives me nuts in movies is when other products of the environment are obstructed out of what we’re hearing front and center, but in “Midsommar” we get multiple conversations existing at the same time, with the ones closest to our camera being dominant in volume level. If it weren’t for this, the scene would sound like a convoluted mess, but the articulation to detail gives the scene this transcending quality against film that makes its world feel very established and lived-in, establishing that life persists around what we’re seeing at all times. This will no doubt give great replay value to the film, if even only to intrude deeper into what I couldn’t fully dedicate myself to in my viewing, for fear of missing something in the foreground.

– My personal interpretation. Aster as a writer is as abstract as a Van Gogh painting, but I feel that “Midsommar” attains a greater accessibility level with its audience because its themes are slightly more grounded in obviousness than that of “Hereditary”. For my money, I picked up on a lot of the dangers once again of manipulation associated with a cult lifestyle, but even more than that the film triggered my senses for the vulnerability associated with grief and longing that makes that particular person wide open for meandering, especially someone with mental illness (See Hereditary). This is made even more apparent by the drug stranglehold that this Pagan group holds over their newfound visitors, leaving it possible for them to experience anything when mind-altering consumption begins to take over. It’s clear that Aster has a desire to exploit the grip that the manipulative have over the weak-minded, and it leads to a ride through material that not only makes you emphasize with the victims, but also proves that the greatest movie villains sometimes come in human form.

– Does it scare? What’s so intoxicating about the material’s frights isn’t so much that it attains a level of chills so consistent that it makes them feel like the films from our childhood that terrorized us, but that the material itself is limited in color for what it exposes. There are very few scenes of actual gore throughout the film, saving those moments of red for the time when they impact most with a splash of artistic integrity, but the real story is on the group’s poisonous atmosphere that visually hints that everything is alright, even when we feel something more sinister taking shape from beneath us. The drug paranoia scenes conjured up feelings of helplessness that do so much more than simply scare me, they mentally wound me with regards to how easy to believe that all of this transpiring really is. Even more appealing, Aster saves his greatest climax for the film’s final shot, and it drilled such a combination of fear and sadness within me that prevailed at its most anxiety-riddled, blowing everything off in a way that will preserve nightmare fuel for anyone who puts themselves in the shoes of the protagonist like I often do.

– Admirable performances. This is where the film could’ve easily fallen apart, as its cast of mostly dramatic unknowns really took presence of the stage given before them, and captivated me in such a way that seemed silly of my doubt for them in the first place. Jack Reynor, especially during the drugged sequences really moved me to impressive levels of depth for how his helplessness is communicated in just a few simple looks. His reactions to the drugs felt every bit as earned as they did revealing of someone who goes through the many stages of drug combating, and it brought forth easily his single greatest performance to date. Will Poulter was also a ball of fun as the film’s steady comedic humor. Poulter is a Stiffler of sorts, in that all he wants to do is get high, get laid, and spend a week of vacation far from his college campus, and Will’s constant presence endeared me through a series of laughs and blunt dialogue depositions that made him one of the more tolerable douchebags in modern day cinema. Even with all of this however, it’s definitely Florence Pugh’s show, as she steals the command once more in a transformation that is only rivaled by her turn in 2016’s “Lady Macbeth”. Pugh endures the single worst event of her life in the film’s opening ten minutes, and from there is a roller-coaster of fiery emotional registry and dangerous curiosity that makes it easy to see why one causes the other. But especially during the third act, it’s Pugh’s facial resonation that says as much in a look as a lesser talent requires in a two hour film, and while “Lady Macbeth” made her a buzzworthy name, it’s her work here as Dani that makes her an ever-lasting presence of the silver screen.

– Stunning cinematography. Aster has found himself a dependable friend in cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, as just like his work in “Hereditary”, Pawel takes us through a drug-riddled lucid nightmare that dazzles on a completely different spectrum. As to where “Hereditary” worked wonders in its domination of darkness, and the tricks played on us in the shadows, “Midsommar” impresses in its sunny, hazy circumference that takes the horror in visual directions where it’s rarely ever gone. In sparsely being able to escape daytime in this film, Pawel associates the airy sparkling majority with a sense of unnerving table dressing that all but communicates to us that something is wrong for how different this is not only for sunlight rules, but also for the horror genre in general. In such, Pawel adds layers to entrancing visuals, that really force you to admire the sadistic in ways that are otherwise treated as shock humor in weaker horror cinema.

– Complete production design. Everything works here. From the white choreographed fashions of this Pagan community, to the use of flowers everywhere to cleverly mock life in death situations, to the buildings that depict scripture of its believers, everything here is given proper time and detail to nourish credibility for a religion that has taken place long before we as an audience stumbled upon it. Likewise the film’s make-up and prosthetics are as timely as the film’s paced-out blood dispersion, stealing our attention during scenes where its extreme and gratifying nature allow it to stand out when used in moments where we truly weren’t expecting it. I had a slight problem with some dummy models lacking familiarity during certain scenes, but I can forgive it when everything else here is alluring in seamlessly playing into the color scheme established with the gorgeous cinematography that I previously mentioned.

– Ambitious run time. Some people will have a problem with the 140 minute run time that “Midsommar” exudes, but there is literally nothing that I would remove or condense in this film to serve a more fluently paced final product. This is definitely a slow-burn film, and if that bothers you, you’d be best to stay away from it. For me, the film’s ample requirement of rules and world-building from within this community really allowed me to interpret what I was seeing without loaded exposition dumps that would feel unnatural for the progression of human interaction. Visually, the film takes us through the scriptures in a way that puts audiences paying attention one step ahead at all times, rewarding them in a convenience that our character’s unfortunately didn’t receive for their ignorance towards it. There has also been complaints about the film’s first twenty minutes, and what it means to the rest of the film, and to those people I ask if they were watching the same film that I did. Without those scenes, we never understand what makes Dani so vulnerable. Why her ball of nerves feel like they are going to crash at any particular moment. How can you say these scenes hold no weight with the rest of the film? Overall, the pacing was sluggish periodically, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t fully invested at all times. The sight, sound, characters, and development of a group of kids so far from their homely abodes outlines a cloud of ambiguity that would require you to be without a pulse if you weren’t at least curious by how far this group was going to take it.

– Rhythmic beats. When searching the credits for who musically scored this film, I came across the name The Haxan Cloak, and my curiosity got the better of me. Upon digging deeper, I found out that not only is this the team behind two of my favorite shows in “Stranger Things” and “Castle Rock”, but also the very same people who nearly saved 2017’s “Triple 9”. In general, the music here is constant and intrusive, sometimes being worked into the scene in a way where the characters themselves take over with their rhythmic hymns that add a whole different level of creepy to an already riveting sequence. The Haxan Cloak assorts a collection of organ and fiddle numbers that garner a level of fear for all of the reasons that don’t feel as obvious when you listen to them, and evolve into a current of magnetic macabre that audibly conveys the conscience not of our protagonists, but rather of the Pagan cult that make up an overwhelming majority of the characters we see on-screen.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary horror tropes. This is nit-picking, but if I pointed to something that bothered me in the film it would easily be the formulaic expulsion midway through the film, that felt slightly jam-packed to exist without escaping slasher vibes that it totally didn’t require. In my opinion, I could’ve used more pacing in subtle disappearances. This would allow the film to better sell the ambiguity and mystery of uncertainty surrounding the victim, establishing a greater weight for the bodies that start to stack up with very little nuance to their removal. In addition to this, there are scenes that were unintentionally funny that I wish Aster would’ve instilled a retake for. There’s one scene in particular that was truly compromising to the emotional impact of that reveal, and I feel it would’ve been better spent on a man who enjoyed 99% of the movie to not be laughing during the scene that is so obviously meant to be treated in terror.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Directed By Jon Watts

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

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Yesterday

Directed By Danny Boyle

Starring – Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon

The Plot – A struggling musician (Patel) realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed. Using it to his advantage, the songwriter takes credit for every Beatles song ever created, but soon the price of fame catches up to him.

Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and adult language

POSITIVES

– The gimmick. There’s much to be commended about this alternate dimension gimmick that the movie’s plot essentially focuses on, but none more credible than what’s left on the bone from what I originally thought was an overly revealing trailer. Aside from the loss of The Beatles here, there’s a series of startling exposition drops for everything from musical artists to soft drinks, that paint the pop culture tragedies within this complex situation that Jack becomes saddled with. In addition to this, the screenplay is wise enough to illustrate these what if scenarios, bringing along a series of smart and well-timed surprises that still persist even if artists like The Beatles actually don’t, and it’s a script that is every bit as profound and challenging as it is unique to the world with pop culture history so inferior to the one we live in.

– Absorbing presentation. Danny Boyle’s one-of-a-kind scope remains consistent in this film, garnering razor sharp editing and metaphorical transitions involving meaningful imagery that really allows us to soak in the atmosphere from all angles. One such example takes place during the initial bus accident, where we are treated to as many as four different perspectives on-and-off of the bus that fruitfully articulates the psychological beat that exists within this Chaos Theory. Likewise, Boyle treats us to a barrage of establishing setting sequences that engage us with vibrancy in color design, as well as big, bold lettering to better paint the big world feel that the pop star life quickly becomes saddled with. When you watch one of Danny’s films, it often feels like as many as two other films are cohesively and simultaneously playing at all times, giving the audience a perspective inside the mind of its protagonist where cameras aren’t often allowed to go, and in this case it reveals the one person who persists within Jack’s mind over the fame, the riches, and the overall popstar lifestyle.

– An emerging interest. While the gimmick of a world without The Beatles is enough to bring butts to the seats, it’s pleasantly remarkable that my interest became further invested in this nourishing love story from beneath that is brought along superbly by screenwriter Richard Curtis. The film values the bond between Jack and Ellie so much that it initially depicts them as friends and even business partners, and it’s in those introductory minutes where we better comprehend that there is enough room to grow in these subliminal romantic feelings between both to evolve into something more. As the film went on, I practically begged for the movie to return to their interesting dynamic that played so tenderly into the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Jack and Ellie are confronted with an evolution in their relationship, and the progression throughout is anything but choreographed in the way you would expect a romantic comedy to stick a bit too close to conventionalism. It challenges them to confront this feeling inside, and demand more not only from themselves, but from the person staring back at them.

– Sturdy performances. For a first-timer, Himesh Patel strikes all of the right chords, balancing life on and off the stage in a way that nearly establishes the two sides as entirely different people. While wrapped in the spotlight, Patel’s Jack feels every bit as anxious as he does let down by all of the things he once craved, yet to the side that navigates through everything, there’s a relaxed and comical side to his demeanor that seems only present when he engages with James’ Ellie. Speaking of which, the chemistry between them is every bit believable as it is tasteful, and for a female lead there’s a lot of gentility and warmth behind Lily’s glowing smile that makes it easy to understand Jack’s falling for her. Notable supporting cast includes Ed Sheeran, Sanjeev Bhaskar, and especially Kate McKinnon as this overbearing manager who serves as a villain if anyone under the film’s cape.

– Musical incorporation. While not a musical itself, the film features 18 different Beatles songs that are played in compact form to keep the pulse of the story firmly in focus. This might upset some people to not hear a whole song in its entirety, but I liked the pacing of these clips because they were able to include more, offering a wide range of catalog that is sure to satisfy all interested parties. As for the performances themselves, Patel does do his own singing, and while his singing is at times inconsistent in attaining certain pitches, the passion that comes from his delivery, as well as altering to a song’s original speed, gives new life to a collection of timeless tracks without alienating audiences from experimentation. The finished products maintain the level of familiarity to their compositions, all the while establishing something fresh with the steep check written by the production that was second to none in the year’s soundtrack offering.

– Fantastical approach to iconic songs. How would a song like “Let It Be” do against today’s landscape of colorful personalities and downloadable content? “Yesterday” answers this in a poignant approach, depicting the difficulties of song writing in a toxic environment, that occasionally feels a bit too influential. In this respect, the material hints that The Beatles were lightning in a bottle not just for the abundance of classics that they produced, but also for them being a product of their time, in an age where music came before marketing. When presented in modern day rendering, we get a series of compelling circumstances that illustrates a mountain of opposition that John, Paul, George, and Ringo never had to embrace, and while we the audience side with Jack for his understanding of why these songs are genius, we can’t help but ask if they would receive the same praise in a decade known for exchanging content.

– Attention to detail. What I give a film like “Yesterday” over movies like “Rocketman” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the dedication to craft in mastering these big scale concert sequences that spare no expense or time to authenticate the experience. Live action audience over computer generation is the intended direction here, and it better masters this level of iconic impact that Boyle’s grandeur cinematography allows to stretch as far as the eye can see. In addition to this, the variety of shot composition camera angles and intensity in sound mixing articulately capture the big stage feel with no gimmicks required, and these intoxicating sequences that never over-complicated their intention restored my faith in cinematic concert footage that hasn’t been inspiring as of late.

NEGATIVES

– Fame fumbled. There’s a point midway through the movie where Jack of course becomes this mega popstar, being constantly mobbed by a barrage of fans that hunt him down to catch a glimpse of their idol. My problem with this stands as a film error of sorts, as for the rest of the film, any time Jack is in a highly public place, he isn’t bothered even in the slightest by an adoring fan. It’s not like his fame decreases. If anything, it increases as the film progresses, and this nagging error in continuity bothered me because I feel it could’ve better been used as a barrier between the love story of Jack and Ellie, that the two could never connect because of. To drop it completely just feels like an obvious oversight in production detail that was flawless until that point.

– Uneven pacing. This isn’t so much the case with the two halves of the film like is usually the case, but rather with an overly-anxious pacing that didn’t link up well with the nearly two hour run time that this story is blessed with. To do this right is to give each chapter of fame proper time to grow with its audience, but what we’re left with gives the film this constant feeling of montage storytelling that never takes advantage of the time it has been given. Particularly with the rising conflict of a new lover being added to Jack and Ellie’s complicated relationship, the screenplay introduces it then rarely addresses it ever again, until it absolutely has to. This film clearly has a lot of ideas, but without the proper execution in attention given, they fall off like B-side tracks that are only there to fill an album quota.

– Strange ending. I won’t spoil much here, but the lack of attention that the film’s alternate reality conclusion receives not only doesn’t explain things, but leaves us feeling like an important scene is missing that we’ve come to expect from movies like these. This could be considered good because it takes an original stance that is anything but conventional, but I feel like a scene of logic is required to better tie things together. For instance, the additional things erased from this world that I mentioned earlier are never elaborated at why those in particular are gone from this world. The Beatles could be connected to Jack’s obsession with them, but what about the other erased things? It’s never revealed, and while “Yesterday” has an interesting idea, its solution feels practically non-existent.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Annabelle Comes Home

Directed By Gary Dauberman

Starring – Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Mckenna Grace

The Plot – Determined to keep Annabelle from wreaking more havoc, demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga) Warren bring the possessed doll to the locked artifacts room in their home, placing her “safely” behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. But an unholy night of horror awaits as Annabelle awakens the evil spirits in the room, who all set their sights on a new target–the Warrens’ ten-year-old daughter, Judy (Grace), and her friends.

Rated R for horror violence and terror

POSITIVES

– Enjoyable cast. This is remarkable considering the lack of valuable exposition and laughably bad dialogue did them no favors in getting their characters over for audiences who have seen many important characters throughout the two series that are converging together. Despite a lack of meaningful screen time, Farmiga and Wilson are once again a delight to witness on-screen. The chemistry that exudes between them, as well as the grasp in confidence that each of them has over terrifying circumstances outlines the perfect protagonists for a horror film, whose greatest strength is the bond that only grows stronger with each terrifying case. The valued new addition is Mckenna Grace, who seems perfectly fit to be cast as the Warren’s daughter, thanks to her intelligence in paranoia, as well as her overall introverted demeanor that buries her in isolation at school. Grace is the constant lead on-screen, and provides frightened delivery that is decades ahead of her age, giving the film urgency where the inexperienced directing constantly lets it down.

– Seamless production design. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the Ed and Lorraine Warren films is their targeted setting of the 1970’s, which gives the production many chances at establishing something unique to the backdrops and imagery. In this film, the combination of throwback wardrobe, muscle car sedan’s, and attention to detail on the shelves is something that constantly impressed me, and established a level of accuracy for the film crew that gave us substance in the form of constant reminder. There’s a supermarket scene in the film that features an abundance of sugars, cereals, and candy to name a few, and the proper labels being used for the time fill an entire aisle of goods, further continuing the level of visual mastery that “The Conjuring 2” set the bar for. Beyond this, the soundtrack is full of decorated 70’s favorites, like “Dancing In the Moonlight” by King Harvest, and “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, to name a couple, cementing an inescapable presence of decade enhancement solidified by the lucid production value that continuously rings true.

– Cameo by comedy. There is finally some humor introduced to such a terribly bland franchise, and the results are mostly positive. The film’s script takes us through awkward teenage interaction in the form of two youths who have feelings for each other, and the way it is incorporated into this sadistic world that is happening around them brought to mind feelings of 90’s horror films, where the character’s love for each other almost feels unflinching despite everything transpiring around them. There’s a scene that pays homage to John Cusack’s performance in “Say Anything”, and the way that the young man who performs it plays it off speaks heavy reminders to the weak knees and embarrassment associated with puppy love. The humor incorporates itself without ever taking the tone hostage, and along the way I was treated to a few solid laughs that got me through some otherwise dry scenes of character interaction that often feel like they drown on for a few minutes too long.

NEGATIVES

– Counterfeit dialogue. People who watch horror movies usually associate this aspect with bad acting, but the work by the collective cast here is exceptionally positive. What hurts is these lines that are ever so evidently written by old men, and meant to authenticate that rich teenage dynamic that instead comes across as trying a bit too hard. The groaning that came with listening to these exchanges left me cringing in my seat, and created that feeling of unity between eight people in an auditorium, when you’re all feeling the same way at a particular time. One repeated line that was beaten into the ground more times than Disney remakes was a character’s nickname, who every single character shed light on in their own different way, and it got to a jaded point of overkill that practically made me scream “I GET IT!!” by the sixth or seventh time it’s mentioned.

– Pointless R-rating. This one is a mystery to me, because there is so little violence, peril, or even adult language in the film, therefore no reason why this film couldn’t have been marketed as PG-13 to open its scope up to a larger audience. The material certainly isn’t elevated because of this deeming, and I can’t point to a single scene or scare during the film that cemented this movie worthy of receiving the cherished R-rating to horror audiences. Perhaps the MPAA is getting soft as the decades fly by, but “Annabelle Comes Home” is one of the strangest uses of R-ratings that I’ve ever seen, and offers nothing of substance or reminder to plead its case. There are other 2019 horror films that did more risque visually, and they were given PG-13, so what gives?

– Manipulative advertising. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Ed and Lorraine Warren are in this film all of about ten total minutes, and considering the trailers marketed them as prominent figures in the film, it’s a shameless manipulation to say the least. Every horror franchise has one of these; a chapter in the franchise where the established stars are only used as a cameo, but are further elaborated on constantly throughout the film, reminding us of a better film that is biding its time somewhere off in the distance. This film reeks of a paycheck film for Farmiga and Wilson, who the film doesn’t even cut back-and-forth to while so much mayhem is taking place inside of this house with their daughter. It gives the usual loving couple a feeling of uncaring nature to their lack of incorporation in the film, making me constantly question why parents wouldn’t call and check in on their daughter at least once during the course of a sleepover, right after you took in this devilish doll.

– Where’s Annabelle? Speaking of manipulative advertising, we get it again in a doll character who, like her two human protagonists, couldn’t be bothered to show up to do anything except sit on a chair for the majority of the film. While this is certainly nothing different for the Annabelle antagonist, what forms because of it feels like a shameless plug for future franchise installments that puts “Justice League” to shame. We get scares and attacks in the form of other cursed materials in the Warren’s basement, taking valued time of film exposition to give each of these killers a backstory on their way to sequel solitary. If we do in fact get a bride sequel, or a sequel involving this strange fucking warewolf thing that feels like a holdover from the Dark Monsters Universe, then we will know the true intentions behind “Annbelle Comes Home”, a homecoming so lacking focus that it never feels like the most interesting antagonist in her own movie.

– Wrong road taken. In the fork in the road creatively between The Conjuring and Annabelle, this film rides with the latter for its scares department, harnessing a combination of cheap jump scares and hokey production involving no shortage of fog, that lets a franchise on the rebound down. Not only are the jump scares completely predictable and formulaic, but the Macguffins used to temporarily throw-off audiences aren’t even clever in the slightest. “Annabelle Comes Home” feels like a movie that I’ve already watched four previous times, except here the timely scares have reached Netflix level qualities of telegraphed depiction, frequently straining the pacing of the scene, as well as the attention of the audience before it lands on its scheduled destination. As a result, it’s the least scariest installment of a franchise that included a film where we didn’t actually see Annabelle move or do anything throughout the film.

– Boring. This film is barely 100 minutes, and constantly feels like it’s around 20 minutes too long, thanks to unnecessary footage left in that only prolongs scenes involving zero tension. For the first act of the film, there is one intended scare, then over thirty minutes of repetitious exchanges between characters. When the day turns to night, and we actually expect these scares, the film takes forever getting to the heart of the moment, testing our patience with false alarms and Macguffins that took a five hour road trip getting to the gas station of enthusiasm to excite its audience. Surely some of these scenes could’ve been trimmed for time, but the fact that the script doesn’t have an additional subplot like Ed and Lorraine to bounce off of and check in on from time-to-time, leaves it stranded in this one bland, lifeless setting for the duration of the film, creating an arduous task of getting to the finish line of no actual reaped rewards.

– Speaking of which, the overall lack of weight and consequences to the film is highlighted during its closing moments, in a scene where you could practically hear your cash being flushed down the toilet. SPOILERS………..You’ve been warned. Here we go. All of the film’s survivors (Essentially every character in the movie) meet at this birthday party, where it’s hinted at that they never tell Ed or Lorraine about what transpired on that one terrifying night. When a horror film ends with a secret, it means nothing of consequence or permanence emitted from it, meaning that this film could easily be wiped away from the continuity of the franchise, and not a single goddamn thing would be lost because of it.

My Grade: 3/10 or D-

Anna

Directed By Luc Besson

Starring – Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans

The Plot – Beneath Anna Poliatova’s (Luss) striking beauty lies a secret that will unleash her indelible strength and skill to become one of the world’s most feared government assassins.

Rated R for strong violence, adult language, and some sexual content

POSITIVES

– Intriguing protagonist. What casts Anna aside from other Russian spy thriller heroines like “Atomic Blonde” or “Red Sparrow” is her vulnerability, which outlines a strong reservoir of empathy for the character that you can’t help but invest in. This is very much a movie that tells Anna’s complete evolution from frail Russian con artist to ass-kicking secret weapon for two respective groups of country intelligence, and along the way it manages to thoroughly document Anna’s jaded disposition in her search for freedom, giving the goal in question a constant reiterating of reminder to never lose focus. Anna is anything but a robotic superwoman who walks through scenes of bullet-riddled delivery, she’s an everyday girl who wants what everyone searches for: love, wealth, and especially freedom.

– Besson’s best. It’s clear that Besson has come a long way in his search for action perfection, and while this film has a lot of problems on the whole, the action sequences couldn’t fit better for a man who has dedicated his entire filmography to the genre. The editing is patient, the fight choreography is every bit believable as it is crisp with next fighter transition, and the angles used to depict everything are far enough back to cast believability and telegraphing to each sequence. In addition to this, the violence at times can be completely unforgiving, supplanting enough blood and brutality to cement its non-relenting nature in material. If very little else, see this film for the way Besson puts us in the heat of the environment without sacrificing the integrity for compromising visuals.

– Soundtrack as a gimmick. What surprised me greatly about the film’s musical incorporation was two fold. The first is the collection of disco-pop favorites that add a dimension of personality to the film’s grisly violence, and the second is the selections themselves that surprisingly fit appropriately enough into the dynamic of the storytelling progression. Tracks like INXS “Need You Tonight”, “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals, and “Pump Up The Jam” by Technotronic highlight a summary of toe-tapping tributes to the film’s timeless age setting, touching into the very pulse of Russian nightlife, where top 40 favorites have a never-ending shelf life.

– Deep, versatile cast. Luss is a star in the making. Through a combination of speed, strength, and beauty, it’s easy to understand why she is a dangerous threat to her male opposition, but it’s Sasha’s emoting delivery that made her so much more than just a pretty face, fleshing out the character in a way that evolves as the betrayals against her do. Also in tow is superb performances from Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, and especially Helen Mirren as this dry-witted imposing head of the KGB, who steals every scene she’s in with her wet blanket of negativity. The summarized cast certainly elevates the material here, and the constant professionalism by actors who are definitely better than the job they’ve accepted brings forth unabashed energy in their deliveries that go a long way to opening up their otherwise cryptic characters.

NEGATIVES

– Non-linear storytelling. Again we have another film where we have about thirty minutes of actual fluid real time storytelling, and 90 minutes of rewind scenes that are used to reveal something about the scene in current day that we wouldn’t of otherwise known. This gimmick is used far too often, stalling the pacing to dangerous levels of wanning interest that makes this film overcomplicate these valued scenes of character exposition. It gets so ridiculous at one point that we have a flashback during a flashback just to show Anna playing chess as a child, and does itself zero favors in returning to the modern day narrative that the film spends so much time (Especially during the first act) teasing us with. For my money, I would’ve used this gimmick once or twice, but anything more convolutes what is essentially a naturally easy story to tell.

– Predictable. In addition to the gimmick that I previously mentioned, another negative aspect that stems from it is too many predictable instances of twists designed to shock and awe the audience. Again, the gimmick is used far too often for anything shocking to feel remotely believable, and just like a coach who telegraphs an opposing team’s plays, I too found myself predicting the pulling of the rug that was about as elaborate as a trap designed by Wyle E. Coyote. This is especially the case with a late third act shock that asks us to believe in something that happens before our very eyes when the rest of the film reminded us how stupid we are for doing the exact same. It leaves very little meat of amazement on the bone of expectation, and has us the audience biding our time until the other shoe drops….like it always does.

– Too long a run time. 112 minutes might not sound like too big of an audience investment, but to a story that rewinds time so often and so repetitive over the exact same scene, the film feels strained to say the least. If this story played out consistently in real time, you could trim at least twenty minutes of that time, and maybe use it to further enhance character dynamics, like the one between Luss and Murphy that feels a bit rushed compared to the one between Luss and Evans. The worst area is definitely during the first act, where the combination of abrupt rewinding and lack of action influence compromise the film’s initial first steps in a way that will scare off audiences almost immediately. Russian spy thrillers, at least modern ones, are typically always filled with sluggish pacing, but “Anna” at times feels like a series of scattered ideas where not all of them sync up accordingly, and it leads to an uneven feeling of emptiness for the film’s first half compared to the superior second.

– Sexual objectification. I’m not a spaz. I know that it takes good looking women to sell a movie like this, but the film’s hypocritical stance when it comes to polarizing photographers for the way women are objectified, and then turning around and focusing on Sasha’s body with these intimate and alluring angles that commit the same crimes it is preaching so evidently against. In addition to this, there are four different sex scenes throughout the film. That’s a sex scene every 25 minutes on average, and could be considered overkill for a film so invested in female strength. One could argue that the sexual nature is used as a weapon for Anna, but there’s no denying that the frequent nudity and multiple sex partners might be unnecessary in hammering this point home, especially considering Besson’s own real life rape accusations with as many as five actresses that have earned him no respect from this critic.

– Lack of urgency. One aspect that “Red Sparrow” did especially better than this film was this sense of dread and paranoia that resonated so frequently within this dangerous group remaining firmly on her heels, and despite the stakes feeling twice as big for a movie like “Anna”, the script’s inability to ever properly channel her disposition is something that feels like an edge-of-the-seat missed opportunity for a film seeking the proper climatic anxiety to energize the film’s ambitious run time. Examples of this happen during scenes where the KGB have surveillance on Anna, then in the next scene we’re asked to believe that they don’t in something as practical as a hotel room. With some further prodding into Anna’s psychology the urgency could’ve flowed like champagne, and the audience investment would double because of such.

– What style? This is big especially with “Atomic Blonde”, a film so rich with 80’s neon aesthetic for the many club scenes that it felt authentic to the particular time frame. In “Anna”, no such thing exists, as this conventionally bland style of cinematography that have rubbed so many of Besson’s films together remains as persistent as ever in this film. Aside from the many mentions of where we are, as well as the hokey Russian accents, there’s no sense of geographical distinction in the abstract nature that is the film’s style, leaving too much opportunity left to visually seduce us in the same way that Anna does her prey. Much of the film has this cheap aura to it that kind of exists without establishing an identity for itself, and for an action film particularly, a lack of overall conscience remains especially devastating to the sleek camera movements inside of the action.

My Grade: 4/10 or D